Holiday Spirit

Illustration by Paul WilloughbyPhoto: Joan Marcus

What war on Christmas? The New York theater, widely viewed (with some justification) as a den of radical pagan Grinchiness, is falling into step this holiday season with the Rockettes and the carolers. A new pair of Yuletide shows won’t be mistaken for the wholesome pageants that the nuns staged in my school days, but they radiate an affirming faith just the same—one that is entirely, surprisingly sincere.

Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, the new transfer from the National Theatre in London, is framed so baldly as a tale of sin and redemption that it might be a kind of biblical parable, only with more whiskey and swear words. Sharky (David Morse) has come home to care for his blind older brother Richard (Jim Norton), even though Sharky is not exactly a model of smooth competence himself. “He’s an awful useless fucking eejit, God love him,” says Richard. The worst of Sharky’s screwups occurred a quarter-century earlier, when he bludgeoned a man to death and won his freedom only by beating the devil at poker. Now, one Christmas Eve, the debonair Mr. Lockhart (Ciarán Hinds) has come looking for a rematch.

As dramatic incidents go, a card game to decide the fate of a man’s soul is tough to beat. McPherson also upholds the proud Irish tradition of making everyday speech sing, writing one funny, sloshed exchange after another for Sharky, Richard, and their hapless friend Ivan (Conleth Hill). But before long, you wish everybody would shut up and deal already. If you happen to arrive at the Booth around intermission, you’ll miss some fine acting in Act One—under McPherson’s direction, the entire cast is superb—but I doubt your experience of the play will be much different from mine.

After all, you’ll still get to hear the best thing in the show, the long, dazzling speech in which Mr. Lockhart tells Sharky that hell is a place where it’s “so cold that you don’t even feel your angry tears freezing in your eyelashes and your very bones ache with deep perpetual agony and you think, ‘I must be going to die … ’ But you never die.” Having been reminded that you’re overdue for confession, you’ll then get to watch the touching spectacle of McPherson’s flawed but essentially good-hearted sinners stumbling toward a kind of salvation in the early hours of Christmas morning. Forget parable: In the end, this play is like a Capra holiday picture, if you can imagine Jimmy Stewart barking something along the lines of “It’s a Christmas present, you dozy fucking eejit.”

In 1961, Langston Hughes put his own unorthodox yet pious spin on the Christmas tradition. Black Nativity depicts the Virgin Mary as a poor African-American woman, and substitutes the Port Authority Bus Terminal for the stable in Bethlehem. In a new revival by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, director Alfred Preisser shifts the action forward to the bad old days of 1973, imagining Jesus arriving amid the pimps, hustlers, and assorted fanatics of pre-Disney Times Square.

The setting allows for some vivid period touches, as when three majestically Afroed wise men in Day-Glo vests and platform shoes strut a path to an actual infant being swaddled upstage center. Since the play also boasts a four-man band, a full robed chorus, an additional (and charming) children’s choir from Kenya, and even some call-and-response on Jesus’ name with the audience, it feels like a gospel cabaret. The results are too scattershot and occasionally flat to leave you glimpsing the face of God. Still, I’m more than inspired to have seen the feet of André De Shields.

As the show’s narrator–preacher–resurrected James Brown, De Shields radiantly pinballs across the stage in a cherry-red suit—white handkerchief waving, legs barely stopping. One moment he’ll stretch his sleeve toward a woman in the front row and, as she touches it, leap backward; the next he’s belting out, and holding, a note that plenty of actors would be proud to hit in the first place. For De Shields, at age 61, to give a performance this joyously inexhaustible has to be a Christmas miracle. When he shouts, “We’re gonna raise the roof on this mothersucker!” even nonbelievers say amen.

David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face is sometimes convoluted and occasionally contradictory, but what do you expect of a serious play about race in America? Beginning with a documented event—Hwang’s public opposition to the casting of a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, to play the lead in the musical Miss Saigon—the story spirals into a half-real, half-imagined trip through the racial conundrums of the nineties. When is ethnicity authentic and when is it a put-on? Is identity inborn or selected? Just when you’re feeling confident in your opinions, the play makes some intriguing or provocative lurch in a new direction.

At first that trajectory is broadly satiric. Hwang enjoys skewering the shallowness of showbiz folk, starting with himself. His onstage avatar, “DHH” (played by the wonderfully funny and self-effacing Hoon Lee), comes off looking ridiculous, beginning when he commits the very sin he criticized in Miss Saigon—casting a white actor to play an Asian lead. By exploiting the topsy-turvy comic possibilities, he shows how we are all judged, misjudged, and prejudged based on our looks. “Everybody gets typecast,” says Kathryn A. Layng, playing Jane Krakowski, who appeared in an early flop of Hwang’s and is the unlikely voice of wisdom here.

As the decade wears on, the tone gets a little darker, the stakes noticeably higher. The ability to resist our typecasting, to remake ourselves as we wish, is crucial to the American dream. Yet as Hwang shows, both the Clinton-era campaign-finance scandals implicating Asian businessmen (including his father) and the Wen Ho Lee debacle (for which an unnamed Times reporter gets a severe lashing here) show how fragile that ability remains.

It’s hardly new to say that prejudice thrives in modern America, and there’s nothing novel about the meta-level flourish that caps the play (Charlie Kaufman is way out in front of that pack). Yet you have to admire Hwang’s ability to keep his sense of humor while doing a difficult thing: Motivated by an angry but heartfelt patriotism, he is challenging a country he plainly loves.

The Seafarer
By Conor McPherson. Booth Theatre. Open Run.

Black Nativity
By Langston Hughes. The Duke on 42nd Street. Through December 30.

Yellow Face
By David Henry Hwang. The Public Theater. Through December 23.


Holiday Spirit