All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Broadway Roundup — After Midnight, Macbeth, Richard III, Waiting for Godot, Etc.

Mark Rylance as Richard III, Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth, background Peter Hamilton Dyer as Catesby, Jethro Skinner as guard,  John Paul Connolly as Ratcliff.

Mark Rylance as Richard III, Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth, background Peter Hamilton Dyer as Catesby, Jethro Skinner as guard, John Paul Connolly as Ratcliff.

So far this Broadway season has been the year of the bravura performance.

       Repertory has been responsible for some of that. Bona fide stalwarts Mark Rylance, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen are each appearing in plays that alternate, Stewart and McKellen as a team.

       Classics are also a staple. Rylance is doing a pair of Shakespearean pieces. Stewart and McKellen are doubling in Beckett and Pinter. Daniel Craig and Rachael Weisz are also doing Pinter. Ethan Hawke is doing Shakespeare, surrounded by a marvelous cast that includes John Glover, Brian d’Arcy James, Daniel Sunjata, Malcolm Gets, Byron Jennings, Richard Easton, and a stunning Anne-Marie Duff. Orlando Bloom shows mettle in an otherwise dreadful production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Cherry Jones is spellbinding in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” and Roger Rees affecting in “The Winslow Boy.”

       Among new pieces, “After Midnight,” with star power of its own in Fantasia Barrino and Adriane Lenox, is a delight while “The Snow Geese” in an overdone mess but boasts lovely performances by Victoria Clark and Brian Cross.

        The season has, in general, successful and satisfying. Following are capsule reviews of the shows listed in the heading, most of which remain open. Full reviews of “Betrayal” and “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” will appear within the next week. “The Glass Menagerie” and “Romeo and Juliet” were critiqued earlier in the season.

AFTER MIDNIGHT  (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York) —  Swank and sultry, this AfterMidnight300show is a non-stop tour of Harlem entertainment from a bygone era, a time when sass, gloss, and feeling informed performances and extraordinary finesse was made to look effortless.

       “After Midnight” is variety show that juxtaposes thrilling and comic song stylings with stunning specialty numbers featuring dancers whose limbs are rubber and whose balance defies gravity. It is a smart show, with “smart” meaning sophisticated. Numbers flow into each other seamlessly, with only the slightest of narration by Dule Hill, and most of what is said can be eliminated because singers like Fantasia Barrino, Adriane Lenox, and Karine Plantadit and dancers like Julius “Glide” Chisholm, Jared Grimes, Dormesha Sumbry-Edwards, and Virgil “Li’l O” Gadson provide more than a 1,000 words in their rendition of the sterling entertainment that dominated the Cotton Club and other Harlem boites of the 1920s.

       Labor is well divided in this sleekly assembled revue conceived by Encores artistic director Jack Viertel and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Fantasia Barrino handles the jazz tunes and moves easily from swing to ballad to be-bop while showing she can claim her place on the floor in a dance number. Adriane Lenox claims the comic numbers, the one that involve some acting and interpretation. Karine Plantadit proves to be a firebrand in her bits. Dormesha Sumbry-Edward rivets in two numbers that combine song and dance in exciting ways.

       Carlyle’s pacing of the show is a study in contrasts. It reminds me of a visual artist using positive and negative space. One scene can be a razz-ma-tazz extravaganza that involves most of the cast followed without much break by a subtle dance routine that shows off the remarkable specialties of Chisholm. Gadson, and Grimes, not to mention the tapping and other contributions by Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore.

       All that’s missing is cocktails and cigarettes to recreate the wit and swellness of the one-time Harlem scene. “After Midnight” makes you wish nightclubs of the kind it celebrates existed today. Now Broadway pastiche has to accomplish what a pub crawl above 125th Street would have produced eight or nine decades ago.

       Slick entertainment abounds. Adriane Lenox shows her professional sheen as she rakes hay, elicits laughs, and shows her sexy side in numbers like “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” Barrino does credit to a lot of predecessors with her own dazzling performance of “Stormy Weather” while showing her jazz aptitude in Cab Calloway’s “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and a style as easy and flowing as “After Midnight” in the Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh standard, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

     Sumbry-Edwards raises the heat in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with her featured dancing in “Raisin’ the Roof/Get Yourself a New Broom” and Duke Ellington’s “The Skrontch.” Carmen Ruby Floyd, usually standing out as part of a trio, get a chance to wow the Atkinson crowd with her plaintive use of her voice as an instrument in Ellington’s “Creole Love Call.”

       The dancing in “After Midnight” borders on legerdemain (or should that be legerdepie?). The muscular control, combined with the alternatively comic and element use of unique talent, keep you agog as a you watch Chisholm literally live up to his nickname and glide across the stage as if friction, gravity, and space were physicists’ delusions. Gadson is a mischievous imp who cracks you up with his naughtiness one second and impresses with his pedal virtuosity the next. Jared Grimes makes his mark in the 11:00 number, Ellington’s “Tap Mathematician” combined with his “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

     In the feet of these dancers, elegance, joy, and high-style entertainment prevail.

     “After Midnight” is a marvelous novelty show, a variety revue that showcases talent and boasts not only Carlyle’s creativity but the imagination of costumer Isabel Toledo and set designer John Lee Beatty. As much as I enjoyed it, I want to use it as an example of something that has bothered me about the cost of going to Broadway.

      “After Midnight” is no doubt an expensive show. It has a huge cast and stars that command a prime salary in Barrino, Lenox, and Hill. It is highly entertaining and creative.

        Yet it lacks the innovative quality of “Pippin,” “Matilda,” or even the more standard “Kinky Boots.” They all cost more than $150 to see. The audience that wants to be up-to-date is going to choose one of the three shows mentioned above over “After Midnight,” which may be chic but does not pack the over-the-top wallop of the bigger hits. I wonder if Broadway does itself a disservice by having a uniform price for musicals instead of one that reflects the costs of each individual show. “After Midnight” deserves a full audience, but it is always on two-fers. That means it can survive from audiences paying half the usual price. I can see, and I can understand, the money that goes into “After Midnight,” but I wonder in spite of it if the show would not do better at the box office with a $100 or $125 ticket, a higher price than a two-fer but lower enough from other shows to keep it competitive on its own terms.

        Just a thought.


Anne-Marie Duff and Ethan Hawke

MACBETH (Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, New York) — Jack O’Brien’s large, star-studded, effect-strewn production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play contrasts sharply to the simple, open, traditional presentation Mark Rylance and Britain’s Globe Theatre is giving at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Nonetheless, it gets to the core of “Macbeth” and uses its corps of fine actors to show the turmoil the title character’s unbridled ambition causes in a kingdom that was relatively stable.

      O’Brien’s is a stark Scotland. Scott Pask’s set uses black, silver, and white smoke or mist to show the highlands’ cold darkness. The occult has a major place in this land. O’Brien, Pask, and lighting designer Japhy Weideman often project pentagrams and zodiacs and other charts and symbols of witchcraft and astrological ephemera on the set, perhaps to show the spell Scotland is under during Macbeth’s reign.

      It is all affecting and contributes to a dense, atmospheric “Macbeth” that impresses and engages more than it involves or engrosses. The production is competent and satisfying without being special (the way Rylance’s “Richard III” is).

      O’Brien’s production is less a character study than a look at a country in the throes of political upheaval. Scotland’s king, Duncan, while having to quell rebellions and invasions of the kind in which Macbeth earns praise and glory, is, according to Shakespeare’s text, revered. The thanes, like Macbeth, that govern fiefdoms under him, are said to be satisfied and content with Duncan’s rule.

      Macbeth, because of his hurry to fulfill the witches’ prophecy, upsets this balance. Because of his paranoia and tyranny, he creates havoc and distress where there was and could have been, with more judicious behavior on Macbeth’s part, peace. O’Brien gives many characters their due in stressing the politics that might restore order to a land while showing how Macbeth is beguiled and motivated by the witches. To show their influence, the director  employs the incidental figure of Hecate as more than a chastiser of the coven that holds Macbeth in their thrall. She is an integral part of the proceedings, and the three witches appear in more ways and more guises than usual. They are included among advisors and servants. John Glover, for instance, while in his witch costume, plays the porter who admits Macduff on the morning Duncan’s murder is discovered.

      O’Brien keeps matters interesting while never fascinating. His is a “Macbeth” that holds your attention and gives you fine points to appreciate. It is not riveting or illuminating.

       Ethan Hawke, while able to convey Macbeth’s inability to resist the witches’ draw or bide his time to realize their prophecy, does not inhabit the magnitude of his character. Like Macbeth, his clothes do not fit. Hawke, with his gravelly voice and relatively slight stature, does not seem like a warrior. When we first meet him, he has fought two battles and triumphed in both, yet O’Brien barely has him break a sweat or show an ounce of blood on his skin or clothing. Hawke doesn’t fit the proportion of Macbeth. He is apt at celebrating his and Banquo’s military victory, but he doesn’t look like the man who brought it about.

      While Hawke speaks Shakespeare’s lines clearly and with intention, the deep rumble of his voice, and the trace of New York accent, do not suit the speeches or their inherent poetry. Hawke is not so much a misplayed Macbeth as a miscast Macbeth. He helps you understand the feelings and motives of the character, but he doesn’t rise to command the stage the way some of his Lincoln Center castmates do.

      Chief among these is Anne-Marie Duff, who now ranks as the finest Lady Macbeth I’ve seen (and I’ve seen dozens including Glenda Jackson).

       Duff is as haunting and as persuasive as the witches. Reading the letter in which Macbeth writes of the prophecy, Duff puts more than words into her relation of the message and her reaction to it. You can see and hear her thought processes, watch her resolve form, and be chilled by the assurance with which she will promote her intention, the murder of Duncan and the crowning of Macbeth.

       Duff is intense and genuine in a way you wish would rub off a bit on Hawke. In all of her scenes, she is affecting. Her performance is perfection whether she is being the grateful, gracious hostess, the plotter who focuses Macbeth on their plan and brooks no weakness, a queen who must protect her husband from his doubts and explain his actions to guests, or the addled sleepwalker who is overwhelmed by guilt and despair after all.

       The stage takes on special life when Duff appears. In her opening scenes, she inspires terror. In her final scenes, she elicits pity, even though all that has happened is her own doing, Macbeth being the catalyst, Lady M. being the engineer.

        Duff is the finest of an excellent cast. Daniel Sunjata is a sturdy, honorable Macduff that commands respect and exudes the goodness that contrasts Macbeth’s perfidy. Sunjata can be purposeful and emotional. His is a complete and admirable performance.

         Brian d’Arcy James’s Banquo, through arch at times when tweaking the witches or gently chiding Macbeth, is straightforward in a way that also points up the imbalance of Macbeth’s mental state. James keeps Banquo grounded in reality and fleshes out the character beyond Shakespeare’s lines. O’Brien makes a wise choice in casting Banquo’s son, Fleance, as young man who, as played by Nathan Stark, could be anywhere from 17 to 22. This gives texture to Macbeth’s dread of Banquo’s line being perennial successors to the Scottish throne and gives some bite to Fleance’s escape from the pair sent to murder him.

       Individually and as a group, Glover, Byron Jennings, and Malcolm Gets make their marks as the witches and various counselors and household servants they portray. Richard Easton is a regal yet convivial Duncan. Bianca Amato is an affecting Lady Macduff.

RICHARD III (Belasco Theatre, New York) —  From the moment you take your seat and notice the actors being helped, and even sewn, into traditional Elizabethan costumes, you know this “Richard III” is going to be an enjoyable experience.

      “Enjoyable” is too mild a word. The Shakespeare’s Globe production of “King Richard the Third” is exhilarating in every detail, from the clear witty relation of Shakespeare’s excellent lines and the canny portrayals of the actors to the crisp, elemental staging and the achievement of eking all that is possible out of this play. The production is as entertaining as it is affecting. It shows a man who always has his wits about him and the sensible, contentious people who can read every one of Richard’s stratagems but can’t resist his guile or combat his often trailless mischief.

       Tim Carroll has staged a delightful, illuminating production, full of merriment as well as intrigue as Richard gleefully carves his way to kingship before outsmarting and destroying himself through distrust, dishonesty, and tyranny.

         The highlight among highlights in this “Richard” is the performance of that admirable chameleon, Mark Rylance, in the title role.

         Every time Rylance comes to Broadway, he displays his prodigious talent in a new way that proves once again he is in the highest echelon of English-speaking actors, if not the undisputable best.

        The first thing you notice about Rylance’s Richard is his giggle, the uncontrollable little laugh that accompanies his almost ecstatic recitation of the next outrage he intends to perform.

         Rylance is a frank Richard. He holds back nothing. He lets you in on every strategy he is about to unleash. He revels in his cleverness and in the way he uses it to accomplish his will. While Richard is direct with the audience, he is cunning with the people he wants to bend to his bidding. Rylance’s Richard is a master of persuasion. Under the mean features and the unsavory intentions to which he admits, he is a charmer, one whose nerve and power of language knows no bounds. Richard is only aware of his objective  and how to check off various tasks or rid himself of potential obstacles as, with total assurance, he works assiduously towards his goal, in the primary case, the British crown.

       Shakespeare endows Richard with many gifts to make up for a withered and misshapen appearance. His brain is agile, his ambition unstoppable, and his logic about how to achieve his aim flawless, especially because Richard conducts his campaigns brashly with no jot of conscience. Rylance reveals all of this in a lustily entertaining turn that does credit to Shakespeare’s spoken word and the bountiful properties of theater.

       Rylance’s performance is highly theatrical in a traditional sense. He thrives on verbal nuance while knowing when to add his giggle of delight and punctuate his words with a knowing expression. Lighting, costume, and sets are elemental, designed to approximate the condition of Shakespeare’s time, the setting of the Globe, from which this magnificent production comes. Language, voice, smiles, raised eyebrows, and physical nuance are Rylance’s tools, and they are all he needs to create a captivating, frightening Richard, one whose maneuvers always attain what he wants, and one who can look and sound like the nearest and most sympathetic of friends while instigating a murder or fraud or gambit of nefarious, self-serving intention.

       Rylance masterfully plays all aspects of Richard. His introductory speech, “Now is the winter of discontent,” is a revelation in how clearly Rylance shows you all that Shakespeare tells you about Richard and British politics of the time.

        Watching Rylance’s Richard woo Lady Anne Grey, whose husband, a crown prince of the Lancaster house, he, a York, has recently killed in battle, is a lesson in cool persistence and feigned chivalry. Shakespeare makes the scene more intense by having Richard meet Anne as she accompanies the corpse of the slain Lancastrian king, Henry VI, also killed by Richard, to burial. Rylance moves us to his side in the procedure immediately by once more taking the audience into his confidence and explaining the political advantage of wedding this high-placed daughter of Lancaster. “What though I killed her husband and father?” he  nonchalantly asks while just as casually concluding, “The readiest way to amends is to become husband and father to her.” In clumsy, less artful hands, these words remain Shakespeare’s, a key to the next plot angle and example of Richard’s endless scheming. In Rylance’s, they are like listening to man who just hit on a pearl of logical wisdom or a genius tossing off his latest idea to cure a dread disease. Rylance makes you love Richard and revel with him in his cunning victories, evil though they be. We are his co-conspirators, and we enjoy viewing and participating in his game. Rylance takes away our conscience as he eschews Richard’s. It is all so deftly done, you marvel at Rylance’s skill, and Shakespeare’s clear, devious plotting, while remembering now and then lives are  being lost or ruined for Richard to have his way.

      The open, traditional nature of the production adds to its sterling quality. This is Shakespeare as it should be performed. Gimmicks, themes, anachronistic historical settings, edits, and clarifications seen so often in recent decades are revealed in their shamefulness by how effectively Carroll’s basic, unadorned staging brings all of “Richard III,” and  not only Rylance’s brilliance to the fore. Seeing this production in the same year as Nicholas Hytner’s affecting “Othello” at London’s National Theatre, has made 2013 a glorious year for communing with Shakespeare. Add the recent Donmar production of “Julius Caesar” that played at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, and even the miserable “Romeo and Juliet” on Broadway cannot ruin the hours of pleasure the Bard has afforded me this year.

       Tradition goes a long way to making this “Richard III” the success it is. It is easily the best production currently on Broadway and possibly the best on the English-speaking stage anywhere.

       Rylance’s contribution to the show’s success cannot be minimized, but he accompanied by an excellent all-male troupe, several of which distinguish themselves. Joseph Timms, as Lady Anne, is at first firm against the evil incarnate Richard represents to her. Watching him melt in the wooing scene and castigate Richard in later sequences, after shame and unhappiness have stirred Anne to reality, is as engrossing as following Rylance through his actions. Timms, in the white face makeup and long black dress that is part of Shakespearean tradition for men playing women, conveys true nobility, true confusion, true disappointment, and true anger. His is a wonderful companion performance to Rylance’s, and their scenes together provide golden theatrical memories.

       Samuel Barnett, as Queen Elizabeth, the widow of Henry VI and one who wants to see her son enthroned in place of the York kings, Edward and Richard, is astoundingly regal. Wearing the same black weeds as Timms, Barnett practically glides across the stage. The older queens, Elizabeth and Margaret, are the only ones with the nerve to face Richard, and Barnett shows a woman who knows she is in danger from Richard but will speak without caution. She is not afraid and is as frank in berating the prickly York king as Richard is when confiding his next dirty deed to the audience.

      Liam Brennan shows trust and affection for his brothers as Clarence. Brennan maintains dignity even as he betrayed by both Edward and Richard. His performance marks the first time a Clarence has moved me or seemed like more than a functionary role. Thank Brennan and Carroll for that.

        Paul Chahidi makes a mark as the duplicitous Hastings, one of the first to feel the sting of Richard when his kingship goes to his head, and he decides he is not is a giving. The cast in general keeps all of the politics and history Shakespeare loads into “Richard III” clear and compelling, a theatrical achievement in itself.

        “Richard III” is being performed in repertory with “Twelfth Night,” written “Twelfe Night,” in which Rylance plays Olivia, Barnett plays Viola, and Stephen Fry is cast as Malvolio. I will report on that production when I see it, which I hope will be soon.

Mary Louise Parker and Victoria Clark.

Mary Louise Parker and Victoria Clark.

THE SNOW GEESE (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) — Much befalls the family Sharr White depicts in her new play, “The Snow Geese,” the Manhattan Theatre Club’s first Broadway production of the season.

         The patriarch of a family, a life force and  bon

viveur who lived grandly and enjoyed a loving and festive marriage, dies suddenly. His passing reveals the wealth on which he originally lived to be a sham. His younger son is trying to cope with the change in financial reality. His widow cannot cope with either her husband’s loss or her the reality of her reduced circumstances. The older son, an Ivy League socialite and fraternity leader, opts to join his frat brothers and enlist to fight in World War I. He is waiting to ship out as “The Snow Geese” opens. Meanwhile, the widow’s sister holds home and hearth together and is grateful for a rustic hunting lodge her brother-in-law, the patriarch maintained near Syracuse, N.Y. because in addition to providing shelter, it serves as a refuge for her husband, a popular Brooklyn doctor who has been scorned because of his German roots and accent.

      With all of these potentially dramatic situations looming, one would think “The Snow Geese” would be a taut, affecting family drama.

       Alas,  no. Whining and complaining are more prevalent to White’s characters than facing and living through the predicaments life places in your way, or that you walk into, perhaps even knowingly.

        The characters who root their live in reality — the sister, the younger son, and the German doctor, become the interesting people, the one whose actions we prefer to watch, the ones whose idea we choose to listen to. Others seem too shallow, both in their behavior and their grasp of reality, to rate our attention. The problem is the weaker, more ostrich-like characters are the ones White wants to bring the fore and make sympathetic when they are not. Solutions to various dilemma come easy to the audience. It is difficult to commiserate with people who make their own problems and can’t abide to hear the simple logic that will relieve them of their burdens. White may have intended the audience to care deeply for the widow and her plight, to understand why her relative poverty is difficult for her to bear beyond her losses and her worry for the son heading to war. But we don’t because “The Snow Geese” is content to present fodder for drama. It doesn’t have the finesse to see matters through.

      The result is a boring play that promises more than it delivers. Few scenes resonate with interest enough to make you care for the characters and root for them to face and overcome their plight. Even the practical younger son earns more respect for his clear sense than concern for his plans or the way they will turn out.

      White attempts in ways to be Chekhovian. She presents a family with a multitude of problems most of the members choose not to face. What she doesn’t muster is the comedy that relieves the sentimental melodrama of the family’s basic situation. Her characters do not bear that tinge of tragedy that marks many of Chekhov’s primary figures. All is inert. You take in what is happening, but it has no emotional effect.  Director Daniel Sullivan has given “The Snow Geese” a sumptuous production. You feel as if you can move into the hunting lodge and be quite cozy and able to shut out the real world. The characters don’t warrant enough regard, so all of the loveliness of John Lee Beatty’s set is wasted from a dramatic point of view.

      Although Mary-Louise Parker, as the widow, has one wonderful speech about the romance and joy of life and how her younger son’s practicality should  not cancel the magic of indulging oneself in extravagance or pleasure, her part is one of the more stilted in White’s play. Parker only has neurosis to wrap her character around. The actress is good at playing neurosis, but White doesn’t put enough meat on the bone to afford Parker some range. She is left with illness, perhaps psychosomatic, and frayed nerves as a basis to animate the widow, and it’s  not enough.

       By contrast, the studied practicality, the fortitude to do what must be done and cope with the hand dealt, that Victoria Clark exudes as the widow’s sister is admirable and worthy of attention. Clark gives her character dimension, facets that elude Parker. Her steadiness and ability to convey concern, to show the thoughts the sister has as she determines how to manage the hunting lodge, her husband’s displacement, and her nephew’s differing personalities and points of view, make Clark’s performance one that holds attention and makes you care about whether the character can bring about a sensible, workable existence for her family. Hers is the only performance than transcends White’s moribund script to breathe life into Sullivan’s production.

      Brian Cross, as the younger nephew, tries to help, but White saddles his character with too much baggage for Cross to overcome. Evan Jonigkeit  is appropriately snobby and bratty as the older son, the apple of his mother’s eye and one who is unused to being wrong or not getting his way. Once again, the narrowness White gives the character, and the lad’s unsympathetic point of view, prevents Jonigkeit from bonding with the audience.  Danny Burstein, as usual, brings humanity to his portrayal of the wrongly ostracized doctor, but his character doesn’t have enough weight to affect the play in general.

WAITING FOR GODOT (Cort Theatre, New York) — Masters are at

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

work at the Cort Theatre, where Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart alternate between Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land.”

       Stewart, in particularly carries “Godot” with his ever-optimistic, spritely energetic turn as Vladimir, a man with nothing much to do but, in Stewart’s hands, great enthusiasm for doing it. Sean Mathias’s production needs Stewart’s vim. It provides relief during denser moments when Beckett’s script is allowed to flag some, and we, as the audience, wait for some theatrical invention to offset tedium that is more Mathias’s problem than Beckett’s.

      Ian McKellen is no slouch either. His Estragon is dry and complaining. He sees no reason to go on, except that the rope with which he holds up his pants isn’t strong enough to hold his weight when he tries to hang himself. McKellen’s varied collection of grunts, groans, and expressions of disappointment become a comic vocabulary of their own. His performance is subtler, not as showy as Stewart’s, and the combination of his melancholy with Stewart’s spirit, provide a good contrast that entertains the audience.

      “Waiting for Godot” is not easy to produce. It is at once about futility and hope. It is about people with almost no expectations having dashed expectations. It is about the security of doing the familiar even if everyday routine leads nowhere while anticipating, but not looking for, something new that will change existence, such as it is, for the better.

       Didi and Gogo are characters who live in a void. Their world is a barren expanse the bleakness of which is relieved by a single tree, possibly a willow, the men do not know. They meet daily on this plain, Gogo emerging from a ditch where he sleeps and is beaten repeatedly by gangs, Didi from some shelter off stage. Days do not vary much, but the men try to fill them, Didi by trying to figure out diversions, Gogo by examining his bruises and filthy clothes and groaning comically, a la Red Skelton or Emmett Kelly.

     The key to production is finding enough business for Didi and Gogo to do so boredom is confined to the action, or lack of it, on stage and doesn’t seep into the audience. The other challenge, the main one, is for a director and cast to convey Beckett’s themes of futility, security, value or virtue of existence, etc. movingly and entertainingly.

      Even with Stewart and McKellen toiling mightily, it takes a while for Mathias’s production to get off the ground. I found the first act flat in spots.

      No matter. The second act redeems all. McKellen’s sad sack comes more to life, and his downheartedness takes on a more comic cast. Stewart becomes more antic than ever, and you begin to like being with Didi and Gogo while recognizing and pitying their plight.

      Beckett is a smart playwright. He knows that no matter how many variations of unproductively filling time he can devise, he will need to provide some source of relief from Didi and Gogo. It is found is the characters of Pozzo and Lucky, respectively a wealthy landowner and a parody of the bourgeois rich and his servant who is led around by a rope, made to carry heavy cumbersome luggage, and perform tricks to the crack of his master’s whip.

       This pair provides diversion for Didi and Gogo as well, gives them something to talk about if Didi can get Gogo to remember they ever saw Pozzo and Lucky. As played by Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup, the characters make their mark. As with the production in general, their presence is more leavening in the second act, when Pozzo has been reduced to a more human level because of blindness and infirmity, than in the first in spite of Hensley’s rousingly lively performance, a cross between a crass plutocrat and a Wild West show performer, country accent and all.

       Crudup’s part is mostly physical, and he plays it with a constant deadpan, including the passage when Lucky reveals his thoughts. When we see Pozzo and Lucky in the second act, they have fallen on hard times, which seems to be the common fate of the denizens of the world Beckett creates.

       The one difference is Mr. Godot. He appears to be of enough importance and have enough influence to change Didi and Gogo’s life for the better. Even if the pair with their time-killing routines and clownish antics do the same things most every day, the promise of a visit from Godot gives them something to which they can look forward, a hope to which they can cling. No matter that Godot sends a boy each evening to tell Didi he can’t keep the appointment. As he and Gogo wait for the meeting that will come “without fail” the next night, they follow the path of the days and years that have passed, which means basically staying put and finding security in the existence they know rather than trying to make something productive happen or venturing into the totally unknown. Both of Beckett’s acts end with Didi and Gogo saying, “Let’s go” and then standing silent and still.

       Stewart and McKellen are shrewd comedians who can entertain with their jolly or dour natures. They are also deft when going into old routines like the trading of hats and an improvised soft shoe. It is their discipline, variety, and  skill that give Mathias’s production depth and keeps the audience amused. Stewart is a sparkplug throughout. McKellen’s doomsday attitude for Gogo becomes more pointed and funnier as Beckett’s play proceeds.

      “Waiting for Godot” plays in repertory with Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” which also stars McKellen and Stewart and features Hensley and Crudup.

THE WINSLOW BOY (American Airlines Theatre, New York) —  Terence Rattigan should be seen more. winslow300Of the successful and lauded 20th century playwrights whose work is rarely done, Rattigan writes the best-made plays and always endows them with humanity and heart. He also has a knack for creating a complete picture that includes the stories of all of his characters while never losing sight of the primary matter at hand.

      “The Winslow Boy” is a great example of Rattigan’s talent and scope. The main plot, the legal campaign to clear the name and record of a young man, 14, who is sent down from a plummy British public  school after being summarily found guilty of theft, remains in constant focus. Meanwhile, you see detailed portraits of the boy’s family. Indeed, his father, because of his resolute defense of his son, an expensive defense that involves scrimping and sacrifice,  and his sister, a modern independent woman who brooks little nonsense and in seen in two romantic liaisons,  attract intense interest. Rattigan doesn’t confine his story to an incident. He introduces you to the whole world of the Winslow family and their milieu and engrosses you with several lives whether his play deals with minute but significant legal details or who is going to stop at the greengrocers for onions.

       The Roundabout production of “The Winslow Boy” borrows from the Old Vic mounting that played in London last spring. The American company is entirely new but equal, if not better, than their British counterparts. The play, a three-act affair reflective the time it was written, is moving and information. You care as much as the family does about whether Ronnie Winslow is guilty of the offense for which he has been punished. Rules of suspense Rattigan would know well dictate that much of the evidence in Ronnie’s case speaks against him. A stern, conventional father’s belief in his son’s innocence is all that maintains hope of exoneration, and he is often persuaded to drop his campaign to prove Ronnie’s innocence. The Roundabout’s “Winslow Boy” takes almost three hours to play but seems to fleet by because there is always something that grabs your attention. As usual, Rattigan provides an entertaining and satisfying evening.

      Subplots, such as the financially and academically reckless nature of the older Winslow son, Dickie, the matter-of-fact nature of the daughter who has a trio of romantic suitors, and the management of the home that falls on the mother in spite of all the father’s pronouncements and blathering, are also played to a tee and contribute to the general enjoyment of “The Winslow Boy.”

       Through both set and costumes, Peter McKintosh captures the George V period with marvelous and comfortable sitting room and hint of dining room he provides the Winslow and the upper class outfits that even include casual wear.

       Director Lindsay Posner moves Rattigan’s play at a comfortable pace that gives all scenes a sense of immediacy or reality. Nothing ever seems rushed or omitted.

       Posner is abetted by a wonderful cast that stays individual and nuanced while fitting into the conventions of British ladies and gentlemen in the years World War I is being fought.

       Roger Rees is able to convey the father, Arthur Winslow’s, strictness and desire for order and standards while showing his paternal side. Arthur can maintain that habit and custom demand sometime be done or looked at in a certain day — He is a Victorian grown to live in late Georgian times. — but he can bend when his children are concerned, particular his daughter, the eldest of the three, and Ronnie, who has been the perfect boy and a welcome contrast to Dickie until the theft charge arises. You can see Rees’s Arthur wrestling with himself over matters. You know he will be steadfast in his son’s defense no matter what it costs him financially, socially, or personally. Rees, who visually ages and becomes less firm as “The Winslow Boy” proceeds shows the great toll of that personal cost.

      Charlotte Parry is delightful as Catherine Winslow, the daughter who has a mind of her own and is  modern and fun underneath the conventional veneer of the early 20th century young woman. A suffragette who is undaunted by the idea of rebuke or prosecution, Catherine speaks her mind plainly about everything. That includes love. She is engaged to one man, loved deeply by another,  a dear friend whose romantic overtures she must constantly reject, and comes to be enamored of a third who is not blind to her charms. Parry manages all aspects of Catherine beautifully. You see why the men are attracted to her and how well she can get along without any of them, including her father, if she so chose. Catherine is a bear in defense of her brother, and Parry responds when someone irks Catherine about Ronnie’s guilt or innocence.

       How wonderful to have Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio back on stage in a role that has some facet to it. Mastrantonio’s Grace is more willing to dispense with formality than Rees’s Arthur. The way she springs into maternal action when she learns Ronnie has been hiding from the family since arriving so dishonorably from school, is natural and shows the kind of woman Grace is, even if Arthur has to think he has the upper hand.

       Alessandro Nivola makes a handsome and properly flinty defense attorney. His Sir Robert Morton is one of the sharpest and most expensive legal minds in England, and he is not likely to let you forget it. Nivola maintains a high tone even when indicating his attraction to Catherine. His is an interesting performance that works to perfection.

       Because of the alphabet, Michael Cumpsty gets first billing over Mastrantonio, Nivola, and Rees, but his role as a family friend is small and doesn’t give this remarkable actor, so brilliant earlier this season in Coward’s “Present Laughter” for Two River, enough to do. Yet whenever he is on stage, Cumpsty is appropriately commanding and does well with his comic cameo as Winslow family friend who is always proposing to Catherine.

      Chandler Williams shows the wishy-washy side of aristocracy, blithely defiant one minute, weakly subservient the next, as Catherine’s fiance. Zachary Booth is properly modern and cynical as the genuinely wayward brother, Dickie. Spencer Davis Milford holds his line a being youthful more than anything else as Ronnie. Henny Russell is darling as the dotty Winslow house maid.

JULIUS CAESAR (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn) —  Concept, when thought through, used consistently, and working to intensify  a production can illuminate Shakespeare as much as gimmickry and self-conscious stagings can deaden it.

      The all-woman “Julius Caesar” that arrived at Brooklyn’s St. Ann Warehouse from London’s Donmar Warehouse (and left too soon) places the Bard’s play, set in ancient Rome, in a current-day women’s prison in which the convicts enact “Julius Caesar” while playing out power struggles of various kinds among the women incarcerated in the jail.

       Once Shakespeare’s portrait of Caesar’s time, 44 B.C., gains momentum, director Phyllida Lloyd stays faithful to the playwright’s script. Occasionally, there is a reminder of the contemporary prison setting, but in general, you see a basic and riveting version of Shakespeare’s play that is so clearly and compellingly done, even the late-act scenes on the battlefields at Phillipi and other locations resonate with immediacy. You are keen to hear what is happening, what is one the minds of Brutus and Mark Antony, and tripping from the tongues of Harriet Walter and Cush Jumbo, Shakespeare’s extraordinary language has power and beauty that prove once again, as if it needs proving, that he is the noblest author of them all.

     Lloyd keeps “Julius Caesar” as elemental as the stark prison where the inmates plot against the kingpin (queenpin?) among the cons the way the rebels in favor of total democracy do against Caesar.

        The scene is which the conspirators agree to and plan Caesar’s assassination fastens you to the dialogue. Every ounce of logic, beyond some personal gripes, is heard. The nobility of Brutus shines though as much the anger and contempt of Cassius. When Caesar gets his/her turn to talk about Cassius and the controversy of him, Caesar, becoming the emperor as opposed to a leading senator or general, Shakespeare is just as well served. The Bard knew what he was doing as he plotted “Julius Caesar,” and in the hands of Lloyd’s uniformly excellent cast, his genius about people and drama shows.

      The clarity throughout the production is its gift. By emphasizing nothing but the business and sentiment of the moment, the cast delivers “Julius Caesar” in  a way that grasps you and makes you palpably feels the multiple tragedies that occur in the work, the deaths of Brutus, Cassius, Portia, and Cinna the Poet as well as that of Caesar.

     When prison scenes impinge, they comment on the action and linger only as long as it takes Lloyd to make her parallel about power struggles or to get some scenery rigged.

       Harriet Walter is a towering Brutus. Goodness shows through everything Walter does or says. The actress is not afraid to show you her angst or remorse about having to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar. She also conveys what a wonderful leader Brutus may have been if Antony did not have the advantage of public sentiment and military support, advantages with which Brutus, in a way, endowed him by allowing him to speak, and speak last, at Caesar’s funeral ceremony.

      Tragedy sits on Walter. While Brutus is competent, you can see the dread he has and the burden of responsibility he feels in the actress’s face and posture. Walter has always been a reliable and moving actress, and as Brutus, she equals the excellences she’s brought to roles as far apart as Imogen in “Cymbeline,” Julie Cavendish in “The Royal Family,” and Elizabeth I in “Mary Stuart.”

      Cush Jumbo is a dynamic Antony. Her funeral oration would undoubtedly stir masses against Brutus and to Antony’s side. Jumbo is teasingly deft in the way she constantly insinuates Caesar’s legacy to all Romans in her speech. In the battlefield scenes, and particularly after Brutus’s death, you see an actress of fierce sincerity and intensity.

      As Cassius, Jenny Jules embodies the attitude of a committed conspirator who would rather perish that see Rome fall under dictatorship and possible tyranny. Jules in fiery and convincing. She presents Cassius’s arguments in a way that makes them impossible to refute and necessary to act upon. She remains distant is scenes in which Cassius is at odds with Brutus and retains some coolness even when the generals reconcile.

      Frances Barber brings out all the complacency and pomp of Caesar. She also shows his humanity, so while Shakespeare, through Cassius and the conspirators has listed worthy cause why Caesar must die, Barber makes you wonder if a better solution couldn’t and shouldn’t be found. The ease, the comfort within himself that Barber gives Caesar makes you like him that much.

      Kudos to Helen Cripps, who as a prisoner, rides around Bunny Christie’s stark jail yard on a tricycle, but as an actress has an affecting moment as Cinna the Poet, mistaken by the mob for Cinna the conspirator, and as a drummer, is aces!

       “Julius Caesar” closed on November 10. I hope some visual record of it has been maintained or that it can be remounted and distributed in movie theaters.

2 comments on “Broadway Roundup — After Midnight, Macbeth, Richard III, Waiting for Godot, Etc.

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    June 17, 2014

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    June 21, 2014

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