This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

PRESENT LAUGHTER

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Liz (Kate Burton) comforts ex-husband and master thespian Garry Essendine (Kevin Kline) in Broadway revival of Present Laughter (photo by Joan Marcus)

St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 2, $59 - $199
laughteronbroadway.com

In the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s WWII-era comedy Present Laughter, two-time Tony winner and Oscar recipient Kevin Kline gets to put his stamp on Garry Essendine, one of the great characters of twentieth-century British theater, and he does so with devilishly wicked delight. He ferociously devours the scenery, following in the footsteps of such previous ferocious scenery devourers as Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Peter O’Toole, Frank Langella, Ian McKellen, Clifton Webb, and the original Essendine, Coward, who based the role on himself; other characters and incidents were inspired by real people and events as well, lending the show an intimate charm with plenty of knowing winks and nods. Essendine is a master thespian preparing for a tour of Africa, but not in peace and quiet — his apartment becomes a carnival of friends, colleagues, staff, lovers, and an oddball stranger. Late one morning, upon learning that Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), a young woman he apparently brought home the night before, is in the guest room, Essendine complains to his longtime assistant and confidante, Monica Reed (Kristine Nielsen), “Why didn’t you tell her to dress quietly like a mouse and go home? You know perfectly well it’s agony here in the morning with everybody banging about.” Also turning his impressive London flat (designed by David Zinn) into Victoria Station over the course of the play are Essendine’s ex-wife, Liz (Kate Burton); his manager, Morris Dixon (Reg Rogers); his producer, Henry Lyppiatt (Peter Francis James); Henry’s hot-to-trot wife, Joanna (Cobie Smulders); Daphne’s mother, Lady Saltburn (Sandra Shipley); would-be playwright Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel); and Essendine’s irrepressible, good-natured valet, Fred (Matt Bittner), and rather strange housekeeper, Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey). Essendine has built a kind of extended family around himself, one that he might not be able to hold together as things start falling apart, in classically British ways.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Garry Essendine (Kevin Kline) makes a point in semiautobiographical Noël Coward play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Kline (The Pirates of Penzance, On the Twentieth Century) is masterful as Essendine, his every gesture and utterance beautifully overplayed to the hilt, as if the character can’t tell the difference between the stage and real life, always acting, be it Shakespeare or vaudeville. Kline shows a flair for slapstick comedy reminiscent of Monty Python’s John Cleese — Kline won his Oscar for his supporting role in A Fish Called Wanda, which was written by Cleese and starred fellow Python Michael Palin — whether he’s falling down stairs or trying not to be seduced. The women in the show, which takes its name from a line from the Bard’s Twelfth Night — “Present mirth hath present laughter” — are terrific, led by the stalwart Burton, who played Daphne in Scott’s 1982 production; her Liz is not about to take any garbage from Garry while getting a kick out of all the crazy shenanigans going on around him. The always excellent Nielsen (Betty’s Summer Vacation, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) who turns Monica into a den mother with a wry sense of humor about her boss’s philandering, and Harvey (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Mary Poppins) is nearly unrecognizable as the dour Miss Erikson, who is not the most caring of housekeepers. Smulders (How I Met Your Mother; Love, Loss, and What I Wore), in her Broadway debut, is sexy and elegant as the manipulative Joanna, while Millan, in her Broadway debut, follows up her success in The Wolves with another strong performance as the overexcited, high-pitched Daphne, determined to get what she wants. The men, however, do not fare as well; Bittner has fun with Fred, but James (Stuff Happens, Hamlet with Kline) and Rogers (Holiday, Privacy) can’t keep up with Kline, looking lost at times, and Patel (War Horse, Indian Ink) is so over the top as Roland that he seems to be in the wrong play. But director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century) is able to keep reeling it in whenever it threatens to go a little bit off track, with the help of Kline, who has such an impressive command of the stage and the character that there’s never a doubt that you will presently be laughing; even the way he checks his hair several times in a mirror almost as an aside is an absolute treat, capturing the essence of Garry, and Kevin, with just a few scant motions.

VENUS

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Saartjie Baartman (Zainab Jah) is put on display as the Venus Hottentot in Signature revival of Suzan-Lori Parks drama (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through June 4, $30
212-244-7529
www.signaturetheatre.org

Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks follows up her powerful Signature revival of the intensely stylized The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead with a disappointing, heavily overstylized production of her 1996 work, Venus, which opened last night at the Signature’s Irene Diamond Stage. In the play, which continues through June 4, Parks details the horrible abuse suffered by Saartjie Baartman (Zainab Jah), a young South African woman who is chosen by two brothers (John Ellison Conlee and Randy Danson) to be taken to England and displayed as a freak because of her unusually shaped buttocks. Although the Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), who serves as ringmaster and narrator, announces the scenes in reverse order, the story is told chronologically, except for the very beginning, in which all the characters are introduced, including Saartjie, the Venus Hottentot, who says, “I regret to inform you that thuh Venus Hottentot iz dead. There wont b inny show tuhnite.” The Resurrectionist adds, “Tail end of our tale for there must be an end is that Venus, Black Goddess, was shameles, she sinned or else completely unknowing of r godfearin ways she stood 
totally naked in her iron cage. . . . Sheed a soul which iz mounted on Heaven’s bright wall while her flesh has been pickled in Sciences Hall.” Parks fashions much wordplay regarding the buttocks as the rear “end,” highlighting how black bodies are seen as objects unto themselves, not part of a living, breathing human being. Promised that she will be the “African Dancing Princess” getting paid in gold over a two-year period, Saartjie accepts the brothers’ offer to go to England. There she joins a downtrodden troupe, the 8 Human Wonders, freaks who are being taken advantage of first by the two brothers, then by the Mother-Showman (Danson), who allows curious onlookers to fondle Saartjie for an additional price. Meanwhile, a play-within-a-play, the baroque period piece For the Love of the Venus, mimics what is happening to Saartjie, in a more elegant manner. Her life changes dramatically when she is taken in by the Baron Docteur (Conlee), who claims to be in love with her while also using her as a specimen for the 8 Anatomists, but it is already clear that things are not going to go well for Saartjie.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Saartjie Baartman (Zainab Jah) dreams of a better life where the streets are paved with gold in Venus (photo by Joan Marcus)

Venus opens with Jah (Eclipsed) being placed in a tight-fitting naked suit that exaggerates her body, particularly her buttocks; it’s an emotional moment, as if she is on view for us not unlike Saartjie was two hundred years ago, after slavery had been banned in England. (It also evokes the beginning of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.) Jah is superb as the Venus Hottentot, who believes that a great life awaits her no matter how terribly she is treated. Mambo (The Color Purple) and Conlee, as the Baron Docteur, are fine as well, but the rest of the cast, including several who were in The Death of the Last Black Man, are like amateurish caricatures, which might be the point but it detracts from the narrative nonetheless. Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the Wars) and Obie-winning Public Theater Public Works artistic director deBessonet (Good Person of Szechwan) get to the heart of the matter early on; the bulk of the two-hour and fifteen-minute protest play merely hammers home the same ideas about gender, race, and cruelty, aspects of humanity still prevalent today. Even during intermission, the Baron Docteur delivers his scientific notes on the Hottentot, as if Parks just can’t stop emphasizing the details, which are of course critical but create stagnant, repetitive drama. Matt Saunders’s sets change from the freak-show circus to the Baron Docteur’s bedroom, which features a cleverly placed mirror that reflects Saartjie’s image in a way that reminds us that she is always on view, even in her most intimate of moments. It’s a deft touch in a play that does not have much subtlety and feels like it’s preaching to the choir, a very different experience than The Death of the Last Black Man, a beguiling seventy-five-minute piece that made many of the same arguments with a more abstract depth. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement and such books as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which focus on the mistreatment of black bodies in today’s society, have taken some of the potency out of Parks’s play. Parks’s Residency One at Signature will continue in late August with The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A and The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood, presented together for the first time. The May 20 performance of Venus will be followed by the World of the Play talk “Body/Image: Creating and Maintaining Intersectionality in the Arts,” and the May 25 show will be preceded by a Backstage Pass discussion with costume designer Emilio Sosa.

GROUNDHOG DAY THE MUSICAL

Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is trapped in Punxsutawney, PA, forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over again (photo by Joan Marcus)

Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is trapped in Punxsutawney, PA, forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over again (photo by Joan Marcus)

August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $79.50 - $169
www.groundhogdaymusical.com

“Hoping for an early spring? Well, tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and the good folks in Punxsutawney are already gathering in a snowy field waiting for the dawn. Why? Because they’re morons,” meteorologist Phil Connors (Andy Karl) declares at the beginning of Groundhog Day, the fabulous musical adaptation of the popular 1993 comedy. The arrogant, condescending, misogynistic Connors, who hosts the television program Good Weather with Phil Connors — “Thanks for watching,” he patronizingly says whenever recognized by a gushing fan — has been sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with excited associate producer Rita (Barrett Doss) and quiet cameraman Larry (Vishal Vaidya), but he doesn’t care one iota about whether the rodent sees its shadow or whether there will be six more weeks of winter. “Small towns, tiny minds / Big mouths, small ideas / Shallow talk, deep snow / Cold fronts, big rears,” he sings about the local populace and eager tourists who have flooded the community, many who have come in costume to celebrate the aptly named Phil the groundhog. “There’s nothing more depressing than small town USA / And small don’t come much smaller than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day,” he adds. Connors might care only about himself, unwilling to find the charm that is the core of America, but he’s about to get one very unusual comeuppance because of his snarky, superior attitude. Every morning, he wakes up to discover that it is still Groundhog Day — he is stuck in a loop in which he keeps meeting such corny, down-home characters as the Chubby Man (Michael Fatica), bed-and-breakfast owner Mrs. Lancaster (Heather Ayers), groundhog fans Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland, nerdy marching band sweethearts Fred and Debbie (Gerard Canonico and Katy Geraghty), the bumbling sheriff (Sean Montgomery), and high school acquaintance and insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), who all annoy him no end, especially when they want to talk about the weather. He’s trapped in a nightmare of his own making, perhaps incapable of figuring a way out.

Phil Connors (Andy Karl) and Rita (Barrett Doss) pause for a special moment in smash Broadway musical (photo by Joan Marcus)

Phil Connors (Andy Karl) and Rita (Barrett Doss) pause for a special moment in smash Broadway musical (photo by Joan Marcus)

Three-time Tony nominee Karl (On the Twentieth Century, Rocky) is a phenomenon as Connors, a role immortalized by Bill Murray in the film; he is bursting with an infectious charisma and bewitching energy that envelops the audience from the very start and never lets go; it’s an unforgettable, bravura, career-making performance by a rising star. He even has fun showing off the brace he has to wear after having torn his ACL during previews. But he’s helped tremendously by an outstanding book that really understands the heart and soul of the film, which is not a shock, as the book is written by Danny Rubin, who cowrote the movie with director Harold Ramis. Thus, the characters and the plot come first, with plenty of spoken dialogue leading into the superb music and lyrics by Australian comedian, musician, writer, director, and actor Tim Minchin, who also wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical, earning him a Tony nomination for Best Original Score. (He also played crazed rock star Atticus Fetch on Californication.) The songs flow seamlessly into the story, with some brilliant surprises. Rebecca Faulkenberry (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Rock of Ages) brings down the house as Nancy Taylor, a conquest of Phil’s who opens the second act with “Playing Nancy,” lamenting her fate both as the character and the actress playing the character. “Well, here I am again the pretty but naive one / the perky breasted, giggly, one-night-stand / Is it my destiny to be a brief diversion / just a detour on the journey of some man?” she asks, wanting to be more than she is. Later, Sanders (Matilda, Peter and the Starcatcher) delivers the beautiful ballad “Night Will Come,” about life’s inevitabilities.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Meteorologist Phil Connors (Andy Karl) can’t stop bumping into insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (John Sanders) in Groundhog Day (photo by Joan Marcus)

Minchin and Rubin don’t sugarcoat anything, instead focusing on the bittersweet nature of human existence. Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (Matilda, God of Carnage) never allows the show to get boring, despite so much repetition, while Peter Darling and Ellen Kane’s playful choreography weaves its way through Rob Howell’s fast-changing sets amid Christopher Nightingale’s smart orchestrations. (Howell also designed the fun costumes.) And during “Hope,” magician Paul Kieve (Ghost, Matilda) adds some very cool illusions as Phil contemplates the end. There’s a reason the Old Vic production garnered eight Olivier nominations (winning Best Actor and Best Director) and the Broadway version is up for seven Tonys (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Actor, Best Direction, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Scenic Design): The cast and crew are just that good, from top to bottom, led by Karl, all coming together to create a show to remember, one that, yes, audiences are likely to want to see over and over again and one that, despite its British roots, is profoundly American.

HAPPY DAYS

(photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Dianne Wiest stars as Winnie in Yale Rep production of Happy Days at TFANA (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 28, $85-$120
866-811-4111
www.tfana.org

In preparing to play Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, a part she had been waiting thirty years to take on and one she calls “the Hamlet for actresses,” Dianne Wiest worked with a special movement coach in order to deal with the role’s unusual physical demands: She must spend nearly two hours buried in an artificial sand dune, in the first act only able to move her upper body and in the second act even less. Unfortunately, perhaps that’s why the two-time Tony and Emmy winner’s performance can feel overly mannered in the first half of the show, which continues at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center through May 28, although she dazzles after intermission. Winnie is first seen in a strapless black dress, her torso and head the only parts of her body sticking out from atop Izmir Ickbal’s large sand dune, behind which is a trompe l’oeil backdrop of white clouds and blue sky. A mysterious bell rings her awake, and Winnie begins her morning ablutions, going through her bag, taking her medicine, brushing her teeth, and getting ready for the day, which pretty much is going to be like every other day in her life, but she is cheery and chipper nonetheless. “Another heavenly day,” she announces with a smile. “So much to be thankful for — no pain — hardly any,” she adds, shining with positivity. To her right, in a crevice, is her husband, Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who is rarely seen and has very little to say aside from reading obituaries and job postings in the paper. Wiest overemotes with her bare arms, drawing too much attention to them, detracting from Winnie’s charmingly abstruse existential ramblings. Every movement, every pause, every emotion was written into the script by Beckett, but here they are just too broad.

(photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest) face life and death in Samuel Beckett revival (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

In the second act, with her arms buried beneath the sand, Wiest (All My Sons, Hannah and Her Sisters) really hits her stride, her high-pitched, singsong voice rising throughout the theater with the dawn of a new day. “Hail, holy light,” she begins. “Someone is looking at me still. Caring for me still. That is what I find so wonderful. Eyes on my eyes,” she says, referring to the rapt audience. “What is that unforgettable line?” We are looking at her indeed; of course, it’s a play in which you have to keep your eyes on her, but you’ll be mesmerized by Wiest’s tantalizing performance in this second half. However, director James Bundy never quite establishes a connection between Winnie and Willie, who is relegated to merely an afterthought. In the 2015 Boston Court production at the Flea, starring real-life husband-and-wife Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub, Willie was much more critical to the narrative, which also took on climate change. But Bundy, Conroy, and Wiest still do justice to Beckett’s views on the passage of time, with intriguing references to sex, death, and vaudeville and Winnie regularly championing “the Old Style.”

THE ANTIPODES

(photo by Joan Marcus)

A group of men and women gathers around a table telling stories in Annie Baker’s The Antipodes (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 11, $30 through May 14, $90 after
212-244-7529
www.signaturetheatre.org

Near the beginning of Annie Baker’s first play for her Residency Five program at the Signature Theatre, John, a character declares, “Tell me a story.” Baker takes that conceit to a whole new level in her follow-up, The Antipodes, which has been extended at the Signature through June 11. The set-up is essentially fairly simple: a group of coworkers sit in ergonomic chairs around a table in an office, where they spend their days sharing deeply personal tales that might or might not lead to the one that their boss, Sandy (Will Patton), needs as he seeks material for a successor to their biggest hit, Heathens. The audience, sitting on two sides of Laura Jellinek’s pristine set, never learns what kind of company the seven men and two women work for — but it’s apparently at least somewhat bureaucratic and corporate, as Josh (Josh Hamilton) has to fill out forms over and over in an ongoing effort to try to get his ID. The tale they seek involves monsters, but no dwarves, elves, or trolls; they could be making movies, video games, apps, or an animated television series, although it doesn’t really matter, because it’s all about the stories themselves. “There are seven types of stories in the world,” Dave (Josh Charles) says, while Danny M1 (Danny Mastrogiorgio) claims there are thirty-six, Josh ten, and Brian (Brian Miskell) eighteen. They share intimate sexual episodes, moments that shaped their lives, and random tales that go nowhere. Josh philosophizes about the nature of time, Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell) doesn’t understand why she can’t use her cell phone, Danny M2 (Danny McCarthy) is hesitant to contribute, and Adam (Phillip James Brannon) remembers being hit by lightning. Scenes often end in the middle of a discussion, then pick up in the midst of a new topic, with no clear delineation of the time change except when Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), Sandy’s assistant — who knows more than she’s letting on — arrives to take lunch orders, wearing a different chic outfit each time, courtesy of costume designer Kaye Voyce. While it doesn’t appear that they are accomplishing anything, Sandy, a straight shooter who is having some issues at home, pushes them to keep going. “I just wanted to remind all of you that what you’re doing is important. We need stories. As a culture. It’s what we live for. These are dark times. Stories are a little bit of light that we can cup in our palms like votive candles to show us the way out of the forest.” Even Brian, the note-taker and researcher, gets in on the action. But the team starts getting nervous when Sandy suddenly doesn’t show up one day.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Dave (Josh Charles) and Adam (Phillip James Brannon) listen to others’ stories in latest exceptional work by Annie Baker (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Antipodes, which sounds like a mythical monster but actually means “contrary” or “the exact opposite,” has all the makings of a pretentious play about the art of playwrighting, a work about the writer’s struggle to come up with a good idea, but Pulitzer Prize winner Baker (The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation), who wrote the two-hour show specifically for the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, proves that it’s not that obvious. Instead, it’s a carefully crafted existential take on everyday existence, on the things humans do to get by, from eating and drinking to having sex, from going to work and communicating with others to dealing with life’s little problems. “We can do anything,” Sandy points out, as if he’s speaking for Baker the playwright, who is firmly in control. The show is also about the concept of time, which in a play can be manipulated by the writer. “There are two kinds of time. Vertical and horizontal. And if something happens in horizontal time, it can be . . . it’s not permanent,” Josh explains. “You can reverse it. Like one of them is the time that we think of when we think of normal time that’s moving forward and you can’t go back. But then there’s another kind of time and if you do something in that kind of time you can . . . uh . . . it’s more flexible.” Director Lila Neugebauer, who has done an extraordinary job navigating through time and space in such complex multicharacter dramas as The Wayside Motor Inn, The Wolves, and Everybody, makes every movement count, never allowing the narrative flow to drag, whether by way of a bit of magic about where lunch comes from or Adam lying on the floor to tell “the first story ever told.” The actors form an utterly believable group, fellow employees with unique personalities, some of whom bond while others remain outsiders, just as in real life. “The stories we create teach people what it’s like to be someone else on a visceral level,” Sandy tells his crew. “As storytellers we know how to shift perspective and inhabit different viewpoints. Imagine what would happen if everyone in the world could do every once in a while what we already do on a daily basis. It would be revolutionary.” The Antipodes is another exceptional play from one of the theater’s finest minds, a writer who is never afraid of going for the revolutionary in her work.

WAR PAINT

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) battle it out during the war effort in War Paint (photo by Joan Marcus)

Nederlander Theatre
208 West 41st St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $65-$179
877-250-2929
www.warpaintmusical.com

War Paint is everything it should be and more. Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s 2004 book and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s 2009 documentary, The Powder & the Glory, this knockout Broadway musical pits not only fashion doyenne Helena Rubinstein against Elizabeth Arden but Tony-winning divas Patti LuPone, as the former, against Christine Ebersole, as the latter. And everyone wins, especially the audience. Rubinstein (1872-1965) and Arden (1878-1966) were fierce rivals in the cosmetics industry, bringing a new conception of feminine beauty to America while also breaking barriers for women entrepreneurs. The show, which takes place between the late 1930s and the early 1960s, focuses on how sharply different each was from the other, although they both sought the same things: power in a man’s world, as a woman. Rubinstein was a tough, gruff Jewish immigrant from a Polish shtetl, while the blonde Arden hailed from an impoverished Canadian farm. While Rubinstein made such proclamations as “There are no ugly women; only lazy ones,” Arden made such demure statements as “Remember, girls! Every woman has a God-given right to loveliness!” In the show, they battle over new products, secret ingredients, location, Senate investigations, and even sales managers; at one point, Elizabeth’s husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), feeling neglected, jumps ship to work with Helena, so Helena’s right-hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), is quickly snatched up by Elizabeth. David Korins’s darkly bold changing sets include a wall of glowing cosmetic bottles, a movable red door representing Arden’s lush salon, portraits of Rubenstein done by famous artists, and a restaurant where both women dine and where they reveal many of their fears. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are exuberant, as are David Brian Brown’s wigs and Angelina Avallone’s makeup, while Christopher Gattelli’s choreography has ravishing moments of razzle-dazzle; all of those elements come together for a terrific number about Helena and Elizabeth’s involvement in the war effort (“Necessity Is the Mother of Invention”) as well as such other fun songs as “Behind the Red Door” and “Back on Top,” featuring the talented ensemble, who all play multiple roles, including such standouts as Mary Ernster as the Society Doyenne, Joanna Glushak as Magda, Barbara Marineau as the Grand Dame, Angel Reda as the Heiress, Mary Claire King as Miss Beam, and Erik Liberman as Charles Revson.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) pause for a rare quiet moment in their lavish yet complex lives (photo by Joan Marcus)

The book, by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Hands on a Hardbody), does an excellent job of condensing the story into a fast-paced two and a half hours, giving equal time to each side of the conflict. The music, by Scott Frankel, and lyrics, by Michael Korie, who previously collaborated on such shows as Far from Heaven, Doll, and Happiness and teamed up with Wright on Grey Gardens, are fanciful and exhilarating, propelling the story while allowing the stars to shine, and shine they do; LuPone (Gypsy, Evita), Ebersole (Grey Gardens, 42nd Street), Dossett (Gypsy, Giant), and Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Little Shop of Horrors) are the fiercest foursome on Broadway today, chewing up the colorful scenery and spitting it out with verve and style, although the show, of course, belongs to the women. Early on, Harry suggests to Helena, “Perhaps this time you’ll drop by the Red Door and introduce yourself? Maybe even make nice?” to which Helena responds, “The Ford should meet the Studebaker? The Macy’s should take tea with the Gimbel’s?” In real life, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden actually never met; thank goodness this show brings them together for posterity.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

(photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Paul (Corey Hawkins) charms Ouisa (Allison Janney) and Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) in Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 16, $49 - $149
sixdegreesbroadway.com

In 1983, David Hampton talked his way into several apartments owned by wealthy New Yorkers, claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Guare heard the story from friends of his, Inger McCabe Elliott and Osborn Elliott, who were among those who took in Hampton, and turned the true tale first into a 1990 play, which premiered at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center and moved upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont for its Broadway debut, and then a 1993 film, directed by Fred Schepisi. It is now having its first Broadway revival, and it’s as sharp and delightful as ever, skewering white liberal guilt, societal racism, and the child-rearing of the wealthy with glee and wit to spare. Six Degrees of Separation is set in an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment, where private art dealer Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) and his chi-chi wife, Ouisa (Allison Janney), have just gone through a traumatic experience. They relate in flashback, often addressing the audience directly, precisely what happened to shake them up so much. Flan and Ouisa, who are both in their forties, were enjoying an evening with their friend Geoffrey (Michael Siberry), a wealthy South African businessman whom they plan to wine and dine into an art investment deal. When asked why he stays in South Africa, where apartheid is still in effect, Geoffrey, who employs seventy thousand black workers in one of his mines, explains, “One has to stay there to educate the black workers, and we’ll know we’ve been successful when they kill us.” When Geoffrey asks Flan and Ouisa to visit him in South Africa, she opines, “But we’d visit you and sit in your gorgeous house planning trips into the townships demanding to see the poorest of the poor. ‘Are you sure they’re the worst off? I mean, we’ve come all this way. We don’t want to see people just mildly victimized by apartheid. We demand shock.’ It doesn’t seem right sitting on the East Side talking about revolution.” Their evening is interrupted when the doorman (Tony Carlin) brings in a young man who bleeding from a recent attack in Central Park. Paul (Corey Hawkins) claims to be friends with Ouisa and Flan’s children (they have two kids at Harvard and one at Groton) as well as being the son of famed actor Poitier. The three white people see this as an excellent opportunity to help a black man, so they take him in, getting particularly excited when Paul promises that they can appear in the movie version of Cats, which his father is directing. But later that night they find out a whole lot more about Paul that is not quite so comforting.

(photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

John Guare revival is set in a luxurious Fifth Avenue living room (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Atlantic City) does an expert job exploring the racial divide, one that hasn’t changed all that much in America since 1990. “I never knew I was black in that racist way till I was sixteen and came back here,” Paul explains about his return to the States after being raised in Switzerland. Although Guare didn’t come up with the Poitier reference — that was done by the real Hampton — it allows the playwright to subtly pontificate on the boundary-breaking actor so beloved by black and white audiences. “Your father means a great deal in South Africa,” Geoffrey points out, while Dr. Fine (Ned Eisenberg), who treated Paul at the hospital, calls Poitier “a matinee idol of my youth. Somebody who had really forged ahead and made new paths for blacks just by the strength of his own talent.” Also getting involved are Flan and Ouisa’s friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) and several of the adults’ less-than-happy children, including Woody (Keenan Jolliff), Doug (Cody Kostro), Tess (Colby Minifie), and Ben (Ned Riseley), who have some terse words to share with their parents. “There are two sides to every story,” Dr. Fine tells his son, Doug, a theme that also relates to the painting Flan and Ouisa have hanging in their living room, a two-sided Kandinsky described thusly by Guare: “One side is geometric and somber. The other side is wild and vivid.” There are plenty of both sides in the play.

Corey Hawkins takes on role previously played by James McDaniel, Courtney B. Vance, and Will Smith (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Corey Hawkins takes on role previously played by James McDaniel, Courtney B. Vance, and Will Smith (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Seven-time Emmy winner and two-time Tony nominee Janney (The West Wing, A View from the Bridge) and Tony winner and Emmy nominee Hickey (The Normal Heart, The Big C) portray the quintessential East Side couple — previously played onstage by John Cunningham and Stockard Channing and on film by Channing and Donald Sutherland — with grace and skill, masterfully blending humor and irony. Hawkins (Hurt Village, 24: Legacy) is a worthy successor to previous Paul portrayers James McDaniel off Broadway, Courtney B. Vance on Broadway, and Will Smith on film; he keeps the audience guessing just as he does the gullible characters. The show is smoothly directed by Obie winner Trip Cullman (Significant Other, Punk Rock), moving back and forth between the past and the present, although the red scrim in the back of Mark Wendland’s set is confusing. “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people,” Ouisa says. “Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The President of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.” This revival of Six Degrees of Separation, continuing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through July 16, makes quite a connection itself.