Eat, Drink and be MERRILY!

merrily we roll alongIt’s always nerve-wracking to see a production that’s highly acclaimed. “Of course,” you think on the way to your seat, “the show can’t be all that” if “all that” is “extraordinary!” “revelatory!” “thrilling!” or any of the other other adjectives critics love to toss around like their so many cheap breadcrumbs. Very few evenings of theater really are extraordinary, revelatory or thrilling; better to be pleasantly surprised by something than resignedly disappointed.

So it was with an anxious heart I attended a screening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Furth classic recently on the West End, but available to New Yorkers in a one-night-only, video broadcast. This was the production Messers Brantley and Sondheim had crowned perfect; this was the one christened with more stars than an astrology chart. No way it could measure up, I thought.

What bliss is it to be wrong. Merrily, directed by Maria Friedman, is everything you’ve been told and more. The story of a doomed friendship—famously executed in reverse—is magnificently rendered with all the heart and intelligence a musical can muster, and the big themes of dreams, loyalty and regret shine in brilliantly dramatic fashion. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary performances of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley (my use “extraordinary” here is earned! Believe me!) Despite creating wholly separate, perfectly constructed portraits of their characters, these actors operate in the single, created universe of their friendship, a universe that’s entertaining and heartbreaking to peek into. Umbers strike an ideal balance between swagger and insecurity; Humbley turns the slow burn into something heartbreaking; Jenna Russell is (as in Sunday in the Park With George) incapable of doing anything dishonest. And how classy is it that they take their final bows together? That’s an “old friends” move, there.

Everything else is equally right. A story that shouldn’t add up—and, if you’re a believer of conventional wisdom, never has—comes together perfectly here in this focused production. It somehow manages to have it both ways, being equal parts hopeful and despairing… try and figure that balancing act out if you can, because I can’t!

It’s absolutely criminal this production hasn’t made its way to New York. Perhaps the Gulf Stream can take a cue from Merrily and blow in reverse, with this production safely carried on its back to our shores.

photo by Alastair Muir

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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

The Best of 2011!

Lay on the eggnog! Toss the confetti! It’s time for the 2011 superlatives! Huzzah! This year’s winners of the internationally renowned theater-words awards are listed below, roughly in the order they opened.

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BEST CASE FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE WELL-MADE PLAY:

Good People, MTC/Broadway

Here’s how it goes: There’s an interesting lead character who wants something that she has to fight hard to get. A shocking setup, I know, but we Aristotelians in the audience at David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest were giddy at the elegance and payoff of this perfectly crafted and relevant class drama.

BEST REMINDER THAT TONY KUSHNER ROCKS AND TOTALLY DOESN’T CARE ABOUT NON-COMMERCIAL TITLES:

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, the Public Theater

Mr. Angels in America’s four-hour behemoth stood proudly on its own, complicated terms: Spectacularly performed and directed, it simultaneously made you uncomfortable and blissed out—not exactly an easy combination.

[Read more...]

Eyring the Dirty Laundry

Richard Eyre’s diaries, titled “National Service,” are a brisk, entertaining ride through the Royal National Theatre. As its Artistic Director from 1987 to 1997, Eyre oversaw his share of hits and misses, and these journals offer up articulate, beautiful, behind-the-scenes dish of that storied public performance forum. (I’ve always called it Disneyland for theater lovers, those Denys Lasdun staircases guiding you from patio to bookshop to cafe to theater to terrace and back around again.)

Eyre is descriptive, emotional, gossipy, and concise. As such “National Service” makes for splendid subway reading: Pick up and leave off at will, and never worry about getting bored, as a new topic is a mere entry away.

Much of the book’s pleasure comes from the way theater superstars wander in and out of the pages. One night it’s dinner with Judi [DENCH!], then a show with Tom [STOPPARD!], and finally drunken pub songs with Fiona [SHAW!]

[Read more...]

Poster Implants

London may be theatrical mecca, but British ad firms have a decidedly trashy bent when it comes to marketing shows: shiny, bubbled, or bedazzled lettering. 2D, classy type just doesn’t cut it. If you want to be a populist, West-End hit, you need implants. Examine the evidence.

Here in America, “Rock of Ages” is simple and shiny:

… but in London, it’s gotten the Agelina Jolie treatment:

Keep Reading…

Report from the Capital

Hear ye, hear ye! I come with word from the mainland!

London, that is. New York might flatter itself the center of the universe, but it’s the British First City that can lay true claim to that most exclusive of titles: Play Capitol.

A certain kind of play, that is – one that’s smart, sharp, political, thorough, current, historical (or at least aspires to be), and comes served in plummy, accented tones which cover all manner of sins.

The most exciting, anglophilia-inducing entrée of my recent trip to England was “London Road,” a new, verbatim musical playing the National’s Cottesloe Theatre. Its subject – the murder of five prostitutes – is conventional enough stuff (!), but it’s the telling of this tale that elicits those wonderful shivers signifying the arrival of the New.

Keep Reading…

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