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Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for May 2010

Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for May 2010


Your man on the New York theater scene pulls a pre-Tonys cram session with Sean Hayes, Nathan Lane, and Vanessa Williams, but he still makes time for small stars and smaller penises off-Broadway.

The Tony eligibility cutoff date for the 2009-2010 Broadway season was April 29 -- nominations were announced May 4 and prizes will be awarded June 13 -- so the last few weeks have been packed with the eleventh-hour openings of high-profile Tony hopefuls like La Cage aux Folles, The Addams Family, and Promises, Promises. Some gay favorites fared better than others, but yours truly deserves an award for seeing 20 shows, especially under the threat of car bombs in the theater district!

Despite the embarrassment of Broadway riches, one of the most entertaining evenings I had in April was at My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, Leslie Jordan's dishy one-man marvel based on his memoir of the same name, which ends its poignant and painfully funny journey July 3 at off-Broadway's Midtown Theater. Produced by partners Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, the solo show invites us on Jordan's bumpy ride from Chattanooga, where he grew up "fascinated but deeply repulsed" by celebrities like Paul Lynde, to Hollywood, where Jordan now craves that center square spotlight. Whether it's about his Emmy win for playing Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace, substance abuse, bride doll envy, or the sake commercial -- YouTube it! -- he filmed with Boy George, our ribald raconteur spins a tale like he's at a cocktail party with his best friends.

When Megan Mullally jumped ship and shuttered the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart, a void was left in Roundabout's subscriber season. Enter Everyday Rapture, a remarkable semiautobiographical and semisolo mix-tape musical by self-professed "semistar" Sherie Rene Scott, which ran off-Broadway last year and now soars through July 11 at the American Airlines Theatre. Directed by American Idiot's Michael Mayer, Scott, who accrued many gay fans with deliciously showy stage roles in Aida and The Little Mermaid, details her "half-Mennonite" upbringing in Kansas -- she calls her backup singers the Mennonettes -- where she was "torn between two lovers: Jesus and Judy." Fred Phelps and Mister Rogers feature prominently in her journey, as does her late gay cousin, Jerome, and a flaming YouTube fan.

If you couldn't get enough of Kristin Chenoweth singing Burt Bacharach-Hal David chestnuts on Glee, say a little prayer that you can pop into Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre. In Rob Ashford's stylish but somewhat sluggish revival of the 1968 musical -- which got a snazzy 1962 Mad Men design makeover by gay brothers Scott and Bruce Pask -- Sean Hayes plays Chuck, an insurance company employee who lends executives his bachelor pad for extramarital trysts and then falls in love with his boss's side dish, a charming Chenoweth. The recent Advocate cover boy treats his Will & Grace fans to an only slightly butched-up Jack MacFarland, but his quirky mannerisms and flawless comic timing make Neil Simon's book seem fresh. He gets his "Karen" in the second act in the form of Katie Finneran, who's utterly brilliant as a boozy barfly.

Forget Kelsey Grammer's Republican leanings and you may just enjoy his fine, pleasingly sung performance as Georges, a St. Tropez drag club owner, in the new Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's musical version of the Jean Poiret farce that also inspired The Birdcage. This transfer comes to the Longacre Theatre from London's Menier Chocolate Factory with the flawless Douglas Hodge as aging diva Zaza, but the whole show drags whenever the action flies the coop. Aiming for rough-edged realism over flash, this smartly streamlined production only allows for six Cagelles -- plus Camp's gay Robin de Jesus channeling Googie from The Ritz as the maid -- but these ripped dancers still rule the roost. Recent columnist Nick Adams really demands attention as the unenthused Angelique.

If you forget the '60s TV show, focus on the original Charles Addams cartoons, and ignore the fact that these characters do not belong in a musical spectacle at all, you may find The Addams Family at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre to be creepy, kooky, but not altogether ooky. When Wednesday, who's older than you recall, falls in love with a boy from a regular middle-class family, she begs her oddball family to "act normal" when they meet their future in-laws -- much like La Cage as set in Disney's Haunted Mansion. Bebe Neuwirth's Morticia and Jackie Hoffman's Grandma predictably steal the hokey show, but there's a scary amount of gay talent on display, including composer Andrew Lippa, Nathan Lane as Gomez, Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester, recent Out model Wesley Taylor as Wednesday's beau, and Zach James as Lurch.

For his 80th year, musical theater giant composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim gets the gift of Sondheim on Sondheim, an anthological multimedia tribute conceived and directed by frequent collaborator James Lapine. It blunders by trying to progress thematically instead of chronologically, so this best-of show, which runs through June 27 at Studio 54, only works when archival footage or a taped interview with Steve introduces a song with an insidery anecdote. After touching on his homosexual awakening, we're treated to "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened," his same-sex duet from Road Show, and a reimagining of "Happiness" from Passion as a bisexual paean to fickle hearts that pairs stars Vanessa Williams and Barbara Cook! The solid cast of eight also includes gay Taboo star Euan Morton, who's destined to be in a revival of Merrily We Roll Along.

If you're never supposed to let 'em see you sweat, director Stanley Tucci failed to inform his cast of Lend Me a Tenor at the Music Box Theatre. The actors are clearly working hard for your money in this starry Broadway revival of Ken Ludwig's 1989 farce, which is set in a hotel suite on the night that opera great Tito Merelli is performing Otello at the Cleveland Opera Company. Justin Bartha, adorable star of The Hangover, leads the frantic farceurs as Max, a nebbishy assistant who dons blackface, saves the day, and gets the girl when Tito appears to be dead, but Tony Shaloub is the standout here as the company's abrasive general manager, who does spit-takes directly into the audience. There's also some easy gay humor -- Max's hand rests on a sleeping Tito's crotch, etc. -- and a mild stench of desperation to fill the lulls between the laughs.

Writing about music might be like dancing about architecture, but talking about art can sometime make for exhilarating theater. Such is the case with Red, John Logan's two-person bio-drama that runs through June 27 at the Golden Theatre. In this cerebral yet accessible West End transfer, set in a studio during the late 1950s, Alfred Molina wows as abrasive abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who hires a young assistant, Ken, while creating a commissioned series of paintings for New York's Four Seasons restaurant. The exquisite Eddie Redmayne, who played gay in Savage Grace, costars as the somewhat enigmatic helper -- he barks at Rothko for not even asking if he's married or queer -- who calls the artist on his pretentiousness. Their feverish tag-team priming of a canvas puts a positive new spin on the phrase "watching paint dry."

On December 4, 1956, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley met for an impromptu jam session in the Memphis recording studio of Sun Records, where the four rock legends got their starts. That auspicious occasion is being re-created, albeit with much artistic license, in Million Dollar Quartet, a jumpin' jukebox musical at the Nederlander Theatre. The plot's predictably thin, but the strikingly spot-on cast -- Lance Guest as Cash, Levi Kreis as Lewis, Robert Britton Lyons as Perkins, and Eddie Clendening as Presley -- plays their own instruments. Many numbers are interrupted by needless narration from Hunter Foster as Sun founder Sam Phillips before the studio walls finally retract for an electrifying encore concert, where out singer-songwriter Kreis practically burns down the house with his flamboyant balls of fire.

Sitting across from Neil Patrick Harris at the St. James Theatre during a recent performance of American Idiot, the punk opera largely adapted from the 2004 Green Day album, I came up with a sitcom title for my theatergoing experience: How I Became Your Mother. Seriously, when did Broadway get so loud? And how did these wayward suburban posers get so annoying? If I'd never seen Rent or Spring Awakening, of which American Idiot is unapologetically derivative -- right down to a "Mimi" and an elevated sex platform -- I might've dug Green Day's 90-minute live music video, but it won't get a 21-gun salute from me. Gay director Michael Mayer, who wrote the book with Billie Joe Armstrong, told Out about queer story lines like "a love triangle" involving lead rebel Johnny and St. Jimmy, his androgynous drug dealer, but I didn't get that at all.

The evening I attended Come Fly Away, a dance tribute to Frank Sinatra's music conceived, directed, and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, hunky dancer John Selya's straining glutes ripped a huge hole in the seat of his dress slacks. It was the highlight of the show because it distracted me from the hot mess on stage at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. The athletic, gravity-defying dancers, who shed lots of clothing in the second act, are amazing -- like Bebe Zahara Benet, Karine Plantadit is a leonine firecracker from Cameroon -- but the partner-switching plot, set in a nightclub, is all but nonexistent. Billy Joel's songs provided a powerful narrative in Tharp's Movin' Out, but Sinatra's just don't fly. And if I had it my way, a Michael Buble type would've sung live instead of basically having an orchestra accompany a Sinatra CD.

In Donald Margulies's Collected Stories, a deceptively simple drama about literary ethics and maternal jealousy that's making its Broadway bow through June 13 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Ruth, a respected author and teacher, hires Lisa, a promising young student, as her assistant. Lisa also finds success over the course of their fissured six-year friendship, but not without swiping Ruth's juicy secrets as fodder for her own debut novel. Uta Hagen and Helen Mirren played Ruth off-Broadway and in London, respectively, but there's a new girl in town, Alice icon Linda Lavin, and she's looking good -- especially in a climactic scene requiring her to choke back tears while eating cottage cheese. Sarah Paulson, perhaps best known as Cherry Jones's ex-girlfriend, is too blandly earnest as Lisa, but her chemistry with Lavin is compelling.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences, a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning part of August Wilson's decade-by-decade cycle chronicling the 20th century African-American experience, centers on Troy Maxson, a hot-tempered trash collector and former Negro Leagues baseball player who tests his marriage when he fathers a daughter with another woman who dies in childbirth. It's neither a comedy nor a soapy melodrama, but try telling that to audiences at the Cort Theater, where Broadway's first Fences revival runs through July 11. Blame Kenny Leon's broad direction or Tyler Perry's cultural influence, but just don't fault explosive star Denzel Washington -- who confidently fills the shoes of Broadway's original Troy, James Earl Jones -- or Doubt's devastating Viola Davis, who once again proves she's queen of the snot-nosed sob as Troy's suffering wife.

Though I still couldn't care less about the controversial 2001 collapse of Enron, a Texas-based energy company, I do have a better understanding of the facts and figures after seeing Enron, Lucy Prebble's hit West End play with music now at the Broadhurst Theatre. It's serious business for sure, but Prebble employs a lot of funny business -- including an awkward bromance between CEO Jeffrey Skilling and CFO Andy Fastow -- to make her points about corporate greed and corruption. Dumbing down the complicated details, her ham-fisted metaphors sometimes come to life, like dinosaur-headed creatures embodying debt-eating substructures, but the scenes most deeply steeped in realism prove most effective. Maybe Prebble should've sheathed silly visuals like light sabers and taken a more straightforward Frost/Nixon approach to the history.

I'm not a big fan of improv comedy -- I find the idea-shouting audience participation between sketches interminable -- but Stuffed and Unstrung, the Muppety show that takes Manhattan through May 29 at the Union Square Theatre, is as good as it gets. The 18-plus show is from Henson Alternative, the adult arm of the Jim Henson Company, which features Jim's son, Brian Henson, as a puppeteer. The gimmick is that one can watch the puppeteers, who are in full view, or the scenes they create projected onto video screens. Before frat boy suggestions straighten up the skit subjects, the evening begins with a prerecorded intro by "puppet producers" Bobby Vegan and Samson Knight, the pig and bull life-partners from Logo's Tinseltown pilot. The show's also directed by ginger host Patrick Bristow, the gay comedian best known from Ellen and Showgirls.

There's a tender three-way bromance at the heart of The Aliens, Annie Baker's quietly affecting play, which probes the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through May 29. In the "employees only" area behind a coffeehouse in Vermont, Jasper and KJ, two unshaven slackers with some musical and literary talents, befriend Evan, an awkwardly shy high school kid who takes out the coffeehouse's trash. They bond there during their own private July 4 celebration, but there aren't any fireworks, save for a rather surprising turn of events in the second act. Baker has an unparalleled ear for authentic conversational dialogue and slice-of-life drama, but she and director Sam Gold, who also helmed her hit Circle Mirror Transformation, seem to be testing their loyal audience's patience here with epic pauses, stagnant blocking, and the very opposite of action.

Sometimes big things do come in small packages like The Irish Curse, a perfectly pleasant little pecker of a play about a church basement support group for men with tiny penises -- we're talking bottle caps and cocktail wieners here -- a problem that apparently plagues those of Irish heritage. Best known as Bulldog from Frasier, out actor Dan Butler channels Leslie Jordan as an effeminate Savannah man who's been abandoned by his family, and handsome soap star Austin Peck also shines as a studly gay cop who says things like "a fag with a puny prick is like a bull with tits" and avoids shame by giving without receiving, orally speaking. This profane but surprisingly profound comedy by Martin Casella, a playwriting teacher at the Harvey Milk High School, zips up May 30 at the SoHo Playhouse. Did I mention that I'm German?

Sure, he owned slaves and decimated the Native-American population, but if Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is to be believed, our nation's seventh president, a man of the people, was a pretty cool dude. If SNL and Spring Awakening overthrew the History Channel, you might get Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman's high-voltage emo musical, which runs until May 30 at the Public Theater with catchy songs like "Populism Yea Yea" and a wheelchair-bound lesbian narrator. Benjamin Walker, Meryl Streep's future son-in-law, simply rules as Jackson, a charismatic but pouty cutter. At home among the clever anachronisms and inaccuracies, Jackson's associates -- especially gay UCB regular Jeff Hiller as John Quincy Adams and The Ritz's Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Martin Van Buren -- are comically effeminate, which is so random that it works without being offensive.

If you're into golden showers, shirtless leather daddies, and huge rubber dildos slapping across your face, cancel your Manhunt profile and see 666, an action-packed romp by Yllana, a Spanish comedy troupe, at off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre. A hit at last summer's New York Fringe Festival, 666 isn't gay per se, but it is set in a men's prison, where three horny criminals and one innocent fool find themselves on death row. Milking laughs from botched executions and audience harassment, a slapstick-y series of scatological vignettes dredges the most depraved depths of pantomime and commedia dell'arte. If you're a prude -- a used condom is squeezed out onto the stage -- or think prison rape is no joke, this show isn't for you. Its aggressive vulgarity could grow tiresome for anyone, but the talented quartet's physical comedy skills are arresting.

If you go to the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark's Church to see The Really Big Once, Target Margin's experimental celebration of director Elia Kazan's collaboration with Tennessee Williams on Camino Real, here's one really big piece of advice: Google the hell out of the legendary 1953 Broadway fiasco beforehand or risk getting lost. Through May 8, the spirits of these artistic soul mates are summoned through the dramaturgical excavation of letters, memoirs, notebooks, script notes, and interviews, much unpublished and all in disarray, dangling from the ceiling or stuck to the walls. It's a muddled, frustrating mess with the cross-dressing cast often speaking simultaneously and switching roles, but that somehow feels appropriate. If Williams couldn't give Kazan the clarity he requested in Camino Real, why should we expect that courtesy here?

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