Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $55-$147 (daily $30 lottery)
Watching The Last Ship, which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre, you’re likely to think you’ve seen this all before, as it rather precisely follows the pattern of 2013 Tony winner Kinky Boots: Both musicals feature music and lyrics by a pop star (Sting for The Last Ship, Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots), both are set in a British working-class community, and both involve a son debating whether he should follow in his father’s footsteps. And just as Boots was vastly overrated, the same is likely to happen with Ship. Based on Sting’s childhood experiences in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend in the northeast of England, The Last Ship focuses on Gideon Fletcher, first as a fifteen-year-old kid (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) wanting something more than his tough father (Jamie Jackson) has planned for him, then returning fifteen years later (now played by Michael Esper) for his dad’s funeral and trying to get back together with his old girlfriend, Meg (Dawn Cantwell, then Rachel Tucker). But the Wallsend he’s come back to is in the midst of a battle with corporate suit Freddy Newlands (Eric Anderson), whose company is taking over the docks and turning the shuttered shipyard into a scrap yard. With the help of former welder Arthur Milburn (Aaron Lazar), who is in love with Meg and is a surrogate father to her son, Tom (Kelly-Sordelet), Newlands tries to convince the unemployed shipbuilders to come work for him, but their leader, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), wants no part of it. “You could die and hope for heaven / But you’d need to work your shift / And I’d expect ye’s all to back us to the hilt / And if St. Peter at his gate were to ask you why you’re late? / You’d tell him that you have to get a ship built,” he sings in “Shipyard,” in which all the men join in on the chorus, stamping their feet as they declare, “And the only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” It’s the strongest song in the show, but it also emphasizes their refusal to face the facts that the world is changing while they’re not, adding to the many holes in the script.
In the second act, the book, by Tony winner and Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Samurai) and Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), falls apart as Father James O’Brien (Fred Applegate), previously the comic relief, becomes the overly melodramatic sentimental inspiration, the love triangle between Meg, Gideon, and Arthur quickly turns stale and unbelievable, and the shipbuilders’ occupation of the yard is just plain ridiculous. Even the staging, by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Assassins) and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once, The Glass Menagerie), can’t keep things afloat, as it also recalls Kinky Boots as the lads set out to build a ship for themselves. The cast is mostly excellent, particularly Tucker and Nail in their impressive Broadway debuts and another first-timer, Shawna M. Hamic, as Beatrice Dees, the owner of the Ship in the Hole pub, who offers “Mrs. Dees’ Rant” after intermission. While Sting’s score can be refreshing at times, steering clear of Broadway-fication, it can also be repetitive and preachy (“Life is a dance, a romance where ye take your chances / Just don’t be left on the shores of regretful glances”). As the two main narratives converge, the plot grows ever-more convoluted, getting lost in tired us-vs.-them themes that drain the show of any real depth, leaving The Last Ship bobbing on the surface, going nowhere.
The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an extraordinary multimedia journey through the mind of a fifteen-year-old boy with a kind of Asperger’s syndrome. Adapted with extraordinary care and insight by Simon Stephens (On the Shore of the Wide World, Punk Rock) from Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel and directed with flair by Marianne Elliott, the show takes place inside the created universe of truth-telling Christopher John Francis Boone (Alexander Sharp), an odd teen who is obsessed with prime numbers and mathematics, has a beloved pet rat named Toby, and does not like being touched. Upon discovering that the neighbor’s dog has been murdered, Christopher decides to play detective, interviewing people in the community to find the culprit. His father, Ed (Ian Barford), insists he stop sleuthing, as it will only lead to more trouble — Christopher has already been brought in by the cops, who considered him the chief suspect — but Christopher is determined to solve this mystery, as though it were a difficult but not impossible math equation. And when Christopher uncovers a shocking secret about his mother, Judy (Enid Graham), he sets out on another adventure, filled with dangers all its own.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time won seven Olivier Awards, including Best New Play, Best Director (Elliott), Best Actor (Luke Treadaway), and Best Supporting Actress (Nicola Walker), and it’s likely to win a bunch of prizes at next year’s Tonys as well. Elliott’s staging is captivating, the floor and three walls a grid on which Christopher draws emoticons, maps depict his travels, constellations appear, and video projections create a stunning escalator. Every technical element is worth praising: The sets and costumes are by Bunny Christie, lighting by Paule Constable, video by Finn Ross, choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, music by Adrian Sutton, and sound by Ian Dickinson, combining to turn Haddon’s book into a treat for the senses. Twenty-five-year-old Sharp, a recent Juilliard graduate from London, is so immersed in his role that it is hard to believe he is acting, or that anyone else can play the part, but indeed, Luke Treadaway originated Christopher at the National Theatre, and Taylor Trensch gives Sharp a rest during matinees at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The cast members, several of whom play multiple roles, also includes Francesca Faridany as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher and mentor who narrates brief passages from the book; Helen Carey as Mrs. Alexander, a gossipy neighbor who invites Alexander in for cookies; David Manis as Rev. Peters, who discusses God and heaven with the boy; and Mercedes Herrero and Richard Hollis as Mr. and Mrs. Shears, the owners of the dead dog. The repetitive, self-referential nods to the book as book are unnecessary, pulling the audience out of the immersive fantasy for a moment, and the postcurtain coda also takes the crowd out of the world of the play to allow the production to show off one more time, but otherwise The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an absolute delight, a breathtaking, endlessly imaginative theatrical experience that is not to be missed. (As a bonus, some lucky ticketholders will find themselves in a Prime Number Seat, specially chosen by Christopher, which will win them a Curious button if the letters in their name add up to a prime number.)
220 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday (and some Mondays) through January 4, $37 - $152
Earlier this year, Lincoln Center presented the world premiere of Act One, James Lapine’s engaging Broadway adaptation of Moss Hart’s 1959 memoir detailing his beginnings in theater, focusing on his first collaboration with writer-director George S. Kaufman. One of the many fruits of that partnership is now back on the Great White Way, a rousing revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It with You. Set in Depression-era New York City, the three-act madcap farce follows the trials and tribulations of the eccentric Sycamore family, led by patriarch and grandfather Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), who has enjoyed the simple pleasures of life ever since he suddenly walked out on his job more than three decades earlier and now lives contentedly, refusing to pay income tax and raising snakes. His daughter, Penny Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen), a quirky, perpetually pleasant would-be playwright and painter, is married to Paul Sycamore (Mark Linn-Baker), a goofy, unemployed tinkerer who spends most of his time in the basement inventing different kinds of fireworks with the oddball Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr) and playing with his Erector set. Penny and Paul’s younger daughter, Essie Carmichael (Annaleigh Ashford), is a wannabe dancer in endless motion, pirouetting her way through the day in tutus and making candies that her amateur printer husband, Ed Carmichael (Will Brill), goes out and sells when he’s not playing Beethoven on the xylophone for her to dance to. Essie’s ballet teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), is a blustery Russian émigré obsessed with Stalin and the revolution. Despite having little money — the Sycamores regularly eat corn flakes for dinner — the family has a well-treated maid, Rheba (Crystal Dickinson), who really runs things around the house; Rheba is dating Donald (Marc Damon Johnson), who hangs around doing odd jobs. Finally, there’s older daughter Alice Sycamore (Rose Byrne), a prim and proper young lady who is desperate to have a normal life despite her crazy, mixed-up family. (Think Marilyn in The Munsters, for example.) Alice is in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), her very wealthy boss at the Wall Street firm started by his mogul father (Byron Jennings), who raises extremely expensive orchids in his spare time. When the two families are brought together to celebrate Alice and Tony’s engagement, mayhem erupts, jeopardizing the lovebirds’ future.
You Can’t Take It with You, which was first produced on Broadway in 1936 and turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1938 by Frank Capra (with Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Eddie Anderson, Ann Miller, and others), is a lovable romp about 1930s New York City, a fun and fanciful riff on the very serious growing gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. David Rockwell’s living-room set is breathtaking, every nook and cranny occupied by paintings, photographs, masks, sculptures, trinkets, tchotchkes, toys, and other, often loony, paraphernalia. Director Scott Ellis (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Harvey) keeps it all moving at a wickedly funny pace, a nonstop barrage of wacky high jinks, rapid-fire non sequiturs and double entendres, and over-the-top physical comedy, while never letting the audience forget that these are very hard times indeed for families such as the Sycamores, who live in the shadow of such tycoons as Mr. Kirby and his stuffy, genteel wife (Johanna Day.) The cast is superb, led by the humble Jones (who actually makes mention of the “dark side,” eliciting titters from Star Wars fans in the audience), the always welcome Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Killer), the ever-dapper and pristine Jennings (Ten Chimneys, Arcadia), and theater doyenne Elizabeth Ashley as the hash-slinging Grand Duchess Olga Katrina. Some of the physical comedy does grow stale, particularly Brill’s (Tribes, Not Fade Away) twisting mannerisms, Ashford’s (Kinky Boots, Masters of Sex) never-ending spins and twirls, and an unnecessary appearance by Julie Halston (The Tribute Artist) as a drunk actress, but those excesses can be forgiven amid all the boisterous merriment to be had in a play that combines an obviously old-fashioned sensibility with some social, political, and economic observations that are still relevant today, more than seventy-five years after its debut.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 23, $67-$125
There’s something all too familiar about Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies’s latest play, The Country House, which opened October 2 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway home, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The show, which deals with a close-knit group of friends and relatives gathering at a country house during the Williamstown Theatre Festival, resounds with echoes of such recent productions as the Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the underrated Ten Chimneys, the Public’s Nikolai and the Others, and MTC’s own The Snow Geese. It’s a year after the tragic death of Kathy, a beloved and successful actress and, by all accounts, one of the most amazing women ever to step foot on the planet. Her family is honoring her memory at their country house, led by her mother, stage diva Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner); Anna’s cynical, ne’er-do-well son, Elliot Cooper (Eric Lange); her former son-in-law, schlock director Walter Keegan (David Raasche), who was married to Kathy; and Susie (Sarah Steele), Walter and Kathy’s twentysomething daughter. Walter has arrived with his new fiancée, the much younger and very beautiful — as we are told over and over again — Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Bryant), a struggling actress, and Anna has also invited TV superstar and heartthrob Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a longtime family friend who is slumming by appearing at the festival in Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman. Margulies (Time Stands Still, Dinner with Friends) channels Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull as all the women flirt with Michael, the cynical Susie chooses not to get involved in the family business, and the condescending and contemptuous Elliott takes issue with just about everyone, writing a play that doesn’t exactly endear him to the others.
The Country House might not shed new light on this somewhat tired subject, but the production itself is excellent, fluidly directed by Daniel Sullivan, who has helmed many of Margulies’s previous plays. John Lee Beatty’s living-room set is charming and inviting, enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s splendid lighting, which smartly signals each next scene and is especially effective evoking a lightning storm. The acting is exemplary, led by the always engaging Danner (The Commons of Pensacola, Butterflies Are Free) as the still-feisty family matriarch rehearsing for Miss Warren’s Profession, and Steele (Slowgirl, Russian Transport), who is a star on the rise. Rasche (Speed-the-Plow, Sledge Hammer!) is particularly effective as Walter, a character with a lot more depth than originally presented, and TV veteran Lange (Lost, Victorious), in his first play in seven years, will have you wondering why he doesn’t take to the stage more often. Originally produced this past summer at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. (where Danner, Steele, Rasche, and Lange originated their roles), The Country House has a lot to offer, but it’s a place that’s been visited far too often.
A. R. Gurney’s 1988 play, Love Letters, is a joyous celebration of the written word that might look deceptively simple but is instead a complex and thrilling examination of life and love. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, the ninety-minute show features a pair of actors sitting at a long rectangular table, with no bells or whistles; Tony-winning designer John Lee Beatty’s set is about as basic as can be. The epistolary play is told through decades of letters written between childhood friends Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III as they grow up together, head off to boarding school and college, experience romances, and choose very different life and career paths. While the privileged Melissa is a quirky free spirit interested in art, Andrew comes from a slightly less-moneyed family, maturing into a down-to-earth man seeking worldly achievement. Through the letters, they share their hopes and dreams, successes and disappointments, encapsulating two lives that don’t turn out quite as planned.
For more than a quarter century, Love Letters, in which the actors read directly from the script, has been performed around the world, with spectacular pairings as well as productions with stunt casting, including Gurney and Holland Taylor, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner and John Rubinstein, Larry Hagman and Linda Gray (Dallas), Hagman and Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, Wagner and Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart), Jerry Hall and David Soul, Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones, Samantha Bee and Jason Jones (The Daily Show), and, in Stanley Donen’s fleshed-out 1999 TV movie, Laura Linney and Steven Weber. For its current Broadway revival, directed by two-time Tony winner Gregory Mosher, five duos will be playing the roles through February 15. Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy open the run, and they are mesmerizing. Farrow brings a beguiling eccentricity to the capricious, unpredictable, and often self-defeating Melissa, who travels the world but can’t find happiness. Farrow delivers her lines looking out at the audience, adding emotive physical flourishes, while Dennehy steadfastly reads from the script with appropriate earnestness. Farrow and Dennehy make a wonderful team, particularly when one writes multiple letters to the other without a response, their disappointment and pain palpable. The play stumbles as it approaches the end, with the events that befall each character way too over the top, but Andrew’s soliloquy on the glory of handwritten letters trumps all minor quibbles. And thankfully the play has not been updated; there are no mentions of cell phones or the internet, which have changed forever the way people communicate. Farrow and Dennehy will be followed by Dennehy and Carol Burnett, then Candice Bergen and Alan Alda, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen, with more pairings to be announced.
September 1-14, buy one ticket, get one free
Tickets are now on sale for the summer edition of Broadway Week, which runs September 1-14 and offers theater lovers a chance to see new and long-running shows for half-price as well as have an opportunity to pay a $20 fee to upgrade to better seats. Twenty-one shows are participating, but they’re already starting to sell out, with the most popular selections being Cabaret and The Lion King. Among the other choices are Pippin, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Kinky Boots, If/Then, the rebooted Les Misérables, Matilda the Musical, Motown the Musical, and such longtime mainstays as Wicked, Jersey Boys, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, and Mamma Mia! In addition, tickets are available for a few promising shows in preview, the Broadway debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, starring Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson, Donald Margulies’s The Country House with Blythe Danner, and a revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It with You, featuring James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne, and Elizabeth Ashley. You can look all you want, but the two-for-one list does not include The Book of Mormon, unfortunately.
1654 Broadway at West 47th St.
Thursday - Tuesday through January 4, $67.75 - $184.25
The new musical Holler If Ya Hear Me might be based on the songs of Tupac Shakur, but it does not tell the life story of the controversial West Coast rapper who was shot and killed in a Las Vegas drive-by in 1996 at the age of twenty-five. Instead, book writer Todd Kreidler — introduced to Shakur’s music by friend and mentor August Wilson — uses Shakur’s lyrics to share a contemporary tale about life in a ghetto in an unnamed Midwestern industrial city. As the play opens, John (Slam star Saul Williams) descends from the heavens in a jail cell, evoking Shakur’s several stints in prison, while delivering the East Harlem native’s “My Block,” soon joined by the company, setting the mood with the posthumously released song about guns, crack, black-on-black crime, unemployment, economic hardship, and racism. After his innocent brother, Benny (Donald Webber Jr.), is shot and killed, Vertus (Christopher Jackson) is determined to get even with the members of the 4-5 gang who took out Benny, angering his mother (Tonya Weston), alienating his girlfriend, Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), and energizing young Anthony (Dyllon Burnside), who wants revenge as well. Meanwhile, the moody, humorless John is looking to go straight, getting a job working in Griffy’s (Ben Thompson) car-salvage business, where Benny used to work, planning with the white Griffy to get out of the neighborhood together. Through it all, a decrepit old man (John Earl Jelks) calls for peace by writing on walls and preaching through a megaphone.
The first act of Holler If Ya Hear Me is a mess, with a confusing narrative and point of view, a kind of mishmash of West Side Story and In the Heights, but director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Stick Fly) brings things together in act two, focusing more on the individual stories of John, Griffy, and especially Vertus, with stand-out performances by Williams, Thompson, and Jackson. Daryl Waters’s orchestrations too often emphasize Shakur’s background use of R&B elements, Broadway-fying such songs as “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” “Me Against the World,” “Dear Mama,” and “Unconditional Love”; Wayne Cilento’s (Wicked, Jersey Girls) choreography is almost nonexistent; and Edward Pierce’s set design is essentially a bare stage with stoops and a fenced-in salvage show occasionally, sometimes randomly, wheeled in, but Leon and the company still manage to pull it all off in the end while setting a new high for the use of the N-bomb on the Great White Way. The Palace Theatre itself has been transformed for the show, with stadium seating in the front of the tiny orchestra, while the rear has been turned into an interactive exhibition curated by the National Museum of Hip-Hop.