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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

“Henry VI,” Shakespeare’s Forbidding Chronicle of Civil War, Rings Clearly Today

Apparently, there are worse types to lead a country than a greedy, mendacious bully. Just ask Margaret (Mahira Kakkar), the Frenchwoman pressed into diplomatic service by the Earl of Suffolk (Paul Juhn), who marries her to the English King Henry VI (Jon Norman Schneider) and hopes to control them both. Margaret complains about her royal spouse to Suffolk, now her lover: “All his mind is bent to holiness,/To number Ave-Maries on his beads;/His champions are the prophets and apostles,/…[A]nd his loves/Are brazen images of canonized saints.” Mild and pious Henry may be, but his weak rule is the wound through which gushes an ocean of civil woe in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, currently being staged with great style and verve by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO). One lesson from this engaging account: The downfall of a bad ruler may be prologue to one who’s even worse.

These early-career Shakespeare history plays, which include the better-known Richard III, are devilishly hard to produce, particularly outside of England or in the absence of, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s resources. Covering decades of English dynastic struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York (known as the Wars of the Roses) as well as the loss of French lands won by Henry V, the crusade of Joan of Arc, and civil clashes such as Jack Cade’s 1450 peasant rebellion, the three parts of Henry VI are crammed with persons, locales, and almost comically swift reversals of loyalty. You see a young playwright eagerly learning his craft, stage-managing bloody battles or tracking serpentine genealogies in blank verse, and miss the rich inner lives of characters in later works. What we get instead is late-medieval soap opera, which for bingers of Game of Thrones or Wolf Hall might be perfect programming. An uncut staging of the trilogy would run about ten hours, sans intermissions. Adapter-director Stephen Brown-Fried has pared the text down to nearly half the verbiage, or two nights that clock in at five and a quarter hours.

In exchange, we get perhaps twice the narrative bang. Brown-Fried has assembled a solid acting ensemble and design team for this cynical, gory epic. Kakkar, delicate yet iron-cast, skillfully rides one of the most satisfying character arcs. As the French girl who comes of age in the English court and grimly hangs on to power, she transforms into the “tiger’s heart, wrapp’d in a woman’s hide,” scorned by the Duke of York (Rajesh Bose), whom Margaret will eventually torture to death. Bose himself cuts a coolly calculating figure, a man who claims a birthright to the throne but, more important, has the urge to command that Henry seems to lack. The dynamic Sophia Skiles looks daggers and speaks flames as Eleanor, the scheming wife of Humphrey of Lancaster (stalwart Mia Katigbak), Henry’s guardian. As the Earl of Warwick, Vanessa Kai is an icy, proud, all-around kickass. I was positively tickled by Juhn’s suave, oily Suffolk and Anna Ishida’s perpetually pissed-off Somerset. With his gleaming shaved head and coiled physique, the sharp David Huynh emerges in the second part as York’s son Richard — renamed the Duke of Gloucester — the disabled malcontent who will murder his way to power.

Keeping all these plotters and traitors and Frenchies clear is not easy, especially when NAATCO must perforce double- and triple-cast actors. Still, lean staging and deft character work keep the lines of allegiance mostly clear. (A video display in the lobby is a handy primer.) The choices for act breaks are dramaturgically clever, too. The intermission in the first part comes with Suffolk’s soliloquy about controlling the throne through Margaret. Then the first part ends with York smugly sharing his plan for gaining the crown. These villainous solo bits of direct address nicely prefigure Richard III, who divulges similarly ambitious impulses but in a much more concentrated, nihilistic way — divorced from love of family, nation, even self.

The design here is artful, resourceful, and sleekly ahistorical. Kimie Nishikawa’s blood-red floor is partly obscured by ash-like black flakes, which the feet of the actors shift here and there over the course of the plays. This physical environment connotes violence, bloodlines, the burned bodies of history. Nicole Slaven’s costumes are equally effective, a period-punk mash-up of camouflage, combat boots, and black leather. Given all the combat and bloodletting the action requires, movement directors Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin get a lot of mileage out of slow-motion staff fighting and Reza Behjat’s percussive strobe lighting.

Apart from condensing and keeping the action fluid, Brown-Fried’s editing shows a feminist urge to suppress fanciful bits that have aged less well. Gone are the scenes featuring two female characters — Joan of Arc and Eleanor — summoning demons for counsel, which were probably lit a.f. on the Elizabethan stage but strike a witchy-misogynist note today. Then there’s the heavy-handed stuff, such as the stiff passages that follow Henry’s anguished battlefield soliloquy in Part 3 (Schneider delivers a tender, moving rendition). Before horrified Henry’s eyes, a son drags the body of a soldier he’s killed, only to realize that it’s his own father; a speech later, a father does the same, discovering he’s killed his son. Rhyming lamentation follows. In its ritualized desolation it’s nearly Beckettian, but the section feels like something young Will cribbed from a morality play. You won’t miss it.

Even trimmed to manageable size, Henry VI is a serious investment of time and energy in what boils down to some very sketchy English folks squabbling over a round bit of metal. (LOTR this is not.) Even so, I never tired of NAATCO’s appealing, expert ensemble as it navigated the twisty chronicles. The last time I saw Henry VI performed was 2004’s two-part, all-male Rose Rage. (In a welcome reversal, actresses play women and men here.) I’m happy to revisit this fratricidal-regicidal pageant, in all its tribal, speechifying glory. Moreover, I’m grateful that NAATCO gives work to some of the city’s finest Asian-American talent. Casting agents and artistic directors, take note: Enlisting a diverse group of players is a surefire way to make ancient texts release truly universal music.

Henry VI
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
866-811-4111
naatco.org
Through September 8

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

The Lyrical Artistry of Broadway’s “Pretty Woman” Musical Wouldn’t Pass Muster in a Febreze Commercial

Pretty Woman — the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster and now the glitzy, pop-scored Broadway spectacle — is a story of mutual transformation. In this sentimental and consumerist riff on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a controlling, slightly phobic billionaire (Richard Gere in the film) enters into a business arrangement with a winsome prostitute he picks up (or rather, who picks him up) on Hollywood Boulevard. (Hold the Trump jokes, please.) The hooker role was played with star-making vivacity onscreen by a young Julia Roberts, she of the mile-wide smile and spontaneous guffaw. By the end of the flick, after a week of lovemaking, soul baring, fighting, and forgiveness, they’ve fallen hard, having taught each other about intimacy, trust, and the value of designer dresses. She has acquired fashionable armor, while his has melted.

The book of this adaptation, by the late, sorta-great Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, doesn’t stray from Lawton’s original screenplay. Alas, that’s the transformation I dearly wish had occurred: Clever playwright and songwriters turn a male fantasy about money and ego into something more challenging and resonant for today’s audiences. Less #IGotMine and more #MeToo. But scan the creative team in Pretty Woman’s program, and you have to go far down to hit a woman’s name: Fiona Mifsud, makeup designer. Fiona does a fine job, but I would have loved to see more women higher up. Instead, we get sixteen tunes by Eighties MTV cutie Bryan Adams and his longtime writing partner, Jim Vallance; a half-dozen male designers; and, in the director-choreographer chair, Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), whose name is synonymous with slick, audience-friendly camp.

OK, forget the sausage-party optics for a moment and let’s examine the production itself. It’s a typical Jerry Mitchell joint: all bright, sliding surfaces (L.A.–tacky sets by David Rockwell) and colorful chorus folk in constant motion. The highly likable Andy Karl, lately of Groundhog Day, plays Edward, yet another damaged male in need of healing, preferably from the fairer sex. As damsel-savior Vivian, Samantha Barks dutifully pours herself into a series of attractive dresses (by Gregg Barnes) modeled after the ones in the movie, and plies her strong pop soprano. Orfeh makes what meal she can from her leftover of a role, Vivian’s co–sex worker Kit. Hardworking and versatile Eric Anderson, playing what I think is a Magical Hobo, introduces the characters, meanders spiritedly around the stage, and then resolves himself as a starchy but kindhearted hotel manager. Jason Danieley has the thankless role of Edward’s sleazy lawyer, who’s helping in a hostile takeover of a ship-building company.

To be sure, a plausible, even affecting romantic comedy could be coaxed from this premise. The movie benefited enormously from the fire-and-ice chemistry between Roberts and Gere, and its shopaholic, fairy-tale humbug went down fairly easily as a belated, final gasp of the Eighties. In movies, you can get away with shorthand characterization and nicely framed pillow talk to simulate depth and passion, but onstage, we need more cues, more brushstrokes. By keeping the story in the same time frame, refusing to update it or introduce a meaningful female perspective, the creative team ensures that Pretty Woman remains a well-mannered mannequin, swaddled in nearly thirty-year-old fashion.

A fresh and witty musical approach might have countered this embalming tendency. But the problem with the Adams-Vallance score is how slenderly it connects to characters and situations. “Anywhere but Here” is Vivian’s wishful-washy “I Want” number. In “Something About Her,” Edward muses, vaguely: “There’s something about her/That I’ve never seen before/There’s something about her/I don’t know what it is/But I know that I need more.” Later, in the perversely undramatic Act I finale, Edward and Vivian go shopping, and he showers her with praise: “And you’re beautiful/You’ve got style and grace/There’s something about your smile that says/You’re on your way.” Febreze called; they want their jingle back.

Other tracks are equally uninspired, as telegraphed by their bromidic titles: “Never Give Up on a Dream,” “On a Night Like Tonight,” “Don’t Forget to Dance,” “I Can’t Go Back.” The sonic nadir comes when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and she swoons over La Traviata (also about a courtesan); if, in the throes of dengue fever, you ever wanted to know what a Verdi–Bryan Adams mash-up sounds like, here’s your chance. I can’t emphasize how mediocre these airbrushed ditties are, cranked out by a pair of Canadians who spent decades simulating teen longing for three-minute bursts. It’s Velveeta Rock, and, crammed into a Broadway format, it doesn’t add up to a musical so much as a play in which characters periodically break into Bryan Adams’s back catalog. When people sing in a show, they’re supposed to get more interesting, not less.

And so, the 2018–19 season has barely begun, but we already have a front-runner for Most Unnecessary Musical. Apparently, it’s doing strong box office, so Pavlovian name recognition is doing its thing. The theater is a place where you pay money to be seduced and lied to, but it’s not unreasonable to expect more. Vapid, musically dead, and dramatically flat, Pretty Woman exists for no other reason than to dig cash out of tourist pockets.

Pretty Woman: The Musical
Nederlander Theatre
208 West 41st Street
877-250-2929
prettywomanthemusical.com
Open run

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

In “Head Over Heels,” Go-Go’s Hits and Elizabethan Drag Go Hand in Hand

Broadway’s latest jukebox musical is set to songs by the Go-Go’s and — somewhat surprisingly — it’s not about a group of young women seeking love and fame in Reagan-era, post-punk Los Angeles. You might have expected the producers to jerry-rig a trite, retro scaffolding that vaguely mirrored the iconic girl band’s trailblazing story. The creative team of Head Over Heels does go retro, but waaay retro, to achieve something rarer and wonderfully strange. They’ve found the Venn overlap among “We Got the Beat,” LGBTQ awakening, and Elizabethan allegory on humane statecraft.

Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) had long wanted to adapt Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, a bonkers, five-book proto-novel from the 1580s that chronicled a king, an ominous oracle, a bed trick, and frustrated young lovers. Whitty found an unlikely excuse in this high-concept frolic, which started life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. After show-doctoring and the addition of director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the piece now unfurls on Broadway as a polished yet touching fairytale rom-com that succeeds where so many catalogue tuners fail. Whitty’s book is silly and sweetly wise enough to transcend — nay, celebrate — the absurdity of Eighties pop in Elizabethan drag.

“Speak English, not eclogue,” goes an early wisecrack, which gets a laugh, even if the majority of audience members present don’t usually giggle at Early Modern Lit jokes. The dialogue is in iambic pentameter, a lilting mode that slides neatly into the bouncy Go-Go’s numbers and the occasional hit solo by lead singer Belinda Carlisle. I’m not going to argue that ditties such as “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” are examples of deathless songwriting, but damn if they don’t tickle the hippocampus of any kid who grew up on MTV when it was MTV. (Incidentally, if John Dowland is more your thing, consider how much the seventeenth-century lutenist has in common with the Go-Go’s universe: hidden passion, the melancholy of love, gossipy disapproval.)

For those who follow Broadway, Head Over Heels will seem like Something Rotten! borrowed teen angst from Spring Awakening and trans-themed fierceness from Hedwig. But it’s also a cautionary tale directed at our toxic-rightward-hetero times. King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) rules Arcadia as complacently as he lords it over his long-suffering wife, Gynecia (Rachel York, perfectly arch and tart), and daughters Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha). Vain and bossy Pamela is the “pretty” one, while shy and mild Philoclea is the universally proclaimed “plain” one. Despite the abundance of suitors ardently a-wooing (I found “shirtless, beruffed stud muffins” scribbled in my notes by way of description), Pamela isn’t interested. Convinced that a male heir is being delayed due to female conspiracy, Basilius consults the gender-neutral oracle Pythio (Peppermint, of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame) for advice. The monarch learns that one daughter will bed a liar, another will wed — but not a man, and the king’s wife will cuckold him. I haven’t even mentioned the tongue-tied shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) loved by Philoclea, who’s scared off by the king and returns cleverly cross-dressed as an Amazon warrior.

That so much plot sits so lightly on the score is a testament to Whitty’s graceful book (adapted by James Magruder) and Tom Kitt’s elegant, rock-smart music direction. Spencer Liff’s twirl-tastic, high-kicking choreography keeps the bodies flowing, like club kids cutting a Renaissance galliard. The storybook sets by Julian Crouch (picturesque Roman ruins, giant snake messengers, flip-up mermaid tails) and the glam, transhistorical costumes by Arianne Phillips all contribute to a visual impact where goofiness and camp can still be artful and lovely to behold.

And looks — good, bad, deceiving, fleeting — are a great deal of what the show’s about. Speaking superficially, Milligan (as the “pretty” sister) is larger than the petite Socha (as the “plain” one), yet the show doesn’t make this into a joke, or turn its welcome inversion of typical Broadway-producer casting logic into a didactic point. (Milligan talked to Broadway.com earlier this week about being “a plus size actress getting to play the beautiful character where there’s nothing in the script about my size.”) Milligan simply, gorgeously, rules every scene she’s in, with a first-rate pop soprano and killer comic timing. In Head Over Heels, beauty is subjective and random, standards of desirability fluid and critiqued. When Pamela learns that her desires lean same-sexily, like toward her wry and sensible lady-in-waiting, Mopsa (a fabulous Taylor Iman Jones), it’s another reminder that we are all empty vessels into which love pours what juice it will.

There are gallons of insight smuggled into this giddy, liberated construction: the B-romance is a lesbian affair essentially given as much weight as that of Musidorus and Philoclea; the rebuke of patriarchy is righteous yet wrenching; and there’s a deep philosophical thread about the need to evolve past gendered, binary hierarchies. Shrewd, funny, sexy, and with a glorious beat, Head Over Heels will have you flipping for joy.

Head Over Heels
Hudson Theatre
139–141 West 44th Street
212-239-6200
headoverheelsmusical.com
Open run

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight” Scrutinizes the Rules of Attraction

Maybe I’ve just come to accept that all of Joshua Harmon’s characters are going to be whiny, selfish scolds. Or perhaps Skintight, his latest, is just a better play than Admissions. The latter, a boarding-school satire produced last spring at Lincoln Center, struck me as a smug exposé of white, liberal hypocrites whose privilege was threatened by the racial parity they’d long championed. Admissions felt potted and pat, an excuse for Harmon to write a breathless jeremiad against identity politics delivered by an angsty teen. Both it and this new one were staged by Harmon collaborator Daniel Aukin. The jerks in Skintight — a dramedy about family, transgenerational lust, and the fashion world — are no less jerky, but somehow, they’re more endearing. Maybe it’s because they’re hotter. Concupiscence forgives much.

Jodi (a frisky, relaxed Idina Menzel) has made a surprise arrival at the gorgeous West Village duplex of her fashion-mogul dad, Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall). He’s about to turn seventy, and does not want to be reminded, but Jodi insists on a party. She’s also fleeing an embarrassing situation on the West Coast: Her ex is marrying a busty gal half his age. “While we were having, like, the best sex of our adult lives,” Jodi angrily muses, “this person was getting her diaper changed, because she didn’t yet possess the motor skills to wipe her own ass.”

Jodi invites along her son, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), a gay millennial majoring in queer studies and forever exasperated by his doting mom. Stirring the pot of this wealthy, assimilated Jewish clan is Trey (Will Brittain), a Southern slab of beefcake whom Elliot is dating. Jodi is used to her father’s flings with young guys, but this one is different. Trey is her son’s age, but unlike Benjamin, he grew up longing for the finer things in life. He’s a homewrecker with a porn past wishing Elliot would put a ring on it.

Both the outline of Elliot’s career and his entanglement with Trey calls to mind Calvin Klein’s fling with adult-film vet Nick Gruber in 2011 (humorously decried in the Voice by Michael Musto). Like Klein, Elliot is ambiguously gay and the descendent of Hungarian Jews. Like Gruber, Trey prefers not to say whether he’s gay or straight — he’s not into “labels.” That doesn’t stop him from parading around the apartment wearing nothing but a jock strap and plopping down on the couch next to a horrified Jodi and bemused Benjamin. A lesser writer might take an Orton-esque tack and have Trey separately seduce mother and son, but Harmon is slyer than that. He’d rather watch these sleek sharks circle each other than pounce.

Skintight doesn’t offer much in the plot department. It’s more of a bitchy, breezy group portrait, centered around the theme of youth: Why we covet it, what to do when it fades, how to draw a line between love and lust — and does it all even matter? No really surprising answers are forthcoming, but Harmon makes the neurotic gossip and power-grabbing fun to watch. His writing is a tad more humane, and less schematic, than in previous work, as seen in the cat-and-mouse midnight confab between Trey and Benjamin or a nakedly raw monologue from Elliot in defense of pursuing young flesh and the transactional basis of all relationships. (Wetherall’s flinty dignity anchors his scenes, and even provides a heft of pathos.)

It’s a pleasure to see Menzel lark about in a vehicle that plays to her comic strengths, and Gelb pushes the fey brat routine to the edge of caricature without tipping over. Designer Lauren Halpern’s stylish, bilevel set draws the requisite half-liter of drool from us urban peasants in our dingy studios. There’s understated but often hilarious support from Stephen Carrasco and Cynthia Mace as two put-upon servants. And Brittain’s white-trash gigolo, while a transparent gay-for-pay grifter and boor, is pure life force, strutting about and admiring his own ass, pitting his aged lover’s family members against each other. Refreshingly, however, no one in this boulevard comedy is the baddie, and no one’s the hero. The only villain in Harmon’s world is time, which withers beauty and drains libido. Oh, God, it’s too depressing; pass the Botox.

Skintight
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
212-719-1300
roundabouttheatre.org
Through August 26

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

Onstage and Off, Chukwudi Iwuji Relishes the Role of the Outsider

One cliché about actors — that their sense of identity can be slippery — doesn’t bother Chukwudi Iwuji. Having established himself in just a few years as one of New York’s most vibrant classical performers, Iwuji, 43, relishes his status as a product of many nations. Born to Nigerian parents who worked for the United Nations, he lived for a time in Ethiopia before attending boarding school in England. Iwuji studied economics at Yale University, but, lured by the siren stage, trained at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. A stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company put him on the map, and now he’s conquering local audiences, mainly through the Public Theater. This past spring he burned brightly in Bruce Norris’s The Low Road as John Blanke, an African slave adopted by an English aristocrat, stymied by proto-capitalists and nouveau riche boobs in Colonial America. Beginning May 29, Iwuji undertakes the titanic role of Othello for Shakespeare in the Park. So he has little time for musing about roots or belonging. Anyway, speaking to the Voice on Monday prior to the Obie awards, he was quite interested in matters sartorial. “I’m rather excited about this awesome double-breasted jacket that they’ve dressed me in,” he said. “It’s a very subtle checkered gray, nice weave. I just like my clothes. I really do.”

You’re rehearsing Othello for Central Park, your fifth job for the Public, and your second this year, after The Low Road. How did this relationship come about?

It started with Antony and Cleopatra in 2014. I was about to move from London to New York, and just before I left, the RSC mentioned this project, an English-American collaboration, their version of the Bridge Project. Then I got here, and the wonderful Heidi Griffiths brought me in. They were trying to find their Enobarbus. They made the offer and I thought, “This is a good way to start a relationship in maybe the single most important theater in the country.” They really took to my work, and I remember on opening night for Antony and Cleopatra, Oskar [Eustis, the Public’s artistic director] taking me aside and saying, “I just want to do big things with you.” That summer, they gave me Edgar in King Lear in the Park. It’s not just about giving you a job. It’s saying they invested in developing you as an artist. In that sense, I feel one of the luckiest actors in the city.

John Blanke in The Low Road seems like it was written for you.

I was in London when I got the email about it. In the middle of filming something. I just did Hedda Gabler and Obsession back-to-back with Ivo van Hove, and I’m like, “I just want to make some money for a while.” So I got home about midnight and thought, let me glance at the first, you know, twenty pages. I read it straight through to three in the morning. I’m finishing it up, laughing hard. I laughed so much, giggled, doubled back, underlined, penciled stuff.

What appealed to you about the script?

It’s a difficult thing to preach but make it not seem like preaching. What made me laugh is that when you can look at yourself and your society, and laugh and yet go, “I’m laughing, but we really need to deal with this” — those are the really great writers. Those are the great teachers. I’ve lived all over the world — in Ethiopia; Lesotho, South Africa — so I’ve lived in countries where there’s been deep oppression. I’ve known people from Russia who grew up during the Cold War under Stalin. When they talk about pain and tragedy, they say it laughing to each other. The tonic is humor.

While reading the script at three in the morning, were you flashing back to your days studying economics at Yale University? 

Absolutely. I mean: Keynesian theory, Adam Smith’s invisible hand. You don’t have to be an economist to lean into those ways of thinking. Is it every man for himself, or are we actually born wanting to be good? Or are we born Machiavellian and society makes us behave? Which version is it? Then you throw in the need to make money — or not make money. What Bruce’s play brought to me is: This is the bedrock of the country. And not just America. Tectonic shifts in culture are all geared to economics. There’s nothing that’s purely moral or not. The abolition of slavery wasn’t a moral choice. It was the economics of it.

John Blanke was an African slave, then an English aristocrat’s heir, then a slave again in America. Who was he to you?

It’s interesting to have all these awards nominations for John Blanke. Not to take anything away from him, but I just understood him. He’s the outsider. I grew up in Nigeria. I’ve been an outsider my whole life. My parents worked for the U.N. We left Nigeria, and later Ethiopia, and then I’m one of a handful of black kids in boarding school in England. Then I was made head boy of my school in England. You know: first black head boy. Then I come to America, to Yale. The whole thing of being an outsider has always been part of my makeup. Of course, there’s a side of me that understands social inequality and the frustration of it, so I really didn’t have to think.

Every now and then you get a character that fits you like a well-tailored suit, and your job is to make sure you do justice to the argument within the piece. I never once consciously thought about how John would stand or where he would get emotional. It flowed through the writing.

If roles can be like tailored suits, how does it feel wearing Othello?

Othello’s been more about having to get the suit custom-made for you. Not slipping into it. I mean, there’s a history of Othello for me. It was the last show I played in Yale undergrad. I cannot remember what I did. It’s so weird because normally I remember every production. Then, fast-forward: I hadn’t been thinking about Othello. I won’t lie to you. When I did Henry VI at the RSC in 2006, everyone came up and said, “Now you’re ready to think about Othello.” I was like, “Actually, no, I want to do Hamlet and Macbeth.”

What changed?

I was filming a BBC TV adaptation of King Lear in London with Richard Eyre, with Tony Hopkins as Lear. And Tony looked at me and went, “You must be ready for your Othello now.” I was like, “Ah…I was just thinking about it.” I’m at that age when you can have a dynamic Othello, where Othello doesn’t have to be that much older than Desdemona. He just has to feel like he’s in his prime. I started thinking about themes, because it is ultimately a love story, and I recently got engaged. I’m at a point in my career where I’m interested in exploring that guy. But it is the hardest role I’ve played. Hamlet will reach peaks of angst or despair, and he has these wonderful soliloquies to share with the audience, to literally ask for help. I realized that Othello, from Act III to the end, doesn’t have that release valve. I’ve never played a character that lives so entirely at such a pitch, in which you have to find the modulation. It’s really brutal, as a piece.

You talk positively about being an outsider. But I imagine the downside can be —

Isolated.

Yes, being vulnerable to prejudice or deception, like Othello. Is that feeding your sense of the character?

If you ask my siblings, they always thought I was a bit of a strange kid. I was always a bit of an outsider even living in Nigeria. I remember thinking, “God. No one understands me.” I’m lucky to say that I always embraced the fact that I was the other. I never felt it was a detriment to me at all. I like the fact that people wanted to know what it was like in Ethiopia. I like the fact that just because I went to an American school in Ethiopia for a couple of years before coming to England, the English thought I sounded slightly American. I love the fact that when I came to America, they thought I sounded really British. I’ve never had a problem with being the other because I’m a very functional introvert. I’ve always liked the escape route of being embraced as much as I want and being able to step aside, without feeling that I’m breaking any social norms.

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Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Gregory Doran and the Royal Shakespeare Company Settle In to a Thorny “King Lear” at BAM

Gregory Doran has the rumpled, bewhiskered aspect of the English teacher you totally crushed on in college. That accent, those dry jokes — ’tis to swoon! Alas, he’s taken. Since 1987, Doran and the acclaimed actor Antony Sher have been partners on stage and off, their names inseparable from the Royal Shakespeare Company, which Doran has run since 2012. Sher has achieved some of his most legendary roles there, such as the rock-star Richard III skittering about on gothic crutches in 1984. More recently, Sher played a seedily posh Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the BAM Harvey. The latter production was directed by Doran, who now brings his King Lear to the Harvey (through April 29), also starring Sher as the mad old king yelling at storm clouds. In addition to running the massive RSC at its home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Doran has worked to diversify casting and bolster new playwriting, while also constantly testing the canon. He sat down recently for dinner to chat with the Voice about Lear, bowdlerized Bard, and the negotiations of living with your leading man.

I’m resisting the urge to make a joke about meeting the Pope of Shakespeare.

[Laughs] Pope Gregory.

Was he one of the nice ones?

He was the Great. Pope Gregory I.

Two years ago, King and Country was here at the Harvey. For this armchair Shakespearean, it was heaven to see the “Henriad” together — Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V.

It was a marvelous thing to do, in particular in 2016.

It was the year of Brexit and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

We toured it that year. We’d begun the Richard II in the end of ’13 and the Henry IVs in ’14 and then Henry V we were doing in ’15, because it was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. And then for 2016, we brought them all back together. We revived them at the Barbican, took them to China, brought them here. I had wanted to look at the plays, not in what was a RSC tradition, this de rigueur thing where you put the cycle together. I felt that meant you were “tetralogizing” them, rather than seeing them each as individual plays. Richard II is a great lyric tragedy, whereas the Henry IVs are so completely different from Henry V. I wanted to be able to look at them individually and, then, do the tetralogizing bit that meant you put them all together.

Were those four plays uncut?

No. I always do a cut knowing that a Shakespeare play goes through about 900 lines an hour if spoken trippingly on the tongue. Which means that if you start at 7:30 and you’re done about half past ten and you want a twenty-minute interval for bar sales, you’ve got about 2,400 lines’ worth of playing time. You realize that if you don’t cut it before you go into rehearsal, you’re going to have about four and a half hours of playing time, and you probably didn’t want that.

King and Country had the illusion of feeling quite complete.

Well, I think it’s a matter of filleting here and there, sometimes for pace. I don’t change the words, though it’s more fashionable to do so now.

Doing the 1623 Folio text as written actually has a shorter history — in the four hundred years since his death — than bowdlerizing the work.

Like King Lear. I mean, I used to sneer at Nahum Tate, as everyone did. The idea of giving Lear a happy ending! But it held the stage for 130 years. It wasn’t until Edmund Kean decided to put back the original ending and then, after only three performances, he was forced to reinstate the happy ending. But, having sneered at it. … When I was looking at the original history of King Lear, the source material, and the earlier work, King Leir — all of which have happy endings — you get to a point where you realize: Shakespeare didn’t set out to change the ending. I think he set out to write it and got to a point where he went: The world, as it is today, cannot bring this to a happy conclusion.

England had just had its “5/11,” the Gunpowder Plot. We just had the king, the Parliament, the royal family, all the estates nearly annihilated in a terrorist attack. The world has lost its moorings. We are in this instable crisis, axis moment. I can’t make this play have a happy ending. But we found something really crucial in rehearsal. I remember telling Tony Sher: “Lear has another scene.” And he goes, “What?! What do you mean?!”

What did you mean?

You get towards the end of the fourth act: Albany’s dead. Goneril and Regan are rivals for Edmund’s love; they’re in a mess. Cordelia has returned, Kent has revealed himself to Cordelia, the king has been found. Edgar and Gloucester have managed to escape the predations of their families and everyone’s coming together. Everything’s at a crossroads. The key thing for me in directing Shakespeare is: Just because you know it ends tragically, don’t play it that way. You reach a crossroads, and you may go that way tonight, or the other way, and the audience needs to think that anything could happen. Cheat their underlying knowledge that it doesn’t, but tonight, it just might.

How do you do that?

Edgar brings the blind Gloucester on, sits him under a tree, and the blind man watches the battle between Cordelia and King Lear’s forces and those of Regan and Goneril. The stage direction suggests that you see Lear crossing the stage, with his soldiers and Cordelia, and that must suggest they’re all together now, they’ve bonded, and he’s got his sanity back and they’re going to trash those sisters. So then, seconds later, where someone comes back on and says King Lear’s lost, it should be: “What?!” I realized that I had been directing the battle, orchestrating it as a dying fall; it was going to be the tragic ending we’re all expecting. What you have to do in that scene is play it absolutely as if you’re going towards a victory for King Lear and Cordelia. It was fascinating because it felt as though Shakespeare was following the source material, and he just went: I can’t do this. I can’t bring about this happy ending because the world’s not like that anymore.

Antony Sher (reclined, as King Lear) “loves” the contradictions of Shakespeare, says partner-collaborator Doran.

In rehearsal, I would imagine a couple of key questions are: What kind of father was Lear? What kind of king was he?

Well, his attitude to Goneril is appalling. The way he curses her womb. His attack on Goneril’s generative organs feels weighted with disgust, essentially. When you get through that curse, it just seems out of all proportion to anything that she can possibly have done.

Lear doesn’t have any sons, does he? So maybe the curse is colored by that.

I’m sure that’s the relationship to Goneril. He blames her for not being a boy and therefore not providing him with a secure heir, and he’s now divided up the country because without a male heir, that’s going to a problem.

You’ve known Antony Sher for more than thirty years. You married him. You direct him. How would you describe his approach to acting? 

One of the things he loves about Shakespeare’s characters — and every character he plays — is the contradictions, because he feels that those contradictions make them human, because we all are massive contradictions. Too often writers iron those out and Tony loves to wrinkle them up. We did Cyrano de Bergerac together and he could play Cyrano’s — he called it his “visible soul.” There’s this character dressed in flesh and then there’s the visible soul, and that’s something that he’s able to expose. But he doesn’t ask you to love him as an actor. I think it’s the same with Lear. He’s intolerable for three acts. Then, because of what happens to him, you feel protective towards him. I don’t know how Shakespeare does that, but he does it, which is an astonishing thing to do. But Tony doesn’t mind you not loving him, which I think ultimately means that you do.

You’ve been domestic and creative partners a long time. What’s the work/life balance like?

We learned a long time ago. We were doing Titus Andronicus in South Africa, at the end of the apartheid. Barney Simon of Market Theatre invited us to do a Shakespeare in Johannesburg. Tony had never performed in his home town. We suggested doing Titus, and the play itself turned from this gory tragedy to being a play about the need to break the cycles and restore a sense of reconciliation. In the evening, we would go home to this fortified compound with barbed wire in one of the suburbs. There was gunfire every night; we realized we were in the murder capital of the world. So, we’d go home, and there was a pool. I’d need a gin and tonic, to sit by the pool and forget the day, and he would go, “What about that bit in Act III Scene 3? Is that actor really going to do that?” You know, all those things. And eventually I asked him, “Please stop, I’m not going to talk about it anymore,” and he went on and on. Eventually I picked up my plate and threw it at him. We realized that we couldn’t go on like that. So, we made ground rules, to give each other space at home. It’s a much happier relationship.

You’ve gone on record saying Shakespeare was gay.

I think I was reacting to was what Katherine Duncan-Jones called the “heterosexualization of Shakespeare.” Talk about bowdlerizing Shakespeare: In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sonnets were bowdlerized to such an extent that all the pronouns were changed.

I did not know that.

Of the 154 sonnets, probably 120 of them are addressed to another man. I don’t know whether Shakespeare was gay. We know he married Anne Hathaway and had Susanna and the twins at a very young age. I kept on finding characters who are clearly gay, as we would now describe it. I felt that there was something about the perspective of a gay man in the society in which he existed that gave him an insight into female characters. You have an outsider’s perspective, whether that’s because you’re a Jew, because you’re a Moor, because you’re a woman, or because you’re a homosexual.

What do you think about directors giving characters or plays a distinctly queer slant?

Re-gendering and rethinking characters is really interesting and we’re doing more of it at Stratford at the moment. Our new Troilus and Cressida this winter is going to be the first fifty-fifty male-female ensemble. Partly because there are many calls, from many actresses, who feel that things should be more balanced. I tried to get Phyllida Lloyd to come to Stratford at one point, and she said not until you’re fifty-fifty.

As an organization, the RSC is sixty percent women, forty percent men, but on our stages, because of Shakespeare, we’re more balanced towards the men. I’m not going to impose fifty-fifty as some kind of policy because that would stop us from doing an all-female production, frankly. But I think it is an interesting way of looking at characters. I’ve been thinking maybe Helen of Troy should be transgender or something ambiguous. Shakespeare’s robust; he’ll take it.

You’re six years into the job. How about greater diversity in casting? Is that part of your agenda in Stratford?

Next year we’re doing a season called “Reflecting the Nation,” which is a moment of recalibration six years in to ask, are we doing this all right? Can we do things better? So, we’re going to reflect the nation in terms of gender, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of disability, and in terms of regionality. An across-the-board mix. We won’t be going, “Hey, we’re going to cast this character disabled or female.” It’ll be because there’s a group of actors we’re drawing from. And I want to produce badges where it says, “IT’S CALLED ACTING.” I think the drive for the authentic can sometimes be counterproductive to the art of the actor.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater TV ARCHIVES

HBO’s “Arthur Miller: Writer” Parses the Life of One of America’s Definitive Playwrights

Does every playwright eventually become akin to his or her characters? Tennessee Williams never penned a pill-popping drunk who choked to death on a nasal-spray bottle cap. Nor did any of Eugene O’Neill’s creations ever expire on the line, “Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” But it feels like they might have. And that’s how both those legends died, at least. To see eightyish Arthur Miller potter about in the woodshed in his daughter Rebecca’s new HBO documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer, one might muse that America’s great social dramatist ended up lost, forgotten — Willy Loman-like. The culture used him and cast him aside, evoking Willy’s pathetic orange peel metaphor: “A man is not a piece of fruit!” Tempting analogy, right?

Best to resist the temptation. It’s true that Miller’s success was woefully lopsided, but he had a joyful, long life (1915–2005) that was full of planting — plays as much as trees. (He seeded a pine forest of six thousand trunks at his sprawling estate in rural Connecticut.) If the last four-plus decades of Miller’s industry never fructified into the literary redwoods for which he’s famous, he kept watering and tending the garden, anyway.

Theater buffs know the general outline. Following the failure of The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), a rookie flop that nearly drove him from the stage, Miller bounced back to enjoy an astonishing run: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From the Bridge (in eight miraculous years), up to the beginning of the end, 1964’s After the Fall. Faced with the explosion of the youth counterculture, Vietnam protests, and theater’s growing irrelevance, Miller retreated to 350 acres in Roxbury, Connecticut, with his third wife and three kids (a fourth, a son with Down syndrome, was institutionalized). There, he cranked out twenty-odd more works that met with critical dismissal or outright hostility. A more hyperbolic assessment would say he was canonized and crucified simultaneously.

What happened? For some, the flashy answer might be: Marilyn Monroe. Miller’s five-year marriage to the Hollywood icon was a creatively fallow period during which he looked after the emotionally fragile actress and dodged paparazzi. Her death the year after their divorce never stopped haunting him. He returns to it in his last play, Finishing the Picture (2004), inspired by the making of the John Huston–directed The Misfits (1961), whose script he wrote for Monroe. But let’s say the screen legend is not to blame. Maybe Miller’s decline is simply what happens to a writer who generates so many masterpieces, and garners such national acclaim, in so short a time. As interviewee Mike Nichols asks, in the doc, vis-à-vis Death of a Salesman: “Did he or did he not feel that he burned something out when he wrote it? I think anyone who wrote Salesman, something would have burned out, because it’s so close to the target. It’s so…alive.”

In the years following his prime, Arthur Miller had the curious distinction of being canonized and crucified simultaneously.

So, there are plenty of theories. Rather than pick one, Rebecca Miller chronicles her father’s life in six affectionate but fairly unflinching chapters from childhood to Broadway breakthrough and the decades out of fashion. She pieces together the story through cozy, at-home interviews; scores of archival photos and video clips; and voice-overs of Miller reading from his memoir, Timebends. Tony Kushner pops up a couple of times to remind us how radical it was, two years after the Second World War, to condemn wartime profiteering at the expense of soldiers’ safety (All My Sons).

Rebecca makes clear that her father lived many lives. He was a teenager during the Great Depression (which wiped out his father’s garment business and robbed the family of its affluent lifestyle), a red-hot playwright alongside Odets and Williams, and an eloquent, serious writer when the nation still looked to Broadway for elevating discourse. And then there’s the not-quite-retiree. Chatting with his daughter, Miller comes across as a grandfatherly mensch: a relaxed, confident, incorrigible optimist. He seems to have been a decent father and dependable husband in his third marriage, to Austrian photographer Inge Morath. Miller never gave up the stage, even if he never caught lightning in a bottle again — that nexus of personal failing and social tragedy that could capture a nation’s imagination. Unless the filmmaker took pains to sanitize this portrait of the artist in senior citizenship, Miller grew into a reasonably happy man, at peace with himself and his legacy.

On the downside, we get only a cursory view of the theater industry of the Forties and Fifties. There’s time devoted to Miller’s intense friendship and collaboration with director Elia Kazan, and each of the great plays gets a little background about inspiration, plotline, and reception. But greater context and quotes from his contemporaries might have shed light on how dramaturgical fashions moved on — or how Miller’s influence is evident today in, say, the works of Kushner, J.T. Rogers, and Lynn Nottage.

It’s a funny subgenre, the playwright doc. You can find decent ones on O’Neill (from Ric Burns), Kushner, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and others. But they’re inherently incomplete. On the one hand, playwriting seems a less romantic occupation than the godlike and isolated novelist. Playwrights have to be social creatures. They may write in solitude, but they realize their visions in mini-communities of actors, directors, and designers. That sense of letting strangers into the room and taking the camera backstage where the art finds expression should, ideally, lead to an expansive portrait on film. But Rebecca Miller keeps the focus on the dogged, lifelong working man who built his own writing shed and hammered out a series of world-shaking dramas. It’s a great story, and partly true, but there’s more to it. Otherwise, the ironic takeaway would be: Arthur Miller wrote of society, even as he shut it out.

Arthur Miller: Writer is available to stream on HBO, and also airs Sunday, April 8, at 9:30 a.m.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” Achieves Room Temperature in Brooklyn

The first review of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale totally ignored the bear. But perhaps “review” is glorifying London astrologer Simon Forman’s notes about his visit to the Globe on May 15, 1611. Forman briefly recaps the plot about a jealous monarch, a blameless queen, and a banished infant — but includes no record of the beast that devours unfortunate lord Antigonus after he has deposited the babe on the shores of Bohemia. Arin Arbus remembers. In fact, her latest Shakespeare staging for Theatre for a New Audience opens with an actor in ursine drag bopping around the stage as snow falls. Moments later, prince Mamillius enters clutching a teddy bear. “Aha,” you think: “It’s all about the bear.” Sadly, that’s not the case.

To be sure, this play needs directorial frame and spin. Late in his career, Shakespeare was making like Polonius: jumbling tragedy, comedy, pastoral, history, and fairy tale to create genre-surfing goulashes now called “romances.” The Winter’s Tale begins as a mini-tragedy of marital horror, moves into country yuks, and ends with an Elizabethan what-the-fardel: the statue of a dead wife coming to life before her grieving husband. For any director, the piece is a tonal minefield, but, when done right, it’s also a surprisingly affecting fable about time, healing, and forgiveness.

Sicilian king Leontes (Anatol Yusef) is enjoying an extended visit from childhood friend Polixenes (Dion Mucciacito), head of Bohemia. In the opening scene, out of nowhere, Leontes becomes irrationally and irrevocably convinced that his spirited wife, Hermione (Kelley Curran), has been having an affair with Polixenes. Loyal courtiers and lords cannot shake their boss’s anguished, misogynistic belief that’s he’s been cuckolded. The tragic spawn of Leontes’s paranoia leads to the public humiliation of Hermione in court, the death of their boy Mamillius, and the exile of their newborn daughter. Too late, the crazed tyrant comes to his senses, only to realize the horror he’s unleashed.

The scene shifts to Bohemia, with the bear, the helpless babe, and comic relief. That comes in the form of a shepherd (John Keating) and his dim-witted but kindly son (Ed Malone), who find the abandoned baby and together raise her as their own. When next we meet the aptly named Perdita (Nicole Rodenburg), the lass has attracted the eye of Florizel (Eddie Ray Jackson), truant son of the Bohemian king.

Although Tale is produced often enough that you may know what follows, I’ll spoil no more. Trouble is, I’ve seen enough versions to come away from this one unsatisfied. Leontes is a tricky role; before we get to know him or the nature of his marriage, he’s foaming at the mouth like a two-headed Othello-Iago. Granted, to expect nuanced, 21st-century psychological realism from Shakespeare can be a fool’s errand, however deeply he plumbed human nature. Here, it falls to an actor of tremendous gifts to give coherence to the king’s insane jealousy and subsequent repentance. The awesome Simon Russell Beale convinced me in 2009 when the Bridge Project brought its heartbreaking, candlelit version to BAM. He injected notes of self-loathing and intense loneliness that justified the character’s whipsaw neuroses.

Alas, Anatol Yusef, compact and bullet-headed, only goes so far. He’s grim, determined, macho, and cruel, but the performance is all surface and moderately smooth verse-speaking. It’s not only Yusef who comes up short. Arbus gets clear and steady work from an ensemble of seasoned actors — Mahira Kakkar, as Hermione’s loyal lady-in-waiting, Paulina, is a diligent study in contained rage — but the cumulative effect is dignified but uninspired. The surprising exceptions are the comic roles. Whereas most Shakespearean clowns leave one wondering just how drunk his audiences were, the laughs here are organic and skillfully earned. Arnie Burton’s Autolycus is a flamboyant con artist, a campy scamp who works the crowd as deftly as he pickpockets townsfolk. And I couldn’t get enough of Keating and Malone, a pair of lanky Celtic loons who manage to be both thoroughly moronic and deeply lovable at the same time. Lads: Mr. Godot is calling.

If Arbus and set designer Riccardo Hernandez substitute decorous austerity for messy human complexity (white walls; floor covered in snowflakes and, later, verdant leaves), the gracefully staged scene with Hermione’s statue resonates. It is, after all, the weirdest ending Shakespeare wrote. One might wish for cuts or a brisker pace, but in the end, tears mingle with laughter. Only one thing surprised me by final bow: no dancing bear. Sleeping out the winter, maybe?

The Winter’s Tale
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
866-811-4111
tfana.org
Through April 15

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

In “Lobby Hero,” Kenneth Lonergan’s Beautiful Losers Patrol Broadway

Consider the lobby. Always a means, never an end. It’s the thing people pass through on their way to and from real life. Now consider Jeff (Michael Cera). Always a talker, never a doer. He’s the 27-year-old slacker nodding off behind the security desk in a typical Manhattan residential building. You’re hustling to that expensive ticket or promising date, but Jeff stops you, asking about your job, cracking a joke, didja catch the game last night — anything to ease his boredom and loneliness. Jeff is the ostensible good guy in Kenneth Lonergan’s sardonically titled Lobby Hero (2001), but everyone he tries to help he ends up making miserable. In this bright, snappy revival inaugurating Second Stage Theater’s Broadway home, the boundaries between savior and antagonist are ingeniously blurred. Kinda like a lobby: neither here nor there.

Director Trip Cullman commands a starry ensemble — adorkable indie icon Cera is joined by Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) as Jeff’s supervisor, William; Chris Evans (The Avengers’ Captain America) and Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) play NYPD partners — but the focus stays on Lonergan’s sly, winding dialogue. Lobby Hero may appear to be a boulevard comedy with touches of urban grit, but beneath, it’s a grim study of inescapable ethical traps. The beauty of Lonergan’s writing (for the stage as well as for his heartbreaker films) is how he maintains a fine balance between moral debate and observational comedy. His doomed losers may not escape fate, but they chatter brilliantly as the walls close in.

Officious security captain William enters the lobby late one evening to check up on Jeff, ever the sloppy jokester. Supervisor and underling have a big-and-little-brother vibe, neatly underscored by the fact that Jeff’s crashing at his older sibling’s Astoria pad, and William’s troubled younger brother has been picked up by the police. William exhorts Jeff to take life seriously and tap his potential; Jeff begs William to get off his back and, anyway, he’s trying.

As a newbie in uniform, Jeff doubles with Dawn (Powley), the rookie being trained — and casually shtupped — by smug alpha cop Bill (Evans). Jeff is infatuated with Dawn and, out of self-interest, lets slip that Bill is having an affair with a glamorous woman in the building. Bill habitually visits apartment 22-J under cover of seeing a “friend,” making Dawn wait for him downstairs during their shift. Dawn’s hurt; Bill’s pissed at Jeff for gossiping; and Jeff’s no nearer to realizing a vividly relayed fantasy of being tortured by semi-nude lady cops. After the police leave, William returns to reveal that his brother has been accused of participating in the murder of a nurse, and needs him, William, to lie for an alibi. Jeff becomes the fidgety, wisecracking center of these overlapping dramas, and how he connects and catalyzes them forms the humor and tension of the evening.

With its precisely timed release of details and its quartet of clashing agendas, Lobby Hero skirts the edge of farce without tumbling in. It’s often bitterly funny, but Lonergan writes with such compassion, you never forget that these are real people with genuine flaws and ideals. Dawn, tired of being hit on by the doorman (as she derisively refers to Jeff), tells him to shut up. “Why don’t you say something for a few seconds and then I’ll say something back and we’ll go on like that,” he counters, voice rising in desperation. “I’m a goddamn security guard for Christ’s sake. I’m lonely as shit. There’s three other guys in this building and I never see them except on the video screen. I’ll shut up. I’d love to hear somebody else talk.”

Apart from such lovely mini-arias and his skill with punch lines, Lonergan sneaks in trenchant points about racism in the criminal-justice system, sexual harassment, and the brokenness of the courts. But he’s never preaching or pandering. One remarkable thing about the play’s construction is that the audience is left guessing at many crucial facts. We don’t know if William’s brother actually took part in the crime. We don’t know if Dawn wrongly assumes that Bill is extorting sex; she might have misinterpreted his “You better be nice to me.” Here’s a morality tale where no one in the audience, or onstage, has enough information to act with moral certitude.

Cullman stages the text attentive to its parallel lines, shadowy elisions, and shifting center. A clumsier approach would flatten the material into urban sitcom or place too much weight on Jeff as our likable, reliable protagonist. In fact, it’s William, the only black character, who carries the biggest burden of family tragedy and personal danger. And Henry does an outstanding job conveying all the shades of dignity, arrogance, and exasperation his character goes through. When Henry’s in the scene, the play is William’s tragedy.

Still, Cera holds his own, jamming hands in pockets defiantly, constantly adjusting his ill-fitting rent-a-cop slacks. Jeff is part mensch, part weasel, and Cera finds the sweet spot. Cullman also gets strong, resonant work from the rest of the ensemble. Evans’s douchebag cop is not corrupt in the usual way; he’s just a narcissistic horndog who thinks machismo and charisma will keep the peace. Powley’s green Dawn may overreact out of insecurity, but she’s got steel in her spine and may make a hell of a cop one day. And Jeff? Even though, from a certain perspective, he screws everything up out of selfishness and weakness, Jeff is not a villain. Then again, he’s no hero. He’s in between — again, kinda like that lobby.

Lobby Hero
Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
212-239-6200
2st.com
Through May 13

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

David Rabe Puts a Town on the Couch in “Good for Otto”

Madness is red meat for playwrights. In the disjointed ravings of Ophelia, Lear, and Edgar-as-Poor-Tom, Shakespeare gives himself permission to go avant-garde amid the iambs. Tennessee Williams built a career on erotic neurotics, and, more recently, Quiara Alegría Hudes mapped the path from trauma to healing in Water by the Spoonful. What would dramatists do without the certifiable or merely eccentric? David Rabe takes a gentler, humane — but still poetical — approach in his community mosaic Good for Otto. Casting a benevolent eye over disturbed townspeople in the Berkshires and the doctors trying to help them, the play delivers multiple perspectives on damage as the human condition.

Somewhat like in the advice-column weepie Tiny Beautiful Things (at the Public Theater just over a year ago), Rabe gives voice to ordinary people buckling under hideous levels of stress, grief, and repressed emotion. The action is focused, ostensibly, on a mental health clinic in the fictional Connecticut town of Harrington, but we’re also peeking inside the crowded head of Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), the stoic shrink who serves as our (fairly) reliable narrator. (The play was inspired by Undoing Depression, a book by Connecticut therapist Richard O’Connor.) Spotlit center stage, the trim Harris, face chiseled and careworn, describes the civic features of the town and himself lying in bed pre-dawn, unable to sleep with patients’ voices gabbing at him. “Autism. O.C.D. Alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual abuse,” he muses. “Being young. Getting old. It all sits hidden in our little world of bright skies, bright lakes, and tall trees.”

In the three hours that follow, Rabe adopts a loose-jointed, unabashedly shaggy approach, gliding from monologue to fantasy to therapy session and even sing-along by the actors, who are seated in and among a section of audience on the stage itself. Scott Elliott’s fluid, transparent direction gives the affair an agreeably psychiatric Our Town vibe. The drably generic turquoise tiling and mismatched chairs of Derek McLane’s institutional set acquires instant warmth from an eclectic but lovable ensemble who wanders in and out of frame.

What prevents Otto from becoming a predictable parade of case studies or medical-show clichés is, first, Rabe’s vivid, punchy prose, but also the New Group production’s outstanding cast. The deliciously wry Amy Madigan plays Evangeline, a slightly cold-blooded colleague of Dr. Michaels, who likes to end her sessions with a banal “To be continued.” The expression tends to irritate depressive septuagenarian Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), a retired businessman and autodidact who spends weeks refusing to get out of bed. Barnard is staring into the abyss of death and has unfinished business that goes back to infancy. Evangeline also treats Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker), a middle-aged man on the autism spectrum, whose ailing hamster, Otto, gives the play its title.

One of Dr. Michaels’s most harrowing cases is that of twelve-year-old Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), an abused girl in foster care who cuts herself and speaks darkly about storms inside her head. Then there’s Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a painfully self-conscious gay man who spins romantic delusions about total strangers. On the (relatively) lighter side, there’s obsessive-compulsive Jerome (Kenny Mellman), who can’t break away from his domineering mother (Laura Esterman). At the terminal end of psychic phenomena is Jimmy (Michael Rabe), a young motorcycle enthusiast who delivers a chillingly matter-of-fact monologue about his suicide.

As if this cornucopia of misery weren’t enough, Good for Otto turns out to be three plays rolled into one. First, it’s a suite of patient portraits, as detailed above. It’s also “physician, heal thyself,” psychodrama, in the parts when Dr. Michaels confronts the jeering, toxic ghost of his dead mother (Charlotte Hope), who flits around the edges of the action, belittling her son’s ability to help anyone. Lastly, it’s a study of how insurance companies, with their inhuman cost-cutting and Kafkaesque case workers, may actually undo the healing process. Unfortunately, those last two genres — the dead-mom story and the institutional-critique angle — are the weakest strands of the script. The former may result from the casting of an actress who looks too young and doesn’t have the heft to play a truly demonic matriarch. The latter is simply too easy (and large) a target — that insurance companies screw over the vulnerable is news to no one. But then, Rabe has always pursued a maximalist agenda, from the trippy Vietnam family shocker Sticks and Bones (revived by the New Group in 2014) to the endless absurdist banter of Goose and Tomtom and the coked-up Hollywood blowhards of Hurlyburly.

So, the script could use a few cuts, and a crucial role is miscast. However, the cumulative force of Rabe’s deep, searching empathy, combined with the sheer variety of human experience on view, is impressive. Elliott coaxes a dozen fine-grained performances from the ensemble. Pancholy runs a shockingly convincing gamut from bubbly ingénue to embittered loner. Linn-Baker’s Asperger affectations are honestly funny yet dignified. Madigan and Harris combine grit, frustration, and spunky altruism. Mellman’s slightly flat, nasal delivery is perfect — and his work on the piano’s not shabby, either (what would you expect from Herb of Kiki & Herb?). And then there’s F. Murray Abraham: Can any other actor make his text sound as if it were custom-written for him? Does anyone else have his speed, pressure, musicality — that lightly devastating way of tossing off the telling detail? I’d pay to see him read the DSM-5.

Good for Otto
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200
thenewgroup.org
Through April 15