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

NATASHA, PIERRE, AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812

(photo by Chad Batka)

Josh Groban makes his Broadway debut as a cuckolded Russian aristocrat in NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (photo by Chad Batka)

Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $59-$189
greatcometbroadway.com

Hamilton, watch out; there’s a new historical musical in town, dueling it out for the designation of best show on Broadway. In his epic 1869 novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote of his protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov, “At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812 — the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.” And there are all kinds of woes indeed in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s smashing electro-pop opera adapted from a 70-page section of Tolstoy’s classic tale, which has been magnificently transported to Broadway’s reconfigured Imperial Theatre. The little show that could began life in 2012 at 87-seat Ars Nova, where it ran for 39 performances. The next year it moved to the 199-seat tented Kazino cabaret in the Meatpacking District, and now it’s on Broadway, appropriately enough at the 1,200-seat Imperial, which set designer Mimi Lien (John, An Octoroon) has turned into an immersive wonderland, with ramps snaking from the stage throughout the theater and the audience seated in conventional chairs in the balcony and tavern-like chairs on the stage as well as in slightly sunken pits. The large cast of more than 40 actors and musicians emerge from every nook and cranny, every corner, even occasionally taking a seat right next to you and clinking glasses for a toast. You will be served a potato pierogi early on, and later a percussive egg to shake during some merriment. You might even get a page of War and Peace dropped in your lap. During intermission, you can roam anywhere, getting up close and personal with hundreds of paintings (many of Napoleon) that line the walls.

(photo by Chad Batka)

Countess Hélène Bezukhova (Amber Gray) has some dastardly plans for Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova in immersive Broadway musical (photo by Chad Batka)

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Natasha is a delightfully soapy story of love and betrayal in 1812 Moscow. The fabulous prologue introduces the major characters: brave Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton), who is away at war; “bewildered and awkward” Pierre Bezukhov (Josh Groban), a drunken cuckold who has given up on life; “young” Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova, Andrey’s beautiful fiancée, called Natasha (Denée Benton); “hot” Anatole Kuragin (Lucas Steele), an immoral ladies’ man; “slut” Countess Hélène Bezukhova (Amber Gray), Anatole’s devious sister, who is married to Pierre; “good” Sofia Alexandrovna Rostova, Natasha’s trusted cousin, who goes by Sonya (Brittain Ashford); “crazy” Old Prince Bolkonsky (Belton), Andrey’s doddering father; “plain” Princess Mary Bolkonskaya (Gelsey Bell), Andrey’s sister; “old school” Marya Dmitryevna Akhrosimova (Grace McLean), Natasha’s godmother; “fierce” Fedya Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), a good friend of Anatole’s; and “fun” Balaga (Paul Pinto), a carefree troika driver. Don’t worry if it all doesn’t soak in immediately; there is a family tree in the program, which the cast suggests you refer to when necessary. After the prologue, a chorus declares, “Oh Pierre! Our merry feasting crank / Our most dear, most kind, most smart and eccentric / A warm-hearted Russian of the old school / His purse is always empty / Cuz it’s open to all / Oh Pierre / Just one of a hundred sad old men / Living out their final days in Moscow.” The downtrodden Pierre readily admits, “I never thought that I’d end up like this / I used to be better.” Attending an opera, Natasha sees Anatole and is instantly smitten with him, so the swaggering Anatole swoops down on her, soon proclaiming his undying love. Scandal ensues as there’s a duel, a costume ball, and various deceptions, leading to a deeply intimate and emotional conclusion.

“We are speaking of most ordinary things,” Anatole says at one point, but there is nothing ordinary about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Director Rachel Chavkin (The Royale, Small Mouth Sounds), who has been with the show from the start, finds endlessly inventive ways to bring this epic to life, as characters weave in and among the audience, the ensemble is always on the move, and the pace never lags for even a second. As Bradley King’s lights go down after one number, anticipation builds as to where the next song will begin. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Machinal, Significant Other) makes full use of the space, further involving the audience in the cast’s movements. The gorgeous costumes, by Paloma Young (Peter and the Starcatcher), range from elegant and fashionable to sexy and steam-punk. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, from the wandering accordion players to the opera dancers (Reed Luplau and Ani Taj) to the larger roles, many of which are performed by the original Ars Nova actors, including Steele, Gray, Ashford (her “Sonya Alone” solo is stunning), Bell, Choksi, and Pinto. In her Broadway debut, Benton is both alluring and delicate as the torn Natasha, but the biggest surprise was Scott Stangland, who was subbing for an ill Josh Groban the night I went.

Scott Stangland gave an award-winning performance as Pierre of ART production of musical now on Broadway (photo © Gretjen Helene)

Scott Stangland gives award-winning performance as Pierre in ART production of musical now on Broadway (photo © Gretjen Helene)

In an 1858 letter to the editor comparing the comets of 1811 and 1858, British admiral and astronomer William Henry Smyth wrote, “In re the magnificent comet [of 1858], I have been closely attending to its fine figure; and am asked on various sides, as I had the advantage of having closely watched both, which I thought the most splendid in appearance, this, or that of 1811? Now, to my memory, which is very distinct, the palm must be given to the latter. As a mere sight-object, the branched tail was of greater interest, the nucleus with its ‘head-veil’ was more distinct, and its circumpolarity was a fortunate incident for gazers.” I feel very fortunate to have experienced the splendidly fine figure of Stangland, who played Pierre in the pre-Broadway American Repertory Theater production at Harvard in December 2015/January 2016 and who is absolutely magnificent at the Imperial, embodying Pierre as if he were born for the part. With his stout frame and bushy facial hair, he commands the audience’s attention whether taking center stage or playing the accordion or the piano in a pit. I was floored by the original presentation at Ars Nova, in which show creator Malloy, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book and did the orchestrations, played Pierre with an innate charm, and now I’ve been blown away by Stangland, who gives a profound performance that will break your heart — and left me playfully thinking, “Josh and Lin-Manuel who?”

FALSETTOS

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Marvin (Christian Borle) and Whizzer (Andrew Rannells) fall in love and become part of an unusual extended family in FALSETTOS (photo by Joan Marcus)

Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 8, $42-$149
www.lct.org

I saw Falsettos, James Lapine’s new revival of his and William Finn’s beloved musical, during the Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS curtain-call appeal season, when cast members across the Great White Way ask audiences to donate to the nonprofit organization that has been helping those with HIV/AIDS for nearly thirty years. Andrew Rannells made the heartfelt announcement, and people gave money as they left the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s always a poignant moment, it was especially powerful after this show, which came together in the 1980s and 1990s, featuring a heartbreaking plot in which Rannells’s character, Whizzer, contracts a mysterious, deadly disease in 1981. The first act, March of the Falsettos, debuted in 1981 and takes place two years earlier, when the “gay plague” was just beginning; the second act, Falsettoland, premiered in 1990 and is set in 1981. The acts merged into Falsettos in 1992, earning seven Tony nominations and winning two awards, for Best Book and Best Original Score. (There was also an earlier one-act musical about some of the same characters, Trousers, that ran in 1979 and then was revamped in 1985.) So this Lincoln Center revival of Falsettos arrived on Broadway with quite a history; you could feel the excitement before the show started, as the theater was abuzz with friends hugging and chatting so much that the ushers had a hard time convincing everyone to take their seat. At last it got under way, with Marvin (Christian Borle), Whizzer, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal), Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), and Trina (Stephanie J. Block) singing “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” And from that moment on, the legend of Falsettos escaped me.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) swings for the fences in Lincoln Center revival of FALSETTOS on Broadway (photo by Joan Marcus)

Directed by Lapine (Act One, Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), who wrote the book with composer and lyricist Finn, Falsettos is a groundbreaking show about a new kind of extended, dysfunctional family. Marvin has left his wife, Trina, and their eleven-year-old son, Jason, for his new love, Whizzer, but he still thinks everyone can be together. “I want a tight-knit family / I want a group that harmonizes / I want my wife and kid and friend / To pretend / Time will mend / Our pain,” Marvin sings. Trina has a session with Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, who instantly falls in love with her. “It’s so upsetting when I found / That what’s rectangular is round / I mean, it stinks / I mean, he’s queer / And me, I’m just a freak,” Trina explains in “I’m Breaking Down,” a showstopping number by Block that brings down the house. Two years later, lesbian couple Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe) have moved in next door and Jason is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, beset by adolescent worries about girls and more. “Would they come, though, / If they were invited, / And not laugh / At my Hebrew / And not laugh / At my father and his friends,” he opines while displaying poor baseball skills. But when Whizzer gets sick, the characters all take a new look at their lives. “Something bad is happening / Something very bad is happening / Something stinks, something immoral / Something so bad that words have lost their meaning,” Charlotte, a doctor, declares. “Rumors fly and tales abound / Stories echo underground! / Something bad / Is spreading, spreading, spreading / ’Round!”

For most of the show, David Rockwell’s set consists of a gray Rubik’s Cube-like square that the cast can take apart and put back together, creating all kinds of furniture and objects, a clever metaphor for the makeshift family they form. The music was revolutionary for its time, with unexpected starts and stops, rises and falls, and multiple pitch changes as various characters chime in and conversationally sing on top of one another (the complex orchestrations are by Michael Starobin); the lyrics, however, are now dated, and the subplot of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah is an awkward device leading to the teary conclusion. Tony nominee Block (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 9 to 5: The Musical) is sensational, giving a don’t-miss performance as a strong woman whose life is turned upside down and inside out. Tony nominee Rannells (The Book of Mormon, Girls) is superb as the beautifully sly and sweetly vain Whizzer; together Block and Rannells overwhelm two-time Tony winner Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!). Tony nominee Uranowitz (An American in Paris) and Rosenthal (Newsies, A Christmas Story) provide fine support. Falsettos is a uniquely situated coming-of-age story as characters try to find their place in a difficult life, and in an extended family that was unusual for its time. Even if it’s not quite as earth-shaking today, the show’s emotional landscape remains sadly relevant.

THE ENCOUNTER

(photo © Joan Marcus 2016)

Simon McBurney leads audiences deep into the Amazon in THE ENCOUNTER (photo © Joan Marcus 2016)

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 8, $49 - $132
theencounterbroadway.com

Innovative British theater director and actor Simon McBurney spent nearly twenty years trying to figure out how best to adapt the story of photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s adventures in the Amazon for the stage; what he ultimately came up with is absolutely genius. In the solo show The Encounter, playing at the Golden Theatre through January 8, McBurney uses the art of storytelling itself to dramatize McIntyre’s treacherous 1969 solo trip into Amazon’s Javari Valley, where he made contact with the indigenous Mayoruna tribe. Without any physical evidence, including photographs or notebooks, McIntyre shared his tale with Romanian-American writer Petru Popescu, whose book about the journey, Amazon Beaming, came out in 1991. And McBurney, whose 1999 production of Mnemonic by his Complicite company is considered a landmark in contemporary experimental theater, also uses the barest of evidence in The Encounter, which explores time, consciousness, memory, acculturation, and humanity’s connection with nature in spectacular ways. As the audience takes their seats, McBurney is wandering around the stage, which is littered with water bottles, a box of VHS tape, a desk with several microphones and a laptop, and a central figure — an Easter Island–like binaural head that turns out to be a speaker. McBurney addresses the crowd directly, toying with the notion of whether the show has actually started yet. “My children will always be able to look back over all of these photographs and videos and see their entire lives. But of course it’s not their life, it’s a story,” McBurney says about his smartphone. “So I’m worried about them mistaking it for reality, like we all mistake stories for reality. So I feel really responsible, because as I’m capturing moments on this [phone], I’m essentially deciding what story I’m going to tell them about their past . . . and about the world. But it’s not a reality. It’s a story. Stories are how we understand life. . . . You might say that stories are what have allowed the human race to thrive.”

(photo © Robbie Jack)

Simon McBurney uses innovative technology to tell a fascinating story in one-man Broadway show (photo © Robbie Jack)

McBurney, who has appeared in such films as The Golden Compass, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation and has adapted such other literary works as Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and John Berger’s To the Wedding, tells his story through headphones that each audience member must wear, with different sound effects and dialogue coming out of the right and left earpieces. There are also sounds that reverberate through the theater, outside of the headphones, that immerse the audience into this created world, from doors slamming shut to random muttering voices. He calls it a “technological trick,” but it’s actually a shrewd artistic device that is no mere gimmick. McBurney plays multiple roles by using microphones that change the pitch, tone, and even accent of his voice while combining live text with prerecorded snippets; among the real-life characters he portrays are McIntyre, McIntyre’s pilot, and Popescu heard alongside dialogue from such psychiatrists, scientists, and other experts as Iain McGilchrist, Steven Rose, Marcus du Sautoy, George Marshall, and Rebecca Spooner, who lend authenticity to the proceedings. Meanwhile, McIntyre claims to communicate with members of the Mayoruna, including Beam, Barnacle, Tuti, and Red Cheeks, via some kind of telepathy that echoes McBurney’s use of the headphones for the audience. Meanwhile, he is sharing the story with his seven-year-old daughter, Noma. “Dadda, who are you talking to?” she asks early on. “I’m not talking to anybody, sweetie,” he replies. “Yes, you are!” she demands. “No, I’m not. Well, I am in a way,” he answers. “But there’s nobody there!” she claims. “That’s true, there’s nobody there,” he agrees. Of course, McBurney is talking about the show itself; the only person there is him, yet, as time goes on, we feel as if we are deep in the Amazon rainforest, meeting all of these characters, trudging through the muck, and seeing the monkeys that threaten McIntyre.

For both McIntyre and McBurney, the concept of time is a critical element, photographer and performer each trying to capture and share a moment in time. “What lay behind this frenzy, Loren thought, was fear. Fear of the future. Fear of losing the past,” McBurney relates. “So unlike these people, he thought. They never think of the future, they don’t hoard or store up belongings. Time for them was an invisible companion, something comfortable and unseen like the air. For us, the civilizados, time was a possession. An increasingly more efficient machine.” Time for the Mayoruna is changeable, while the West’s obsession with time is limiting and controlling. As McBurney writes in a new foreword to Popescu’s book, “Our adamantine vision of time as an arrow, moving in a pitiless irreversible horizontal motion towards oblivion, is called into doubt. Could it be that this version of time is a fiction, a story that only exists in our common imagination? Our idea of distance, crucially the distance between one person and another, is also challenged. The notion of a ‘separate self,’ so precious to our contemporary notion of identity, is undermined to the point that it becomes, for McIntyre, utterly illusory. One self, one so-called individual consciousness, he discovers, is not necessarily separated from another by language, time, or distance. We are possibly interconnected in ways to which we are, mostly, blind in the modern world — a world in which, paradoxically, we are more connected by technology that at any time in history.”

Simon McBurney makes remarkable use of unusual props in THE ENCOUNTER (photo by Joan Marcus)

Simon McBurney makes remarkable use of unusual props in THE ENCOUNTER (photo by Joan Marcus)

The play, which runs approximately one hundred minutes without intermission, is also very much about contact, from McIntyre meeting the Mayoruna to how each audience member experiences it individually, a solitary yet communal experience. “There were so many things here in their elemental state, why not thought, too?” McBurney asks in the show. “Why not the simplest form of human contact — mind to mind. No, for goodness sake. But then something had been ratified, because he had been given this most beautiful gift.” We have also been given a most beautiful gift, The Encounter, which is essentially transmitted mind to mind in a mesmerizing tour de force by McBurney; also deserving of major kudos are set designer Michael Levine, sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, lighting designer Paul Anderson, and projection designer Will Duke, who all participate in this amazing feat. At the end of the show, I fully believed that I had traveled through the Amazon with McBurney and McIntyre, had seen the Mayoruna, had felt the heat and fought off the mosquitoes, had experienced the fear and loneliness McIntyre had experienced, even though it was essentially all just McBurney getting inside my head and manipulating, and freeing, my mind. “To accept that our ability to hear, to listen to each other, is perhaps essential for our collective survival,” McBurney also writes in his foreword to Amazon Beaming. “These thoughts are urgent because, in order to survive, we need to acknowledge that there is another way of seeing the world and our place in it.” That could not be more true, today more than ever.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES

(photo © Joan Marcus 2016)

La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber) use seduction as a weapon in Broadway revival of Christopher Hampton’s LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (photo © Joan Marcus 2016)

Booth Theatre
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 22, $40- $159
liaisonsbroadway.com

Tony winners Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber take a somewhat unexpectedly playful tack in Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse production of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 devilishly wicked Olivier Award winner, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, running at the Booth Theatre through January 22. In early 1780s Paris, former lovers La Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber) spend their days and nights calculating who they can sleep with, turning the art of seduction into a malicious game in which they manipulate and humiliate friends, enemies, strangers, and acquaintances primarily for the mere sport, although they occasionally have other goals. “Love and revenge: two of your favourites,” Merteuil tells Valmont. When Merteuil expresses her dissatisfaction with Valmont’s decision to attempt to bed the married, eminently proper Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) instead of the virginal fifteen-year-old Cécile Volanges (Elena Kampouris), daughter of Madame de Volanges (Ora Jones), who has spread talk of his bad-boy reputation, he explains, “I can’t agree with your theory about pleasure. You see, I have no intention of breaking down [Madame de Tourvel’s] prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want passion, in other words. Not the kind we’re used to, which is as cold as it’s superficial. I don’t get much pleasure out of that anymore. No. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought ‘betrayal’ was your favourite word.” Accusing him of developing real feelings for Madame de Tourvel, Merteuil claims, “Love is something you use, not something you fall into, like quicksand, don’t you remember? It’s like medicine; you use it as a lubricant to nature.” Other sexual innuendos include such phrases as “I know Belleroche was pretty limp,” “I want you to help me stiffen his resolve,” “The position in which I find myself,” “Nothing firm,” and “I’m sure she’ll soon be back in the saddle.” Determined to bed Madame de Tourvel, Valmont heads out to the summer cottage of his elderly aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Mary Beth Peil), where Madame de Tourvel is staying while her husband is off at war. In the meantime, Merteuil decides to go after young Cécile’s love, Le Chevalier Danceny (Raffi Barsoumian), as her next sexual toy.

(photo © Joan Marcus 2016)

The married Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) does not want to give in to the Le Vicomte de Valmont’s (Liev Schreiber) wicked charms in LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (photo © Joan Marcus 2016)

Based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel about sexual manipulation, humiliation, and seduction in pre-revolutionary France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been adapted into numerous stage and screen versions as well as radio dramas, ballets, and operas; among the duos who have portrayed Merteuil and Valmont (or their equivalents) onstage and -screen are Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Philipe, Glenn Close and John Malkovich, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe, Catherine Deneuve and Rupert Everett, Duncan and Ciarán Hinds, and Annette Bening and Colin Firth. McTeer (Mary Stuart, A Doll’s House) and Schreiber (A View from the Bridge, Glengarry Glen Ross) are not quite electrifying in their roles, sometimes seeming more like brother and sister — if siblinghood makes one think of Cersei and Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. Valmont’s seduction of Cécile turns ugly fast, and his wooing of Madame de Tourvel has echoes of Richard III, but without the explicit evil. Tom Scutt’s costumes are rich and elegant but his set, a dilapidated living room with paintings (some wrapped partially with plastic, which would not be invented for another 125 years) lying on the floor against the walls, is rather mystifying; perhaps it represents the coming fall of the aristocracy in France, or maybe it is meant to evoke Merteuil’s and Valmont’s damaged states of mind. But Mark Henderson’s lighting is splendid, from circles of candles to chandeliers lowered from above. Rourke (Privacy, The Machine) has delivered a pleasurable period drama, if one that is not quite as illicitly rousing and arousing as it could have been.

BEN HECHT AND CHARLES MacARTHUR’S THE FRONT PAGE

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Journalist Hildy Johnson (John Slattery) and editor Walter Burns (Nathan Lane) go after a big story in revival of THE FRONT PAGE (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 29, $67-$167
thefrontpagebroadway.com

Since its stage debut eighty-eight years ago, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page has been celebrated for its witty, rapid-fire dialogue and madcap pace, but the latest Broadway revival, running at the Broadhurst Theatre, doesn’t quite merit front-page headlines. In the press room in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, a group of cynical, jaded newspaper reporters are awaiting the execution of Earl Williams
(John Magaro), who was convicted of killing a police officer. As men do, they sit around the dank room, playing cards, insulting one another, making sexist and racist jokes, and downing burgers in between filing reports. The motley cast of characters includes hard-boiled know-it-all Murphy (Christopher McDonald), the constantly complaining Endicott (Lewis J. Stadlen), the banjo-playing Kruger (Clarke Thorell), and the poetic germophobe Bensinger (Jefferson Mays), along with McCue (Dylan Baker), Schwartz (David Pittu) and Wilson (Joey Slotnick). In addition to the hanging, it’s also the last day on the job for star journalist Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), who is leaving for New York City to marry his fiancée, Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer). But when Williams suddenly escapes, Hildy can’t stop himself from pursuing the story, especially when Williams essentially ends up in his lap and his longtime editor, Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), preys on his journalistic sensibilities. (The Oscar-winning duo of Hecht and MacArthur, who also collaborated on Wuthering Heights and Twentieth Century, know what of they write; they were both former Chicago journalists.)

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) finds himself in the middle of a mess in madcap revival of classic play (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Told in three acts with two intermissions, the 165-minute production, directed by estimable three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien (who has previously directed Lane in the riotous ensemble comedy It’s Only a Play and the much more serious The Nance), never hits its stride; it needs to move like the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine-gun fire heard as Williams heads out on the lam, but instead it seems a little too cocksure as it waits for Lane to make his grand appearance more than halfway through. Lane does inject a much-needed shot of life into the proceedings, although he plays Burns with familiar Lane-ian smarm and vigor. The play, which takes place in Douglas W. Schmidt’s appropriately dim and dusty surroundings, also features Holland Taylor as Mrs. Grant, Hildy’s future mother-in-law; Sherie Rene Scott as Mollie Malloy, a close friend of Williams’s; Dann Florek as the opportunistic mayor, who is up for reelection; Danny Mastrogiorgio as Diamond Louie, Burns’s underground operative; John Goodman as the bumbling Sheriff Hartman; Patricia Conolly as cleaning woman Jennie; and Micah Stock as goofy cop Woodenshoes Eichhorn. Although it’s virtually impossible to steal any show away from Lane, particularly when he’s in full-throated, scenery-chewing form, eighty-five-year-old Tony and Emmy winner Robert Morse does just that in his small but pivotal role as Mr. Pincus, who has a special delivery for the mayor. Morse’s Mad Men castmate, Slattery, does not fare as well as Hildy, a terrific actor who seems out of place here. The chemistry between Hildy and Burns is the key to the play; over the years, the dynamic duo has been portrayed on Broadway by Lee Tracy and Osgood Perkins in 1948, Bert Convy and Robert Ryan in 1969, and Richard Thomas and John Lithgow in 1986 and on film by Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou in 1931, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday in 1940, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in 1974. It’s as if Slattery and Lane, and O’Brien and the rest of the cast, were relying on the show’s vaunted history, but in these days of the electronic 24/7 news cycle and political correctness, The Front Page — which includes racist language that has been toned down but not eliminated — feels more outdated than ever as opposed to a thrilling look at the way things used to be. It has its share of very funny and insightful moments, but it doesn’t hold up to the promise its headlines blast out.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD

(photo by Joan Marcus 2016)

John Glover, Joel Grey, Diane Lane, and Chuck Cooper squeeze into new Broadway adaptation of THE CHERRY ORCHARD (photo by Joan Marcus 2016)

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 4, $59-$149
212-719-1300
www.roundabouttheatre.org

Rising Roundabout scribe Stephen Karam takes a curious pause in his soaring career with a misbegotten adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic comic drama, The Cherry Orchard. Karam’s two previous plays, 2011’s Sons of the Prophet and 2014’s The Humans, were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and the latter won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play when it was off Broadway and then the Tony for Best Play after transferring to the Great White Way. But his new version of The Cherry Orchard, in an exasperating production helmed by National Theatre associate director Simon Goodwin (The Beaux’ Stratagem, Routes), is sour from the very start. Chekhov’s plot is familiar to most theatergoers: After living in Paris for five years following the death of her husband and the tragic drowning of her seven-year-old-son, Grisha, Madame Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (Diane Lane) returns to the family home with her entourage, only to find that the entire estate, including her beloved cherry orchard, is going to be sold at auction because of failure to pay off massive debts. Yermolai Alekseyevich Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau), a successful businessman whose father and grandfather worked as serfs on the estate, offers a plan to save the house by cutting down the orchard and replacing it with vacation villas, but Lyubov and her arrogant brother, Leonid Andreyevich Gaev (John Glover), will have none of it, acting like spoiled children, refusing to face the direness of their situation. Also refusing to accept reality is Lyubov’s daughter, Anya (Tavi Gevinson), and her adopted daughter, Varya (Celia Keenan-Bolger). The family circle is filled out by governess and magician Charlotta Ivanovna (Tina Benko), family friend and landowner Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pischik (Chuck Cooper), local clerk Semyon Panteleyevich Yepikhodov (Quinn Mattfeld), Grisha’s former teacher and current student Pyotr Sergeyevich Trofimov (Kyle Beltran), maid (Dunyasha), young servant Yasha (Maurice Jones), and doddering old servant Firs (Joel Grey). In addition, violinist Bryan Hernandez-Luch, clarinetist Liam Burke, and percussionist Chihiro Shibayama add cinematic music first from the sidelines, then from the back of the stage. But it’s all for naught.

(photo by Joan Marcus 2016)

Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau) tries to convince Madame Lyubov (Diane Lane) of the fate of the cherry orchard in Roundabout revival (photo by Joan Marcus 2016)

Chekhov’s plays are ripe for reinterpretation. This year alone has brought the Pearl’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Peter Pan Theatre’s The Seagull and Other Birds, two wildly inventive reimaginings of The Seagull, while the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM was a brilliant, immersive take on the tragicomedy. But Karam and Godwin throw too much into the mix, getting trapped in a no-man’s land between traditional and experimental, classical and contemporary, realistic and metaphorical. Michael Krass’s costumes are all over the place, from sharp, modern-day suits to old-fashioned Eastern European garb, as is Karam’s dialogue. “What is it you’d say . . . ?” Madame Lyubov asks Gaev early on. “What’s the lingo?” And stage directions such as “Varya and Anya share a moment of ‘What the hell was that?!’” certainly don’t help. Karam also shifts the idea of serfdom into slavery, which Godwin overdoes by casting black actors as Lopakhin, Trofimov, and Pischik. Most of the play takes place in the nursery, which set designer Scott Pask has outfitted with tiny chairs and tables, Alexander Calder-like mobiles hanging from the ceiling, a toy village, and a mobile of small hot-air balloons hovering over a child’s bed. Yes, we get it; virtually all of the characters are acting like children. And it turns out to be more cringe-worthy than funny when the rather large Cooper wiggles into one of the chairs. The floor is an enormous trunk of a tree that has been chopped down, its myriad rings representing the changing times and generations, evoking the eventual fate of the cherry orchard and the Russian aristocracy — as well as this production itself.

OH, HELLO

(photo by Joan Marcus)

George St. Geegland (John Mulaney) and Gil Faizon (Nick Kroll) make their Broadway debut in OH, HELLO (photo by Joan Marcus)

Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 22, $59- $159
ohhellobroadway.com

It’s no mean feat to turn brief comedy sketches into feature-length productions; just ask Saturday Night Live, which has produced such critical flops as It’s Pat, A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, The Ladies Man, and MacGruber. Yet somehow, Upright Citizens Brigade regular Nick Kroll and former SNL writer John Mulaney, who started performing as opinionated aging showbiz hangers-on Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, respectively, in the East Village club Rififi in 2005 and later at the Cherry Lane Theatre and on the Comedy Central series Kroll Show from January 2013 to March 2015, have transformed their absurdist two-minute bits into the Broadway smash Oh, Hello, an uproarious send-up of celebrity culture and the Great White Way itself. The goofy, sloppy Faizon and the eccentric, possible serial killer St. Geegland, the hosts of the cable access show Too Much Tuna, have finally reached the big time, making it to Broadway with a play about themselves, a pair of old Upper West Side vaudeville types whose rent is suddenly going up from $75 to thousands a month. Desperate to keep their longtime abode, Faizon, who still hurts from losing a CBS announcing gig decades before, and St. Geegland, the author of the seminal works Next Stop, Ronkonkoma and Rifkin’s Dilemma, try to score a gig on NY1, as if that will make everything right. Amid self-deprecating riffs and a deep, abiding love for the music of Steely Dan, the two old guys manage to put on quite a show.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Septuagenarian Upper West Side pranksters prepare for entrance of F. Murray Abraham in OH, HELLO (photo by Joan Marcus)

Oh, Hello, named after the two men’s trademark greeting, is a clever and inventive one hundred nonstop minutes of hilarity, as fellow Georgetown grads Mulaney and Kroll — who were inspired to create the characters after seeing a pair of elderly men, attached at the hip, both purchasing a copy of Alan Alda’s autobiography Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, at the Strand — try to crack each other up as much as the audience, particularly in their offbeat, offhanded pronunciations of various words and phrases that just make no sense. Scott Pask’s ramshackle set matches Faizon and St. Geegland’s dishevelment to a T, made up of leftover detritus from other shows, including family photos from an August Wilson play. Inside references abound, some that you will get, and some that you won’t, but little does that matter. There are even jokes about Alda, Bobby Cannavale, Aziz Ansari, and Griffin Dunne — Griffin Dunne? — but it turns out that each of those actors have made surprise guest appearances on the prank show Too Much Tuna. (We got John Oliver the night we went, and the Last Week Tonight host couldn’t stop laughing, which was infectious.) Kroll and Mulaney never miss a chance at a visual gag or a ridiculous pun, from the bit of shirt peeking through Faizon’s zipper, to both of them ripping unseen tech intern Ruvi Nandan, to John Slattery and Jon Hamm supposedly serving as their understudies. Two-time Tony nominee Alex Timbers, who has directed such elaborate productions as Here Lies Love, Rocky, and Peter and the Starcatcher in addition to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, goes with the flow, relishing all of the shabby DIY madness. And yes, there is definitely too much tuna. It genuinely doesn’t matter whether you like Mulaney or Kroll individually or whether you were a fan of Kroll Show; everyone is welcome to say Oh, Hello.