The Wicked Stage takes Manhattan (again) to find a lesser Porgy

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Last winter’s planned trip to NYC—and to “Spider-man 1.0”—was deep-sixed by the Great Blizzard of 2010, and I cried salty, salty tears as my flight limped back to San Antonio. This year, however, the theater gods smiled, and I took in four shows during the crowded holiday season.

In order:

Porgy and Bess. Last fall, a pre-production press release from the American Repertory Theatre touted the virtues of its reworked version of Gershwin’s classic opera; this press release was then rewarded with a scathing rebuke from no less a personage than Stephen Sondheim. (This must have seemed rather like a lightning bolt from Zeus.) A literary and artistic kerfuffle ensued. In any event, the version that has now opened in New York is unlikely to get anybody’s panties in a bunch. True, much of the recitative has been converted into spoken dialogue, and some of the book has been altered in the name of political correctness; but purists will still generally recognize the same P&B of yore. In Audra McDonald, the A.R.T. has found, I think, a peerless Bess. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The three male leads—Norm Lewis, Phillip Boykin, and David Alan Grier—were very good, but not quite of McDonald’s caliber. Riccardo Hernandez’s odd design mostly consisted of a bare plank surrounded by a curved wall; Diane Paulus’s direction was fine, but she seemed to have little interest in playing with the vertical levels suggested by the massive set. Ronald K. Brown’s church-inspired choreography struck me as awkward and incongruent with the rest of the concept. In some ways—and I can’t believe I’m writing this—I found Austin’s Zach Scott’s jazz-inspired production to be a more cohesive and innovative interpretation. (I still think an enterprising producer should remount that version elsewhere.)

Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities is a big ol' melodrama with some wonderful acting and sterling direction: Stockard Channing is amazing, and Joe Mantello's staging of the concluding revelation is really gorgeous. I think the play itself flirts with cliché—a family comes together at Christmas to expose a long-buried secret—and an absent or dead son is about as hoary a trope in American letters as you can get (I mean, both Albee and Shepherd have been there, done that). There were four sterling performances on stage—but unfortunately Rachel Griffiths’ wasn't one of them. That's a huge problem, because the character of the daughter is itself a problem: the plot is propelled by her plan to expose the troubles of her well-heeled family in a tell-all memoir. So you have to be sympathetic to her at least sometimes, but I mostly felt Griffith’s character was whiny, sanctimonious, and vindictive: I had a hard time buying her point of view. I've the sense that Other Desert Cities would be excruciating in an inferior production: it's all about the acting and the re-acting. I'm really glad I saw it in New York, but I'm not sure that the play itself would stand up to repeated viewings.

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Stephen Karam’s wonderful breakout hit—Speech and Debate—has never seen a production in San Antonio, even though it played pretty much every other city in America. Let’s hope that his latest play—Sons of the Prophet—doesn’t meet the same fate. Sons of the Prophet is, simply put, fantastic: I think the best thing I've ever seen staged by Peter Dubois (artistic director of the Huntington Theater in Boston). As a play, Sons of the Prophet is sort of the opposite of Other Desert Cities: a focused character study of a single, hapless twenty-something trapped in rural Pennsylvania. There's no plot, really: there's a series of subplots in which the protagonist, the son of Lebanese immigrants, finds himself in ever greater pain and suffering, even as his family struggles to make sense of the death of a father in a freak accident. But Karam has a marvelous sense of humor—absolutely needed to leaven the bleakness of the play--and his ability to sketch memorable characters is astounding. (Joanna Gleason's supporting role--as a deranged book editor--is a case in point.) The evening’s leading actor—Santino Fontana—is assured of a Tony nomination, I think, if it transfers to B'way. He's tops. This is a play I will think about for a long time; it moved me.

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On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: Harry Connick Jr. stars in a “revisal” of Lerner and Lane’s quasi-flop from the 1960’s, here updated to 1974, and stuffed with trunk songs with other musicals and films. In it, Connick plays a bereaved psychologist who falls in love with the reincarnated soul of a 40’s big band chanteuse, as channeled by a hypnotized gay male patient. (I’m not making this up, by the way. That’s actually the plot.) The rest of the evening is as bizarre as it sounds, as director Michael Mayer and his team attempt to tell this strange, strange story within the confines of a traditional musical comedy.

But clearly, this story does not lend itself well to the contours of a traditional book musical; a chorus of friends exists only to break into under-motivated dance numbers, and even that chorus mostly decides to sit out the second act. There are a few extremely entertaining—even affecting—sequences in which Mayer plays with the physical ramifications of this astral love triangle; but mostly, the production struck me as confused and wacky, even with its generally lovely score. I can’t imagine this running on Broadway for very long—or without the star power of Connick Jr. to propel it.

From NYC, it’s your man in the trenches,

Thomas Jenkins, Current theatre critic

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