Rising to New Hyt[ner]s

Anglophiles rejoice: British theater’s resident badass, The National’s Nicholas Hytner, gets the John Lahr treatment in this week’s New Yorker. The piece—unsurprisingly fun and dishy—is a thrill, but it also confirms the worst second-fiddle insecurities of stage-loving Americans, i.e., that the Brits really do have this whole “theatre” thing figured out. (C’mon—any country that manufactures an institution as endlessly brilliant as The National, not to mention the rest of the London scene, is pretty much unimpeachable.)

Read the full piece to get your theatrical salivary glands going, but here are a few takeaway quotes I took a shine to, as Sir Hytner would say.

Hytner is all about scale. Lahr writes, “To this day, Hytner does not like to stage plays about family situations, he has never directed Pinter or Chekhov and has mostly stayed away from twentieth-century realism. ‘I don’t respond to, and certainly would not like to direct, plays which involve an interior journey only,’ he told me.”

Theater is an alternative to the real family drama Hytner faced as a child: ” ‘What I do now, in part,’ he told me, ‘is to help create (if only temporarily) stable families, which can play happily with the most outlandish forms of emotional anarchy, all the too-hot-to-handle stuff. In the rehearsal room and in the theatre, there is nothing but relish for every kind of craziness, every grief, every danger, every cruelty, every joy. ‘ “

Queen Elizabeth is a War Horse fanatic: After meeting “Joey,” the puppet-star of the show, at a Royal Horse Artillery event, QE2 requested his “company for a private screening of Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse at Windsor Palace … The invitation was later rescinded when the event was changed, but the offer itself was news, a victory for the power of the dramatic imagination.”

photo credit: The Guardian

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Poster Analysis: “Anything Goes”

As anyone who took a taxi in the past year knows, Sutton Foster was the beginning and the end of the marketing for Roundabout’s Anything Goes. Photographed for that show’s poster, heels up with a cheeky grin, Foster was everywhere.

But seasons change: Now that Foster is stuck on TV (thank you, “Bunheads”) and Stephanie J. Block is click-clacketting her way through Reno Sweeney’s paces, what’s become of those old shots?

One word: paint.

Let me take you back. Here’s a “Foster-era” poster:

But this is the image currently adorning the Stephen Sondheim Theatre:

Notice anything different?

The second figure—while just as lithe and rambunctious as the original—is more “Foster-esque” than “Foster.” Yes, she’s a white sailor with an admirable waistline, but she’s not fully Sutton Foster. By rendering Foster’s image in paint instead of photo, the specificity of the show’s original star gives way to something more general and flexible. Any number of performers look sort of like the second image; there’s only one that looks like the first.

As always, it’s interesting watching a hit show find its sea legs without its deal-making, original star. Here’s wishing Stephanie J. Block and all future Renos best of luck—they might not get the ol’ camera treatment, but what was good enough for Van Gogh sure is good enough for me.

Our Hearts Did Go On

Talk about a bizarre moment of pop culture synchronicity: In 1997, the same year Leo and Kate ran into that dang iceberg, Titanic opened as a big Broadway musical. Today, in honor of the film version’s re-release (SEE IT NOW) it is the perfect moment to remember the show’s Tony performance. The clip’s virtues are mostly self-evident, but note in particular the skillful whiplash-headturning of the actors as they try to take in the invisible ship.

And yes, I’m still wondering why they didn’t add “My Heart Will Go On” as a curtain call finale…

The Grandma Plays

Call Grandma!

That’s the parting impulse you’re likely to feel after two new off-Broadway plays, The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons) and 4000 Miles (Lincoln Center Theatre). Like that old chestnut Our Town, these plays key into the transcendent power of everyday and regular family love. They are about The Big Themes, and they’re sure to send you to your phone: I love you, Grandma!

The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc, accesses this pathos through a parade of actors who alternate as various members of one family; characters “grow old” as progressively aged performers assume the parts. It’s a terrifically moving device that highlights both the impermanence of everything and the comforting continuity of reproduction. The “story” is nothing more than the inevitable drama in a potpourri of family dinners, but the collective impact of all that “ordinary” is, well, extraordinary.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is more formally straightforward but no less emotionally potent. In it, college-aged Leo sets up camp in his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village pad. A youthful shot of scruff in a menagerie of fogeyism, he is in mourning for newly-deceased friend. The “4000 miles” of the title refer to a bike trip Leo has made, but they might as well signify the distance between Leo and Vera, a distance narrowed by scene after scene of awkwardness, frustration, then leisure and love.

Family drama really is the driving force of so many great American plays, and these writers continue that tradition in new, exciting ways. As the reviewers say, they’ve written something for everyone: You, Grandma, and everyone in between.

photo of The Big Meal by Joan Marcus

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