139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 14, $59 - $315
Adam Driver is scorching hot and Keri Russell sizzles in Michael Mayer’s otherwise surprisingly lukewarm revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, which opened last week at the Hudson Theatre. Oscar and Emmy nominee Driver is deserving of a Tony nod for his ferociously physical, incendiary performance as Pale, a Jersey restaurant manager unable to deal with the tragic death of his younger brother Robbie, a gay dancer who was killed in a boating accident with his lover, Dom. The play is set in 1987 and takes place in a huge industrial loft apartment in Lower Manhattan where Robbie lived with fellow dancer Anna (Russell), a straight woman in a relationship with successful screenwriter Burton (Tony nominee David Furr), and Larry (Tony nominee Brandon Uranowitz), a wisecracking gay man who works in advertising. One night Pale shows up drunk, loudly complaining about New York City, parking, phone messages, new shoes, social politeness, and anything else that comes to mind, rattling on without a filter. He constantly uses words about heat when talking about himself and his life, declaring that his “feet are in boiling water,” he has a toaster oven for a stomach, his normal temperature is about 110, and it’s hot enough in the apartment for them to “bake pizza.” He says he’s “a roving fireman. Very healthy occupation. I’m puttin’ out somebody’s else’s fire. I’m puttin’ out my own. . . . Or sometimes you just let it burn.”
Despite her better judgment, Anna, who is branching out as a choreographer, is strangely attracted to Pale, who is a stark contrast to the more self-contained Burton, who lives in Canada and is always talking about the cold, including snow and “glacier activity”; the only time he brings up heat is when he tells Anna about her upcoming dance, “Make it as personal as you can. Believe me, you can’t imagine a feeling everyone hasn’t had. Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write ‘Burn this’ on it.” Here Wilson is describing his own process in writing the play; it was indeed personal, inspired partly by the death of a friend’s brother, as well as the AIDS epidemic claiming the lives of so many New York artists. He wrote “Burn this” at the top of every page until he realized it should be the title of the play.
Despite the strong cast, led by Lortel Award winner Driver (BlacKkKlansman, Look Back in Anger), whose body commands the stage with an intense, dangerous fury, and Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Russell (The Americans, Fat Pig), who has a sweet tenderness as Anna, the play never catches fire. Derek McLane’s set is lovely, with large back windows that look out on the city, an outside world that the characters can’t reach yet, and Clint Ramos’s costumes are sexy and alluring, from Pale’s sharp suits to Anna’s slinky dresses and hapi coat. The unending references to hot and cold, fire and ice grow tiresome, including the leitmotif of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”; would Larry really sing that? Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson (Talley’s Folly, Angels Fall) and Tony winner Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) also incorporated Springsteen songs into a 1984 revival of 1965’s Balm in Gilead. The play made its Broadway debut in 1987, running for more than a year at the Plymouth Theatre, with John Malkovich as Pale and a Tony-winning Joan Allen as Anna. A 2002 revival at the Signature paired Edward Norton and Catherine Keener. In order for the play to work, it has to have the fire and passion at least reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire, but this production, even with its powerful moments and strong performances, too often simmers when it needs to blister and blaze.
Irish Repertory Theatre, Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Through May 25, $50-$70
The Irish Rep’s thirtieth anniversary season, “The O’Casey Cycle,” features Sean O’Casey’s exceptional Dublin Trilogy. Last week I highly recommended Juno and the Paycock the 1924 play set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-23; 1925’s The Plough and the Stars, which takes place around the 1916 Easter Rising, was the first show Irish Rep ever put on, back in 1988, and will begin performances April 20. O’Casey’s first produced play was The Shadow of a Gunman, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1923 and established the laborer as a new force on the scene. The play is set in May 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, in a tenement in Hilljoy Square in Dublin. Small-time peddler Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy) is sleeping late, something he appears to do often; while he waits for his colleague Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy) to go out to sell their wares, a slew of other classic characters from Irish lore, from drunks and ne’er-do-wells to layabouts and overburdened women, come barging in.
Poet Donal Davoren (James Russell) is staying with him, which doesn’t make the landlord, Mr. Mulligan (Harry Smith), very happy, since the rent is overdue. The lovely young Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy) develops a crush on Donal, believing him to be a heroic IRA gunman preparing for his next hit. “Maybe I am, and maybe I’m not,” he teases, taking advantage of the romantic attention. The blustery Tommy Owens (Ed Malone) stops by to let everyone know that he supports the IRA and will fight if called on. Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy), who lives in a neighboring tenement, comes over with James Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd), who reads a persnickety letter he wrote asking the IRA for help. And Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly) is worried about her alcoholic husband, Adolphus (John Keating), who talks about himself in the third person. Maguire eventually shows up but is in a hurry, leaving a mysterious black bag with Seumas. Through all the mayhem and madness, the fear that the Black and Tans could show up at any minute hangs over the proceedings with so much dread.
In the 105-minute two-act play, O’Casey avoids glorifying the lower class. “Upon my soul! I’m beginnin’ to believe that the Irish people are still in the stone age,” Seumas says, adding later, “Oh, this is a hopeless country!” Donal complains, “The people! Damn the people! They live in the abyss, the poet lives on the mountaintop . . . The poet ever strives to save the people; the people ever strive to destroy the poet. The people view life through creeds, through customs, and through necessities; the poet views creeds, customs, and necessities through life.” However, The Shadow of a Gunman is a slighter play than Juno and the Paycock, a less-layered tale lacking the same nuance and muscle. Charlie Corcoran’s fabulous tenement set, which runs throughout the theater, is only slightly altered from Paycock’s. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, who plays Capt. Boyle in Paycock, Gunman features many of the same actors, with Hennessy standing out as the coquettish Minnie and Donnelly reprising her role from the company’s 1999 production. In many ways, O’Casey’s vision of the country is personified by Seumas, who doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and does not want to go to work. “A land mine exploding under the bed is the only thing that would lift you out of it,” Donal says. It’s a funny line, but one more than tinged with seriousness.
Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 24, $49-$169
The first time I saw Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, during its run last year at New York Theatre Workshop, it was the day that the Judiciary Committee had voted to advance the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice to the Senate floor. A somber atmosphere hung over the crowd, which was acknowledged by Schreck, who persevered with hope and humor. The show has now made a wholly successful transfer from the 199-seat NYTW to Broadway, where it is packing them into Second Stage’s 597-seat Helen Hayes Theater. And when I saw it there earlier this month, the foreboding cloud of doom and gloom was gone, replaced by an innate faith that America was going to be okay, as Schreck and the audience were in better spirits, often downright giddy, even as Schreck’s tale goes to dark, intimate places, all the while maintaining a steady focus on exactly “what the Constitution means to me” when “me” is a woman — or anyone except a white man.
In the mid-1980s, Schreck, living in the “abortion-free zone” of Wenatchee, Washington, earned money for college by participating in debates in American Legion Halls about the Constitution. The hundred-minute show re-creates some of those debates, focusing on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, as Brooklyn-based actress, playwright, and television writer Schreck (Grand Concourse, The Consultant) shifts back and forth between her younger self and the woman she is today, able to intelligently face her demons and the mistakes she made, as well as celebrate the triumphs. She is supported by Mike Iveson (The Sound & the Fury, Plenty) as an American Legion Hall moderator and either Thursday Williams or Rosdley Ciprian, high school students who challenge her in a live debate. Rachel Hauck’s set remains intact, consisting of a few chairs and small tables, a central podium, and three sides of a wall displaying more than a hundred framed photographs of legionnaires, uniformly white men in caps. “This hall is not — it’s not a naturalistic representation,” Schreck says. “I got my friend Rachel to help me reconstruct it from my dreams, so I guess it’s like one of those crime victim drawings.” Obie-winning director Oliver Butler (The Amateurs, The Open House) doesn’t make any major changes for the Broadway transfer.
Since I first saw the show at NYTW, there continues to be threats to the Constitution, which Schreck emphasizes “is a living document. That is what is so beautiful about it. It is a living, warmblooded, steamy document.” Using historical facts and personal anecdotes, Schreck connects to the audience while exploring the ramifications of the numerous interpretations of specific rights and liberties, taking on the white patriarchy and honoring the empowerment of women in the country while also delving into hot-button issues. Discussing Clause Four of the Fourteenth Amendment, she explains, “This is the most miraculous clause in our entire Constitution. It says that we all must be treated equally, that we cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, or immigration status. It actually uses the word ‘person,’ not ‘citizen.’ Which means that if you are an undocumented immigrant, you must be given all the protections of Clause Three, the due process clause. You cannot be locked up without a fair trial. You cannot have anything — or anyone — seized from you.” Schreck’s innate happiness in talking about the Constitution is infectious; she was so filled with glee that at one point, crossing the stage over to Iveson, she nearly fell onto him; the two of them broke out in laughter, as did the audience. It was one of several spontaneous moments in the show — which is scripted but includes significant room for improvisation — that will have you leaving the theater with a smile on your face even as you worry about how the Constitution is under attack on a nearly daily basis.
Classic Stage Company, Lynn F. Angelson Theater
136 East 13th St. between Third & Fourth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 19, $77-$127
At the end of 2018, Classic Stage Company put on a less-than-compelling version of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 parable, The Resistible Rise of Arturio Ui; the history of the show, which was not produced in Brecht’s lifetime because of its sociopolitical content, is more interesting than the revival itself. The same can be said of CSC’s current adaptation of Marc Blitzstein’s heavily Brechtian allegory, The Cradle Will Rock. The original production of the 1937 “play in music” about unions and corruption had its own problems with unions and the law, forcing producers Orson Welles (also director) and John Houseman to switch theaters at the last minute and the actors to perform their lines from the audience, since they were not allowed onstage. (Tim Robbins documented the crazy story in his 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.)
As with CSC’s Arturio Ui, artistic director John Doyle is unable to convincingly suck us into this Depression-era world. There’s a union drive going on in Steeltown, USA, and the cops are out looking to bust up any public gatherings. The police end up bringing in members of the anti-union Liberty Committee — newspaper head Editor Daily (Ken Barnett), church leader Reverend Salvation (Benjamin Eakeley), musician Yasha (Ian Lowe), artist Dauber (Rema Webb), college president Prexy (Barnett), and college professors Mamie (Sally Ann Triplett), Scoot (Lowe), and Trixie (Kara Mikula) — instead of union organizer Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck). They also round up the Moll, a prostitute (Lara Pulver) who is befriended in jail by pharmacist Harry Druggist (Yazbeck). Yes, the names give a clear indication of who the people are, each an archetype, some inspired by such real-life men as Billy Sunday and William Randolph Hearst; one of the detectives is called Dick (Eddie Cooper), and the doctor is Dr. Specialist (Cooper). Steeltown is run by wealthy industrialist Mr. Mister (David Garrison), who formed the Liberty Committee, and his wife, Mrs. Mister (Triplett); seduced by power, they are determined to gain control over the press, the church, the arts, education, the drug companies, the military, the police, and anything else they can get their hands on while dramatically increasing income inequality and the separation of the classes.
Doyle’s set features numerous small drum containers, mostly yellow and red, that are moved about by the cast in various formations (the cross is awesome) and used as chairs, bringing color to this dank society. There is also a piano that is played by several characters to accompany the singing. The Cradle Will Rock is very much a story for today, but the show, which is primarily sung-through but is not considered a fully fledged musical, feels dated and old-fashioned. “The Liberty Committee has been formed by us to combat socialism, communism, radicalism, and especially unionism, and to uphold the Constitution,” Reverend Salvation says in words that could be a tweet from President Trump. Harry Druggist advises the Moll, “Shall I tell you a secret? / We’re in the same old trade as you.” She replies, “You mean you’re all solictin’?” to which he says, “Not quite, but so to say; / They won’t buy our milkwhite bodies, / So we kinda sell out in some other way — to Mr. Mister.” Those points are starkly relevant today but fail to connect despite a game cast that gives it their all as they interact with the audience and the material.