The Westchester Guardian is gone, and once again I have had the horse shot out from under me. True, it may not have been much of a mount—more like Don Quixote’s spavined nag Rosinante—it was still recognizably an equine, even if no contender for a crown, let alone a triple one. So now my theater criticism will, until further notice, appear in my blog, Uncensored John Simon. Herewith a brief overview of shows that I would normally have reviewed at greater length.
Take, for starters, the revival of the William Finn/James Lapine musical “Falsettos.” In its day, almost a quarter century ago, the show that underwent several rethinkings still marked an early serious response to the new plague, AIDS. As such, it was both novel and necessary. After some earlier versions, it emerged full-blown in 1992, successful enough but already a trifle late.
Today, the revival is only partly effective, aside from feeling somewhat dated. The protagonist, Marvin, leaves his wife Trina for a troubled love affair with Whizzer who eventually dies of AIDS, surrounded by Marvin and a number of friends and kinfolk, perhaps a bit too beautifully. The incarnator of Marvin, Christian Borle, a good actor who specializes in comic or naughty characters, never quite rises to tragic heights. Others come off better, notably Andrew Rennells, as a babyfaced Whizzer, and Stephanie J. Block, as a neurotic Trina, as well as a few sidekicks, including the earnest boy actor Anthony Rosenthal.
David Rockwell’s scenery, consisting mostly of a very large, soft, striated, gray cube, with detachable parts of various shapes and uses, is not without interest, and Lapine has again directed cogently. But the whole thing smacks a mite too much of self-righteousness and complacently good intentions on a topic that has already been treated more trenchantly elsewhere, even if not with music.
The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur comedy, “The Front Page,” has been an oft-revived favorite, but even that is not endlessly renewable, despite a savvy director, Jack O’Brien, and a mostly exemplary, all-star cast. It takes place in a Chicago courthouse pressroom, where sundry hardboiled journalists wisecrackingly await a routine dawn hanging, but where the most unexpected and often droll developments eventuate.
It’s a funny thing about revivals that grandparent-time and earlier works fare better than more recent ones, subject to the traditional rebellion of children against their parents. Somehow generational revolt affects brainchildren as well as children. “The Front Page,” full of yesterday’s humor, emerges as old newsprint, almost too yellowed to be read.
The discomfiting truth is that a clutch of our foremost actors, including John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse among others, come across as champion swimmers thrashing about in a shallow pool. I exclude John Slattery from the group, too Anderson Cooperishly gray and uncharismatic, as a recalcitrant star reporter; and Nathan Lane, almost too good as a ridiculously ruthless newspaper editor, what with some sublime Lane mugging way beyond what is posited. If this is enough for you, as it may well be, go ahead and catch it.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” (1782) is a dazzling two-volume affair, in which, for their decadent amusement, the ex-lovers Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil revel in the seduction of the innocent and destruction of the virtuous. Apt incurrers of the coming Revolution, they embody the elegant amorality of the heedless contemporary French aristocracy. Christopher Hampton’s English adaptation into a standard-length drama (1988) is not unskilled, but not nearly as powerful as the leisurely but steadily increasing evil of the novel.
The American premiere of the play boasted the brilliant British actors Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, directed by Howard Davies; the current revival, directed by Josie Rourke, collapses under, among other things, the performances of Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber. She, to be sure British, is an overacting beanpole and relentless fidget; he is an American rough action specialist, far too inelegant and unsubtle for a deft British version of a dissolute but stylish French aristocrat. When at last he sheds his wig, he looks downright catastrophic.
Some supporting performances are vastly superior, notably those of the victims: by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (a perfectly British Dane) as the pious Mme de Tourvel, Elena Kampouris as the charmingly hoydenish Cecile Volanges, and the somewhat less appealing Raffi Barsoumian as the avenger, Chevalier Danceny.
Unfortunately there is something apposite about the person advertising the show on TV mispronouncing it as Liaisons Dangerouses (rhymes with booze), as well as in the name of Laclos appearing in the program in microscopic, barely legible print. There is too much drinking during, and ballet between, scenes and not enough respect for Laclos in this production.
David Hare, at his frequent best, is a considerable political and psychological playwright with some daring features. But “Plenty,” which for some reason is his best known play, is not one of his best. It does, however, provide a great female lead, admirably embodied in the past by actresses such as Kate Nelligan and Meryl Streep, and now, no less eminently, by Rachel Weisz.
It is the story of Susan Traherne, an enthusiastic English girl, who in her idealistic youth acts as a courier for the French underground in World War Two. But the brave new world she envisions provides only a severely checkered career, during which all her noble aspirations are gradually but relentlessly eroded. A major problem for us in America are all the very British references, political, social and even linguistic.
More damaging in the current revival is the direction by the hugely overrated David Leveaux, dispensing with the required specific locations and meant-to -be displayed dates for each scene, thus not enabling us to follow the downward spiral of the action. Damaging too is some miscasting, especially of the unappealing Corey Stoll as Susan’s ineffectual politician husband, and LeRoy McClain as the stranger whom Susan picks up to father a child on her. No one other than Byron Jennings, as a discouraged diplomat, distinguishes him or herself in the supporting cast, but far the worst hurdles are the grossly misconceived visuals.
Mike Belton, the set designer, and David Weiner, the lighting designer, apparently intended to compensate for the absence of scenery with some gratuitous light displays, suitable only for a state fair pavilion advertising electronic products. They manage to undercut much of the remaining credibility. While it is easy to admire Rachel Weisz, there are burdens here that even Atlas couldn’t shoulder. If the titular “plenty” referred to the number of conceivable objections, it would be all too apt.
One of Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces, “The Cherry Orchard,” is given an abominable production in the present Roundabout Theatre revival. For inexplicable reasons, the RT’s chief, Todd Haymes, reached to England to fish out one of its most misguided directors, Simon Godwin, a specialist in adapting shows that patently do not need it. He has here contrived, with the help of the adapter, Stephen Karam (author of “The Humans”), the reverse alchemy of turning gold into lead. Even the dependable set designer, Scott Pask, has been induced to make a mock of the scenery, which includes such incomprehensible lapses as a table and chairs for dwarves, into which some hapless actors actually squeeze themselves.
Unforgivably, the misdirected role of the aging and declining actress and landowner Ranevskaya was imposed on one of our loveliest and ageless actresses, Diane Lane. Constrained to absurdities like the rest of a potentially able cast, she could not protect the stage from being turned into a shambles. For once, even some New York reviewers known for their namby-pambiness, proved rightly indignant.