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A CurtainUp Feature

Counting Our Theatrical Blessings for the Year 2004

By Elyse Sommer

Index of Topics: Plenty of Blessings to Count | Musicals |Best New Plays | The Return of the Intelligentsia's Favorite Playwright |Satisfying Old Wine in New Bottles | Off-Broadway Highlights | More Off-Broadway Highlights | Bargain Priced Gems | Blessings and Mixed Blessings to Come|
All plays chosen as "Blessings", as well as all plays mentioned are linked to our reviews.

Plenty of Blessings to Count. When On the Town opened on Broadway in 1944, the marquees on the Great White Way didn't have room for all the names featured in that season's plays and musicals. Plays with eight or more actors were not unusual. Musicals were built around hummers, show tunes people hummed on their way out and that buzzed into their ears ever after as soon as the title was mentioned. To quote yet another hummer, "Those Were the Days," If Comden and Green were writing "New York, New York" today, they might add this stanza:
New York, New York
it's a helluva town
the ticket price goes up
and the cast size goes down

But take heart. There's still life in the "fabulous invalid" known as live theater. Its present and future as I write this may not be as rosy as it could be, but it's not nearly as grim as the situation in Iraq. And so in this count your blessings season, let's look back and rejoice, albeit with reservations, about the past year's theatrical blessings. If you include all New York theaters and not just Broadway, they were considerable.

Musicals. Not much to "Hallelujah!" about here since new musicals were in short supply. The London import of Bombay Dreams didn't have strong enough legs to carry it into next year (it's closing January 1st) and the only new American-made musical, Brooklyn, was notable mostly for the costume designer's inventive ways with street-found materials. Still, there were three revivals that richly deserved the handsome new productions they received.

Assassins was an especially inopportune subject when it premiered Off-Broadway. Its dark new staging (the first on Broadway) received a better reception but only for a limited run. Pacific Overtures which previously played both on and off Broadway, while not as suited to the Studio 54 setting as Assassins, nevertheless has gorgeous music and an intelligent book.

I disagree with complaints that La Cage aux Folles is no longer being relevant. Though in a different way, it's more relevant than ever. Besides, with a war in which young lives are being shattered and snuffed out daily, we need a feel good musical. Furthermore, as made evident by last fall's first New York Musical Theatre Festival, there's no shortage of talented young composers, lyricists and librettists and maybe the audience's smiling and humming as they exit La Cage will inspire at least some of them to bring back at least an occasional musical with lots of catchy songs and dancing.

Best New Plays. No one will argue that casts have been getting smaller, and that unless you count post-theater dinner or snacks, the up to $100 you spend on a Broadway show is likely to buy you a diversion averaging 90 minutes, without an intermission during which to spot celebrities and schmooze. While we've always had two-handers like Two for the Seesaw and The Four Poster and even the occasional solo play like Barrymore, plays with seven or more characters were commonplace. The solo play has become an increasingly visible contender on the theatrical landscape.

When Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife won the Pulitzer Prize, along with a raft of awards for its star, Jefferson Mays, more easy on the producer's budget solo shows were bound to follow. During 2004 celebrity standup stars have rushed to the solo genre like a storm. And so we have Hurricane Whoopy, Hurricane Mario , Hurricane Edna, Hurricane Eve Ensler, Hurricane Billy. Broadway is beginning to look like a Comedy Central annex.

To be fair, Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays has enough of the accouterments of a play and an irresistibly endearing star; Barry Humphreys' Dame Edna is a unique enough invention to make for an entertaining evening, even if much of Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance! is remarkably like Edna's previus Broadway gig. When all is said and done, whether on or off Broadway, there's nothing like watching actors interact.

Best New Plays Fortunately, the "hurricane" season also has plenty of sunshine in the way of more full-bodied new plays and worthy revivals both On and Off-Broadway. Many tackled serious themes and a few featured large casts.

The best written, acted and staged new play was John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. Manhattan Theatre Club which premiered it in its larger City Center venue, has already announced that it will transfer to Broadway this Spring -- in time to nab Tonys galore. It will probably be in competition with August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean for the Pulitzer. Gem, the ninth in Wilson's ten-play cycle, and the first chronologically, is a fine play (with an outstanding cast of seven, headed by Phylicia Rashad who again gives a Tony-worthy performance as she did in the excellent Spring 2004 revival of Raisin in the Sun ), but Doubt is the one that I'd tap for the Pulitzer.

As play seasons go, Doubt was the main but not the only reason to sing John Patrick Shanley's praises. Another new play, Sailor's Song, was an an engaging fantasia that had an all too short run at the Public Theatre but will probably show up in regional theaters. An early Shanley work, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, was given a worthwhile revival at Second Stage which rounded out a rare opportunity to assess this very New York playwright's oeuvre.

One of Doubt's stars, Bryan F. O'Byrne, is sure to be on many Best Actor lists for his role as a priest under fire. O'Byrne also appeared earlier in another outstanding 2004 drama, Briony Lavery's Frozen .

The Return of the Intelligentsia's Favorite Playwright. Four years ago no self-respecting intellectual would go to a dinner party without having seen Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. No wonder Frayn's Democracy, was a highly anticipated British import. Happily, it crossed the Atlantic with its solid script intact. While it's not necessary to know all about the post World War II German political figures who inspired this drama, a nodding acquaintance would be helpful. Smartly staged and directed, this makes my most stimulating play list even though I wish that James Naughton had been a more animated Willie Brandt or that perhaps he had been cast as Arno Kretschmann and Michael Cumpsty as Brandt. It's worth noting that Richard Thomas, who played the man who was Brandt's intimate and betrayer, was most often mentioned by CurtainUp readers as someone whose performance they most enjoyed as a Leonard Bernstein-like conductor in Terrence McNally's Stendhal Syndrome.

Democracy with its big all-male cast (10) also brings up another big all-male cast play Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men. This isn't really a new play, but a 1954 teleplay familiar to most people in its hit movie format and as the predecessor to the Law & Order franchise that supports so many actors' live theater habit. While Rose did write a stage version, and this feels like a revival this is actually new to Broadway. However, you want to classify it, this is a case of buying a ticket to see a dozen terrific actors make a rather tired, much imitated dramatic set-up worth seeing.

Satisfying Old Wine in New Bottles. Revivals serve many purposes. For producers, reviving a hit removes a certain degree of the high risk element, especially if the revival features high profile stars. That this doesn't always work, was best illustrated by this year's revival of the Pulitzer Prize winning Night Mother starring Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn. On the other hand, the splendidly acted and directed revival of Larry Kramer's agit-prop The Normal Heart, still had the power to move audiences to tears (it did this reviewer!). Unlike so many agitprop dramas which tend to be of the moment, this one lives on as a full-blown tragedy which is, unfortunately, relevant not only vis-à-vis the H.I.V./AIDS plague but the added parallels to world issues that cry for leaders unafraid to speak out.

When timed right, revivals can also serve as fine introductions to a playwright's new work.Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen is a case in point, since it precedes the 2005 opening of his latest play, Brooklyn Boy. Sight Unseen was also notable for finally bringing a worthy tenant to MTC's handsome new Broadway home. Though it won an Obie during it's premiere run Off-Off-Broadway, that initial production reached a far smaller audience than it deserved. Under director Daniel Sullivan's sensitive direction, the funny and incisive dialogue still sparkled and the characters' vulnerabilities were revealed in interesting and subtly constructed scenes. Best of all it also showed off the arc of Laura Linney's acting career, with audiences who saw the original in which she played the small but disturbing supporting role of a German journalist, now given a chance to see her as the more mature central character.

Speaking of new theaters being aptly initiated, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel , also directed by Daniel Sullivan, was a fine first tenant for Roundabout's newly renovated Laura Pels Theatre and a great showcase for Viola Davis.

Off-Broadway Highlights With the few straight plays to open on Broadway continuing to originate in smaller Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway houses, the theaters scattered in and around Manhattan are the ones to watch for the most interesting new work. Many of these organizations offer enough consistently worthwhile imports and new American plays featuring superb talent to warrant subscribing to their seasons. They include New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, Atlantic Theater in Chelsea, the New Group (which has, over the years, mounted its shows in a variety of rented homes), Manhattan Class Company, better known as MCC which currently calls the Lortel Theater home and, of course, the Public Theater founded by Joseph Papp. Also worth watching for what's doing are the venerable La Mama, The Flea and 45Bleeker Below. Here are three plays that were top Off-Broadway experiences:

A Number. Caryl Churchill's take on cloning was the year's shortest play but likely to generate the longest post-theater discussions and reflection. It brought Sam Shepard back to the stage for the second time in a short period (to get his own heated political psycho-drama God of Hell on the boards before the November election, he had it mounted at the tiny Actors Studio Drama School Theatre).

Fat Pig. Neil La Bute took a much more successful approach to our over-emphasis on good looking bodies than Eve Ensler's Good Body, a rather misguided and quick to close sequel to Vagina Monologues

Rose Rage. It wouldn't be a season anywhere without a worthy new version of a Shakespeare play. This year's most accessible and entertaining Shakespeare was Edward Hall and Roger Warren's three parts of Henry VI fitted under an apt single umbrella title. The co-production by the New 42nd Street and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater galloped by even though the time investment (including a dinner break and intermissions) came to 5 1/2 hours. Audiences and critics alike loved it which indicates that people might just be ready for more full-course theatrical experiences instead of grazing on 90-minute intermissionless fare.

More Off-Broadway Highlights.

Svejik. Colin Teevan's new adaptation of Jaroslav Hasek's 1923 satiric novel The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the Great War, was the year's canniest anti-war play. It gave New Yorkers a chance to see the innovative flair of East European director Dalia Ibelhauptaite and starred the excellent Stephen Spinella in the title role. If better publicized, it might have had a longer life than it did.

Neal Bell's Spatter Pattern (or How I Got Away With It) arrived without much brouhaha at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Sharp Theater. This fascinating noir was a second chance to see the always wonderful Peter Frechette Off-Broadway (he appeared earlier in the year in a very different role in Valhalla).

Lisa Kron's Well extended several times and is sure to show up at regional theaters. Ms. Kron's sharing the stage with other players in her life story, made for a far more rewarding experience than it would have been if done as a solo play -- especially with Jane Houdyshell playing her mother in a performance that by itself was worth the price of admission.

Michael Murphy's Sin (A Cardinal Deposed), a documentary approach to the pedophile priest issue, while lacking Doubt's theatrical richness, was nevertheless a worthwhile addition to plays on this subject. John Cullum's performance as Cardinal Law was riveting.

Betty Shamieh's Roar , was another welcome addition to the year's plays by the New Group. This attention-holding inside look at a family of Palestinian immigrants living in Detroit was directed by August Wilson's favorite helmsman, Marion McClinton, and featured a fine cast headed by Sarita Choudhury.

Bargain Priced Gems. Yes, the theater has become too expensive for people with limited entertainment budgets. But for the adventurous theatergoer there's plenty to see for just $15 to $19. Here are some plays such adventurers saw and enjoyed during 2004:

The Flu Season by Will Enos -- an off-beat play that was recently awarded Newsday's 2004 George Oppenheimer Award for the best New York debut by an American playwright for a non-musical play.

Bee-luther-hatchee an intriguing literary mystery by Thomas Gibbons.

Fighting Words by Sunil Kuruvilla, a second offering from The Underwood Company, an entity well worth keeping an eye on. This effectively staged play had an impeccable cast, including the above praised Jane Houdyshell.

The Lepers of Baile Baiste by Ronan Noone was yet another look at the pedophile priest problem -- this one by a new American citizen but set in his native Ireland.

Glyn O’Malley's A Heartbeat to Baghdad, while hardly a perfect play, presented an interesting take on the current war. The Flea in Tribeca where this played is one of those little theaters that attracts theater insiders (when I saw Heartbeat, pros in the audience included Dana Ivey currently starring at the Vivian Beaumont uptown). Some Flea productions create such a buzz that prices go up and tickets became rare as the perennial hen's teeth -- as was the case with the first post-9-11 play, The Guys and A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth which starred Sigourney Weave and John Lithgow .

The bargain venues don't neglect the classics either. This past year a $15 ticket bought an opportunity to see actress and voice teacher Kristin Linklater make a rare appearance in Hecuba which also marked our own Les Gutman's very well-received debut as a producer.

Do these bargain-priced gems ever include musicals? You bet. This past year brought a terrific revival as well as a catchy brand-new musical.

The Transport Group's revival of Michael John Lachisua's First Lady Suite featured truly top drawer musical talent. The beautiful Connelly Theatre on East Fifth street where this brief revival took place is often host to other worth seeing companies and productions.

Pecadillo Theater, a company dedicated to bringing often forgotten plays back to life this year launched a brand new musical, Talk of the Town. A not yet famous musical duo, Ginny Redington and Tom Dawes, created a delightful musical called about the famous Algonquin Round Table. It extended three times (which meant a jump in price, though tickets were still reasonable) and rumor has it that the aphoristic little hit may move to a site specific location -- the Algonquin Hotel. Not a rumor, but fact, is that Pecadillo's 2003 revival of Elmer Rice's Counsellor-at-Law set to begin a second run further uptown.

Blessings and Mixed Blessings to Come. Since the theater season ranges over two years our annual awards listings will span the 2004-05 season, with the Tony Awards the climactic event. The best way to check what's coming up on Broadway, see CurtainUp's Annotated Broadway listings. To learn about some of those bargain-priced gems, make our Annotated Off-Broadway listings a weekly reading must. Happy theater going!

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