James Naughton Interviews Laura Linney at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts

Laura Linney

Here’s a disturbing thought: Laura Linney almost didn’t become an actress. “I fought against it for a long time; I felt I had to earn it,” she explained in an interview with actor/director James Naughton at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium on March 6. Growing up backstage with her father, playwright Romulus Linney, she so revered the theatre that initially, she was “afraid to become a part of it.” Fortunately for her many fans, Linney did eventually embrace the craft, enrolling at Julliard for her training.

The inspiring and entertaining discussion between Linney and Naughton was the latest in an excellent series presented by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women. Betty Corwin, Pat Addiss, and Sophia Romma produced the event.

Radiant in a simple all-black ensemble—skinny leather pants, knit top, and hip, spikey shoes—Linney looked decades younger than her 53 years. Her acting DNA predates her playwright father:  her grandmother was an actress manqué. In homage to her, Linney proudly displayed the gold sunburst pendant she wore—grandma’s long-ago won elocution medal.

Hailed as one of the best actresses of her generation, Laura Linney continues to captivate audiences with her work in film, television, and theatre. She is a three-time Oscar nominee, three-time Tony nominee, four-time Emmy winner, and two-time Golden Globe winner.

Throughout the hour-long interview, Linney and Naughton covered a lot of creative ground, discussing her childhood, her experience at Juilliard (where she now mentors fourth-year acting students), working with Clint Eastwood, parenthood (Linney gave birth to her son Bennett just before her 50th birthday), and how she manages to overcome her deep dislike of cameras. Throughout, Linney remained forthright, insightful, charming, and completely accessible.

Linney attributes much of her career success to the training she received at Juilliard. She is unstinting in her praise for the school, telling Naughton, “When people ask me, ‘What was your big break?’ I say it was going to Julliard. It’s a tough school, but it for me it was like water in the desert.” She continued, “Once it became clear to me that I could no longer be a ‘closet actress,’ that I was serious about acting, I knew I had to get trained. Juilliard was the right school for me.” She then sighed, lamenting, “I miss my time at Juilliard.”

The actress credited fellow actor Kevin Kline for helping her prepare for her film work with director Clint Eastwood (Eastwood directed her in Absolute Power, Mystic River, and, most recently, Sully): “Kevin told me, ‘Film acting is all about relaxation.’ Clint does one take and no rehearsal. So I learned how to ‘simmer’ all day, to save my energy. I learned how to surrender.” Linney also shared that she does a huge amount of preparation for every role: “Not feeling prepared makes me nervous. I do a lot of work before I get there, which puts my own self-doubt to rest.” When Naughton queried her about her disdain for cameras—ironic for an actress who works in film—she replied, “I don’t like having my picture taken, so I’ve learned to connect with the person behind the camera. I especially love the focus pullers. Generally the camera people look down at the floor between takes, to avoid betraying their feelings. But the focus pullers, I can tell what they’re thinking by their body language. They humanize it for me.”

Naughton and Linney talked about Linney’s work as executive producer and actress on Showtime’s well-received series The Big C, about a suburban wife and mother coping with the disease. Linney won a Golden Globe for the show, which ran for four seasons. The discussion took a personal turn for both Naughton (whose wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2013) and Linney, who was raised by a single-parent mother who worked as a nurse at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Linney shared that she was aware of the disease from a very young age, as she got to know her mother’s grateful patients. She recalled being taken to meet one of her mother’s more famous patients, composer Richard Rodgers. “He hugged her in a way that really made an impression on me, showing how much her care meant to him,” she said.” Linney’s playwright father died of cancer during the filming of The Big C, imbuing the series with a particularly personal resonance. “Comedy is a survival technique,” explained Linney about the show. “We use comedy to find the truth through the chaos.”

In closing, Linney told the audience, “The only career decision I ever made is to cast the net wide, to not say ‘no’.” She outlined what she needs to effectively practice her craft: “Sleep, quiet, and good coffee.” Let’s hope the universe provides all three in great abundance, for many years to come.

Broadway audiences can next catch Laura Linney in April when she will co-star with Cynthia Nixon in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Lillian Hellman’s legendary play The Little Foxes. (In an interesting twist, Linney and Nixon will alternate the lead roles of Regina and Birdie). Other upcoming projects include the film The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman, with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall and Ozark, a Netflix original series where she plays opposite Jason Bateman and Julia Garner.

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The Best Places to Hobnob with Broadway Stars

Everyone knows the stars come out at night. But where do they go after the curtain comes down? Here are 5 places where you can mingle with your favorite actors as they unwind from their 8 performances a week.

Sardi’s: 234 West 44th St.

The quintessential theatre hangout, Sardi’s has been the toast of Broadway for 90 years. Founded by “Vincent” Sardi, Sr. and his wife Jenny in 1947, it continues to provide a neighborhood oasis for those in the theatrical community. The restaurant is distinctive for two reasons: it’s the birthplace of the Tony Award (theatrical producer and director Brock Pemberton came up with the idea while eating lunch at Sardi’s) and for its extensive collection of original caricatures of Broadway luminaries. Like many of the theatres in the neighborhood, Sardi’s goes dark on Mondays.

sardis

Joe Allen: 326 W. 46th St.

While Broadway folk love Joe Allen’s delicious bistro-type delicacies (try the burger or Caesar salad), not one of them wants to see their show’s poster anywhere on the premises. Here’s why: In 1965, soon after Joe Allen opened the restaurant that bears his name, the cast of the show Kelly presented him with their show’s poster. Kelly closed after just one performance—and since then it has been a Broadway tradition for Broadway’s famous and infamous flops to adorn its walls.

joe-allens

Schnippers Quality Kitchen: 620 8th Avenue (40th/41st)

Because of its location and quality fast-ish food menu, Schnippers is the perfect place for a working actor to grab a bite between or after shows. There’s something for everyone—salads and veggie burgers for the ingénue who’s watching her weight; sloppy joes and mac ‘n cheese for the stage crew. And with Aladdin and The Cherry Orchard playing just around the corner, you just might run into the Genie or Joel Grey.

schnippers

Schmackary’s: 362 W. 45th St.

Billing itself as “Generation Y’s answer to the old American bake shop,” this Hell’s Kitchen outpost of all that is sinfully sweet and gooey became an instant Broadway favorite when Zachary “Schmackary” Schmahl first opened his storefront in 2012. You never know who you might see at one of the tables or even behind the counter—Tony winners have worked the counter as part of an ongoing fundraising effort for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Broadway darling Kristin Chenowith is a fan of Schmackary’s “funfetti” cookies and Schmackary’s delish delights can often be found backstage or in performers’ dressing rooms.

schmackarys

Drama Book Shop: 250 W. 40th St.

If it’s printed material relating to the theatre—librettos, scripts, textbooks, criticism, etc.—you’ll find it in this 100-year-old theatre district treasure trove. Here’s what Tony winner Lin Manuel Miranda has to say about it: “The Drama Book Shop is our greatest resource—it’s been here since 1918 [and] I wrote most of In The Heights in the basement.” When the shop suffered extreme water damage due to a burst pipe earlier this year, Miranda launched the hashtag #BuyABook, raising the shop’s profile and revenue enough to allow it to weather the storm.

Drama Book Shop.jpg

 

Theatre Review: Judith Light in Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You”

judith-light

“What is the weight of a lie?” That’s the opening line and key question of Neil LaBute’s new one act/one character play now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Although the question—posed by high school English teacher/guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson (Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy Award winner Judith Light, currently starring in the Golden Globe winning TV series “Transparent”)—seems theoretical, one hour later, when the play (really a monologue) ends, we learn that the answer is in fact, quite literal.

Mrs. Johnson first pondered the question many years before, when a student, inspired by something the teacher mentioned in passing about the “weight of the soul” asked it in class. Mrs. Johnson tells us, “For once, I didn’t have an answer. The teacher’s job is to put forth answers. It doesn’t have to be the right one…We work together to find the answer. And the truth in the end may surprise us all—even me.”

The question about the weight of a lie provides the foundation for the play. Mrs. Johnson is living with the consequences of a very big lie: she violated the #1 law of teacher/student relationships and slept with one of her students, a “second year senior” named Tommy. And that’s not her worst transgression: she became pregnant (she and her husband had tried and failed to conceive a child) and deceived her husband into believing the child was his. Now, years later, she struggles with the guilt of her actions while attempting to somehow rationalize them as acceptable. One thing she knows with absolute certainty: the weight of her particular lie is exactly 6 pounds, 3 ounces.

Ms. Light, an accomplished, respected, and much-loved multiple award-winning actress, gives a breathtakingly watchable performance, covering a wide swath of emotional territory within the short time span of the play. Her Mrs. Johnson is by turns contrite, unrepentant, lascivious, and tortured. Light transitions seamlessly through each of these disparate facets of her character—a master’s class in acting. At the end, we’re left to wonder if Mrs. Johnson is crazy—driven mad by the basic inescapable wrongness of her actions and the resulting guilt that goes along with bearing the weight of the lies she has created to cover up her wrongs.

Leigh Silverman (Violet, Well, LaBute’s The Way We Get By, and the upcoming Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster) provides able direction to Ms. Light and Rachel Hauck’s realistic, somewhat claustrophobic set design of Mrs. Johnson’s guidance office creates just the right atmosphere. But ultimately, the play’s the thing, and in this case, things don’t really add up.

All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t very effective or satisfying, for several reasons. First, it’s never clear to whom Mrs. Johnson is speaking. Yes, she’s addressing us, the audience, but as stand-ins for whom? A jury? God? Her husband? Herself? The lack of context is confusing and off-putting. Second, it’s difficult to feel much (if any) empathy for Mrs. Johnson. Although she says she loves her husband, she betrayed him—along with her professional ethics—by turning to an impressionable boy in an attempt to fill the void in her passionless marriage. When she speaks graphically (and rhapsodically) about her erotic adventures with Tommy, it’s difficult to suppress the “ick” factor. And the fact that Mrs. Johnson believes that her student benefited from the inappropriate liaison (“I pushed him to go to college; he is successful because of me”) doesn’t help her cause. True, LaBute loves to make us squirm by forcing us to confront the most unattractive, odious parts of ourselves. (He has said, “We humans are fairly barbarous bunch.”). But because he shows us nothing of Mrs. Johnson’s better nature, she remains distant from us, at arm’s length, to be regarded as more of a curiosity than as a fellow human being.

On paper, All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t one of LaBute’s weightier works; it doesn’t hold its own compared to In the Company of Men, Reasons to be Pretty, Fat Pig, and his other, more substantial plays. Without the luminous Ms. Light inhabiting the tortured, lustful soul of Mrs. Johnson, the play would no doubt be a good deal less effective, the tale much less engaging. But the opportunity to experience Ms. Light’s incandescent acting magic up close and personal in the intimate space of the Lortel adds infinite heft to the lightweight material. As one of the premier actresses of her generation, working across television, film, and thankfully, live theater mediums, Judith Light never brings us anything less than her “A” game. Through her work and commitment to her craft, she repeatedly shows her audiences “all the ways to say I love you”.

All the Ways to Say I Love You is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., through October 23. For ticket information: www.mcctheater.org

Too Blondes: Resident Millennials at the Metropolitan Room

Too BlondesIt’s not always easy being blonde—we’ve all heard the jokes. But like iconic blonde megastar Dolly Parton—who once quipped: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes, because I know I’m not dumb and I know I’m not blonde”—performers Savannah Brown and Chase O’Donnell know they’re not dumb, either. As evidenced by their delightful appearance at the Metropolitan Room on July 29 (their last in a series of shows at the venue over the past year), they’ve masterfully learned how to make blondeness work for them.

Performing as Too Blondes, Brown and Chase simultaneously spoofed and celebrated the blonde stereotype in an original show of song, dance, and banter that showcased their musical and comic talents. Written by Ms. O’Donnell and directed by Ms. Brown, the Too Blondes were ably backed up by musical director Sheridan Stevens on piano and Oliver Switzer on guitar and cajon.

The theme of the show, we learned, was “Life in the 20’s.” Brown, resplendent in a shimmery turquoise flapper dress accessorized by a silvery headband, has done her homework (via Yahoo Answers), and she proudly shared a wealth of information about the Roaring 20’s. There was just one teensy problem: the show’s title refers to life in one’s 20’s (both performers are 25), not the 20’s. No matter. Like another set of pals, Patsy and Edina of “Ab Fab” fame, the Too Blondes support each other, no matter what. Even in the face of Brown’s most egregiously hysterical dumb blondisms (i.e., mistakenly believing they’re playing the Metropolitan Opera instead of the Metropolitan Room), O’Donnell had her back, and vice versa. The obvious affection and support between their two characters is endearing, cleverly upending the dumb blonde shtick and turning it into a feminist statement.

The show gave both women opportunities to shine, individually and together. Some highlights included a 90’s/20’s mash up medley, where each blonde sang selections from “the classics.” For Ms. O’Donnell that meant the hip hop song “I’m Blue,” as counterpoint to Ms. Brown’s more traditional “Blue Skies” —a clever way to acknowledge their youth while paying homage to the cabaret tradition they embrace. (Ms. Brown’s mother is MAC Award-winning performer Stacy Sullivan). In her original composition “Turning 22,” Ms. O’Donnell described the frustrations of a young performer eager to make it in show business before it’s too late. She lamented, “21, I was fine. 22, past my prime. I’m running out of time to be famous. I should be famous.” Her blonde pal reassured her that everything will be OK: “When you don’t know what’s next, drink champagne!”

To bring the proceedings back to a lighter note, Ms. Brown’s ditzy character decided to write and perform a song on the spot. Grabbing Mr. Switzer’s guitar, she came up with a tune that sounded a lot like (actually, exactly like) Cindy Lauper’s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which while not original, could be the Too Blondes’ anthem. In the “Audition Bit,” the Blondes auditioned for the part of “white Diana Ross” for an all-white version of the Supremes. This number, along with another, “Dance Versatility,” provided a showcase for the pair’s dancing talents, from tap to ballet to Fosse-esque.

While the Blondes stepped offstage for a costume change, Sheridan Stevens kept things going with his original ballad “Leader of ISIS,” an offbeat tune that sounded like a Cole Porter classic with modern, twisted lyrics: “If I were the leader of ISIS, I’d proclaim I’m a prophet, then claim all the profit to buy nice things for you.” Stevens, along with Brown and O’Donnell, is an example of the wealth of young, gifted performers working in New York today. In addition to Stevens’ original song, four of the 15 musical numbers in the show were written by Ms. O’Donnell: “Mamma Misled Me,” “Turning 22,” “Going Dark,” and “Dating Song.”

What’s next for the Too Blondes? In an interview after their performance, the performers gave COTA an advance scoop: their next show is already in the works. Just in time for the presidential election, Too Blondes: Red, Blonde, and Blue will debut October 2 at the Triad Theatre.  Chase O’Donnell told COTA: “Every week we post a new political sketch, so we’ve decided to do a political show. We’ll be running for president, the two of us.” While the Too Blondes wouldn’t divulge where their political sympathies lie, they did share that they’ll be running on the “Dependent” party ticket, because they’re “dependent on their parents for money.” And they say they got some terrific Tiffany Trump material while watching the Republican convention. So stay tuned.

For more information, visit http://www.tooblondes.com

Shari & Too Blondes

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on Broadway

Eclipsed

Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s seering play about 4 women living in captivity during Liberia’s second civil war, is ultimately about power: those who have it, those who don’t, and those who will do anything to get it. It’s a brilliantly written and acted ensemble production that shines a light on important international human rights issues—well worth checking out before it ends its Broadway run on June 19 at the Golden Theatre on 45th Street. The 5-woman cast, performing together in productions both Off-and on Broadway, are a seamless unit of talent, power, and grace.

When the play begins we find 2 women living in squalor in a barely furnished, bullet-riddled hut. We learn they have been kept in captivity, as sexual and domestic slaves, for so long that the maternal older woman known simply as “Wife #1” (Saycon Sengbloh), has no idea how long she’s been there or exactly how old she is. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), heavily pregnant, is clearly the second banana in this circumscribed world—the less powerful among the powerless. Then, a surprise: a third woman (understudy Ayesha Jordan, at the performance I saw, in for the Tony-nominated, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o) appears from under a large wash tub. She is a gangly 15-year-old girl, kept hidden by the other women to prevent her from falling victim to their fate of sexual servitude to the (offstage) man they refer to as the “C.O.” However, their efforts prove futile: once the girl steps outside the safety of the hut to urinate, she is immediately grabbed and raped by the C.O., becoming Wife #4. The Girl, who grew up in the city, is different from the other women. She has had the benefit of an education and knows how to read and write. Having been forced from her home only recently, she is still able to dream of a life as a constitutional lawyer.

Anyone paying attention will wonder what became of Wife #2. Where is she? Wife #1 speaks of her scornfully. Wife #3 defends her as much as she dares. Our questions are answered when Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) shows up at the hut with an offering: a huge bag of rice for the women. Despite Wife #3’s entreaties, Wife #1 wants no part of either Wife #2 or the rice. We learn that Wife #2 has chosen the only available route out of her sexual enslavement: she has become a fighter in the rebel army. Taut, jittery, and wiry, dressed in fashionable jeans, a machine gun slung across her body, she is all swagger and tough-girl posturing.

As the action unfolds, we see that each character has her own definition of power. For Wife #1, power means being top dog in the small compound, where she rules the roost (or at least Wife #3). Wife #3 gains power by being the C.O.’s favorite sexual plaything and by carrying his unborn child. Wife #2, who now uses the fighter name “Disgruntled,” finds her power by acting like the brutal men who captured and abused her. She convinces The Girl to reclaim her own power by joining her in battle. The Girl realizes too late that to avoid being a victim, she must now become the victimizer, capturing other young girls for the rebel men to use and abuse. Wife #2 rationalizes the brutality, telling her: “The men are beasts and beasts demand to be fed. It’s either you or them.” At the play’s end, The Girl stands frozen, bearing two radically different symbols of power: a gun in one hand, a book in the other. Which will she choose?

A fifth woman, Rita (Akosua Busia), makes occasional visits to the rebel compound. She is a cultured, educated women dressed all in white who is part of a group of women peace activists dedicated to ending the violence. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, Rita tries to convince Wife #1 that a better life awaits her. She asks Wife #1 about her past, but the memories of her previous life are too painful for Wife #1 to contemplate; she cannot bear even to speak her real name aloud. After much prodding, she finally whispers it to Rita, who shows the illiterate Wife #1 how to spell it out using a stick in the dirt. “Think about what you can be,” she urges. Wife #1 responds despairingly: “I don’t know who I am.” The contrast between the 2 women is striking: Rita’s power lies in her ability to envision a better future through her peacekeeping work, while Wife #1 believes her only power lies in her place within the compound hierarchy.

During her time as a soldier, The Girl takes the name “Mother’s Blessing,” in memory of her own mother—ironic since she is now responsible for wrenching daughters away from their mothers, condemning them to live under unspeakable tyranny. The significance and importance of one’s name is a recurring theme in Eclipsed. As Rita tells Wife #1: “You must never lose your name.” To illustrate the power of names, the cast dedicates each performance to the abducted schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria and to all abducted girls around the world (#knowhername). At the end of the show cast members (and sometimes guests, who have included Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem) announce the names of 2 missing girls and ask the audience to repeat the names out loud. It is a powerful and chilling moment that brings home the reality that the events depicted in Eclipsed continue today, even as the audience sits comfortably in their seats at the Golden Theatre. It is a prime example of how theatre can not only entertain, but be a call to action.

Zimbabwean playwright (Familiar, In the Continuum) and actress (known for her role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) Gurira developed Eclipsed at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. The play was later staged at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway. The production will move to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, California for a limited engagement in Spring 2017. With powerful direction by award-winning South African Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed is the first Broadway production with an all-female cast, director, writer, and production team (except for set & costume designer Clint Ramos).

Eclipsed was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, including Best Play. On June 12, 2016, Clint Ramos won the Tony for Best Costume Design for his work on the play.

Eclipsed continues at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. through June 19.
Opening night: March 6, 2016; first preview: February 23, 2016.

For more information: http://www.eclipsedbroadway.com/

Backstage after the show!

Eclipsed & Shari

Theatre Review: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw

Crucible Playbill

It’s said that when The Crucible was first performed on Broadway, in late January 1953 at the Martin Beck Theater, Arthur Miller deemed the production “too stylized and cold.” One wonders what the playwright would make of his work’s newest incarnation, now in a limited run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by the much-lauded Dutch theatre/opera director Ivo Van Hove (who also helmed the recent hit Broadway revival of Miller’s A View from the Bridge) this stark and stripped down Crucible is certainly stylized—Jan Versweyveld’s sparse set represents no specific place or time—and perhaps a bit cold as well. But the realistic, bone-chilling performances, underscored by Philip Glass’s ominous original score, create an unforgettably powerful and disturbing theatrical experience. Miller’s cautionary tale of evildoing in the guise of piety remains as potent and relevant today as when The Crucible made its debut over 60 years ago (especially given the current presidential election cycle, where talk of “bringing America back” and fear of immigrants and religious minorities dominates the debates).

The curtain rises on a prelude of sorts: a group of schoolgirls, dressed in matching uniforms, sit in a classroom, their backs to the audience. We hear children’s voices singing. The curtain closes on this glimpse of normalcy, then quickly rises again to reveal a different scene, where young Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter) lies ill and immobile. We learn that another girl, Ruth Putnam, is similarly afflicted. From this point on, the normal, rational world no longer exists. Betty’s father, the local Reverend (Jason Butler Harner) is worried. He came upon Betty and some other girls dancing (a sin) in the woods (perhaps naked, an even greater sin) and he fears witchcraft may be to blame. He has summoned another preacher, John Hale (an excellent Bill Camp), an expert in demonic possession, to help make a proper diagnosis. A voice of reason, the elderly, highly respected Rebecca Nurse (a heart-breakingly effective Brenda Wehle), tries to rein in his fears, before things get out of hand, warning Reverend Parris, “There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves.” But it’s too late: the game’s afoot; the witch hunt is irrevocably under way.

As the ringleader of the girls, Parriss’s niece Abigail Williams, Saoirse Ronan is a terrifying piece of work. Slender, blonde, and pretty, she is a prime example of the perils of judging a book by its cover: this outwardly sweet young thing is the embodiment of a persuasive, sinister evil. The truth is that Abigail had the girls accompany her to the woods, along with the Barbadian servant Tituba (Jenny Jules) to participate in a ceremony that she hoped would bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo, who last graced Broadway in her Tony-winning performance in the terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun). Young Abigail had a brief affair with Elizabeth’s husband John (British star Ben Whishaw, in an impressive Broadway debut) while working in their home, and in true “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Abigail is determined to take Elizabeth’s place. Lest any of the girls consider divulging the truth, Abigail bullies them into silence, threatening Mercy Lewis (Erin Wilhelmi) and Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, a terrific young actress last seen on Broadway in This Is Our Youth): “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”

What makes this production of The Crucible so affecting is the cast—all top-notch. While the whip-thin Whishaw is not the robust physical type usually cast in the role of John Proctor, the choice seems especially apt in the final scene, when Proctor appears after having spent months in prison. He is filthy, abused, and starved. His scrawny bare back is bloody from torture. As he huddles with his beloved wife, (also filthy; also quite thin), he is a stand in for the ultimate man, Christ, headed toward his martyrdom. Whishaw is a fine, nuanced actor, best known in the UK for his West End stage appearances and in the U.S. for his roles in the James Bond film “Spectre” and TV’s “Criminal Justice.” The scenes between him and the luminous Okonedo are especially poignant. Special mention must also go to Ciarán Hinds’s frighteningly and self-righteously deluded Deputy Governor Danforth (truly chilling), Bill Camp’s evolving turn as the Reverend John Hale, who too late realizes his error in sanctioning the proceedings, and Tavi Gevinson’s wispy, mousy, ill at ease Mary Warren, a downtrodden lass who tries to stand up to the authorities and to Abigail, only to realize that she is no match for any of them.

Although The Crucible is based on real-life characters and events that took place during the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller wrote the play as a commentary on a more recent—but no less abominable—American witch hunt (one which he personally experienced), the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Like the actors, writers, and others accused of anti-American activity under McCarthyism, the characters in The Crucible are at the mercy of their accusers. Any person may find himself suddenly accused. And anyone who refuses to “name names” is summarily condemned. Ironically, the only means of survival in the play is to admit one’s “sin” (even though innocent) and to accuse others. In both cases—Salem and the Red Scare—we see a world gone mad, driven by an irrational mob mentality and a perversion of morality as an excuse for barbarism.

In truth, the accusatory characters in The Crucible are driven by base, rather than pious, motives. Abigail lusts after John Proctor and will commit murder to have him. Ann Putnam (Tina Benko) accuses Rebecca Nurse, an upright pillar of the community, of witchcraft because she envies her many healthy children and grandchildren. And Ann’s husband, Thomas (Thomas Jay Ryan) wants Rebecca Nurse’s husband (veteran actor Jim Norton) out of the way so that he can take his land. Lust, envy, and greed—all in the name of piety!

In the final moments of The Crucible, Miller sends a powerful message via John Proctor. Just before he is to be pointlessly put to death, Proctor rails at the imperious judge who has condemned him, along with so many other innocents: “I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth!” As Miller reminds us, the Devil has always walked among us; he’s still here. And he looks a lot like us.

The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17.
For more information.

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.

Broadway Musical Recommendations Tailored Just for YOU

Broadway Musicals 2015

Wondering what show you should see tonight (or next week)? Here’s Shari on the Aisle’s guide to help you decide which Broadway musical(s) to see right now, based on your personal preferences. Read the “YOU” descriptions below, choose the one that best represents you, then go see a show!

Keep in mind: this list is far from exhaustive. With the Broadway Spring season well under way, there are abundant choices for both the occasional and frequent theatregoer. The following suggestions are culled from some of the newest shows. You should also consider productions that have been around for a while—those oldies but goodies like “Matilda,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Aladdin,” and “Kinky Boots.” (Also keep in mind that Shari on the Aisle hasn’t yet seen all of the new shows, including “Finding Neverland” and “An American in Paris.”

(Stay tuned: I will provide personalized play recommendations in my next post).

YOU: “I want to see a show that has me whistling a happy tune when I leave the theatre.”
GO SEE: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” (Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont). Nobody does musicals better than Rodgers & Hammerstein—or Lincoln Center Theatre. Under the sure direction of Bartlett Sher, LCT knows how to put on a classy, glossy, top notch show. While “The King and I” isn’t on a par with say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” (Lincoln Center presented that show, also directed by Mr. Sher and also starring the ebullient Kelli O’Hara, a few years ago and it was sheer perfection), you’ll happily hum along with “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.” This production is big and gorgeous. Sure, the book is a bit weak and Ken Watanabe’s accent renders some of the dialogue and lyrics indecipherable. But Ms. O’Hara’s glorious voice and radiant presence, along with the sumptuous costumes and stunning sets, more than make up for these shortcomings. And yes, you will leave the theatre whistling a happy tune and with a song in your heart.

King and I

YOU: I’d rather see a dark, thought-provoking show than a cute piece of fluff. (And I’d make a mad dash to see anything starring the legendary Chita Rivera).
GO SEE: “The Visit” (Lyceum Theatre). A musical that explores the darkness of men’s souls? Yes, and it’s terrific. “The Visit” is a work created by theatre royalty. It’s the last collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical geniuses behind “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and many other award-winning shows. The book is by Theater Hall of Famer Terrence McNally. And Chita? She’s a national treasure. The plot centers on Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, and her return to the small town where she spent a miserable childhood. The town has fallen on hard times, and the villagers who once taunted and reviled her believe she has come back to save them. Claire offers to do just that, but with a chilling twist. At 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Visit” is riveting, intelligent theatre. Some of the songs are reminiscent of “Cabaret,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. And Chita’s haunting performance of “Love and Love Alone,” sung while performing a pas de deux with her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla) is well worth the price of admission. You won’t leave this show humming a happy tune, but rather with the satisfying feeling of having experienced brilliance live on stage.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see something that will tickle my funny bone—the sillier the better.”
GO SEE: “Something Rotten” (St. James Theatre, in previews; opening April 22). Did you love “The Book of Mormon” and “Spamalot?” This original new show, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon”) stars Brian d’Arcy James (“Next to Normal,” “Shrek the Musical”) and Christian Borle (Tony-award winner, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” TV’s “Smash”) as rival playwrights Nick Bottom and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the 1590’s equivalent of a rock star, and Nick and his younger brother Nigel are desperate to come up with a strategy to compete. They turn to soothsayer Nostradamus (a show-stopping Brad Oscar) who encourages them to create the very first musical: “Oohs, aahs, big applause, and a standing ovation. The future is bright, if you can just write a musical!” The first three musical numbers in the show—“Welcome to the Renaissance,” “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” and “A Musical”—are absolutely hysterical, brilliant crowd pleasers. While nothing in Act 2 equals the perfection of those first few songs—and the preview performance I saw went on a bit too long—this show is tons of fun and will be a huge hit. So go back in time around 400 years or so to the Renaissance, “Where everything is new.” You’re guaranteed to have a great time.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see an old-fashioned, beautiful, romantic show.” OR: “I have a tweenage daughter who geeks out over “High School Musical.’”
GO SEE: “Gigi” (Neil Simon Theatre). You’re probably familiar with the Oscar-winning1958 film version of “Gigi” starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jordan. This “re-launched” (according to the Playbill) Broadway version stars Vanessa Hudgens, the talented young star of Disney’s “High School Musical” films, along with an excellent cast of Broadway veterans (Tony-award winner Victoria Clark, Tony nominees Dee Hoty and Howard McGillin). The new “Gigi” has been sanitized to make it more “G-rated” than the film. For example, the famous song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung by the Chevalier’s aging roué character in the film, is now sung by two women, Gigi’s grandmother and her aunt. And the fact that 15-year-old Gigi (now 18 in the Broadway musical) is being groomed to be a courtesan is never discussed. So no worries, parents: you can feel at ease taking your impressionable tweens and teens to this charming show. Musical highlights include the exuberant Act 1 closing number, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and the tender title song, wistfully sung by Corey Cott, the former “Newsies” star. The costumes and sets are lovely and Hudgens, who has been a performer since the age of 8, is delightful. At the preview performance I attended, teenage girls in the audience repeatedly shrieked with joy (and not just over Hudgens). Adults who like their musicals squeaky clean and romantic will also enjoy this 2-1/2 hour escape to a somewhat mythical La Belle Epoque, where Ms. Hudgens sparkles like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Gigi

For ticket information, see the shows’ websites as listed above, or visit:
Playbill.com

TDF Discount Theatre Booths

Broadway Helper