Spring Arts Preview: Top 10 Theater

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, opens March 17
Tom Stoppard’s mid-career masterpiece returns to Broadway. The cast and crew is stocked with veterans of the British playwright’s work: Billy Crudup appeared in the 1995 production of the show and director David Leveaux put on Jumpers and The Real Thing on Broadway. Arcadia is something of a mind-bender, dealing with pastoral gardening, Lord Byron, mathematics and the relationship between past and present. It is a production that could all too easily become a muddle, though its success in London suggests that the veteran approach may just work. 

The Book of Mormon,
Eugene O’Neill Theatre, opens March 24
South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always seemed eager to write for Broadway–recall the South Park “Blame Canada” production number at the 2000 Oscars. They finally did it with The Book of Mormon, about missionaries in Uganda. The Scott Rudin-produced musical has already attracted an official response from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and healthy buzz about the show’s blasphemy. Mr. Rudin’s imprimatur may draw in audiences unimpressed by the South Park pedigree or the appearance of hype for its own sake. Either way, this is the biggest and most controversial musical that will likely open on time this spring. 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, opens March 27
The iconic star of a tween-mania franchise returns to Broadway. We’re referring, of course, to Night Court star John Larroquette. He’s joined by some British guy from those movies about warlocks–we kid, Daniel Radcliffe! As his co-stars have gone to college or set out on fledgling film careers, Mr. Radcliffe has been striving toward a stage career. Who can forget his alternately revelatory and revealing turn in Equus? This How to Succeed is referred to as a 50th-anniversary production–who’d have guessed that a story about a window-washer who rises to the top of his company has aged a day? Business success today is certainly not contingent on all manner of intangibles and connections and climbing in an opaque, vaguely malevolent system. Either way, Harry Potter! 

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,
Richard Rodgers Theatre, opens March 31
Though he’s done his manic comedy-of-three-characters (look out for the mincing gay man! It’s still fresh!), Robin Williams has rarely acted on Broadway (though he did star in Mike Nichols’ Waiting for Godot in the late ’80s). The star will add to that meager résumé this spring with a turn in last year’s Pulitzer finalist. It’s a meaty role; Mr. Williams is the tiger (no metaphors in that title!) living through the Iraq war. When it opened in Los Angeles, The New York Times praised the show’s sympathy for man and beast alike. Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is playing Off Broadway now. Expect this, though, to be a splashy coming-out party for Mr. Joseph, alongside Mr. Williams, who may begin preparing his trophy shelf for the “T” in “EGOT.” 

Catch Me if You Can, 
Neil Simon Theatre, opens April 10
Who’d have guessed we’d need a musical adaptation of a Spielberg movie from the early 2000s–or that it would look better, even, than simply watchable? The team of Terrence McNally (book), Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) unites for the glamorous story of a high-flying con artist. The movie was aesthetically splendid–and the Shaiman/Wittman team has dealt with 1960s nostalgia before, in Hairspray. The only pause the production gives The Observer is the detail that the show is constructed a bit like a jukebox musical, with the Beatles and Aretha Franklin as inspiration. Is Frank Abagnale’s associating his life story with go-go ’60s fetishism the greatest con of all? 

The Motherfucker With the Hat, 
Schoenfeld Theatre, opens April 11
Chris Rock makes his Broadway debut in this profanely titled opus about drug addiction–this is no comedy! Mr. Rock may be feeling the need to stretch rarely used dramatic muscles after years of onscreen diminishing returns. Working with Adam Sandler in Grown Ups is hardly comparable to being directed by Anna D. Shapiro (fresh off August: Osage County). As for that title–it may offend those with the funds to actually attend the theater frequently, but the giddy coverage since the production’s inception (“gloriously titled,” said New York) should continue to guarantee Cee-Lo-vian levels of buzz. 

Booth Theatre, opens April 19
Many great movie actresses flee to television: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Sally Field among them. The cathode path is not for Kathleen Turner, who toured with the new play High in repertory companies across America before arriving on Broadway. Ms. Turner plays a nun seeking to aid a drug addict, finding her faith challenged. (Will she have such doubts?, The Observer wonders.) Ms. Turner’s become something of a familiar face–and voice!–onstage, having been Tony-nominated for 2005’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Matthew Lombardo, the play’s author, last wrote Looped with Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead: surely he, like his audience, admires a strong leading lady. 

Born Yesterday,
Cort Theatre, opens April 24
There’s stunt-casting, and there’s Jim Belushi. The musical Born Yesterday, first performed in 1946 with Judy Holliday (who won an Oscar for the film adaptation), comes to 2011’s post-Chicago Broadway with as big a star as could get time off from a CBS crime procedural. Nina Arianda, recently profiled in The Times for her role in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, co-stars; as the paper wrote then, “If Ms. Arianda … seems like an overnight success, it doesn’t feel that way to her.” Ms. Arianda took the conventional route to Broadway–training, Tisch–while Mr. Belushi starred in an ABC sitcom from 2001 to 2009. The pair’s interplay promises to evoke the Black Swan-ian eternal debate between training and intuition, or at least provide some laughs. 

The House of Blue Leaves, 
Walter Kerr Theatre, opens April 25
Director David Cromer won the MacArthur “genius” grant in 2010, about a year after his star-free Brighton Beach Memoirs closed early. Unshaken by defeat or emboldened by acclaim, Mr. Cromer is mounting John Guare’s play with Ben Stiller and Edie Falco in leading roles. The production seems tailored for success: Mr. Guare was just produced on Broadway (last fall’s hotly debated A Free Man of Color).

The House of Blue Leaves, Mr. Guare’s first play, is by now a classic; Mr. Cromer is a still-rising star. So expect the same level of hype that met A Free Man of Color, but with far more raves and a box office akin to Mr. Stiller’s Little Fockers, if not Meet the Parents

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,
Public Theater, opens May
Tony Kushner is the self-renewing voice of a generation. Just as memories of his talent flag, a new and ever-more elaborately conceived production comes down the pike. This play has been the subject of particularly loud buzz since its debut in Minneapolis in 2009. Its erudition begins with the title, inspired by the work of both George Bernard Shaw and Mary Baker Eddy–stop, Tony, you’re killing us! Mr. Kushner’s work is most exciting not for its sweeping statements but for how those statements resurface in small intrapersonal moments, and the plot, about a Brooklyn longshoreman who hosts a family gathering at home, has plenty of promise.

  Spring Arts Preview: Top 10 Theater