Seen on Broadway: I’ve been revisiting Off Broadway productions that have made it to the “big time.” I’m not still crazy about In the Heights, which has a few additional songs (including one, at last, for co-star Priscilla Lopez), minor book changes, and a vigorous new lighting design by Howell Binkley but is still too sugary for my taste. (Its strongest component, other than an overabundance of heart, remains Anna Louizos’ Washington Heights set, which has been compacted in width and heightened to fit the Richard Rodgers.) Cutting through all that Great White Way crap is Patti LuPone in Gypsy, whose performance has only gotten more acid-strength since I saw it last summer. A modest design that worked at Encores! has been modestly enriched for the St. James; the playing of LuPone, Laura Benanti, Boyd Gaines, and a strong supporting cast is the main event here.
Back on the homefront, the audience is the real star at the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Broadhurst. On its face, an all-black Cat makes as much sense as an all-white Raisin in the Sun. The casting, however, gives several leading lights a chance to sink their teeth into one of Tennessee Williams’ greatest plays, and, more importantly, an audibly excited audience a chance to enjoy and appreciate them. More’s the pity that director Debbie Allen hasn’t done enough to focus the performances of stage debutante Terrence Howard (Brick), Anika Noni Rose (Maggie), Phylicia Rashad (Big Mama), James Earl Jones (Big Daddy), and, for that matter, the underrated Giancarlo Esposito as the snappish and underappreciated Gooper. The actors play the big emotions of the piece for all they’re worth—you know they’re coming when LD William H. Grant III dials down the lights to give each performer their star turn—but haven’t come up with much to unify the smaller ones, and the lengthy three-act piece drags.
Ray Klausen’s setting detracts. Maggie and Brick’s bedroom needed to be more palatial, and its transparent walls are too obviously a metaphor for the false fronts the characters erect. Jane Greenwood’s costumes also felt downmarket to me, and Howard’s white cashmere robe seemed to be giving him trouble; the mic concealed on his person was problematic the night I saw the show, garbling the soft-spoken actor. (John H. Shivers’ sound is otherwise acceptable, and besides the point when the performers tear it up.) If Williams were alive I think he would have demanded better; that said, I also think he would have been pleased to see a new audience for his work reacting to the show as if it were brand-new and not a museum piece.
Seen off Broadway: Ernest Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column in 1937, then washed his hands of playwriting when an abortive adaptation appeared on Broadway three years later. The Mint Theater Company, which specializes in resurrecting forgotten shows, is mounting what is essentially a premiere production of the Spanish Civil War-set drama, with artistic director Jonathan Bank at the helm. Like its last production, of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, what has emerged from the vaults is a historical curiosity, a long and largely static piece that really only crackles to life when sound designer Jane Shaw ups the ante on the gunshots and bombardments heard throughout.
Vicki R. Davis’ set (two bomb-damaged but still functional adjoining hotel rooms in Madrid) has a forlorn elegance with lovely furnishings that transforms seamlessly into an interrogation room with an outdoor entryway space and lighted windows in the back. In her hapless role Armbruster at least looks good in Clint Ramos’ filmy period threads, as does the rest of the more battle-worn cast. Jeff Nellis’ lighting works in tandem with the spacious audio design to convey the conflict raging below on the streets. I’m happy that the Mint fought its own good fight to bring The Fifth Column (a reference to Franco’s fascist sympathizers hidden throughout the city) to the stage, if only to prove that as a playwright Hemingway was one hell of a short story writer. The show runs through May 18.
The Conscientious Objector has the appeal, and the limitations, of a single-issue candidate. To its credit, Michael Murphy’s play functions as theatre, and not as a footnoted position paper on current affairs, like the undynamic duo at the Public, Richard Nelson’s fairly excruciating Conversations in Tusculum and Caryl Churchill’s barely-there Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? But the Keen Company production at Theatre Row needed to concentrate more fully on the charismatic personalities at its center, Martin Luther King (an assured New York stage debut by DB Woodside) and President Lyndon B. Johnson, another feather in the cap for the great John Cullum.
The show, directed by Carl Forsman, catches these leaders at an interesting juncture in the mid- to late-1960s. There is much more to accomplish regarding civil rights but King feels a pang of conscience regarding the gathering Vietnam War, and his initially somewhat reluctant peace activism proves a thorn in the side of Johnson, who is as much patron as president.
Beowulf Borrit’s sparely furnished set is initially arresting. An abstracted American flag in smears of black, white, and gray is painted unfurling on the back wall and the floor under Josh Bradford’s lights. Theresa Squire’s costumes fit their time, and Daniel Baker’s sound as the show’s figures engage in their give-and-take is unobtrusive. The Conscientious Objector plays through Apr. 19.
Playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon is hot (a Washington-set play, Farragut North, has attracted Broadway and Hollywood interest) but the slender, 75-minute Lower Ninth, directed by Daniel Goldstein, isn’t cause for anointment. As the floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina rise two men, middle-aged Malcolm (James McDaniel) and young E-Z (Gauis Charles) seek shelter on a rooftop. The body of a third, Lowboy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), festers in the heat. Malcolm and E-Z, who share a common history, argue and banter as prospects of a rescue dim. In a key, or at least more interesting, scene, the ghost of Lowboy rises to commiserate with the feverish E-Z. Talking points are checklisted rather than illuminated. It didn’t take long for me to get more interested in how Akinnagbe was keeping so still in his trash-bag “costume,” by Heather Dunbar (I suspect a bit of stage magic was involved).
Donyale Werle’s rooftop set is one of the more ambitious the Off Off Broadway Flea Theater has attempted, and it holds water. Jill BC DuBoff, who pulls out all the stops in the tiny space when the hopeful whirr of helicopters is heard, nicely renders a listenable score by Aaron Meicht. LD Ben Stanton does fine work at the Flea, and his carefully positioned use of four industrial-strength units to suggest the pitiless sun bearing down on the characters is tactile, exemplary work. Lower Ninth is out with the tide on Apr. 5. —Robert Cashill
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Scenery Construction and Painting: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Audio: Masque Sound
The Fifth Column
Lighting: The Technical Upgrade Project of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York
The Conscientious Objector
Lighting: Hayden Production Services
Set Construction: D&D Productions