Gods and Monsters: The Break of Noon, The Coward, Elling and A Free Man of Color

The Break of Noon opened Monday night at the Lucille Lortel bearing an impressive marquee: It was written by Neil LaBute, the celebrated cynic behind the movies In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, and it stars the sex-addicted television star David Duchovny and the pixieish movie star Amanda Peet.

But while that trio of Hollywood names will help lure people into the MCC Theater production, it doesn’t deliver much once they’re there.

Mr. LaBute is MCC’s playwright-in-residence, and he turns out about a play a year for the company, characteristically LaButean morality tales about mean, aggressive men and the women they emotionally abuse. Here, the asshole is Mr. Duchovny’s John Smith, the lone survivor of a workplace massacre in which 37 of his coworkers were killed by a laid-off employee. He believes God spoke to him during the attack, and chose to save him, and now–after a lifetime as a gambler, a philanderer and an all-around dick–he wants to spread the message God gave him: that people should be good to each other.

It’s a fascinating idea: How will godless, hedonistic, mammonian New Yorkers react to a sudden believer in their midst? But Mr. LaBute’s play doesn’t really explore it. Instead, it’s an examination of John, whether he really believes he spoke to God, or whether–he also took a cell-phone picture of the rampage, which he then sold for a lot of money–he’s just full of shit.

Mr. Duchovny, alas, is not the actor to make us care much about the question. Perhaps it’s that watching an actor with a reputation as a sex-obsessed prig play a sex-obsessed prig yields not an intriguing frisson but rather a preemptively clear answer to the huckster-or-not question. Perhaps it’s that his performance is so consistently one-note that his lengthy monologues, which open and close the show, can’t possibly hold your interest.

Directed by Jo Bonney, a frequent LaBute collaborator, the play, whose staging is as in-your-face as its script, moves at a fast pace with, as called for by the author, intensely, uncomfortably bright flashes of light at some scene changes. Ms. Peet does a fine job with the little work she’s asked to do, playing John Smith’s long-suffering ex-wife in one scene and the ex-wife’s heavily Brooklyn-accented cousin, with whom he had an affair, in another.

Top billing on that marquee goes to Tracee Chimo, whose name is known only to Off Off Broadway devotees. She’s spectacular in her two roles, one as a TV interviewer skeptical of John’s claims and another as the prostitute daughter of the murdered coworker in his photo–smart, insightful and emotionally complex. Sure, she’s a beneficiary of alphabetical order, but she also deserves that top spot.

 

AND AT MONDAY night’s other Off Broadway opening, the biggest star was offstage.

Sam Gold, a geekily bespectacled 32-year-old, has lately become the hottest young director in town, best known for his two collaborations last season with the even younger playwright Annie Baker, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. Last week, he earned a day or two of theater-press headlines by being named an associate artist at the Roundabout Theatre Company, arguably the biggest–it controls three Broadway houses–of the big nonprofits. Days later, he opened The Coward, Nick Jones’ light spoof of English period dramas, in an LCT3 production at the Duke on 42nd Street.

Mr. Jones’ play is ridiculous, in the best possible way. It centers on Lucidus Culling (Jeremy Strong, who makes an irritating character ingratiating), a fey young nobleman in 18th-century England whose interests include pies, entomology and the local unattainable beauty, Isabelle Dupree (Kristin Schaal, working her usual persona to good effect–and, technically, a bigger star than Mr. Gold), but who is goaded by his honor-obsessed, duel-loving father (a nicely blustery Richard Poe) into proving he’s not a coward. Identities are faked, family members are rejected, desserts are eaten and duels are fought, and many people are killed. The play has a happy ending, of course.

 

Mr. Gold lives up to his reputation here, assembling a sterling cast that maintains a consistently droll tone of starchy buffoonery. (Other notable performances come from Christoper Evan Welch, as the shifty commoner Lucidus hires to duel for him, and Jarlath Conroy, as Lucidus’ bemused, dismissive servant.) There’s not much to Mr. Jones’s play, and it runs too long. (A pleasant trifle can turn to tedium when it crosses the two-hour mark.)

But The Coward is funny, mostly, and Mr. Gold and the cast render its comedy captivating.

 

 

ELLING IS FUNNY, too–and who knew Norwegians did funny?

Of course, it’s a very Scandinavian sort of funny, a play about two institutionalized mental patients, released to a government-provided apartment in central Oslo, to see if they’re capable of living on their own. Elling, which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is by the Brit Simon Bent (it was a success in the West End); it’s based on the 2001 Norwegian movie of the same name, which is in turn adapted from Ingvar Ambjørnsen ‘s 1996 novel Brødre i blodet.)

Brendan Fraser makes his Broadway debut as Kjell Bjarne, the Oscar of this beyond-just-neurotic odd couple, a well-meaning, overgrown infant who’s obsessed with women and the chance he’ll finally have to have sex. He’s charming and daffy and does that thing movie stars like to do to show they’re Serious Actors: The man once pretty enough to play Ian McKellen’s fetish object in Gods and Monsters appears here scruffy, dirty and potbellied.

His roommate is Elling, an OCD-disabled Felix, a lifelong mama’s boy unable to function since his mother’s death. Everything he doesn’t want to do is “not my forte,” until finally he discovers, almost accidentally, something that is his forte: words. Denis O’Hare is fantastic in the role, rendering Elling’s obsessive tics and fastidious absurdities not only hilarious but also human and comprehensible.

Directed by Doug Hughes on an antiseptic box of a set by Scott Pask, Elling depicts the happy if dysfunctional co-dependency of two misfits, who are ultimately joined by their two saviors: the upstairs neighbor (played by Jennifer Coolidge), who falls for Kjell Bjarne, and a famous writer (played by Richard Easton), who makes Elling realize he can be a poet.

They believe in themselves, finally, and they end up happy, or, at least, no more unhappy than anyone else. Which is an awfully Scandinavian ending.

 

THERE ARE MANY interesting things about A Free Man of Color, John Guare’s sprawling–too sprawling–historical epic set in New Orleans just before the Louisiana Purchase, which opened last week at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. But the most interesting may well have been the remarkable anticipatory apologia published in The Times a week before its opening.

The Times piece recounted the play’s torturous journey to the stage: Free Man, Mr. Guare’s first new Broadway play in 18 years, was commissioned by the Public Theater, which canceled it over what it calls financing issues and Mr. Guare calls shabby treatment; director George C. Wolfe reports receiving a draft that would have run five hours, to which he was forced to make cuts. The report also included this pithy prophylactic: “Lincoln Center Theater, as a nonprofit, is more concerned with taking worthy artistic risks than mounting surefire commercial hits, said the theater’s artistic director, André Bishop.”

So it’s almost surprising to report that while Free Man is indeed long and confusing, filled with dozens of characters, and, distanced behind the conceit of Restoration comedy, lacking a way for the audience to make an emotional connection with any of its characters, it is also vibrant, fascinating, constantly engaging and gorgeously staged by Mr. Wolfe. (The sumptuous sets are by David Rockwell, with costumes by Ann Hould-Ward and lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhower.)

The free man in question is Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), the wealthiest man in a racially progressive French-governed New Orleans, the son of a white father and a black mother, and a man so well endowed in ways not just financial that all the women of New Orleans are clamoring to see him. His journey is the central arc of the play: Once Jefferson buys Louisiana, and it becomes subject to U.S. laws, he’s simply a black man, and his money and power do him no good. It’s a crushing idea, made more powerful by the enormous American flag along the upstage wall in the play’s final scenes, during which he is sold; but the emotion of the scene remains only an idea, because Cornet has been too much of a caricature for the audience to actually care about.

Mos Def, who’s now apparently called just “Mos,” is much more affecting in his two parts, as Cornet’s servant and as the Haiti revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, betrayed by Jefferson, because he plays them as real people. There’s Jefferson, too, something of a dilettante, and Meriwether Lewis and a bratty Napoleon and James Monroe and dozens more, interacting and intersecting and, in the end, greatly expanding America while raising questions about what kind of country it is.

The play, LCT’s Mr. Bishop told The Times, is about whether the country was governable after the Louisiana Purchase, and whether it is today. It’s a question that could be asked, too, about Free Man–and I’m glad they took a shot at it.

editorial@observer.com

Gods and Monsters: The Break of Noon, The Coward, Elling and A Free Man of Color