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One Cheer for the Roundabout

Pygmalion shows exactly what the company should be doing. The Ritz, not so much.

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Every theater company has its hits and misses. The Roundabout, though, seems not to have a target at all. Year after year, occasional success follows puzzling misfire, with no clear sign of why or what’s next. That might be merely an interesting quirk of the cultural landscape, except that the Roundabout is one of the biggest and most active nonprofit theaters in America. With enough cash flow to sustain two Broadway houses and enough subscribers to populate a small town, the company goes a long way toward determining the health of serious theater in New York.

Already this month, the Roundabout has opened two shows on Broadway: George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes playing Higgins and Eliza, and Terrence McNally’s bathhouse comedy The Ritz. A black-box space for developing work has just been inaugurated, and still to come is a new play at the company’s Off Broadway theater. Looming behind it all are reports that the company will soon take control of a third Broadway house, the just-restored Henry Miller’s Theater. The Roundabout’s creative output may wander, but its organizational path seems clear, and it is pointing straight toward world domination. Its recent burst of activity offers some clues about the role it’s going to play and how hopeful we ought to be.

Pygmalion (at the American Airlines Theater) reflects some of the company’s healthier tendencies. In the past decade, only three Shaw plays have reached Broadway, and the Roundabout produced them all. If you’re going to dedicate yourself to revivals—the company’s stated mission since it was founded in a now-mythic supermarket basement 42 years ago—staging lots and lots of Shaw is an excellent way to follow through. The Roundabout was wise, too, to entrust this great story about love and phonics to such skilled hands. Jefferson Mays makes dialect guru Professor Henry Higgins fierce-eyed, punctilious, and a little bratty: Sherlock Holmes with a tuning fork. Boyd Gaines uses his courtly baritone to make Colonel Pickering just as compelling. Watch how, when Eliza recites the small-talk routine about the weather that they’ve taught her, he beams through his beard.

Nobody who’s seen these gentlemen onstage lately (notably in last winter’s Journey’s End) will be shocked at how good they are. The pleasant surprise is their co-star. Slim and nervous, Claire Danes gives Eliza a gawky luminosity, at once the duckling and the swan. “I want to be a lady in a flower shop ’stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road,” she says, sweetly. The production runs into trouble here and there—Jay O. Sanders’s Alfred Doolittle is vague and shapeless, and director David Grindley’s handling of the last scene is weirdly lifeless—but these flaws have little to do with her. While not an Eliza for the ages (in the rare moments when she looks lost, your mind flashes to all the downtown actresses you’d still rather see in the role), Danes comes out of this play better than she went in.

In that sense, Pygmalion also shows the Roundabout triumphing over some of its worst inclinations. Historically, this company’s stages are where TV and film stars show off their inadequacy for the great roles they’re given (even talented actors like Peter Krause and Carla Gugino have run into trouble). Much as I’ve enjoyed pretending during those evenings that I was watching a deconstructive attack on the self-defeating nature of celebrity itself, these productions really reflect the commercial impulses of artistic director Todd Haimes. He started on the business side of the company, saving the theater from bankruptcy in 1983. Since then, he’s been one of the pioneers of bringing for-profit thinking to the not-for-profit world—even though nonprofits enjoy tax breaks and lower rates from Broadway unions, so they don’t have to rely on for-profit thinking.

Haimes is not abashed about this. “I have no problem producing something that I think is popular or commercial to make money, as long as the money goes for the not-for-profit purpose,” he told the Times earlier this year. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. If staging a crowd-pleasing trifle or hiring the occasional heartthrob helps yield moments of artistic glory—the company’s brilliant, gutsy revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins leaps to mind—that’s just fine. Much too often, however, the choices leave you not with chills down the spine but nagging questions, the latest one being: Who thought it was a good idea to revive The Ritz?

Terrence McNally’s 1975 comedy follows a zhlubby straight guy (Kevin Chamberlin, playing the role halfway to the Cowardly Lion) who hides out in a gay bathhouse from the Plot Devices who are after him, landing in one Unpersuasive Farce Situation after another. I could catalogue the play’s sins, but the big one is that it’s not funny. Having seen the Roundabout wreck plays through star casting (Entertaining Mr. Sloane) and directorial malfeasance (The Threepenny Opera), I find revivals like this one the most dispiriting. The whole rationale for nonprofit theaters is that they deserve, in the interest of finding excellence, the chance to fail now and then. This fails, all right, but not in any edifying way. Of all the plays on the shelf, why did the Roundabout lavish this one with towering scenery, a cast of 24, and the expert services of director Joe Mantello?

The conventional wisdom on how to correct such lapses is for the Roundabout to take more risks. After all, the company has had great success with some new plays, like Lynn Nottage’s heartbreaking Intimate Apparel. But as the Roundabout embarks on its latest expansionary drive, adding riskier work to the current mix strikes me as the exact wrong way to go—as does letting the focus stray much farther toward new plays. Haimes & Co. are in a unique position to play a much more vital role for this town.

In the performing arts, great works really live only when somebody stages them well. Though the Met and Philharmonic keep the masterpieces of opera and music near public view, the city’s major theaters have left a gaping hole where a lively, ongoing presence for the modern classics should be. If the Roundabout really wanted to justify its sprawling reach and commercial moves—e.g., selling the name of the venerable Selwyn Theatre to American Airlines—it would rededicate itself to hunting big game, skipping the marginal revivals to focus more on Wilder and Ibsen, Mamet and, yes, Shaw. Plenty of small companies (like the admirable Pearl) attempt these plays, sometimes with real aplomb, but without the much-needed resources the Roundabout can deploy. If it did so for top-shelf revivals of Carousel and The Skin of Our Teeth instead of ill-advised vehicles for divas who deserve better (110 in the Shade, The Apple Tree) we wouldn’t have to worry so much about the Roundabout’s creative health—or the New York theater’s.

Pygmalion
By George Bernard Shaw. Roundabout Theatre Company. Through December 16.

The Ritz
By Terrence McNally. Roundabout Theatre Company. Through December 9.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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