Atop this pile of exposition, two dopey sportscasters (unlike any I’ve ever heard) pile yet more exposition, but nothing that’s particularly moving, no wisp of an idea. Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out proved that a play about sports can address pretty much anything that matters in American society, but this one evinces no urgent concerns beyond a brief flicker of interest in the oppressed lesbians of Forest Hills.
I take it on legend that Lansbury—owl-eyed, with a wonderfully thin, expressive mouth—can do wonders onstage, and know from certain experience that the slim, regal Seldes can. All the worse, then, that their rendezvous gives them preposterously little to do, virtually no opportunities to show off or even stretch. Mainly they sit side-by-side watching an invisible tennis ball zip back and forth over the orchestra seats. Look left. Look right. Look left. Look right. Great actors deserve better.
Not to take anything away from the special badness of this play, but it’s worth noting that American playwriting (above 14th Street, anyway) has been in a slump for the past couple of seasons. It’ll end sooner or later; slumps always do. What’s frustrating in the meantime is that the city’s revivals haven’t picked up the slack. Some great plays have been staged lately—a jackpot of three King Lears this season alone—but New York continues to have an inexplicable shyness about tackling classics, and an overabundance of revivals that didn’t need reviving.
The chief offender looked, for a time, to be the Roundabout’s staging of The Apple Tree, which had been designed as a showcase of Kristin Chenoweth’s talents but ended up being a conspicuous waste of them. Now the company is putting Audra McDonald to the same perverse use. In 110 in the Shade, the composer-lyricist team Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones and librettist N. Richard Nash tell the story of a terrible drought in thirties Texas, a dearth of rain that is like the dearth of men suffered by plain, self-doubting Lizzie. The show isn’t lousy, just unbelievably corny. It hails from 1963, a time when tough-guy self-help gurus like the traveling stranger Starbuck (Steve Kazee) must not have seemed so silly. “Say ‘I’m pretty,’ ” he orders Lizzie. “Say it.”
As for McDonald (and Lansbury and Seldes, for that matter): Doesn’t anybody write vehicles for stars anymore? When that golden soprano rings out, or she unfurls a shy little smile, you feel like you’re watching an elaborate cabaret act—specifically, one of those novelty numbers where the star puts on a silly dress, and sings with a funny drawl, and you clap and smile tolerantly, because you know that before the shtick gets too old, she’ll be back in her gown and doing the top-shelf material that her extravagant gifts deserve. This shtick runs 2:30.