Two Composers Lob Ideas and Tennis Balls in Charlie Barnett’s New Play “12Ness”

So these two composers walk into a bar…well, actually, a tennis court. That’s the premise of a provocative new play, 12Ness, that had a recent run at the Ice House in Bethlehem, PA. Written by composer, producer, musician, (and Easton, PA native) Charlie Barnett, 12Ness was presented by the Crowded Kitchen Players, produced by Ara Barlieb and Pamela McLean Wallace, and directed by George B. Miller.

The two composers are American popular songwriter George Gershwin and Austrian expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. (The play’s title refers to the 12-toned chromatic scale Schoenberg favored). The mise en scène is Hollywood, 1936-37, alternating between Ira Gershwin’s private tennis court and Schoenberg’s dining room. In an interesting, site-specific staging choice, the audience physically moves upstairs to the Ice House’s second floor for the dining room scenes. The downstairs set, the tennis court, is quite minimal—with only a couple of benches—while the dining room includes a table, furnishings, and a glowing orb meant to signify a full moon. The movement between the two settings enhances the play’s flow, and the audience seemed to enjoy moving about the rustic décor of the old Ice House. In addition to Gershwin (Ryan MacNamara) and Schoenberg (Robert Salsburg), the cast includes Gershwin’s then-girlfriend, actress Ginger Rogers (Stephanie Gawlas Walsh) and Schoenberg’s attractive, much younger wife Gertrud (Syd Stauffer).

We learn in a program note that 62-year-old Schoenberg had recently arrived in America, escaping the Nazi threat in his native Austria with help from Gershwin, and that Gershwin died of a brain tumor (at age 37) less than a year after the men began their tennis rivalry. (Throughout the play, we see Gershwin suffer from various odd sensory symptoms that tell us not all is well).

The two composers, so divergent in temperament, artistic philosophy and style, and age, engage in an ongoing volley of ideas along with the tennis balls. While both men were musical geniuses in their own right, Schoenberg is formal, structured, and somewhat cranky, while Gershwin, a natural, intuitive talent, is much more sociable and happy-go-lucky. In the opening scene, the younger man scolds his older colleague: “You’ve got a rule for everything.” Schoenberg explains his philosophy: “Structure is everything.” He tells an incredulous Gershwin that his current work in progress has “neither notes nor melody.” Perhaps these artistic differences can be best described in a line from the play: “Schoenberg writes music for himself; Gershwin writes music for an audience.”

Certainly the debate about what is and what is not art is a heady subject for a play. However, as presented through the characters of the two highly individual composers, the topic takes on personal weight and meaning, and the play is quite engaging. Each of the four actors does a fine job inhabiting his or her character: Salsburg portrays Schoenberg with the right combination of intellectual fervor and curmudgeonly crank; MacNamara’s Gershwin is by turns light-hearted and tortured; Gawlas Walsh’s Ginger Rogers is intelligent and warm; and Syd Stauffer shows us Gertrud’s painful struggle between admiration for and duty to her husband and longing for a more exciting, passionate existence.

I spoke to the playwright for some behind-the-scenes insight into 12Ness. The following is an edited excerpt from that interview:

Shari Lifland: What was the inspiration behind 12Ness?

Charlie Barnett: The idea for the play came from a 13-second conversational tidbit. I was talking to my friend Graham Townsley about Gershwin and he told me about a standing tennis match between George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. I can’t imagine two more unlikely people playing tennis. That was it—just the idea that George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg were standing 30 feet from each other. They’re the most divergent personalities and music that I could imagine. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I tried to figure out what to do with it. I wondered, “Is this going to make its way into a piece of music?” I didn’t really know. I did a minimum bit of research and found out there was basically nothing documented about what they said to each other, which is great for me, because I’m completely uninterested in a biographical sketch. I was interested in the art of it. So I thought, “Oh, good—I can just make up what they say!” Then I went on vacation (I’m not great on vacationing); and I got up every morning at 5 and I wrote for 4 hours. I wrote the play in a week. Then I spent the next 8 months putting it down, picking it up, editing. I invited 100 people whose opinions really matter to me to a reading, and based on that, I made some fairly decisive changes.

Shari Lifland: What are your next plans/hopes for the piece?

Charlie Barnett: It’s pretty clear to me that I’m going to make some changes structurally to it after seeing it this round. I’m going to work with Ara (Barlieb). He’s sharp at this stuff and sees this play with brand new eyes. There’s one big argument in this play—process vs. inspiration— and I have to figure out when enough is enough: when they audience finally gets it, vs. when they’re sick of it. It’s a fine line. Certainly in the play, all the best arguments are for process; there’s no really good argument for being inspired. How do you do it? Either you are or you aren’t.

Shari Lifland: In the play, Gershwin is put on the spot to defend inspiration, which is the only way he knows how to create. Is that fair? Is his art less valuable than Schoenberg’s?

Charlie Barnett: They were both certifiable geniuses in their own spheres, and that stands. There’s a good case to be made on both sides. Maybe I feel for them both equally. As a playwright, I just love the argument. As a composer, I’m probably ambivalent. I sit down to write a piece of orchestral music and it just comes. I’ve written a million pieces without a plan at all. I don’t have a plan like Schoenberg had a plan. I sit down and think, “Hmm. What would the audience like to hear? I’ll write that.” So much of what the characters in the play say is unsurprisingly what I would say.

For news about upcoming productions of 12Ness, visit www.charliebarnett.com

For information about the Crowded Kitchen Players, visit www.ckplayers.com

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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

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.

Academy Award-Winner Forest Whitaker Stars in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie

Hughie 2

It’s only fitting that Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is set in a hotel lobby: the acclaimed playwright was born in a hotel—the Barrett House on Broadway and 43rd Street—a stone’s throw from the Booth Theatre, where his one act, two-hander now plays.

When the audience enters the theatre, an actor (Tony and Drama League Award winner Frank Wood) is already on stage. The character billed simply as “Night Clerk” sits, dreamlike and immobile, at the reception desk in the lobby of a faded New York City hotel. It is the wee hours of a morning in summer, 1928. The richly detailed set (by Tony and Olivier Award-winning designer Christopher Oram), looks like a vintage sepia print photo. A barely readable “out of order” sign hangs on the ornate, long idle, elevator. A neon “Hotel” sign is partially visible through the window. Muffled traffic sounds and subdued lighting add to the mood of quiet, otherworldly unease. In sum, as one character describes it, the place is “as homey as a morgue.”

Eventually, a man trudges through the hotel’s revolving door. He is Erie Smith (Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker) a small-time gambler and big-time drinker who has been out on a weeks-long bender mourning the death of his friend, the recently deceased former desk clerk, Hughie. Like the hotel, Erie’s best days are behind him. He tells Night Clerk that he hasn’t won a bet since Hughie first went into the hospital, lamenting, “When I lost Hughie, I lost my luck.” Erie restlessly circles the hotel lobby like a dog sniffing out a safe place to lie down. He’s stuck between two equally distasteful alternatives—creditors lurking somewhere outside waiting to rough him up, and his lonely hotel room upstairs.

Most of Hughie’s 60-minute running time comprises Erie’s monologue about his glory days, which he desperately wants to reclaim, delivered to the mostly disinterested Night Clerk. Oddly, we learn that the new clerk’s name is, like his predecessor’s, Hughes. Erie tells him, “Yeah, you’ve got that old look like Hughie had.” Or at least, that’s what Erie would like to believe, because Hughie served a vital function for Erie: he was Erie’s mirror. By repeatedly relating self-aggrandizing stories about his successes with gambling and women to Hughie, Erie created a persona that reflected his personal version of the American Dream. When Hughie died, Erie’s self-important vision died along with him. “I lost my confidence,” he tells Night Clerk. “He gave me my confidence.” Now, with Hughie gone, Erie worries that he may be washed up, or even worse, that he, like Hughie, may cease to exist. Without the gullible Hughie as a sounding board, Erie’s illusions (and his courage to go on) may simply crumble into dust.

Because of its short length, Hughie is not staged often. The current production at the Booth is well worth seeing, thanks to its extremely talented, multiple award-winning cast and creative team. It is a definite star vehicle that provides an opportunity for Whitaker to transfer his formidable cinematic talents to the New York stage. Whitaker, who won Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Awards for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland, has also received acclaim for roles in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Crying Game, and other hit films. In Hughie, the actor uses his large, rangy frame to embody a man who, despite his insistent bravado, is now a shrunken version of his former self. His dandyish three-piece suit seems to hang on his body. And despite his quick smile, he is nervous, ill at ease, and terrified of the future. Whitaker has a natural warmth and charm that serve his character well. His Erie is both believable and touching; as sympathetic as he is pathetic.

Frank Wood, a wonderful New York actor who won Tony and Drama League Awards for his role in Side Man and was last seen on Broadway in Clybourne Park, makes the most of a minor role. His character exists as an audience for Erie—a would-be replacement for his old confidant. As reflected in his presence on stage before the action begins, Night Clerk is more a part of the set than a flesh and blood character.

For Hughie, director Michael Grandage reunites with his Tony-winning design team from the hit play Red. Christopher Oram’s gorgeous set is so detailed and evocative, it almost becomes a third character in the drama. Adam Cork’s brooding original music and sound design and Neil Austin’s muted and affecting lighting design also play a huge part in the play’s success, creating a pervasive, ominous sense of dread and foreboding.

Is O’Neill’s hotel lobby actually Purgatory, a layover between life (the world outside the hotel’s revolving doors) and death (Erie’s room upstairs)? The set prominently features what could easily be regarded as a “stairway to heaven.” And the lead character is named “Erie,” an apt homonym for the play’s “eerie” ambiance. One wonders if Night Clerk is even real. Played with deadpan bemusement by the always excellent Frank Wood, is he perhaps the angel of death, come for Erie? Or just an illusion Erie has created in Hughie’s image in a desperate attempt to survive? Why else would Charlie the Night Clerk share a surname with the departed Hughie of the title? And why, after nearly an hour of polite, almost somnambulant disinterest, does Charlie spring to life, suddenly wildly fascinated (à la Hughie) with Erie’s possible connection to a particular big-time gambler? Only O’Neill can answer these questions, and he passed away in 1953, several years before Hughie’s debut. (He penned Hughie in 1941).

Although Hughie is a slender O’Neill work, compared to his much-lauded epics like Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and Desire Under the Elms, its hotel setting is of particular interest. O’Neill was not only born in a hotel; he also died in one. His own final curtain fell at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, where his last words were reportedly: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”

Hughie continues at the Booth Theatre through March 27. For information

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle

BROADWAY SPRING PREVIEW: Plays

Heidi Chronicles

Baby, it’s cold outside! But here’s a happy thought to warm a theatre lover’s heart: Milder weather and the new Spring Broadway season are only a few weeks away, with some shows beginning previews in February.

Here are a few plays that are coming up soon. (Keep in mind that dates are subject to change). As usual, there will be a mix of new works and revivals, musicals and plays, both serious and comic. (Stay tuned for my Broadway Spring Preview Part II: Musicals—coming up in my next post).

Fish in the Dark First Preview: February 2; Opening: March 5

Theatre: Cort, 138 W. 48th St.

Attention, “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fans: Larry David has written a play. The television star will make his Broadway debut—as an actor and writer—When David returns to the stage “for the first time since eighth grade” (according to the show’s Website).

In Fish in the Dark David plays Norman Drexel, a character he describes as, “very similar to Larry David—it might even be Larry David with a different name.” The story was inspired by the death of a friend’s father. David told David Letterman recently that he never intended to play the role himself: “I imagined anyone but me as the star. I’m not an actor.” (Although one imagines playing himself won’t be too much of a stretch).

David will take the stage supported by a cast of theatre veterans, including Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Jayne Houdeyshell (a wonderful Tony-nominated stage actress who is a personal favorite of mine). Anna D. Shapiro (This Is Our Youth, Of Mice and Men, August, Osage County) directs.

Will Larry David become a big fish on Broadway? With advance ticket sales of over $11 million so far, it’s looking “pretty, pretty good.”

The Heidi Chronicles First Preview: February 23; Opening: March 19

Theatre: Music Box, 239 W. 45th St.

The original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s landmark 1988 play won the dramatic Triple Crown: the Tony, the Pulitzer Prize, and the New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play. The 2015 revival has a promising cast: Elisabeth Moss (HBO’s “Mad Men”) stars as Heidi, along with Bryce Pinkham (Tony nominee for A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder) and Jason Biggs (“American Pie” films, “Orange is the New Black”), along with another of my favorite New York actresses, Tracee Chimo (Bad Jews, Harvey, “Orange is the New Black”). Pam McKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance) will direct.

The play explores “big” subjects: feminism, work, love, and motherhood, viewed via 20 years in the life of art historian Heidi Holland, from the 1960s through the 1980s, from her high school days through her career and desire for a child.

The Heidi Chronicles is an important American play, with themes that are as relevant today as they were 27 years ago. Hopefully the revival’s popular young actors will attract a new generation of theatre goers who will continue the conversation Wasserstein began in 1988. (Wasserstein’s other notable plays include Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosensweig, and Isn’t it Romantic. She died in 2006 at age 55).

Skylight First Preview: March 16; Opening: April 2

Theatre: Golden, 252 W. 45th St.

There is already lots of pre-Broadway transfer buzz around this new production of Skylight, thanks to its recent acclaimed, sold-out run in London’s West End. The drama, a 1995 work by British playwright/screenwriter David Hare (Plenty, The Vertical Hour), stars British actors Carey Mulligan (best known for her work in the films “An Education,” “Drive,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Bill Nighy (“Love, Actually,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). Interestingly, Nighy reprises the role he played in a 1997 London production of Skylight.

Skylight is a relationship piece that explores issues of class and capitalism that is, some say, based on events in the life of British designer/retailer Terence Conran. Mulligan and Nighy play former lovers Kyra (a schoolteacher in a tough school) and Tom (a wealthy businessman), who are separated by large gaps in social class, age, and world view. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s run-down flat when Tom pays a visit. The two have not seen each other in several years (since Tom’s wife found out about their affair). Two-time Tony award winner Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) directs.

Note: Ms. Mulligan’s character cooks up a pot of spaghetti on stage. So, word to the wise: if you’re in the first few rows, don’t go to the theatre hungry!

The show is scheduled for a 13-week run.

Also coming up, more Brits on Broadway:

The Audience. Helen Mirren stars (once again) as Queen Elizabeth II in a new play by Peter Morgan. Billed as “Sixty years, 12 Prime Ministers, one Queen,” the play imagines the dialogue between the Queen and her Prime Ministers in their private weekly meetings, throughout the 60 years of her reign.

First Preview: February 14; Opening: March 8; Schoenfeld Theatre

Wolf Hall Parts I and II. Direct from a hit run in London, these two plays are based on Hilary Mantel’s popular novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, tales of intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. They will be performed in repertory, with a limited run.

First Preview: March 20; Opening: April 9; Winter Garden Theatre

A LOOK BACK AT SOME FAVORITE 2014 BROADWAY SHOWS

Shari HedwigHedwig and the Angry Inch: This show has become a cult favorite, with many fans returning to see the show time after time, despite (or perhaps because of) the rotating cast of Hedwigs. I admit that I am somewhat obsessed with the show, a condition precipitated by Neil Patrick Harris’s memorably heart-breaking performance as the original Broadway Hedwig. (I called it “the performance of a lifetime”). I saw the show a second time, with the talented Andrew Rannells (Tony nominated for The Book of Mormon) who created an angrier, less vulnerable, Hedwig. And yes, I have my ticket for an upcoming third performance, when John Cameron Mitchell (who starred in the original off-Broadway and film versions of Hedwig and wrote the show’s book), will once again don gold platform boots and step into the role. (Stay tuned). Lena Hall, a Tony winner for her role as Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, remains in the show.

Disgraced: This is probably the best new play I saw in 2014, and fortunately for theatre-goers, it still graces the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. Ayad Ahktar’s tale of an upwardly mobile Pakistani/American attorney’s rapid fall deservedly won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 5-person cast that includes Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, and “How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor, does a splendid job, but here, “the play’s the thing.” Ahktar’s daring and insightful writing creates moments that both illuminate and shock, providing much food for thought and post-performance discussion.

Side Show PlaybillSide Show: Critics adored this revamped production of the 1997 original. Yet somehow it just never found its audience (or enough of an audience to satisfy the Jujamcyn organization). Like its predecessor, Side Show closed too soon, giving its final performance on January 4, just 7 weeks after opening night. I thought it was brilliant, touching, and riveting, with amazing performances by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as the Hilton sisters. I called it “the best show you’ve never seen,” and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see it.

A Raisin in the Sun: The 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play was as fine a staging as we’ll ever see. Although the cast member with the most star power was Denzel Washington (as Walter Lee Younger), it was the women (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose) who shined the brightest. All three were nominated for Tonys, and when I saw the play, my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (But who can compete with the genius Audra McDonald? (See below).

Lady DayLady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill: While Lanie Robertson’s play depicts jazz legend Billie Holiday at a low point in her career, Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day shows us a great talent at the height of her powers. McDonald won a record-setting sixth Tony Award (for Best Actress in a Play) for her unforgettable performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she played to sold-out audiences night after night. It was painful to witness the portrayal of decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, but at the same time it was uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted performer Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late great Lady Day.

Also Memorable: All the Way, Casa Valentina, Cabaret, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Love Letters, Rocky, Honeymoon in Vegas (Opens January 15)

Worst Shows of the Year: The Realistic Joneses, Bullets Over Broadway, Somewhere Fun (Off-Broadway)

See you on the Aisle in 2015!

Erin Davie