Seen on Broadway: Any reunion of Light in the Piazza director Bartlett Sher and its Tony-winning design team, set designer Michael Yeargan, LD Christopher Akerlind, and costume designer Catherine Zuber, is welcome—all the more when the material is as rich as Awake and Sing!, which Lincoln Center Theater has brought back as part of a centenary celebration of its playwright, Clifford Odets. In a nostalgic touch, the new production is being staged at the Belasco, where the show was first staged in 1935 (from the looks of it, I’d say some of the original audience had returned, too). Odets is perhaps best known for his acrid screenplay for 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, but it was this play, an incendiary left-wing drama streaked with autobiography, that consolidated his and the influential Group Theatre’s reputations. While its fires have dimmed over the last 70 years, Awake and Sing!, cast with a strong ensemble, remains a potent and inspiring piece.
The Bronx-set play was one of the first to put an authentic Jewish family onstage, but far from cozy domesticity this is a warts-and-all portrait as its members struggle with the Great Depression, which is as hard on the spirit as it is on the wallet. Its three acts take place in the fifth-floor walk-up apartment of the Bergers, which mother Bessie (the formidable Zoe Wanamaker) rules with a tight fist, constantly extolling the value of the dollar, much to the ire of her Marx-quoting father, Jacob (Ben Gazzara) who toes the Party line. Bessie’s weak-willed husband, Myron (Jonathan Hadary), keeps the peace, but their children, Ralph (Pablo Schreiber) and Hennie (Lauren Ambrose, from HBO’s Six Feet Under) chafe under the strain. Hennie finds herself “in trouble” and settles for a convenient, but unsatisfying, marriage to a recent, unassimilated immigrant, Sam (Richard Topol). The Berger’s boarder, a crippled World War I veteran and low-level racketeer, Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo, who along with Ambrose makes a skillful Broadway debut, much more so than the rest of this week’s film and TV stars), oozes contempt for the pipe dreams of the younger Bergers, while their well-to-do Uncle Morty (Ned Eisenberg) has schemes of his own regarding an insurance policy Jacob has made out to Ralph. As the family unit disintegrates, so, too, does Yeargan’s set; its walls slowly rise up to the rafters in Act II, and by the close of the third act even the doors are gone, leaving Ralph (pictured) alone in the chill of winter, warmed by his hopes for a future that will “sing.” Liberalism has changed over the decades—the occasional casual racism of the piece is a surprise, and Hennie’s ultimate solution to her entrapment fairly shocked an audience used to more sentimental answers. But Odets asked hard questions in hard times, and didn’t flinch when responding.
I’m not sure how to respond to the audacity of the set movement, supplied, as are the lights and the sound, by PRG (Scenic Technologies). It works, psychologically, as an illustration of Ralph throwing off the shackles of his confinement, but it’s also distracting, a little too showy for its own good. (Better, maybe, to have compressed the apartment, emphasizing the claustrophobia of family life—but better just to have left a beautifully realized naturalistic set alone). In any case, Akerlind’s lighting rises to the occasion, beginning with an amber, painterly cast and ending in pure cool-blue abstraction. Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg have collaborated on the sound, the first of this week’s cityscapes. Some reviewers have quibbled over the crispness of Zuber’s costumes but they weren’t paying attention; Bessie prides herself on the cleanliness of her house and home, so of course they wouldn’t look aged and impoverished. It’s the people who wear them, so sharply dissected by Odets in this welcome revival, who have shriveled.
If superior design were enough to guarantee a spectacular show, then Festen would be taking home a shelf full of Tony awards come June. It isn’t, and it won’t be, and what seemed like a good idea on paper (and indeed, in practice, on the West End) is floundering at the Music Box. The play is an adaptation of a Dogma 95 film—those half-serious attempts to strip cinema down to its bare essentials, spearheaded by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, that popped up in arthouses for a few years—and the 1998 movie, its title translated to The Celebration, is the most enjoyable of the movement’s efforts, if you like watching families go at it hammer and tongs for two hours. As rewritten by David Eldridge, Festen retains much of writer-director Thomas Vinterberg’s malicious script, and the film’s fairly minimal staging—but it’s no celebration.
The party pooper is the director, Rufus Norris, who kept a firm hand on the London production but who has here let a talented cast run aground. The material is juicy—at a 60th birthday party for a beloved patriarch, the youngest son, whose twin sister committed suicide two months earlier, toasts (or, rather, roasts) his father with wild allegations of incest, which throw the celebration into a tailspin. The affectedly high style of the piece requires a very specific playing style by the actors, and of the ensemble only two of the performers, Michael Hayden as the wronged son and Christopher Evan Welch as the befuddled toastmaster, seemed to get this. Everyone else gives loose, lackluster performances—I’ve never seen Larry Bryggman, as the father, and Julianna Margulies and Jeremy Sisto (another Six Feet Under alum), as Hayden’s defensive siblings, so sloppy. Of course, if they were any better, they would have made Broadway debutante Ali MacGraw, as beautiful and as talent-deficient as ever as the icy family matriarch, look much worse than she does in her one big scene—as it is, she’s no better, and not much more out of sorts, than anyone else up there when the key that must be in her back is finally turned. And she wears a burgundy dress, beautifully designed by Joan Wadge, with mannequin grace.
It’s too bad that theater has to rely on things like actors and scripts—here it all gets in the way of a gripping modernist design, which is brazenly, gratifyingly artificial, not Dogma-tic but pure stage magic. A black box conjured by set designer Ian MacNeil, of the unforgettable An Inspector Calls a decade or so ago, opens as required to accommodate a bed for the pre-party preparation scenes, and on and off stage glide a long refectory table and chairs for the actual celebration, with a trapdoor built into the floor for entrances and exits by the servants. These pieces are stunningly sidelit by Jean Kalman. The gorgeous, spooky illumination is matched in intensity by an unnerving sound design by Paul Arditti, as drops of water and the laughter of children seamlessly merge to suggest past horrors. [PRG provided the lights and sound, and Showman Fabricators the scenery and automation.] The designers have provided an elegant feast, even if the show around them never gets the party started.
As last spring brought us Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar, so, too, does this season bring us a revival centered on a capital-H Happening—in this case, the theatrical debut of Julia Roberts. But Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, well-received off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997, is a crashing bore in the overscaled production at the Bernard B. Jacobs, and Roberts’ leaden performance suggests that she and MacGraw consulted the same inexpert acting coach. The conceit of the show is that Roberts and the only adequate Paul Rudd (a once-promising actor who has spent too much time in beer-bust movies like Anchorman) are siblings, Nan and Walker; the rootless Walker had disappeared for a stretch, only to resurface in a New York loft apartment still owned after many years by the their late father, a famed architect. Walker has discovered his dad’s journal, which contains a puzzling passage: “three days of rain.” A third character, the son of the father’s best friend and business partner, Pip (Bradley Cooper, the flashiest of the trio), shows up at the loft. Revelations ensue. In Act II, set in 1960, the actors play the parents of their characters, and triangulate with consequences for their children during the mysterious three days of rain.
I get how this is supposed to work: You see the match struck in Act II, the bombshells erupt in Act I, which is set in 1995, and construct the intervening years in your imagination once you exit the theater. But Greenberg’s overwriting—he always says in a paragraph, or a monologue, what should be conveyed in a sentence or two, and stretches the patience further by giving one character a stutter—requires good actors to keep on top of things, and these this production, limply directed by Joe Mantello, simply does not have. All three pretty much recall the title of one of Roberts’ movies, Flatliners. America’s sweetheart hugs herself, as if freezing, in Act I as the uptight Nan, then thaws slightly in Act II as Lina, her mother, a vivacious Southern belle soon to wilt in the big city. But it was too late for a portion of the audience sitting near me, who ducked out at intermission with just half their $110 per ticket spent, while others around me gave up even earlier on the show and starting critiquing Santo Loquasto’s costumes for the leading lady, murmuring “nice boots,” “That outfit’s a little shapeless on her,” “I’m not sure about that bag as an accessory,” and so on. (Her hair, arranged by Lyndell Quiyou, was also the subject of much scrutiny.)
I’ll add to the chorus and say that, while the 90s and 60s fashions were acceptable, Loquasto’s set, long and deep, is a monster, far too big for the puny emotions onstage. The detailing—denuded in Act I, smartly decorated in Act II—is nice, but the actors are simply consumed by the thing. David Van Tieghem’s underscore is pleasant, and his street noises spot on; the play begins with a funny car alarm gag that benefits enormously from the designer’s expertise. When not alighting on someone’s monologue, Paul Gallo’s lighting design adds another layer of gray to the monotone drama, which helps sell the impact of the rain that begins to fall, incessantly, in Act II. [Showmotion built the scenery and scenic effects, and PRG provided the lights and audio.] In fact, the rain, which sometimes cascades downstage in front of the set and follows a character through his or her entrance or exit, gives the show’s most assured performance, courtesy of Jauchem and Meeh; it’s the rest of Three Days of Rain that’s all wet.
Seen Off Broadway: The Barrow Street Theatre, which had hits with the Steppenwolf imports Bug and Orson’s Shadow, is third time lucky with the Chicago theater troupe. Adam Rapp’s provocative new drama, Red Light Winter, begins in a charmless Amsterdam hostel, where an endlessly “burgeoning” playwright, Matt (Christopher Denham), weakly attempts suicide. His outlook brightens a little when Christina (Lisa Joyce), a prostitute, enters the picture—but she’s somewhat more enthralled with her procurer, Matt’s uncouth, undermining friend, Davis (Gary Wilmes). Davis, a hotshot literary agent, has purchased the French prostitute’s services to cheer up Matt—whose emotional problems, we come to learn, are in part caused by his subservience to Davis. (And also his nerdy inability to start a sentence with anything more clever and self-assured than, “I feel that at this point I need to say,” one of many nervous ticks that Denham, in a faultless performance, gets absolutely right.) Left alone with Christina, Matt is able to pry her out of her own curious shell, and the two get down to the business at hand, in a credibly awkward sex scene, breathtaking in its matter-of-factness and bathed in the red light of the title, that ends Act I.
In Act II, set one winter later, Todd Rosenthal’s turntable set alights on Matt’s dingy, book-filled Lower East Side apartment. [The snow outside the dreary kitchen window, which starts and stops, is a nice touch.] Christina shows up, to Matt’s surprise—and to hers as well, as she thought Davis had left her his Manhattan address in their earlier encounter. Christina remembers nothing about Matt, despite their prior intimacy, but the heart-sick writer is completely smitten with his one-time “girlfriend” and in a wrenching scene confesses all. It looks like the two loners may finally connect—but Davis has left his cell phone at Matt’s, and that’s enough plot summary. [I left a few things out.] What’s to come takes the play, unprofitably, into territory well-trodden by hard-boiled playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute (Fat Pig), and it must be said that at least one second-act plot twist, and the ending, don’t add up in this long-ish drama. (It’s implied, teasingly, that some of this might be happening in Matt’s imagination, which still doesn’t explain everything.) But under Rapp’s direction this is a fine production of a good play, with a solid performance by Joyce in her enigmatic characterization, a relentless one by Wilmes (though he seems old for the part), and a real stunner by Denham, seen on Broadway two seasons back as the callow Master Harold in the Athol Fugard play.
Following Rosenthal’s lead with his boxy, well-detailed sets (with minimal headroom for the actors, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the piece), the lighting, by Keith Parham, is yellowed and dim, the costumes, by Michelle Tedsall, tatty and tossed-together for the lumpen Matt and Christina, with the latter allowed the grace note of a fashionable red dress, and the sound, by Eric Shim, street noise overheard on two continents. [Steppenwolf and Tom Carroll Scenery supplied the sets, Big Apple Lights the lighting gear, and One Dream Sound the audio.] A pretty picture it is not. But no company does discomfort and disconnection quite like Steppenwolf, and their latest dispatch from the recesses of the soul makes for compelling viewing.–Robert Cashill