QUICK TAKES: 4 SHOWS TO SEE RIGHT NOW

Every Brilliant Thing

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

In my two most recent posts I’ve presented a sneak peak at some Broadway plays and musicals that are on the horizon. While we’re waiting for Spring to arrive—both inside and outside the theatre—here are four terrific plays, (2 on Broadway and 2 off Broadway) that are currently playing and are highly recommended. Go see them now, before they’re gone.

Every Brilliant Thing. Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St.

This is a show with a simple message: Life, despite its challenges and disappointments, is a beautiful thing, if you just take the time to notice the small joys all around you. British actor/writer/comedian Jonny Donahoe stars as a man who, as a young boy and continuing throughout his life, creates a list of “every brilliant thing” in the world to convince his suicidal mother to keep on living. Sounds depressing, right? It is anything but. The show is both inspiring and fun, as Donahoe (who also co-wrote with Duncan Macmillan) enlists the participation of the audience in enumerating life’s small pleasures. He hands out numbered slips of paper before the show begins, asking audience members to read each paper aloud when he mentions its number. For example: 1. Ice cream, 2. Water fights, 3. Things with stripes, 4. Christopher Walken’s voice. As the boy matures into a man, the brilliant things evolve into more adult choices: Starting a new book; Falling in love. At 65 minutes with no intermission, the show is a short, sweet, and thoroughly satisfying brilliant thing, well worth the trip down to Barrow Street.

Every Brilliant Thing continues through March 29.

Disgraced. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

The mise en scene in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a familiar one: the dinner party. Amir, an up-and-coming attorney, and his artist wife Emily are hosts to Emily’s art dealer, Isaac and his wife Jory, a colleague at Amir’s law firm. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds: Amir is a lapsed (some might say, self-loathing) Muslim, Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African American. It’s been said that to keep the peace at social gatherings, two potential powder keg topics should be avoided: politics and religion. Unfortunately for Amir (but fortunately for the dramatic tension of the play), the play’s characters ignore that advice—and by the end of the evening, no one emerges unscathed. This is a thought-provoking, engaging evening at the theatre that will provide ample material for your own post-theatre dinner conversation.

Read the complete Shari on the Aisle review.

Disgraced continues through March 1.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

Olivier Award-winning British playwright Simon Stephens has adapted Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about an autistic boy’s investigation into the murder of a neighborhood dog into an incredibly moving and dazzling work of theatre. What makes the play so remarkable is how, through innovative stagecraft that includes grid-like projections, lighting, and audio, we experience what it’s like to be Christopher, the play’s young protagonist. We feel the almost unbearable pain of sensory overload that afflicts an autistic child. The brilliant staging, along with a remarkable performance by Alex Sharp (a recent Julliard grad wowing audiences in his Broadway debut) in the lead role, creates a theatrical experience that is incredibly moving and unique. Sharp, along with the play, are sure to be on the list of 2014/15 Tony nominees.

Performances of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are ongoing.

Between Riverside and Crazy. Second Stage, Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

On the surface, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy looks like another play about a dysfunctional family. Pops (veteran actor Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a 60-something cop who was shot while off duty a few years back. A recent widower, he shares his rent controlled Riverside Drive apartment with an assortment of younger, troubled characters—all of whom call him Pops or Dad (whether related to him or not). His son Junior, fresh from jail, is selling hot merchandise out of his bedroom. Junior’s friend Oswaldo is struggling to stay clean. And Junior’s girlfriend announces she’s pregnant. Pops, who refuses to settle his lawsuit against the NYPD, may lose the apartment. But look beneath the surface, and nothing is as it seems. The ensemble, especially Henderson, does a fine job in this restaging of an Atlantic Theatre production.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues through March 22.

Curious Incident

With Curious Incident’s Alex Sharp

For ticket information on all of these shows, check out the show’s websites, playbill.com, TKTS, and Broadway Helper.com

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

SIDE SHOW

Side Show

St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

Unless you act soon—and by soon, I mean within the next 2 weeks, Side Show will be the best show you’ve never seen. And that’s just sad. I had the privilege of seeing this excellent production several days ago, and its poignant spell is still with me.

Lead Cast: Erin Davie (Violet Hilton), Emily Padgett (Daisy Hilton), David St. Louis (Jake), Ryan Silverman (Terry Connor), Matthew Hydzik (Buddy Foster), Robert Joy (Sir)

Director: Bill Condon

Music: Henry Krieger

Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell

Additional Book Material: Bill Condon

Background:  The current Broadway production of Side Show is a revamped version of the original, which opened 17 years ago, on October 16, 1997. The show is based on a true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who rose from exploitation as freaks in a seamy side show to become Vaudeville stars. Although the original show received many positive reviews (New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it a “daring, enthralling production”), it closed on January 3, 1998, after only 31 previews and 91 regular performances. Sadly, history will repeat itself when the new Side Show closes on January 4, 2015, just 7 weeks after opening night.

I didn’t see the 1997 Broadway production, but I’m told by people who did that the new version adds several new songs and cuts others, and that the book has been reworked to include more exposition about the Hilton twins’ childhood in England.

The Production

I found this show absolutely riveting from beginning to end. The opening number “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the mood: the sets (by David Rockwell) are spare, often only suggesting the actual physical surroundings. The lighting (Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) effortlessly guides your eye to focus on what’s important in any given scene. There are some special effects—as when a costume change appears to happen by magic—that are amazing.

But it is the performances take your breath away. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, actresses who offstage don’t really look alike, convince us that they are physically identical—literally joined at the hip. In addition to the physical transformation, they also convey the twins’ very different personalities. Daisy (Ms. Padgett) is brash and flirtatious and dreams of stardom. Violet is more reserved. Their contrasting personas are illustrated in the song “Like Everyone Else:”

Violet sings, “I want to be like everybody else; to walk down the street not attracting attention.” Daisy yearns for fame: “I want to be like everyone else, but richer and more acclaimed. Worshiped and celebrated.” The stunning costume designs (by Paul Tazewell) underscore the idea of sameness vs. difference: Daisy and Violet dress alike, but in dresses that are mirror images of each other.

Because a “normal” life is impossible for the sisters, who have always been made to feel they are “freaks of nature,” only Daisy will get her wish. Once rescued from the exploitation of the side show by the handsome, smooth-talking Terry O’Connor, the girls achieve fame and fortune as Vaudeville stars. (Of course they are still being exploited, but with a higher standard of living).

I want to give a shout out to David St. Louis, who as Jake, the girls’ protector and champion (and who suffers unrequited love for Violet), is simply stunning in every scene he plays and every song he sings. I’m hoping that he’ll be recognized, along with Davie and Padgett, with a Tony nomination

Heartbreaking Moments

Side Show is ultimately a love story. Despite an often cruel and exploitive world, Daisy and Violet know that they will always have each other. While they do consider separation surgery, they are told that it is risky—that one or both might not survive. They realize that it is their connectedness that truly defines them and makes them special; that in a world where they are viewed as freaks, they are never alone. They are bound together in body and soul, by love.

Two emotional duets underscore the touching and profound love between Daisy and Violet: the first act closer, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and the last song in Act 2 (before a reprise of “Come Look at the Freaks”), “I Will Never Leave You.” If these plaintive songs don’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart.

From “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”:

Who will ever call to say I love you? Send me flowers or a telegram?

Who could proudly stand beside me? Who will love me as I am?

From “I Will Never Leave You”:

I will never leave you; I will never go away

We were meant to share each moment; Beside you is where I will stay

Evermore and always; We’ll be one though we’re two

For I will never leave you

Why the Side Show Must End

Why can’t this thrilling and touching show make it on Broadway? Part of the problem stems from the subject matter. When people hear the words “Siamese twins” and “freaks” they may mistakenly assume the show is somehow distasteful or upsetting. Other reasons are more mundane, having to do with the “business” part of show business. While the orchestra section was full for the matinee I attended, theatre staff they told me that ticket sales for the mezzanine were generally poor. When St. James Theatre owner Jujamcyn saw an opportunity to book a potential blockbuster new musical, Something Rotten (directed by Book of Mormon’s Casey Nicholaw), it turned its back on Side Show. As Side Show producer Darren Bagert told The New York Times: “We were persuaded to post a notice prematurely, in the middle of a holiday season ticket upswing. If there weren’t another show clawing at the door, I think we’d still be at the theater.”

When I spoke to several cast members after the performance, they were understandably disappointed that this high-quality, audience-pleasing production was ending too soon. Like Daisy and Violet, both the 1997 and 2014 productions of Side Show beseech us: “Who will love me as I am?”

So, in the words of Side Show’s opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks”:

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Right this way!

See the freaks! They are here! They are real!

They are all alive! Inside!

(But only until January 4).

Trivia: January 4, the date the current Broadway production will close, is the same date the Hilton sisters died (in 1969, at age 60).

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available on Playbill.com and at TKTS in Times Square. You can find detailed information about Side Show and other Broadway shows at BroadwayHelper.com

I urge you to see this amazing show before it’s too late. While the show’s website doesn’t specify any age recommendation, due to the mature subject matter, I would say leave the kids under 15 at home.

Show Website.

With Erin Davie.

Erin Davie

LOVE LETTERS

love letters

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.

Lead Cast: Candice Bergen (Melissa Gardner), Alan Alda (Andrew Makepeace Ladd III)

Playwright: A. R. Gurney

Director: Gregory Mosher

In a Nutshell: This 1988 play by A.R. Gurney was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Often revived with rotating pairs of stars, it was first performed at the New York Public Library, starring the playwright and Holland Taylor. The action unfolds as the two actors sit next to each other at a table and read a lifetime of letters written to each other, beginning in second grade and spanning 50 years, as the lifelong friends share their secrets, dreams, frustrations, joys, and heartbreak.

They say, “write what you know.” Gurney, who prepped at St. Paul’s and attended Williams College and the Yale School of Drama, knows about WASPs—their schools, social obligations, and parental expectations. Love Letters, one of his best known and most successful plays, is perhaps the best example of his understanding of this rarified world. It is also a popular play among veteran performers, since, in the words of A.R. Gurney, it “needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.”

The Plot: Melissa and Andrew both come from wealthy New York families, but Melissa’s family ranks at the very top of the 1%. Their correspondence begins in the second grade, when the well-bred Melissa pens a thank-you note to young Andy. She writes: “Dear Andy: Thank you for the birthday present. I have a lot of Oz books, but not ‘The Lost Princess of Oz.’ What made you give me that one? Sincerely yours, Melissa.”

Andy’s response: “I’m answering your letter about the book. When you came into second grade with that stuck-up nurse, you looked like a lost princess.”

We learn that Melissa is an artistic, somewhat rebellious “bad girl” whose socialite mother drinks too much and marries too often. Andy is an ambitious, socially conscious good boy who feels obliged to please his father.

Melissa often complains about the writing process, imploring her young pen pal, “Now let’s stop writing letters.” For Andy, however, writing the letters fulfills a deep emotional need. The adult Andy explains: “I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing completely.”

So, through elementary and prep school, college, law school, summer vacations, World War II, marriage, parenthood, success and disappointment, Melissa and Andy keep on writing, sharing their lives through letters. When one of them inevitably hurts or angers the other, the slighted actor simply stops reading, leaving the other to plead in a vacuum, waiting for a response.

While Melissa and Andy never settle down with each other in the conventional sense, they do maintain a love affair of sorts, sharing a life together through a lifetime of letters.

The Performances: The bare bones description of Love Letters—two actors sitting at a table reading letters for 90 minutes—belies how completely engaging and moving the play is, especially as performed by Candice Bergen and Alan Alda. While many excellent actors have had successful runs in the play, I can’t imagine a better pair than these two. Bergen, still blond and beautiful at 68, has Melissa’s natural patrician good looks. And her timing and reactions to Andrew’s words are perfect. She subtly but effectively changes her delivery and demeanor as the play progresses, accurately mirroring Melissa’s transformation from a sarcastic 7-year-old school girl to a shattered, disappointed adult. And I have to say, she just broke my heart.

Alan Alda, always a naturalistic and believable actor, has the right native New York accent and somewhat nebishy manner that are well suited to Andrew’s upright, needy persona. Amazingly, at 78, he still retains a boyish charm that works well in Love Letters.

Trivia: Candice Bergen made her Broadway debut in Hurlyburly, directed by Mike Nichols. She was last seen on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. In 1958, at age 11, she appeared with her father (ventriloquist Edgar Bergen) on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life. Bergen was married to French film director Louis Malle from 1980 until his death in 1995.

Alan Alda has been nominated for the Tony twice: for Jake’s Women and The Apple Tree. Previous to Love Letters, he twice portrayed a U.S. senator: Arnold Vinick on TV’s The West Wing from 2004-6 and Ralph Owen Brewster in Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film The Aviator (Oscar nomination). Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo, the son of actor Robert Alda (Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo). Their adopted surname, “Alda,” is a portmanteau of ALphonso and D’Abruzzo.

Both actors are members of the Television Hall of Fame.

Should You Go? Yes! This Love Letters is a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience. If you’ve never seen the play, here’s an opportunity to enjoy a top-notch production. If you have seen it, you won’t want to miss Bergen’s and Alda’s pitch perfect performances. (Hey, when else can you see Hawkeye Pierce and Murphy Brown together on stage?).

Ticket Info: Discount tickets are available at Playbill.com, TKTS, and TDF (if you are a member). You can find discount codes for this and other Broadway shows at Broadway Helper.

Note: Sadly, this show just posted an early closing (December 14) notice. Originally, Bergen and Alda appear were to appear through December 18, with other actors to rotate into the cast into 2015.

Show Website

THE LAST SHIP

Last Ship Cropped

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.

Music & Lyrics: Sting

Book: John Logan & Brian Yorkey

Director: Joe Mantello

Choreography: Steven Hoggett

Lead Cast: Rachel Tucker (Meg Dawson), Michael Esper (Gideon Fletcher), Jimmy Nail (Jackie White, through 12-7), Sting (Jackie White, 12-9 through 1-10-15), Fred Applegate (Father O’Brien), Aaron Lazar (Arthur Millburn), Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Young Gideon/Tom Dawson)

In a Nutshell: The Last Ship has an impressive pedigree, coming to Broadway via a multi-award winning group of creatives. Sting, who wrote the score, is a 16-time Grammy winner who based the story on his childhood growing up in a small English ship-building town. John Logan (book) is an Oscar-nominated, Tony and Golden Globe winner. Brian Yorkey (book) has won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and more. The director, choreographer, and scenic/costumer designer are among Broadway’s finest. And the cast is a fine mixture of American and British pros. So why is this show struggling to stay alive?

The Plot: The Last Ship tells the tale of a young man, Gideon Fletcher, who abandons his home town, his loving girlfriend, and his bitter, dying father to explore a larger world and follow his dreams. When he returns 15 years later, on the occasion of his father’s death, he finds the town in peril, as the shipyard is about to close, and the girl he left behind engaged to marry a man involved in ending the town’s livelihood.

In the title song, the shipbuilders lament their impending fate: “For what are we men without a ship to complete?” It’s decided that they will band together to build one last ship to convince the shipyard’s owners to reverse course.

The Performances: Individually, many of the songs are hauntingly beautiful, especially “The Last Ship” and “Island of Souls”. Others are foot-stompingly rousing (“We’ve Got Now’t Else,” “Show Some Respect”). The talented cast, especially Jimmy Nail (a tough, craggy actor/singer who is quite well known in England) Rachel Tucker (another Brit, with a fiery presence and a gorgeous voice), and Broadway veteran Fred Applegate as the sassy, hard-drinking priest Father O’Brien, give it their all. And Shawna M. Hamic has a nice moment in Mrs. Dees’ Rant, the Act 2 opener. Some of the songs evoke a definite Kurt Weill feeling; others are more of an Irish jig. And the scenic design, with the hull of a ship in the background and lots of fog effects, enhances the troubled mood.

However, even with all of this going for it, as I exited the Neil Simon Theatre, the first word that came to mind was “ponderous.” Others have called the show “somber.” While there’s plenty of life in The Last Ship, there is also a good deal of death—of two characters, a love affair, and a town’s lifeblood. And there’s no happily ever after ending. At over 2 and a half hours, perhaps the show is just too much of a sad thing; it adds up to less than its individual parts.

The Sting Factor: According to The New York Times, this $15 million musical (a true labor of love for Sting) has been losing $75,000 a week since performances began Sept. 29. In a last ditch effort to “save a sinking ship,” Sting will play his rock star trump card, replacing his friend, veteran Brit actor Jimmy Nail, for 4 weeks at the Neil Simon. Sting’s presence, coupled with the usual Holiday season bump in Broadway attendance, will no doubt keep The Last Ship sailing through 2014. But once the show enters the annual doldrums of January and February, it will no doubt once again struggle to stay afloat.

You’ve got to give Sting a lot of credit: he’ll do almost anything to keep his baby alive. He gamely performed “Show Some Respect” with the show’s cast in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and soon he’ll be singing and dancing on the Broadway stage 8 times a week. (He has stated that he’d “show his rear end in Macy’s” if it would help the show, so that’s something to look forward to).

Sting

Trivia: Sting last appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Threepenny Opera in 1989. According to the NY Daily News, Sting is waiving his royalty payments (an estimated $10,000 per week) to help the show save money.

George Harrison contributed to Jimmy Nail’s 1992 album “Growing Up in Public.”

Should You Go? Are you a diehard Sting fan? Can you sing the complete lyrics of “If You Love Someone Set Them Free?” If so, hurry over to the Neil Simon while your idol is treading the boards. Even if you’re a moderate fan of his music, you’ll enjoy the show. (Or you could save yourself some serious money and just wait until the cast album comes out). If you really have your heart set on sailing on The Last Ship, best not to tarry; once Sting jumps ship on January 10, there’s a good chance the show will end up permanently moored at the dock.

Note: The show is recommended for audience members 13+.

Ticket Info:

Ticket Lottery: A limited number of $30 tickets (cash only) are sold for each performance, beginning 2-1/2 hours before curtain. Winners are drawn 2 hours before curtain. Limit one entry per person, two tickets max per winner.

The Neil Simon is a fairly large theatre (1,445 seats) and so is difficult to fill. The show is currently available on TDF (if you are a member) and TKTS, but this may change once Sting joins the cast. I just checked the Ticketmaster website and found many seats still available for dates when Sting will be performing. For example, during the popular Christmas week (December 23), seats in the center of the front mezzanine are available for $166.75. Seats further back in the mezzanine run $89.25 and $68.75. Orchestra seats for that date run $166.75 or a whopping $267 for “premium” seats. Playbill.com currently offers discounts through December 21, so it’s worth a try to print out the offer and take it to the box office.

You can visit Broadway Helper for a complete list of discount offers for The Last Ship and other shows.

Show Website.

DISGRACED

Disgraced

Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

Aspiration, Assimilation, and the American Dream

Lead Cast: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Danny Ashok (Abe), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Karen Pittman (Jory)

Playwright: Ayad Akhtar

Director: Kimberly Senior

In a nutshell: Ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, a steady wave of immigrants have left the familiar surroundings of their homelands for a better life in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Some are determined to forget their lives in the old country and to assimilate as quickly as possible to their adopted American homeland. Others cling fiercely to their traditions.

Disgraced is about Amir, a young, ambitious Pakistani-American attorney (Hari Dhillon) who embodies the American Dream. Amir appears to have it all: he is handsome, married to a successful and beautiful American artist (Gretchen Mol), and on the partnership track at a prestigious law firm. He drinks the finest whiskey and wears $600 Charvet shirts. Yet, despite his best efforts, over the taut 90 minutes of this riveting play, everything somehow goes wrong, and Amir loses everything. The perfect world he has so carefully constructed crumbles to dust.

Background: Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play premiered in Chicago in 2012 (by American Theatre Company). It was produced Off Broadway by LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater in 2013 and Off West End in London earlier this year (also featuring Hari Dhillon and Danny Ashok). Kimberly Senior directed both productions, as well as the current Broadway production. The playwright, Ayad Akhtar, is also a novelist (“American Dervish”) and an actor. He co-wrote and starred in the film “The War Within” and starred as Neel Kashkari in HBO’s adaptation of “Too Big to Fail.”

The Plot: In an attempt to hide his Pakistani/Muslim roots, hot shot attorney Amir has created a new identity for himself. He has adopted the Indian surname Kapoor and, unbeknownst to his wife, he has even managed to change his social security number. However, as in a Shakespearian tragedy or Greek myth, once the die is cast, nothing can halt Amir’s rapid descent into chaos and loss.

In Disgraced, the precipitating event to Amir’s downfall is his decision, against his better judgment, to acquiesce to pleas from his liberal wife Emily and his idealistic nephew Abe (real name, Hussein) to help an imprisoned Muslim cleric whom they claim has been falsely accused of funding terrorism. Although Amir does nothing more than visit the Imam in jail, The New York Times mentions his name and law firm in an article about the Imam, making it appear that Amir is acting as his defense attorney. The firm (whose partners are Jewish) then discovers Amir’s true ethnic and religious background—and he becomes disgraced in their eyes.

The mise en scene in Disgraced is a familiar one: the dinner party. Amir and Emily are hosts to Emily’s art dealer, Isaac, and his wife Jory, a colleague at Amir’s law firm. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds: Amir is a lapsed (some might say, self-loathing) Muslim, Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African American. Liberal Emily glorifies the Islamic culture and incorporates its images into her art. She hopes to convince Isaac to launch a show of her work.

What’s Really Going On: It’s been said that to keep the peace at social gatherings, two potential powder keg topics should be avoided: politics and religion. Unfortunately for Amir (but fortunately for the dramatic tension of the play), none of Akhtar’s characters follow that advice. And no one emerges unscathed.

Although Amir denounces Islam’s ancient tenets as irrelevant in today’s modern world, in the play’s most shocking moment, he admits that, because of his upbringing, he felt a sense of pride for his people on 9-11. The audience, as well as the other characters on stage, let out a collective gasp at this revelation.

A lot more transpires in this intelligent, artfully acted play. But to divulge every plot turn would spoil the theatre-going experience.

Furthermore: As I left the theatre, I had three thoughts:

  1. You can change your name, you can deny your roots, but you can never escape who you really are.
  2. Racism exists all around us—sometimes in the most unexpected places.
  3. Civilization is a very thin veneer that can erode very quickly once things go wrong.

(Discuss amongst yourselves).

Should you go? Absolutely. This is a thought-provoking, engaging evening at the theatre. Plus, at only 90 minutes, you have the option of having dinner after the performance. That way, you and your dinner companions can launch your own discussion of the thorny topics Akhtar raises in Disgraced.

Keep in mind: Disgraced is a show for adults, covering provocative, complex themes. Leave the kids (under 16) at home.

Trivia: Like his Disgraced character Amir, playwright Akhtar is a first generation Pakistani-American. He has said that to write Disgraced he “had to turn and look over my shoulder at what I was running away from.”

TV fans will recognize Josh Radnor from his nine-season run as Ted Mosby on the hit show “How I Met Your Mother” and Gretchen Mol from her role as Gillian Darmody in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Broadway fans may have seen Karen Pittman in Good People at MTC or in Stew’s Passing Strange. Radnor previously appeared on Broadway in The Graduate, opposite Kathleen Turner, in 2002.

Ticket Tips: Although the play is a critical success, discounted tickets are readily available. You can visit Playbill.com, print out the offer, and take it to the Lyceum box office to choose your seats, or you can visit the TKTS ticket booth in Times Square, where I purchased my orchestra seat. The show is scheduled to run through January 18, 2015.

Show Website

Lucky Guy

Lucky Guy

 Date:  June 11, 2013

 Theatre: Broadhurst

 Shari on the Aisle Rating:  ***1/2

Lead Cast:  Tom Hanks, Maura Tierney, Christopher McDonald, Peter Gerety, Courtney B. Vance, Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, Brian Dykstra, Michael Gaston, Dustyn Gulledge, Deirdre Lovejoy, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Stephen Tyrone Williams

 Background: Lucky Guy comes to Broadway thanks to three modern icons: legendary tabloid journalist Mike McAlary (the main character), beloved writer/filmmaker Nora Ephron (the playwright), and equally beloved movie star Tom Hanks (in the starring role, making not just his Broadway debut, but his professional stage debut).

Lucky Guy tells the story of Mike McAlary’s life as a reporter and columnist for the big three New York tabloids—Newsday, The New York Post, and The Daily News—from the mid-1980’s to the time of his death in late 1998. Along the way McAlary drank a lot, smoked a lot, hung out a lot in bars with his fellow newsmen, chased down stories, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his exposé on the Abner Louima police brutality case.

Quick Take: I went to the Broadhurst not expecting much from Lucky Guy, as reviews had been lukewarm, even though the show has been selling out every performance thanks to the tremendous star power of Tom Hanks. I ended up enjoying the show, mostly due to its excellent ensemble cast (you’ll recognize many of them, even if you don’t know their names; Peter Gerety’s John Cotter particularly stands out) and Mr. Hanks’ excellent, touching performance.

In Addition: Nora Ephron loved New York and loved journalism, so McAlary’s story is a natural for her. Sadly, she passed away before the play began rehearsals. Would it have been a better play had she been around to finesse it before opening night? Probably. But thanks to George C. Wolfe’s creative direction of his very fine, experienced cast of character actors, the play really gives us a feeling for its era. Using projected newspaper headlines, we’re reminded of the New York City of crack-fueled violence, unsafe streets, and dirty cops of not so long ago. We feel the authenticity of the smoke-filled newsroom (there’s even a joke where a guy comes in with a smoke machine to intensify the effect) and the bromance of guys working together in the trenches for the common good.

Trivia: Peter Scolari, who plays newspaperman Michael Daly in Lucky Guy, was Tom Hanks’ co-star in the early 1980’s sitcom “Bosom Buddies.”

Tony Awards Notes: Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Although he gave a very strong performance (and his loss is the only Tony prediction I got wrong), he doesn’t have to feel bad about losing out to Tracy Letts’s seminal performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That production may go down in history as possibly the best production of Albee’s masterpiece.

Now on to Courtney B. Vance (Hap Hairston), who won the Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role. Once I saw Lucky Guy, I was pretty puzzled by his win. As I said, this is really an ensemble piece, led by Hanks as McAlary. Vance’s role doesn’t really stand out. I saw the performances by all of the nominated actors in this category (Danny Burstein and Tony Shalhoub in Golden Boy, Richard Kind in The Big Knife, and Billy Magnussen in Vanya and Sonia, etal.) and of all of them I would have rated Vance last, mostly because the role itself isn’t all that memorable. I think any of the others would have made more sense. So go know.

Should You Go? Yes! As John Cotter tells McAlary in Lucky Guy, “It’s all about the story.” And it’s a good story. Supposedly McAlary could be an arrogant bastard, but nobody ever accused him of being boring. If you’re old enough to remember New York City in the bad-ass ‘80s, you’ll enjoy this glimpse backward. If you don’t remember that time, you’ll learn something, and you’ll appreciate how good we have it now. Plus, it’s your chance to see Mr. Hanks tread the boards. Who knows when that will happen again?

This show consistently sells out, and the run ends on July 3. Consider snagging a standing room ticket ($29, available 90 minutes before curtain). It’s worth it.

Pippin

Pippin

With the fabulously talented Patina Miller

Date:                 May 8, 2013

Theatre:         The Music Box

Shari on the Aisle Rating: * * * *

Lead Cast:     Patina Miller, Charlotte d’Amboise, Terrence Mann, Andrea Martin, Matthew James Thomas, Rachel Bay Jones.

Background:  The original Broadway production premiered at the Imperial Theater on October 23, 1972, and ran for 1,944 performances before closing on June 12, 1977. It was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. That cast included Ben Vereen, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the Leading Player, John Rubenstein as Pippin, and Jill Clayburgh as Catherine, Pippin’s love interest.

The show has not been revived on Broadway until now. The current production (opening night: April 25, 2013) is directed by one of the most talented directors working on Broadway today, Diane Paulus. Paulus won Tonys for her recent imaginative re-stagings of Hair and Porgy and Bess. The production was originally staged by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pippin garnered 10 Tony noms: including Best Musical Revival, Best Direction of a Musical (Paulus), Best Lead Actress in a Musical (Patina Miller), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Andrea Martin), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Terrence Mann), and Best Choreography (Chet Walker, who appeared in the original Fosse-directed production).

Quick Take:   The opening number, “Magic to Do,” will blow you away and live in your memory forever. Likewise, Andrea Martin’s show-stopping “No Time at All.” The second act, not so much.

Take Note: It’s no secret that Pippin is a show that’s very thin on plot. Here, it’s not “the play’s the thing,” but rather the music and unique Fosse-created dancing. Basically, it’s a somewhat meandering coming of age story dressed up in the “razzle dazzle” Fosse did so well.

Pippin, Charlemagne’s son, seeks his place in the world (his “Corner of the Sky” in the words of the show’s most famous song) and the meaning of life. Paulus’s version transposes the commedia dell’arte players of the original to a circus troupe, with the help of the awe-inspiring gymnastics of the Montreal group Les 7 Doigts de la Main. But she doesn’t stop there—even the lead actors get into the circus act. The always brilliant Andrea Martin can now add circus performer to her extensive résumé. As Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, the, 66-year-old Martin simply amazes as she performs the touching “No Time at All” while swinging from a trapeze like a born carny. Few numbers in recent history can truly be called “show stoppers,” but trust me, this one is. I’m pretty sure there’s another Tony in her near future.

In Addition: The astounding opening number “Magic to Do” is a mind blower. Paulus doesn’t reprise the famous original where the performers’ “jazz hands” appeared to float in space. Instead, all of the players perform feats of daring-do all at once. I didn’t know where to look first. And I loved Patina Miller’s performance. She’s strong and talented (check out those arms!) and takes a role that is very strongly associated with Ben Vereen and makes it her own. I know Fosse would approve her perfect execution of the famous “Manson trio” number, faithfully recreated by choreographer Chet Walker.

I lost some patience with the second act, as Pippin continued his search for self. But all was forgiven in the finale, which includes lots of acrobatics and pyrotechnics.

Trivia: Veteran performers Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise, who play Charles and his scheming wife Fastrada, are real-life husband and wife. I chatted with them briefly after the show and they seem delighted to be working together.

Should You Go? Absolutely. Both Fosse and Paulus are geniuses of the theatre. If you missed the original production 40 years ago, you definitely need to see the current show. We may have to wait another 40 years for the next Broadway revival—and who knows if that version will have a genius behind it?

Ticket Tip: Pippin has a daily general rush—$37 tix are available when the box office opens at 10:00 a.m. Also check out the Playbill.com website. I bought tix there for $99 each.

Matilda

Matilda

Show: Matilda

Date: May 1, 2013

Theatre: Shubert

Shari on the Aisle Rating: * * * * *

Lead Cast: Bertie Carvel, Gabriel Ebert, Lesli Margherita, Lauren Ward, rotating cast of 4 young actresses playing “Matilda.”

Background: Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1988 children’s book, the original Royal Shakespeare Company version of this musical won a record-breaking 7 Olivier awards (the British version of the Tony) in 2012. The Broadway production is currently nominated for 12 Tony awards, in a neck-and-neck race with “Kinky Boots” (13 noms). If life is fair, “Matlida” will win Best Musical. But as we know, life isn’t always fair. My money is, however, on Bertie Carvel to snag a Tony to share space on his mantle with his Olivier.

Quick Take: This is one show that actually lives up to the hype.

Take Note: Each performer is just stellar (especially Gabriel Ebert as Matilda’s sleazy father and Bertie Carvel as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull), and the creative team does an excellent job of preserving Dahl’s off-kilter creepiness. After the performance I thought about calling Child Protective Services—that’s how hard these talented kids work during this long, complicated show. They sing, dance, climb, and tumble.
In Addition: I especially enjoyed Tim Minchin’s clever lyrics. They are never predictable and always advance the story. The lyrics from “When I Grow Up” may cause even the most jaded grown up to become misty:
“Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it, nothing will change.
Just because I find myself in this story,
It doesn’t mean that everything is written for me.
If I think the ending is fixed already,
I might as well be saying I think that it’s OK,
And that’s not right!”

Another Highlight: The superb closing number, “Revolting Children:”
We are revolting children…
Living in revolting times…
We sing revolting songs
Using revolting rhymes.
We’ll be revolting children,
‘Til our revolting’s done,
And we’ll have the Trunchbull vaulting.
We’re revolting!

Should you go? Absolutely, this is a must-see show. But good luck getting tickets to this one, unless you’re willing to pay top dollar. For those in the NYC area, try the lottery—$27—register 2-1/2 hours before curtain. Not recommended for very young children—it’s over 2-1/2 hours long, and it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of familial life. The money would be better spent on a baby sitter.