Seen on Broadway: The Drowsy Chaperone is such frothy good fun that it seems silly to express reservations, but there’s a darker, more introspective piece lurking just underneath its bright and cheery surface that I found more tantalizing. The Drowsy Chaperone, produced in 1928, is a light-hearted frolic brimming with the conventions, good and bad, of its time, from beautiful tunes and its eagerness to please—to questionable lyrics and politically incorrect stereotypes. To see such a show today, at the Marquis Theatre, is almost too good to be true—and indeed it is, as there was no such production. The story of this new musical, from some of the writers behind the wonderful Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows (an absolute must for theater lovers, available on the Sundance Channel and soon on DVD), is that one of the rabid fans of its (fictitious) cast album, identified simply as Man in Chair (played by co-author Bob Martin) is playing the recording for us, to chase away his perpetual blues. The show, in all its tinsel glamour, comes to life in his meager apartment, and our host annotates the production—not an easy task, but a very funny one, as there are skips in the record, painfully dated passages to explain away, and interruptions from the phone to contend with over the course of an intermission-less, and hectic, 100 or so minutes.
The songs and setpieces, pastiches of the clichés of the form, are frequently amusing, and each member of the large ensemble has a chance to shine, including Thoroughly Modern Milliestar Sutton Foster in a knockout knockabout number, “Show Off”; Beth Leavel as her actress character’s chaperone, a dipso sophisticate; and the ageless Georgia Engel, as a dowager swapping “spit takes” with Edward Hibbert, as her underling, named Underling. Good stuff. But I found my attention wandering over to wherever Martin was, to watch his perfect, ecstatic reactions to whatever was going on. He is unnervingly good playing an instantly recognizable type, a person far too well-traveled in the theater, at the expense of other avenues of life—Martin gets it all, the nervous enthusiasm, the behavioral tics, and the underlying sadness, which the show, determined to be frivolous, is too cautious to really explore. The chance for an infinitely finer and more poignant production, a musical equivalent to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, was within its grasp, but there was no reaching toward it.
I have to wonder, too, how much of this will fly right over an uninitiated viewer’s head. Still, it’s a very animated show, blown up from a small revue up north to a big Broadway house with great finesse by director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. The design is aces. I lost count of how many scene changes David Galloachieved in the Man’s close quarters, with colorful backdrops, deluxe period furniture, and even an airplane winging in as the record plays on. This sort of show is the métier of the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, who spent five minutes, if that, on the mousy Man in Chair (again, the dress sense, that brown sweater vest, is unerring) to have a ball with the very fancy clothes worn by the other performers, including, in one amusing twist, full Chinese regalia. Ken Billington and Brian Monahan collaborated on a highly stylized, and colorful, lighting scheme, that runs the gamut of the palette, pushing the production into full-on parody, as does the sound, a tricky assignment for Acme Sound Partners, as it has to go on and off on a dime as the scratchy old recording periodically rejects the stylus. Hair and makeup design, by, respectively, Josh Marquette and Justen M. Brosnan, are equally extravagant. [PRG supplied the lights, Sound Associates the audio, and Hudson Scenic the scenery and automation.] But the most resonant chord is struck by the small person at the center of all the spectacular activity.
The theater district has all but sprouted shamrocks, as no less than three plays to arrive at season’s end hail from Irish writers. The ferociously funny The Lieutenant of Inishmore, from Martin McDonagh (author of last season’s macabre favorite, The Pillowman) is the one that really grabs you by the lapels, and has audiences laughing and screaming at the Lyceum, where it’s transferred from the Atlantic Theater Company. Outside of a general, hammered-home statement about the wincingly comic futility of violence in Northern Ireland, it’s all surface—but what an electrifying surface it is, with McDonagh unveiling a stunningly grotesque twist with each scene, under the wire-taut direction of Wilson Milam. The cast, performing at a fine frenzy, is up to their ankles in blood and…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself, except that Peter Sarafin and Craig Grigg are doing an awful lot more with mannequins than just hanging haute couture on them.
The show begins with a Mutt-and-Jeff team, Donny (Peter Gerety) and Davey (Domhnall Gleeson), manhandling the remains of a dead cat, Wee Thomas, whose juicy brains flop onto the floor. This is bad. Worse is that Wee Thomas’ owner, Donny’s lunatic son, Padraic (David Wilmot), is “the lieutenant of Inishmore,” a self-styled enforcer who has broken with an IRA splinter group and will surely kill whomever is responsible for the death—once he’s finished flaying a drug dealer, and if his former cronies don’t off him first. A further complication is provided by Davey’s sister, Mairead (Alison Pill), herself a cat lover, who fancies herself Padraic’s girlfriend and “second lieutenant” in his scourging of local hoodlums. As a tide of corpuscles rises, and leaks off of ,Scott Pask’s rough-hewn shack of a set, the balance of absurdity shifts, and the show comes full circle with a final hilarious twist.
If your taste runs to more polite theater, this is not the show for you—none of McDonagh’s plays are. I admit I missed the greater political nuance that the author brought to The Pillowman, which premiered here before Inishmore, but was written after it. The foundation of that more substantial achievement is here, however, and I delighted in the ingenious stagecraft, to leave you gasping. Everyone—costume designer Theresa Squire, LD Michael Chybowski, and sound designer Obadiah Eaves—is firing on all cylinders. [Showmotion constructed and painted the scenery, which Tom Carroll Scenery constructed; GSD Productions provided the lights and audio, Flying by Foy the aerographic services, and Waldo Warshaw the grisly special effects.] But it’s the more unusual design elements, including a copious amount of firearms (provided by IAR Inc.), that will lodge in the memory.
Without a strong design backing it up, the revival of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer might be little more than good radio playing at the Booth Theatre. Even with the legendary James Mason in the cast the show flopped on Broadway in 1979, but changing times have caught up with it; unconventional narratives (here, four confessional monologues) aren’t so rare anymore, and there is enough subtle craft going on to engage the eye as the ear processes the four densely written pieces that make up the show. The reminiscences of Francis Hardy (Ralph Fiennes), a tatty Irish faith healer plying his trade throughout the British isles, bookend the drama. In between we hear from his alcoholic companion, Grace (Cherry Jones), and his garrulous Cockney manager, Teddy (Ian McDiarmid, in a complete about-face from the Emperor in the Star Wars movies), whose own accounts correct, or contradict, elements of Francis’ initial story. The portrait that emerges is a harrowing one, of lost souls alone in their troubling disconnection.
With actors of these caliber the show is in good hands—the best may very well be the least familiar, McDiarmid, who wraps himself up in Teddy’s velvety-red smoking jacket and regales us with his more humorous stories as a way of keeping the all-consuming darkness at bay for at least a little while. But it would be a long haul of an evening if the director, Jonathan Kent, hadn’t kept pace with Friel’s wordplay and had simply left the performers to their own devices. Instead, there is seamless sleight-of-hand, evoking Francis’ trade, between each scene on the stage, which is largely bare save for a flickering fireplace at the rear. Accompanied by the sound of the whistling wind, a white curtain, with a projected image of the countryside on it, is pulled across the stage, wiping away the prior segment and revealing the next simple, but nicely detailed, environment. Throughout, Mark Henderson’s spare lighting sets the tone, with a marvelous bit of shadowing toward the close that suggests the presence of all three speakers onstage (which is never the case, till the curtain call). Jonathan Fensom designed the sets and costumes; Christopher Cronin the sound, and Sven Ortel the video projection. [Showmotion built the scenery and scenic effects and supplied the show control; GSD Productions the lights, and Masque Sound the audio.] Their contributions transform an artfully orchestrated script into pure theater.
The least substantial of the trio, Shining City, is an import for the Manhattan Theatre Club, which is showcasing it at the Biltmore. Insubstantiality, as it happens, is a recurrent theme of its young playwright, Conor McPherson, who was last on Broadway with the haunted stories that made up The Weir. The new play is located in a shabby part of Dublin, at the spartanly decorated office of a therapist, Ian (Doubt star Brian F. O’Byrne). A new patient, John (Oliver Platt, in a plus-sized performance), turns up, with the startling news that the ghost of his late wife is keeping him up at nights. The play then takes on a parallel structure, with Ian, who has his own guilty secrets, abandoning his girlfriend (Martha Plimpton) and baby, and making tentative contact with a rent boy (Peter Scanavino). Analyst and patient come to terms with their difficulties—but there is a shocking surprise at the close, shocking, that is, if you haven’t seen McDonagh’s far more jolting piece.
McPherson has a good ear, and excels at monologues, but his shows strike me as juvenile, however much their positive reviews might suggest otherwise. It has been given a handsome mounting: Santo Loquasto, on his best behavior after the excesses of Three Days of Rain, has devised a believably distressed home office for Ian, its only modern touches its coffee maker and portable CD player. The Neil Young music it plays, the irritating buzz of the door bell, and the thunder brewing outside its window are all well-conveyed by the ubiquitous Obadiah Eaves. I liked how Kate Voyce’s costumes shaped up as John’s mental health improved under the care of Ian, whose casually disheveled looks runs to T-shirts (including a Neil Young one). Christopher Akerlind’s lighting reinforces the dusk-before-darkness look of the backdrop behind the set. [PRG provided the lights, Masque Sound the audio, Showman Fabricators the scenic elements and USA Image Technologies the backdrop.] The cast, under the direction of Robert Falls, is fine. If only Shining Cityadded up to something more ambitious, or challenging. --Robert Cashill
Seen In Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) provides a wonderful outlet for British theatre in New York, and has presented a series of solid productions from the UK in recent years. This year's spring season comes to a close (in terms of theatre anyway) with the Theatre Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Sir Peter Hall (whose As You Like It was a hit at BAM last year), and starring the formidable Lynn Redgrave as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's deliciously written, classically clever romp set in Victorian England. Antics and laughs abound as identities are mistaken, lovers quarrel only to kiss and make-up, aunts and guardians hover on the sidelines, and tales of babies in handbags have happy endings.
The production design by Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon includes three sets that carry the three acts from a London drawing room that is all purples and blacks and a bit on the stuffy side, to the clear and airy garden of a country house dappled with bright sunlight, and the drawing room of the same house, where the same sets of French doors are used, in Act II leading from a rose-filled garden into the house, and in Act III, seen from inside the house. The floor coverings are of particular note with a large purple and black floral carpet in Act I, and a bright blue and white patterned "tile" for acts II and III, helping clearly distinguish the drawing rooms of London from the country. The design incorporates sweeping art-deco archways that tie the three sets together, and make the production every bit as "arch" as Oscar Wilde himself. The lighting is subtle, simply serving to define each of the three environments, and seemingly shift to indicate changes in the time of day. The costumes are inspired by, if not totally faithful to, the 1920s, complete with hats, parasols, and gloves for the ladies, and spats for the men, at least for Jack and Algernon. The overall effect of the costumes is rather formal, with the men primarily in black suits of various cuts, from butlers to morning (and mourning) coats, while the women are all in long dresses. The colors for the women range from a buttercup yellow for the youngest to pinks and blues for Lady Bracknell and her daughter. The rather short Miss Prism is made to look rather toad-like in a brown dress, but provides a wonderful comic performance.The sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is crisp and clear, allowing Wilde's words to hit home and get many a laugh. I've said this before, but Bravo! BAM for bringing over this kind of production: the kind that most New York audiences would not get to see otherwise. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux