Monday, July 11, 2016

Theater Review: Roundabout Ends Milestone Season With 2 Tony Winners

The Roundabout Theatre Co., one of the real gems of the New York theater scene, closed out the 50th season of its long and illustrious run with two estimable revivals. The two productions could not differ more in tone from each other, but they spotlighted what the company does best.

Long Day's Journey Into Night ended its run in late June, not long after Jessica Lange won a well-deserved Tony for Best Actress in a Play. I have seen several fine versions of this posthumously produced masterpiece by Eugene O’Neill—the 1962 film adaptation by Sidney Lumet, a British production shown on American TV in the mid-1970s starring Laurence Olivier, and a PBS telecast of the 1994 Stratford Festival production starring the great Canadian actor William Hutt. 

But in none of these did matriarch Mary Tyrone appear so central to the tragedy enveloping her family, as her deep but frustrated love for her husband and two sons pull them close even as it pulls them down into a whirlpool of substance-abuse co-dependency.

Lange masterfully depicted the progressive stages of Mary’s descent: seeming good health masking fragility, mounting anxiety (signaled by fluttering hands), paranoia, desperation, and a childlike reversion to teen innocence that, with enough morphine, settles on her like the fog off the coast of the family’s Connecticut cottage. The two-time Oscar winner was especially effective in a scene with the tragedy’s comic relief, the family maid Cathleen (played by Colby Minifie), when several minutes of joking reminiscence about her husband abruptly end, as it undoubtedly has countless times before, with the vehement (and self-contradictory) denial of any health problem of hers.

Two of the three male actors provided excellent support for Lange. The best of the trio, Michael Shannon, as the older son, alcoholic Jamie Tyrone, stalked the stage with his 6-ft.-three-in. frame like a mad stork. With his unblinking, sorrowfully accusative squint, he rendered wordlessly the character’s aching love for his mother at the heart of his guilt-ridden self-laceration.

Gabriel Byrne wisely ignored the temptation that undercut Ralph Richardson onscreen: to play hammy matinee idol James Tyrone like—well, like a  hammy matinee idol offstage, too. Byrne focused instead on James’ miserliness (residue of his grim childhood as a Potato Famine immigrant) and deepening anguish, as he watched everyone around him seemingly collapse—a wife relapsing into morphine addiction, an older son into cynicism, indolence and drink, and a younger son contracting tuberculosis.

The weak link in the quartet playing the doomed Tyrones was John Gallagher, Jr. Despite a mustache meant to suggest the young Eugene O’Neill, he did not adequately convey younger son Edmund’s sickliness nor his emotional slide into the family maelstrom.

Director Jonathan Kent did not attempt a radical reinterpretation of the drama, as was done elsewhere on Broadway this past season with two other 1950s classic tragedies, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and A View From the Bridge. But he understood, as did O’Neill, that raw honesty was enough to compensate for the lack of pyrotechnics. In respecting his source material, he also respected the intelligence of his audience.

If anything, She Loves Me, which closed this past weekend, might have even longer antecedents than O’Neill’s tragedy. Its premise—two clerks, Amalia and Georg, who argue constantly with each other in their store, unaware that they are romantic pen pals—was based on the play Perfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, later to furnish the same essential plot onscreen in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998).

In the year of its original production, She Loves Me—created by lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock—was wiped out at the Tonys by bold, brassy Hello, Dolly!, with only Jack Cassidy coming away with Best Featured Actor in a Musical for playing the charming, duplicitous clerk Kodaly. 

With the passage of a half century, however, as well as the broad acceptance of even more challenging fare by Stephen Sondheim, it’s easier to appreciate the manifold small pleasures of this character-driven musical. Scott Ellis, who directed the Roundabout’s far bigger, busier On the Twentieth Century, demonstrated his versatility and reliability in this much more intimate show.

In the original production, the role of Amalia provided Barbara Cook with one of her signature roles, but it’s hard to imagine it being done much better than Laura Benanti did here. She met the multiple challenges of “Vanilla Ice Cream” square on, both dramatically (the number marks the hinge moment when Amalia softens toward Georg) and vocally (the tune is a showstopper—and Mt. Everest—for Broadway sopranos).

Zachary Levi invested Georg with the requisite amount of longing to balance the revelations in his character’s big songs, notably through romantic longing (“Tonight at Eight”) or swooning love (the title tune).

The remarkable thing about this musical that concentrates on two young people in love is that so many others in the cast got their moment to shine. First among equals was Jane Krakowski, who was nominated for a Tony for best featured actress in a musical for this show—and no wonder.

Fans of 30 Rock on TV may have chuckled over her character Jenna Maroney’s musical aspirations, but in real life her musical-comedy resume is extensive and accomplished. Her prior turn at the Roundabout, in Nine, won her a Tony, but her big number from that, the lascivious “A Call to the Vatican,” is a far cry from her wide-eyed unlucky-in-love, can’t-I-find-a nice-guy Ilona’s here, “A Trip to the Library” (“A trip to the library has made a new girl of me/For suddenly, I can see the magic of books”).

Another Roundabout veteran, Michael McGrath, previously in On the Twentieth Century, lent a great wry tone to Georg’s friend Sipos in his extended musical advice (“Perspective”). Byron Jennings made cuckolded store owner Maraczek a figure of sympathy. And, as the oily Kodaly, Gavin Creel limned a master portrait of a first-class heel.

The 1993 Roundabout revival of She Loves Me not only was the organization’s first musical, but helped kick off its most recent golden era. This new production introduced this small-scale show with a big heart to a new generation of theatergoers, and maintained the Roundabout itself as a vital venue.

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