I’ve Just Seen a Face: Rain, Diving Miss Daisy, Spirit Control, Wings and Lombardi

rain ed sullivan 1 photo by cylla von tiedemann I’ve Just Seen a Face: Rain, Diving Miss Daisy, Spirit Control, Wings and LombardiWhen I once saw Super Diamond, the curiously devotional Neil Diamond cover band, they were playing at Irving Plaza. My parents have a fondness for a guy they call “Fake Frankie,” a Sinatra impersonator they insist is actually quite entertaining, who works the South Jersey bars. The outfit that calls itself Rain is a Beatles tribute group, and it’s excellent, as these things go. What’s unclear is what makes its set a Broadway show, and what it’s doing at the Neil Simon Theatre, where what is formally titled Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway opened last night.

Here’s what can be pieced together from a close reading of the Playbill: Mark Lewis, a keyboard player, “transformed Rain from a 1970s Southern California bar band doing Beatles covers into an ultra-professional group.” Later, Annerin Productions, a “theatrical concert entertainment” promoter, got involved. “Annerin has taken tribute shows to a new level, from clubs to totally live multimedia, state-of-the-art theatrical productions.” It tours constantly: During Rain‘s planned 12-week Broadway run, other incarnations of the group will play San Jose (tickets still available for tonight!), New Orleans and Wilmington, Del.

The Broadway Rain doesn’t have a plot. It’s not Jersey Boys, compellingly telling the band’s story; it’s not Good Vibrations, assembling a lame narrative on which to hang the songs. It’s just songs, presented in loosely chronological order, interspersed with video clips displayed on huge screens–the boys arriving at J.F.K.; teenagers screaming and crying; shots of a London rooftop for “Get Back”; live shots of audience members, happily bopping and clapping along (if not, sadly, pulling out their hair and fainting).

The performances are strong, tuneful and bouncily upbeat. The performers–they’re listed in the Playbill by the instruments they play, not as “Paul” or “John”–gamely wear terrible mop-top wigs, Day-Glo Sgt. Pepper’s suits and late-period long hair and beards. The audience loved it. A young girl down the row from me sang along to every lyric; a curly-haired 20-something blonde in an upper box chair-danced the night away; a middle-aged man a few rows ahead found every possible moment to jump up and clap along with the band.

Indeed, Rain might well be the brilliantly empty apotheosis of the jukebox musical: the songs it knows the audience wants to hear, unencumbered by a script that may or may not work. Without its plot, Good Vibrations would have been a pleasant night of cute kids in bathing suits singing Beach Boys hits. Ring of Fire, one of the small handful of shows I’ve fled at intermission, would have been just a Johnny Cash revue.

This drama-free exercise is not, then, a play. And it’s debatable whether it’s really worth spending $121.50 for an orchestra seat to what by all rights you should be seeing in a bar.

But when the cameras panned the audience during the final number–I won’t tell you what it is, as the songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, to “preserve surprise,” the press agent said–I suddenly found my own face projected on the back wall, 20 feet tall. I must report that I appeared to be thoroughly enjoying myself.

 

IF BROADWAY THEATER is today a luxury product–and at something like $250 for a pair of tickets, it is–then the gilded revival of Driving Miss Daisy, which arrived at the John Golden Theatre Monday night, is Broadway’s Lexus.

Everything about it is classy and pedigreed: Alfred Uhry’s play is well-crafted, funny and moving; it won the Pulitzer Prize. David Esjornson, the Albee and Kushner vet, is the director. John Lee Beatty’s set is spare and elegant. (Although the projections, by Wendall K. Harrington, are sometimes jarring in an otherwise homespun production.) And it stars Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines.

The play tells the story of the unlikely friendship that blossoms between an elderly Southern Jewish matriarch, Dolly Werthan (Ms. Redgrave), and the similarly elderly black chauffeur, Hoke (Mr. Jones), whom her son (Mr. Gaines) has hired to drive her.

The acting is unsurprisingly fantastic, even if the leads occasionally fumble over a line. Mr. Jones, big and loud, is arguably miscast as Hoke–the part calls for slight and diffident–but he’s still a pleasure to watch and listen to. Ms. Redgrave–likely the first avowed anti-Zionist to play the Jewish Daisy–is masterful as her character ages, shading the proud Daisy from an imperious matron to a stooped, shaking invalid. Mr. Gaines–Herbie to Patti LuPone’s Mama Rose–once again succeeds at creating a charming and convincing character while leaving room for the big stars in the show to shine.

In Mr. Esjornson’s staging, the final scene–Daisy revealed, alone in a wheelchair–is stunning; it brings a tear to even a hardened theater critic’s eye. Throughout, indeed, one’s heart is warmed. But there’s also nothing in the play that’s tough or unexpected or genuinely thrilling. But that’s what Miss Daisy likes: a smooth, easy ride.

 

I ENJOYED JEREMY Sisto’s work as Det. Cyrus Lupo on Law & Order because it was the first time–after five seasons on Six Feet Under and in the awkward Festen on Broadway in 2006–I had seen him in a role that involved more than just screaming. Playing a traumatized air-traffic controller in Spirit Control, which opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway space at City Center, Mr. Sisto is back to yelling a lot, but this time it’s modulated, effective yelling. His performance is intense and very compelling.

Unfortunately, Beau Willimon’s play is neither. Mr. Sisto’s Adam Wyatt is on duty when a call comes to his headset from a woman passenger in a Cessna whose pilot has just had a heart attack. Adam is confident and supportive as he talks her through a landing attempt. The plane crashes; she dies; Adam’s life unravels. He meets a girl in a bar; he can’t go back to work; he leaves his perfect wife and kids. He opens a cell-phone store, but he’s a man unable to connect with anyone.

Oddly, Adam’s disintegration happens largely offstage; we’re presented only with the crisis and then the shell of a man left behind. His son, Tommy, appears in the second act, furious at his father, but we never see the things he’s so angry about. It’s all unconvincing–made even less so by the mystical, metaphysical, wait-what-really-happened final scene.

 

MORE DAMAGED FLIGHT enthusiasts: At the Second Stage, the amazing Jan Maxwell is the former aviator Emily Stilson in John Doyle’s revival of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, which opened Sunday. In the play’s first scene, Emily suffers a stroke, and for the remainder of its completely transfixing hour–Wings runs only 65 minutes–we watch from Emily’s perspective as she struggles with her hospitalization and subsequent recuperation.

It is an astounding performance. We hear the narrative inside Emily’s head as she realizes the doctors and nurses surrounding her–she sometimes believes them to be enemy captors–cannot see her movements or hear what she’s saying; it’s a wrenching portrayal of what it must be like to be trapped inside one’s body, able to think but unable to communicate. Never losing her patrician manner, she is sometimes articulate and sometimes speaking gibberish, sometimes compliant and sometimes enraged. Later, as she recovers, Emily develops a fragile rapport with an endlessly patient social worker (January LaVoy), who repeatedly reminds her to slow down and listen to herself.

Directed by Mr. Doyle, of the recent, stripped-down Sweeney Todd and Company, and with a set by Scott Pask, the play unfolds briskly on a stark, nearly empty stage, with Ms. Maxwell mostly alone at its center. I confess I couldn’t quite unpack the play’s implied metaphor–likening, I suppose, Emily’s new life alone in her head to Emily’s young life alone in midair–but that’s O.K. Ms. Maxwell made me believe it anyway.

 

LOMBARDI, THE VINCE Lombardi bioplay that opened last week at the Circle in the Square with Dan Lauria in the title role and a funny, assertive Judith Light as his suffering, devoted, and arch wife, is a commercial–a well-acted commercial–for the NFL.

With the league itself as one of the producers, it’s perhaps inevitable that it would be such, but, still, it’s disappointing to watch such an uncomplicated play about a very complicated man. Here, everyone is a hero: Coach, who loves his players and just wants to win; his alcoholic wife, who loves her husband and supports the team; the players, who have their foibles but revere coach; and even the cub reporter who has come to profile Lombardi, who really just wants a dad.

It’s a fine TV special, but it’s not very riveting theater. And on TV it would have had what it conspicuously lacks here: narration by that deep, gravelly NFL Films voice.

 

editorial@observer.com