This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

TWI-NY TALK: SCOTT SIEGEL

Barbara and Scott Siegel go out on the town nearly every night

Barbara and Scott Siegel are out on the town nearly every night (photo by Russ Weatherford)

BROADWAY BY THE YEAR
The Town Hall
123 West 43rd St. between Sixth Ave. & Broadway
Sunday, February 23, Monday, March 30, Monday, May 11, and Monday, June 22, 8:00, $47-$57 per show, $180-$220 subscription for all four programs
212-840-2824
www.thetownhall.org
www.siegelpresents.com

In the December 31 edition of “The Siegel Column” for Theater Pizzazz!, the husband-and-wife team of Scott and Barbara Siegel examined the state of the Broadway musical, writing, “The current crop of new musicals — both brand new and new productions of revivals — are tanking left and right. What’s up?” Their theory? “Producers are banking too heavily on good reviews from the New York Times.” The Siegels know what of they speak; for years, they have been regulars on the city’s theater and music scene, covering Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows in addition to cabaret. Both are voting members of the Drama Desk, where Barbara chairs the nominating committee, so she has to see more than three hundred productions every season. Meanwhile, Scott hosts a multitude of music-related events in addition to attending hundreds of shows with his wife as well. “It’s like a rollercoaster going from show to show,” Barbara says, “but the ride is accompanied by a fantastic scoring of Broadway music.”

Scott’s signature event is “Broadway by the Year,” which is about to begin its fifteenth year at Town Hall. Since 2001, Scott has been pairing performers with musical numbers from a particular Broadway season, but for the fifteenth anniversary, he will be honoring quarter-centuries, paying homage to the Broadway musicals of 1916 to 1940 on February 23, followed by 1941 to 1965 on March 30, 1966 to 1990 on May 11, and 1991 to the present on June 22. The February 23 show will feature a host of Tony, Grammy, and Drama Desk winners and nominees, including Tonya Pinkins, Steve Ross, Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, John Easterlin, and Nancy Anderson. While preparing for this and other shows, Scott discussed theater, music, and the many hats he wears.

twi-ny: This year you’re celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of “Broadway by the Year.” Did you ever anticipate that it would be still going strong all this time later?

Scott Siegel: When the series got started, I could never have guessed that it would reach a fifteenth season and that we would be sponsored by Bank of America. Nor would I have guessed that last year we would have changed the format to have over one hundred stars over the course of our season — which we are boldly attempting to do again this year. Getting so many stars willing to commit their time to our shows is almost as great a testament to our staying power as the loyal subscriber base that makes the whole series possible.

twi-ny: How did it initially get started?

SS: That’s a long story. Suffice it to say that I had a concept that Town Hall embraced and they asked me to produce it for them. At that time, I was exclusively a writer/critic. I had not produced anything whatsoever before the very first “Broadway by the Year.” Believe me, having your first experience as a producer putting together a show in a 1,500-seat landmarked theater is pretty daunting. But at its very core, “Broadway by the Year,” while it may have more bells and whistles by way of production values, is still very much the same concept now as it was fifteen years ago. Essentially, I put the music first and foremost; the historical context that I provide from the stage is there only to set up the songs (and hopefully entertain a little bit, too).

Scott Siegel hangs out with the cast of Broadway by the Year in 2014 (photo by Maryann Lopinto)

Scott Siegel hangs out with the cast of Broadway by the Year in 2014 (photo by Maryann Lopinto)

twi-ny: For your fifteenth season, you’re hosting four presentations, each one representing twenty-five years. Do you have a particular favorite quarter-century?

SS: Generally, I prefer the twenties and thirties the most because that’s when there were so many great composers / lyricists at work. All that Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Romberg, etc.

twi-ny: What was it like in the early years, when you were just starting out, to get stars to participate?

SS: Wonderful question! I’ll tell you the secret. Provide singers with great material, a lot of support, a fun and rewarding experience, and they tell their friends. The very first concert had Jason Graae, Heather MacRae, and Sally Mayes — just those three. Not long after, I saw Liz Callaway at Joe’s Pub and went backstage to say hi and ask her to do the next “Broadway by the Year.” Before I could ask her, however, she said, ‘My friend Jason Graae just did one of your concerts and had a ball. Can I do one?’ Liz has been one of our regulars, appearing in one of the concerts almost every season since then. That’s how I got over one hundred stars last year and why I’ll get them this year :).

twi-ny: You also put together “Broadway Unplugged” and the Nightlife Awards, have written many books and columns, have led film seminars, had a radio show, are producing “Maxine Linehan: Beautiful Songs” at the Metropolitan Room — and still find the time to go to hundreds of Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows with your wife. You must be out nearly every night of the year.

SS: I’m exhausted just hearing all of that. Actually, the only time either of us takes a break is when we break down, getting sick. It really helps that we love what we do. And every day is different, so it never gets boring.

twi-ny: What would an actual break entail for you?

SS: We’re often asked that. On the rare times when we leave New York, it’s usually to do the same stuff we do here someplace else. A musical festival in Quebec City — things like that. We’re not the types to lie on a beach in the sun.

Scott Siegel is celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of his popular Broadway by the Year series as Town Hall

Scott Siegel is celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of his popular “Broadway by the Year” series at Town Hall

twi-ny: You and Barbara appeared on The Joe Franklin Show. What was that experience like?

SS: Barbara is the shy one. She didn’t appear on the show, but I did the TV show with Joe several times, and I was on his WOR radio show many times as well. Whenever Joe would see me, he would always greet me with “Mr. Siegel, make it legal,” and ask me if I knew who sang that song. I would always answer Sophie Tucker, and he would always pretend to be amazed that I knew that. Joe was a genuine New York character and I’m glad I had the chance to know him.

twi-ny: In your opinion, what’s the current state of the Broadway musical?

SS: Such a big question. For the most part, today’s Broadway musicals are tourist attractions; they have to be in order to be successful. A show can only run for about three months, at most, with the core New York theater audience. That’s why the more daring and interesting musicals are off-Broadway. When one of them takes off with great reviews and major buzz, it can move to Broadway and compete — like Fun Home, which is coming to Broadway from the Public. But it’s an uphill battle. I’m always impressed when a show without stars, just good music, a good book, and talented actors, can swim upstream and succeed, like Memphis and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. They are the wonderful exceptions to the rule.

twi-ny: What are some of your favorites that are playing right now?

SS: As for brand-new musicals that are running right now, I’m a fan of Honeymoon in Vegas. The music and lyrics are terrific — and the show is so beautifully crafted. It just works like an old-fashioned, well-made Broadway musical. I would say about Hamilton, at the Public, that it’s going to be considered one of the most important musicals of our era.

CONSTELLATIONS

Beekeeper Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cosmologist Marianne (Ruth Wilson) look at life and love from all sides in CONSTELLATIONS (photo © 2014 Joan Marcus)

Beekeeper Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cosmologist Marianne (Ruth Wilson) look at life and love from all sides in CONSTELLATIONS (photo © 2014 Joan Marcus)

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 28, $67-$125
www.manhattantheatreclub.com
www.constellationsbroadway.com

It takes several minutes to get into the flow and rhythm of Nick Payne’s Constellations, a two-character play set in the quantum multiverse, in the “past, present, and future.” Beekeeper Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cosmologist Marianne (Ruth Wilson) meet in a bar, have a brief chat, the lights go out, then they do it again, and again. But each time, something changes — the tone of their voice, the movement of their bodies, their positioning onstage, a word here and there. What at first seems like it might be just a tiresome theatrical exercise turns out to be a captivating, sophisticated exploration of the many roads a relationship (and storytelling itself) can take. Over the course of seventy minutes, there are more than fifty short scenes as Roland and Marianne go through repeated iterations of hooking up and not, discussing their careers, being faithful and unfaithful, and, ultimately, facing mortality square in the face. Once you fall under the spell of the drama’s intellectual conceit, a scene won’t even be over before you’re eagerly anticipating how the next one will be slightly different. Constellations is no mere Sliding Doors rehash in which the protagonists have two choices that will take their lives in alternate directions, nor is it as black and white as the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” in which each character has a good and evil version; instead, it posits that there are parallel universes in which Roland and Marianne are interacting at the same time, each one similar but unique — and each one, ultimately, ending in death, something that never changes.

CONSTELLATIONS

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson both excel in their Broadway debuts in superb Nick Payne play (photo © 2014 Joan Marcus)

In writing Constellations, Payne — who previously tackled climate change in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, in which Gyllenhaal made his New York theater debut — was inspired by the work of Columbia physics and mathematics professor Brian Greene, the superstring theorist and author of the highly influential book The Elegant Universe, giving an intriguing, well-researched scientific edge to the play. While Marianne’s job has her studying the origin of the universe, Roland is a rooftop beekeeper, caring for insects whose very existence might determine the future of the planet. In her Broadway debut, Wilson, whose star has risen dramatically in just a few short years — the thirty-three-year-old actress has won two Olivier Awards and had starring roles in such well-received television series as Luther and The Affair — is sensational as Marianne, combining an innate intelligence with just the right amount of vulnerability. And in his Broadway debut, the thirty-four-year-old Gyllenhaal — who is currently up for an Oscar for his performance in Nightcrawler and has starred in such other films as Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, and Proof — is a worthy partner as he keeps his character beguilingly unpredictable under the sure hand of Michael Longhurst, who previously directed Gyllenhaal in the Roundabout production of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Wilson in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, when the two were at the University of Nottingham together. The play, which originated in London with Rafe Spall (Life of Pi, Betrayal), who also originated the role Gyllenhaal played in If There Is, and Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine), features a fascinating set designed by Tom Scutt, with lighting by Lee Curran; the actors remain on a central rectangular platform that is surrounded on three sides and above by balloons that represent stars, with different orbs glowing on and off in each scene. Constellations is a challenging, intellectually stimulating and satisfying work, expertly written, directed, and acted, but even with all the thought-provoking science, when it comes right down to it, it’s really just a, er, universal love story, as boy meets girl, then boy meets girl, then boy meets girl....

A DELICATE BALANCE

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

John Lithgow, Glenn Close, and Lindsay Duncan star in stellar Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s A DELICATE BALANCE (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 22, $60 - $155
www.adelicatebalancebroadway.com

It seems that everyone wants to live with Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow) in their elegant New England suburban home, but it’s hard to understand why in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Delicate Balance, running at the Golden Theatre through February 22. Tobias is a calm, retired businessman who likes to sit in his chair and read while sipping fancy cocktails. Agnes is a stern, cold woman who believes that “there is a balance to be maintained . . . and I must be the fulcrum.” They sleep in separate bedrooms and, while civil to each other, don’t seem to be particularly close anymore. Agnes’s wild and unpredictable sister, Claire (Lindsay Duncan), is already living with them. Tobias and Agnes’s thirty-six-year-old daughter, Julia (Martha Plimpton), has just left her fourth husband and is on her way to move back in with her parents yet again. But before Julia arrives, Tobias and Agnes’s best friends, Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins), show up unannounced, claiming that they are too frightened to remain in their own house, quickly heading upstairs and locking themselves in Julia’s room. So when the bitter Julia returns home to find that her room is spoken for, the already none-too-happy woman gets even more upset. But since Tobias and Agnes both try to avoid confrontation, not much gets resolved in this growing household, even as secrets are being whispered and certain emotions are reaching the boiling point. It’s not quite as explosive as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it’s no barrel of laughs either. “Do we dislike happiness?” Agnes asks. Apparently, yes.

Daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton) drives the emotional angst in Pulitzer Prize-winning play (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton) brings the emotional angst to a boil in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Director Pam Mackinnon, who helmed the recent smash Broadway revival of Woolf as well as Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park, lets the anger simmer before it erupts as the play examines themes of loss and fear. Agnes, who is questioning her sanity, is afraid of facing certain truths about her husband and her life, Tobias is frightened that Agnes will find out about his long-ago indiscretion, Claire is scared of being sober and responsible, and Julia is still terrified of growing up. Harry and Edna never reveal precisely what it was that drove them from their home, but they appear to be afraid of not being afraid. Albee, who also won Pulitzers for Seascape and Three Tall Women, captures suburban angst and WASP culture with his incisive, biting dialogue, which was written with very specific performance notes; in addition, most of the characters were based on relatives of his. The play has quite a history; the original Broadway production in 1966, starring Hume Cronyn (Tobias), Jessica Tandy (Agnes), Rosemary Murphy (Claire), Henderson Forsythe (Harry), Carmen Matthews (Edna), and Marian Seldes (Julia), won the Pulitzer and was nominated for a Tony. Thirty years later, the first Broadway revival won the Tony with another stellar cast: George Grizzard (Tobias), Rosemary Harris (Agnes), Elaine Stritch (Claire), John Carter (Harry), Elizabeth Wilson (Edna), and Mary Beth Hurt (Julia). And Tony Richardson’s 1973 film featured Paul Scofield (Tobias), Katharine Hepburn (Agnes), Kate Reid (Claire), Joseph Cotten (Harry), Betsy Blair (Edna), and Lee Remick (Julia). Nearly fifty years after its Broadway debut, A Delicate Balance still feels fresh and alive, poignant and relevant. In 1996, Albee wrote in an introduction to a newly published edition of the work, “The play does not seem to have ‘dated’; rather, its points seem clearer now to more people than they were in its first lovely production. Now, in its lovely new production (I will not say ‘revival’; the thing was not dead — unseen, unheard perhaps, but lurking), it seems to be exactly the same experience. No time has passed; the characters have not aged or become strange. . . . I have become odder with time, I suppose, but A Delicate Balance, bless it, does not seem to have changed much — aged nicely, perhaps.” It has aged nicely indeed, in yet another lovely production.

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS

(photo © 2014 Carol Rosegg)

Jack Singer (Rob McClure) thinks he can’t lose in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (photo © 2014 Carol Rosegg)

Nederlander Theatre
208 West 41st St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 31, $69-$152
www.honeymoonbroadway.com

Perhaps what happens in Hollywood should stay in Hollywood. Musical adaptations of Hollywood dramas continue to flood Broadway, despite the lack of success experienced by such recent fare as The Bridges of Madison County, Big Fish, and Rocky. And now, before we can even think about Doctor Zhivago, An American in Paris, and Finding Neverland, we’ve been pummeled by Honeymoon in Vegas, which arrives on the East Coast smothered in glitz and glamor but ultimately coming up snake eyes. Writer-director Andrew Bergman, who has written and directed The Freshman and Striptease and written or cowritten The In-Laws and Fletch, has transformed his 1992 film into a Broadway musical that draws to an inside straight and falls desperately short. Rob McClure (Chaplin) stars as Jack Singer, a wimpy New Yorker in love with the beautiful Betsy Nolan (Brynn O’Malley); she is ready to get married, but he is terrified by a deathbed curse delivered by his mother, Bea (Nancy Opel), who has forbade him from ever taking a bride, claiming that no woman can love him like she did. Bea, ten years dead by this point, keeps popping up at crucial junctures, like in the middle of Tiffany’s when he’s about to buy a ring for Betsy. Betsy gives Jack an ultimatum, so he suddenly tells Betsy that they should fly immediately to Las Vegas and get married, no matter what his mother demanded. Off they go to Sin City, where Jack, a natural gambler, gets suckered into a poker game organized by the smooth-talking Tommy Korman (Tony Danza), a high-rolling mobster who thinks Betsy is a dead ringer for his late wife. When Jack can’t pay the fifty-eight grand he loses in the game, Tommy says he’ll call it even if he can borrow Betsy for the weekend. Furious at what Jack did, Betsy agrees to the deal, leaving Jack to either fight for her or give her up forever. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if Jack just let her walk away, so he is soon off to Hawaii to win back his true love.

(photo © 2014 Carol Rosegg)

Tommy Korman (Tony Danza) woos another man’s girlfriend (Brynn O’Malley) in musical version of 1992 film (photo © 2014 Carol Rosegg)

Bergman’s 1992 film featured established stars Nicolas Cage as Jack, James Caan as Tommy, Sarah Jessica Parker as Betsy, and Anne Bancroft as Jack’s mother. O’Malley, as the blond Betsty, is the breakout star of the Broadway musical, showing a natural talent for romantic comedy while also displaying a fine voice in such numbers as “Anywhere But Here” and “I’ve Been Thinking.” McClure does an admirable job as Jack, his highlight coming early on in “I Love Betsy.” The eminently likable Danza blows hot and cold, delivering on the mournful ballad “Out of the Sun” and the clever “Come to an Agreement,” but he stands around too much when he’s not involved in the immediate action, and a tap-dancing number was wholly unnecessary. The less said about Opel (Urinetown, Cinderella) in the thankless role of the mother the better. And yes, the Flying Elvises are in the building, but prepare to cringe. Brian C. Hemesath’s costumes are flashy, particularly in the Vegas nightclub scenes, while Denis Jones’s choreography is relatively flat and lifeless. The music and lyrics, by popular and critical darling Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County, Parade, The Last Five Years), are, for the most part, surprisingly standard and uninteresting. (“Jump jump / jumpity jump”?) Another surprise was that there was no standing ovation at the end, since audiences seem to jump jump jumpity jump to their feet after most splashy musicals these days, no matter the quality. But maybe they could tell too that this Honeymoon in Vegas is in need of a Haitian divorce.

TICKET ALERT: BROADWAY WEEK WINTER 2015

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is one of nearly two dozen Great White Way shows offering two-for-one tickets during Broadway Week

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is one of nearly two dozen Great White Way shows offering two-for-one tickets during Broadway Week

January 20 - February 5, buy one ticket, get one free
Tickets go on sale Friday, January 9, 10:30 am
www.nycgo.com/broadwayweek

Tickets go on sale January 9 at 10:30 am for the winter edition of Broadway Week, which runs January 20 to February 5 and offers theater lovers a chance to get two-for-one tickets in advance to see new and long-running shows on the Great White Way. Twenty-two shows are participating, including most of the hottest shows from the current season: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, It’s Only a Play, Disgraced, You Can’t Take It with You, Honeymoon in Vegas, A Delicate Balance, On the Town, and The River. Also on the bill is such recent fare as Cabaret, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Kinky Boots, If/Then, the rebooted Les Misérables, Matilda the Musical, and The Lion King in addition to such longtime mainstays as Wicked, Jersey Boys, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, and Mamma Mia! As usual, you can look all you want, but the two-for-one list does not include The Book of Mormon, unfortunately.

IT’S ONLY A PLAY

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) and Hollywood star James Wicker (Nathan Lane) are positively giddy at opening-night party for THE GOLDEN EGG (photo by Joan Marcus)

Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 7 $72-$147
www.itsonlyaplay.com

Terrence McNally’s latest Broadway show might be titled It’s Only a Play, but oh, what a play it is. In 2012’s Golden Age, the four-time Tony winner (Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!) took us behind the scenes of the world premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, and in 2013’s And Away We Go he took us backstage at six different shows in six different time periods. And now, in the Broadway debut of this uproarious comic farce, the inside-joke-laden It’s Only a Play, McNally invites everyone to the opening-night party of The Golden Egg. The festivities take place in the bright and airy bedroom of first-time producer Julia Budder’s (Megan Mullally) luxurious Manhattan townhouse. Designer Scott Pask (The Book of Mormon, The Coast of Utopia) has put the door to the bedroom at the top center of the stage, allowing each character to make a grand entrance — and exit. A who’s who of the New York scene is at “the party of the year for the play of the season,” all ripe for skewering, which McNally and three-time Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien (Hairspray, Henry IV) handle with outrageous grace, leaving no one unscathed, including the audience itself. As the play opens, former Broadway actor and current television star James Wicker (Nathan Lane) enters the bedroom seeking privacy as he calls California to find out the status of his series, Out on a Limb. He encounters Gus P. Head (Micah Stock), a wannabe “actor-slash-singer-slash-dancer-slash-comedian-slash-performance artist-slash-mime” who is taking care of the coats for the evening, which are being collected on Julia’s bed. The endless stream of rapid-fire jokes rat-a-tat right from the start. “What did you think?” Gus asks James about the play. “Wonderful, just wonderful,” James responds, not really meaning it. Gus: “Too bad you’re not a critic.” James: “Tonight everyone’s a critic. You haven’t seen the play?” Gus: “I’m temporary help. This is a one-night stand.” James: “Tonight is a one-night stand for a lot of people.” They are soon joined by aging doyenne Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing), the drug-addled star of The Golden Egg; Sir Frank Finger (Rupert Grint), its avant-garde director who is tiring of being called a genius; Julia, who is eagerly waiting for the good reviews to roll in so she can add big-time quotes to the marquee; smarmy theater critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), who has his own agenda; and anxious playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick), who believes in the continuing legacy of the theater. “We have a lot to live up to tonight,” he says ever so earnestly. “It depends on us to remind this city that there is more to Broadway than guest appearances or special effects and revivals or another play from London or another Disney movie made live. We are an original American play. We must make that count for something.”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Cast, crew, and friends anxiously await the opening-night reviews for new Broadway show, THE GOLDEN EGG (photo by Joan Marcus)

McNally, O’Brien, and the outstanding cast make that count for a lot in It’s Only a Play, a tongue-in-cheek, and out-of-cheek, riotous evening of theater about theater. The play has been seen in various off-Broadway productions since its 1982 Manhattan Theatre Club premiere, with all-star lineups that have included Christine Baranski, Dana Ivey, Joanna Gleason, and Eileen Brennan as Julia, James Coco and Charles Nelson Reilly as James, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Guilfoyle as Sir Frank, Paul Benedict as Ira, and Željko Ivanek and Mark Blum as Peter. McNally continues to tailor the dialogue to fit his brilliant actors, such as this stinger from the end of James’s early soliloquy: “What’s the word for a mercy killing? Euthanasia? They do it for people, why not plays? But what do I know? What do any of us old gypsies know? I liked The Addams Family.” Lane, of course, played Gomez in that show, a musical adaptation of the television hit, so McNally will likely change that line when Martin Short replaces Lane beginning January 7. (In addition, Katie Finneran will take over the role of Julia, and Maulik Pancholy will play Sir Frank.) It’s a blast to see Lane and Broderick together again, having last lit up the Great White Way as a duo as Bialystock and Bloom, respectively, back in 2001 in The Producers. (As an added bonus, even Lane’s Harvey Fierstein references relate to Broderick too, as Broderick appeared as Fierstein’s adopted son in Torch Song Trilogy.) Abraham (Teibele and Her Demon, A Life in the Theatre) is deliciously droll as the none-too-beloved critic, Mullally (Grease, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) is charming as the ditzy, wide-eyed producer, Channing (Grease, Other Desert Cities) is a joy as the bitter former star, Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films) is a barrel of energy as the crazed director, Broderick (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Brighton Beach Memoirs) is dryly effective as the serious playwright, up-and-comer Stock (The Capables, McNally’s And Away We Go) is appropriately quirky as the newbie on the scene, and Lane (The Nance, The Iceman Cometh at BAM next month) is, well, Lane as the Broadway actor who sold out to make it in Hollywood. “We need new faces in the theater. New voices, new visions,” Ira says. It’s Only a Play, which is rife with sensational double-takes at all the inside references and hysterical self-needling by its actors (it even pokes fun at The Elephant Man, which is at the Booth next door), might not exactly be filled with new faces and new voices, but its vision is more than welcome in its spectacular Broadway debut.

THE ELEPHANT MAN

(photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Bradley Cooper contorts himself into character as Dr. Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) explains the physical deformations of the real John Merrick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Booth Theatre
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through February 22, $79 - $169
www.elephantmanbroadway.com
www.shubert.nyc

The first time we see Bradley Cooper in director Scott Ellis’s strong revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 Tony-winning hit, The Elephant Man, he is whole, perfectly formed, standing on the left side of the stage, wearing only a pair of shorts, a specimen on display for the audience. (There might be no applause at his initial appearance, but there is an audible gasp from appreciators of a fine male physique.) At stage right, Dr. Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) is explaining the deformations that Cooper’s character, John Merrick, suffers from, pointing at enlarged photographs of the real Merrick, a nineteenth-century British resident of London. As Treves mentions each body part, Cooper contorts his shape, curling a hand, tightening a foot, twisting his mouth. Without makeup, he has turned himself into the sideshow spectacle known as the Elephant Man, and the transformation becomes complete when he speaks, grunts that soon flow into more eloquent language emerging from his misshapen mouth. In David Lynch’s 1980 film, an Oscar-nominated John Hurt played Merrick in full, disturbing makeup, but in the play Cooper — like such previous Merrick stage portrayers as the Tony-nominated Philip Anglim in the 1979 original, David Bowie as one of his replacements, and the Tony-nominated Billy Crudup in the 2002 Broadway revival — turns Merrick into a grotesque yet elegant and graceful character, a man whose inner beauty shines through as he goes from circus freak to a respected human being. But even as Merrick is accepted by high society, the medical community, and royalty, he still can’t escape being an attraction, eliciting a strange combination of revulsion and attraction, as Ellis (You Can’t Take It with You, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) cleverly uses the most basic theatricality to investigate what is revealed and what is hidden, changing scenes merely with curtains pulled across the stage by various minor characters.

(photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Dr. Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) and Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) befriend John Merrick (Bradley Cooper) in powerful Broadway revival (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Despite a few treacly moments of oversentimentality, Pomerance’s play is a profound exploration of what makes us all different — as well as what makes us very much the same. Two-time Oscar nominee Cooper (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) is extraordinary as Merrick (whose real first name was Joseph), a severely disfigured man who just wants to be “normal.” Nivola (The Winslow Boy, A Month in the Country) is outstanding as Treves, a doctor who sees Merrick as more than just a difficult case, becoming a kind of proud yet seriously overprotective parent. And Patricia Clarkson (The House of Blue Leaves, Eastern Standard) is lovely and charming as the lovely and charming Mrs. Kendal, a popular actress who is more than a little intrigued by Merrick, ready to reveal herself in unexpected ways. The excellent cast also includes two-time Tony nominee Anthony Heald (Anything Goes, Love! Valour! Compassion!) as Bishop Walsham How, who wants to make sure that Merrick receives the proper religious education; Henry Stram (Inherit the Wind, Titanic) as hospital head Carr Gomm, who realizes that taking care of Merrick can be good for business; and Tony nominee Kathryn Meisle (Tartuffe, Outside Mullingar) as both Princess Alexandra, who takes an interest in the oddity that is the Elephant Man, and Miss Sandwich, a caretaker who is horrified by Merrick. Timothy R. Mackabee’s set is suitably spare, consisting of just a table at one time, a bathtub at another, matching Cooper’s courageous soul- and body-baring performance. Once upon a time, people flocked to see the Elephant Man for all the wrong reasons; now they are flocking to see The Elephant Man for all the right ones.