Sunday, January 11, 2015

Theater Review: Fall Roundup at NY’s Roundabout

Don’t let anyone tell you differently: Putting together a schedule for a theatrical season can be murderously difficult. Just look at the Roundabout Theatre Co. Without a standing repertory company, it must reinvent itself with virtually every production. Getting the right actors when they’re available is a crapshoot. And, while every company with any kind of ambition wants bragging rights to developing and mounting a successful new play, what do you do when audiences don’t cotton to it? 

Even when you go for what seems the tried and true, things have a way of blowing up in your face.

Which brings me to the Roundabout’s fall season. I had no real desire to see Cabaret again after the landmark 1998 revival starring Natasha Richardson—the prospect of seeing Alan Cumming, in his star-making turn as the MC, held no real interest for me. My fear—that this production would not differ much from that earlier show—proved correct. The one hope I had—Emma Stone as Sally Bowles—proved premature, as the film star was only able to take over a role originally meant for her until well after Michelle Williams had given it a try.

The other offerings have been a mixed bag, too. With a top-notch cast working with a virtually foolproof script, You Can’t Take It With You would, in a more just world, go on indefinitely at the Longacre Theatre. But, with audiences at only 58.91% of capacity, it placed among a group of underachieving box-office “underdogs” for the week just before Thanksgiving. At this point, it is set to close February 22, but don’t be surprised if it’s gone sooner.

There are a couple of excellent reasons why this uproarious screwball farce won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1936, and why it still brings down the house with laughter in its current revival. First, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were not just playwrights, but also directors who knew how to juice up a work that might have unaccountably gone flagging, resulting in a comedy as durably constructed as that other marvel of 1930s engineering, the Hoover Dam. Second, the rise of multiple media channels has only whetted Americans’ interest in grand eccentrics like this play’s Sycamore family and those who come into their orbit. Third, nearly 80 years after its premiere, in another age of economic unease at home and storm clouds abroad, the comedy still proves a tonic for the lowest of spirits.

James Earl Jones, in an unexpected comic turn, is first among equals here as Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, a businessman who stopped going to the office years ago—and stopped paying income taxes, too. Perhaps the next best-known cast member, Rose Byrne, had the unenviable task of playing the ingénue, Alice Sycamore—the only normal member of her household. (Since I saw the play, Ms. Byrne was succeeded in the role by Anna Chlumsky.)

Alice dreads the idea of her prospective in-laws, the Kirbys (the father owns the factory where she works), visiting the family she loves. You would, too, if you had a father whose basement experiments involve rockets operating only by chance; a mother who started a novel because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake; a sister of nonexistent dancing skill who continues to perform jettes around the house; and two Russian emigres—a dance instructor and a former grand duchess-turned-Manhattan waitress—with astonishingly demonstrative personalities.

Although, in terms of lines, a number of parts in the play would normally be deemed small, they are so outsized in eccentricity that the supporting actors have their moments to shine just as much as Jones. Particularly outstanding are Elizabeth Ashley as the grand duchess, Annaleigh Ashford as Essie the would-be ballerina, Reg Rogers as her hilarious dance teacher Boris, and Kristine Nielsen (as fine here as in Christopher Durang’s contemporary Chekhov reimagining Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) as “playwright” mom Penny Sycamore.

A curious thing happened in the fall with the two Tom Stoppard plays produced by the Roundabout. In its cast size (15 actors) and its widely varying settings (1930s India and 1980s India and England), Indian Ink would normally fit best into the company’s flagship venue, the 740-seat American Airlines Theatre.

But that space was reserved for what is probably the most popular (and accessible) work of the English playwright’s career, The Real Thing, even though the latter calls for fewer actors, smaller production demands and less ambition. So Indian Ink (which closed in early December) was staged in the 424-seat Laura Pels Theatre, where the Roundabout tends to put on its smaller, more experimental fare.

What you had, then, was the type of canvass used to explore Anglo-Indian relations by novelists E.M. Forster (A Passage to India) and Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet), except that, through the teeming intellectual ambitions of Stoppard, this drama takes in even more than that. It shouldn’t cohere. The fact that it does owes less to Stoppard’s usual theater of ideas, and more to the tactile hold on the imagination that India continues to exert on him, 70 years after he lived there briefly as a child.

Rosemary Harris, whom I’ve been lucky enough to see onstage (in the Roundabout’s 2002 production of Edward Albee’s All Over) and on film (Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) is her typically wondrous self as Eleanor Swan, gingerly trying to enhance her beloved older sister’s critical reputation decades after her death, even as she navigates the tricky access demands of biographers.

But the real discovery here, at least for many U.S. playgoers who might only know her for her appearance in the film Atonement, was Romola Garia as Eleanor’s sister, the (fictional) bohemian poet Flora Crewe. She was absolutely fearless in playing this desperately ill woman who, in 1930s India, burns with desire to experience what may well be the last stop on her life’s journey. She was particularly impressive in her scenes with Firdous Bamji (playing Indian painter Nirad Das), switching from imperious, aloof—and, in her urging to penetrate to the truth of what Das sees, challenging and encouraging.

The Real Thing, which closed a week ago, came into New York with high expectations, because of its two prior New York productions (including the 1984 original directed by Mike Nichols) and its top-flight cast. Critics were not generally kind to the show, perhaps because the results couldn’t match the importance this play has taken on as perhaps the centerpiece of Stoppard’s long, much-honored career.

I was inclined to see this carping as misplaced. The most intriguing bit of casting was Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon (a Roundabout board member, and star of such previous shows as Distracted and The Women), who had played the teenage daughter of playwright Henry in the original show. This time, she fit the bill as Henry’s first, acerbic wife, Charlotte, an actress appearing in his current play. Maggie Gyllenhaal, employing a not-always-convincing British accent in her Broadway debut, came off less well as Annie, the friend with whom he has an affair, then marries.

The role of Henry, a playwright of flashing wit and intelligence, with a deep, abiding interest in popular music such as The Crystals’ 1963 pop hit “Da Doo Ron Ron,” bears more than a little resemblance to Stoppard. Ewan McGregor captured Henry’s darting verbal dexterity (particularly in the play’s famous long “cricket bat” speech, likening good writing to a bit well hit) well enough. But Henry’s’s jealousy and anguish in the second act, when he suspects Annie of committing adultery again, eluded his grasp.

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