Seen on Broadway: The 2007-2008 season concluded with a spate of revivals. The finale was the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which opened last night at the Biltmore. Seen Off Broadway at the Public in 1982, it reemerged as an interesting, Thatcher-era curiosity, with plenty of bite and bile and a gallery of notable actresses to put it across. The focal point is Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel), who, in the phantasmagorical first act, throws herself a dinner party attended by notables including the storied Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton, concluding a winning year in three different shows) and world traveler Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei). In the second act, Marlene consolidates her power at her employment agency, and there are uncomfortable encounters with her slightly dim niece Angie (Plimpton again) and a middle-aged job seeker (Mary Beth Hurt). In the third act, the shark-like but vulnerable Marlene proves that while you can go home again, you probably shouldn’t: We learn the truth of Angie’s parentage, and absorb the bitterness of Marlene’s working-class sister, Joyce (Tomei).
A much fuller (and ultimately more conventional) work than recent short dispatches like Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, Top Girls has received a good production under the direction of James Macdonald, no matter that I watched it more as a museum exhibit of early 1980s angst, British variety, than as a here-and-now sort of experience. Tom Pye, a master of unit sets, has come up with any number of ghostly, scrim-laden environments here: The first-act table sequence, lit in painterly fashion by Christopher Akerlind as a portrait come to life, is as stunning as the stunted, run-down house where Joyce and Angie live is stark. Laura Bauer’s costumes are a constant delight in the first act as the various historical figures assemble, and the modern-period clothes a good fit. Darron L. West’s sound design is sibilant. “It’s all about Paul Huntley’s wigs!” said Tomei when I asked her about her shape-shifting appearances in the show at last week’s Drama Desk Nominees Party, so credit where credit is due.
Mike Nichols has given Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl an intriguing retro production. On the one hand, its stage-returning stars, Frances McDormand and Morgan Freeman, have been encouraged to act the material in a more modern fashion. McDormand is brittle but reflective as the wife of a has-been stage star trying for a comeback despite the ceaseless temptations of the bottle, and Freeman is far more vulnerable than his screen self in a touching performance. (Peter Gallagher gets the slang and the laughs as the conniving director of the show.) On the other, the look of the show, at the Bernard B. Jacobs, is pure 1950, with Tim Hatley’s decrepit backstage and apartment sets and Albert Wolsky’s costumes redolent of their era. Natasha Katz’s lighting and Acme Sound Partners’ audio are plaintive and undemonstrative, ideal for the low-key piece. In the best old-school touch, a beautiful and apparently endless curtain trails across the stage between scenes.
Surely the best of the current revivals is Boeing-Boeing, which has landed at the beautifully restored Longacre. Director Matthew Warchus has given Marc Camoletti’s forgotten farce from 1965 a sparkling contemporary sheen, and the West End import brings with it its star, Mark Rylance. He gives an astonishingly detailed comic performance as a fuddy-duddy Wisconsin-ite betwixt by the three stewardess fiancées of his swinging France-based friend (Bradley Whitford), all of whom converge on the Paris apartment when the aircraft maker introduces a new and faster plane and their schedules inconveniently jumble. The three very different women are farcically played by Gina Gershon, Mary McCormack, and Kathryn Hahn, and dressed by Rob Howell in bright color-coordinated outfits that really pop on his sleek all-white set. [Dressing way down is frumpy French maid Christine Baranski.] LD Hugh Vanstone and sound designer Simon Baker provide solid support but don’t really shine till the delightful, all-stops-pulled curtain call.
No fun at all is a sluggish production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a Roundabout revival at the American Airlines. The only danger is falling asleep; Ben Daniels, a preening, foppish Valmont, tries his best, but is up against an unmovable object in Laura Linney, who is miscast as the scheming Merteuil, and shrinks into her heavy period garments like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. The supporting cast is notably poor, under Rufus Norris’ ham-fisted direction. Katrina Lindsay’s 18th century costumes are, however, splendid, the one consistent element in an otherwise disheveled design. Scott Pask’s set is pretty much a jumble of handsome curtains, strewn about as if they needed laundering, with Donald Holder’s lighting peeking through the fabric. Weird sounds periodically thrum through Paul Arditti’s audio design.
A word now about Thurgood, one of the better solo shows of the season. Laurence Fishburne gives a vivid and commanding performance as Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and the mimicry (often pointed and comical) extends to other people Marshall met on his eventful journey to Washington, DC. Written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Leonard Foglia, its 90 minutes move purposefully through our contentious history, but Fishburne’s forceful and at times humorous characterization keeps it from lapsing into history lessons. I liked the backdrop provided by Allen Moyer’s cut-in-stone American flag, which Elaine McCarthy uses as a projection surface for photos and video footage, and Brian Nason’s lighting, Jane Greenwood’s costuming (the Supreme Court robe makes a late appearance), and Ryan Rumery’s sound are solid.
The two new musicals that closed the season, Cry-Baby and the already shuttered Glory Days, ended a weak season for tuners off-key. (The one exception, the underrated A Catered Affair, gets the deluxe treatment in the June issue of the Live Design.) But a more glorious production you will not find than the revivified South Pacific, which I trust will run for a good long time at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. Bartlett Sher’s production, a terrific followup to his Light in the Piazza in the same space, is note-perfect musical theatre and compelling drama, with delightful comic interludes, too. Everything works: Michael Yeargan’s fascinating, perspective-changing sets, Donald Holder’s rich and textured lighting, Catherine Zuber’s crisp vintage costumes, and Scott Lehrer’s crystalline sound, which misses not a single syllable of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Thrilling in every way, it will stand as exemplifying the very best of the season just ended. [The 2008-2009 season begins June 26 with something called Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy, unlikely to star Marisa Tomei or Laura Linney.]—Robert Cashill