Seen on and Off Broadway: The John Lee Beatty and Peter Kaczorowski Edition: The New York Times has declared elaborate set design for musicals a thing of the past, a relic of the spendthrift aughts. With recession-defying shows like The Addams Family and Love Never Dies heading our way I see this miniaturization as more of a trend than an omen, and little doesn’t necessarily mean lax. Case in point is John Lee Beatty, whose modest setting for the Finian’s Rainbow revival underscored, rather than overwhelmed, its virtues. The show closed Jan. 17, just as two new plays and a revival arrived with Beatty designs, and, on lights, Peter Kaczorowski. The shows may be smaller in dimension but the work remains incisive.

Time Stands Still is a feeling expertly conveyed by Beatty for Donald Margulies’ contemporary survey, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Friedman. We are in a Williamsburg loft, which, from its clean but somewhat cramped and untended look, is more a place to call home than an actual home. The sometime inhabitants, photographer Sarah (Laura Linney) and writer James (Brian d’Arcy James), arrive from the Middle East. James, tired of real horror, is more motivated to write a book about horror movies than relive the past (in an unusual, thematically relevant touch, clips from the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the third Friday the 13th flick play on their TV as James researches his subject). But Sarah’s facial scars, leg brace, and disaffected attitude, all part of her recent injury and trauma, are a constant part of the present as they flirt with marriage and settling down. About to marry and settle down, meanwhile, are Sarah’s former boyfriend and current editor, Richard (Eric Bogosian) and the much younger Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), who provide a counterpoint to the troubled central relationship as Sarah’s convalescence wears on.

Margulies knows how to alternate and layer comedy, heartbreak, and tragedy without glibness, and Linney, in their latest pairing, catches every nuance and shading. Under the direction of another frequent Margulies associate, Daniel Sullivan, all four actors are excellent, with James no doubt relieved to be out of his Shrek costume, Bogosian surprisingly suave and assured even as an ethical lapse dampens the friendship, and Silverstone a charming foil with more sense than she appears to have. Beatty’s setting serves equally well as a retreat and a psychic battlefield, and the design is rounded out by spot-on costumes by Rita Ryack, an enveloping Peter Kaczorowski lighting design that changes with the seasons (observable on the backdrops outside the set’s back windows), and an unobtrusive sound design (by Darron L. West) that pipes in an apt score by Peter Golub. Time Stands Still joins Circle Mirror Transformation, recently closed Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, as one of the season’s most affecting new dramas.

Splashy design may be out of fashion but after a rut turntables are spinning again, with Beatty deploying them for the revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Cort. The last, transcendent Broadway production of the 1955 play, in the 1997-1998 season, went for abstraction; this, however, is pure Red Hook grit, with sooty apartment blocks that dwarf and entrap the small living quarters that appear when summoned. Something unsettled is swirling in the inky darkness—the quasi-incestuous passion longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Live Schreiber) feels for his 17-year-old niece and ward, Catherine (Scarlett Johansson), the threat of the authorities discovering the illegal Italian immigrants Carbone’s wife Beatrice (Jessica Hecht) is hiding, Catherine’s deepening affection for one of the men, Beatrice’s foppish cousin Rodolpho (Morgan Spector). And maybe Miller’s rebuke to his turncoat collaborator and Hollywood informant friend, Elia Kazan, which he turned into this contemporized Greek tragedy.

The prior revival, with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney, and the late Brittany Murphy, is one of those productions that sticks with me as legendary, and definitive, mining as much as could be gotten from this provocative but flawed play. Going for naturalism, however, director Gregory Mosher has come up with a revival that will surprise newcomers and satisfy those with somewhat longer memories. Carbone’s bluster and curdled desires are well within Schreiber’s extraordinary range, and Johansson (her silver screen quality concealed behind a dark Tom Watson wig and Brooklyn accent) gives a tender performance, though her marquee value unbalances a show that should be as much Beatrice’s as Catherine’s. No qualms, however, about the design: Beatty’s thicket of buildings is lit with whispers of threat by Kaczorowski, Jane Greenwood’s costumes are unerringly mid-50s, and Scott Lehrer’s sound design sets the proper streetwise ambiance.

Curtains hide a raised platform set at the Classic Stage Company, raising anticipation of what Beatty might be hiding in there for Venus in Fur, from playwright David Ives and director Walter Bobbie. Their last show there was the somber, superior drama New Jerusalem, then onto the annual diversion of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, a design cornucopia. Here we have…a rather ordinary office, adorned with drab fluorescent lighting, not the kind of thing expected from a new take on Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s 19th century shocker. Or, rather, a play-within-a-play that transpires as Thomas (Wes Bentley), the writer/director of a new take on the work of the “father of sadomasochism,” gets more than he bargained for when the uncouth Vanda (Nina Arianda) barges into his office late on a stormy night and bargains-wheedles for an audition.

The only other adornment to the office is a divan, which sets the stage in this two-hander for seductions of various kinds. While Thomas (effectively played by the American Beauty co-star) is nominally in charge he comes to be more of a stooge, sounding board, and whipping boy for Vanda, who is far cleverer than she appears. The design seems to coalesce around Arianda’s force-of-nature performance, a blitzkrieg of accents, leather, and lace—Anita Yavich’s clothes are delightful accoutrement, while Kaczorowski coaxes some neat effects from the fluorescents as Acme Sound Partners whiplashes the theatre with thunder and lightning crackles. The payoff is…daft. Still, while the 90-minute show (extended through March 7) does lapse into repetition from time to time, it’s distinctive, highlighting a witch’s brew of a performance that Beatty, Kaczorowski, and their teammates contain as surely as lightning in a bottle.—Robert Cashill

Equipment Vendors

Time Stands Still

Scenery Fabrication: Hudson Scenic Studio
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

A View from the Bridge

Scenery: Hudson Scenic Studio
Lighting and Audio Equipment: PRG

Venus in Fur

Set Construction: Howell Forge Scenic
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: One Dream Sound