Anspacher Theater at the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. below Astor Pl.
Through March 23, $40-$80
There’s a brief synopsis in the program of the Public Theater’s new presentation of Antony and Cleopatra, but that won’t help you make sense of this ill-conceived production. A collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ohio State University and Miami’s GableStage, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s adaptation moves the tale of romance and power to eighteenth-century Saint Domingue, the Caribbean colony that would soon become Haiti, although you wouldn’t know it from Tom Piper’s set, mostly a bare stage with a series of Roman columns that block at least part of the action from nearly everyone in the audience. At the back of the stage, a small pool reflects light onto a sky-blue wall, while above a four-piece band contributes Haitian music. Jonathan Cake (Medea, Cymbeline) as Mark Antony and Joaquina Kalukango (Hurt Village, Godspell) as Cleopatra lack any chemistry as he attempts to maintain his alliance with Octavius Caesar (Samuel Collings adding Napoleonic touches) by marrying Caesar’s sister, Octavia (Charise Castro-Smith), which angers Cleopatra, her maidservants, Iras (Castro-Smith) and Charmian (Sarah Niles), and her eunuch soothsayer (Chivas Michael). But when Antony returns to Cleopatra, trying to have it both ways, yet more battles await, both personal and political. Public Theater artist in residence McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays), who is credited as director and editor, drains the story of any passion, moving along the plot in a tedious, procedural manner, with Chukwudi Iwuji, the standout performer in the show, playing the narrator as well as Enobarbus. Bringing together a cast of actors from the United States and the U.K. portraying characters from Rome and the French Caribbean leads to further confusion as different accents fly off in all directions, leaving the audience to wonder just what it’s all about.
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane between MacDougal St. & Sixth Ave.
Extended through April 6, $65-$85
The theater community has learned to expect the unexpected from British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose cutting-edge works have been showing up without warning in the in-boxes of artistic directors and company producers for decades. The seventy-five-year-old writer of such award-winning plays as Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and Serious Money redefines live storytelling yet again with her latest, Love and Information, just extended through April 6 at the Minetta Lane. The New York Theatre Workshop production is a series of snapshots relating the state of the world today, examined through the gathering, processing, and utilization of information among married couples, lovers, family members, professional colleagues, and best friends. The 110-minute intermissionless play consists of seven thematic sections, each one made up of funny, poignant, abstract, surreal, visceral, and potently recognizable vignettes that last between five seconds and five minutes; although the script gives them such mostly one-word titles as “Lab,” “Message,” “Secret,” “Torture,” “Irrational,” “Dream,” and “Recluse,” they are not identified onstage or in the program notes. The short dialogues take place in a white cube with a grid of some twenty-five thousand squares on five sides (calling to mind a human brain), opening only to the audience. In between each of the fifty-seven bits, in which fifteen actors portray one hundred different characters, the stage goes completely dark, bordered by a row of very bright lights around the edge, as the performers change costumes at lightning speed and the sets, which usually include a single element, from a chair or a bed to a table or a couch, are magically switched. It’s a kind of short attention span theater that evokes a more serious, though still playful, Laugh-In and Robot Chicken as the skits just keep on coming, seamlessly directed by longtime Churchill cohort James Macdonald, separated by the pitch-black accompanied by sounds, from familiar tunes to random found noises, that further one of the central themes, memory.
The tone is set from the very first vignette, in which a man is begging a woman to tell her a secret she is hiding from him. “Please please tell me,” he implores. “I’ll never tell, no matter what,” she responds, but eventually she whispers it in his ear so the audience can’t hear it. “Now what?” he repeats several times, a question that not only leads to the rest of the play but gets right to the point of what people do with information — first they want it, then they’re not always sure what to do with it. Later, a woman gets technical with her partner, saying, “What sex evolved to do is get information from two sets of genes so you get offspring that’s not identical to you. . . . So sex essentially is information.” He replies, “You don’t think that while we’re doing it, do you?” to which she says, “It doesn’t hurt to know it. Information and love.” Churchill and the immensely talented cast, which includes standout performances by Karen Kandel, John Procaccino, Kellie Overbey, Phillip James Brannon, Zoë Winters, and Randy Danson, take on science, religion, emotions, fanaticism, censorship, mathematics, pain, technology, and human relationships of all sorts in clever ways, constantly surprising the audience with each new piece, although the show is probably too long by about twenty minutes, but that’s only a minor quibble. In one of the longer sketches, a man and a woman are on a picnic date, and she describes in graphic detail how her job involves cutting the head off a chicken and slicing its brain for study, a worthy metaphor for what Churchill is doing on multiple levels with Love and Information.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through March 30, $75
Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang concludes his Signature Theatre Residency One year with the world premiere of Kung Fu, a flashy but flat portrait of martial arts master Bruce Lee. Hwang (M. Butterfly, Chinglish) focuses on Lee’s (Cole Horibe) life in America, after he was sent there in 1959 by his father, Chinese opera performer Hoi-Chuen (Francis Jue), because of his penchant for street fighting in Hong Kong. Still in high school, Lee starts teaching martial arts — a defensive style he calls “fighting without fighting” — in a room above the restaurant where he works for Ruby Chow (Kristen Faith Oei), but he has dreams of making it big. When classmate Linda Emery (Phoebe Strole) comes to study with him, Lee immediately falls for her, and soon she is pregnant and they get married. Determined to succeed, Lee is hired to play Kato on the short-lived television series The Green Hornet, but he wants to break out of stereotypical, subservient Asian roles, developing a Western built around a wandering kung fu warrior and going to India to make a film with one of his more famous students, James Coburn (Clifton Duncan). But things don’t quite go as planned, leaving him to reconsider his life in Hollywood.
Hwang initially intended Kung Fu to be a musical, and it shows. There are several exhilarating set pieces in which Horibe, a So You Think You Can Dance second runner-up making his New York theater debut, and the cast (most of whom take on multiple characters) incorporate martial arts into exciting dance numbers choreographed by Sonya Tayeh (the fight scenes are directed by Emmanuel Brown, who also plays Marcus), including one eye-popper featuring bold yellow and blue Chinese opera costumes by Anita Yavich. But the dialogue is static and repetitive, filled with genre clichés, offering no real insight into who Lee really was, and there’s little sense of time and place. Hwang was far more successful blending movement and story in The Dance and the Railroad; unfortunately, this new work has more in common with his stale revival of Golden Child, both of which were part of his Signature residency. On film, Lee proved to have fists of fury, but onstage, this Lee lacks sufficient kick.
“If nobody walks out of a new play (before the reviews appear), something is almost certainly wrong,” Craig Lucas writes in the March issue of American Theatre. I was dismayed recently to see several people put on their coats and leave the Cherry Lane Theatre during intermission of Lucas’s new work, Ode to Joy. The first act of his investigation of love and addiction is edgy and exciting, taking chances with the dialogue and the action as two lonely problem drinkers, cardiac surgeon Bill (Arliss Howard) and painter Adele (Kathryn Erbe), meet in an otherwise empty bar (even the bartender is mostly offstage), talking about their lives, their desires, their failures, and, ultimately, their hope for a better future, perhaps together. They also discuss Kierkegaard, irony, boundaries, God, dogs, art, money, and booze, which they help themselves to by jumping over the bar. They have a whirlwind one-night romance, part awkward first date, part Days of Wine and Roses sheer unadulterated glee, Lucas’s razor-sharp dialogue hitting its mark time and time again, flowing beautifully with his fast-paced, unpredictable direction. The first act doesn’t end prettily — these are two big-time drunks, after all — but I couldn’t wait to see what would happen in the next act, as I found myself in love with the two main characters, even if I wasn’t sure I actually liked them. Adele is also joined in flashbacks by Mala (Roxanna Hope), her former girlfriend, but I hadn’t made my mind up about her yet.
Unfortunately, the second act pales in comparison with the first. Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul) turns his attention to the relationship between Adele and Mala, which is not nearly as interesting or entertaining as the one between Adele and Bill, which has now been reduced to Adele going through AA steps and making amends. The audience saw Adele and Bill’s story in thrilling action in the first act; in the second, we only hear of past misdeeds, sorrows, and tragedies. Suddenly the writing feels more forced, the action more stagnant. Lucas is a recovering addict himself, having given up drugs and alcohol less than ten years ago, around the same time his marriage was ending. Perhaps the play is too close to him, too personal. In the American Theatre piece, he explains that Ode to Joy is his attempt at his own Long Day’s Journey into Night. “I believe that meant I intended to tell the truth about my story. I sort of have, and I sort of haven’t,” he writes, “because I made the play’s protagonist a woman and a painter, and her relationships aren’t really mine. Or maybe they are.” It feels as if the play might be about Lucas’s own amends, and whether it actually is or isn’t doesn’t really matter, as he loses in the second act much of what he gained in the first. “Joy all creatures drink / At nature’s bosoms; / All, Just and Unjust, / Follow her rose-petalled path. / Kisses she gave us, and Wine,” Friedrich Schiller wrote in his 1785 poem “Ode to Joy,” which was later set to music by Beethoven as part of the Ninth Symphony. By all means you should stay for the second act; though it does run dry quickly, it has its clever moments and a few scattered joys, especially as Y2K approaches. It’s also the only way to get a program, given out only after the play, per Lucas’s instructions, a conceit that I found extremely appealing and one I hope more productions adopt.
311 West 43rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 14, $55-$65
British playwright John Van Druten wrote some popular works — his oeuvre includes I Remember Mama; The Voice of the Turtle; Bell, Book and Candle; and I Am a Camera, which became the smash musical Cabaret, and all of which became films — but it has still taken more than eighty years for his 1931 romantic comedy London Wall to make its American debut. Its new production at Jonathan Bank’s Mint Theater makes one wonder, what took so long? In the London law firm of Walker, Windermere & Co., four shorthand typists gossip and discuss life and love in between working for young upstart and utter cad Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett) and old man Walker (Jonathan Hogan). Cynical Miss Janus (Julia Coffey) has been with the firm for ten years and might or might not be dating a foreign diplomat. Sexy Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson) is a blonde bombshell who enjoys going out on the town. Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) is the ever-dependable employee who is not afraid to express occasional displeasure. And Miss Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler) is the youngest and most naïve of the typists, still finding her way in the world. The smooth-talking Brewer sets his sights on Pat, who has been spending time with the somewhat clueless Mr. Hec. Hammond (Christopher Sears), a twenty-year-old law clerk who works in the same building. Everything is overseen by Birkenshaw (Matthew Gumley), the young office boy who listens in on people’s phone conversations and brashly says whatever’s on his mind. When the case of wealthy but daffy client Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy) takes a sudden, unexpected turn, all of the characters are forced to reexamine who they are and what they want out of life.
Director Davis McCallum (The Whale, A Bright New Boise) keeps things moving at a near-farce pace, like fingers making their way across a typewriter, as buzzers sharply summon the women and many a door is slammed. The acting is exceptional throughout, from Hogan’s (As Is, Burn This) wise, understanding yet stern Walker and Horton Foote veteran Plunkett’s smooth, nearly effortless portrayal of would-be ladies’ man Brewer to Coffey’s (The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd) motherly Miss Janus and NYU student Kibler’s splendidly timid Miss Milligan, who is the centerpiece of the story and serves as a kind of proxy for the audience. Despite its eighty-plus years, London Wall — which was made into the 1932 film After Office Hours — doesn’t feel old, dealing with office politics and romances and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace in clever, prescient ways that are still relevant today. It’s a sheer delight that it has finally made its way across the pond, courtesy of the master revivalists at the Mint, and it turns out that it’s part of a Van Druten barrage, as the Transport Group’s I Remember Mama is set to open in March at the Gym at Judson, and the Roundabout’s Cabaret is returning to the Kit Kat Klub at Studio 54 next month, with Alan Cumming reprising his role as the Emcee and Michelle Williams playing Sally Bowles. In addition, on March 17, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is hosting the free discussion “John Van Druten: A Writer’s Writer,” which will include readings from his papers as well as his correspondences with Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Richard Rodgers, and others.
59 East 59th St. between Park & Madison Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $70
Twenty years ago, writer, actor, and female impersonator Charles Busch donned pants for the first time in his career in his debut Primary Stages production, You Should Be So Lucky, to play a gay electrologist. In his latest work for Primary Stages and third overall (following 2011’s Olive and the Bitter Herbs), The Tribute Artist, Busch pulls off another personal first, portraying a female impersonator instead of a female character. Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) stars as Jimmy, a middle-aged Vegas “tribute artist” whose time impersonating Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, et al., is coming to an end. Jimmy and his friend Rita (longtime Busch colleague Julie Halston), a sarcastic lesbian Realtor, have been staying at the gorgeous Greenwich Village home of wealthy widow and former fashion designer Adriana (Cynthia Harris), but when the grande dame suddenly dies, Jimmy and Rita concoct a plan to hide the body and give Jimmy his biggest role yet, playing Adriana long enough for Rita to sell the townhouse, with the two of them pocketing the potential $12 million windfall. But their scam hits a roadblock when Adriana’s niece, Christina (Mary Bacon), shows up with her transgender daughter, Oliver (Keira Keeley), and the wickedly bitter, woe-is-me Christina claims that in fact she is now the owner of her aunt’s estate. Jimmy soon has to dig even deeper into his bag of tricks when Oliver contacts Adriana’s onetime flame, Rodney (Busch mainstay Jonathan Walker), a man’s man up to some no good of his own.
The Tribute Artist is a wonderfully entertaining homage to the classic screwball comedies and films noir of the 1930s and ’40s, as Jimmy throws in riotous references to movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age as the plot, which in part recalls Joe Orton’s Loot as well as You Should Be So Lucky, unfolds on Anna Louizos’s elegant living-room set. Busch (Die Mommie Die!) is a hoot as Jimmy, chewing up the scenery in Gregory Gale’s fab costumes and Katherine Carr’s wacky wigs while mixing in the wacky slapstick of Lucille Ball and the grace of Katharine Hepburn, and Halston (Red Scare on Sunset, The Lady in Question) has a field day as his loud, acerbic, quick-witted sidekick. Busch veteran Walker (The Assembled Parties, The Third Story) supplies a big dose of testosterone to the proceedings, including a scene-stealing monologue late in the second act. Director Carl Andress, who has worked with Busch, Halston, and Walker previously on The Divine Sister and other Busch productions, keeps things breezing along, embracing the cast’s familiarity with one another without letting it get out of hand while also keeping the more melodramatic moments in check, although the plot sometimes threatens to go off the deep end and it takes too long to warm up to Christina. A worthy addition to his canon, The Tribute Artist also succeeds as an homage to Busch himself and his, and our, love of all things camp.
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 2, $67 - $137
Earlier this week, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced over Facebook that he will be hanging up his cleats following the 2014 season. It’s a pity it wasn’t the new Broadway show Bronx Bombers — which features a fictional version of the pinstripes captain — calling it quits instead, immediately. Eric Simonson’s play, which transferred to Circle in the Square after fall training at the Duke on 42nd St., is nearly inconceivably dull and pointless, coming off more like an MLB-sponsored advertorial than an intuitive, intelligent look at baseball’s most storied franchise. The first act focuses on manager Billy Martin’s removal of Reggie Jackson from the outfield in the middle of an inning after Jackson loafed after a Jim Rice fly ball at Fenway Park on June 18, 1977. Yankees coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) calls together captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes), Martin (Keith Nobbs), and Jackson (Francois Battiste) in a Boston hotel room to try to get the manager and the hot-dogging superstar to kiss and make up, but that’s not about to happen anytime soon. In the second act, Berra is caught up in a dreamlike fantasy in which he and his wife, Carmen (Tracy Shayne, who is married to Scolari in real life), host a dinner party with the greatest players in Yankees history, supposedly showing up to help Berra solve the Martin-Jackson dilemma and save the Yankees’ reputation and season. But not even the arrival of Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Elston Howard (Battiste), Babe Ruth (C. J. Wilson), Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), and Jeter (Christopher Jackson) can help playwright-director Simonson’s minor-league tale rise out of the cellar (as most of the sets do). Aside from Dawes, who captures the Mick’s wild personality, and Battiste, who nails Jackson’s braggadocio, none of the other actors turn in all-star performances, never embodying the famous, and familiar, athletes they are portraying. Simonson, the man behind such other sports-related Broadway productions as Lombardi and Magic/Bird, muddles the relationships among the players, with some dressed in uniform, others in suits, some in the prime of their careers, others nearing death, for no apparent dramaturgical reason. And in a 2008 coda, he includes no mention of Berra’s fourteen-year feud with owner George Steinbrenner, making Bronx Bombers feel even more like a promotional piece. Indeed, merchandise authorized by Major League Baseball is available for sale in the lobby, as are collectibles from an officially licensed memorabilia company. Unfortunately, the only souvenir worthy of this Broadway bomb is a Bronx cheer.