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THIS AMERICAN LIFE

Forget all those conspiracy theories about the Earl of Oxford; only a drinkin,’ brawlin,’ pub-dwellin’ man could have penned the potty-mouthed jokes that liven up even the Bard’s darkest dramas. In America we like our beer cold and our playwrights belligerent, so as far as we’re concerned, William has always been one of us. The new anthology Shakespeare in America traces his influence on every level of our national culture from poets to presidents. Tonight, to celebrate the book’s release, James Earl Jones returns to the Delacorte to read from Othello, reprising the role he first played here 50 years ago. Also appearing are Alec Baldwin (fresh off his Fifth Avenue biking arrest and subsequent hissyfit), performing scenes from Macbeth, and Steven Pasquale, belting songs from West Side Story (that counts as Shakespeare, right?), as well as readings by F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Alexander, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Nixon, and many more.

Mon., June 30, 8 p.m., 2014

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PEACE AND LOVE

“What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. . . . Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.” If, like us, you’re still a little haunted by Laurie Anderson’s elegant encomium to late husband Lou Reed, here’s your chance to hear more. The performance artist addresses the Buddhist conundrum of ignorance (the greatest impediment to enlightenment, it is said) alongside another master of reality and illusion, writer Neil Gaiman. Even more so than Alec Baldwin and Rosanne Cash, who’ve weighed in at earlier evenings, expect Sandman’s creator, who recently relaunched his genre-reshaping comic after a decade-long hiatus, to have something meaningful to say about how “What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You.”

Fri., Nov. 15, 7 p.m., 2013

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Orphans: Oh, Brothers

Any Broadway show has much to live up to: burgeoning production costs; audience hopes inflated by high ticket prices; competition from film, television, and the dozens of other shows glutting Times Square. But Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, now revived at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, carries an especially high burden. Can this 1983 three-hander possibly prove more dramatic than the imbroglio that marred its rehearsal process?

Well, not quite. Orphans is Kessler’s best-known play, and its eccentric characters and meaty speeches have long attracted actors. Set in a decrepit North Philadelphia home, it concerns young adult brothers Treat (Ben Foster) and Philip (Tom Sturridge). (Incidentally, they look nothing alike.) While Philip, victim to a host of psychological maladies, passes his days gorging on mayonnaise and launching himself from one moldering piece of furniture to the next, Treat takes to petty theft to keep the household afloat. Circumstances alter when Treat drags home sozzled businessman Harold (Alec Baldwin), with thoughts of holding him for ransom. But once he’s loosed his bonds, Harold, a former orphan, decides to stay and care for these youngsters.

This revival attracted particular notice when producers and director Daniel Sullivan (perhaps too gentlemanly for this material) asked movie star Shia LaBeouf to withdraw and hired Foster in his place. LaBeouf took his beef to social media, posting several Twitter rants and making public private e-mails from Sullivan and Baldwin. Several of those tweets (apparently borrowed from an Esquire article) concerned what it takes to be a man, which is in many ways the subject of Orphans.

But while its three roles–which resemble assemblages of speech patterns and tics more than they do credible characters–will appeal to actors, the play (unlike the tweets) doesn’t offer much innovation or insight into the power dynamics among men. Kessler’s style seems less his own than a pastiche of other (and perhaps rather better) plays and writers. The script can read like Pinter, if someone went through and deleted all the pauses, or like Orton, if you left all that sex subtextual. Harold has a tendency to draw the young men to him for friendly squeezes of the shoulder. “Come over here, son,” says Harold again and again. “I want to give you some encouragement.”

Yet, encouragingly, the actors have all clearly embraced their roles. Baldwin brings his fleshy elegance to the role of Harold and renders his choice to serve as pater familias very nearly believable. Sturridge seems utterly committed to Philip’s unclassifiable and improbable collection of traits and phobias. And he is a deft hand at domestic parkour. Though Foster seems tense and ill at ease for much of the play, he is clearly readying himself for his character’s outburst of grief in the final scene. With time he should relax, and make more of what Harold calls this “real tragic situation I’ve wandered into.”

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LOST BOYS

It was 2006 when we last saw Alec Baldwin on the New York stage in the Off-Broadway production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Now, with 30 Rock behind him, he finally returns, and as a gangster no less, in the Broadway revival of Lyle Kessler’s 1983 drama, Orphans. The story concerns two orphaned brothers living in squalor in a rundown house in North Philadelphia. Treat (Ben Foster) is a violent thug and Phillip (Tom Sturridge) is the dopey younger sibling whom he keeps imprisoned in their house. But, when Treat kidnaps Harold (Baldwin), a notorious gangster, the boys think they might have found themselves a new parent. Tony winner Daniel Sullivan (The Columnist, Proof) directs.

Tue., March 26, 8 p.m., 2013

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House of Horrors

Adam and Barbara, a couple living in the country, must have the worst luck in the world. Not only do they tragically die after driving off a bridge and plunging into a river, but they also can’t seem to rest in peace because an eccentric family takes over their only sanctuary—their home. Cue their last hope: the crazy, perverted freak Beetlejuice! This 1988 Tim Burton–directed horror-comedy has all the makings of a classic, including a wonderfully demented performance by Michael Keaton as the titular ghoul, a younger, skinnier Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder as a teenage goth, and a haunting score by Danny Elfman.

Fri., Sept. 7, 11:59 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 8, 11:59 p.m., 2012

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Impossible Fantasies: To Rome With Love

In Woody Allen’s new film, To Rome With Love, people—like, really young people—still talk, improbably, about “neuroses.” Horny, middle-age businessmen actually stand around the watercooler and ogle the hot secretary, as in the Playboy cartoons of the ancients. In the Allen Legendarium, Freudian psychiatrists never vanished, still roaming the land like the tragic elves of Middle-Earth.

All of which is completely OK, because, like Tolkien, Allen has created a magical universe in which these things can persist. A more accurate literary comparison might be P.G. Wodehouse, whose signature array of gestures and conventions could only exist in a parallel world of upper-class fops chasing pigs around stately mansions. It all hangs together by virtue of sensibility alone.

This time around, a Love Boat‘s worth of stars breeze through four intercut Roman tales. Briefly: A young husband (Alessandro Tiberi) is forced, through a comedy-of-errors sequence of events, to present an earthy call girl (Penélope Cruz) as his wife to a group of stuffy, distant relatives. Meanwhile, his real wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) has a fling with a famous actor.

Mortician Giancarlo (tenor Fabio Armiliato) sings beautifully, but only in the shower. Allen, as a retired opera director whose daughter is about to marry Giancarlo’s son, overhears him and insists that he audition for the opera, which goes badly because Giancarlo can only sing in the shower, and, well, you can see where that’s headed. Allen deserves credit here for his continued ability to stage absurd set pieces.

Allen also includes one of his idiosyncratic, Zelig-style fantasies, involving a schlubby, boring businessman (Roberto Benigni) who steps out of his house one morning into a scrum of paparazzi and discovers that he has become wildly famous overnight for absolutely no reason.

The most nuanced story concerns American architect John (Alec Baldwin) returning to the district where he lived as a young man 30 years before. Befriending an American student named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), John watches as the younger man romances his fiancée’s best friend, Monica (Ellen Page). After the setup, Allen leaves it artfully unclear whether these events occur in the present or if Jack is John’s memory of his younger self.

In Monica, Allen is trying to suggest an arty, mesmerizing unicorn, an unobtainable locus of male obsession, though from a casting point of view, Juno’s charisma might be on a different frequency. Baldwin pops in and out of scenes like a sly, portly genie, sometimes visible only to Eisenberg, often engaging characters in conversations the others can’t hear. John, with the benefit of experience, warns Jack not to pursue Monica, pointing out the holes in her pseudo-intellectual, bohemian facade.

Speaking of which: In the same way that old men’s ears and noses develop into exaggerated, cartilaginous bulbs, Allen’s problematic portrayals of women have become more pronounced over the years. Eisenberg’s earnest girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), is a faint sketch compared with Monica, a sharply portrayed liar who sleeps with her best friend’s boyfriend.

Women throw themselves in groups into the married Benigni’s bed, and Allen the screenwriter overtly states that wives understand that they have to “share” their famous husbands with “the public,” and goddammit, Woody Allen, you don’t have to articulate every gross idea that goes through your head.

Characters specifically address the whore/Madonna dichotomy, presumably to excuse, y’ know, embodying a whore or a Madonna. Meanwhile, the men are allowed soulful, middle-age reveries about their lives, genial adultery, and most of the funny lines.

But Allen seems without actual ill intent here, and again, the film is set in a magical realm, as evidenced by architects who still draw with pencils and T squares, the existence of such a thing as a “high school astronomy teacher,” and impoverished college students who propose “sailing around the boot” of Italy, but who never mention their magical sacks of gold. The great Judy Davis, as Allen’s wife, tells him several times that he’s living in a fantasy, so maybe that whole thing is already in his wheelhouse.

Shot by Darius Khondji—who also worked on Allen’s Midnight in Paris—this Rome is luminous, and Allen, as in Manhattan, is great at imbuing his film with a strong sense of location. But it’s a good thing that his favorite themes are kind of ageless, because the man could not be further away, as measured by time and tax brackets, from the lives of actual human beings as they exist in the real world.

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The 56th Annual OBIE’s Nicely Elaborate Entrance

Preparations for the often endearingly chaotic
56th Annual Obie Awards ran the gamut in the half-hour or so before the 2011 edition began at Webster Hall. While John Larroquette played chess on his phone in a tucked-away banquette, fellow presenter Nina Arianda tried to make sure
she had all the pronunciations right for the many members of the Sleep No More creative team, who won a design award.

S. Epatha Merkerson, last seen in Obie-land fanning herself at the sight of Jonathan Groff in 2008, and her co-host, David Hyde Pierce, also came prepared. Hyde Pierce did his own share of vicarious ogling as he recounted seeing Obie presenter Alec Baldwin in the 1992 film Prelude to a Kiss. “Shave off that chest hair!” a woman sitting in front of him had shouted at the screen, at which point a gay man within earshot yelled, “And give it to me!” Nineteen years later, an obliging Baldwin unbuttoned several shirt buttons upon reaching the podium.

Baldwin presented the Best New American Play Award to Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Despite this being the first award given out, that was the evening’s last reference to Elaborate Entrance. In recent years, plays like The Aliens and Ruined ran roughshod over the “competition.”

This time, however, the awards were spread out far and wide. Lisa Kron’s In the Wake earned Obies for Michael Chernus’s performance and Leigh Silverman’s direction—Silverman was also honored for her work on David Greenspan’s Go Back to Where You Are—and the Sustained Excellence awards for sound designer Jill BC Du Boff and set designer Donyale Werle gave a handful of shows (Peter and the Starcatcher, The Whipping Man) a brief second mention. But one solo Obie and one shared Obie was the closest any show got to a landslide. (Chernus and Three Sisters director Austin Pendleton were unlikely recipients of bordering-on-Beatlemania screaming ovations.)

Many of the other performance awards went to big names—Ethan Hawke in Blood From a Stone, Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, Andre Braugher in The Whipping Man—or critical megaliths—Thomas Sadoski in Other Desert Cities, Brenda Wehle in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide . . . , Scott Shepherd for his “Take that, Andy Kaufman” tour de force in Gatz. But the three playwriting awards went to shows that opened to considerably less fanfare. The fairly brief run for Elaborate Entrance at Second Stage was lengthy compared with those of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! at Walkerspace and Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise at the Wild Project.

The lanky Khemiri quipped that since the Obie committee creates categories as it sees fit, he had entertained the possibility of winning anything from Greatest Play of All Time downward to Best Swedish-Language Play Translated Into English in 2011 by a Long-Looking Swedish Guy With Dirty Hair.

At least those honors were figments of Khemiri’s lavish imagination. Ethan Hawke said the only other acting award he had actually won prior to his Obie had come from High Times magazine, “but this means a lot more to me.”

In another change of pace from recent years, when musical blowouts from Broadway transfers like Fela! and Passing Strange flooded the stage and often the audience, the musical entertainment was confined to two small performances by Rent veteran Anthony Rapp, a hopped-up solo rendition of that show’s “Seasons of Love” and an indie-pop anthem from Rapp’s own musical, Without You. Musicianship of a different sort could be heard during F. Murray Abraham’s acceptance of his award for sustained excellence in performance. “Sustained excellence?! Kiss my ass. HA-ha-ha-ha! I ain’t dead yet.”

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Alec Baldwin Isn’t Scary Anymore

CLICK HERE for my report on a gala Alec Baldwin tribute, where no one brought up his old bad press, all caught up in the glow of his current success.

And I was one of them! Sorry, but the man can act!

I also take you behind the scenes of the Sister Act musical with co-producer Whoopi Goldberg, Born Yesterday with new star Nina Arianda, and Catherine Deneuve‘s new film in which she’s a trophy wife who talks to squirrels and dances disco.

Enjoy — but please don’t bring up my old bad press!

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Alec Baldwin Isn’t Scary Anymore!

Success has a wonderful tendency to blur out any ill will. Remember when Alec Baldwin sold millions of tabloids with his fiery personal battles and other distasteful controversies that made him seem as hairy and scary as some of the thugs he plays?

Then came a little something called 30 Rock, and all was forgiven and forgotten. We love you, Alec!

But the reality is that success must have mellowed Baldwin himself, not just our perception of him. (He doesn’t stir up bad headlines anymore!) And the fact that he has emerged as one of our finest comic actors makes you want to rip up your old Enquirers and just stand in some sort of admiration, albeit with fists half-cocked.

While focusing his emotional oomph at the camera, Baldwin has emerged from all sorts of packs to the front lines of recognition. As one of the big names at his Museum of the Moving Image tribute last week noted, “He’s the only Baldwin brother about whom no one ever asks, ‘Which one is he again?’ “

The other speakers praised Baldwin’s low-key acting technique and comic skill while making inevitable references to a less redeemable firebrand, Charlie Sheen. Michael Keaton said he was there to honor “Alec Baldwin—whose real name is Chaim Levine.” And Tina Fey admitted to the honoree, “I shudder to think what low-rent Two and a Half Men–type show we’d have without you. Actually, we’d probably have more money if we had that kind of show!”

It’s Yesterday Once More

Baldwin recently turned down the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, no doubt realizing that the juiciest part is the heroine, not the lug who tries to keep her tied to the bed. The plum female lead went to Nina Arianda, who’s making her Broadway debut as Billie Dawn, the kept woman who awakens in time to turn the poker tables and leave with a new man and nice outfits. In the same part, Judy Holliday beat Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson for the Oscar, which forever branded her the gays’ worst enemy, but a re-viewing of the film shows that Judy was pretty transcendent (and in real life, she never called her child a rude, thoughtless pig).

At a meet-and-greet last week, Arianda told me she is avoiding seeing the movie so there are no preconceptions about how to play the role. But does Billie always have to be blonde? “I don’t know,” said Arianda, “but I’m happy she is!” Of course Billie is far from dumb, Arianda said, explaining, “Innocence doesn’t mean you’re stupid.” Except for Sarah Palin? “Yeah,” said Arianda, smiling. “I’m not into moose-hunting myself.”

Meanwhile, Broadway doesn’t only do revivals, it also adapts old movies, thank you. And so, Sister Act seizes the crowd-pleasing comedy about a down-low lounge singer teaching nuns to belt pop hits in hopes of making it into a religious experience for tourists and theatergoers. “Who went to Catholic school?” the show’s publicist asked the assembled reporters at a promo event last week. “It’s theater,” cracked a press person in reply. “It’s a roomful of Jews.”

Well, out came one of them—director Jerry Zaks—who told us the show “is about friendship, it’s about faith, it’s about two hours and 25 minutes.” Co-producer Whoopi Goldberg (the original Deloris) elaborated that this Sister Act has enormous appeal, and in fact, customers “don’t even have to understand English. They will understand what’s going on.”

Sure enough, I got all the numbers they showed us: Golden-throated star Patina Miller musically informing us, “I’m fabulous, baby” and being convincing about it; Victoria Clark giving her some loving discipline as a superior Mother Superior; and then the nuns learning to sing really quickly. Lyricist Glenn Slater told me that he and Alan Menken wrote about 20 songs that are not in the current version, as they’ve continually retooled and reworked things (which they’re still doing). So this is not Spider-Man, where the tunes seem stubbornly frozen? “No,” he swore. “We will be opening on time and we’re not dropping anyone from the rafters.”

A sort of French Born Yesterday, Potiche—which is French for “large vase”—has Catherine Deneuve as a trophy wife who wakes up and dances the Hustle. It’s pretty lightweight stuff, but no one plays a large vase like Deneuve, and at the premiere of the film (which opened the Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival), director Francois Ozon told me, “She’s had so many masterpieces. She just wants to have fun. She doesn’t want to be this serious diva.” Hey, “Catherine Deneuve” must be French for “Meryl Streep”!

Hotel, ‘Mo-tel . . .

Let me switch accents and tell you that the gay complex is still happening, for those who prefer Greek to French. I’m not talking about some horrible psychological development, I’m referring to Out NYC, the gay hotel on West 42nd Street that’s going to be the latest outpost in a world chain of gay-for-stay.

Last year, the creators gave me a grand tour of the grounds, complete with all their gay plans. They said the nightclub would open in February 2011 and the hotel itself would probably debut this fall. But then I heard they were asking around for more people to invest! Well, they must have finally gotten the cash because it’s all systems go again. There are work permits on the exterior, and the team updates me that the club will open this fall and the hotel next spring. If it’s a hit, all my former gay complexes will be forgiven and forgotten.

musto@villagevoice.com

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FAME—THE JOURNAL

The latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, the history-minded literary journal, reads like a dignified version of People magazine. Its 224 pages draw on essays, letters, poems, quotes, and book excerpts from writers as varied as Dylan, Proust, Warhol, and Ovid to expound upon the topic of “celebrity.” And what better way to explore the fame monster than by indulging in it? The Lapham’s Quarterly Celebrity Event brings together editor Lewis Lapham in conversation with the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and then welcomes the celebs themselves for readings from the publication—Alec Baldwin and Philip Seymour Hoffman among them. Most intriguing of all is the odd coupling of Broadway star Mandy Patinkin and drag star Taylor Mac on a duet of “Unworthy of Your Love,” from Assassins.

Thu., Jan. 20, 7 p.m., 2011