Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 4, $60-$149
Amid all the splashy musicals, wacky comedies, and star-driven vehicles currently on Broadway, the British import The Children stands apart, a breath of fresh air in this winter season. Well, maybe that’s not the best way to classify this fiercely taut drama, which takes place shortly after a devastating nuclear accident on the East Coast of Britain. The fictional event appears to have even rattled the stage at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, which is severely tilted, creating a bit of an uphill or downhill climb when the characters move to the right or left. The play opens as Rose (Francesca Annis) pays a surprise afternoon visit to her old friend and colleague, Hazel (Deborah Findlay), who is living with her husband, Robin (Ron Cook), in a small cottage just outside the contaminated exclusion zone. “We heard you’d died!” Hazel announces; it’s been thirty-eight years since the two women, both nuclear engineers, last saw each other. While Hazel has settled into the domestic life of a retiree, with four children and four grandchildren, Rose has been gallivanting around the world, never settling down or getting married. When Rose asks Hazel why they haven’t moved farther away from the radiation, Hazel responds, “It’s just that little bit extra but it makes a world of difference to our peace of mind. . . . I would’ve felt like a traitor. Besides, retired people are like nuclear power stations. We like to live by the sea.” They are soon joined by Robin, who goes to their old farm every day, tending to the cows, even though it’s in the exclusion area. Where Hazel is very direct and to the point, Robin is more rambunctious and freewheeling, cracking jokes, asking Rose for a squeeze, and offering her some of his homemade wine. But when Rose reveals the reason she has returned — and secrets emerge — the trio has to reexamine their purpose in life and their future.
Originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre, The Children is brilliantly written by Olivier Award winner Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, Mosquitoes), who has created three complex characters who are genuine and unpredictable. The play takes a hard look at ageing and death, examining the responsibility the old have to the young. “How can anybody consciously moving towards death, I mean by their own design, possibly be happy? People of our age have to resist — you have to resist, Rose,” Hazel says. “If you’re not going to grow: don’t live.” It is also about blood, both literally and figuratively. When Rose first enters the house, a shocked Hazel turns defensively and hits Rose, giving her a bloody nose. One of Hazel and Robin’s children suffers from mental illness, thinking she is a bloodsucking vampire. And, of course, radiation poisons the blood. James Macdonald, who has directed numerous works by Caryl Churchill (Escaped Alone, Top Girls) and Sarah Kane (4.48 Psychosis, Blasted), among others, keeps things balanced even as the actors have to deal with Miriam Buether’s angled set, which is framed as if a tilted picture on a wall come to life. Olivier nominee Annis (Cranford, Troilus and Cressida), Olivier winner Findlay (Stanley, Coriolanus), and Olivier nominee Cook (Juno and the Paycock, Faith Healer) reprise their roles from the London production, all three delivering warm, heartfelt performances, with a special nod to Cook for having to ride a tricycle uphill despite a bad back. And Max Pappenheim’s sound design stands out as well, from a Geiger counter to church bells. Despite its title, The Children is the most adult show in New York City right now, a marvelously resonant, intelligent, and engaging play that continually defies expectations as the plot twists and turns while something threatening hangs just past the horizon.
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through March 25, $32 - $159
Over the last few years, British actor Mark Rylance has built up such an impressive resume that he now has a separate Wikipedia page just for all of his nominations and awards, which include an Oscar for Bridge of Spies, an Emmy nod for Wolf Hall, eight Olivier nominations and two wins, and four Tony nominations and three trophies (for Boeing-Boeing, Jerusalem, and Twelfth Night). He is now back on Broadway in Farinelli and the King, a showcase piece written for him by his wife, first-time playwright Claire van Kampen. Also a composer, Van Kampen made her directorial debut last year with Nice Fish, which was written by and starred her husband. Rylance was nominated for an Olivier for his performance in Farinelli as King Philippe V, the grandson of French king Louis XIV who became the Spanish monarch in 1700. The play, originally presented at Shakespeare’s Globe, is staged like the Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, with some of the audience seated onstage, actors getting into costume onstage and wandering into the audience, candelabras hanging from the ceiling with real candles supplying the majority of the lighting (designed by Paul Russell), and a live band playing baroque instruments in the balcony of designer Jonathan Fensom’s lush set.
The show, inspired by the real story of the Spanish king and a famous castrato, takes place in 1737, when Philippe’s unhinged behavior leads his doctor, José Cervi (Huss Garbiya), and chief minister, Don Sebastian De la Cuadra (Edward Peel), to believe he has gone mad and should abdicate the throne. However, Phillippe’s second wife, Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove), is not ready for him to give up the crown. In the opening scene, Philippe is in his pajamas and goofy evening cap, in bed and fishing in a goldfish bowl. “I know I am dreaming and they do not,” he says to the fish, named Diego. “Who would fish out of a goldfish bowl except in a dream! If I were mad, as they think I am, I would be fishing at noon when the sun’s the very devil,” he adds, the first of many references to the sun, moon, and stars. Later, the king, who knows more than he is letting on, gathers together several clocks indicating different times and tells La Cuadra, “You see how time lies? . . . What have you and these clocks got in common? . . . They’re showing me different faces, and I can’t tell which one is true.” When Isabella goes to London and hears the Italian castrato Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane and sung by countertenors Iestyn Davies or James Hall), she brings him back to the Spanish court in the hopes that his magical voice will lessen the king’s ills — which is exactly what happens, angering De la Cuarda. “To hear the king laugh!” Isabella declares. “I had forgotten the sound. How can a human voice change a man’s life?”
Indeed, laughter abounds in the first act, primarily when director John Dove, who has previously collaborated with Rylance and van Kampen on several Shakespeare productions at the Globe, lets Rylance cut loose, muttering under his breath, walking on top of his bed, upping the slapstick, and seemingly ad-libbing at times as some of his fellow actors attempt to hold back giggles. The show’s primary conceit is sensational; whenever Farinelli is going to sing, Crane and the Grammy-winning Davies, whom I saw in the role, both appear onstage; Crane speaks the dialogue, and Davies does the singing, which is simply marvelous. Among the eight arias (seven by Handel, one by Porpora) that lift the spirit at the Belasco Theatre even as the play itself drags are “Se in fiorito” from Giulio Cesare and “Bel contento” from Flavio. But the second act is immediately confounding as the setting moves to the middle of the forest, where the king wants to live, and the cast suddenly recognizes the audience, believing us to be local townspeople there to watch a performance. “Who are they, Isabella?” Philippe asks. “I don’t know,” she replies. “This is turning public. Call it off,” La Cuadra demands, and he’s not wrong. The play doesn’t seem to know how to proceed, leaving the audience confused and itching for the much-swifter pace of the first act. “What are they doing, packed together like that? What do they expect?” Philippe asks Isabella, who answers, “A story. They’ve come for the story.” Philippe concludes, “Well, haven’t we all!” We did come for a story, but not such a convoluted one, which despite being based on fact ends up feeling unconvincing.
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 21, $59 - $169
Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower is one of the funniest disappointing plays I’ve ever seen. The eighty-minute trifle is like an insane, extremely sexual Carol Burnett sketch told multiple times from different points of view, growing more and more absurdist and ridiculous with each iteration. Yet even as the setups get more and more annoying and unbelievable, I couldn’t stop laughing, primarily at Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos as Corky and Norm, a cutesy, quirky married couple who have invited over Santa Barbarians — er, Santa Barbarans — Laura (Laura Benanti) and Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key) to get an unobstructed, clear view of the Perseid meteor shower. It’s August 1993, and Corky and Norm live in a fashionable, daintily outfitted beach house in Ojai, California. (The rotating suburban set is by Tony winner Beowulf Boritt.) Laura and Gerald are a rather odd pair; she is a seductress who flaunts what she’s got, while he is a loudmouthed know-it-all prone to bold, questionable proclamations. “The brightness of the sun overwhelms the dimness of the meteor. Like the way some personalities overwhelm the lesser lights,” he bloviates, less-than-subtly referring to the dominance he and Laura lord over Corky and Norm. “I flew in a plane once to follow a solar eclipse,” Gerald boasts, to which Corky notes, “That must have been beautiful.” Gerald responds, “Beautiful? Powerful. To block out the sun? To be a man and block out the sun longer than nature intended? I defeated the sun. I thought, ‘I’m something to contend with.’” Gerald does indeed prove to be something to contend with as slightly altered variations of the same scene — Corky and Norm prepare, Laura and Gerald arrive, the four of them engage in strange conversation, then they get ready to see the meteor shower — repeat over and over again, as displays of social and sexual supremacy go haywire. There’s talk of eggplant, mountain bugs, fashion, the Coopers, infidelity, obesity, cannibalism, breaking hugs, and other random topics that loop in from way out in left field, for better or worse.
Meteor Shower is an idea that has been percolating inside Martin’s (Bright Star, Picasso at the Lapin Agile) head since the mid-1990s, but it still feels only half-brewed. In her Broadway debut, Schumer (Trainwreck, Inside Amy Schumer) reveals a sweet vulnerability and a charming confidence in how she uses her body, from holding hands to making a drink to sitting on the couch. Tony nominee Shamos (Clybourne Park, If I Forget), one of Broadway’s most dependable actors, has a field day as the somewhat repressive Norm, adeptly moving from straight man to funnyman; he joined the cast just three weeks before previews began, replacing Alan Tudyk, who left over creative differences. Tony winner Benanti (Into the Woods, Gypsy) is a little too comfortable as Laura, though she’s not afraid to try anything for a laugh, but Key (Key and Peele, Don’t Think Twice) is way too over-the-top as the blustery Gerald, almost as if he’s acting in another play. (The original cast at San Diego’s Old Globe in the summer of 2016 featured Jenna Fischer as Corky, Greg Germann as Norm, Alex Henrikson as Laura, and Josh Stamberg as Gerald; that version clocked in at 105 minutes, so there have been significant cuts since then.) Legendary director Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Six Degrees of Separation) can’t quite bring it all together in any kind of cohesive form; the story goes all over the place, especially after a meteor plunges to Earth. There’s no stopping the fireball barrage of very funny jokes, both erudite and lowbrow, from Mr. Martin, but Meteor Shower ends up being all punch line, no setup, fizzling out as a Broadway production.
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through January 7, $87-$147
Just because I graduated from Wharton in the 1980s doesn’t mean I understand every intricacy in Ayad Akhtar’s complexly layered Junk, his sizzling-hot excoriation of greed and hostile takeovers, set in 1985. But Akhtar makes the key elements easy to follow, even for me, as a group of men fight it out for control of an Allegheny steel mill — but the last thing on their mind is actually steel, because in this world, it’s money that matters. Akhtar — who won the Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced, a sharp play about race, assimilation, ambition, and bigotry, and whose 2014 drama, The Invisible Hand, put capitalism and religion on trial in Pakistan — refers to Junk as “a ritual enactment of an origin myth,” in this case that of debt financing at the expense of American manufacturing. “When did money become the thing — the only thing?” journalist Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim) asks at the beginning. “It was like a new religion was being born.” It might not sound like a sexy topic, but it’s a scorcher in the hands of Tony-winning director Doug Hughes (The Father, Incognito), who orchestrates all the back-room dealings on John Lee Beatty’s dazzling multilevel set, strikingly lit by Ben Stanton. Sacker-Lowell junk bond trader Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) is the mastermind behind a hostile takeover of Everson Steel and United, a family-owned business on the Dow. Merkin, who believes that “debt is an asset,” and Sacker-Lowell lawyer Raül Rivera (Matthew Saldivar), who claims that “nothing makes money like money,” are working with corporate raider Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch) to gain control of Everson Steel, owned by Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes), who desperately wants to hold on to the Allegheny-based firm founded by his father. Merkin turns to his wife, numbers whiz Amy (Miriam Silverman), for advice while luring in arbitrageur Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick) and investor Murray Lefkowitz (Ethan Phillips) to raise the necessary funds and manipulate the market. When old-time private equity magnate Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry) gets wind of Merkin’s plan, he decides to throw his hat in the ring as well. Meanwhile, US attorney Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine) and assistant US attorney Kevin Walsh (Philip James Brannon) are operating behind the scenes, building a case against Merkin and others.
When Akhtar moved to New York City shortly after graduating from Brown, his father offered to pay his rent if he read the Wall Street Journal every day. He immersed himself in newspapers and magazines about business and came to believe that the players in this world were “not moral or immoral but amoral,” he tells co-executive editor John Guare in Lincoln Center Theater Review. In many ways Junk is like a Shakespearean history play about war, complete with lies, betrayal, spies, sex, and blood, where words and actions can be twisted to mean something else. Of course, Akhtar is not exactly the first person to write about how money became a kind of religion, with profit more important than product and people, humanity be damned, but he does so with a graceful style that turns clichés inside out while choosing no real heroes or villains. No one is safe from his skewer, but each man and woman gets to state his or her case free from editorial judgment. That doesn’t mean everyone is equal, that the audience can’t separate good from evil, or that viewers can’t feel sympathy for some characters and disdain for others. Akhtar reveals a socioeconomic level many of us will never be a part of, and most likely wouldn’t want to — although more than a few in the well-heeled Lincoln Center audience at the show we attended rustled uncomfortably in their seats. Talking about Merkin, Tresler tells Chen, “He’s a pawnbroker. And he’s got America in hock,” to which she replies, “Or he’s the new J. P. Morgan.” In many ways Akhtar has created an extremely extended dysfunctional family, with surrogate children, cousins, parents, and grandparents fighting over money, power, and values. “I don’t want to make you mad,” Lefkowitz tells Merkin, as if he doesn’t want to disappoint Daddy. Featuring a strong cast of twenty-three led by fine turns by Pasquale (The Bridges of Madison County, Rescue Me), Siberry (An Enemy of the People, Six Degrees of Separation), Phillips (My Favorite Year, Benson), Slotnick (Dying for It, Boston Public), and Holmes (The Visit, Matilda), Junk might be set thirty-two years ago, but it’s not out-of-date in the least, as income inequality grows around the world, President Trump has just signed a controversial overhaul of the US tax system, and cryptocurrency complicates the market and confuses the masses.
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 11, $59.50 - $260
Oscar and Emmy nominee Uma Thurman makes her Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman by Beau Willimon, the creator of the American version of House of Cards. The ninety-minute play, set in contemporary Washington, DC, could be an alternate episode of the popular Netflix hit. Thurman is Chloe, the socialite wife of tax lawyer Tom (Josh Lucas), who is being considered for a federal judgeship. Unsurprisingly, sex, lies, and power will determine whether he succeeds or not. Chloe is having an affair with the obsessively jealous Peter Lafont (Marton Csokas), a wealthy banker who just might have the ear of President Trump. When Chloe and Tom are invited to a party at the home of high-powered Republican Jeannette Simpson (Tony winner Blair Brown), Chloe sees it as an opportunity to manipulate Jeannette, who has been nominated to become the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, in order to find out Tom’s chances. At the party, Chloe also speaks with Bob and Jeannette’s daughter, rising political star — and liberal Democrat — Rebecca (Tony nominee Phillipa Soo). Bedroom intrigue and political maneuverings lead to a surprising conclusion that would probably make House of Cards’ Frank and Claire Underwood proud.
Running through March 11 at the Hudson Theatre, The Parisian Woman, which was inspired by Henri Becque’s scandalous 1885 play, La Parisienne, is slight though enjoyable, but it seldom achieves the intimacy it strives for. Thurman (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction), who was last onstage in Classic Stage’s 1999 revival of Molière’s The Misanthrope, is elegant but too languid — she may look great in Jane Greenwood’s fab costumes, but her character is so vapid it is difficult to understand why everyone is in love with her. Csokas (The Lord of the Rings, LovingHamilton, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) underwhelming, while Lucas (Corpus Christi, The Glass Menagerie) is plenty smarmy, but it’s Brown (Arcadia, Copenhagen) who saves the day with a stellar performance as Jeannette, the most fascinating and likable character in the play, which shines whenever she is onstage. Tony winner Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) directs with a sure hand on Derek McLane’s stylish sets, but the play suffers from Willimon’s repeated references to Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, making it feel more like liberal propaganda at times; in fact, Willimon (Farragut North, Lower Ninth), who worked on campaigns for Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean, has significantly revised the play several times since its 2013 premiere at South Coast Repertory, where the cast included Dana Delany and Steven Weber. The Parisian Woman is not without its merits, but it ends up being akin to a good episode of House of Cards, which will not be enough for more discerning theatergoers.
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Run ended November 26
“A novel or a play cannot really be about Time. (And I ask the reader to remember that I am a man who is widely credited with having written ‘Time plays,” although I never made any such claim myself),” British playwright J. B. Priestley wrote. “Time is a concept, a certain condition of experience, a mode of perception, and so forth; and a novel or a play, to be worth calling one, cannot really be about Time but only about people and things that appear to be in Time.” Among Priestley’s Time plays are An Inspector Calls, I Have Been Here Before, and Time and the Conways, which was just revived by the Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway. As the title implies, Time is like a character unto itself in the show, which begins in 1919, shortly after the end of WWI. The Conways, led by their widowed matriarch (Elizabeth McGovern), are celebrating the twenty-first birthday of Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), an aspiring novelist. The family is immersed in a game of Charades, which is going on in another, unseen room. Among those participating are Kay’s sisters, Hazel (Anna Camp), Madge (Brooke Bloom), and Carol (Anna Baryshnikov); their brothers, dullard Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and the swashbuckling Robin (Matthew James Thomas); and family friend Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts). They are soon joined by their solicitor, Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narciso), and his odd pal, a businessman named Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), who has a creepy liking for Hazel. (“Ugh. I’d just as soon marry a — a ferret,” Hazel tells Joan.) The word they are trying to convey to their guests is “pussyfoot,” which, appropriately enough, means to evade commitment, emblematic of how the Conways avoid facing reality. “Just when everything is very jolly and exciting, I suddenly think of something awfully serious, sometimes horrible — like Dad drowning — or that little mad boy I once saw with the huge head — or that old man who walks in the Park with that great lump growing out of his face,” Carol says, to which Hazel responds, covering her ears, “I’m not listening. I’m not listening.” Mrs. Conway essentially covers her ears when Beevers advises that she accept a generous offer for her house, but the family will have none of it.
When Mrs. Conway says, “I’m not used to happiness,” she’s not kidding, but she’s also not about to do much to change things and face reality. The play then shifts to 1937, as the Conways all have to deal with the decisions they’ve made, most of which have not been for the better. The stern Madge, explaining that she has come to the house just because she was in the neighborhood, tells Kay, “I’ve no further interest in these family muddles, financial or otherwise.” When Gerald is about to deliver some bad news, Kay complains, “When you turn on that legal manner, I can’t take you seriously — I feel you’re still acting in one of our old charades.” But it’s the Conways who can’t come to terms with what his happening. The third act returns to 1919, picking up just where act one left off, cleverly filling in some holes to explain how things got to where they were eighteen years later. Time and the Conways, which is rarely revived and has been made into a film twice, a 1984 Russian drama and a BBC version starring Claire Bloom, is reminiscent of the Roundabout’s 2013 expert production of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, which also ran at the American Airlines Theatre and dealt with a family facing a dilemma. Priestley’s play also evokes elements of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the Conways face an uncertain future they’d rather not think about. The ten-person cast is superb, with precise, confident direction by rising star Rebecca Taichman (Indecent, Familiar) on Neil Patel’s engaging drawing-room set. Frank Ventura is credited with etiquette and period movement, which is appropriately proper. “Some novelists and dramatists may be unusually aware of Time, but they have to write about something else,” Priestley explained. In Time and the Conways, he has done just that in telling the fateful story of a dysfunctional family that refuses to look in the mirror.