Review Roundup for Spring, Part 1

“I’m in a fallow period,” I announced to my roommates the other day. I was referring, of course, to my infrequent updates to this blog, despite having seen lots (LOTS!) of shows in the past month. In the interest of catching up, I thought I’d post fairly brief thoughts on the plays I’ve seen since my last update. The first four are here, and I’ll post the next four as soon as I can. And once that is taken care of, I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule.

2015-03-08 13.55.41The Iceman Cometh (March 8): I’d managed to avoid Eugene O’Neill’s famous tragedy for my entire theatergoing life. Up until the recent production at BAM starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, that is. Why avoid an American classic? Well, in my experience Eugene O’Neill plays are often a bit of a slog; I rarely respond to his work with much emotion or enthusiasm. This production of Cometh, however, was acclaimed as an outstanding, and so I gave it a shot. It’s the story of despondent, dejected barflies, who look forward to the periodic visits of a charismatic salesman friend, Theodore Hickman (Nathan Lane). Hickey (as they call him) decides to rouse everyone from their drunken stupor; the consequences are ultimately tragic.

I spent much of the play frustrated — “Good grief,” I thought, “Eugene O’Neill never takes one minute to say something when he can take 15! — despite the many excellent performances. (Especially Nathan Lane, who is always terrific, and Brian Dennehy, who looked every bit the broken anarchist.) Now this play was nearly five hours long, so you understand my impatience with all the wordy passages. I continued to resist it throughout the first three acts (and through all three intermissions). I could see the writing was skilled, but I found little to connect with. By the play’s final curtain, however, I felt differently. It’s just so rare to see a play with that kind of expansive vision and grand ambition these days, and to my surprise, the wordiness and lethargic pace of the earlier acts ultimately really built towards something very moving indeed. I don’t know that I’ll bother with The Iceman Cometh again, but I’m glad I saw it this time around.

2015-03-14 20.04.33Hand to God (March 14): It just opened Tuesday night, but it was already in very good shape a few weeks ago. The show is about a teen named Jason (Steven Boyer) whose hand becomes possessed by his sock puppet, a truly vile, foul-mouthed, ugly creature named Tyrone. Violence, sexual repression, and buried emotions quickly bubble up to the surface when Tyrone is around — and since this play is set in the meeting room of a Texas church, you can imagine the shock waves that result from Tyrone’s reign of terror. I found it scathingly funny and very dark; it’s chock full of excellent performances, especially Mr. Boyer’s performance as both Tyrone and Jason. Over the weeks since I saw Hand to God, though, I’ve rarely given it much thought. A friend asked about it the other night and I was surprised at how little I had to say about it. (“Well, yeah, I really liked it” followed by a stony silence.) Perhaps its darkness put me off a bit somehow. It’s a play that I found viscerally compelling while watching it, but its sharp edges may have made me too uncomfortable to ponder outside the theater. My loss, I suppose.

2015-03-17 19.50.44It Shoulda Been You (March 17): Everything I’d heard about this wacky wedding day musical was incredibly negative, so I went into the theater expecting incompetence. Now, I know incompetent musicals. I’d even say I’m deeply familiar with them: I spent several years as a script reader for the New York Musical Theater Festival, and man, did I ever come across a ton of clunkers. All this to say It Shoulda Been You is NOT actually a clunker. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great musical, probably not even a good musical. Don’t go unless you’re willing to turn your brain off: if you start to think too much about the ridiculous plot twists that crop up throughout the show, you’ll probably want to bang your head against a wall. I actually enjoyed myself, though, because it sets out to be a fun, frothy, silly piece and mostly succeeds. This might have been mostly thanks to the hilarious performances of Tyne Daly (as the bride’s nasty mother) and Harriet Harris (as the groom’s nasty mother), and the very winning leading lady Lisa Howard (who actually plays the sister of the bride). It Shoulda Been You doesn’t feel like it belongs on Broadway. It’s a dinner theater piece. My guess is that it only got to Broadway because of David Hyde Pierce’s involvement (he directed the show, and his husband Brian Hargrove wrote the book). But hey, like I said, it’s not a complete clunker!

2015-03-20 20.10.10Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 (March 20 and 21): If you want to know how I felt about Wolf Hall the play, you’ll have to hear about Wolf Hall the book first. In brief: I thought the first book was a real slog, and didn’t entirely understand the acclaim for it. Then a friend loaned me Wolf Hall‘s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and I simply flew threw it. We puzzled over this, because Hilary Mantel’s writing style is exactly the same in both novels. And you can’t skip the first novel and just read the second (you’ll have missed too much).

In any case, I’m glad I read the books before seeing the plays, which are really wonderful. Beautifully staged, compelling, tense. The cast is terrific (no surprise from this Brit import) and the stark, open-staged production moves at a really fast clip. Intelligent, illuminating historical plays are one of my favorite genres, and this one comes to life beautifully. Plus it’s clever. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the books: I kept recognizing lines and thinking “Wow, I remember this from the book. I didn’t realize how witty it was.” The tickets for the two plays were bundled together, so I saw Part 1 on a Friday, and Part 2 on a Saturday. And it was a great way to spend a weekend: the shows were Interestingly enough, I found the first play to be clearly better than the second (the exact opposite of how I felt about the novels). To be fair, I’d gone out for a few beers before the second play, and may have been in less of a theatergoing frame of mind.

Four down, four to go. Stay tuned for even briefer thoughts on the other shows I’ve seen since then: Something Rotten, It’s Only a Play, Living on Love, and The King and I.