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Small Ben

Richard Nelson's portrait of Benedict Arnold is short on character; Encores! celebrates a glorious decade.

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Revolutionary traitor: Yvonne Woods and Corin Redgrave in General, as public characters with private obsessions.  

Richard Nelson’s The General From America takes Benedict Arnold, one of the fascinating subjects from American history, and runs with it—for a twenty-yard loss. Nelson, a hugely uneven playwright who used to be inconsistently very good, has lately become consistently poor. The first rule for a historical play is that even if the hero is a traitor, he must be interesting: Show what heights he fell from and why we would want to spend two hours in his company. But Nelson’s Arnold is compromised from the outset, and nothing he says or does gives him above-average stature. And to cast the worthy but markedly un-spring-chickenish Corin Redgrave as the 38-year-old Arnold (in London, more appropriately, he played Washington) is patently disorienting. It throws his relationships with his young wife, Peggy, and his (in Nelson’s view) quasi-incestuous sister whoppingly out of whack.

Further miscasting by Nelson, his own customary but not necessarily ideal director, has the quirky Jon DeVries portray Washington as a yokel bordering on oafishness. Yvonne Woods makes a neurotic mess out of Peggy. Paul Anthony McGrane’s British accent for Major Andre is rather wobbly. And the text never prepares us for General Clinton’s crush on him (about which, to be sure, there is valid historical speculation), so that the otherwise persuasive Clinton of the excellent Nicholas Kepros suddenly turns faintly ludicrous. The play does nothing with Arnold’s later life in exile, although it was almost more colorful than what went before. Still, the attempt to see Arnold in other than simple black-and-white terms—good soldier, unstable person—is laudable; if only the result were so, too.

I prefer plays about people to plays whose characters are metaphors. Joe Penhall’s blue/orange is about a young psychiatrist, Bruce, and his older superior, Robert, in a London psychiatric hospital. They are at loggerheads about whether a young black fruit seller, Christopher, an obvious schizophrenic, should be sent back to his market stall after a mere 28 days of treatment, as Robert would have it, or be held for further observation, as Bruce sees fit. Chris has delusions of being the son of Idi Amin one day, of Muhammad Ali the next. Also, like Paul Eluard in a surrealist poem, he sees oranges as blue, inside and out. Further, he cannot decide whether he wants to stay put or get out, a dilemma I shared.

The heavily Mamet-influenced dialogue is full of stammers, throat clearings, repetitions, pauses, and, of course, absurdities, which I assume is how metaphors talk, and the whole thing is meant to convey the follies of psychiatry, power games people play, widespread inchoate racism; what it actually conveys, however, is galloping authorial pretension. The verbiage whirls about, animosities escalate into psychological and bureaucratic violence. Neil Pepe has directed serviceably, and the three actors—Glenn Fitzgerald (Bruce), Zeljko Ivanek (Robert), and Harold Perrineau Jr.—couldn’t be bettered. Robert Brill’s spartan set, Brian MacDevitt’s precise lighting, and Laura Bauer’s apt costumes are no less compelling. But, to bring back an ancient pun, the clash of symbols makes for soporific music.

The revelation theater debuts with Temporary Help, based on the real-life case of a rural-Nebraska couple who, for relatively modest gain, murdered their farmhands. The author is David Wiltse, a Connecticut novelist and playwright, whose ideas about Nebraska farm couples, pathological or otherwise, may seem a mite literary. (When the latest hired hand gives his name as Vincent Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and tops this with “like the composer,” I had to resist removing my disbelief from wherever I had suspended it, but chose to stay on to find out if the next temporary help would be called Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. Two violent deaths prevented such an occurrence.)

The play is of the backwoods-naturalistic school epitomized by Of Mice and Men, with a little added Baby Doll for spice, and it manages to grab your curiosity without holding your involvement. Leslie L. Smith’s direction is adequate, as are the production values. What is of real interest is the acting. The charming and gifted Margaret Colin at long last gets a chance to be sexy, which she is, to use a rural-sounding expression, in spades. Robert Cuccioli, who proved his psychopathic prowess in Jekyll and Hyde, does just as well (or ill) here. William Prael may be a trifle pale as the sheriff, but Chad Allen strikes me as the indisputable embodiment of the exurbanite drifter—though, mind you, I’ve never been to Nebraska either.

What a great institution Encores! is, serving an even greater one: the American musical in its glory days. The tenth-anniversary concert was a potpourri of Encores hits, evoked by one or two numbers rendered mostly by the original series performers. There were two dozen of them, half of which I list, though the rest were nearly as good.

Kristin Chenoweth and David Elder deliciously hoof-and-mouthing “Hangin’ Around With You” from Strike Up the Band; Idina Menzel heartfelt in “Easy to Be Hard” from Hair; Philip Bosco and four guys riotous in “Little Tin Box” from Fiorello; Brent Barrett in “Hey There,” a dazzling duet with himself from The Pajama Game; Melissa Errico drolly seductive in “That’s Him” from One Touch of Venus; Jubilant Sykes living up to his name in “The Eagle and Me” from Bloomer Girl; Patrick Wilson relishing the mockery of “Artificial Flowers” from Tenderloin; Christine Ebersole quietly devastating in “The Gentleman Is a Dope” from Allegro; Donna Murphy unbeatable in “One Hundred Easy Ways” from Wonderful Town.

Also the terrific trio “Sing for Your Supper,” butchered in the recent Roundabout revival of The Boys From Syracuse, gloriously resuscitated by Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry, and Debbie Gravitte; and that showstopper of all showstoppers, the twin closing numbers from Chicago, performed by the matchless duo of Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. Add the impeccable Coffee Club Orchestra dashingly guided by Rob Fisher, plus the work of some brilliant orchestrators and choreographers, and you have a show that ran for only three performances but in the memories of the lucky few who caught it will remain forever.

The General From America
Written and directed by Richard Nelson.
blue/orange
By Joe Penhall; staged by Neil Pepe.
Temporary Help
By David Wiltse; staged by Leslie L. Smith.
Encores!
Tenth-anniversary concert.
See Theater listings for details.


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