Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 24, $79-$169
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Broadway debut, Choir Boy, offers a new twist on a classic dramatic trope: life at an all-male boarding school. But Charles R. Drew Prep School is not quite like the schools depicted in such well-regarded films as Rushmore, Dead Poets Society, Tom Brown’s School Days, Heaven Help Us, or If… The students and the teachers at Drew are all men of color. “My daddy say they used to let you get away with a lil bit because they know how hard it is to be a black man out there,” student Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson) tells fellow student David Heard (Caleb Eberhardt). “Now, everything got to be watched, gotta be careful, gotta be cordial. Don’t say nothing, don’t say that word, don’t look like that, this shit Pandemic.” Bobby, whose uncle is Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), is one of several young men in the school’s prestigious choir, along with Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), Junior Davis (Nicholas L. Ashe), Anthony Justin “AJ” James (John Clay III), and David. The show opens with Pharus singing the school song, a much-coveted opportunity, but he takes an unfortunate pause when he is secretly harassed by Bobby, who questions Pharus’s sexual orientation. Afterward, in explaining why he stopped but without snitching on Bobby, Pharus asks the headmaster, “Would you rather be feared or respected?” which becomes an underlying theme of the play as the boys deal with issues of race, gender, homophobia, family, class, and education.
The play suffers dramatically upon the arrival of Mr. Pendleton, a former teacher at the school who has been brought back by the headmaster for inexplicable reasons, unless it is merely to force racial conflict, as Pendleton is white and, oddly, played by the ubiquitous Austin Pendleton, blurring the line between theater and real life in an obtrusive way. The scenes with Mr. Pendleton, who uses racist cracks to supposedly educate the kids, bring the show to a screeching halt and are best forgotten as the story proceeds. Fortunately, there is much to enjoy in the rest of the Manhattan Theater Club production, which has been extended at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 24.
Pope (Ain’t Too Proud, Invisible Thread) makes a dazzling Broadway debut as Pharus, a proud, flawed, young gay man who refuses to muzzle himself while often disregarding the feelings of others; it’s an electrifying performance of a role given complex subtleties by McCraney, who cowrote the Oscar-winning Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. The supporting cast portraying the other teens are terrific as well, including Clay III (Encores’ Grand Hotel) as AJ, Pharus’s roommate, who is sensitive to his friend’s situation; Johnson (Hamilton) as the troubled Bobby, who is dealing with his mother’s death; Eberhardt (Is God Is) as David, who is hiding his own secrets; and Ashe (Kill Floor) as Junior, a follower who makes questionable decisions. They might have their share of disagreements, but when they sing such spirituals as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “Rockin in Jerusalem” they show just what they can accomplish together. (Alas, “There’s a Rainbow ’round My Shoulder” feels a bit too obvious and heavy-handed.) Tony winner Cooper (The Life) is splendidly august as the headmaster, who only gets involved when truly necessary, understanding that the students grow when they figure things out for themselves, even if that’s sometimes painful. Thoughtfully directed by Trip Cullman (Lobby Hero, Six Degrees of Separation), Choir Boy is ultimately about tolerance, about the basic human dignity everyone deserves, while for the most part steering clear of grand statements and politically correct sentimentality.
BROADWAY WEEK: 2-for-1 Tickets
January 21 - February 10, buy one ticket, get one free
Tickets are on sale for the winter edition of Broadway Week, which runs January 21 to February 10 and offers theater lovers a chance to get two-for-one tickets in advance to see new and long-running productions on the Great White Way. Two dozen shows are participating, but two are already sold out — Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away — so you need to act fast. You can still grab seats, however, for Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Anastasia, The Band’s Visit, The Book of Mormon, The Cher Show, Chicago, Choir Boy, The Ferryman, Frozen, King Kong, Kinky Boots, The Lion King, Mean Girls, My Fair Lady, The Phantom of the Opera, Pretty Woman, The Prom, True West, Waitress, The Waverly Gallery, and Wicked. You can also get $20 upgrades for better seats.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 7, $79 - $209
Winner of three Olivier Awards for Best New Play, Best Director (Sam Mendes), and Best Actress (Laura Donnelly), British import The Ferryman is a staggering achievement, everything a Broadway play should be and more. Jez Butterworth, whose three-hour Jerusalem dazzled audiences in 2011 and earned Mark Rylance a Tony, followed in 2014 by the underwhelming eighty-five-minute The River, returns to the Great White Way with a searing 215-minute tale set during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late summer of 1981, while Irish Republican political prisoners are on a five-month hunger strike that has divided Great Britain. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) and his extended family are living on a farm in rural County Armagh — including his always ailing wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly); their children, J.J. (Niall Wright), Michael (Fra Fee), Shena (Carla Langley), Nunu (Brooklyn Shuck), Mercy (Willow McCarthy), Honor (Matilda Lawler), and a nine-month-old son; Quinn’s elderly Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert) and wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan); fierce IRA supporter Aunt Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy); and Quinn’s sister-in-law, Caitlin (Donnelly), and her son, Oisin (Rob Malone).
They are all preparing for the harvest feast, with the help of their trusted farmworker, Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards), an addled, simple Englishman, and teenage cousins Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney), Diarmaid (Conor MacNeill), and Declan Corcoran (Michael McArthur), who know how to have a good time. Quinn has been trying to escape his IRA past, but it all comes hurtling back when the body of his brother, Seamus, Caitlin’s husband, is found in a bog and IRA strongman Frank Magennis (Dean Ashton) and leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham) show up unexpectedly at the house to send a very specific message. Caught in the middle is Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), who wants to do the right thing but is threatened by Magennis and Muldoon as well.
Tony winner Mendes (American Beauty, Cabaret) superbly navigates the play’s many complexities, making three hours and fifteen minutes virtually float by. Rob Howell’s crowded, busy set (he also designed the costumes), a kind of purgatory where various sins are revealed, is able to contain the large cast as the characters sing, dance, argue, cook, tell stories, love, and fight. Numerous cast changes have been made since it first opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in October (and where it has been extended through July 7), but The Ferryman is an ensemble piece, not dependent on any individual performances, although a baby and a goose stand out. That said, it is a treat to see English actor Considine, who has starred in such films as Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, and Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, make his stage debut as Quinn, a proud man who just wants to go on with his family life but is pulled back into his past. “Let’s just stay like this. Let me just dream for a moment. Imagine what it feels like to have won. I just want to stay like this,” he tells Caitlin early on, before news of Seamus’s fate reaches them. Butterworth, who has cowritten screenplays for such films as Fair Game, Black Mass, and Spectre, was inspired to write The Ferryman by the true story of the murder of Donnelly’s uncle Eugene, who disappeared in 1981 and whose body was discovered three years later. Butterworth wrote the part of Caitlin specifically for Donnelly (Outlander, The River), his partner, who was pregnant during the initial London run. Donnelly gave birth to a daughter, while Butterworth delivered what is currently the best play on Broadway.
Neil Simon Theater
250 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday through June 9, $59-$229
Stephanie J. Block will blow your mind as Cher in the new Broadway musical The Cher Show, capturing the very essence of the diva in looks, attitude, and voice. Bob Mackie’s over-the-top costumes are appropriately dazzling, eliciting oohs and ahs from the audience. And Ashley Blair Fitzgerald brings down the house in a scintillating modern dance performance of “Dark Lady.” Unfortunately, everything else about this biographical tale is misguided and disappointing, beginning with its central device: The glittering icon is played by three actresses who talk to one another about their career(s): Micaela Diamond as Babe, the young Cher; Teal Wicks as Lady, the middle-years Cher; and Block as Star, the more current Cher. It’s a conceit that never works, and not only because it’s hard to believe they are all the same person but because it’s at the heart of a production that can’t stop interrupting itself. Born Cherilynn Sarkisian in California in 1946, Cher was determined to be a success from an early age. “I know what I’m going to do! I’m going to sing! I’m going to sing and act and be famous like in the movies!!” six-year-old Babe declares. After Cher complains that the other kids laugh at her at school for being different, her mother, Georgia Holt (Tony nominee Emily Skinner), tells her, “Now you listen to me, young lady. You may not be the prettiest, or the smartest, or the most talented. But you’re special, and one day the whole world will know it! You’re going to grow up to be somebody.” With that deep insight out of the way, the tale proceeds.
Jukebox musicals are supposed to celebrate the songs, but book writer Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, The Addams Family) and director Jason Moore (Shrek, Avenue Q) continually stop the action in the middle of tunes to add bits of narrative and jokes. Moore and Elice — the latter was handpicked by Cher, who was intimately involved with the show’s development — include only snippets of some of the biggest songs; very few numbers are performed in their entirety, which, combined with the other two Chers often intervening with the one onstage at any given moment, results in an extremely choppy and annoying pace. They also leave out large chunks of important detail as Cher and first husband Sonny Bono (Tony nominee Jarrod Spector) start with nothing, take over London, host a big-time television variety program in Hollywood, have a kid, break up, reconnect, etc. We also get to see her longtime costume designer, Mackie (Tony nominee Michael Berresse); her second husband, musician Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik); her younger boyfriend Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno); music impresario Phil Spector (Michael Fatica); and others who played parts in her life, but it’s all very superficial.
When Star auditions for Robert Altman (Berresse) for her professional stage debut, not only does the audience never hear the name of the show (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) but they also never learn what ultimately happened, that she was in both the off-Broadway play and the film. Meanwhile, Christine Jones’s and Brett J. Banakis’s sets, Darrel Maloney’s projections, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography are surprisingly bland and unimaginative, save for the “Dark Lady” scene, which also includes a strange face-off between Bono and Allman.
Oddly, the songs are not listed in the Playbill, which is unusual for a musical, but the hits all make an appearance, though usually not in full: “Half-Breed,” “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” “I Got You Babe,” “Bang Bang,” “Strong Enough,” and “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which is the theme of the show. The musical also focuses on Cher’s impressive determination to pick herself up when things are down, which has occurred throughout her life and career, although the critical moments aren’t depicted onstage. Block (Falsettos, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) is an absolute knockout, nearly enough to make The Cher Show worth your time and money. If you really need to see the genuine diva herself, perhaps you’re better off checking out her 2019 Here We Go Again tour, which comes to the Barclays Center on May 2 and the Pru on May 3. Because on Broadway, the beat just doesn’t go on.
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 27, $59 - $169
Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son is a blistering, explosive play, a searing deep dive into systemic and institutionalized racism in contemporary America. The story takes place in real time in a Miami police station as a storm rages, torrents of water pouring down outside tall glass windows, mixing with ever-threatening thunder and lightning reminiscent of a horror movie. (The set is by Tony-winning design master Derek McLane, with sound by Peter Fitzgerald and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski.) It’s 4:12 in the morning, and Kendra Ellis-Connor is desperate to locate her eighteen-year-old son, Jamal, a solid kid who has not come home and is not answering his phone. She is frustrated with police officer Paul Larkin, who insists that Kendra wait until the public affairs liaison officer arrives for his shift at 8:00 to find out anything. Kendra’s estranged husband, Scott Connor, shows up and tries to force further information out of Larkin regarding Jamal’s whereabouts, but he is only mildly successful. Ultimately, the liaison officer, Lt. John Stokes, comes in early, but things don’t get any easier for Kendra and Scott, who are getting angrier by the minute, but not just at the cops.
Color-blind casting might (deservedly) be all the rage on Broadway, but the color of each character’s skin is critical to the narrative in American Son as Demos-Brown and director Kenny Leon investigate ripped-from-the-headlines issues of identity, societal perceptions, stereotyping, racial profiling, ingrained prejudice, and cultural biases. Kendra (Kerry Washington) is a black psychology professor who says, “I don’t know I’ve had a sleep-filled night since that boy was born,” constantly fearful that something bad will happen to Jamal because of his race. Scott (Steven Pasquale) is a white FBI agent who wants his son to follow him into law enforcement, putting him on a path to attend West Point, but, not being black, Scott doesn’t share the same worries as Kendra, hoping, “This is just some frivolous nonsense. He probably just had his music cranked up too loud.” Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) is white and has not been properly trained to handle this kind of incendiary situation, assuming that a black teenager out for the night must be part of a posse looking for trouble. “I completely understand your concern,” Larkin tells Kendra, who responds, “Respectfully, Officer — I don’t think you do.” Larkin adds, “Ma’am — I have kids too, OK?” “Any of ’em black?” Kendra says. And Stokes (Eugene Lee) is black, a seasoned officer who is not so quick to see things from Kendra’s or Scott’s points of view; “Settle down now. Settle down,” Stokes declares, but instead of calming the situation, he, well, continues to stoke the fire.
A white civil trial attorney from South Florida whose previous plays (Fear Up Harsh, Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts) have dealt with sociopolitical subjects involving different kinds of justice, Demos-Brown was inspired to write American Son — his Broadway debut — by real-life events and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me, a letter the author pens for his adolescent son about what it’s like to grow up black in the United States. In fact, the script includes an epigraph from the book: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” Black Tony-winning director Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Stick Fly), a protégé of August Wilson’s, maintains a sizzling-hot pace, but he and Demos-Brown don’t take sides; all four characters are both guilty and innocent, and yet none of them are as well. The problem is bigger than just four people, each of whom gets to share their perspective. The audience, more racially diverse than at most Broadway shows, is also implicated, each person bringing his or her own personal history and biases with them; be prepared to hear laughs or gasps at certain times when you’re not reacting the same way as those sitting around you, the differences very much representative of the race of the audience member.
All four actors give dynamic, honest performances, led by Washington (Race, Scandal), a mother of two small children, a boy and a girl; at a postshow discussion the night I went, Washington talked about the fears black mothers have for their sons, something that brought even more intensity to her performance. (The play, which continues at the Booth through January 27 and boasts such producers as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jada Pinkett Smith, Shonda Rimes, Dwyane Wade, and Gabrielle Union-Wade, comes with a discussion guide from the Opportunity Agenda that addresses the concept of equal justice under the law, police-community relations, and racially motivated violence.) Pasquale (Junk, Rescue Me) finds just the right balance as Scott, who doesn’t get a pass just because he’s a white man who married a black woman and has a biracial teen. American Son wisely avoids clichés and melodrama, although there is some emotional manipulation, but it’s easy to look past that and immerse yourself in the onstage dilemma — and wonder what you would do if you were any of the four characters, or the most important missing fifth one, Jamal himself.
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through March 17, $49 - $399
When it was released in 1976, Sidney Lumet’s Network instantly shocked audiences as it unmasked the approaching intersection of the corporatization of entertainment and news in the media, featuring a brilliant, prescient script by Bronx native Paddy Chayefsky that skewered the television industry and Americans’ obsession with “the tube.” It revealed a world dominated by ratings-hungry white men in suits, with two exceptional white female characters boldly asserting their own personal and professional power and independence at the height of the women’s liberation movement. Four decades later, the story is as relevant and shocking as ever in Ivo van Hove’s riveting yet dizzying stage production, which opened last night at the Belasco.
The film was nominated for ten Oscars, winning acting awards for the late Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight and Best Original Screenplay for Chayefsky, who wrote such other gems as Marty, The Hospital, The Americanization of Emily, and Altered States before passing away in 1981 at the age of fifty-eight. Despite Bryan Cranston’s mesmerizing lead performance and all of van Hove’s live-streaming technical wizardry — which can be breathtaking and exhilarating as well as overwhelming, distracting, anachronistic, and confusing — it’s Chayefsky’s words that steal the show, adapted here by Lee Hall like they are gospel, which in many ways they are. In the published version of the play, which debuted at London’s National Theatre in November 2017, Hall describes his adaptation as “keyhole surgery,” writing, “Hopefully my interventions are invisible to the untrained eye.” The only significant changes involve the treatment of terrorists by the media, which Hall and van Hove tone down here, and the addition of a coda following the climactic finale. (Hall was given access to Chayefsky’s archives, so he has noted that any and all changes were based on or inspired by the author’s notes, letters, drafts, etc.)
Olivier, Emmy, and Tony winner Cranston (Breaking Bad, All the Way) takes on the iconic role of Howard Beale, portrayed so memorably by Finch in the film. Cranston immerses himself in the role with a careful abandon; he pays tribute to Finch while making the part his own, much as Hall and van Hove treat the movie. After twenty-five years with Union Broadcasting Systems, Beale is being put out to pasture because of low ratings. But he surprises everyone when he announces during a broadcast that he is going to commit suicide live on television the next week. His best friend and longtime colleague, news division president Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), puts him back on the air quickly so he can apologize and restore his dignity, but Beale instead calls “bullshit” on the state of the world, sending everyone into a tizzy — except ruthlessly ambitious programming head Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), who jumps on the unique opportunity and soon convinces executive producer Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez), network executive Nelson Chaney (Frank Wood), and network head Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone) to give Beale his own show, making him a kind of angry prophet of the airwaves, speaking for and to the common person. The contemporary of industry legends Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow becomes a ranting and raving populist hero, although Schumacher believes Beale is being turned into a fool, but there’s little he can to do stop the momentum, which eventually falls apart all by itself.
The use of live video, something van Hove has done in such previous productions as The Damned at Park Avenue Armory and Kings of War at BAM, creates an ever-moving swirl of activity, akin to surfing the internet, except the equipment itself is very modern, digital in an analog era that featured big, bulky cameras. (The director did not employ that style in his 2016 Arthur Miller back-to-back Broadway adaptations of A View from the Bridge and The Crucible.) Depending on where you are sitting, the cameras, operated by technicians Gina Daniels, Nicholas Guest, Jeena Yi, and Joe Paulik, may also occasionally block your view. The footage is projected onto a large screen at the back, often turning Beale into a giant, his image repeating into the distance. Period news reports about Patty Hearst and old commercials — with Roy Scheider in a Folgers ad and Cranston himself pitching Preparation H — fly by on a wall of screens on one side, but don’t get too caught up in them or you’ll miss the magnificent dialogue. The set, by van Hove’s partner, Jan Versweyveld, includes a bar and nightclub-like tables and couches at stage left (where audience members who pay $299 to $399 enjoy dinner and drinks curated by former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses while watching the show and even interacting with the characters) and the glassed-in control room at stage right, where various executives, some of the tech crew, and the announcer (Henry Stram) can always be seen, as if everyone is both under surveillance and doing the surveilling.
When Beale implores his television audience to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” van Hove shows numerous people doing only the latter; instead of photographing men and women yelling out their windows, a procession of YouTube-like selfie videos follow, seeming out of time and place. The live video even extends outdoors when Max and Diana go for a stroll, but the scene takes you out of the play as passersby gawk at Goldwyn (Scandal, Ghost) and Emmy winner Maslany (Orphan Black, Mary Page Marlowe), who never quite catch the fire and passion of William Holden and Dunaway in the film, a critical relationship that literally puts the news and entertainment divisions in bed together. Goldwyn is otherwise solidly effective as Beale’s determined protector, and the pivotal showdown between Max and his wife, Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan), hits the right notes; however, Bresnahan looks so much like Dunaway that you can’t help but wonder if she should have played Diana. (Coincidentally, Dunaway just announced she will be returning to Broadway next year, portraying Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five.) In a fine casting touch, Barzin Akhavan plays both Jack Snowden, the young anchor in line to replace Beale, and the warm-up guy for Beale’s circuslike show, a newsman transformed into carnival barker.
But it’s Chayefsky’s sparkling language that reigns supreme all these years later; Beale’s pronouncements ring as true now as they did in 1976. Take this speech, for example: “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do and there’s no end to it. We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat and we sit and watch our teevees while some local newscaster tells us today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything’s going crazy. So we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house and slowly the world we live in gets smaller and all we ask is, please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my teevee and my hair dryer and my steel belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad.” When he mentions Russia, the audience laughs, but Hall isn’t making a cheap joke about current events; the reference is in the film.
In another Beale rant, it’s as if Chayefsky saw the coming of smartphones, the internet, and social media: “Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get on your television. There is a whole and entire generation right now who never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is gospel. This tube is the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, and prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddam force in the whole godless world! And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”
When Jensen makes his remarkably foresighted proclamation to Beale about power, international commerce, and “the primal forces of nature,” devilishly delivered by Wyman (Catch Me If You Can, A Tale of Two Cities), van Hove puts Jensen above everyone else on a heavenly platform, as if he’s a godlike figure who is the only one who understands what is really happening in the world — in 1976 as well as in 2018. Be sure to get to the Belasco early, as the actors are already traversing the stage, preparing for the evening news, as the audience enters the theater, and stay in your seats after the curtain call, as there’s a bonus that brings the visionary satire right up to the present moment, although that point has already frighteningly shone through over and over again.
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 27, $49 - $149
Elaine May gives a career-topping performance as an octogenarian suffering from dementia in the Broadway debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, the sensitive, bittersweet memory play The Waverly Gallery. Running through January 27 at the Golden Theatre — the same venue where May and her longtime comedy partner, Mike Nichols, staged An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in October 1960 — The Waverly Gallery takes place between 1989 and 1991 in a small, inconsequential Greenwich Village art gallery operated by eighty-five-year-old Gladys Green (May) and the Upper West Side apartment where Green’s daughter, Ellen Fine (Joan Allen), lives with her second husband, Howard Fine (David Cromer), and their dog. Ellen’s son, Daniel Reed (Lucas Hedges), often comes over for dinner, along with Gladys. “I want to tell you what happened to my grandmother, Gladys Green, near the end of her life,” Daniel tells the audience early on in the first of a series of direct addresses looking back at the past. “I lived in her building — where I still live — in Greenwich Village, during the last couple of years when she was there. . . . For twenty-eight years she ran a tiny gallery on Waverly Place, around the corner from where we lived. And without being too depressing about it, she didn’t always have the best stuff in there. But some of it was pretty good. . . . It’s not that I didn't like her. I did. It’s just that once you went in there, it was kind of tough getting out again. So I was pretty stingy with the visits.”
One day a somewhat egotistical artist from Massachusetts, Don Bowman (Michael Cera), walks into the gallery, which is connected to a hotel undergoing renovations, with his portfolio, and Gladys decides not only to give him a show but also to let him sleep in the back room, as he claims to have no money. Ellen, who becomes easily exasperated with her mother, and Howard, who practically yells at Gladys when he talks to her, thinking she is deafer than she is, are suspicious of Don’s motives as he insinuates himself into Gladys’s life. But when the hotel owner tells the family that he is taking back the gallery to turn it into a breakfast café, Ellen, Howard, and Daniel have to figure out a way to tell Gladys, whose Alzheimer’s is getting worse.
The play opens with Gladys saying, “I never knew anything was the matter.” Although she was specifically referring to Ellen’s first marriage falling apart, she could just as well be talking about her own life. Her memory lapses, hearing problems, and inability to truly understand what is going on around her are harrowing to watch, yet Lonergan, the writer-director of such award-winning films as You Can Count on Me and Manchester by the Sea and such hit plays as This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero, injects plenty of humor into the strife. “We’re liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals — and we really like German choral music,” Daniel tells Don. A dinner scene in which Ellen and Howard futz with Gladys’s hearing aid has a slapstick touch. And Gladys’s forgetfulness can be charming and funny — until it’s not. The eighty-six-year-old May, a National Medal of Arts winner who wrote, directed, and starred in A New Leaf and worked with the likes of Nichols, Warren Beatty, and Neil Simon in such films as The Birdcage, The Heartbreak Kid, and, yes, Ishtar, imbues Gladys with such honesty and sincerity that it’s heart-wrenching watching her decline.
In her first Broadway show, Drama Desk- and Obie-winning director Lila Neugebauer, who is building an impressive résumé with such works as Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, Annie Baker’s The Antipodes, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, superbly balances the humor and heartbreak, never letting melodrama take over and instead including numerous moments in which the audience feels appropriately uncomfortable going from laughing to tearing up as David Zinn’s sets alternate between New York City apartments to the quaint belowground art gallery. Grammy winner and Oscar nominee May, Tony winner and Emmy and Oscar nominee Allen (Burn This, The Contender), Tony-winning actor and director Cromer (The Band’s Visit, Tribes), Oscar nominee Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Yen), and Tony nominee Cera (Arrested Development, Juno), in his third consecutive Lonergan play on Broadway, form a stellar ensemble, capturing the essence of an extended family facing a tragic situation. (The 1999 original cast featured a widely hailed Eileen Heckart as Gladys, Maureen Anderman as Ellen, Mark Blum as Howard, Josh Hamilton as Daniel, and Anthony Arkin as Don; Anderman is now May’s understudy on Broadway.) “Honey? Do you think the Village has changed much in the last five years?” Gladys asks Daniel, who responds, “Yes! It’s been changing for a lot longer than that!” But what hasn’t changed nearly enough is the brutal impact of Alzheimer’s disease on sufferers and their families, so aptly on display in this perceptive and humane production.