An argument has been made, most recently and notably by Christopher Hitchens, that women are inherently not funny. It’s not true, of course, but, still, there’s a long history—from Phyllis Diller and her fright wigs to Tina Fey and her layered thrift-store ensembles—of funny women playing down their femininity to best get laughs.
There are many enjoyable things about Venus in Fur, that mostly delicious psychosexual pas de deux by David Ives that opened last night at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. But most enjoyable of all is how the unstoppable comic talent Nina Arianda—who wowed critics and audiences in Venus’s first, off-Broadway run at the Classic Stage Company early this year and then did the same in her Tony-nominated Broadway debut this spring, as the classic dumb blonde Billie Dawn in the revival of Born Yesterday—turns that sexist saw on its head.
Playing Vanda, the young actress auditioning opposite the slightly pretentious playwright and director of Venus’s play-within-the-play, Ms. Arianda is beautiful, sexy, alluring and almost maddeningly hilarious. As directed by Walter Bobbie, she is a gifted physical comedian who can deliver perfectly timed line readings—while more than competently filling out lacy black S.&M. garb.
It’s a perfect fit for her character, who arrives late, wet and harried for the audition, a discombobulated mess, but gradually reveals her calculating, steely spine and gains utter control of the proceedings.
Ms. Arianda’s Vanda is reading for a role also called Vanda, in the play-within-the-play adaptation of a 19th-century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (for whom, not incidentally, masochism is named). In the story, and in the internal play, a man enters a contractual relationship with the woman he is obsessed with, committing himself to be her slave. The question is whether she has the power, as the master, or he does, as the one who instigated the arrangement. Mr. Ives does an elegant job of mirroring those changes of domination and submission in his larger play, as roles continually reverse between Vanda and her director, Thomas (Hugh Dancy). It’s funny, fascinating and mysterious.
It’s also just a drop too long, with a few too many power-play reversals in the final moments, threatening to render what should be gripping just a bit tedious. (Off-Broadway, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood dubbed Venus “90 minutes of good, kinky fun.” Now, somehow, it’s 105 minutes of slightly less good, still kinky fun.) Mr. Dancy is perfectly fine but not in any way memorable, never mind that the British actor’s American accent doesn’t always stick.
But Ms. Arianda is so good that to say she’s the best part of the evening is not really to criticize anything else. She’s funny, she’s feminine, and she’s fantastic.
The thing that sticks with you about Sam Waterston’s King Lear is the wheezing.
Playing the elderly, dying and delusional king in a new production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy that opened at the Public Theater last night, Mr. Waterston’s Lear is from the play’s first moments a feeble and mad ruler.
King Lear opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters, with the most territory going to she who loves him best. His youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia (Kristen Connolly), won’t compete for her father’s affections and so is banished; so, too, is his loyal friend the Earl of Kent (John Douglas Thompson), who stands up for Cordelia. Without power and a burden on his other two daughters, Goneril (Enid Graham) and Regan (Kelli O’Hara), Lear is left impotent and raging; and as Mr. Waterston charges through the soliloquies, even some of his earliest ones, most disturbing is the wheezes, the sharp, grating, gravelly intakes of breath between lines.
Those might be the sounds of an aging actor mustering his many powers for a late-career turn in one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most demanding parts (as we heard some around us suggesting at intermission). But we prefer to believe it’s a conscious choice on Mr. Waterston’s part (as others were arguing), a clever and effective way of conveying the tension at the heart of this mighty man: he still conceives of himself as in command, but he no longer has the resources.
This production of the sad and sobering play—nearly every character is dead or destroyed by the end—was built around Mr. Waterston, who has had a long and prominent association with the Public; among many other roles, he played Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park in 1975, long before Jack McCoy had even considered a career with the district attorney’s office. His performance here is electric and commanding, a nuanced portrayal of a great man in terminal decline. What is admirable is the degree to which he is willing to lose himself in the part: he is not a star—Sam Waterston as Lear—but an actor, a talented man playing a jittery, angry madman.
The rest of the cast is as impressive, talented but not showy actors digging deep into their parts. Michael McKean is a sensitive Gloucester; Bill Irwin is, well, Irwinian as the Fool; Seth Gilliam, Carver from The Wire, is fantastic, powerful but slippery, as Gloucester’s treacherous son, Edmund. The only notable deficiency is Arian Moayed as Edgar, Gloucester’s other son, whose accent moves its way around the European continent through the course of the play.
James Macdonald, the director, is best known for his work with intensely political, living playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Christopher Shinn. Here he offers a simple, stark, and non-time-specific staging—some characters use flashlights; other dress in Elizabethan garb—set in a minimally accessorized white box with a dirt floor. (The set design is by Miriam Buether; the costumes by Gabriel Berry.) Likewise, the simple, efficient direction stays out of the way. Mr. Macdonald lets his excellent actors—not stars—shine.
“Why did anyone think this needed to see the light of day?”
Our date for the evening asked this question as we were exiting the Circle in the Square Theatre, where we’d just seen a preview performance of the overly caffeinated first-ever Broadway revival of Godspell, Stephen Schwartz’s cloying and clichéd hip-youth-pastor gloss on Jesus and his disciples and parables, since its initial run in 1976. (John-Michael Tebelak is credited with the conceiving the show and directing its original product.) It opened there Monday night.
The only answer we could come up with was Hair. Presumably lead producer Ken Davenport looked at the recent success the Public Theater had with Diane Paulus’s staging of that 1967 “tribal love-rock musical” and thought: hey, there’s another hippie good-vibes show without much of a plot, with martyrdom at the end, and whose hero has a much better-justified messiah complex—cha-ching.
But verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an opportunistic producer to get rich on a bad revival.
Was this ever a good show? We can’t say. (Until last week, we thought it a hole in our musicals fandom that we did not at all know Godspell. Now we think it was good luck.) But director Daniel Goldstein, in his Broadway debut, makes a damning case. Rather, it feels like a desperately ingratiating, entirely soulless kindergarten lesson, Robert Fulgham set to soft rock.
Its hunky star Hunter Parrish, of the Showtime stoner series Weeds, demonstrates a fine if thin teen-crooner voice, but he never stops smiling big, working hard to win you over. Neither does the production, with its frenetic colors and lights and audience participation and theoretically clever references to modern pop culture. Where Ms. Paulus’s Hair invited its audience to revel in the Summer of Love, Mr. Goldstein’s Godspell never stops trying to make you forget its age, peppering the old book with shout-outs to Steve Jobs and iPads, pro wrestling and getting ready to rumble, Facebook and Lindsay Lohan and a lengthy Donald Trump caricature. If there’s any way for this show to succeed, it’s to embrace its 1970s, Carole-and-Paula, spiritual-crunchy goofiness. Instead, this production rejects it.
The only arresting moment—and the only one Mr. Goldstein lets linger—is the final one, when Jesus, on a cross and lit from below, rises to float above the stage. Of course, it’d take more skill than this misbegotten production demonstrates to stage a forgettable crucifixion.
Jon Robin Baitz’s fantastic Other Desert Cities debuted off Broadway at the start of this year, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. It was one of the most arresting dramas of a strong season, a gorgeously acted, laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply thoughtful examination of families and politics, and the secrets that can destroy us. Now it has moved to Broadway, where it opened last week at the Booth, and it is every bit as excellent, even with a slightly different cast.
Director Joe Mantello has cast Rachel Griffiths to replace Elizabeth Marvel as Brooke, the grown daughter whose memoir of her family threatens to tear it apart, and Judith Light instead of Linda Lavin for Aunt Silda, the truth-telling Jewish alcoholic in the Waspy family’s guest room. Ms. Griffiths is splendid, and Ms. Light is very good, even if her performance feels a bit like a shticky approximation of what came so naturally to Ms. Lavin. Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Thomas Sadoski all return and are fantastic. It is a family reunion not to be missed.
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