Seen on Broadway: The Season Ends: A season that was slow to start in 2010 ended with a plethora of mostly good shows this spring. Bringing up the rear in more ways than one, alas, was the last musical and last production to open, The People in the Picture. Good intentions only get a piece so far and I imagine that for anyone who stayed after Act I patience ran out at the top of Act II, which opens with a questionable “dream ballet” set amidst the Warsaw Ghetto. What brought us here were the reminiscences of Raisel (Donna Murphy, in a deft and rather heroic performance), a one-time Yiddish theatre and film stalwart in Poland who in 70s New York is having more communication problems than usual with her stressed-out daughter, a TV writer. Bubbie has better luck interesting her sassy, adorable granddaughter in her old stories, and the showpeople in her photographs come to imaginary life, singing and dancing tales of heartache and woe as the Holocaust looms. Murphy is expert at managing the transitions between the indomitable person her character was and the fading storyteller she has become—Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, which move fluidly between eras, are an asset in this regard—but she’s no match for a rising tide of schmaltzy sentiment and a hackneyed book that shamelessly adds a supernatural twist to fortify a predictably happy-sad ending.

Riccardo Hernandez has put this Roundabout Theatre Company production in a giant gilt-edged frame from which “the people in the picture” emerge to occupy various vignettes. Matching its heaviness is James F. Ingalls’ glum lighting, which strains toward a more realistic show. Dan Moses Schreier’s has done yeoman work with the sound design, wringing as much life as possible from Mike Stoller and Artie Butler’s music and Iris Rainer Dart’s book and lyrics. The outstanding contribution is from Elaine J. McCarthy, who for a few minutes beautifully brings one of Raisel’s black-and-white movies to life onstage courtesy of expert live video work—and then it’s gone, as that briefly enchanting facet of the show recedes, and director Leonard Foglia falls back on the schtick and tastelessness of the premise. The People in the Picture plays Studio 54 through June 19.

Award-winning design doesn’t do much to stir Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a fantasia set at the beginning of the Iraq War. Dressed by David Zinn in distressed street clothes Robin Williams chomps down on the role of the tiger, an irritated creature that’s knocked off by American soldiers early in the show; joining him in a godless purgatory overrun with topiary animals are some of the other characters, who include the two soldiers (one of whom is haunted by the animal), an Iraqi translator, Musa (Arian Moayed), and Musa’s former boss, the dreaded Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian, whose lusty performance as the unrepentant dictator’s son makes evil look rather too seductive in the context).

Director Moises Kaufman does what he can to emphasize the show’s humor, of which there is some (and some unfunny vulgarity, too). But I feel I see about two or three of these metaphor-drenched shows about our inhuman condition per year (usually Off Broadway) and somewhere in the second act, absent more full-bodied characterizations and drama, I start dozing. Mission accomplished, as our former president said.

Yet a fetching design is worth staying awake for. Winning Drama Desk awards for sound and lighting, respectively, were Acme Sound Partners and Cricket S. Myers and David Lander, who are nominated for Tonys besides. The abundant and doomy soundscape, shot through with hip-hop and Kathryn Bostic’s score, is perfectly matched to Lander’s multifaceted lighting. Light and audio tear through and reverberate around Derek McLane’s evocative set, an imposing door of Islamic design that opens onto those striking topiaries (which are the decaying handiwork of Musa, who was once a gardener). McLane was nominated for a Drama Desk award for his haunting stagecraft at the Richard Rodgers but lost…to himself, for his ship-shape Anything Goes set. (It was his first win in 12 nominations since 1996. At the ceremony, with Ovation will telecast several times beginning June 4, he recalled his son asking, “Are you ever going to win one?”)

There are John Lee Beatty sets and there are John Lee Beatty sets, and the revival of Born Yesterday at the Cort has one of the latter, a tackily gorgeous hotel suite in postwar Washington, D.C. that you’ll surely want to check into, or at least check out. The important thing is that it’s near the corridors of power, which junkyard magnate Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) wants to bribe and wheedle his way into. In a combination of civics lesson and Pygmalion his dumb bunny consort, Billie Dawn (Nina Arianda), and her tutor, New Republic scribe Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), find ways to thwart him while falling in love.

This is one of those productions that suffers from having a fine film version, with Judy Holliday repeating her stage success, readily available. The 1950 movie streamlines and tightens Garson Kanin’s play, which under Doug Hughes’ direction falls somewhat flat. Belushi is more bullying than funny (a problem with the characterization, I think) and Arianda, while a gifted actress in her own right, can’t make Billie quite her own—though she gets an assist from Catherine Zuber, who dresses her to the fours in amusingly vulgar outfits that earned a Tony nomination. In the trickiest part Leonard does the strongest work; the stage veteran, who has sat out the last few seasons on House, underplays the speeches and lets some air into the drier passages of the show. Breathing further life into it—and this is a respectable staging, that doesn’t overemphasize the parallels to our own parlous politics—are Peter Kaczorowski’s handsome lighting and a fine score and sound design contributed by David Van Tieghem.

Tony nominators swooned over Jerusalem, putting this West End import in contention for best scenic (Ultz), lighting (Mimi Jordan Sherin), and sound design (Ian Dickinson for Autograph). The affection is hardly misplaced, as all (including Ultz’s costumes) are up to the standard set by star Mark Rylance, wowing audiences twice this season after La Bête in the fall. He gives a heroic performance as Rooster, a low-level drug dealer who, operating from a trailer in a forested community in England, achieves a mythic stature that the disenchanted and dispossessed cling to and the town fathers frown upon. The show is thick with language and storytelling and regret over the disappearance of such roguish figures from history, and Jez Butterworth’s three-hour opus may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But under the sure direction of Ian Rickson it makes for an eventful and unpredictable evening, complete with actual roosters in a pen beneath the trailer on stage left.

That full-size trailer is another one of those sets you just want to hang out in; the producers really should consider inviting the audience to spend some time on the set after the show ends, amidst the lawn chairs and the surrounding forest. The design is enveloping throughout but the highlight is definitely the beginning, where a raucous, strobe-filled party quickly and seamlessly changes over to the sylvan setting. Jerusalem is at the Music Box through Aug. 21.

Back in hard-scrabble New York there is The Motherf**ker with the Hat, a fast and furious comedy-drama from the pen of Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose Off Broadway shows like Our Lady of 121stStreet are among the more galvanizing productions of recent seasons. This one is more like Neil LaBute lite, which I mean as a compliment; the playwright is clearly on the side of his characters and isn’t constantly undercutting them with shallow plot twists and random acts of cruelty. Todd Rosenthal’s clever transformer of a set (a Tony nominee) shuttles us around town, where we meet Jackie (Bobby Cannavale, terrific), a recovering addict who has his hands full with Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who hasn’t given up her addictions—and may be having an affair with the title character, he of the tell-tale hat in their apartment. Shattered by this possible betrayal Jackie seeks out his sponsor, the Zen-like and upwardly aspirational Ralph D. (Chris Rock in a nice change of pace), who is having problems placating Victoria (Annabella Sciorra). Lending perhaps dubious support as Jackie works out his issues is his cousin Julio (Yul Vasquez), a mild-mannered sort seething with inner rage.

Surrounded on the sides by urban detritus Rosenthal’s moving set (the pieces come up through the floor) is adeptly suited to a play loaded with jittery emotions and fusillades of four-letter words; the title isn’t the half of it. Director Anna D. Shapiro has marshaled the cast to maintain an atmosphere of concealed hysteria throughout, which pays off in big laughs and surprising poignancy. The other design contributions are subtler, which is not to say that Rosenthal’s work hogs attention; it tells the story as unobtrusively as possible, as do Mimi O’Donnell’s spot-on costumes, Donald Holder’s quicksilver lighting, and Acme Sound Partners’ pointed sound design, which lets no obscenity go unnoticed. The show is at the Schoenfeld through July 17.

Making its Broadway debut in a scorched earth production is Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, his shattering j’accuse from the front lines of the AIDS crisis. Twenty-five years after it opened it is again laid bare to see, for its compassion and far-sightedness, and its myopia, didacticism, and conservatism (its argument for gay marriage is to get men to stop having promiscuous sex with each other, not one that gets much of a hearing these days). In short, great theater, worth arguing over, and exquisitely acted by an ensemble that earned a Drama Desk award, under the co-direction of George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey.

“Stark” is the word to describe the environment of the show, one besieged by illness and institutional rot that prevents word from getting out and proper treatment to be administered. Costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), lighting (David Weiner), and music and sound design (Van Tieghem) are appropriately no-nonsense and forceful. Making the strongest statement is David Rockwell’s white box set, a neutral environment that at scene changes fills with the names of those lost to the disease, via eloquent Batwin + Robin Productions projection. By show’s end the Golden is overflowing with names, a memorial as moving and as damning as the show itself. An unmissable experience, The Normal Heart runs through July 10.

The 2011-2012 Broadway season begins with the scheduled June 14 opening of the most keenly anticipated musical of last season, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Equipment Vendors

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Scenery Fabrication and Painting and Show Control: Global Scenic Services Inc.
Lighting Equipment and Special Lighting Effects: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG
Video Equipment: PRG
Topiaries: John Creech Design and Production

Born Yesterday

Scenery Construction: Showman Fabricators
Lighting Equipment: LUCS Lighting
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

Jerusalem

Scenery: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

The Motherf**ker with the Hat

Scenery, Scenic Effects, and Automation: Show Motion Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

The Normal Heart

Scenery Fabrication: Show Motion Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG
Projection Equipment: PRG

The People in the Picture

Scenery Fabrication: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates
Projection Equipment: Scharff Weisberg