Fall Preview: Stoppard! Shaw! And All Hail Chorus Line

Among the shows I’m looking forward to this fall (accompanied by a few prayers), let me begin by celebrating the innovative season of August Wilson plays at the Signature Theatre Company. Mr. Wilson’s great dramas, forged in the chains of American history, speak magnificently for themselves. But nothing speaks more positively for the future of New York theater than the Signature’s terrific $15 ticket initiative.

At last! One of our leading nonprofit theaters has taken the lead and brought the prohibitively high ticket prices dramatically down. They’ve made theater exactly what it should be: accessible to all, welcoming and inclusive. For the first two months of any play during the Wilson season, all tickets at the Signature Theatre cost just $15. (It’s a similar bold initiative to the immensely successful $10 ticket for the fall dance season at City Center). Who will follow them? Signature’s opening, acclaimed revival of Seven Guitars, has been packed. Highly recommended, then: the forthcoming August Wilson classic of the 1960’s African-American experience, Two Trains Running.

There are two Broadway transfers I’m looking forward to—firstly, the Duncan Sheik rock adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s drama of adolescent sexuality and rebellion, Spring Awakening. It was a thrilling achievement when I saw it last season at the Atlantic—the best rock musical I’ve seen since Rent (and far superior to it). For one thing, the young cast actually looks young. I only pray that its gifted director, Michael Mayer, hasn’t felt obliged to spiff up his fine production for Broadway. Its un-showbizzy imaginative simplicity—naïveté, almost—was among its surprising delights.

I found the Playwrights Horizon hit musical Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Grief, a tale of two acts when I first saw it. Doug Wright’s script about Jacqueline Kennedy’s nuttily reclusive cousins—with a debt to the Maysles brothers’ cult documentary—had a shaky first act and a near-perfect second. But the Broadway transfer—new and improved (or not)—still has Christine Ebersole’s sensational, definitive performance as “Little” Edie Beale, and though it’s very early days for the Tonys, Ms. Ebersole is sure to be among the front-runners.

I can’t say I’m eagerly awaiting the London import of Mary Poppins. But you might be. We also have another Stephen Sondheim revival— another revival of Company. Perhaps the highly regarded British Sondheimean John Doyle (who directed the recent Sweeney Todd) and Company’s star, Raul Esparza, will breathe new life into the story of the possibly gay bachelor Bobby and the ladies who lunch, and lunch, and lunch.

When it comes to golden oldies, however, I haven’t seen Michael Bennett’s landmark A Chorus Line since its premiere in 1975, and the show struck me then as the all-American backstage musical. Time for another visit! My quiet prayer for the revival, however, is that no one’s been tempted to modernize it in any way. Ideally, A Chorus Line is a period piece whose message is timeless. Directed by Bennett’s longtime co-choreographer, Bob Avian, the pivotal role of Cassie is played by Charlotte d’Ambroise. If ever a Broadway gypsy deserved her moment in the sun, it’s Ms. d’Ambroise.

The British playwrights are back with us again, of course, for apparently we have no serious ones of our own. Tom Stoppard, David Hare and a particular favorite of mine, Simon Gray, will be colonizing Broadway this season. The turbulent Mr. Gray might be one of the last unafraid, politically incorrect playwrights left on earth, along with his old friend Harold Pinter. I found his best-selling memoir, The Smoking Diaries—described admiringly by Barry Humphries as “a tender tirade”—an enjoyable, touching summer read. I’m looking forward to the revival of his 1972 Butley, starring Nathan Lane as a not-so-tender bisexual professor. Mr. Lane has big boots to fill, though. The role was memorably originated by Alan Bates.

Tom Stoppard serious—as opposed to Tom seriously witty—can be a little too earnestly bookish for some. The Coast of Utopia, his nine-hour trilogy about the forebears of the Russian Revolution, is a vast undertaking and a labor of love by Lincoln Center. Directed by Jack O’Brien with a big, prestigious cast (Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Brían O’Byrne, Amy Irving, Martha Plimpton), the sheer ambition and scope of the epic project are thrilling. For myself, three Stoppard plays are better than one, or two.

In a first for a British playwright, David Hare’s political drama concerning Brits and Americans, The Vertical Hour, has its world premiere on Broadway. While his recent plays have appeared to be on the cutting edge, however, they can prove worryingly soft at the center. There’s no advance word on The Vertical Hour—save that it stars the smashing Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy, and has a top director, Sam Mendes.

As is well known, Ibsen wrote only one play, Hedda Gabler. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is following last season’s Hedda from Australia with another production of Hedda, this time from Germany. I’m no mathematician, but by my calculations, that makes the 200th Hedda Gabler within the last 18 months in the New York area alone. But there’s good news from Brooklyn: They’ve recently discovered another Ibsen play, The Wild Duck. The production comes to us from the National Theatre of Norway, Oslo, and I’ll be there.

George Bernard Shaw hasn’t been produced nearly enough in New York, so it’s also welcome news that the Roundabout Theatre Company is reviving his masterwork, Heartbreak House. The Roundabout’s staging of the classics can be too virtuously middlebrow, reducing all to a dogged form of Masterpiece Theatre. But Heartbreak’s director is the well-regarded Robin Lefevre; the cast—led by Philip Bosco and Swoosie Kurtz—is excellent; and the great play itself is Shaw’s fantastic metaphor for national collapse, what he called “this soul’s prison we call England.”

Welcome, welcome at last to town in October: My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the Royal Court Theatre play that the New York Theatre Workshop, in its muddle and fear, cravenly “postponed” last season. Corrie, a young activist American, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while she campaigned for peace in the Gaza Strip. This most humane play, performed by Megan Dodds, has been created by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner from Corrie’s writing and notes.

For a seasonal fix of high camp, my choice is John (Lypsinka) Epperson’s adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, retitled My Deah. Finally, one of my favorite experimental U.S. troupes is the wonderfully absurdist Les Frères Corbusier. They surprise, infuriate, delight (and deconstruct). Watch out for their new piece, Hell House, which reimagines the Halloween hell of evangelical Christians. Also, their signature piece, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, is to be revived at the Fourth Street Theater just in time for Yuletide, by which time I’ll have reported on all the above productions and more.