Regular readers of my blog will likely know two things about me: 1) In selecting shows to see, I tend to stick to the musicals. 2) I teach full-time, and toward the end of each semester, I tend to get behind on my blogging.
However, there were many compelling choices with respect to non-musicals this season in New York, and I was fortunate enough to catch a handful of them in between musicals. Also fortunate, at least from my perspective, is the fact that most of these plays featured a healthy dose of music, to the point where two of these plays even received Tony nominations for Best Score. (Although this also represents a telling comment on the quality of the scores of the actual musicals this season. Leap of Faith, Ghost, Lysistrata Jones, and Spider-Man all failed to receive nominations for their scores.)
So, in this post, I'm playing a little blogging catch-up, while at the same time acknowledging the musical nature of many of this season's non-musicals. Here's my take on four new plays on Broadway, in descending order of preference.
Unlike the other three entries in this post, Other Desert Cities doesn't really have a significant musical component. What it does have is a crackling script from Jon Robin Baitz and a tight ensemble of expert performers, particularly Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, and Judith Light. The play concerns a fictional married couple who were once part of the Reagans' inner circle, as well as the grown-up children of that married couple. The daughter, played by Rachel Griffiths when I saw the show, has written a tell-all memoir about a very dark time in the family's past, and she's come home for Christmas to break the news and deal with the fallout. Other Desert Cities is a compelling hybrid of a show: the presentation is thoroughly old-fashioned, with its unit set and realistic time structure. But the subject matter feels modern, even forward-looking, in terms of the dynamic between conservative and liberal thought, and the search for something beyond mere ideologies. Also, it's a pleasure to see director Joe Mantello return to form with a solid, sure-handed production after his numerous recent missteps (9 to 5, Pal Joey, The Ritz).
Last year's Tony winner for Best Play, War Horse, was a triumph of stagecraft over substance. Don't get me wrong: the stagecraft in War Horse is simply stunning. But the play itself is a potboiler tear-jerker about a boy and his horse. When the Stephen Spielberg movie came out, some people wondered whether the story would work without the puppets. Well, Peter and the Starcatcher has people wondering something very similar as Disney, which owns the property, has recently announced a movie version. Will the story work without the stagecraft? To be fair, Rick Elice's script for Starcatcher seems a lot smarter, or at least a lot more smart-ass, than the one for War Horse. But the main attractions for the show are the fresh and energetic cast members, ably led by Christian Borle, Adam Chanler-Berat, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, as well as the ingenious staging from co-directors Alex Timbers and Roger Rees. It's easy to see the hand of both Timbers and Rees on the production. Timbers directed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and there's a very similar self-conscious theatricality to Peter and the Starcatcher. And Rees appears to have remembered much of his experience as the lead in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, as he brings a very similar theatrical resourcefulness to his work here. For instance, much of the staging here comes from the deft manipulation of a series of ropes, leaving the rest to the audience's imagination. So, don't wait for the film. What makes Starcatcher worth seeing is all about what's on-stage.
A play about the last days of Judy Garland? I ask you, as a self-respecting gay man of a certain age, how could I not see End of the Rainbow? I was genuinely hesitant, however. Having dutifully read "Get Happy" and other books about Judy's tortured life and career, I knew that Judy's last days were anything but pretty. But I had heard so many wonderful things about Tracie Bennett as Judy that I figured it was worth a shot. Well, Bennett indeed lives up to the hype. Her portrayal of Judy is uncanny: layered, complex, sympathetic, infuriating. It's really a remarkable achievement that crosses over from mere mimicry into embodiment. But then there's the play itself, by one Peter Quilter, which really has no merit beyond providing Bennett with a vehicle for her bravura performance. It's a shame, because there's so much dramatic possibility inherent in the story: Judy is holed up in an upscale London hotel -- with her soon-to-be husband number five, Mickey Deans -- for a series of comeback concerts. She's a nervous wreck, and she can't seem to shake her dependency on drugs and alcohol. But Quilter does little more than set up the scenario, introduce the characters, and give them superficial things to say. So, if you go, go for the performance, not to be challenged or enlightened.