Seen on Broadway: Pal Joey, the book, has always gotten in the way of Pal Joey, the Rodgers and Hart musical. Novelist John O’Hara based his 1940 scenario on his stories of low-life, backstabbing entertainers in the rough-and-tumble Chicago of the 1930s. By the time it became a movie, in 1957, the book was too hot to handle, and its edge was softened. Playwright Richard Greenberg has taken a crack at it in its much-anticipated return to Broadway since a 1976 production, but has only succeeded in making it more crass, and a little gay. The unsolvable problem is that we are expected to love a louse who sees everyone as just another step on the ladder, and who hates himself. It takes star quality in spades to somehow unify all this, but Matthew Risch, the adequate singer, dancer, and actor who moved up from understudy once Tony-winning Jersey Boy Christian Hoff was no longer part of the production, has it only in glimmers.

This makes this frustrating Roundabout revival, at Studio 54, a ladies night. Stockard Channing, as the chi-chi socialite, Vera, who stakes Joey’s ruthless rise, looks smashing in William Ivey Long’s spot-on costumes. She also puts across a languid, post-coital rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” that suggests what the production might have been had the book, leading man, direction (Joe Mantello) and choreography (Graciela Daniele) reached the same level of longing and inspiration. The show also spikes whenever Martha Plimpton turns up as Gladys, the most aggressive, and slatternly, of Joey’s chorine castoffs; an unlikely song-and-dance woman, she settles all doubts with a delightful show-within-a-show performance of “Zip”. Zip would appear to be lacking in the role of Linda, the nice salesgirl whom Joey truly loves, but Jenny Fellner adds contours to what on paper might appear to be a colorless ingénue part. Under Paul Gallo’s noir-ish, Edward Hopper-esque lights they all shine, just not enough to disguise the perfunctory funk of a show that plays like Chicago with its fires banked.

Speaking of the Second City, Scott Pask’s set is my kind of town, with an impressive, descent-into-depravity spiral staircase on stage right and a gorgeous evocation of the wooden El tracks snaking through to stage left. The playing space is effectively outfitted for nightclubs (with a mirrored playing space), clothing stores, and bedrooms. Tony Meola’s sound design tended to favor the orchestra over the vocalists the night I saw it. Even with a more balanced mix this Pal Joey wouldn’t be enough to really sing about.

The photo is misleading. You’ll have to find a headshot of understudy Jordan Lage and Photoshop it over Jeremy Piven’s face, as the Entourage star left the revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow before I could see it. Not a huge loss, as Lage is an old Mamet hand and he and co-stars Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss got the proper crackling rhythm going. Mamet makes an existential mountain out of a molehill of Hollywood backstabbing, as two fatuous producers, Bobby (Lage) and Charlie (Esparza), plan to mount a typically debased action movie. The deal unravels when Moss’ seemingly naïve temp, Karen, touts instead an adaptation of an end-of-the-world thumbsucker, pricking Bobby’s long-dormant conscience. Great fun to watch under trying circumstances, it should be even better when Norbert Leo Butz, Esparza’s contemporary, enters the picture for a month, but I would argue that Lage, rather than the older William H. Macy, should be allowed to close out the run, scheduled through Feb. 22. He has come through for the show, and as the ever-dynamic, fast-and-furious Esparza noted after my performance ended it felt like a dyed-in-the-wool company. (Mad Men co-star Moss is terrific in a very tricky part that must have stumped its 1988 originator, Madonna.)

The actors, splendidly directed by Neil Pepe, needed no sound designer for their crisply delivered work at the Barrymore. The rest of the design is unobtrusively cunning; watch how Karen’s costuming, by Laura Bauer, grows in confidence as she gets the upper hand between scenes, which LD Brian MacDevitt accentuates with projector-and-sprocket hole-type illumination. Pask’s turntable sets, one for Bobby’s featureless office and another for his spartan home, suggest a person defined by others’ bland tastes. Speed-the-Plow itself has been given a very savory production.

Irving Berlin thought his “White Christmas,” the best-selling single of all time, had the makings of a Broadway show about it, and after a few seasons on the road a production has reached New York. Penned in 1940, the song won the 1942 Oscar when Bing Crosby introduced it in the film Holiday Inn, and Crosby had another go at it in 1954’s hugely successful 1954 movie White Christmas, with Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen joining in for what amounted to a thinly plotted medley of Berlin standards. David Ives and Paul Blake haven’t exactly stretched themselves to make more of a book from the material, as two ex-GIs with showbiz chops (Stephen Bogardus and Jeffry Denman) help out their crusty old commander with his failing Vermont inn on a sunny and snowless Yuletide, but they haven’t drenched it in irony, either. It makes for a square and cozy holiday attraction, not as raucous as Slava’s Snowshow yet a more warming eggnog than Cirque Du Soleil’s unenthralling Wintuk.

Director Walter Bobbie lets the songs, and scenery, sparkle. Anna Louizos’ sets fill the stage at the Marquis but do so simply, and pleasingly—as usual she thinks big, without overdecorating this time, and environments ranging from the inn to a train to The Ed Sullivan Show are part-50s period, part-Thomas Kinkade tableau. Carrie Robbins’ many gorgeous costumes, Ken Billington’s washes of light, and Acme Sound Partners’ enveloping sound design are like so many ornaments on a conservatively tended tree. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the latest money-spinner spawned this charmed property, ends its run Jan. 4—would you really want to see it much beyond that?— Robert Cashill

Equipment vendors

Pal Joey

Scenery fabrication, show control, and scenic motion control: Scenic Technologies
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: PRG Audio

Speed-the-Plow

Scenery construction: Hudson Scenic
Lighting: PRG Lighting

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Scenery construction: Hudson Scenic
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: PRG Audio