Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for November 2010
As covered in my last column, the 2010-2011 Broadway season started with a bang thanks to Brief Encounter, A Life in the Theatre, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But a big second wave of Broadway openings — La Bête, Lombardi, Driving Miss Daisy, The Scottsboro Boys, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Pee-wee Herman Show, and Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles — has now washed up alongside off-off-Broadway queer highlights like MilkMilkLemonade, Electra in a One-Piece, and Miss Coco Peru Is Still Alive!
Set during the mid-’80s explosion of the AIDS epidemic, the first New York revival of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Angels in America has already sold out through February 20 at Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space, where both parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, run in repertory. Despite the epic play’s fantasy sequences and some effective scenic projections, there’s a divine simplicity to Michael Greif’s staging that allows the glorious text and cast — especially Zachary Quinto, reconnecting with his So NoTORIous gay roots, and a sassy yet substantive Billy Porter — to shimmer, but HBO’s 2003 adaptation still packs more emotional punch. Signature’s Kushner season continues March 22 with iHo: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater and April 19 with a revival of The Illusion at the Peter Norton.
If you’re a fan of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the ’80s Saturday-morning TV show starring Paul Reubens as a lovably maniacal man-child, then The Pee-wee Herman Show might be the smartest mindless fun you’ll ever have on Broadway. Hot off a sold-out Los Angeles engagement earlier this year, this campy, crowd-pleasing homage to classic children’s variety shows is actually an updated version of the 1981 West Hollywood cult sensation that was filmed for an HBO special. All your favorite characters and catchphrases are back at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre through January 2, but 2010 Pee-wee rocks an abstinence ring and gets postcards from prison pals. Nowadays the quip “Why don’t you marry it?” inspires Magic Screen to list the states in which two females can legally marry, and Quinceañera’s Jesse Garcia costars as Sergio, a handyman who wires the playhouse for its first computer.
Following acclaimed runs at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, The Scottsboro Boys is serving an open-ended sentence at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, where it brilliantly tweaks old minstrel conventions to explore the civil rights movement–sparking 1930s case in which nine African-American teens were falsely accused of rape. With bold direction and exuberant choreography by Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact, etc.) and a buoyant score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, etc.), this electrifying musical more than lives up to its distinguished pedigree. Led by Joshua Henry, whose hunky presence recalls that of 50 Cent, the exceptional cast includes GLAAD Award–winning Big Gay Sketch Show star Colman Domingo, plus standout “boys” James T. Lane and Christian Dante White, who don light drag to double as their white female accusers.
Unlike The Scottsboro Boys, new musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opened on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout. Too bad that a mere month of previews — twice delayed due to technical difficulties — didn’t allow time for director Bartlett Sher to tidy up this manically unfocused, muy caliente mess, but you’d be loco to miss it, since show queens will be howling about it for years. After all, this splashy adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-nominated 1988 film about entangled Madrid divas, which runs through January 23 at the Belasco Theatre, stars stage greats like Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, and Patti LuPone, who, despite shoddy Spanish accents, somehow rise above screensaver-y scenic projections and ill-advised bungee stunts. There’s also much to cherish in David Yazbek’s passionate score, particularly La LuPone’s stirring second act solo, “Invisible.”
The disappointing Broadway debut of Driving Miss Daisy, which sputters through January 29 at the John Golden Theatre, made me want to channel Carrie Underwood and scream, “Jesus, take the wheel!” There’s a certain delight in seeing legends like Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones join forces to squabble in Alfred Uhry’s quaint Pulitzer Prize–winning 1987 play about the unlikely decades-long friendship between a feisty Jewish widow and her proud African-American chauffeur in Atlanta, but these somewhat shaky, sometimes unintelligible stars don’t steer anywhere near the Oscar-winning 1989 film’s superior pairing of Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Though David Esbjornson’s no-frills staging can’t hide this cheap-looking production’s weaknesses, Boyd Gaines, who recently played gay in The Grand Manner, does impressive work as Daisy’s devoted son, Boolie.
A big flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1991, David Hirson’s La Bête, a Molièresque satire of the arts set in 1654 France, is enjoying a sparkling London-bred revival through January 9 at the Music Box Theatre. The play, written completely in rhyming verse, concerns a vulgar street performer who comically auditions to join a pretentious playwright’s royal theatre troupe. As the playwright, Elomire, David Hyde Pierce is — pardon the ironic pun — the quintessential straight man opposite Boeing-Boeing’s Mark Rylance as the obnoxiously spirited Valere, who delivers a jaw-dropping 30-minute monologue that barely pauses long enough for him to pass gas or give Elomire a sloppy kiss. The prince that Dylan Baker played with flamboyance in 1991 has now become a princess, which allows Joanna Lumley a glittery windblown entrance befitting an absolutely fabulous icon.
Not since Take Me Out has a play made me care about sports like Lombardi, an NFL-produced bio-drama at the Circle in the Square Theatre — and without gratuitous male nudity! Based on the book When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss, Eric Simonson’s solid tribute to Vince Lombardi, cantankerous head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, stars the commanding Dan Lauria of The Wonder Years fame. But who’s the real boss of Lombardi? Gay rights activist Judith Light, who’s luminous as Vince’s martini-sipping wife and the play’s emotional 50-yard line. Keith Nobbs, who played gay in Stupid Kids and Four, also stars as a magazine journalist researching a profile of the man who turned losers into Super Bowl champs. I still don’t know much more about Mr. Lombardi other than stats, but I’m a sucker for inspirational speeches about heart and honor.
It may call the Neil Simon Theatre home through January 9, but Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles is more of a cover band concert than a Broadway musical. Unlike what Million Dollar Quartet did for another fab foursome, Rain doesn’t re-create Beatles history — though it does pay multimedia homage to milestones like their Ed Sullivan Show breakout and 1965 Shea Stadium concert. Unlike what Jersey Boys did for the Four Seasons, Rain doesn’t use biographical facts to showcase songs. Unlike what Mamma Mia! did for ABBA, Rain doesn’t use fiction as a framework either. But I’m not raining on Rain’s parade, because the crowd-pleasing playlist, which the men skillfully perform live, sounds pretty authentic. Their long-in-the-tooth Liverpudlian looks are another story, so I watched the psychedelic projections and nostalgic videos, hoping for a surprise gay exposé on Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
In Rob Ashford’s revival of the 1968 Burt Bacharach and Neil Simon musical Promises, Promises — which got a snazzy 1962 Mad Men design makeover at the Broadway Theatre by gay brothers Scott and Bruce Pask — Sean Hayes plays Chuck, an insurance company employee who lends execs his bachelor pad for extramarital trysts before falling for his boss’s side dish, the ever-charming Kristin Chenoweth. But the comic highlight of this stylish if somewhat sluggish production, which opened back in April and closes January 2, was Katie Finneran’s Tony-winning turn as barfly Marge MacDougall. Only Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon could have filled Finneran’s shoes, and she proves worthy to wear Marge’s owl coat with a delicious characterization that blends her SNL joyologist Helen Madden with her boozy Mrs. Dennit in Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.
If you’ve ever engaged in heated political discourse with a group of lesbians, you’ll feel uncomfortably at home at In the Wake, which runs through November 21 at the Public Theater. In this vibrant but exhausting new work from the lesbian dream-team of playwright Lisa Kron and director Leigh Silverman, Reasons to Be Pretty’s Marin Ireland stars as Ellen, a verbosely opinionated ultraliberal who has made a New York family with her cuddly boyfriend, his lesbian sister, and her partner — chill chicks who bristle when described as “girlfriends.” We first meet them on Thanksgiving in 2000, the dawn of Dubya, but Ellen’s too busy yapping to see that her life’s a bigger mess than the country — she retrospectively calls this a “blind spot” — particularly when she convinces her loving boyfriend to quietly cope after she unexpectedly starts up a torrid lesbian relationship in another city.
In a must-see for all queer theater history aficionados, London’s FallOut Theatre presents the U.S. premiere of Personal Enemy, a 1953 play by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, as part of the annual Brits Off-Broadway series, which runs through January 2 at 59E59 Theaters. Written before Look Back in Anger, Osborne’s seminal “angry young man” classic, Personal Enemy tackles political and sexual paranoia at the height of McCarthyism in the U.S. Seen as a metaphor for the persecution of gays in Britain, the 1955 British premiere was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain for its suggestive homosexual content, which includes a possible gay suicide and the persecution of a male librarian who gives two brothers copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The lost script was recently found in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives, and this production marks the first time it’s been seen in its entirety.
Out actor Malcolm Gets elevates every show he’s in, and Banished Children of Eve, which runs through December 5 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is no exception. Adapted from Peter Quinn’s novel about Civil War–era New York and set against the backdrop of the 1863 draft riots in the Bowery neighborhood, Kelly Younger’s racially tense drama focuses on an Irish minstrel troupe leader, his mulatto girlfriend, and the black street urchin for whom they care. But Gets steals the show with an uncharacteristically subtle performance as Stephen Collins Foster, the enduring songwriter known for blackface minstrel ditties like “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” As Foster, seen as a has-been in the last whiskey-stained months of his life, Gets croons a bittersweet rendition of the songwriter’s most memorable ballad, “Beautiful Dreamer,” which was published after his death at 37.
Miss Congeniality’s Heather Burns, The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Georgia Engel, As the World Turns heartthrob Michael Park, and Linus Roache, who played a gay man of God in Priest, are among the many world-weary inhabitants of Will Eno’s Middletown, which runs through December 5 at the Vineyard Theatre. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town through a fun house mirror darkly, this unapologetically grandiloquent meditation on life and death, at once sage and syrupy, links neighbors and strangers by their philosophical self-awareness and poetic articulation of the unbearable lightness of being. This master class in existential insight may seem a bit heavy-handed — a sapling is planted, an astronaut regards Earth from space, someone dies in a hospital as someone gives birth down the hall — but it never feels ham-fisted, thanks to Eno’s clever wordplay and twisted sense of humor.
Taking off with a chilling high-altitude crisis that recalls Karen Black’s terror in Airport 1975 and Lee Grant’s fate in Airport ’77, Beau Willimon’s Spirit Control runs its course December 5 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I. A superb Jeremy Sisto stars as Adam, an air-traffic controller who must talk an unseen passenger named Maxine through an emergency landing when the pilot of her plane has a heart attack. The rest of the play swerves from mundane to surreal as Adam’s marriage nosedives when he becomes obsessed with an enigmatic woman — also named Maxine — who may not really exist. Brian Hutchinson, who played gay opposite Valerie Harper in Looped, costars here as Adam’s wife-swiping coworker, and the very appealing Aaron Michael Davies, who omits Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! from his Playbill bio, appears as Adam’s unpleasant teenage son.
Celebrated for his exquisitely stripped-down revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd, John Doyle directs the stunning Second Stage Theatre revival of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, which soars through November 21 in a sterile swirl of mirrors and white vertical blinds. Jan Maxwell stars as Emily, a former 1920s “wing walker” who must learn to rely on her high-flying spirit when she’s grounded by a debilitating stroke. Even when the audience is thrust inside her racing mind, Emily often speaks complete nonsense and struggles to make sense out of the simplest of words. At 53, Maxwell, who was nominated for not one but two Tonys last season, seems a bit young for the role — Constance Cummings was almost 70 when she played Emily on Broadway in 1979 — but in the hands of lesser actresses, the play’s stagnancy and balderdash would be excruciating to endure, even for a mere 70 minutes.
Edgy modern takes on Greek tragedies are tricky, but out playwright Isaac Oliver served up a treat with Electra in a One-Piece, which ended November 14 at the Wild Project. This clever retelling of the House of Atreus myth starred the mesmerizing Erika Rolfsrud as Clyt, who murders her husband and shacks up with the sexy pool boy. Urged by a hilarious Greek chorus of Zac Efron, Jude Law, and Justin Timberlake as talking wall posters, Clyt’s teen daughter Elle posts a video of the crime on YouTube so her brother Ore will come home from Iraq to avenge his dad’s death. (Are you getting that these names are short for Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes?) A gay stunt to get discharged leads to a passionate love affair between Ore and army buddy Lad — talented cuties Chris Bannow and Ian McWethy — that, like everything else in this biting satire, ends badly in the best way possible.
After an off-off-Broadway premiere last year that somehow slipped through Seat Filler’s cushions, MilkMilkLemonade, out playwright Joshua Conkel’s darkly comic absurdist fable about the struggles of gay kids in small towns, returned with its exceptional cast intact for a brief run that ended November 13 at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. Andy Phelan played Emory, an effeminate 11-year-old who lives on a farm and choreographs ribbon-stick dance numbers. Michael Cyril Creighton, chain-smoking in Sordid Lives drag, played his disapproving Nanna, who confiscates Emory’s doll and makes him hang out with Elliot, a butch neighbor boy played by Jess Barbagallo. But Emory and Elliot already have an abusive sexual relationship, and the kids hilariously “play house” like a Tennessee Williams melodrama. LGBT theater troupes with tiny budgets should stage MilkMilkLemonade immediately.
Gay-porn auteur Jerry Douglas directed David Bertolino’s The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, a slight but spunky dramedy about the making of Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace’s notorious 1972 hard-core flick, and the obscenity trials that followed. Played with period-perfect charm by Malcolm Madera, Deep Throat’s Harry Reems narrated. By explaining that the story was only his booze-addled recollection, he forced the audience to forgive bad wigs, factual errors, and cartoonish characters like Rita Rehn’s butch lesbian filmmaker, but the production’s cheesy low-rent aesthetic generally complemented the subject. Out character actor Frank Blocker also gave one of the funniest performances of the year as a flamboyant makeup artist and a smarmy Memphis lawyer. Unfortunately, the play closed October 12, two days after opening, when 45 Bleecker Theater shuttered due to a landlord-tenant dispute.
Also affected by 45 Bleecker’s closure was Perfect Harmony, which moved to the Acorn Theatre and closed November 13. Created by Andrew Grosso and the Essentials, this fitfully entertaining comedy about the competitive world of high school glee clubs — sound familiar? — first ran off-Broadway in 2008, but it came back presumably to capitalize on the Glee phenomenon with a largely new cast and Michael Musto as a new producer. Most of the social misfits in these a cappella groups — the Acafellas and the Ladies in Red — were silly, unsympathetic caricatures, but they couldn’t go wrong crooning Cyndi Lauper and Tiffany. In fact, stripped of a band and crazy costumes, Perfect Harmony’s pure musical performances could teach Glee some restraint. The show also featured a closeted Acafella, a gay kiss, and two Acafellas feuding because of a romance between their grandfathers.
Best known from Girls Will Be Girls and Trick, incomparable drag performer Coco Peru — né Clinton Leupp — returned to his native New York with Miss Coco Peru is Still Alive! which ended a two-weekend run November 14 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Framed by a metaphorical anecdote about an outrageous alien abduction, Coco’s wondrous one-queen show retraced his transformation from Bronx misfit to Hollywood gaylebrity. Unlike his drag peers, Coco isn’t afraid to get dark and serious, but he can still find comforting humor in a disfiguring childhood accident or his sister’s tragic death. “You look just like your dead sister’s ghost,” exclaimed his folks the first time they saw Coco in drag. “That wasn’t really the look I was going for,” he replied. Coco’s only beef with being molested as a young boy? The priest was ugly. “Just keeping it real,” he said — and we wouldn’t want it any other way.