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

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Daily life at the Sycamore house is always an adventure, filled with madness and mayhem (photo by Joan Marcus)

Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday (and some Mondays) through January 4, $37 - $152
www.youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com

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.

Things dont go quite as planned when the Kirbys and the Sycamores get together (photo by Joan Marcus)

Things don’t go quite as planned when the Kirbys and the Sycamores get together (photo by Joan Marcus)

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.

THE COUNTRY HOUSE

(photo by Joan Marcus)

An acting family rips into itself in Donald Margulies’s THE COUNTRY HOUSE (photo by Joan Marcus)

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 23, $67-$125
www.manhattantheatreclub.com
www.thecountryhousebway.com

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.

LOVE LETTERS

(© Carol Rosegg)

Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy are first pair to star in Broadway revival of A. R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize finalist LOVE LETTERS (photo © Carol Rosegg)

Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through February 15, $27-$137
877-250-2929
www.lovelettersbroadway.com
www.brooksatkinsontheater.com

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.

BROADWAY WEEK SUMMER 2014

Tony winner A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER is among those shows selling half-price tickets during Broadway week

Tony winner A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER is among those shows selling half-price tickets during Broadway week

Multiple venues
September 1-14, buy one ticket, get one free
www.nycgo.com/broadwayweek

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.

HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME: AN ORIGINAL MUSICAL

(photo by Joan Marcus)

New musical uses Tupac Shakur’s lyrics to tell contemporary tale of hard life (photo by Joan Marcus)

Palace Theatre
1654 Broadway at West 47th St.
Thursday - Tuesday through January 4, $67.75 - $184.25
www.hollerifyahearme.com

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.

John (Saul Williams) and Darius (Joshua Boone) get down to serious business as Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) looks on in HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME (photo by Joan Marcus)

John (Saul Williams) and Darius (Joshua Boone) get down to serious business as Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) looks on in HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME (photo by Joan Marcus)

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.

BROADWAY IN HD: THE NANCE

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Stagecast of THE NANCE starring Nathan Lane comes to Symphony Space as part of Broadway in HD series (photo by Joan Marcus)

Symphony Space, Leonard Nimoy Thalia
2537 Broadway at 95th St.
June 25 & 30, July 14 & 20, $23, 7:00
212-864-5400
www.symphonyspace.org
www.screenvision.com

Miss a big show because tickets were too expensive or too hard to get or the production took place overseas? Screenvision is now offering a second chance to check out select Broadway, Canadian, and British plays by showing them in movie theaters across the country. Earlier this month, the company, which specializes in movie-theater advertising, presented a filmed version of the Australian production of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, starring Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. Now, in conjunction with Gay Pride Week, Screenvision and Broadway on Screen have teamed up with Lincoln Center Theater to present a stagecast of last year’s Broadway hit The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s poignant and engaging tale of a police clampdown on gay subculture in 1930s New York City. In the play, directed by Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Much Ado About Nothing), Tony nominee Nathan Lane stars as Chauncey, a closeted burlesque performer who is trying to avoid getting arrested while picking up younger men in specific meeting points. The show also stars Andréa Burns, Jenni Barber, and Cady Huffman as a trio of strippers, Lewis J. Stadlen as Chauncey’s onstage partner, and Jonny Orsini as a one-night stand who turns into something more. The Nance will be screening June 25 & 30 and July 14 & 20 at 7:00 at Symphony Space as part of the Broadway in HD series, which also includes a June 24 showing of Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon, Les Misérables) in the 2008 Stratford Festival production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra. In addition, Symphony Space will be screening the current revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business on June 26 & 29 and July 9 & 17 as part of its ongoing National Theatre Live series.

ACT ONE

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Tony Shalhoub, Andrea Martin, and Santino Fontana star in Lincoln Center adaptation of Moss Hart’s ACT ONE memoir (photo by Joan Marcus)

Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through June 15, $77-$137
212-362-7600
www.lct.org

“These annals are not for those unsentimental about the theatre or untouched by its idiocies as well as its glories,” Moss Hart wrote in his beloved, highly influential 1959 memoir, Act One. “The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection.” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-director James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) has adoringly adapted the theatrical bible into a superb new play, running through June 15 at the Vivian Beaumont. The play looks back at Hart’s theatrical education as the older Moss (Tony Shalhoub, in one of three roles) watches earlier versions of himself (Matthew Schechter as a boy, Santino Fontana as a naive young man) as his love of theater develops. When Hart was a child, he would sneak off to shows with his aunt Kate (Andrea Martin), much to the chagrin of his English-immigrant father (Shalhoub), who found it a waste of time and money, especially as the family struggled to pay the rent. Hart’s fascination continues through his teenage years, when he gets a job working for jaded old theatrical manager Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow).

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin) helps foster her nephew’s love of the theater (photo by Joan Marcus)

Following a series of coincidences and luck, Hart is soon collaborating with the famous Broadway playwright and director George S. Kaufman (Shalhoub), writing Once in a Lifetime upstairs in Kaufman’s ritzy home, where the literati come to celebrate themselves. While Hart is a bundle of nerves, worried that his good fortune could come crashing down at any moment, Kaufman is a whole different kind of bundle of nerves, an obsessive-compulsive man who is afraid of germs, washes his hands constantly, and lies on his back on the floor to think. These scenes between Hart and Kaufman are simply rapturous, the heart of the play — and they are also not from the book. Lapine tracked down the first draft of Once in a Lifetime, compared it to the produced version, and imagined what Hart and Kaufman’s collaboration might have been like. The relationship is handled masterfully as their creative process unfurls, continuing with an out-of-town tryout prior to the highly anticipated Broadway opening, fear of failure hovering over their every move.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

George S. Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub) and Moss Hart (Santino Fontana) collaborate on their first play together, ONCE IN A LIFETIME (photo by Joan Marcus)

Shalhoub (Golden Boy, Conversations with My Father) is ever stalwart in his multiple roles, transforming from the overheated Barnett Hart to the dapper Kaufman to the mature Moss with simplicity and grace. Fontana (Cinderella, Sons of the Prophet) has the appropriate stars-in-his-eyes look as Moss tries to establish the career of his dreams, sharing his news with such theater friends as Dore Schary (Will Brill) — who would go on to direct the all-star 1963 film adaptation starring George Hamilton as Hart and Jason Robards as Kaufman. Beowulf Boritt’s breathtaking, airy, multilevel rotating set seemingly has a life of its own as it travels from 1914 to 1930, depicting poverty and wealth, success and disappointment. Just as Hart’s memoir was a love letter to the theater, so is this estimable Lincoln Center adaptation, a warmhearted production that steers well clear of the kind of sentimentality that Hart and Kaufman so consciously avoided. “It is hard to realize now in these days of television, movies, radio, and organized play groups what all this meant to a child of those days,” Hart wrote in his memoir, which was always meant to be a single volume despite its title. “It was not only the one available source of pleasure and wonder, it was all of them rolled into one.” Such is the joy of this stage version of Act One as well.