Broadway has much to offer the serious theatregoer this season. Stars are plentiful on the stages of the Great White Way. Revivals are vying with new works for the label of most innovative production in town. This is one of the strongest Broadway seasons of the last decade, and these three productions exemplify the wit and panache at its core. See any of Present Laughter, Oslo and The Glass Menagerie and you will have had a better time in the theatre than you expected to have.
Noël Coward’s Present Laughter is a difficult play to pull off. It requires a tour de force from the leading man, but also an exemplary supporting cast, each of whom have to be exactly right, at all times, to make the whole work. It’s a bright, sparkly treat when done properly, but it can fall flat when all the ingredients are not organic and perfectly suited.
Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s revival, now playing at the St James Theatre on Broadway, succeeds much more than it fails. Some of the humour falls flat, some is a little too exaggerated to work as naturally as it should, but in Kevin Kline the production boasts a quite perfect Garry Essendine.
Kline is a natural creature of the stage and relishes every opportunity the play presents to show off his considerable skills, his superb comic timing, his sheer star quality. You are never in doubt that Essendine has been a spectacularly successful and overwhelmingly charismatic stage star; equally, you are never in doubt that Essendine feigns happiness, but is hopelessly stuck in a rut of perpetual brief encounters with maidens who seduce him. He has lost himself in his stardom and is constantly watching his own life from the wings, egging himself on, checking his hair and posture, finding the right light, the right line.
Best of all, Kline effortlessly shows the underlying pathos of the character. It might look all silk dressing gowns and endless sexual conquests, but there is also aching regret. In a particularly splendid moment, Kline takes a moment to look desperately at the telephone, his face, for a moment, ravaged with regret. In that moment, Kline sets up the play’s ending beautifully, so when it comes, it seems like a wonderful reward rather than, as it sometimes can, a necessary imposition.
Fitz Patton’s sound lets the entire cast down, but especially Kline. All the actors are miked but there is no proper control and so parts of lines are missed or lost as volume is adjusted. It disrupts the energy and rhythm of the words, diminishes the performances.
There is a wonderful set from David Zinn, complete with many doors for much farcical possibility, and a set of stairs which seem to beg for someone to fall down them, but which Kline uses to great physical effect to get laughs unexpectedly. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are delicious, and not just Kline’s extraordinary range of dressing gowns, but the superb costumes for all the female characters. Josh Marquette’s hair and wig design competes the perfect picture presented of Essendine’s study and the glamour that is drawn to it. (Although one wonders why volumes of law reports are to be found in the bookshelves of a great actor).
Kate Burton is perfection as Liz, Gary’s estranged but not divorced wife. Her command of the language is glorious and there is a sweetness about everything she does, even disapproval. Her devastating dressing down of Cobie Smulders’ Joanna is a true highlight and her final scene perfectly judged. She and Kline work perfectly in sync and you have a true sense of lives lived in each other’s care.
Burton also works to magnificent effect with Kristine Nielsen’s Monica, Gary’s long-suffering, longtime secretary, who probably loves him in a way he will never love her. Nielsen delivers her lines with that acidic assuredness that Coward femmes often exhibit and she brings the house down frequently. Some of her physical humour seems a little forced, but unlike some of the other actors here, Neilsen makes it all part of her whole character, and nothing really jars. When Kline, Burton and Nelisen are together, the air is charged with first rate skill.
Peter Francis James makes an excellent Henry but Smulders is less convincing as his wife, and Garry’s huntress. Smulders looks sensational but the lightness of delivery necessary to beguile and entrance is absent; her Joanna is more from a Dashiell Hammett novel than a Coward play. Still, Smulders is more in groove than Terra Millan’s overly petulant Daphne. Why Garry would have been overwhelmed by her is a mystery.
There is too much overplaying elsewhere too – Bhavesh Patel’s irritating and unhinged Roland Maule, Ellen Harvey’s Nordic Lurch, Miss Erikson, and Reg Rodgers over-wrought bad hair victim, Morris Dixon (also in lust with Smulders’ Joanna, which might account for the hair).
Still, none of this gets in the way of Kline. His suave, assured, and gleefully funny Garry is one for the history books.
Oslo, a new play from J.T.Rogers, concerns itself with the Oslo Peace Accords which led to the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the Rose Garden of Bill Clinton’s White House in 1993. Unsurprisingly, it is a play short on action, but long on talk, mostly political, about Palestine, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Jericho, Jerusalem, Jordan, land rights, state rights, war, weapons and the PLO. On paper, it sounds like a desperately arid several hours in the theatre.
But under the wizard-like direction of Bartlett Sher, Oslo is a gripping, thrilling, and quite emotional theatrical experience. It is now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at the Lincoln Centre and later this year will transfer to the National Theatre. It is remarkable theatre and should not be missed.
Whether you know little or a lot about tensions in the Middle East, Oslo provides you with enough historical information for everything to make sense. There are many characters, but Sher ensures that the audience always knows who they are listening to and what they are talking about. There is no spoon feeding, however, and attention must be paid, but if you invest your mind and ears, Oslo rewards your attention with rich rewards.
Simply put, the play tells the story of how the eventually successful peace talks came into being, the international subterfuge necessary to establish and keep on track those talks, the characters of the individuals who forced the talks onwards and the final, extraordinary concessions made by both sides to find a way to start hoping for peace. It’s complex material, but the urgency and sincerity of the playing ensures it is never dull.
Sher creates action where the narrative provides none. There is almost a never-ending arrangement and rearrangement of furniture, as innumerable meetings occur over the course of the production; nothing is ever done the same way. There is an endless fascination in seeing the tables and chairs moved and reassembled, the characteristics of the meeting places being evoked from almost nothing. It never feels anything less than stimulating to watch.
Rogers hinges the work on two characters, Terje Rød-Larsen and his wife, Mona Julie, a senior official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Rød-Larsen has devised a new way for international governmental negotiations and, through his wife’s interventions, utilises that process to commence the peace talks between Israel and Palestine. It is unorthodox and without official sanction; the prospective punishments are perhaps greater than any conceivable reward.
The particular dramatic thrill here is in understanding this different technique and seeing it at work, and finally seeing it nearly break under the strain of egos and uncompromising personalities. In the end, the most critical element of the process turns out to be Mona and her unsurpassable sense of propriety and insight. It is hard to imagine that people would not be moved by the final scenes, regardless of political persuasion.
This is a play about the human spirit, it’s indomitability, and it’s perpetual ability to morph, evolve, and break with the past to embrace the future. It is very much a play for the 21st Century when people everywhere are clinging to the past or their memory of the past, rather than looking to the future.
Jennifer Ehle is utterly exquisite as Mona, a tough, exceptional woman of considerable intellect and even more considerable grace and charm. She is a diplomat for all seasons, and although never the person in command, is always the person who takes the lead. Ehle negotiates all this with real style. She is magnificent.
As her vain but brilliant husband, Rød-Larsen, Jefferson Mays is splendidly unctuous, tightly coiled pomposity evident in every suggestion, every demand. Mays uncovers the drive of the man and never tries to excuse him. It’s a brave, cold performance well suited to the machinations of the negotiating teams.
As the two key negotiators for the warring parties, Michael Aronov (Uri Savir) and Anthony Azizi (Ahmed Qurie) are superb with Aronov the striking, strutting peacock to Azizi’s stern, details-driven hard man. They work exceptionally well together, a mercurial instinct driving each to make concessions and hold ground at various points.
There is good work across the board really, and the large cast has few weak spots. But there is too much shouting. Some shouting is inevitable in this kind of political minefield, but here Sher permits too much; at points so much that empathy starts to be erased as the piercing loudness disturbs focus. As ever, the very best work comes in the quieter passages, not because they are soft, but because the passion is clearest then.
Oslo is a terrific new play about the human spirit. Make time to see it. It will teach you a deal about history but, also, a deal about great acting and terrific theatre.
The Glass Menagerie
The memory of John Tiffany’s exquisite Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ most famous memory play, led by Cherry Jones and Brian J Smith, still hovers over the Great White Way, so another revival of The Glass Menagerie seems a little indulgent, even for Broadway. But Sam Gold’s stripped-back, bare-bones, minimalist revival makes its case with urgent assurance. No matter how well you know this play, this is a complete reimagining of it. Watching it is like watching an entirely new work.
It begins with a parade. The cast of four do a circuit at the back of the auditorium at the Belasco Theatre, where Gold’s revival now plays. Not many in the audience notice them. In silence, the characters are outlined: in front, slightly distanced from the others, a sombre Tom; Laura, a bubble of anguish, also silent, being pushed in her wheelchair by a bent-over business-like Amanda, her lips pulled tightly together; bringing up the rear, the only one looking around, as if to see if there was another way, the goofy but attractive Gentleman Caller.
They approach the front of the stage, where block steps await. Laura is unbundled from the chair; her legs do not function. With difficulty, but determined energy, she manoeuvres herself up the block steps, onto that stage. Amanda helps a little, but you see clearly the rehearsed strategy for survival : mother and brother looking on, ready if daughter/sister unbalances, urging her independence. Years and years of a difficult set of lives are quickly understood, patience, regret, insistence, and hope all simmering in the shape and feel of the moment.
Immediately, then, this The Glass Menagerie is unlike any other. Laura’s affliction is real, onerous and palpable. This is no actor replicating an affliction- it’s visceral, confronting, true. In an entirely different way, it also presents a reality not usually seen – here Tom, the narrator, is played by an older actor, and an actor who clearly is remembering his past. These two decisions change the balances of a play already delicately balanced. They improve the chances of the audience connecting to the piece in a sincere, absolute way, and, as a result, this is a brilliantly affecting version of Williams’ play.
Joe Mantello is in scintillating form as Tom. It takes a while to get used to him, because there is a detached modernity about his performance, but as the piece works inexorably to its conclusion, his deft ability to be involved in the scenes and stay detached from them pays significant dividends. He is both enigmatic and dispassionate – a perfect combination for a story-teller.
Andrew Lieberman’s set design is sparse – the Belasco stage is wide open, and there are few props and not a shred of backcloth or atmospheric flats. The bare stage walls gleam in the gloomy greyness. Mantello moves props around, most notably a neon sign, as if he were mentally shifting perspective while telling his tale. Happily, there is no glass box, but you can see where there could have been. But this set of memories are free-flowing and they are peppered with little that pins them down. It all works very well.
When the rain comes, it really pours on stage. And the power cut seems real as the stage is plunged into darkness. Candles are quickly lit, and the most extraordinary scene in the play – when the Gentleman Caller is forced to interact intimately with Laura – plays out in the light of five candles. It’s eerie and nostalgic all at once, as everyone’s lives are compacted into that one interaction. In the background, with their own candelabra (but only three candles) Tom and Amanda sit at the table while Laura’s fate is determined.
It’s extraordinary to watch – candlelight giving hope on one part of the stage, while in another, hope drains away in the candlelight. Sally Field diminishes physically in the flickering gloom – she doesn’t make a move, but somehow she shrivels as you watch. It is powerful, silent acting of the highest skill.
But then everything about her no nonsense, practical and pragmatic Amanda is extraordinary. Field misses no tricks. She is the urgent, urging mother, but never a carping fool. She takes her duties seriously and expects her children to do their part; she trusts and loves them. Her duty as a mother and the joy and pain that has brought are masterfully portrayed.
She is a vision in pink chiffon (after a dressing gown reveal which really is breath-taking) and, in that mode, a complete contrast from her otherwise maid-like appearance. She doesn’t grate or irritate, as some who play Amanda find necessary, but instead makes her a mother, slave to her children.
But when the dream of the Gentleman Caller is shattered, and her hope disintegrates, she is a violent hurricane of emotions and passion – the invective she hurls at Mantello’s Tom seems ripped directly from the tears in her soul. It’s harrowing and deeply affecting. The final image of her collapsed in shabby pink at Laura’s numb feet is incredibly powerful.
Madison Ferris is a Laura like no other, and all the more impressive for that. It’s a very grave performance, full of subtle nuance as well as physical extremes. Her dance with the Gentleman Caller is utterly extraordinary; it is a stark stop-and-think moment. Her fussing with her dress and the pain that shrouds almost every exchange is finely judged, humanely disturbing.
Finn Wittrock finds an entirely new way to mine the character of the Gentleman Caller. He presents a chancer always looking for a new way, a fresh tack, a good-looking man with an eye to what might be. He is the product of self-improvement classes, and he walks through lives without leaving any trace of himself. It’s a beguiling performance and completely believable as Tom’s memory of who he was.
This is a version of The Glass Menagerie which makes you think differently about each of the characters. It is steeped in retrospectivity, but it also pulses with conviction and veracity. Gold directs with complete assurance, giving this play an entirely original prism through which it’s inner light can be reflected, much as Laura’s glass animals can reflect light differently depending how they are held to the candle.
The candles here show you insights you will never forget. Enthralling.