Just in Tony Time: Appraising Seven Recent Openings

Shows rushed to open before the award deadline

Oliver Chris and Tom Edden in 'One Man, Two Guvnors.' (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

The 2011-2012 Broadway season—a busy year of 40 new productions—ended last week, with the Tony Awards eligibility cutoff on Thursday, April 26. It went out with neither a bang nor a whimper but with an exhausting rush of last-minute, beat-the-deadline openings: Nine plays or musicals debuted in the last 10 days of elinatgibility. My colleague Rex Reed has reviewed two of them, the pleasant but lazily assembled Gershwin revue Nice Work If You Can Get It, and the also pleasant, even more anemic holy-roller movie adaptation Leap of Faith. Here, brief takes on the seven other shows that rounded out the season:

Clybourne Park: The playwright Bruce Norris’ bracing examination of the unshakable, vestigial racism that lurks behind the platitudinous propriety of even well-meaning white liberals, Clybourne Park is both very funny and more than a little damning. It debuted off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons two seasons ago and was one of the best plays of the year. There was much hand-wringing then that even a play that good couldn’t make it to Broadway. Now, after lauded runs in London and then Los Angeles, plus the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it has arrived on 48th Street and will in all likelihood add a Tony or two—from among the four nominations it earned Tuesday—to its already sizable collection of plaudits. As it should: Even after two years of globetrotting, and despite the move from tiny Playwrights to the capacious Walter Kerr, Clybourne Park is one of the best plays of this year, too.

It is both structurally intriguing and thematically powerful. The first act takes place in 1959, as a white family prepares to move out of its suburban home and sell it to a black family, a transaction about which the neighbors are less than pleased. The second act takes place in the same house in 2009, as a white family has purchased it and is preparing to rebuild it as a bobo paradise, complete with koi pond, about which the neighbors are less than pleased. The same marvelous cast, in place since Playwrights, handles both sets of roles, a technique that draws implicit parallels between the earlier era, when the racism went largely unspoken because it was so expected, and today, when it goes largely unspoken because it’s so politically incorrect.

Pam MacKinnon’s subtle direction doesn’t beat you over the head with any of this, and she does a masterful job of balancing Mr. Norris’ comedy and pathos. Indeed, in the middle of the second act there’s a parade of they’re-not-offensive-because-I-don’t-actually-think-this-way offensive jokes, and the bit is so well written and so well staged that it remains, even when you’ve already seen the show and know what’s coming, simultaneously breathtakingly funny and horrifyingly awful—in other words, totally great.

The Columnist: There is perhaps no one better suited to play a Groton-Harvard stuffed shirt, as was the powerful and clubby midcentury newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop, than John Lithgow, a Harvard man with a patrician manner and a résumé full of stuffed-shirt roles. The chief pleasure of The Columnist, David Auburn’s mildly titillating history lesson of a play about Alsop now running at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is watching the delighted relish with which Mr. Lithgow dominates the proceedings as this dominating man.

Nearly as much fun are the major supporting actors: the mix of loyalty and rivalry in Boyd Gaines’s understated performance as Joe’s brother and sometimes collaborator, Stewart Alsop; the devotion and frustration Margaret Colin brings to her role as Susan Mary Alsop, more a hostess than a wife for the closeted Joe; Stephen Kunken doing his best not to seem too smarmy as a smarmily written David Halberstam, representing the younger generation of journalists who questioned the wisdom of Alsop’s Wise Men chums; and Grace Gummer as Alsop’s increasingly antiwar stepdaughter, the one person other than himself to whom Alsop seemed devoted.

Under Daniel Sullivan’s typically competent direction and on John Lee Beaty’s typically lush sets, the enterprise cries out to be Taken Seriously. But there’s not much to seriously consider, even with the attention paid—and this is clearly designed to be the hook—to Alsop’s open-secret homosexuality. Ultimately, he becomes simply a self-important buffoon who doesn’t know his time is up. Which leaves little for The Columnist to offer beyond a boomer nostalgia trip.

Don’t Dress for Dinner: “People don’t go around the country taking mistresses to friend’s houses,” exclaims a character early in Don’t Dress for Dinner, now at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre. Would that this were true: If so, Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be an international banker about whose sex life we were blissfully ignorant, and this creaky and clichéd 1960s French sex farce wouldn’t exist.

Don’t Dress takes place at a country house outside Paris, where a well-off married couple, Bernard and Jacqueline, are hosting guests that include Bernard’s best friend, Robert, who is having an affair with Jacqueline; Bernard’s mistress, Suzanne, who Robert and Jacqueline believe is the hired cook; and the cook, Suzette, who must pretend varyingly to be Robert’s niece or his girlfriend.

It’s written by Marc Camoletti, whose Boeing-Boeing, another 1960s French sex farce, was the Tony Award-winning best revival several seasons ago, blessed with effervescent performances and a zippy jet-age production. But Don’t Dress, directed by John Tillinger, just feels tired and stale, down to John Lee Beatty’s stodgy, brown-and-grey set. Countless bits of confusion are set up only by a character’s insistence on pronouns instead of proper nouns. People get wound up in telephone cords. Seltzer is sprayed by angry women on befuddled men, laboriously—and several times. Sometimes the clichéd passes into the offensive: The cook Suzette’s husband, of whom everyone is scared, is large, black and randy. The characterizations are flat, except for Spencer Kayden as Suzette, who does a memorable job of transforming from mousy domestic to faux-sophisticated swell.

And there is, finally, a noticeable issue of changed mores. Boeing-Boeing’s hero was a three-timing bachelor, a very 1960s French character that even today remains essentially innocuous. But in the 21st-century United States, we’re less amused by gleefully adulterous spouses. M. Strauss-Kahn could tell you that.

Ghost: The thing to remember about Ghost, a monster box-office hit in 1990, is that it was in many respects an awful movie, a cheesy, maudlin love story between a dead banker and a sloppy potter (or, if taken literally, between Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg). It was also frustratingly hazy on the logistics of its metaphysics: If ghostly Sam, the banker murdered and left spectral, could walk through walls and couldn’t grasp doorknobs, why could he sit in a chair? How did he walk through an apartment without falling through its floor?

You will not be surprised to discover that Ghost the musical, now at the Lunt-Fontanne, makes no effort to answer these questions, nor many others, including: When is this set? (It seems present-day, but not-yet-dead Sam assures his friend and colleague Carl that in five years, he’ll wish he’d moved to Brooklyn, too.) Why is this couple so devoted to each other? (Until the mugging-gone-bad that kills Sam, all they’ve done is fight.) And how has Carl, who secretly plotted to murder Sam, run up $10 million in drug debts? (That’s a lot of bumps in a club bathroom.)

With a book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, the screenwriter who wrote the film; music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, pop songwriters; and choreography by Ashley Wallen, best known for his work on a BBC dance-competition show, this neophyte-made material is in the more capable hands of director Matthew Warchus, whose work includes that Tony-winning Boeing-Boeing. But the only pleasures he manages to elicit from this mess are some cool illusions (by Paul Kieve), like when Sam walks through a door, and the silly, joyful, totally compelling performance of Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Oda Mae Brown, the Goldberg role.

Everything else here—the story, the other actors, the music—is entirely forgettable, and best forgotten. May it rest in peace.

Just in Tony Time: Appraising Seven Recent Openings