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

SEA WALL / A LIFE

(photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Alex (Tom Sturridge) deals with tragedy in Simon Stephens one-act at the Hudson Theatre (photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 29, $59 - $315
855-801-5876
seawallalife.com
www.thehudsonbroadway.com

When I first saw Sea Wall / A Life at the Public’s Newman Theater this past March, I was profoundly moved by the deeply affecting show, a pair of thematically related monologues by two superstar writers, performed by two superstar actors. Seeing it again on Broadway, where it opened tonight at the Hudson Theatre, was a surprisingly different experience. There are some minor tweaks, particularly a beautiful coda along with new lighting choices by Guy Hoare and subtle sound design by Daniel Kluger, but it’s essentially the same presentation, still utterly involving and captivating, delicately directed by Carrie Cracknell on Laura Jellinek’s austere set, which features a piano on one side and a ladder leading to a large brick landing in the back on the other. But this time around I was sitting fourth row center, much closer than I did at the Public, and I was mesmerized by the eyes of the two men onstage. I usually do get great seats, but sitting so near the stage, I was awestruck by the way Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal modulated their performances with just their eyes.

Be sure to arrive early, because as the crowd enters, Gyllenhaal sits at the piano, black-framed glasses on, looking out at the audience, making direct eye contact with as many people as he can. Shortly after he leaves, Sturridge wanders onto the stage, grabs a beer and a box of Polaroids, and takes a seat at the top of the ladder. The actors are making a clear, powerful connection that sets up what is to follow.

First is Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall, in which Tony-nominated British actor Sturridge is Alex, a photographer who shares a riveting story about his wife, Helen; their daughter, Lucy; and Helen’s father, Arthur, building up to an incident that occurred three weeks earlier. Much of the tale takes place in the south of France, where Arthur has a house. As Alex talks about how much he loves his family, his penchant for crying, his difficulty putting on a wetsuit, and the hole in the center of his stomach, Sturridge’s eyes move slowly, stopping and pondering, remembering, afraid to forget. Sharp humor is laced with a melancholia that hovers in the tense air as he walks across the stage and atop the landing, as if the brick wall is the sea wall itself, which is supposed to provide protection to humans and ocean life.

(photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Abe (Jake Gyllenhaal) faces crises as a father and a son in Nick Payne’s A Life on Broadway (photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Intermission is followed by Nick Payne’s A Life, in which Oscar-nominated American actor Gyllenhaal is Abe, a music producer whose father is ailing and wife is pregnant. He so seamlessly shifts between the two stories, one of impending death, the other of upcoming birth, that it’s sometimes hard to tell which one he is referring to. As each reaches its conclusion, the back-and-forth becomes rapid fire, life and death overlapping as Abe considers his existence as a father and as a son. Gyllenhaal spends nearly the entire fifty-five minutes in a large spotlight, so we are drawn to his expressive face and his eyes, which dart around faster and faster, seeking acknowledgment, encouragement, and understanding from the audience. It’s a bravura performance that I appreciated in a whole new way by sitting so close. That is not at all to say that you won’t be blown away if you are significantly farther away; it is just different, a theatrical experience that is well worth it no matter where you sit.

Gyllenhaal (Sunday in the Park with George, Brokeback Mountain), who was previously in Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Constellations, and Sturridge (Orphans, 1984), who was in Stephens’s Punk Rock and Wastwater, wanted to work together, and this is the project they decided on. Even though they do not act side-by-side, they form an intimately linked duo, developing a unique relationship with each other and the audience, as if the plays were written as a set piece, which they were not. Getting to the heart of both shows, Abe says, “I remember reading somewhere or maybe someone telling me about this idea that there are three kinds of deaths. . . . The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when we bury the body, or I guess set it on fire. And the third is the moment, sometime way in the future, when our names are said, spoken aloud, for the very last time. I’m thinking to myself but I don’t say it, I wonder who’s gonna say our child’s name for the last time?” Alex and Abe are filled with the joy of life, but it’s the fear of death that can be overwhelming, to the characters as well as the audience as we consider that prophetic pronouncement.

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE

(photo by Deen van Meer, 2019)

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald star in Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (photo by Deen van Meer, 2019)

Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 28, $49-$159
www.frankieandjohnnybroadway.com

Obie-winning director Arin Arbus, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, and two-time Oscar and Tony nominee Michael Shannon deliver a lovely eightieth birthday present to four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally — and a splendid gift to theatergoers in the process — with a scorching Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, heating up the summer at the Broadhurst through July 28. Originally presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987 featuring Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham as the title characters, then debuting on Broadway in 2002 with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci (replaced by Rosie Perez and Joey Pantaliano) — it was also made into a 1991 movie by Garry Marshall with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino — the play is clearly all about the actors; its one and only subject is about making connections in a world that can be cold and lonely. Arbus’s version remains true to the original, set in the 1980s in a New York City walkup in the West Fifties during the AIDS crisis. There are no cell phones and no internet, no 24/7 news cycle, no Facebook, no Spotify playlists, just two people involved in a one-night stand, then grappling with the question of whether it may be more.

The show takes place in a well-rendered studio apartment designed by Riccardo Hernández, with the bed at the center of the stage. Frankie (McDonald), a waitress at a local diner, and Johnny (Shannon), a short order cook there, are in the midst of raw, passionate sex while Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays on the radio. “God, I wish I still smoked. Life used to be so much more fun,” Frankie says after they have finished making love. It’s not exactly what you expect to hear after such a sexual experience, but it instantly establishes Frankie as a nervous, worried, negative woman who thinks the best part of her life is over. The more upbeat and positive Johnny responds with a funny story about flatulence that exposes a wry sense of humor and a clear lack of boundaries. She wants him to leave, but he won’t; he’s determined to convince her that this was no mere onetime tryst. While he heaps praise on her and doesn’t hesitate to open up, she is fearful of revealing too much of herself. He also discovers a series of coincidences that he thinks means they are meant to be together, but she is not buying it.

(photo by Deen van Meer, 2019)

Frankie (Audra McDonald) and Johnny (Michael Shannon) explore connections in eightieth birthday present for Terrence McNally (photo by Deen van Meer, 2019)

“I want to ask you to quit sneaking up on me like that,” she says. “We’re talking about one thing, people who teach, and wham! you slip in there with some kind of intimate, personal remark. I like being told I’m fabulous. Who wouldn’t? I’d like some warning first, that’s all. This is not a spontaneous person you have before you.” He replies, “You’re telling me that [the sex] wasn’t spontaneous?” She responds, “That was different. I’m talking about the larger framework of things. What people are doing in your life. What they’re doing in your bed is easy or at least it used to be back before we had to start checking each other out. I don’t know about you but I get so sick and tired of living this way, that we’re gonna die from one another, that every so often I just want to act like Saturday night really is a Saturday night, the way they used to be.”

His insistence on sticking around and getting extremely personal is more creepy in this #MeToo era, but his stalkerish behavior wasn’t exactly exemplary in 1987 either. After all, McNally does name the characters after an old song that first declares, “Frankie and Johnny were lovers,” then has her pulling out a gun after he “done her wrong,” so her trust issues are understandable. Before this night, Frankie and Johnny had communicated at the restaurant only as fellow employees, with her calling out orders (probably in abbreviated diner-speak) and him making the food. Now they’re potentially laying bare their souls — after laying bare their bodies, as the play famously requires substantial nudity in the first act.

Former TFANA associate artistic director Arbus (The Skin of Our Teeth, The Father) heightens the emotional and psychological cat-and-mouse aspects of the narrative as Frankie and Johnny try to figure out what just happened between them. McDonald (Master Class, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) again proves herself to be one of the finest theater actors of her generation with a brave, sizzling display of rough-hewn vulnerability, while Shannon (Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Killer) portrays Johnny with a jittery, menacing kindness. McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) includes numerous references to music and the moon, classic inspirations for romance — the title of the play itself refers to Claude Debussy’s movement based on Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem, which in part reads, “All sing in a minor key / Of victorious love and the opportune life, / They do not seem to believe in their happiness / And their song mingles with the moonlight.” Many of the scenes are so graphic and exposing that intimacy director Claire Warden was brought in to make the actors more comfortable. Fortunately, that did not remove the general level of discomfit and unease the audience is meant to feel as they watch a man and a woman examine their fate face-to-face, and body to body.

ARTHUR MILLER’S ALL MY SONS

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Joe Keller (Tracy Letts) and his son Chris (Benjamin Walker) face off in Roundabout revival of All My Sons (photo by Joan Marcus)

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 30, $99-$352
212-719-1300
www.roundabouttheatre.org

In Jack O’Brien’s poignant Roundabout revival of Arthur Miller’s breakthrough play, All My Sons, an all-American family is caged in a psychological, metaphorical jail as their world falls apart over the course of a hot August day in 1947. The story takes place in the comfortable Midwest suburban backyard of the home of Joe and Kate Keller (Tracy Letts and Annette Bening), where the consequences of WWII are building in intensity, turning their house into a prison of their own making. Their oldest son, Larry, a pilot in the war, has been missing for three years. While Joe, a sturdy, self-made factory owner, and Larry’s younger brother, Chris (Benjamin Walker), an idealist who also fought in the war, have accepted Larry’s death, Kate refuses to believe he is gone, insisting that he is alive and will be back any minute. Chris has invited Larry’s former girlfriend and their childhood neighbor, Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini), to visit them so he can propose to her; Joe tries to talk him out of it, telling him that it would destroy Kate. Ann’s brother, George (Hampton Fluker), is also on his way to the Kellers’ house after speaking with his father, Steve, who is in prison; Steve, Joe’s former business partner, was locked up for a crime that Joe might know a lot more about than he’s admitting.

“Can I see the jail now?” Bert (alternately played by Alexander Bello or Monte Green) asks Joe, who has made the eager young boy a detective to keep watch over the community. “Seein’ the jail ain’t allowed, Bert. You know that,” Joe says. “Aw, I betcha there isn’t even a jail. I don’t see any bars on the cellar windows,” Bert responds. “Bert, on my word of honor, there’s a jail in the basement,” Joe assures him. It’s not long before Joe’s word of honor is under question, as is the American dream itself.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

George Deever (Hampton Fluker) has some critical thoughts to share with the Keller clan in Arthur Miller Broadway revival (photo by Joan Marcus)

All My Sons, which won a Best Author Tony for its Broadway debut (directed by Elia Kazan and starring Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden) and was named Best Revival forty years later (with Richard Kiley, Joyce Ebert, Jamey Sheridan, and Jayne Atkinson), isn’t a bit creaky despite being more than seventy years old. The central issue it deals with — the devastating impact war can have on families — is an unfortunately universal, timeless one. “Well, that’s what a war does,” Joe tells neighbors Frank and Lydia Lubey (Nehal Joshi and Jenni Barber). “I had two sons, now I got one. It changed all the tallies. In my day when you had sons it was an honor. Today a doctor could make a million dollars if he could figure out a way to bring a boy into the world without a trigger finger.”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Chris (Benjamin Walker) wants to marry Ann (Francesca Carpanini) against his parents’ wishes (photo by Joan Marcus)

Three-time Tony winner O’Brien (Hairspray, The Hard Problem), who directed a 1987 television adaptation that featured James Whitmore, Aidan Quinn, Michael Learned, and Joan Allen, also focuses on rampant postwar consumerism and profiteering; the key plot point evokes the recent controversy over the safety of the Boeing 737 Max. “Money. Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything,” explains Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden), who lives in the Deevers’ old house and complains of his wife’s (Chinasa Ogbuagu) insistence that he make more cash. Award-winning playwright and actor Letts (Mary Page Marlowe, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is sublime as Joe, a robust man who is willing to do anything to protect his family, while Bening (Coastal Disturbances, King Lear) is haunting as Kate, who appears to be a shadow of a woman, seemingly existing solely for Larry and living in a fog. The couple is trapped in their home, unable to escape the lies they’ve surrounded themselves with; Walker (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Psycho) is bold and strong as Chris, the only one who can actually leave the premises as he considers a life somewhere else. Each of the three acts (with one intermission) begins with a projection of the Keller house on a translucent scrim, slowly rising to reveal Douglas W. Schmidt’s set as if a jail door opening. “It’s bad when a man always sees the bars in front of him. Jim thinks he’s in jail all the time,” Sue tells Ann. O’Brien knows his subject matter and directs with a sure hand and the confidence that comes with understanding the responsibility of helming a Great American Play, one that feels that it hasn’t aged a bit after all these decades.

HILLARY AND CLINTON

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf star as Bill and Hillary Clinton in Lucas Hnath’s latest play (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 23, $39-$159
hillaryandclintonbroadway.com

It’s easy to imagine that in some alternate universe, Hillary Clinton is still running for president. Lucas Hnath does just that in Hillary and Clinton, his modestly entertaining play running at the Golden Theatre. Hnath originally wrote the show in 2008, when Clinton was battling Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination; it debuted in 2016 in Chicago, Obama’s adopted hometown. But Hnath has completely rewritten the tale for its Broadway bow, keeping the 2008 setting but filtering it through the lens of Clinton’s shocking 2016 loss to Donald J. Trump. The ninety-minute one-act opens with Laurie Metcalf taking the stage with a broken microphone, proposing that there are multiple versions of our universe. “Imagine, okay, that light years away from here on one of those other planet Earths that’s like this one but slightly different that there’s a woman named Hillary,” she proposes. Metcalf then becomes Hillary, with John Lithgow as her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Neither actor attempts to mimic the character they are portraying, either vocally or physically. Metcalf wears sweatpants, Uggs, a turtleneck, and a zippered fleece, while Lithgow is dressed in jeans or shorts, sneakers, and a leather jacket. (The casual, suburban-style costumes are by Rita Ryack.) They look and talk just like Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow.

Hillary is in a nondescript New Hampshire hotel room (designed by Chloe Lamford), preparing for the state primary. Her campaign manager, the schlubby Mark (Zak Orth), is not overly concerned that she is trailing in the polls to the upstart Obama (Peter Francis James). “I’d actually be more worried if we were winning too fast,” Mark says. “As far as I’m concerned it’s good for you to be the underdog.” Hillary replies, “So me losing is a strategy?” Mark insists that Hillary keep Bill far away, but he soon comes knocking, offering advice that Mark and Hillary are not too keen on. “People don’t vote with their brain,” Bill explains like a wise professor. “They don’t, even people who think they do, don’t. It’s never not emotional.” One of the problems, he points out, is that she is not very likable, which she is not thrilled to hear. Perhaps this universe is not so different from ours after all. They all talk deals, but they don’t get into specific policies; Hnath focuses on the couple’s personalities and their desires — including the unsavory ones that led to Bill’s impeachment.

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Hillary campaign manager Mark (Zak Orth) is not thrilled that Bill has joined the team in Hillary and Clinton (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (The Boys in the Band, Take Me Out), who directed Metcalf to a Tony as Nora in Hnath’s bold, insightful Ibsen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2 (she has won two Tonys and three Emmys and has been nominated for an Oscar), treats the Clintons just like regular people, a married couple having a series of familiar disagreements, even if in this case it involves one of them possibly becoming the leader of the free world. Two-time Tony winner Lithgow (Sweet Smell of Success, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) — he’s also won six Emmys and been nominated for two Oscars and four Grammys — has a calm grace as Bill, who is more needy than one would expect. Hillary and Clinton is not meant to be biographical, or even truthful. Did the things that come up in the play, especially between Barack and Hillary, actually happen in real life? It doesn’t really matter. Hnath has given us an slice of alternate Americana, and while it might not be as satisfying as Grandma’s apple pie, it is a sly, tasty little snack.

HADESTOWN

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Hermes (André De Shields) narrates the love story between Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) and Orpheus (Reeve Carney) in Hadestown (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 5, $109-$249
www.hadestown.com

After a thirteen-year gestation period, Anaïs Mitchell’s sizzling-hot Hadestown has descended on Broadway, burning it up to packed houses at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Mitchell wrote the book, music, and lyrics to the Tony-nominated show, which has transformed since 2006 from a small presentation in Vermont with friends and a 2010 concept album to evolving productions at New York Theatre Workshop, the Citadel in Canada, and London’s West End. The fiery musical is a potent combination of the Greek myths of Persephone and Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice, flavored with the American version of the proletarian struggle against capital. The narrative journeys from Persephone’s raucous jazz bar into the underworld, telling the tragic mythological fable of a doomed love affair between Orpheus (Reeve Carney), here written as a naïve, wide-eyed dreamer, and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), who becomes a practical and realistic young traveler trying to survive in supremely hard times. They meet at a railway station on the road to hell, which is run by the devious King Hades (Patrick Page) and his far more sympathetic wife, Persephone (Amber Gray), from atop their not-quite-ivory tower. “Now some may say the weather ain’t the way it used to be / But let me tell you something that my mama said to me: / You take what you can get / And you make the most of it / So right now we’re living it,” Persephone sings.

Down below, in hell, a workers chorus of factory slaves (Afra Hines, Timothy Hughes, John Krause, Kimberly Marable, and Ahmad Simmons) toils away in horrific heat. The proceedings are narrated with devilish charm, Our Town-style, by Hermes (André De Shields), the messenger god. “It’s a sad song / It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy / It’s a sad song / But we sing it anyway,” he explains. When the desperate Eurydice is lured by Hades, Orpheus can save her only by writing the most beautiful song ever written as the Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad) keep a close watch on it all.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Hades (Patrick Page) and Persephone (Amber Gray) survey their domain in sizzling Broadway musical (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; Small Mouth Sounds) marvelously melds a steampunk aesthetic with New Orleans bravado and depression-era gloom, maintaining an energetic fast pace to what, at its heart, is a simple, poetic love story. Mitchell’s music, performed by onstage musicians (pianist Liam Robinson, violinist Dana Lyn, cellist Marika Hughes, guitarist Michael Chorney, trombonist Brian Drye, double bassist Robinson Morse, and percussionist Ben Perowsky) as if at a honky tonk, range from R&B, soul, and jazz to folk, blues, country, and pop with enthusiastic orchestrations by Todd Sickafoose and rousing choreography by David Neumann that avoid typical Broadway melodrama. Rachel Hauck’s set, anchored by Hades’s grim, looming tower, seems to breathe smoke and fire. Michael Krass’s costumes include some ravishing touches, from Persephone’s green velvet dress and Hades’s impeccable pinstripe suit to Hermes’s spectacular sharkskin ensemble.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) makes a decision she’ll regret as the Fates hover over in Hadestown (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Page (Spring Awakening, Coriolanus), whose booming baritone echoes throughout the theater, and Carney (Penny Dreadful; Hello, Stranger), who plays Orpheus with a sweet innocence, are worthy adversaries, having already battled it out in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, in which Carney was the web-throwing superhero and Page the villainous Green Goblin. Noblezada (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) does well as the underwritten, underdeveloped Eurydice, while Gray (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; An Octoroon) has a stomping good time as Persephone. Mitchell and Chavkin make a strong connection between the burgeoning love between the young Orpheus and Eurydice, who are fighting fate for a chance at a life together, and Hades and Persephone, who lost their spark long ago and might not be able to get it back. There are also references to modern-day climate change, capitalism, and politics without getting heavy-handed, offering the hope of spring. “Wipe away your tears, brother / Brother, I know how you feel / I can see you’re blinded / By the sadness of it all,” Persephone declares. “Look a little closer and / Everything will be revealed / Look a little closer and / There’s a crack in the wall!”

TOOTSIE THE MUSICAL

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana) and Jeff Slater (Andy Grotelueschen) lament their situations in Broadway musical adaptation of Tootsie (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Marquis Theatre
210 West 46th St. at Broadway
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $79-$469
tootsiemusical.com

Robert Horn moves Sydney Pollack’s 1982 hit, Tootsie, from television soap opera to self-reflective Broadway musical in the book for the Broadway musical adaptation of the film, a ten-time Oscar nominee, continuing at the Marquis Theatre through December 22. The movie starred Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, an impossibly difficult thespian who dresses as a woman, Dorothy Michaels, to land a job on a daytime soap; he lives with his goofy best friend, Jeff Slater (Bill Murray), is close with his ex-girlfriend, determined actress Sandy Lester (Teri Garr), and falls for one of his costars, Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange). In the Broadway version, Dorsey/Michaels is played with flair and panache by Santino Fontana, who dresses as a woman to play the nurse in Ron Carlisle’s (Reg Rogers, who was played in the movie by Dabney Coleman) disastrous musical sequel to Romeo & Juliet entitled Juliet’s Curse. (The role of Julie’s father, who has the hots for Dorothy and is played in the film by Charles Durning, is excised from the show.) Fontana changes hair and costumes at near-record pace as he flits between his ever-growing role onstage while trying to maintain his offstage relationships and keep his ruse a secret from everyone except Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen).

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Dorothy Michaels (Santino Fontana) has some pointers for Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper) as they rehearse Juliet’s Curse (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Michael battles on-set with the womanizing Carlisle; angers his agent, Stan Fields (Michael McGrath, in a very different role from the agent played by Pollack in the film); auditions for the same part Sandy (Sarah Stiles) covets; and haplessly attempts to woo Julie (Lilli Cooper). While the arc of his instant success worked in the movie more than three dozen years ago, it often strains credulity here, particularly during the show-within-a-show’s opening night. But getting there can be lots of fun, with antic choreography by Denis Jones and tongue-in-cheek music and lyrics by David Yazbek, although Scott Ellis’s (The Elephant Man, Kiss Me, Kate) direction is bumpy and inconsistent, Simon Hale’s orchestrations of the ballads are overly conventional, and Dorsey is occasionally too unlikable as the production stumbles over making itself relevant in the #MeToo generation.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Sandy Lester (Sarah Stiles) wears her heart on her sleeve as Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) looks on in Tootsie (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Tony nominee Stiles (Hand to God, Avenue Q) nearly steals the show as the desperate Sandy, bringing the house down with “What’s Gonna Happen?,” documenting her futility in both life and career; Tony nominee Rogers (Holiday, The Royal Family) is appropriately slimy as the sleazy, self-important director; Fiasco veteran Grotelueschen (Into the Woods, Cyrano de Bergerac) is warm and funny as Jeff; and Julie Halston (On the Town, Anything Goes) supplies solid support as producer Rita Marshall. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s hair and wig design are absolutely fabulous, and David Rockwell’s constantly-in-motion set has its own choreography. There was a sweet, unscripted incident the night I went, the first performance after the production had been nominated for eleven Tonys; when Stan tells Michael he might be up for a Tony, the audience burst into spontaneous applause for several minutes as Fontana (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Brighton Beach Memoirs), who earned a well-deserved nod for Best Actor in a Musical, sheepishly grinned and blushed: a meta-moment in a production built around its own kind of meta.

GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Gary (Nathan Lane) and Janice (Kristine Nielsen) have got quite a cleaning job ahead of them in Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Booth Theatre
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 16, $39 - $169
garyonbroadway.com

Downtown fave Taylor Mac makes quite an impression with his Broadway debut, the eminently strange and hysterically funny Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. The play is set just after the bloodbath that concludes Shakespeare’s violent tragedy and is prefaced by a monologue by a midwife named Carol (Julie White), who self-referentially explains directly to the audience, “Like God, a sequel hides inside an ending: / When time is up you pray that it’s extending. / For life, to the cultured, and to the philistine / Once felt, is craved ’til thrills become routine. / But once routine the thrills, to thrill, must grow. / And if they don’t, an outrage starts to show. / So double up on savagery and war: / To satisfy you multiply the gore.” She introduces not only the rhythmic nature of the dialogue and the British accents all three characters will speak in but also the Monty Python-like comedy of spurting blood in which anything goes and no joke is too high or low. The Clown (named Gary by Mac and portrayed with extra relish by Nathan Lane), who had delivered a letter to Saturninus in the original Bard play, has avoided execution by agreeing to become a maid. Little does he know that he will have to work with the stern, humorless Janice (Kristine Nielsen) to clean up more than a thousand ragged bodies piled high in the royal banquet room, a fate perhaps worse than death.

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Carol (Julie White) find herself in an icky predicament in Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

“I always was a clown who hated clowns,” Gary, who used to juggle pigeons on the street, confesses to the bodies. Belittled by Janice, he tells her he is “more like an everyman who’s a nobody else” and shares his dream of becoming a fool, which he describes as “a clown with ambition.” (Master clown and actor Bill Irwin is credited with the movement.) Janice teaches him the ropes, which involves thoroughly eliminating the remaining gas from each victim and then sucking out their innards and blood using two separate hoses. Mac includes a parade of flatulence and penis jokes that are not the usual Broadway fare while also taking on the current political climate in America. “Ya think the streets are all clean and nifty? Ya know as well as I it’s a hell on earth out there and only getting worse, what with the autocracy turned to a democracy turning back to an autocracy, as we speak,” Janice, who refuses to talk in rhymes or Iambic pentameter, says. A moment later, Gary bursts into tears and Janice uncaringly asks, “What ya crying for?” He answers, “The state of the world.”

The puns and buffoonery keep on coming as Pulitzer Prize finalist Mac (A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) and five-time Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, Topdog/Underdog) push Janice, Carol, and Gary deeper into the mess left behind by the powers that be. The near-endless supply of dead people on Santo Loquasto’s imaginative set evokes the casualties of wars waged by tyrannical governments. “Seems the casualty is how casual it is,” Gary opines. But there are also glimmers of hope. Explaining the surprising emotions he experienced when he was barely saved from being hanged and saw the sky as if for the first time, Gary says to Janice, “Once ya feel that, it’s proof, aint’ it? Proof ya don’t gotta live your life accepting the muck.” He believes he can save the world, which Mac thinks everyone is capable of. Referring to the court, Gary says, “If two maids could turn the hopelessness of a massacre into a coup of beauty, they too can imagine a better world.”

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Gary (Nathan Lane) impresses Janice (Kristine Nielsen) for a moment in Broadway comedy (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Tony winners Lane (Angels in America, The Producers) and White (The Little Dog Laughed, Airline Highway) and Tony nominee and Obie winner Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Dog Opera) have a blast together. At the last moment, Andrea Martin, who was cast as Janice, got hurt and had to leave the show, so Nielsen moved from Carol to Janice and White came on as Carol, creating a formidable comic trio with a lot to say about society while making the audience laugh itself silly.

Mac, who uses the gender pronoun “judy,” delivers some grand pronouncements without becoming preachy, getting right to the point when Gary declares that the next step should be “not a violent coup. An artistic one. An onslaught of ingenuity that’s a transformation of the calamity we got here. A sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge. A comedy revenge to end all revenge. Well, not just a comedy. A sorta folly. Not a spectacle. Or a comedy folly that is a spectacle. Sorta a machination. That’s full of laughter. But more than laughs. But with the laughs. Well, sorta a thinking man’s laughter. But could be a knee-slapper.” Which is just what Mac’s play is.