Hugh Jackman in The River
Hugh Jackman has returned to Broadway and brought neither his song-and-dance man persona nor his action hero Wolverine one. Instead, in Jez Butterworth’s The River, which opened last night at Circle in the Square Theatre, Jackman is a moody, intense, and even a little creepy romantic anti-hero. It’s a brave move, and although Butterworth’s elliptical play can sometimes be a head-scratcher, Jackman’s work, as well as that of his co-stars, never ceases to fascinate.
intermissionless show unfolds in a rustic cabin (from designer Ultz who has made sure that there are even wisps of cobwebs fluttering above the action) where Jackman’s character, known only as “The Man,” brings the women with whom he’s romantically involved. During the course of Butterworth’s play, theatergoers meet two of them “The Woman” (Cush Jumbo) and “The Other Woman” (Laura Donnelly). Both of them have come with him to this place that he has enjoyed since he was a boy to share one night of what he considers the ultimate romantic experience: spending a moonless night fishing for sea trout.
The Man’s experiences with these two girlfriends unfolds in an almost dreamlike fashion and as the characters flirt and squabble, The River becomes a keen exploration of how a person’s past relationships influence their present ones.
Director Ian Rickson (who staged Butterworth’s Jerusalem on Broadway a few seasons back) has elicited a trio of exceptionally detailed and finely nuanced performances from the actors. Jumbo’s performance has a pertly spiky edge to it, which curiously makes her endearing from the outset. Donnelly, who’s playing a woman no less blunt than Jumbo, takes a different and equally appealing approach to her character; her turn has an enticing etherealness to it as well as a bit of menace.
Both women prove to be perfect partners and foils for Jackman’s gracefully understated star turn. The actor never leaves the stage. and as he wends his way through Butterworth’s play, his innate charisma makes “The Man” someone who both women and men would willingly follow into the wilderness, and then, he builds on it and undermines it. When The Man spouts poetry or waxes eloquent in his own words about his love of fishing, there’s a child-like wonderment to Jackman’s turn. When it looks like The Man might not be getting his way, well, then, eyebrows raise, and one can’t help wonder what the character has got up his sleeve and worry just a bit. Beyond these two extremes, there’s a ordinary guy-ness to Jackman’s performance, particularly when he’s left alone onstage to prepare a meal (which includes the much-talked gutting of one of the catches).
The events in the cabin are made all just a bit more spooky by the woodsy soundscrape that designer Ian Dckinson has provided, and throughout, Charles Balfour’s lighting design cloaks the events in a warm murkiness that’s simultaneously cozy and eerie.
Theatergoers might find themselves talking for a while about the ambiguous and slightly confusing note on which The River ends, but more likely they’ll be talking about the immaculate turns that Jackman and company are delivering.
---- Andy Propst
The River plays at Circle in the Square Theatre (235 West 50th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.theriveronbroadway.com.
Tracie Thoms and John Hawkes Lost Lake
Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright David Auburn provides audiences with a delicate study of two damaged souls who find they have more in common than they might have expected in Lost Lake, which opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center Stage II. It’s a charmer of a contemporary tale, and thanks to the fine work of Academy Award nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Tracie Thoms, the production has a palpable heart. Unfortunately, it’s a piece that never develops any genuine dramatic thrust, making for a slow-going theatrical experience.
Set in a dingy lakeside cabin (rendered with lived-in and abused detail by scenic designer J. Michael Griggs) north of the city, Auburn’s play explores what happens when single mom Veronica (Thoms) rents the place from Hogan (Hawkes) for a week’s vacation with her two kids (unseen but heard thanks to Fitz Patton’s excellent sound design). She’s actually rather reticent about the place at first, but Hogan swears that he will get it into shape, and even promises to have the swimming platform in the lake ready by the time she arrives in late August.
When Veronica does get there, Hogan’s only managed to re-nail a dangling shutter. Otherwise, the place is just as it was when she first looked at it. Truth be told, there are problems she didn’t know about, like the lack of hot water and a disconnected landline (cell service is dodgy at best). Because of all of this, she believes she’s due a partial refund, and once they have begun talking about money, the realities of both of their existences---both have financial and familial problems---finally begin to come into focus. After this, well, a gentle sort of truce and admiration between the two settles in.
It’s the sort of narrative that might make for an excellent short story or perhaps a film, which would allow for wide camera shots of the countryside in which Veronica is taking refuge. But, as it stands, this 90-minute character study, sensitively directed by Daniel Sullivan, for begins to wear thin, despite the carefully nuanced and beautifully observed performances that Hawkes and Thoms deliver.
Hawkes employs his gangly stretch of arms and legs to marvelous effect. His Hogan doesn’t seem totally at home in his own body or even in this place that he sometimes calls home. In a way, it’s kind of sad, and that’s a wonderful counterpoint to the kind of creepy vibe that both Veronica and audiences feel as Hogan seems to be perpetually on hand once her vacation has started.
Thoms’ turn, in contrast, has a marvelous solidity to it. If Hogan’s tentative, Veronica’s certain and can-do, and the sureness that one feels from Veronica make her revelations about the difficulties she’s facing genuinely troubling and even a little bit surprising.
Both lighting designer Robert Perry and costume designer Jess Goldstein provide delicate support for the play and the performances. Perry’s work is gracefully atmospheric and Goldstein’s clothes help bring the characters into sharp focus visually. It’s just rough not to wish that all of the craftsmanship were enough to make this tale a little more compelling.
---- Andy Propst
Lost Lake plays at City Center Stage II (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com.
Tracey Ullman in The Band Wagon
With such estimable talents as Brian Stokes Mitchell, Michael McKean, Laura Osnes, Tony Sheldon, and Tracey Ullman at its center, and with an Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz score that includes such gems as “Dancing in the Dark,” “Triplets” and “That’s Entertainment,” the new stage version of the 1953 MGM movie The Band Wagon should be a bubbly musical delight. It’s both curious and distressing to report, however, that the tuner, which opened last night at City Center, is anything but, and instead is a decidedly flat affair.
The show, which has a book by Douglas Carter Beane, working from the original screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, starts with the film’s basic premise. Tony Martin (Mitchell), a one-time Broadway performer who’s made it big in Hollywood, but has seen his fortunes there fade, has agreed to return to the theater to star in a new show that will be written by Lily Martin (Ullman) and Lester Martin (McKean), two writers he once worked with.
Beyond this, Beane has embellished and rejiggered other points of the movie’s original plot, but it still hangs on the fact that after Tony has started rehearsals, he watches it turn from a featherweight musical comedy into a pretentious musical drama. It’s only after Tony takes the reins of the production, bringing a Mickey-and-Judy “let’s put on a show” spirit to the endeavor and returning the material to its original form, that he finds himself in a success and also snagging the heart of Gabrielle (Osnes),the modern dancer who’s his co-star and has come to the show on the arm of her arty modern dance choreographer boyfriend, Paul (Michael Berresse).
In theory, this Band Wagon should be a lark, but almost from the outset, when the company, dressed in monochrome and earth-tone period street wear from costume designer William Ivey Long, dances, there’s a dourness to the proceedings. Not only does Long maintain his palette of grays and beiges until the very final number, scenic designer Derek McLane eschews cluttering the stage with set pieces. There are a few, but for the most part, he leaves the stage virtually bare. It’s as if the creative team felt they shouldn’t try to compete with 1950s Technicolor visuals, so they went in another direction entirely.
Beane’s book also brings a certain dourness to the fore. A one-time romance between Tony and Lily that seems to be rekindled by the proximity to one another sends recovering alcoholic Lester into a tailspin and back to the bottle. Tony’s own misgivings about the direction his life has taken also come to the fore for much of the show’s first half, and as Jeffrey and Paul attempt to figure out how the frothy musical-within-the-musical can become more like Faust, Band Wagon, too, suffers from a similar identity crisis. Is it an homage to a beloved film from a simpler time or is it a contemporary musical drama set in that period?
Thankfully, there are many bright patches to be found in the show, and they don’t simply come from the decadent primary colors that lighting designer Paul Kaczorowski uses. Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall has a field day with the avant garde dances she’s imagined that Paul would create, resulting some genuinely funny moments. Mitchell, who gets to revisit earlier days before he was a Tony Award-winning leading man, dances ably, and a tap specialty he shares with Osnes, who’s sounding lovely as always, is a delight. Further, Mitchell’s vocals, throughout are a rich, melodious, treat.
Beyond these two performances, there’s some truly hysterical work from Sheldon, who takes his turn as Jeffrey to one step shy of over-the-top. It’s a model of perfect comic restraint. McKean manages to lighten Lester’s bitterness admirably, and in a similar mode, Berresse never makes Paul’s arrogance unbearable or unpleasant. Instead Paul becomes the sort of artist that audiences love to disdain, much in the way he disdains them.
The biggest surprise of The Band Wagon comes from Ullman. Her gifts as a comic performer are well-known from her work on both the big and small screen, but who knew that she could deliver a song, like “I Still Look at You That Way,” a ballad interpolated from Schwartz and Dietz’s Jennie, in such fine voice and with such deep emotion. Elsewhere, she shows she can land a comedy number with precision, notably as she and McKean channel Comden and Green as the characters perform a shortened version of the show they have written. It’s a performance that demonstrates that she’s got the chops to carry a musical.
It’s Ullman’s and her costars’ work, along with the score itself are what propel this Band Wagon through the script’s languors, allowing the production to leave audiences with a gentle afterglow, if not a genuine theatrical buzz.
----- Andy Propst
The Band Wagon continues through at City Center (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nycitycenter.org.
Gretchen Mol, Hari Dhillon, Karen Pittman and Josh Radnor in Disgraced
Race and people’s uncomfortable relationship with it takes center stage in Ayad Akhtar’s bracing play Disgraced, now at the Lyceum Theatre. The piece has come to Broadway after its premiere at Lincoln Center Theater in and en route it has picked up the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Akhtar beautifully sets the stage for the drama at hand introducing husband and wife Amir (Hari Dhillon) and Emily (Gretchen Mol) in their luxe Upper East Side apartment (another gorgeous interior from scenic designer John Lee Beatty) as she sketches him for a painting she wants to paint. Emily’s inspiration stems not only from her fondness for Diego Velazquez's portrait of Juan de Pareja, his Moorish slave whom the Spaniard portrayed dressed as a nobleman, but also from the treatment she witnessed while she and Amir, an attorney bucking for partnership at a high-powered firm, were out having dinner. She was appalled by the way in which he had been treated by their waiter.
The notion of an artist preserving an image of someone as an individual whom they may or may not be, along with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways people react to and regard people of ethnicities other than their own, lies at the heart of Disgraced. And, as this disquieting, gently funny, and ultimately moving play unfolds, Akhtar reveals how Amir, who comes from South Asian descent, and Emily, as blonde and all-American as they come, have built their marriage on a rocky foundation created from their own conscious and unconscious perceptions of race and cultural identity.
The playwright raises the stakes for the couple - and the play itself - when he introduces three other people in Amir and Emily’s world. First, there’s his nephew (Danny Ashok), a 20something who has changed his name from Hussein to Abe, and has begun questioning his own identity and his relationship with the Islamic traditions with which he was raised. Abe’s closeness with a jailed Imam troubles Amir, who wants to have no part in helping with the man’s defense. Emily, however, believes that her husband should become involved with the case, and in an effort to please her, Amir eventually does, albeit tangentially.
It’s a decision that has a direct and profound impact on their relationship with another interracial couple: Caucasian Isaac (Josh Radnor), a curator at the Whitney who is considering showcasing Emily’s work, and African-American Jory (Karen Pittman), another attorney at the firm where Amir works.
The ways in which fireworks fly between all five characters can be both surprising and sometimes a little predictable as Akhtar charts the upheaval in Amir and Emily’s marriage. What’s constant throughout is both the erudition and crispness of the writing. It’s been a long while since Broadway’s been graced with a new play that zings with such intelligence.
Director Kimberly Senior has elicited some terrifically sharp performances from her ensemble, perhaps most notably from Mol, in a turn that heartbreakingly arcs from natural ebullience to benumbed confusion as Emily’s marriage disintegrates and the character is forced to reevaluate not only her personal, but also professional, life. Equally impressive is Radnor, who is always fascinating to watch as he brings darker and more aggressive shades into his performance as a character who seems to be merely a sensitive bookworm.
Throughout Dhillon cuts a fine figure on stage, looking great in Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s perfectly cut trousers and jackets that reflect the character’s penchant for incredibly expensive clothing. Dhillon’s also terrific in navigating Amir’s sharp emotional swings. In between the extremes, though, there’s something incredibly understated about Dhillon’s performance. It’s as if he’s outwardly emphasizing some of the unspoken feelings that Amir has about his heritage. Unfortunately, it means that there are times when this would-be master of the universe comes across as too tentative.
Both Ashok and Pittman make their characters, which might, in other hands, seem to be mere dramaturgical devices, spark to life vibrantly, and Ashok, in particular, proves hauntingly effective as Abe recounts a bigoted encounter he experienced at a Starbucks.
---- Andy Propst
Disgraced plays at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: disgracedonbroadway.com.
A scene from The Last Ship
A bounty of lush, evocative music, stunning visuals and heartfelt performances fill The Last Ship, which has laid anchor into Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It’s an auspicious Broadway debut for singer/songwriter Sting as composer and lyricist, and though not everything in the show is smooth sailing, the show makes for an appealing theatrical voyage.
With book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, Ship tells the story of what happens with Gideon (Michael Esper) returns to his hometown in Northern England after spending 15 years at sea to settle family affairs following his father’s death. Gideon doesn’t only need to cope with his father’s meager estate, but there are also personal matters, notably with Meg (Rachel Tucker), the childhood sweetheart he promised to return for when he left.
It’s little surprise that she’s moved on and has a new steady boyfriend, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who has helped raised her teenage son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). The couple’s unresolved feelings for one another in light of Meg’s involvement with Arthur create a classic musical theater love triangle that becomes the emotional crux of The Last Ship.
Beyond the romantic aspect of the show, and causing further friction between Gideon and Arthur, is the dismal state of the town’s shipbuilding industry. Arthur, who had been a builder himself, has sided with an entrepreneur who is refitting the factories and promising employment to the populace. The men and women, however, are having none of this, and when Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate) announces that he will use church funds so that the men can build one last ship, Gideon finds himself finally drawn into a profession that he had scorned as a teenager and pitted against Arthur.
While the romantic conflicts in the musical (as familiar as they may be) work well enough, due primarily to the fact that Tucker shares palpable chemistry with both of her leading men, the portions of the show that center on the socioeconomic troubles the community faces never fully catch fire. Part of the problem is that the curious logic behind the priest’s decision to back the endeavor of constructing a vessel makes little sense. He says “To build ships well enough that other men will sail in them -- to make other men safe -- well if that's not God's work I don't know what is.” And yet, he has to divert funds from erecting a new church to underwrite the project. It would seem that perhaps the men’s skills could be just as applicable for creating the building.
Further, even though there are threats by the new owners of the shipyards that the men will be arrested, they never are. A fact conveniently explained away when Gideon tells Tom, “The lads are dug in now, they aren't leaving the yard. And there's no way old Newlands will have them hauled out of there in handcuffs. Not good for the public image.”
The rocky underpinnings of this side of The Last Ship undermine its credibility, even though Joe Mantello’s sturdy staging always looks its best when the men are at work. David Zinn’s scenic design seems to have a power of its own with huge metal bridges cutting through the space backed by corroded iron walls, particularly as its lit with bracing atmosphere by Christopher Akerlind. And when the men sing of their passion for their job, Sting’s music has a rousing, anthemic insistence that’s matched by Steven Hoggett’s intensely rugged choreography, which, at one point, even integrates the men’s welding torches. (Zinn’s cleverly echoes the colors of the flames that come from these tools with dashes of orange and blue in his costume design.)
When the show shifts over to the more intimate dramas that are unfolding in the shadow of this work, it fares better. Esper demonstrates, as he did in American Idiot, that he is a dramatic singer beyond compare, and when Gideon and Tom bond at the start of the show’s second act, as the older man talks about how he learned to make girls like him, the heart and charm of Sting’s writing is remarkable.
The same can be said of a ballad Arthur sings as he proposes (for the umpteenth time) to Meg. Delivered with robust sensitivity by Lazar, it’s one of the highlights of the score in the first act. Another topnotch bit of writing goes to Tucker’s spitfire Meg. “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” has a continental edge, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, that compels.
Beyond the fine work from these three performers, The Last Ship, Applegate turns in a winningly warm performance as Father O’Brien and Kelly-Sordelet makes an auspicious debut as young Tom. Similarly Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett bring earthiness and spunk to their portrayals of the show’s more comic, secondary couple.
---- Andy Propst
The Last Ship plays at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: thelastship.com.