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Drama Rush

The season’s October boomlet, from Hamlet to Princess Leia.

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Illustration by Shane Harrison  

For whatever reason—stars’ schedules? Sunspots?—this month is uncommonly packed with openings, ten of them on Broadway alone. Here’s our halftime lineup; look for reviews of the second half next week.

Hamlet
At the Broadhurst Theatre
There have been as many different Hamlets as there have been actors to play them, but Jude Law may be the first in danger of blowing away in a stiff wind. In the Donmar Warehouse Hamlet, directed by Michael Grandage, Law plays the melancholy Dane with the intense single-mindedness of an insect; his movements, fascinating to watch, are as precise and as elegant as those of a praying mantis.

But is it better to be a fascinating Hamlet, or a visceral one? Law has sophistication and hauteur to spare, but he’s lacking in red blood cells, and his willful anemia is part of what makes this a remote, chilly evening. The production practically wills itself into a state of torpor: The main feature of Christopher Oram’s set is a somber expanse of grayish stone stretching skyward, so adamantly oppressive that it’s almost awe-inspiring. No one wants to see a laff-riot Hamlet, but a few flashes of visual brightness wouldn’t have hurt. Even Law’s costuming—wrinkly dark pants, smoke-colored jerseys—makes him look like one of those brooding guys who own every Guided by Voices B-side.

Most of the actors’ performances are solid enough on their own, but they don’t connect, or clash, as they need to—each seems locked in his or her dignified little sphere. Geraldine James’s Gertrude is suitably regal, but she and her troubled son act like they’ve just met. The ditheriness of Ron Cook’s Polonius has a mechanical, calculating quality. And while Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ophelia is fine in her early scenes—she’s earthbound and sensible—she plays her eventual madness as flightiness, as if she’d merely misplaced her house keys.

If Law’s performance lacks punch, it’s certainly disciplined. He’s polished every line to a crystalline gleam, and as Hamlet’s madness kicks into high gear, Law channels his character’s grief into nervous energy: He mimics copulation with the zeal of the Energizer bunny; he squats and hops like a lolloping, pop-eyed frog. But he’s also reduced this complex, spoiled, frustrating character into an angular wraith glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Law’s Hamlet is fastidious instead of robust, an almost translucent presence—less solid, even, than his father’s ghost. –S.Z.

Broke-ology
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Describing the plot of Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology (two brothers—one successful, one not—tussle over how best to care for their ailing father) could make the Lincoln Center Theater production sound like a grinding burden-of-responsibility drama, laced with questions of racial identity. But Broke-ology is a lot funnier than it is grim, and director Thomas Kail (In the Heights) has made the most of the play’s buoyant spirit, even as he and his actors remain mindful of their characters’ pain.

The drama rests on classic clashes between the two brothers: Ennis (Francois Battiste) has remained in Kansas to care for their father, William (Wendell Pierce, of The Wire), and with a pregnant girlfriend and a dead-end restaurant job, his life has become too much to bear alone. Brother Malcolm (Alano Miller), with his new graduate degree and a job offer back East, has returned to help, and Ennis makes no secret of wanting him to stick around. Grand themes are touched upon, but Jackson’s terrific ear for dialogue keeps the play lively and fluid (one recurring bit has Ennis promising to chant “I love black people!” every time he uses the N-word). The title Broke-ology refers to Ennis’s amateur study of the science of having no money. But Jackson isn’t out to make the African-American Long Day’s Journey Into Night. These people are broke, not broken. –S.Z.

Wishful Drinking
At Studio 54
As she’s documented in her books, Carrie Fisher has endured mental illness and substance-abuse problems, trials that would surely break a lesser human being. But it takes a truly strong sense of self to survive a cinnamon-bun hairdo. In this fleet, breezy one-woman show, Fisher proves she can stand up to any coif. She spends the first half riffing on her life in headlines, from the high-profile marriage and breakup of her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, to her own ignominious couplings and uncouplings. She details, for example, the end of her second marriage, to Bryan Lourd, who claimed she had turned him gay by dosing him with codeine. (Pointing to a present-day photo of him, she muses, “Well, he had hair when I met him … I turn them bald, I make them gay, and my work is done.”)

Fisher has a light touch: Her zingers are sharp, but she always stops short of cruelty. (When Mike Todd, her father’s best friend and Liz Taylor’s husband, died in a plane crash, Eddie Fisher “flew to Elizabeth’s side—gradually making his way slowly to her front.”) She’s toughest on herself, and the show’s second half, focusing on her rehab and treatment for mental illness, veers close to self-help platitudes. But Fisher, padding around the stage in black silk pajamas, doesn’t stand still long enough to feel sorry for herself. At one point she even resurrects the Bunned One, donning a Princess Leia wig and taking us on a visual tour of Star Wars merchandising deals made in her image. “If someone offers to turn you into a pez dispenser,” she says, with understated sardonicism, “do it! Because it’s just made my life better.” –S.Z.


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