A closing look at the 2009 season...
Seen on Broadway: An afterlife of repertory productions has culminated in the long-awaited return to the Main Stem of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 masterpiece A Little Night Music. Few musicals are better balanced: Sondheim’s Tony-winning music is perfectly matched by Hugh Wheeler’s Tony-winning book, which was adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. The Scandinavia-set production concerns imperfect matches. The middle-aged lawyer Frederik (Alexander Hanson) is chastely, and unhappily, married to 18-year-old Anne (Ramona Mallory), who has more in common with Frederik’s tormented son Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka). Part of Henrik’s torment comes from Frederik’s teasing maid, Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin). Frederik, too, is tantalized, by a former love, the actress Desiree (Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, in her Broadway debut)—whose current flame, Count Carl-Magnus (Aaron Lazar), flickers dangerously, which creates an opportunity for his wronged wife, Charlotte (Erin Davie). At opposite ends of the experience spectrum are Desiree’s daughter, Fredrika (a role shared by Katherine Leigh Doherty and Keaton Whittaker), a font of youthful wisdom, and her imperious mother, the world-weary Madame Armfeldt (Angela Lansbury). Tangling and untangling the knots are a string of astonishing songs, as the lovers and would-be lovers enact their waltzes with romance, including “The Glamorous Life,” “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Liaisons,” and Desiree’s classic lament, “Send in the Clowns.”
Given the quality of the material it’s probably impossible to fumble A Little Night Music, which also claimed the Best Musical Tony. I saw a pretty good New York City Opera production in 2003, with Jeremy Irons as Frederik and Juliet Stevenson as Desiree. This revival hails from the Menier Chocolate Factory, which originated the captivating return of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and imports Hanson, who is a suave and amusingly beleaguered Frederik. The above-the-title casting works: The unstoppable Angela Lansbury, who is only acting frail, is a treat in her return to musicals, and I was wowed by Zeta-Jones. Breathtaking beautiful in a lustrous Paul Huntley wig, she’s younger (and prettier) than most who have played Desiree, but she fully captures its vanity, impetuosity, and aching heart. Long may she stay in New York to tackle whatever other great stage roles come her way.
These performances, and those of Lazar and Davie, offset director Trevor Nunn’s decision to overdirect most of the younger castmembers to near-caricature, and to highlight the night as well as the music in the staging. Hartley T.A. Kemp’s lighting design is in a strangely noir-ish funk; when the lights go up, it’s as if a mistake has occurred, so thinly lit is the Walter Kerr for much of the show. Then again there’s not much to look at, besides David Farley’s lovely period costumes—his unit set, a minimalist tableau of wall-sized mirrors, turns into a couple of houses, then sprouts birches for a second-act outdoor setting (where the actors sit on throw pillows rather than on lawn furniture). Only the sound design, co-credited to Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owen, has a fullness to it, to bring out the small orchestra. This is a transfer that needed to think bigger, though it is good to hear A Little Night Music again after so many years away from home.
David Mamet should reconsider putting drafts onstage. His last play, November, was lousy, and after a string of revivals of mixed quality his latest, Race, needed to deliver. But it quickly fizzles. The set-up: Well-to-do Charles (Richard Thomas) is accused of raping a young black woman. He contacts a law firm, comprised of Jack (James Spader, an actor born to play Mamet under better circumstances) and Henry (David Alan Grier), figuring the white-and-black dynamic will help him. In the promising opening scene they debate the merits of the case, then find that their assistant, Susan (Kerry Washington), has basically obliged them to take it. This will not be the last time Susan undercuts their authority, though it is unfortunately the most plausible, as the drama becomes more contrived and less provocative at every turn.
Reminiscent of Speed-the-Plow, but a distant echo in terms of achievement, Race is a letdown. Mamet’s direction of the men is confident (Grier’s hard-nosed portrayal steals a few scenes) but he doesn’t seem to have given proper counsel to Washington, an okay film and TV actress who is woeful in her key part. Then again Susan’s machinations, which move the plot evasively from the thorny issue of the title to the more familiar territory of sex, would be difficult for a more comfortable stage performer to make sense of. Mamet the writer needed a firmer hand at the controls than Mamet the director. The unsurprising but firmly functional design is by Santo Loquasto, whose setting on the steeply raked stage is as much a jury room as a law office; Brian MacDevitt, whose exposed bank of lights casts a harsh interrogatory glare; and Tom Broecker, whose costumes are professional and workmanlike. The sputtering Race is at the Barrymore.
Seen Off Broadway: A far more arresting treatment of race is the 89-year-old Eugene O’Neill play, The Emperor Jones, whose freshly conceived revival by the Irish Repertory Theatre has relocated to the Soho Playhouse for a seven-week run that ends Jan. 31, 2010. I’m not sure what O’Neill was getting at, exactly, but it clearly gnawed at him enough to write the brief but gamy and furious piece, which Paul Robeson had a hit in (he also starred in a bowdlerized 1933 film version) and was more recently dissected by The Wooster Group, with Kate Valk as Brutus Jones. The part of the self-styled, African-American leader of a Caribbean island, whose potential ouster by rebels who despise his exploitation drives him into the forest—and madness—now belongs to John Douglas Thompson, who gives a magnificent performance.
There are draws other than Thompson’s magnetism. Irish Rep and the Soho Playhouse have small stages, but director Ciaran O’Reilly has filled them with eye-catching design that accentuates the semi-expressionist nature of the show. Charlie Corcoran’s set is dominated by Jones’ red-skirted throne, which is replaced by a jungle thick with curtains as Brian Nason’s pools of richly colored lighting swirl into nightmare. The percussive music and detailed sound design, by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson, pulse with a feverish intensity. Most fascinating are the costumes, by Antonia Ford-Roberts, and Bob Flanagan’s mask and puppet design. Ford-Roberts has cloaked some of the supporting players in tree stump camouflage, the better to fool Jones as he unravels—a process hastened by the grasping, animal-like puppets, which are creepily articulated. The Emperor Jones is a difficult play, tinged with racism from a different age, but this revival brings it rewardingly into our own.—Robert Cashill