254 West 54th St.
Through January 13, $49-$179
In another part of my life, I have worked in book, newspaper, and magazine publishing, where I am regularly involved in fact checking, corresponding with freelancers, editors, and authors, trying to carefully balance artistic license and the absolute truth, if such a thing exists. So I have a particular interest in The Lifespan of a Fact, the new play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell continuing at Studio 54 through January 13. Inspired by a true story, the eighty-five-minute show centers around an essay written by John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale) for a magazine run by Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones), who has hired intern Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe) to fact check the piece, which is about the suicide of sixteen-year-old Levi Presley in Las Vegas. A recent Harvard grad, Fingal is excited about showing Penrose what he can do, assuring her that he is the right person for the job, which is on a very tight deadline. “Check all the details, make sure they’re correct,” she tells him. “John’s been known to take his little liberties, so if there’s a place mentioned, make sure it’s spelled correctly. If there’s a person mentioned, confirm they exist. We need to make a good faith effort — confirm every detail.” She also tells him not to “be roughshod,” as D’Agata is a great writer and the piece is an extremely beautiful and important essay about humanity. But what begins as a small dispute between the nerdy Fingal and the tough D’Agata over how many strip clubs there are in Vegas turns into a major battle over language, journalism, and veracity.
Objecting to Fingal’s queries, D’Agata advises him, “I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece. Don’t get bogged down in the details, keep your eye on the big picture. Except don’t, because that’s my job.” But when Fingal does get bogged down on the details, questioning just about every single thing mentioned in the essay, he flies out to Vegas to perform what he believes to be due diligence. “If you say an event occurred, readers need to trust that it occurred,” Fingal insists to D’Agata. “This piece rests on the weight of a lot of details; it’s problematic for you to wash your hands of their accuracy.” D’Agata defends himself, explaining, “Things don’t rest on weights. Weights rest on things. I’m not washing my hands of anything. I’m saying there’s a world of facts to choose from. The wrong facts get in the way of the story.” To which Fingal snidely responds, “The ‘wrong’ facts?! And that means what exactly?” Soon Penrose becomes the referee in a furious fight between the two men, each of whom is making legitimate points as the deadline approaches.
Breezily directed by Tony nominee and Obie winner Leigh Silverman (Violet, Go Back to Where You Are), the play features dynamic performances by three-time Drama Desk nominee Radcliffe (Privacy, The Cripple of Inishmaan), two-time Tony winner Jones (The Glass Menagerie, Doubt), and two-time Tony nominee Cannavale (The Hairy Ape, The Motherf**ker with the Hat), an outstanding trio of actors who play off one another with endless charm even as the plot heats up and moves from Penrose’s office to D’Agata’s Vegas home. (The sets are by Tony winner Mimi Lien, with distracting projections by Lucy Mackinnon and original music by Palmer Hefferan.) Watching the annotation of the essay is fascinating; you can actually read the final, published article here, in the aptly titled Believer magazine.
Over the years, I have often found myself between a copy editor and a line editor, the former catching a factual error, the latter stetting it (letting it stand as is) for one reason or another. The Lifespan of a Fact gets right to the heart of the matter with intelligence and wit, although it takes it to an extreme, complete with some very funny slapstick comedy. The play itself has taken many liberties with the story; Fingal and D’Agata are real, while Penrose is not, and many of the situations and the timeline have been altered for dramatic impact, which is okay with Fingal and D’Agata, who wrote about their experience in their 2012 book, The Lifespan of a Fact. The show arrives on Broadway at an opportune moment in American history, when facts are challenged on social media and the president screams about fake news when he doesn’t like what is written about him in the press. But The Lifespan of a Fact wisely avoids getting political, instead concentrating on how three very different people with distinct objectives approach the truth, understanding that what’s most critical in this case is trying to find out why a teenager jumped from the top of a hotel in a place called Sin City. “Readers care how events play out on a deeper level. They care about the meaning behind the confluence of the events,” John says. “But events didn’t conflue the way you said,” Jim replies. “Conflue is not a word,” John responds. In today’s day and age, does it even matter who among the three characters might be the most right and what qualifies as a necessary fact?
The Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway at 53rd St.
Tuesday - Saturday through April 14, $69 - $175
It isn’t beauty that kills the beast in the Broadway bust King Kong; it’s the music, lyrics, and story that lack the charm to soothe this savage breast, to paraphrase William Congreve. I don’t revel in taking yet more shots at the already brutally attacked musical, but I have little choice than to fire more artillery in the direction of the Broadway Theatre, where this travesty opened on November 8. King Kong himself, the eighth wonder of the world, is spectacular; designed by Sonny Tilders and Roger Kirk, lit by Peter Mumford, voiced by Jon Hoche, and operated by ten men and women, the one-ton, twenty-foot-high mechanical creature is just about everything you’d want from the beast. Unfortunately, the rest of the show is a hot mess. The songs by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect lack any kind of nuance (sample lyric: “Another arrow shoots Ann Darrow through the chest / But every ‘no’ only brings me closer to ‘yes’ / New York socked me with a body shot / But I’m not staying down / I’ll fight like hell / So ring that bell / Look who’s coming out swinging in the opening round.”) The direction and choreography by Drew McOnie is often head-scratchingly absurd, with several ensemble pieces seemingly there just to take up time and space. And Jack Thorne’s book puts too much of the focus on the Darrow character, resulting in yet another tired musical about a poor country girl desperate to make it big on the Great White Way.
Just as Darrow (Christiani Pitts) is about to give up on her dream, she is discovered by filmmaker Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), who whisks her off on an adventure on board the SS Wanderer, accompanied by his right-hand man, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld). Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan) wants to know where they’re going, but Denham is not about to say — until Skull Island appears before them. There they encounter King Kong, who falls for Darrow before being captured and brought to New York City, where things don’t go too well for him, or for us. The beast itself is breathtaking, especially when Peter England’s projections make it look like Kong is running through the jungle or the streets of the city and when he makes his way to the front of the stage, carefully scanning the audience while asserting his strength and power. But the watered-down version of the story and too many stultifying scenes — you might just get seasick during a stormy voyage, and what’s with those green things climbing through green laser beams? — zap all the energy out of this classic tale. “What an ugly beast the ape, and how like us,” Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero said in the first century BCE. In King Kong, virtually the only thing that isn’t ugly is the beast.
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 18, $59-$159
When turn-of-the-twentieth-century theater superstar Sarah Bernhardt played the Melancholy Dane in Hamlet at the Adelphi in London, actress and writer Elizabeth Robins wrote in her December 1900 review: “Madame Bernhardt’s assumption of masculinity is so cleverly carried out that one loses sight of Hamlet in one’s admiration for the tour de force of the actress. This is not to say that she gives us a man, but rather Sarah Bernhardt playing, with amazing skill, a spirited boy; doing it with an impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.” Much the same can be said of Tony-winning actress Janet McTeer, who plays Bernhardt playing Hamlet in Theresa Rebeck’s uneven though often exciting Bernhardt/Hamlet, a celebration not only of Bernhardt but of the collaborative process of theater. The Roundabout production, continuing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, is set in 1897 Paris, where Bernhardt has decided to play the male part and is rehearsing with Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker), François (Triney Sandoval), Raoul (Aaron Costa Ganis), and Lysette (Brittany Bradford). Bernhardt’s lover, the married Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), is not fond of her decision. “You want to be a man,” he tells her. “I do not want to be a man,” she replies. “You crave a man’s power,” he accuses her. “No man has more power than I do,” she says. “Shakespeare does,” he retorts. But she has the last word, proclaiming, “I will not go back to playing flowers for you fools. Not because I am too old. But because I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”
Bernhardt demands that Rostand rewrite Hamlet specifically for her, but soon he is working on another play, Cyrano de Bergerac, which also gets her juices flowing. The same cannot be said for Rostand’s rightly jealous wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere); Bernhardt’s teenage son, Maurice (Nick Westrate); and acerbic critic Louis (Tony Carlin), wielding his poisoned pen with undeserved power. Meanwhile, Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar) hovers around, creating the poster for the controversial show; in Shakespeare’s time, men might have played all the parts, but in the late Victorian/Edwardian era, a woman portraying the title character in the Bard’s greatest work is practically theater — and gender — treason. “And now we come to your tragedy,” Edmond says to Sarah, who responds, “I am not a tragic figure.” Edmond explains, “You are Sarah Bernhardt. But Sarah Bernhardt is a woman. And people do not want to see a woman play Hamlet.” To which Sarah argues, “I do not play him as a woman! I play him as myself.”
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Present Laughter, Hand to God), Bernhardt/Hamlet works best when it sticks to its title, when McTeer plays Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet. A lot of the rest is detritus that only gets in the way. McTeer (Mary Stuart, God of Carnage) is a joy to watch as her character, complete with crazy hairstyle, questions Hamlet’s motives as well as Shakespeare’s, romping around Beowulf Borrit’s handsome sets, which include an outdoor Paris café, the Adelphi stage, and Bernhardt’s elegant dressing room. Rebeck’s (Seminar, Downstairs) plot meanders; it feels like she tries to squeeze too much in and doesn’t trust that the audience will get the shock factor of Bernhardt’s ambition, especially in this modern era in which so much casting is gender (and race) blind. For example, in 2016, McTeer starred as Petruchio in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte. But then McTeer proclaims, “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here, / But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul,” and all is right again.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 11, $79-$199
You don’t have to know the slightest bit about snooker to have a jolly good time at The Nap, the rousing London transfer making its American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through November 11. Written by Olivier Award nominee Richard Bean, who wrote the uproarious hit One Man, Two Guvnors, which exploded the career of a young James Corden, The Nap is a tense and very funny crime thriller built around the highly contested world of snooker, the nineteenth-century cue sport similar to pocket billiards and pool. Twenty-three-year-old Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer) is on the rise, preparing for a big-time match. He’s practicing in the British Legion basement in Sheffield with his grumpy, not-too-bright father, the numbers-challenged and ersatz snooker historian Bobby (John Ellison Conlee). Dylan is an easygoing fellow who believes in self-actualization. “It’s the highest possible state of human happiness, when your mind and body come together in, like, a beautiful symphony,” he tells his father, a former amateur snooker player who doesn’t get it at all, responding, “Do you want an orange? Got a bag full.” They are unexpectedly visited by Mohammad Butt (Bhavesh Patel), who identifies himself as an integrity officer for the International Centre for Sport Security, and Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind), of the National Crime Agency.
They claim that Dylan is involved in match fixing and global illegal betting, a charge he adamantly denies. “I am not vulnerable. I honour my game,” he declares. “Snooker is the result of a century of human negotiation. A celebration of cooperation and civilisation. It doesn’t exist other than in the hearts of players and fans.” After Mo and Eleanor leave, Dylan and Bobby are first joined by Dylan’s oh-so-stylish, fast-talking manager, Tony DanLino (Max Gordon Moore), then by Dylan’s wacky mother, Stella (Johanna Day), and her new boyfriend, Danny Killeen (Thomas Jay Ryan), a boring driving instructor. It turns out that Stella, Bobby’s ex, needs money, and she wants Dylan to get it for her — by going against his principles and throwing a frame. It turns out that Dylan has financial issues he wasn’t aware of; he’s in deeper than he ever realized, and the only way out is to listen to transgender gangster Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), who has a way with words. “Dylan, let me give you some advice,” she says. “Life, for us vertebrates, is a series of disappointments and appointments. The key to happiness is to forget your disappointments and remember your appointments; in fact, write them down, preferably in a dairy.” As Dylan’s matches with Abdul Fattah and Baghawi Quereshi (both played by former snooker champion Ahmed Aly Elsayed) approach, he has to decide where his loyalties lie and what he is willing to risk, and for whom.
The title of the show is a snooker term referring to the smoothness of the table, which Dylan explains to Eleanor early on. “Playing with the nap, the ball will run straight with the natural line,” he says. “Playing against the nap, the ball can deviate and drift off line. I play straight. I honour the god of snooker, and he, or let’s be fair, she, looks after me.” Bean (The Heretic, Harvest) and Tony-winning director Daniel Sullivan (The Little Foxes, Proof) honour the god of the stage in this triumphant comedy while not being afraid to deviate and drift off line. Snooker might be an individual sport, but theater requires significant collaboration, and The Nap demonstrates that in all facets. The ensemble, which also includes Ethan Hova as Seth and a snooker referee, is terrific, with a particular shout-out to American actor Ryan (Dance Nation, The Amateurs), one of the city’s most underrated and understated treasures. David Rockwell’s sets rotate from the dank legion basement to a historic hotel room, from a country hideout to a championship snooker match, complete with riotously funny voice-over commentary that is partially improvised. The snooker matches themselves are tense and exciting, occurring live onstage. But once again, it doesn’t matter what you think about sports and gambling, as Bean has plenty to say about dysfunctional families, straight and LGBTQ romance, the criminal element, and vegetarianism. The Nap is a champion on all counts, clearing the table, knocking every ball into the right pocket.
208 West 41st St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 8, $99-$275
The very enjoyable Broadway musical adaptation of Garry Marshall’s 1990 Cinderella story, Pretty Woman, is more about finding one’s place in the world, both geographically and psychologically, than merely the tale of a hooker with a heart of gold finding her Prince Charming. And speaking of place, Samantha Barks, who plays Vivian, the role that made Julia Roberts a star in the movie, has found where she belongs, center stage on Broadway, delivering an inspiring, Tony-worthy performance. The story is fairly straightforward: Vivian Ward (Barks), a broke prostitute, meets a wealthy financier, Edward Lewis (Andy Karl taking on the Richard Gere part), who treats her to the high life in order to pull off a major deal. As their public deception proceeds, both wonder whether something more is going on as they each search for somewhere to call home. (She lives in a walk-up rat trap, while he resides in a posh hotel.) “Tell me, what’s your dream? / I know you’ve got one / It’s like a map to your life / You’ll be lost until you’ve caught one,” sings a shabbily dressed Happy Man (Eric Anderson) on the seedier side of Hollywood Blvd., where he offers free maps to help people find their way.
“Don’t you want to get out of here?” Vivian asks her friend, fellow prostitute Kit De Luca (Orfeh, Karl’s real-life wife), who replies, “Get out of where? Where do you want to go?” A moment later Vivian sings, “I look around and what I see / Is I don’t belong here, this isn’t me. . . . I know where I’d choose to go / If I could disappear / Anywhere but here / Anywhere but here.” When Vivian meets Edward, he has taken a few wrong turns and does not know how to get back to his hotel. She asks him to pay ten dollars for her help and he says, “You can’t charge me for directions.” She smartly replies, “I can do anything I want to, baby. I ain’t lost.” But of course, they both are lost. “I can take you anywhere / ’Cause anything’s possible,” the Happy Man says as he dramatically changes into a regal concierge outfit and the set transforms into the exclusive Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Edward lives on the top floor, even though he’s afraid of heights. Edward is working with his shifty lawyer, Phillip Stuckey (Jason Danieley), attempting a hostile takeover of a ship-building company owned by James Morse (Kingsley Leggs); it’s no accident that Edward has no real care for the business itself, which specializes in making vessels that take people to other places primarily for pleasure. As Vivian blossoms à la Eliza Doolittle, she and Edward grow very close, but they have a deal with an end date; at the start they were both in it for the money, but soon they’re thinking about the future in a different way.
One of my regular theater companions refused to join me, concerned that the show would be offensive, that it would celebrate outdated, antifeminist views about women as decorative possessions, to the point that a woman realizes survival means selling herself — and her love — like a product. But the book, by Garry Marshall and the film’s screenwriter, J. F. Lawton, and the music and lyrics, by Bryan Adams (yes, the Canadian pop star) and Jim Vallance, often put Vivian in charge, or at least have her and Edward on equal footing, although it occasionally teeters on the edge. “Don’t want this feelin’ to go away / When I think about where I was yesterday / It’s so amazing — I can’t believe / That a billionaire would care about a girl like me / I’ve got money to spend / I’ve got champagne on ice / There’s a smile on my face / I’m getting’ treated real nice,” she sings like a classic golddigger before reevaluating what she wants out of life. Barks (Les Misérables, Chicago) and three-time Tony nominee Karl (Groundhog Day, Rocky) have an instant chemistry together, with solid support from Tony nominee Orfeh (Legally Blonde, Footloose) and Anderson (Waitress, Kinky Boots), who nearly steals the show as both the Happy Man and Mr. Thompson. (Keep a watch out for Tommy Bracco, who purloins some moments of his own as Giulio, the hotel bellman.) David Rockwell’s set design rockets between wealth and poverty, while Gregg Barnes’s costumes, particularly for Barks, are fab. Gleefully directed and choreographed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), Pretty Woman turns out to be a rather pleasant surprise — led by a breakout performance by Barks.
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through July 14, $49.50 - $169.50
This summer, two new musicals have been undeservingly anchored at the bottom of the Broadway box office, and just by coincidence, they are next-door neighbors on West Forty-Fourth St. One is Head Over Heels at the Hudson Theatre, the sensational reimagining of Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 Elizabethan drama with Go-Go’s songs and a very funny LGBTQ sensibility. The other, at the Belasco, is the silly but fun, goofy yet charming Gettin’ the Band Back Together. Written by Tony-winning producer Ken Davenport (Kinky Boots, Groundhog Day) and the improv group the Grundleshotz and with music and lyrics by Mark Allen in his Broadway debut, the show might be too long and repetitive and overly self-deprecating, but it’s also a real crowd pleaser about second chances. To stir up enthusiasm, Davenport even takes the stage at the beginning, explaining that the show is based on real-life experiences, including his own time in a high school band. After being fired from his Wall Street broker job, forty-year-old Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis) returns home to Sayreville, New Jersey, moving back in with his hot-MILF mother, Sharon (Marilu Henner). He encounters his former arch-nemesis, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams), whose Mouthfeel lost to Mitch’s Juggernauts two decades before in the Battle of the Bands but has won the title every year since. Tygen has also gone on to own seventy-three percent of the local real estate, happily foreclosing on longtime residents while riding around in his sporty Pontiac Solstice and showing off his impressive chest hair. Tygen is even dating Mitch’s high school sweetheart, Dani Franco (Kelli Barrett).
When Tygen threatens to foreclose on Sharon, Mitch decides that he is going to put the group back together to challenge Mouthfeel in the upcoming Battle of the Bands. So he rounds up bass player and high school math teacher Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz), who sucks at math; keyboardist and dermatologist Dr. Rummesh “Robbie” Patel (Manu Narayan), whose parents have arranged for him to marry a woman he has never met; and drummer and cop Michael “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Whitty), who is studying for his detective exam and is unable to admit his affection for fellow cop Roxanne Velasco (Tamika Lawrence). “This can’t be my life,” they declare in unison. After adding high school guitarist/rapper Ricky Bling (Sawyer Nunes), they hit the garage and start practicing for the big day while also taking stock of who they are and what the future holds for them. “’Cause dreams don’t matter / when the rent is coming due / You play it safe / and let the fantasy slip through,” Mitch sings, determined to change his path.
Gleefully directed by Tony winner John Rando (
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 17, $35 - $274
Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 drama The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia has been transformed into the giddy get-up-and-go musical Head Over Heels, running through next February at the Hudson Theatre. James Magruder has adapted the Shakespeare-like Elizabethan prose work, about forbidden love, patriarchal society, mistaken identity, and prophecy, into a bawdy, ribald tale, a modern-day celebration of gay and transgender culture that is neither didactic nor facetious. Oh, and it’s all set to classic songs and deep cuts by the Go-Go’s — Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey — whose tunes fit right into the story, with nary a word needing to be changed. In the land of Arcadia, King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) are leading the annual festivities paying tribute to “the beat,” their divine legacy that brings order to their lives. “We heed its rhythm and follow its form,” Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), the king’s older daughter, says. “It keeps us in line and dictates the norm,” adds Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the king’s viceroy. Shortly before a tournament in which eligible bachelors will parade for Pamela’s hand, Gynecia zeroes in on younger daughter Philoclea’s (Alexandra Socha) increasing closeness with the Eclogue-speaking shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). The queen forbids her daughter from marrying the peasant, explaining, “Too many turns of the hourglass make / Us forget the unscripted pleasures of / Free-feeling youth and doth render us all / Conservative in thought and policy.” That conservative thinking is about to be upended when Pamela is wooed by Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), her maiden and Dametas’s daughter; Musidorus disguises himself as a female Amazon called Cleophila, attracting Basilius and Gynecia; and Pythio (Peppermint), the Oracle of Delphi who identifies as “a nonbinary plural,” warns the king and Dametas that “Arcadia is in peril,” delivering a four-part prophecy about the royal family and the future of the crown. As the riddle-like predictions start coming true, chaos threatens the kingdom amid an epidemic of 1960s-era free love.
Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) infuses Tony winner Jeff Whitty’s (Bring It On: The Musical, Avenue Q) splendid book with genuine heart and soul as the well-developed characters proceed to their fates. Pulitzer and Tony winner Tom Kitt’s (Next to Normal, American Idiot) orchestrations are at times so faithful to the Go-Go’s songs that it occasionally sounds like the actors are singing to the original recordings, but they are in fact played live by conductor and musical director Kimberly Grigsby on keyboards, Ann Klein and Bess Rogers on guitars, Catherine Popper on bass, and Dena Tauriello on drums. Emmy nominee Spencer Liff’s (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) playful choreography doesn’t overdo things, while Julian Crouch’s set design is fun and imaginative, with painted moving cardboard backdrops and a giant python’s heavenly descent. And the superb cast looks great in Arianne Phillips’s exuberant, eye-catching period costumes as the actors recite lines in verse and then belt out such Go-Go’s hits as “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” and Carlisle’s “Mad About You,” which becomes the show’s musical theme. In addition, at many a sudden romantic twist, a lightning-quick snippet of “Skidmarks on My Heart” comes and goes.Head Over Heels never gets bogged down in its welcoming message of diversity and the need for people to “reveal their authentic selves,” although neither is it shy about making its points. “Please ventilate the belfry of thy mind,” Pamela says to Mopsa. “How is gender germane to the discussion?” Pythio asks Basilius. It all comes together beautifully in a sensational production that is no mere jukebox musical but so much more. Curiously, Head Over Heels is having trouble selling tickets; hopefully it will find an audience, so get thee haste to the Hudson, where a fabulous time is to be had by all.