Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $55-$147 (daily $30 lottery)
Watching The Last Ship, which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre, you’re likely to think you’ve seen this all before, as it rather precisely follows the pattern of 2013 Tony winner Kinky Boots: Both musicals feature music and lyrics by a pop star (Sting for The Last Ship, Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots), both are set in a British working-class community, and both involve a son debating whether he should follow in his father’s footsteps. And just as Boots was vastly overrated, the same is likely to happen with Ship. Based on Sting’s childhood experiences in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend in the northeast of England, The Last Ship focuses on Gideon Fletcher, first as a fifteen-year-old kid (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) wanting something more than his tough father (Jamie Jackson) has planned for him, then returning fifteen years later (now played by Michael Esper) for his dad’s funeral and trying to get back together with his old girlfriend, Meg (Dawn Cantwell, then Rachel Tucker). But the Wallsend he’s come back to is in the midst of a battle with corporate suit Freddy Newlands (Eric Anderson), whose company is taking over the docks and turning the shuttered shipyard into a scrap yard. With the help of former welder Arthur Milburn (Aaron Lazar), who is in love with Meg and is a surrogate father to her son, Tom (Kelly-Sordelet), Newlands tries to convince the unemployed shipbuilders to come work for him, but their leader, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), wants no part of it. “You could die and hope for heaven / But you’d need to work your shift / And I’d expect ye’s all to back us to the hilt / And if St. Peter at his gate were to ask you why you’re late? / You’d tell him that you have to get a ship built,” he sings in “Shipyard,” in which all the men join in on the chorus, stamping their feet as they declare, “And the only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” It’s the strongest song in the show, but it also emphasizes their refusal to face the facts that the world is changing while they’re not, adding to the many holes in the script.
In the second act, the book, by Tony winner and Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Samurai) and Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), falls apart as Father James O’Brien (Fred Applegate), previously the comic relief, becomes the overly melodramatic sentimental inspiration, the love triangle between Meg, Gideon, and Arthur quickly turns stale and unbelievable, and the shipbuilders’ occupation of the yard is just plain ridiculous. Even the staging, by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Assassins) and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once, The Glass Menagerie), can’t keep things afloat, as it also recalls Kinky Boots as the lads set out to build a ship for themselves. The cast is mostly excellent, particularly Tucker and Nail in their impressive Broadway debuts and another first-timer, Shawna M. Hamic, as Beatrice Dees, the owner of the Ship in the Hole pub, who offers “Mrs. Dees’ Rant” after intermission. While Sting’s score can be refreshing at times, steering clear of Broadway-fication, it can also be repetitive and preachy (“Life is a dance, a romance where ye take your chances / Just don’t be left on the shores of regretful glances”). As the two main narratives converge, the plot grows ever-more convoluted, getting lost in tired us-vs.-them themes that drain the show of any real depth, leaving The Last Ship bobbing on the surface, going nowhere.
The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an extraordinary multimedia journey through the mind of a fifteen-year-old boy with a kind of Asperger’s syndrome. Adapted with extraordinary care and insight by Simon Stephens (On the Shore of the Wide World, Punk Rock) from Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel and directed with flair by Marianne Elliott, the show takes place inside the created universe of truth-telling Christopher John Francis Boone (Alexander Sharp), an odd teen who is obsessed with prime numbers and mathematics, has a beloved pet rat named Toby, and does not like being touched. Upon discovering that the neighbor’s dog has been murdered, Christopher decides to play detective, interviewing people in the community to find the culprit. His father, Ed (Ian Barford), insists he stop sleuthing, as it will only lead to more trouble — Christopher has already been brought in by the cops, who considered him the chief suspect — but Christopher is determined to solve this mystery, as though it were a difficult but not impossible math equation. And when Christopher uncovers a shocking secret about his mother, Judy (Enid Graham), he sets out on another adventure, filled with dangers all its own.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time won seven Olivier Awards, including Best New Play, Best Director (Elliott), Best Actor (Luke Treadaway), and Best Supporting Actress (Nicola Walker), and it’s likely to win a bunch of prizes at next year’s Tonys as well. Elliott’s staging is captivating, the floor and three walls a grid on which Christopher draws emoticons, maps depict his travels, constellations appear, and video projections create a stunning escalator. Every technical element is worth praising: The sets and costumes are by Bunny Christie, lighting by Paule Constable, video by Finn Ross, choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, music by Adrian Sutton, and sound by Ian Dickinson, combining to turn Haddon’s book into a treat for the senses. Twenty-five-year-old Sharp, a recent Juilliard graduate from London, is so immersed in his role that it is hard to believe he is acting, or that anyone else can play the part, but indeed, Luke Treadaway originated Christopher at the National Theatre, and Taylor Trensch gives Sharp a rest during matinees at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The cast members, several of whom play multiple roles, also includes Francesca Faridany as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher and mentor who narrates brief passages from the book; Helen Carey as Mrs. Alexander, a gossipy neighbor who invites Alexander in for cookies; David Manis as Rev. Peters, who discusses God and heaven with the boy; and Mercedes Herrero and Richard Hollis as Mr. and Mrs. Shears, the owners of the dead dog. The repetitive, self-referential nods to the book as book are unnecessary, pulling the audience out of the immersive fantasy for a moment, and the postcurtain coda also takes the crowd out of the world of the play to allow the production to show off one more time, but otherwise The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an absolute delight, a breathtaking, endlessly imaginative theatrical experience that is not to be missed. (As a bonus, some lucky ticketholders will find themselves in a Prime Number Seat, specially chosen by Christopher, which will win them a Curious button if the letters in their name add up to a prime number.)
For twenty years, the Godlight Theatre Company has been specializing in stage adaptations of modern classic literature that has already been turned into well-known films. Among their previous works are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, In the Heat of the Night, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 451, and The Third Man. They are now taking on James Dickey’s Deliverance, in a superb, stripped-down production making its world premiere at 59E59. In telling this harrowing story, playwright Sean Tyler and director Joe Tantalo have gone back to the source, Dickey’s 1970 novel, not John Boorman’s Oscar-nominated 1972 film, which starred Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox as four friends whose Georgia canoe trip goes seriously wrong. So don’t expect to hear “Dueling Banjos” (Tantalo uses the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” from the book) or anyone squealing like a pig. But do expect to be chilled to the bone by this ever-insightful examination of what lurks in the pit of men’s souls.
As Lewis Medlock (Gregory Konow), Ed Gentry (Nick Paglino), Bobby Trippe (Jarrod Zayas), and Drew Ballinger (Sean Tant) first set out on their country adventure, they have no idea what’s in store for them. When Griner (Eddie Dunn), a local mechanic, asks them why they’re planning on canoeing down the river, Lewis says, “Because it’s there,” to which Griner ominously replies, “It’s there, all right. But if you git in there and can’t git out, you’re goin’ to wish it wudn’t.” That prophecy comes true when they encounter two mountain men (Bryce Hodgson and Jason Bragg Stanley) who don’t take kindly to city folk, leading to tragedy that the four men might not be able to escape. Deliverance takes place on a shiny black twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot stage, with the audience sitting in two small rows on all four sides. Maruti Evans’s stark lighting and set design also includes dark walls (behind the audience) on which the characters’ reflections glow in the distance (below the biblical quote “The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee / thou that dwelleth in the clefts of the rock / whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart / Who shall bring me down to the ground?”). There are no props or projections, no water, no mountain imagery, no weapons — just the actors, who mimic drinking beer in a bar, paddling down the river, climbing over rocks, holding a rifle, and pulling back a bow. But it’s not gimmicky in the least; instead, it allows viewers to get immersed in the tale, using their imagination the way they would as if reading a book that comes alive in front of them. All of the actors are excellent, though the standout is Godlight regular Paglino, as the narrative unfolds from Ed’s perspective, especially during a long monologue during which he stares death in the face. At times you’ll think you are actually seeing the woods, the river, a deer, but it’s just your mind getting caught up in this thrilling, unique theatrical experience.
407 West 43rd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 25, $79
“Words are my life,” Joely Richardson declares as Emily Dickinson in the new revival of William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst that opened October 20 at the Westside Theatre. “I look at words as if they were entities, sacred beings.” In the one-woman show, Richardson (Nip/Tuck, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) stars as poet Emily Dickinson, a spinster-recluse who is sharing her life story with the audience. Now fifty-three, Dickinson, wearing a long white dress (designed by William Ivey Long), her auburn hair pulled back tight, whimsically discusses the importance of family (her sister Lavinia, known as Vinnie; her brother, Austin; her parents; and her aunt Libby), social graces, fame, solitude, nature, art, and romance, her monologue smoothly folding in her poetry along the way. Walking through Antje Ellermann’s bright, charming late-nineteenth-century drawing-room set, Dickinson is also bright and charming, though clearly a bit off-center, enthusiastically explaining that she is in full control of herself, even if the denizens of Amherst think she is crazy. “Oh, I do have fun with them. My menagerie,” she says. “I guess people in small towns must have their local characters. And for Amherst, that’s what I am. But do you know something? I enjoy the game. I’ve never said this to anyone before, but I’ll tell you. I do it on purpose. The white dress, the seclusion. It’s all deliberate.”
Over the course of one hundred minutes and two acts, Dickinson recites her poetry, very little of which was published during her lifetime, and reenacts short vignettes from her life, including attending a dance as a teenager, going to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, receiving a gentleman caller, and seeing the Northern Lights, all while awaiting the arrival of her literary mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She excitedly digs through her treasure chest of poems, an ever-growing celebration of the written word that she is intensely proud of. Bravely fighting the sniffles and a few troubled line readings the night we went, Richardson is delightful as Dickinson, playing her with a wide-eyed sense of wonder and an inner freedom that often conflicts with the general perception of who Dickinson was. “In a way, the stories are true,” Dickinson says. “Oh, I believe in truth. But I think it can be slanted just a little.” And so it is with Luce’s (Lillian, Barrymore) extensively researched, skillful, though at times treacly, script. Richardson — the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, granddaughter of Sir Michael Redgrave, and sister of the late Natasha Richardson — and director Steve Cosson (The Great Immensity; Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) ably differentiate between the past and the present, as Richardson takes on a role that was made famous by Julie Harris, who won a Tony and a Grammy for her original 1976 performance. But Richardson stands tall, fully making it her own.
THE BLOODY BEGINNING
102 Norfolk St.
Saturday, October 25, $55, 5:00
For three years, Cynthia von Buhler’s participatory Speakeasy Dollhouse has been charming audiences on the Lower East Side, involving everyone in the lurid tale of the mysterious murder of her grandfather Frank Spano. As has become tradition, the immersive show will take a little detour for Halloween; instead of ticket holders showing up in period garb, on October 25 they can choose which side they want to be on: vampires, werewolves, or zombies. (VIP unicorns are already sold out.) The more you put into Speakeasy Dollhouse, the more you’ll get out of it, so just go crazy at this special Halloween edition.
108 East 15th St. at Irving Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 23, $79-$100
During his more-than-half-century career in show business, writer, director, producer, and actor Garry Marshall has been behind some of the oddest, most beloved couplings on television, including Mork & Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Me and the Chimp (well, maybe not so beloved, but certainly odd), and, well, The Odd Couple. Now the Bronx-born director of such films as The Flamingo Kid, Pretty Woman, and Beaches is back in New York with the sitcom-y Hollywood-set show Billy & Ray, about the tense, difficult collaboration between bombastic Viennese writer-director Billy Wilder (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) and hardboiled-detective author Raymond Chandler (Casa Valentina’s Larry Pine). Having broken up with his previous writing partner, Charlie Brackett, with whom he wrote Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn, and Ball of Fire, each of which was nominated for a screenplay Oscar, Wilder decides to go with the little-known Chandler, who turns out to be a mild-mannered, soft-spoken married professorial type who doesn’t like Wilder’s cursing, shouting, drinking, and womanizing but sneaks sips of whiskey while claiming to be a teetotaler. The two eventually dive into James M. Cain’s novel, which Chandler calls “creaky, melodramatic nonsense,” attempting to get the lurid story about lust, greed, and murder past Joseph Breen and the ridiculously stringent Motion Picture Production Code. Ambitious young producer Joseph Sistrom (Drew Gehling) tries to navigate the murky waters with the code office and the studio while Wilder’s dedicated assistant, Helen Hernandez (Sophie von Haselberg), does whatever’s necessary to keep it all from falling apart.
Although not quite the screwball comedy Marshall and playwright Mike Bencivenga (Single Bullet Theory, Happy Hour) want it to be, Billy & Ray is an engaging behind-the-scenes look at the creation of one of the greatest works in film noir history, a seminal, genre-redefining movie whose overall effect and influence had repercussions throughout Hollywood and the world. Pine is gentle and calm as Chandler, a henpecked writer initially in it just to make a buck, while a miscast Kartheiser overplays the unpredictable, iconoclastic Wilder, who fights the system despite being part of it. Gehling (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Jersey Boys) and von Haselberg, in her New York theater debut, offer solid support, playing their parts with an energizing gusto that serves as a much-needed break from the conflicts between the two protagonists. (If von Haselberg reminds you of Bette Midler, that’s no surprise, because she’s the daughter of the Divine Miss M; her only film appearance came as a five-year-old in Marshall’s Frankie and Johnny.) Charlie Corcoran’s set is so charming and welcoming, it’s worth checking out the model in the downstairs lobby, near some archival photographs of stills from deleted scenes from the film. (The Vineyard has also re-created part of the office with a typewriter, suitcase, and other related ephemera.) Though not nearly as taut and literate as James Lapine’s Tony-nominated Act One, the recent Broadway play about the first collaboration between Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Billy & Ray is a treat especially for fans of Double Indemnity, as the play reveals what went into some of the key moments of the classic noir. However, after Chandler and Wilder discuss changing the ending of the movie by cutting a scene, the play concludes with a wholly unnecessary coda that is a disturbing departure from the trusting relationship that had been built between the actors and the audience and will hopefully wind up on the cutting-room floor.