The Year-End in Review Edition: Once the 19-day stagehands strike ended, Broadway revived with a vengeance, with premiere after premiere of plays. (So much so that the exquisitely designed if dramatically inert Cyrano De Bergerac, with Kevin Kline’s too-pensive portrayal, and Tom Stoppard’s wonderful-in-all-aspects Rock ‘n’ Roll, got lost in our pre- and post-strike shuffle. I wish there were two more parts of the latter coming, as with his Coast of Utopia.) The last of the bunch, a revival of The Homecoming, opens Sunday, to the relief of drama critics hard-pressed to keep up. In the spirit of the season, I will concentrate more on the nice than the naughty as we take our own end-of-year hiatus. (I’ll just move right on by the emotionally and factually phony The Farnsworth Invention, theatre about TV for people who prefer TV over theatre.)
But first, a quick visit Off Broadway to the Atlantic Theater Company, home to one of the most inviting sets I have ever seen on a stage. Peter Parnell’sTrumpery, a labored drama about the various guilt trips taken by Charles Darwin (a morose Michael Cristofer) as he prepares to challenge the perceived wisdom regarding our ancestry, is a triumph for no one except set designer Santo Loquasto. His tree-limbed evocation of Darwin’s Down House, circa 1858, is truly beautiful, so much so that I wanted to leave my seat, sip cocktails in its garden, and evolve. If only you could pop into the auditorium, take a look, then leave. In the interest of holiday warmth, however, I will refrain from content analysis and mention that Jane Greenwood’s unerring costumes, James F. Ingalls’ handsomely dappled lighting, and Obadiah Eaves’ enveloping sound, with an emphasis on bird noises, are equal to Loquasto’s achievement, and I gave director David Esbjornson credit for marshalling these forces so skillfully. “Intelligent design” indeed, on view through Dec. 30.
On Broadway, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is holding court. After a disastrously literal-minded British production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last spring from a deflated theatre troupe I hoped to steer clear of the Bard’s most curious king for a while, but there I was, and to my surprise I found Mark Lamos’ design-oriented staging persuasive. The golden poles that rise and fall, the work of Michael Yeargan, define the playing space, with Brian MacDevitt’s lighting cohesively placing the scattered action as Cymbeline’s dispossessed daughter Imogen (Martha Plimpton) begins her eventful journey back home. It helps, too, that there are stars like Plimpton on the stage to put Shakespeare’s mélange of comedy, drama, and tragedy across, notably John Cullum as the king, the bald-pated Michael Cerveris (here wearing a Genghis Khan-styled wig) as her husband Posthumus, and a strangely accented Phylicia Rashad as the scheming step-queen. (Some good, unsettling puppets, too, from Jerard Studios.) Jess Goldstein’s costumes, more Asiatic than Britannic, are frequently stunning, though the highlight for the audience I saw it with was clearly the towel concealing costar Jonathan Cake’s non-actorly attributes in the spa sequence. The sound, by Tom Smolenski IV and Walter Trarbach, achieves full power when the god Jupiter descends to sort things out in a thrilling sequence that highlights this regal telling, which closes Jan. 6.
To the biography of French painter Jean-Francois Millet, we must now add that period when, broke and hounded by creditors, he faked his own death and disguised himself as his own sister, “Daisey,” as the post-mortem cash flowed his way. This episode in the life of the master behind “The Gleaners” is gleaned from Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, an unproduced farce that sat in a box of papers for a century till adapter David Ives and director Michael Blakemore (Noises Off) exhumed it and put it on show at the Lyceum Theatre, which Twain once attended. Norbert Leo Butz gives a modest performance as the salt-of-the-earth Millet, the better to pull out all the stops as the fluttery Daisey, who flounces about the stage in high style in Martin Pakledinaz’s delightful gowns and Paul Huntley’s exuberant wigs. The show is so featherweight it threatens to flutter off the stage at any minute, but a cast of clowns including John McMartin (Millet’s prospective father-in-law, who courts Daisey), Jenn Gambatese (Millet’s oblivious fiancée), Byron Jennings (the mustache-twirling bad guy), and David Pittu with multiple accents in multiple roles keep it aloft. And Peter J. Davison’s two sets, Millet’s Barbizon studio in the first act (with facsimiles of his art) and a Parisian drawing room in the second, are beauties, with airy lighting from Peter Kaczorowski. I’m sure David Van Tieghem did his customary good job on the sound console, but it was hard to tell above all that laughter, particularly when Butz started fiddling manically with mannequin parts in the second act. Twain would be pleased.
For Christmas cheer, there is the return of The Grinch, and John Lee Beatty’s Seussian sets, at the St. James, or Cirque de Soleil’s Wintuk at Madison Square Garden. A more subtle diversion is writer/director Conor McPherson’s Yuletide-set The Seafarer, his first play in which a grouping of characters actually interrelate on stage, rather than break off into interminable monologues. The whimsically haunted content is not unfamiliar for the playwright, as sad-sack James “Sharky” Harkin (David Morse), stuck with his elderly brother (Jim Norton) and hangers-on for another inebriated Christmas, comes to discover that the devilishly charismatic Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds) is out to claim his soul over a game of cards. I enjoy ghost stories but find most of McPherson’s tales pretty shapeless and half-hearted, but a uniformly fine ensemble cast brings this one into sharp focus, and there is far greater concern here for character than unconvincing pop-up narrative surprises. The production has been imported lock, stock, and gin barrel from the National Theatre, and is dominated by Rae Smith’s neglect-haunted two-story house on the Irish coast, with the saddest Christmas tree seen onstage since the Odd Couple revival. Smith’s worn costumes, Neil Austin’s threadbare lighting, and Matthew Smethurst-Evans’ muted sound design are all of a piece, with the hungover gloom broken by some deft comedy, celestial musings from Mr. Lockhart that summon a starfield on the backdrop, and a fraternal ending. On that note, to all a good night. —Robert Cashill
Scenery construction: Tom Carroll Scenery
Audio: Masque Sound and One Dream Sound.
Scenery fabrication: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting: PRG Lighting. Audio: Masque Sound
Is He Dead?
Scenery: Hudson Scenic Studio and Proof Productions
Lighting: PRG Lighting. Sound: Masque Sound
Lighting: Hudson Sound & Light
Sound: Sound Associates