“I’ve just decided that if my administration’s going to be anything,” declares Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a auburn-haired orphan is inspiring the New Deal with an Oval Office reprise of her stick-up-your-chin-and-grin anthem, “it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country!” The moment comes midway through the second act of Annie, which opened in its latest revival last week at the Palace Theatre, but the show is swimming in what turns out to be justified optimism: that an orphan girl will find a family, that FDR will save the country, even that a Republican one-percenter can turn out to be a mensch.
And leapin’ lizards was this reviewer optimistic for the show. The original 1977 production, a few years into its run, was the second musical I saw and the first cast album I obsessed over. Charles Strouse’s score remains as brassily, bouncily delightful as it was on that scratched LP, and Martin Charnin’s sweet and snappy lyrics retain their originality even as they’ve become part of the vernacular. Finally, the moment does seem right: the Krugman Nation, secure in our post-election self-regard, can only revel in choreographed calls for stimulus and jobs programs.
But the bad news—more bad news, after the Depression newsreel that opens the show—is that I couldn’t muster enough optimism to give myself over to this hard-charging but ultimately plodding production, which never manages to deliver the genuine emotion and enthusiasm the show requires. The orphan girls scrub the floors, all right, but Annie never shines.
A signal problem, discovered on re-encountering this play as an adult, is that Thomas Meehan’s script is awful. Really awful. At best, it’s a painfully thin and mechanical progression from number to number; at worst, it’s so ill-constructed that nearly all the major plot developments—Warbucks’s transition from being indifferent to Annie to being enamored of her; the foiling of Rooster’s plot to claim Annie and take Warbucks’s reward—happen offstage. A consistently funny running joke is that Roosevelt is portrayed as a goofy loser, but it quickly stops being funny when the action stops yet again to name-check, say, Cordell Hull. (I understand for-grownups humor in a kids’ show; I question how humorous grownups find jokes about Roosevelt’s cabinet.)
It’s not helped by James Lapine’s busy but unfocused direction, which keeps so much moving so fast that no moments really land. In one of the season’s great disappointments, the dependably terrific Katie Finneran is merely adequate as Miss Hannigan. But Anthony Warlow makes a fine and caring Oliver Warbucks, and the orphan girls, including Lilla Crawford in the title role, are all charming and funny, if never revelatory. Unfortunately, their Noo Yawk accents—and especially Annie’s—are atrocious, unless the intent was to render “Tomorrow” as if sung by Mr. Magoo.
And yet—there’s still that optimism, and it’s overpowering. You’re never fully dressed without a smile, as Annie famously tells us, and I walked out of the theater wearing one from ear to ear.
FROM SPUNKY ORPHANS to angsty teens: Vaginamonologuist Eve Ensler opened her latest play, Emotional Creature, at the Signature Center on Monday night, and it’s a warm-hearted anthropological examination of what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Performed by a crackerjack and carefully multicultural cast of six, it’s angry, empowering and entertaining, and it would make for an excellent middle-school assembly.
That’s not to dismiss it entirely. In a 2010 bestseller titled I Am an Emotional Creature, Ms. Ensler offered monologues and stories inspired by girls she’d met around the world. She adapted that book into this play, which director Jo Bonney has staged as an intense, engaging 90 minutes that makes great use of video projections (designed by Shawn Sagady), dance breaks and a handful of original songs (by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder). The girls onstage are talented and fiercely committed.
The stories they tell are affecting, whether about sex and body image, struggling to fit in with the cool girls, eating disorders or—from further-flung parts of the world—genital mutilation and gang rape. And the message is important: girls are strong and deserve respect, and problems are universal.
But it’s also the play’s great flaw. They’re noble ideas, but not in any way original ones. Where The Vagina Monologues was groundbreaking, this is predictable. For better or for worse—in that we have witnessed some of the horrors described, it’s for the worse—we’ve been through this all before.
WE’VE SEEN IVANOV BEFORE, TOO —but we probably haven’t seen it like this.
This early Chekhov work hits the Russian playwright’s usual topics—the self-defeating, self-involved ennui of the 18th-century provincial gentry—and it hits them hard. Here, the problem is boredom. Everyone is just so bored—most especially Nikolai Ivanov, whose boredom crosses into depression, and whose self-obsession, even as his wife is slowly dying of tuberculosis, is paralyzing.
But in the Classic Stage Company’s new production of Ivanov, which opened Sunday night, the title character is played by Ethan Hawke, who renders him the loudest, angriest, most viscerally animated sad sack you’ve ever seen. Mr. Hawke is a fine actor, but he is not a subtle one, and his scenery-chewing portrayal of a depressive seems out of place in Austin Pendleton’s otherwise delicate staging. (The translation is by Carol Rocamora.)
Joely Richardson is measured and restrained as Ivanov’s dying wife, and Juliet Rylance is lovely and earnest as the friend’s daughter who falls in love with him. Even the set (by Santo Loquasto) is washed-out, suggesting faded grandeur. But Mr. Hawke’s Ivanov, with his high-strung melancholy and his constant, overbearing assertion of his own unhappiness, overwhelms all the rest. When ultimately it overwhelms the character, too, you’ll wish you didn’t feel relieved.
SPEAKING OF SELF-INVOLVED, self-indulgent self-pity: Checkers arrived last week at the Vineyard Theatre, a fascinating and well-timed examination of Richard Nixon.
Douglas McGrath’s play seems to argue that modern presidential politics—or, perhaps, the fact-denying, perpetually aggrieved modern Republican Party—began with Nixon’s 1952 campaign for vice president as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. The crucible Mr. McGrath uses to tell that story is the episode that culminated in what’s known as the Checkers speech—when, after the revelation of a secret campaign fund, Nixon was nearly forced from the ticket until he gave a speech defending himself, not just to voters but also to GOP leaders, insisting that he wouldn’t return one gift from a donor, a cocker spaniel his girls named Checkers.
The gambit was a success, but what’s most striking in Mr. McGrath’s telling is Nixon’s determination, his ruthlessness and how deeply he is convinced that the old-line political establishment is determined to crush him. (It’s not coincidental that the working-class Californian’s only loyal aide in his battle against the mandarins, at least in this version, was Murray Chotiner, a foul-mouth, cigar-chomping Jew.) When Nixon rails against Ivy-educated, New York Times-reading elites, as he does repeatedly, the play sounds awfully current.
Anthony LaPaglia gives an effective, not overly bombastic performance as the 37th president, recognizably the man—stooped, jowly—and not a caricture. For most of the play, Kathryn Erbe seems underutilized in the slim role of Pat, living up to the caricature of the future first lady as milquetoast helpmeet. But a surprising aspect of Mr. McGrath’s play is its depiction of an unexpected tenderness between Dick and Pat, and a highlight is a monologue Mrs. Nixon delivers before her husband drafts the pivotal speech, imploring him not to give in to his resentments but rather to revel in what she loves about him: his resilience, his honesty, his dedication. Here, Ms. Erbe is moving, and it’s a remarkable accomplishment of both actors that their romance feels genuine.
But if Pat’s role is to keep Dick human—and in Checkers, it certainly is—she’s fighting a losing battle. In that 1952 campaign, he swears to her that he’ll never run for political office again. In a 1966 epilogue, with Chotiner (Lewis J. Stadlen) urging him on, Nixon decides to run for president. In betraying Pat, he is choosing his ambition over that humanity.
IN HIS CYCLE OF up-to-the-minute, set-on-the-day-they-open plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, Richard Nelson has also worked to balance the human and the political. The first two installments, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, came on the day of the 2010 midterm elections and the 10th anniversary of September 11, respectively. The latest, Sorry, about Election Day 2012, opened last week at the Public Theater, and it’s the best of three, precisely because Mr. Nelson spends the least time on politics.
In the past, Mr. Nelson has seemed more interested in making political statements than developing the Apples—sisters Marian (Laila Robins) and Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), schoolteachers sharing a house in Rhinebeck; uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a former actor suffering from dementia who lives with them; brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer in New York; and sister Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), an author also living in the city. They are lefties, but they ask questions, and I found the first two plays overly self-congratulatory about raising points it seemed to me had already been raised elsewhere.
But Mr. Nelson was also, it turns out, expertly building this family’s story, and in Sorry I was hooked. The main tension this time is Uncle Benjamin—the family is gathered because it’s the day they’ll be moving him to a home. All sorts of questions are presented by this: whether it’s fair to do this to someone who doesn’t always remember what’s happening to him, what obligation the younger generation has to the older, how to handle guilt even if you’re doing the right thing. The election is acknowledged, but more obliquely than in the past. Mostly we just spend time with this family we’ve come to know, as they work through their quotidian crap. It’s riveting.
After watching Sorry, which is directed by the author and, per usual, marvelously acted, I was for the first time eager for my next visit with the Apples.
Follow Jesse Oxfeld via RSS.