Something’s Gotta Give

allaboutme230 article Something’s Gotta GiveThe grand and largely theoretical joke of All About Me—the dueling-divas Broadway concert starring Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna Everage that opened at Henry Miller’s Theatre late last week—is that both performers believe the show, like their usual gigs, to be a solo act.

The concept for this paired show is credited to Mr. Feinstein and Barry Humphries, Edna’s nom d’offstage, plus their respective spouses, Terrence Flannery and Lizzie Spender, and it’s a vaguely though not particularly intriguing idea. It was even mildly amusing in the fall, when the two camps were issuing dueling press releases. But the shtick is already tiresome once you’re handed two essentially identical Playbills on entering the theater—one with Mr. Feinstein on its cover; the other featuring Edna. In the end, it results in a tedious and unsuccessful evening at the theater.

Mr. Feinstein opens, and he dares to remove an arrangement of Edna’s signature gladiolas from atop the piano; Edna, later, has Mr. Feinstein carried offstage. Eventually, and unsurprisingly, the two learn to share, bonding over a shared fondness for koalas, the American songbook and medleys. You’ll forgive me for giving away the climatic finish: A piece of scenery overhead rotates, and the show becomes All About We. Kindergarten teachers everywhere beam.

It’s too bad the concept is so bad, because the performances are quite good. Mr. Feinstein remains the master of the songbook, and Mr. Humphries, as Edna, is funny as ever.

But the shtick is exhausting. (The usually incisive Christopher Durang wrote the book, together with the stars.) And the two talents are poorly matched: Edna’s broad, be-sequined, larger-than-life comedy fills the big theater, smothering Mr. Feinstein’s suavely tuxedoed musicianship. The legendary pianist is left looking awkward and uncomfortable onstage, merely and unconvincingly—forgive the groaner, though it’s in the spirit of the show—Edna’s straight man.

If the problem with All About Me is that it rests on a single, uncompelling idea, the problem with The Book of Grace is that it has too many of them.

The latest effort from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog in 2002, The Book of Grace opened a week ago at the Public Theater, where Ms. Parks is halfway through a three-year tenure as the inaugural holder of its master writer chair. The writing is indeed masterful: intelligent, elliptical dialogue, compellingly drawn characters, intricately crafted exposition. And the acting is superb, from a trio including the capable veterans Elizabeth Marvel and John Doman and a charismatic young actor, Amari Cheatom.

The play is on one level an interesting if familiar domestic drama: a domineering, oppressive dad (Mr. Doman, here a Border Patrol officer named Vet) and his intimidated, enabling wife (Ms. Marvel, the diner waitress Grace, who is secretly compiling a scrapbook with “evidence of good things,” her titular “Book of Grace”), whose life is upended by the return of Dad’s son from a first marriage (Mr. Cheatom as Buddy, back from military service and seeking either a fight or an apology from Vet).

But there’s also much more. Directed by James Macdonald on a clever Eugene Lee set that’s a simple living room with the sandy floor of a desert and sandbags behind, Book of Grace piles shock on top of shock (did Vet sexually abuse Buddy as a child? What’s the relationship between Buddy and Grace? What kind of person considers Timothy McVeigh a hero?) and seems to indict, variously, distant fathers, military culture, xenophobia, the sort of fervid patriotism that gives rise to the Minutemen, consumer culture and, perhaps, the country and government, too.

When the final blackout came on the night I attended, the audience didn’t immediately begin applauding—they weren’t sure that the play was over.

joxfeld@observer.com