No Monkeying Around

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Christopher Plummer is giving the kind of performance you’ll one day brag about having seen. As Henry Drummond, the Clarence Darrow–esque lawyer in Inherit the Wind, he makes every snap of his suspenders ring true. He walks a little stiffly, with a stoop, and tosses away some lines. But note the wicked twinkle in his eye: He’s just playing rope-a-dope. At the climax of this dramatized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, when Drummond calls the Bible-thumping attorney Matthew Harrison Brady to the stand, Plummer gives his lines an acid bite, and moves with the kind of can’t-look-away ­charisma that mortals don’t possess. He skips from aggressive to playful to grave, but never when you expect him to, making this one of the rare performances you love to watch because there’s no telling where it might go next. I’ve seen plenty of first-class acting, and flashes of greatness now and then, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

When Plummer really gets going, as in the speech where Drummond acknowledges that progress comes at a price—“You may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline”—he makes Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee sound like much, much better playwrights than they were. So, for the most part, does director Doug Hughes. He’s not usually an auteur type: Getting extraordinary work out of his actors, like Cherry Jones and Brían F. O’Byrne in Doubt, or Plummer and Byron Jennings, who’s scarily fierce as the town preacher here, is usually his forte. But he goes a little conceptual on this one.

If you want to be technical, you’d say he’s taken a folksy expressionist approach, using white light and spare staging to replace the play’s mid-century realism with a Thornton Wilder vibe. If you don’t want to be technical, you’d say he’s not screwing around. All the extra stagecraft he’s thrown at the script—a bluegrass band that warms up the crowd, audience members who sit in what look like two jury boxes onstage—is designed to cut through its fussy, dated qualities, making this ninth-grade-English-class favorite feel as direct and pressing as breaking news.

It helps that, thanks to the forward creep of intelligent design lately, the evolution debate often is breaking news. Maybe this is why Brian Dennehy makes Brady an up-to-date demagogue, going easy on the cast-iron speeches and imperial bearing in favor of sober reasonability. That’d be admirable in a subtler play, but it costs this one some of its dimension. For all his flair at the grip-and-grin politician side of Brady, Dennehy doesn’t locate his doomed greatness. When Plummer breaks him down on the stand—and that assault alone is worth the price of three admissions—you want to feel that a colossus has been toppled. But Dennehy hasn’t spent the play building one: A colossus wouldn’t have ambled around the courtroom with his hands in his pockets.

Kevin Spacey has loads of talent and catlike charisma; I just wish he knew what to do with them. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, he plays James Tyrone Jr., the character Eugene O’Neill based on his own hard-drinking brother.

Jamie’s an actor—by his own description, a “goddamn ham”—which Spacey seems to take as an invitation to embroider all over the role. No haunted husk of a man here: This Jamie is a skittish vaudevillian. Sometimes Spacey takes a line fast, running all the words together: “ThanksJosieyou’re beautifulIloveyou,” he blurts to Josie Hogan, the strapping farmer’s daughter whom he visits one night, thinking she might redeem his sodden sinner’s heart. Sometimes he screams or shouts. But what do any of the histrionics tell us about James Tyrone? That he’s excitable? And what does it have to do with O’Neill’s great theme of redemption through suffering and love?

Subtler, more settled, and more in tune with the quiet longing in this play, Eve Best makes a fine New York debut as Josie. No matter how emphatically she clomps around the stage, or how dirty her toes might get (O’Neill called for the action to take place on a farm in Connecticut, but the slanting shanty on the barren stage of the Brooks Atkinson looks more like Sam Shepard country), this delicate actress isn’t the hulking woman O’Neill envisioned. Yet somehow the gap between how Best looks and how she belittles herself makes Josie’s disgrace and self-doubt all the more touching.

O’Neill being O’Neill, the play gives us Jamie and Josie plowing the same furrow over and over: They drink and argue, then drink and argue, but their love never seems real. Thanks to Colm Meaney, the bond between Josie and her father grows poignant, but there’s something wrong with a revival that can’t do the same for the central almost-lovers. Of course, how could it? Onstage, Spacey doesn’t connect with anybody; he seems too busy enjoying his Spaceyness. It’s the riddle of his talent. He’s skilled enough to play the great roles, but if he can’t subsume himself into them more smoothly than this, it’s going to be bad news for everyone.

Watching Blackbird, David Harrower’s celebrated new drama from London, is like hitting a patch of black ice. Young Una (Alison Pill) has, fifteen years on, tracked down Ray (Jeff Daniels), a man who sexually abused her when he was 40 and she only 12. You expect to see her angry recriminations and his ass-covering defenses early in the play. Daniels is at his best here: Sleeves up, tie down, he tugs frequently on his hair, giving himself a messy, roosterish plume—at once menacing and pathetic. You might also guess some of the places the story will go toward the end of the play. Pill, in the more difficult role, shows poise but not quite the range needed to deliver a long aria about the night that things went wrong for them.

But the stomach-turning surprise of this play comes in the middle, when Una and Ray stop sounding like aggressor and victim and begin to describe what sounds like a genuine, if extraordinarily messed-up, love affair. Harrower shows a malevolent brilliance in the way he shifts your emotions: One moment, you’re comfortably reviling an unforgivable deed; the next, without realizing how it happened, you’ve begun to sympathize. Nothing else in the show has quite that punch, but those few minutes’ queasiness are more than enough to make Blackbird the most disturbing play uptown audiences have seen since The Pillowman.

Inherit the Wind
By Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
Lyceum Theatre.

A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

By David Harrower.
Manhattan Theatre Club.

No Monkeying Around