This Is Your Captain Speaking

Illustration by Henry JansonPhoto: Joan Marcus

For half an hour or so, Boeing-Boeing lumbers along, slow-footed and messy—mortal failures for a French sex farce. Bradley Whitford works too hard as the Paris playboy who juggles three flight-attendant fiancées, and Christine Baranski, miscast as Bernard’s gruff maid, shows little of a farceuse’s polish. The arrival of Bernard’s school chum only makes matters worse: After ten years running London’s Globe Theatre, the great Mark Rylance finally returns to New York in an open-ended run, and it’s this?

Then something sublime happens—not in an instant or a single scene, but rather in a series of little shifts that have the cumulative effect (metaphorically speaking) of Rylance ducking into a phone booth and reemerging in superhero tights. As bad weather and new airplanes disrupt Bernard’s girlfriend-management scheme, and the coils of farce start drawing tighter, his performance as the beta-male Robert becomes one weirdly inventive, punishingly funny moment after another.

A lesser actor might have made Robert a naïf or a prig—people don’t do such things back home in the Midwest, you see—but Rylance gives him a wonderfully doleful twist. Soft-spoken and bow-tied, this Robert could be a cousin to the sad-eyed Stan Laurel, resigned to absorbing the kick that’s sure to arrive any moment now. This makes it all the funnier when he’s ravaged by Bernard’s American fiancée (Kathryn Hahn), or when he puffs out his chest and bellows at the Italian fiancée (Gina Gershon), or when he delivers a spanking that appears to shock even himself. His apotheosis, though, comes when Robert sees something that no son of Wisconsin is ever really prepared to see. Channeling Buster Keaton, he reacts by doing absolutely nothing. Why bother doing more? We know Robert so well by that point that his blank gaze is enough to make us howl.

It says a lot about the creakiness of Marc Camoletti’s sixties comedy that even a performance this delicious can only sustain the play when Rylance gets a deserving foil. She belatedly arrives in the form of Bernard’s German fiancée, whose fierce interrogation of Robert gives the evening a genuine “Who’s that?” moment. The answer is Mary McCormack, an inspired comedienne who plays Gretchen as a Valkyrie in a miniskirt, and whose daffy work here suggests that screwball heaven isn’t yet empty.

The BAM revival of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame stars the least probable cast you will see all year. It features a pair of actors known primarily for screen work—John Turturro as the blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm and Max Casella as his gimpy manservant Clov—and, popping out of his-and-hers trash cans to play Hamm’s parents, an odd couple of stage royalty: Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch. Director Andrei Belgrader shapes the quartet into a smoother ensemble than I’d imagined possible, and finds an admirable amount of the dark humor in Beckett’s play.

Still, the production often feels like a skillful tour of the surfaces of Beckett’s masterpiece. Only when Epstein appears does Endgame take its deserved spot alongside Hamlet and King Lear as the most concise reports we have from the edge of the abyss. White hair poking out from a white bonnet, gums shifting constantly, his Nagg looks like a cross between a baby and a death’s-head. On alternating words his voice zooms from a rasp to a whine, which makes Nagg seem both plaintively real and otherworldly—the embodiment of Beckett’s mysteries.

Some will say—and have said—that Epstein thrives here because of his long experience with Beckett, which dates back to when he played Lucky in the first American Waiting for Godot. Certainly those performing and directing credits help. But it’s also true that when he did The Cherry Orchard, he seemed a Chekhov specialist, and his King Lear made him appear a born Shakespearean. See a few of these shows, and you come to realize that Epstein has the range, discipline, and skill to extract a revelatory performance from just about any script he’s given. The good news is that, even though he’s in his eighties, he remains so vital that he should be able to go on converting the uninitiated until at least 2025.

Thurgood Marshall was born the same year Jack Johnson became heavyweight champion of the world. As a new solo play about the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court makes clear, the two men didn’t just break the highest color barrier in their respective fields; they also shared a ferocious aptitude for combat. George Stevens Jr.’s Thurgood imagines the elderly judge regaling a crowd at Howard University with stories from his long and celebrated career. Motivated by a mentor who early on taught him “The law is a weapon,” Marshall fights battle after battle for the sake of black people’s civil rights and, as he puts it, “the white man’s soul.”

Lord knows the world doesn’t need any more biographical solo plays, but if they’re going to be written, they might as well cover something as consequential as Marshall’s winning argument against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. And if they’re going to be performed, you can’t do much better than Laurence Fishburne. Whether he’s playing the serene old Marshall leaning on a cane, the vibrant young Marshall who narrowly escaped lynching in the South, or the various friends and antagonists that Marshall encountered over the years, Fishburne manages the marvelous feat of conveying immense authority with grace. His sly smile and expressive eyes remind you that beyond the courtroom victories and the stubborn streak, Marshall could still charm the ladies.

Stevens and director Leonard Foglia dodge many of the worst excesses of the solo play. All the same, an actor with such easy command of the stage deserves better than this pedestrian writing. Both of the play’s really lyrical passages are outsourced: The Langston Hughes poem that Fishburne recites at the finale, and the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, which he makes sound like Shakespeare. Elsewhere, riffs on Marshall’s support for gun control and his opposition to the death penalty come off as self-congratulatory applause lines. The only good reason to keep them in the script is the nightly chance to see what Fishburne might unleash on anybody foolish or crazy enough to boo.

By Marc Camoletti.
Longacre Theatre.

By Samuel Beckett.
BAM. Through May 18.

By George Stevens Jr.
Booth Theatre. Through July 20.


This Is Your Captain Speaking