Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday through June 7, $39 - $199
Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a terrific two-and-a-half-hour play — however, it runs six and a half hours in two lengthy installments at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, each of which requires separate admission. Angels in America meets The Boys in the Band by way of E. M. Forster’s Howards End in the epic drama, which broke the record for winning the most Best Play awards in the West End, including four Oliviers (Best Play, Best Actor for Kyle Soller, Best Director for Stephen Daldry, and Best Lighting Design by Jon Clark). The play is set in contemporary New York City, where Eric Glass (Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) are in love and are considering marriage after seven years together. Toby is a beautiful, magnetic, hard-partying writer who is turning his coming-of-age novel, Loved Boy, into a play; the more grounded Eric works for Jasper (Kyle Harris), a social justice entrepreneur. Eric and Toby are friends with an urbane, wealthy older couple, Walter Poole (Paul Hilton) and Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), who host fabulous gatherings at their summer place in the Hamptons. Fate brings actor Adam McDowell (Samuel H. Levine) into Toby’s life; Toby quickly thinks Adam should star in his play. But when Toby meets bedraggled street prostitute Leo (Levine), a double for Adam, various relationships start swirling out of control.
Throughout the play, Forster (Hilton) comments on the plot and interacts with some of the characters, as if he’s the omniscient narrator of a novel. Early on, a Greek chorus of young men speak with Forster about Howards End. “It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong. And the movie’s good. But, I mean, the world is so different now. I can’t identify with it at all,” one man says. “It’s been a hundred years,” adds another. “The world has changed so much,” a third points out. “Our lives are nothing like the people in your book,” a fourth chimes in. Forster asks, “How can that be true? Hearts still love, don’t they? And break. Hope, fear, jealousy, desire. Your lives may be different. But surely the feelings are the same. The difference is merely setting, context, costumes. But those are just details.” Lopez is referring to his play itself, a modern-day reimagining of Howards End that has been transformed into a gay fantasia. The difference in context matters very much, however, and is brought into sharp focus by the presence of Forster, a closeted homosexual who did not have sex until he was thirty-eight and died in 1970 at the age of ninety-one. He would not allow his own gay fantasia, the queer novel Maurice, written in 1912, to be published until after his death, a fact that is discussed in the play, which also deals directly with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.
Hilton (Peter Pan, Anatomy of a Suicide) is sensational as both Forster and Walter; when he reappears onstage after a lengthy absence, the audience erupts into applause, and with good reason: He is essential to the narrative, which too often drifts into melodrama that would even make Douglas Sirk cringe. Levine (Kill Floor) makes a poignant Broadway debut as Adam and Leo, switching between two characters that are polar opposites of each other. Soller is superb as the thoughtful and caring Eric, displaying a tender chemistry with Tony winner Hickey (The Normal Heart, Love! Valour! Compassion!), whose Henry is the seasoned sage of the group and whose painful memories of those lost to AIDS leads to one of the play’s most searing moments. (Hickey will be on hiatus through April 22 to make his directing debut with Plaza Suite and will be replaced by Tony Goldwyn.) Daldry (Billy Elliot, Skylight) tries to keep things moving on Bob Crowley’s minimal set, a large platform around which Eric and Toby’s friends and wannabe writers (including Jonathan Burke, Carson McCalley, Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, and Arturo Luís Soria) hang out, watch the action, and interject, getting more in the way than adding worthwhile dialogue.
“With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty,” Forster wrote in his seminal 1938 essay “What I Believe,” continuing, “Not absolutely solid, for Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a ‘Person,’ and has shown that there is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance. We don’t know what we are like. We can’t know what other people are like. How, then, can we put any trust in personal relationships, or cling to them in the gathering political storm? In theory we cannot. But in practice we can and do.” Lopez (The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride) captures that part of Forster’s ethos but also strays from it too often.
There is also a very noticeable lack of women in the story, and only one onstage, the key figure of Margaret, played by the impeccable Lois Smith (The Trip to Bountiful, Marjorie Prime), who sums it all up at the end, but by that time Lopez has long bit off more than he can chew, taking on too much and losing focus of the main plot in favor of emotionally manipulative scenes that lack the necessary subtlety even as he tackles such intense subjects as gay eroticism, class, sex, AIDS, and, most critically, legacy. The Inheritance is filled with delicate, beautiful scenes that will move you deeply, unforgettable moments that exemplify what makes live theater so potent. But it just can’t sustain itself for six and a half hours.
The Sound Inside is one of the most beautifully composed shows I have ever seen, an exquisitely rendered work that could have come only from the mind of an expert storyteller. Originally presented in 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and commissioned by Lincoln Center, it is written by novelist and playwright Adam Rapp, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who has authored such books as The Year of Endless Sorrows, Punkzilla, and Know Your Beholder and such plays as Red Light Winter, The Metal Children, and Blackbird, which he adapted into a 2007 film he also directed. In The Sound Inside, a luminous Mary Louise Parker stars as fifty-three-year-old Yale professor Bella Lee Baird. (Rapp has taught at the Yale School of Drama, and his mother’s maiden name is Baird.) Bella, who has written a mildly well received book, Billy Baird Runs through a Wall, alternates between telling her story in the first and third persons directly to the audience, as if narrating a novel, and participating in scenes with one of her students, the enigmatic and cynical Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman).
“A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League University stands before an audience of strangers,” Bella says to open the play. “She can’t quite see them but they’re out there. She can feel them — they’re as certain as old trees. Gently creaking in the heavy autumn air. Is this audience friendly, she wonders? Merciful? Are they easily distracted? Or will they hear this woman out? And what about her? Ironically, she often dissuades her students from describing a protagonist in too fine of detail. Readers only need a few telling clues.” Rapp and director David Cromer, who subtly transforms Studio 54 into an intimate classroom, follow that advice, offering only a few telling clues at a time as we excitedly hear this captivating woman out.
Christopher shows up at Bella’s office one day without an appointment. He has a supreme distaste for rules and regulations and eschews common decency. “Do me a favor. Next time you want to stop by without an appointment at least shoot me an email first,” she tells him. “Yeah, I don’t really do that,” he responds. They discuss Dostoyevsky, hipster baristas, and the book Christopher is writing. They strike up a friendship, but Christopher knows he is taking up a lot of her time. “I mean, if you get tired of me just say so and I can go like wander campus and get mentally prepared for the big football game coming up with Harvard this weekend,” he says. “Stockpile the coldcuts. Get my face painted. Do some steroids. Headbutt random campus bulletin boards, etcetera, etcetera.”
Bella, who’s dealing with stomach cancer and has no one else in her life, welcomes the offbeat Christopher into her daily existence. “I have no children and I’ve never been married,” she tells the audience. “Like many single, self-possessed women who’ve managed to find solid footing in the slippery foothills of higher education, I’ve been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. And a maker of Bulgarian cheese. And a collector of cat calendars. Both my parents are dead. My father suffered a fatal heart attack at sixty-two and I’ll get to my mother in a minute. I have no brothers or sisters. I live in faculty housing. I don’t own property. I’m essentially a walking social security number with a coveted Ivy League professorship and a handful of moth-bitten sweaters.” As they grow closer, they both consider breaking down the barriers that make them each such lonely beings, committing to no one but themselves.
It’s impossible not to become instantly infatuated with Bella, so bewitchingly played by Tony, Obie, and Emmy winner Parker (Proof, Weeds). You want to just rush onstage and give her a giant hug to assure her everything will be all right, even if it won’t. Parker holds the audience in her hands, giving a tour-de-force lesson in acting. Hochman (Sweat, Dead Poets Society) is impressive in his Broadway debut, not intimidated in the least. Rapp celebrates literature without getting pedantic as he explores Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and James Salter’s Light Years. Alexander Woodward’s set features several rooms that move into the foreground and disappear into the background, superbly lit by Heather Gilbert, each one representing a different aspect of Bella’s life. Tony winner Cromer (The Band’s Visit, Our Town) keeps up a lively pace as the characters scrutinize what they are to each other.
The play refers several times to a framed photograph in Bella’s office of a “woman standing in the middle of a harvested cornfield. She’s in all black and tiny in the vast dead field,” she tells Christopher, who asks, “Is that you in the photograph? Of course it is.” But Bella says she has no idea who it is. The next time he visits her in her office, Christopher is mesmerized by the photo and asks, “Has she gotten smaller? . . . I have this weird feeling that if I come back tomorrow the field will be covered. With snow. Like twenty inches. But no footprints. The woman’s just there. As if the field imagined her.” Bella asks, “Do you think it would be a better image?” He replies, “Maybe not better. But somehow more inevitable.” It’s a fabulous moment in a fabulous play, and one that zeroes in on just who these two people are and what they want out of life.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 8, $179 - $799
Just about all you need to know about Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is that, yes, there are two exclamation points in the title. If you thought Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie was over the top and filled to excess, wait till you see the Broadway show. Actually, let me take that back; just trust me and skip it unless you’re looking to toss away between $179 and $799 on a bright red saccharine bonbon. As you enter the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, you’re immersed in the sexy, velvety world of the Moulin Rouge, to great effect. (The set design is by the masterful Derek McLane.) Sultry men and women are there to greet and entice you at the sides of the stage, a large windmill beckons from above (“Moulin Rouge” means “red mill”), but beware the big blue elephant in the room. (Literally.) The opening number shows promise, with Danny Burstein leading the adult circus as nightclub owner and ringleader Harold Zidler, who declares, “Hello, chickens! Yes, it’s me. Your own beloved Harold Zidler. In the flesh. Welcome, you gorgeous collection of reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites, welcome to the Moulin Rouge!” He continues, “No matter your sin, you’re welcome here. No matter your desire, you’re welcome here. For this is more than a nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is a state of mind. It is that part of your soul which throbs and pulses, it is that corner of your mind where your fantasies live.” Well, not my fantasies, at least.
The sails come off the mill quickly after that, as the innocent and penniless Christian (Aaron Tveit) tumbles head over heels in love with Moulin Rouge star Satine (Karen Olivo), whom Zidler has already given to the Duke (Tam Mutu) in exchange for money that will help keep the club open. Meanwhile, French artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) follows along, commenting from a Montmartre café. “Face it, Toulouse. We’re not songwriters,” his friend Santiago (Ricky Rojas) says. Lautrec replies, “How hard can it be, for God sake?! June, spoon, moon — done!” Apparently, it’s pretty darn hard, as Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is stuffed to the gills with snippets of more than seventy hits that are either annoying in their brevity or severely overdramatized; just as in the film, the gimmick grows tired fast, even with familiar tunes by Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lourde, U2, Sia, the Rolling Stones, and Edith Piaf.
Directed by two-time Tony nominee Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love) and with a predictable book by Tony winner and three-time Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Ship), the show is all glitz and glamour (the costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the choreography by Sonya Tayeh) with no chemistry whatsoever between the characters; not only will you not care about what happens to Christian, Satine, and the Duke, you’ll actively root for them to just make up their minds already and put us out of our misery. (The bloviated production runs just over two and a half hours.) And don’t fall for all the tongue-in-cheek self-referential and anachronistic pop-culture blather. Early on, Christian tells Lautrec and Santiago, “So it turns out they were in the midst of writing a theatrical play with some songs in it. They wanted me to go to the Moulin Rouge and sing one of my songs for the star there, sort of an audition. If she liked my music then she’d get the club to put on their show, which they called Bohemian Rhapsody. I swear, they were like two knockabout vaudevillians escaped from the nearest asylum and the whole thing was the single most insane idea I’d ever heard.” Hey, he said it, not me.
205 West 46th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 20, $79-$229
Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tina Turner turns eighty today, a major milestone in a complicated, difficult life that is currently under the microscope on Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, continuing through next September at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Adrienne Warren is explosive in the title role, giving a dazzling performance as Tina transforms herself from little Anna Mae Bullock (Skye Dakota Turner) singing in church to joining Ike Turner’s (Daniel J. Watts) band to ultimately carving out a memorable second-half-of-life career after being physically and psychologically abused and supposedly being washed up at the age of forty. Presented in “association with Tina Turner,” it’s an inspiring rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story that is a step above the recent spate of mediocre (or worse) biographical jukebox musicals that includes Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, The Cher Show, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Aint Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
The book is by rising African American playwright Katori Hall (Our Lady of Kibeho, Hurt Village) with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins (Hij Gelooft in Mij), and the show is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has helmed Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady as well as a well-received all-female Shakespeare trilogy. Tina is paced like a concert, with a strong, fast beginning, some slower moments in the middle, and a grand finale. Not all of it works, particularly as the second act drips into Hallmark territory as Tina’s mother, Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), gets sick. Another problem is that instead of the songs appearing more or less in chronological order as the story unfolds, they are squeezed into scenes because of their content, not when they were recorded, so, for example, her 1983 version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is followed, in succession, by 1984’s “Better Be Good to Me,” 1970’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” 1966’s “River Deep — Mountain High,” 1989’s “Be Tender with Me, Baby,” 1971’s “Proud Mary,” and 1993’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.” Tina didn’t write any of these songs, so they don’t relate to her state of mind at the time, and, even more important, the narrative is by then only up to the early 1980s, several years before she meets manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) and starts her comeback with some of the very tunes we’ve now already heard. It might be a great concert setlist but it muddies the waters of a chronological tale. And don’t even get me started on the prominence of “We Don’t Need Another Hero”; did anyone listen to the end of the chorus and wonder where the line “All we want is life beyond Thunderdome” fits into Tina’s life (particularly without mentioning the Mad Max film it’s from)?
That said, Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes shine, Anthony van Laast’s choreography glints and glimmers, and Nicholas Skilbeck’s arrangements and Ethan Popp’s orchestrations, performed by an eleven-piece rock band, do justice to the originals. In addition to Warren’s star turn as Tina — prepare to be awed at how she makes her way up and down the staircase in heels during the encores — Myra Lucretia Taylor is heartwarming as Tina’s grandmother, Gran Georgeanna; Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, and Mars Rucker have fun as the Ikettes; Dakota Turner reveals quite a strong voice as the young Anna Mae; and Watts does not make Ike pure evil, though you still might consider hissing at him at the curtain call. But the show is really all about Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical), who commands the stage with a magnetic presence and instantly wins over the audience with her unceasing energy, flashy movement, and magical voice, just like the woman she is portraying has done for decades. Happy birthday, Tina!
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 8, $59-$299
Following the disappointing reaction to his third major play, Summer and Smoke, a Broadway failure in 1948 after the runaway successes of 1944’s The Glass Menagerie and 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams headed to Sicily with the love of his life, Frank Merlo. The trip reenergized Williams and inspired him to write The Rose Tattoo, which won four Tonys in 1951, including Best Play, Best Supporting Actor (Eli Wallach), and Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton). “The Rose Tattoo was my love-play to the world,” he wrote in Memoirs. “It was permeated with the happy young love for Frankie and I dedicated the book to him, saying: ‘To Frankie in return for Sicily.’” Roundabout’s revival of the play at the American Airlines Theatre, its ninth Williams show since 1975, is a fiery, passionate affair imbued with broad comedy, along with muddling confusion.
The play is set in 1950 in a Gulf Coast village populated by Sicilian immigrants. Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei) is eagerly awaiting the return of her truck-driver husband, who she calls the Baron. “The clock is a fool. I don’t listen to it. My clock is my heart and my heart don’t say tick-tick, it says love-love!” she tells Assunta (Carolyn Mignini), an elderly fattuchiere. But the Baron never makes it home, leaving Serafina a young widow raising a daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), by herself. Regularly surrounded by a Greek chorus of women in black (Andréa Burns as Peppina, Susan Cella as Giuseppina, Jennifer Sánchez as Mariella, and Ellyn Marie Marsh as Violetta) and with the Strega (Constance Shulman) ever lurking about, the young widow mourns intensely for three years, praying to her very special statue of the Virgin Mary at a shrine at stage front and to the urn that holds her husband’s ashes. Serafina, a seamstress having trouble sewing her life back together, swears to be faithful to the Baron’s memory while she tries to protect Rosa’s virginity as Rosa strenuously tries to lose it to Jack (Burke Swanson), an eighteen-year-old sailor in the throes of young love. But when she overhears Bessie (Paige Gilbert) and Flora (Portia) gossiping about how the Baron cheated on her with the fancy Estelle Hoehengarten (Tina Benko), Rose has to rethink her life, especially when she meets another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott), as he’s being harassed by a racist traveling salesman (Greg Hildreth). Alvaro reminds her of the Baron, lighting a fire inside her she hasn’t felt for a long time.
Obie-wining director Trip Cullman zeroes in on the comic aspects of Williams’s story; if you’ve seen the 1955 movie starring Anna Magnani, who won an Oscar as Serafina, a role Williams wrote for her, you might be surprised at just how funny it is, including a bizarre moment with condoms that led to an arrest in a 1957 Irish production. Meanwhile, a scene involving Bessie and Portia coming to Serafina to pick up clothing she made for them is so racist it’s hard not to wonder why it’s done in that style in this day and age. Many of Cullman’s plays have unique and unusual sets that offer complex ways to look at the work, from Lobby Hero and Significant Other to Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow and The Pain of My Belligerence. But Mark Wendland’s stage for The Rose Tattoo is confounding. It’s a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, with a wooden walkway over sand, a living room, a window, a flock of pink flamingos at the back, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections of the tide rolling in on the shore on three sides. Characters enter and exit inconsistently in too many different ways so it’s hard to tell where everything leads to and from. Tomei (The Realistic Joneses, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage), whose maternal grandmother was Sicilian, is steamy and, appropriately, ardent — Serafina means “ardent” in Italian — as the zealous widow, imbuing her with a fierce sexuality, leaving Elliott (Black Watch, Red Velvet), in his Broadway debut, to play catch-up. (The pair was played by Stapleton and Wallach in the 1951 original, Magnani and Burt Lancaster in the 1955 film, Stapleton and Harry Guardino in the 1966 Broadway revival, and Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia in the 1995 Broadway adaptation.) Rubin is a force as Rosa, representing the next generation of Italian Americans who are not about to do things the way their parents did. Jonathan Linden contributes country-folk blues off stage right, enhancing the period setting.
“During the past two years I have been, for the first time in my life, happy and at home with someone and I think of this play as a monument to that happiness, a house built of images and words for that happiness to live in,” Williams wrote to Elia Kazan in June 1950 when asking him to direct the show. “But in that happiness there is the long, inescapable heritage of the painful and the perplexed like the dark corners of a big room.” Williams even threw in a nod to Merlo, the man responsible for his happiness and whom he called the Little Horse, by giving Alvaro the last name Mangiacavallo, which means “eat a horse.” This latest Broadway revival of The Rose Tattoo also manages to find happiness amid the painful and the perplexed.
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 19, $39-$159
Over the last several years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing four terrific shows first off Broadway and then on, then on the Great White Way. In each case, nothing was lost in the transition to the bigger stage; in fact, three of them received Tony nominations for Best Play — Indecent, Pulitzer Prize recipient Sweat, and The Humans — with The Humans winning the award. (Unfortunately, the sadly overlooked Significant Other had only a short stint on Broadway.)
So at first I was surprised to hear that Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, which initially ran at New York Theatre Workshop last season, was heading to the Golden Theatre for a Broadway engagement, not least because of its graphic sexual content as well as its central subject matter involving a trio of dangerous sexual interactions defined by race, gender, and power on a plantation in the Antebellum South as well as today: black slave Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and her white overseer, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan); Alana MacGregor (Annie McNamara), the plantation owner’s wife, and her “mulatto” house servant, Phillip (Sullivan Jones); and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), a white indentured servant, and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), his black boss. Clint Ramos’s set has been expanded, with two levels of mirrored doors that open up to reveal characters and bring on and off various pieces of furniture; the MacGregor plantation is represented by a long horizontal image of the main house on the mezzanine facade that is reflected in the mirrors across the back of the stage so the audience can see itself. At NYTW, the mirrors made it feel like we were all on the plantation, making us complicit in America’s original sin of slavery.
But at the Golden, the mirrors feel more gimmicky, less insightful and condemnatory. The two-hour intermissionless play is divided into three sections, each of which now struck me as being too long and repetitive, continuing well past their expiration date. And the shock value of the brutal sex scenes and, especially, the second-act twist seemed much more tame. The cast, which is the same except for Kalukango replacing Parris — Irene Sofia Lucio and Chalia La Tour are also back as politically correct comic facilitators Patricia and Teá, respectively — is again uniformly strong, with Cusati-Moyer standing out as a white man claiming he’s not white. So what happened? Only small tweaks were made to the script and direction. Perhaps it’s the spate of works by black playwrights about the black experience in America; since Slave Play debuted at NYTW, I’ve seen Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer-winning Fairview, Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises,
Jordan E. Cooper’s 2019 Ain’t No Mo’, Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise, Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, and Harris’s own “Daddy.”
There’s no denying that it’s a boon to the artform that so many diverse voices are now being heard onstage, both on and off Broadway, dealing with issues that must be faced in a society still teeming with institutional and systemic racism; what used to be the exception (August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy) is quickly becoming the norm (see also Lydia R. Diamond, Dominique Morriseau, Danai Gurira, Dael Orlandersmith, and Katori Hall, among others). But maybe the shock I experienced when I first saw Slave Play has worn off a bit as the subject matter becomes more commonplace in American theater. Maybe the Golden is too large a venue for the intimacy Harris is exploring in the show. Maybe the flaws in Slave Play are more evident in this bigger production, particularly when seen for the second time. Or maybe the novelty of the play has just dissipated as more nuanced ones come along. I’m not sure any of that matters from a critical standpoint, as the producers just announced that it’s off to a solid financial start, even extending the run two weeks.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 24, $79-$169
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are more than reason enough to see Florian Zeller’s latest intricate family drama, The Height of the Storm, although the play doesn’t quite live up to its lofty ambitions. The follow-up to Zeller’s trilogy of The Father, The Mother, and The Son, this new work shares themes with its predecessors, particularly The Father; as in that story, an elderly man named André (Pryce) with two daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Élise (Lisa O’Hare), is having trouble with his memory. But in this case, there has been a death, but it’s not clear whether it’s André, an extremely successful writer, or his wife, Madeleine (Atkins). References to a recent bereavement are many, yet the two elderly married characters appear in scenes together that do not seem to be flashbacks. “There’s nothing to understand. People who try to understand things are morons,” an ornery André says, which is good advice to the audience as well, who shouldn’t try to think too hard to figure out what’s happening, whether we’re watching the present, the past, or the meanderings of a man suffering from dementia.
Anne is going through her father’s papers at the request of his editor to find more material to publish. Élise and her latest boyfriend, real estate agent Paul (James Hiller), are in from Paris, about to rush back for an important meeting. Madeleine is much calmer, walking through their vegetable garden and making her husband’s favorite mushroom dish. (The play takes place in Anthony Ward’s cozy, high-ceilinged kitchen set.) But when a woman (Lucy Coho) arrives claiming to be an old friend of André’s, his memory is tested yet again. “I had a life. I don’t deny it. But in the end, what’s left?” André opines. “A few faces? A few names lost in the fog? Here and there . . . Not much more. May as well forget everything.”
Pryce (Comedians, Miss Saigon), who has won two Tonys and two Olivier Awards, and three-time Olivier Award winner Atkins (Honour, A Room of One’s Own) are impeccable, delivering meticulous performances anchored by the fear that after fifty years of marriage, either André or Madeleine must go first, leaving the other one alone. Drew (Three Days in the Country, Enron), who played Anne in James Macdonald’s production of The Father at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2016, is staunchly resolute as the daughter trying to keep everything from falling apart. The ninety-minute play features profound lighting by Hugh Vanstone, particularly as it relates to Pryce, who is sometimes cast in darkness while the others remain lit and talking. But director Jonathan Kent (Plenty, Naked) and translator Christopher Hampton (who did the same for the previous three related works) don’t always maneuver fluidly through the narrative; part of the intent is to set the viewer off balance, but too much manipulative confusion is not ideal, especially when accompanied by a clichéd twist. “What is my position? What is my position here? What is my position? My position! What is my position here? My position. Here. What is it? My position . . . what is it?” André frantically demands at one point. The audience is often not sure, which can be both hypnotic and aggravating.