Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
Theatre Reviews
by Harvey Perr
published April 23, 2007
now playing on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre
now playing on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
now playing Off Broadway at The Acorn on Theatre Row
now playing Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop
now playing on Broadway at the Hilton Theatre
Broadway review of Inherit the WindWhen Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit the Wind” first opened on Broadway in 1955, the Scopes Monkey Trial, upon which it was based, was already an historical document, and the play’s real intention was to comment upon the growing injustices of McCarthyism. But, in recent years, in the heady atmosphere the Christian Right has created, the argument between the scientists and the creationists has put Darwinism right back in the center of things. And it seemed a propitious time indeed to revive “Inherit the Wind” despite the fact that it received a rather stolid and stodgy workout just a few seasons ago.
Lord knows, and He is one of the play’s main characters, when the heat is turned up, sparks can still fly, but time has not been kind to the play itself. It sputters and starts, it has barren sections that go on longer than we can sit comfortably through, it has an air of mustiness that turn it once again into an historical document and not an altogether accurate one at that. What it always had and still has is three terrific characters that three terrific actors can have terrific fun with. There’s Henry Drummond, based on the great attorney Clarence Darrow, who defended the schoolteacher who was on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory. There’s Matthew Harrison Brady, based on two-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who served as prosecutor at the trial. And there is E.K. Hornbeck, based on H.L. Mencken, the esteemed critic who was there to report on the trial. Sad to say, however, that in this production, under Doug Hughes’ surprisingly colorless and inconsistent direction, the promise of theatrical fireworks has been seriously diminished and only one of these characters comes through unscathed.
It is not Hornbeck. Denis O’Hare, who plays him, is becoming, more and more, one of those actors who seem to be making an appearance in a very different play than the one his co-actors are in. Here, he seems to be auditioning for “The Music Man,” and while he might indeed make a wonderful Harold Hill, he is all glibness and smarm here, with none of the sour cynicism that, after all, made Mencken an emblematic figure of his time.
It is not Brady. Brian Dennehy is attempting to avoid the blustering stereotype this character is capable of being and he is, at first, refreshingly simple, relaxed, charming, an avuncular presence, whose ready smile only emphasizes the tiredness in his eyes. And he has a lovely moment with his adversary, Drummond, just before the lights go out at the end of the first act. But, without the bluster, without the arrogance, without the magisterial sense of self, without the madness lurking beneath the ready smile, his Brady has nowhere to go and he is demolished almost to the point of invisibility by Drummond in the second act.
Yes, you guessed it. It is Drummond, in the mighty hands of that great old pro, Christopher Plummer, who makes this revival not only worthy of serious consideration, but who turns it into an experience that nobody interested in the art of great acting can afford to miss. From the moment he appears, his eyes narrowed, his lips thinned, the perspiration clinging to his unkempt suit and the shock of hair that hangs lankly over his right eyebrow, he grabs our attention. It is as if a great virtuoso musician has just given a transcendent performance of one of the great concert pieces and is coming back to perform, as an encore, a crowd-pleaser that will prove equally electrifying. Drummond, after all, is not Lear, but it is no reason not to approach Drummond as if he were Lear. And, in a suspender-snapping homage to Paul Muni, who created the part, Plummer snaps us to attention as well. And from then until the last juices of the play have been drained dry, Plummer breezes through the part, making it his very own, never missing a beat, always finding reservoirs of real anger and genuine righteousness underneath the surface ease, always coming up for air at the precise moment. It is as dazzling as it is unassuming and there is no describing the pleasure one gets from just watching him play each note as if it has never been played before and doing it so unceremoniously.
Broadway review of Frost/NixonOn another stage, Frank Langella’s Richard Milhaus Nixon is giving Mr. Plummer a run for his money, although the situation is somewhat more problematic. Anyone who sees “Frost/Nixon” is not likely to forget the penultimate image, whether one is looking at Langella live or at the blown-up screen image of Langella, that moment when the true face of Nixon in all his shame and nakedness is revealed to us. But what will forever haunt us, in that image, is whether it is Nixon we are seeing or Langella, who brings to that moment something that only a good actor can. The beauty of Langella’s performance is in the way he builds the character. In the beginning, he seems content to deliver a mere impersonation, a cartoonish gargoyle of the Nixon most of us remember all too vividly and would like to forget, but whom we can still laugh at. This impersonation goes on a tad too long, but when, in a drunken haze, Nixon makes a phone call in the middle of the night to David Frost – his interrogator in a series of television interviews that made history and which formed the source material for the play – and bares a side of himself that even he cannot really understand, Langella begins the transformation from caricature to character, one that eventually leads to a real human being. The question that nags at us, however, is whether, in humanizing Nixon, Langella has managed to ennoble all that was despicable and shameless about the man. Sometimes the actor’s art, which is to get at the truth, may, in the process, glorify the lie.
Since Peter Morgan, the author of “Frost/Nixon,” also wrote the brilliantly intelligent screenplay for “The Queen,” one expected a good deal more sophistication and wit than is currently on display. This turns out to be a glib and jokey entertainment that depends upon its actors for whatever depths come creeping through. There is a narrator, too, who keeps telling us what a true playwright would have shown us, and it is hard to tell whether this part fails because of the writing, which feels stiff and obvious, or the acting, which feels stiff and obvious. The entire production seems overstated and undernourished. Michael Grandage’s direction is lively enough, but bereft of any real personality. And the usually wonderful Michael Sheen seems content to cut his David Frost from the same cloth as his Tony Blair in “The Queen.” Of course, today’s audiences seize every opportunity to laugh at the stupidities of our current president when coming upon apt allusions, and Nixon provides some lulus, although sometimes the laughter seemed, shall we say, a bit forced, a bit louder than was absolutely necessary.
Off Broadway review of The AccomplicesI’m not one of those people who think that, just because a play has something important to say, the play should be produced if it doesn’t say it well. I am not talking about “Frost/Nixon,” but rather about Bernard Weinraub’s “The Accomplices,” which may be the most dispiriting production in the brief history of The New Group. Weinraub – attempting to revive and enliven what used to be called a Living Newspaper approach to theater – wants to indict FDR and Breckenridge Long for their complicity in maintaining a silence about the fate of the Jews during World War II in much the same way as Peter Weiss indirectly indicted Pope Pius XII for doing the same thing in “The Investigation.”  But, whereas the Weiss play is a masterpiece of political complexity, Weinraub’s play rarely rises to the level of good television drama. It is not helped by its generic production or by Ian Morgan’s careless staging. And there is something in what it doesn’t say that is truly disturbing. The play is seen through the eyes of the Israeli, Hillel Kook a/k/a Peter Bergson, who came to America in 1940 to get through to FDR and warn him about the Holocaust that was definitely taking place; and his plea is heartfelt and, as we know in what is clearly the most horrifying kind of hindsight, all too valid. But, in the end, Kook, now dead, nevertheless, through the art of the writer, lists all the contemporary victims of the world’s ongoing injustices, and never once mentions the plight of the Palestinians. The ultimate irony is that, in justifiably calling attention to the silence of the world as European Jewry was being murdered on such an epic scale, so many contemporary Jews remain silent about their indifference to the rights of the people whose land they have inherited.
Off Broadway review of All The Wrong ReasonsJohn Fugelsang is a loose and limber and very artful performer and he knows how to build a joke and tell a story and, more often than not, he can be very funny. And his one-man show “All The Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love” is pretty niftily constructed as such evenings go. But I think we have the right to ask why the New York Theatre Workshop is opening its doors to what is basically a stand-up comedy routine.
Broadway review of The Pirate QueenI suppose that I can imagine, if I tried hard enough, a more ponderous and numbing evening in the theater than the one I spent with “The Pirate Queen,” but I hope that I am spared the opportunity to sit through it should it happen to come along. Once was enough.  
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