Six Plays in Search of a Tony

Photo: From left: Joan Marcus, Liz Lauren, Joan Marcus (3), Craig Schwartz, Joan Marcus

We’ve all become accustomed to a December glut of smart movies, as producers cram their best stuff into the last days of Oscar eligibility. In the past few years, Broadway producers have started doing the same, opening right before the Tony nominations are announced on May 5. And this year, in a spring season already given to more good productions than usual, the final two weeks were absolutely jammed with awards fodder. New York’s critics review the last gasp here—topped off with some educated guesses (tinged with partisan rooting) about where those awards nods will go.

Waiting for Godot
Half a century after its New York debut, Godot is still pure inert impact, an explosion that refuses to explode—which may explain why it hasn’t been back to Broadway in so long. Who, these days, wants to open an existential black hole next door to Rock of Ages?

There’s little to be feared, cosmically or artistically, from Anthony Page’s mild, genial, surprisingly humane revival: Worries that a hamming Nathan Lane, a clowning Bill Irwin, and a volcanic John Goodman might shine up Godot’s vaudeville veneer prove unfounded. Instead, we have Lane at his most restrained, modulating his trademark spittle-spewing, breaking our hearts as the vulnerable Estragon and reminding us why he’s more than a box of push-button effects. We have Goodman’s Pozzo, a tottering metaphor for an overtaxed planet and capitalism-on-the-brink. And we have the remarkable John Glover as Pozzo’s slave, Lucky, whose midshow verbal download—a stew of pseudo-academic babble—becomes a jungle gym that the whole ensemble jumps on. It’s the high point of the show, which takes a good 30 minutes of the first act to uncurl itself: Irwin’s studiousness and tics take some getting used to. (As does the play’s final surprise.) This production won’t bend Broadway’s space-time continuum, but it’ll give it a little tweak, at a moment when it could use one. –S.B.

The Philanthropist
Maybe the best way to satirize academics who are wholly removed from life and feeling is to write a play that’s almost wholly removed from life and feeling. But what good does it do to deaden your audience? The Philanthropist is Christopher Hampton’s labored riff on Molière’s The Misanthrope, in which early-seventies British intellectuals (played by Steven Weber and Matthew Broderick) in rumpled pants blather on about love and loneliness, occasionally mildly affected by the women who flicker on the periphery of their lives (played by Jennifer Mudge and Anna Madeley).

After a terrific, wicked opening scene, director David Grindley tries to keep the dialogue brisk, but he can’t prevent the material from feeling like a dozy lecture. The performers work hard but can’t hide the fact that they’re doing a lot of heavy lifting. Broderick shows the least strain, playing a docile thinker who has no illusions about what his flaws and capabilities are. When he explains, with unblinking resoluteness, “The truth is, I’m a man of no convictions—at least, I think I am,” he cuts to the heart of self-doubt, and you feel something for him. He opens a small breathing hole in this otherwise sealed-off play. –S.Z.

Accent on Youth
David Hyde Pierce has an air of nebbishy elegance that’s perfect for Samson Raphaelson’s 1934 Accent on Youth, about a successful playwright who’s so accepting of middle age that he almost pushes away the greatest restorative of all, love. Pierce’s Steven Gaye, with impeccable tailoring and line delivery, has the grace of a dancer even when he’s not moving, and he brings buoyancy to Raphaelson’s Champagne-pop dialogue. The glamour quotient (not to mention the amount of lovely, lovely smoking) is high in Accent on Youth, thanks in part to a smart, classy cast, including Charles Kimbrough as Steven’s feisty but well-mannered butler and Mary Catherine Garrison as his secretary and eventual sugarplum.

Raphaelson also wrote screenplays in Hollywood, notably for Ernst Lubitsch, and if this production is missing one tiny thing, it’s the equivalent of the Lubitsch touch: It moves with crisp efficiency when just a little more zip and glide would be perfect. But director Daniel Sullivan and his cast come close enough, reminding us what a revival should be: awakening a sleeping beauty with the right kiss. Or by lighting her cigarette. –S.Z.

9 to 5
Nine to 5: The Musical tells a story whose time has come once again: Adapted from the 1980 film by co-writer Patricia Resnick, it gives us a trio of put-upon office workers—Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty—who kidnap their crooked, exploitative boss (Marc Kudisch) to expose his crimes and retool the organization. That idea has particular relevance now; unfortunately, 9 to 5 just milks it too hard. The songs are by Dolly Parton, an indisputable goddess of country music. Yet aside from the uncannily catchy title song, only one number (“Backwoods Barbie,” sung by Hilty, whose whole performance is an overextended Dolly impersonation) comes close to capturing the spirit of classic Dolly; the rest are of the generic talk-singing variety that clutter so many contemporary musicals. The dance numbers, too, substitute garishness for energy. They have an entropic quality, as if born of the fear that the audience will get bored.

Janney, at least, offers relief from all this relentless entertainment: Her characteristic dryness helps tone the mania down, and she gets a showstopper costume for her big number, a trim white tux that makes her legs look longer than an eight-day workweek. Mostly, though, watching 9 to 5 is drudgery. Having fun shouldn’t be so exhausting. –S.Z.

Desire Under the Elms
We begin with a vision of what used to be called “the ownership society”: A darkened house in midair—not floating, but hanging, precariously, by groaning ropes. Beneath this deadly pile, which is raised and lowered but goes mostly uninhabited throughout Desire Under the Elms, there’s just bleak waste, nothing like the “purdy” farm everyone fights about. It’s the one joke director Robert Falls allows here, and O’Neill would approve: After all, he invites us to chuckle at brutal, ancient Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy), who denies his aggrieved son Eben (Pablo Schreiber) his inheritance, his dignity, and, ultimately, his manhood. The old man weds a voluptuous grasper named Abbie (Carla Gugino), intending to create an alternate heir; Eben and Abbie meet, clash, spark. Tragedy, with lusty overtones, ensues, and you’re somehow tempted to laugh. In my audience, one person did.

And why not? With its portentous dimensions and almost comically priapic atmosphere of dread, Desire cries out for either unself-conscious energy or ironic, Wooster-style dismemberment. Falls delivers something in between: a soft-core meditation on Want that pinches off the energy. Thus gelded, Dennehy and Schreiber both come off weak, restrained, a little strangled in speech and affect. (A uniform approach to New England dialect might’ve helped.) But this is Abbie’s show, and Gugino, an underrated actress in full possession of her considerable gifts (just listen to her form the word “mine”), bestrides it like a goddess. She’s got the strength to give herself over to her desires, come hell, high water, or even “inappropriate” laughter. –S.B.

Mary Stuart
When a highbrow classic gets revived, the ads almost always offer “seduction,” “greed,” or “deception,” to assure audiences that they’re not going to have to eat their spinach. Bad behavior and power struggles are always in style, and the face-off between Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, is just as compelling now as it was in 1800, when Friedrich Schiller first adapted it for the stage. But the one thing Phyllida Lloyd (who’s brought her acclaimed London production Stateside) hasn’t coaxed from Mary Stuart stands out in stark relief: the passionate messiness of raw feeling. These lionesses see their strengths reflected in each other and hate it; their admiration plays out as they claw, coolly, at each other’s throats.

Harriet Walter (as Elizabeth) and Janet McTeer (as Mary) have to pick their way through a wilderness of metaphors and tropes. The two queens wear period dress; the men around them wear contemporary suits, making the obvious point that men still rule. As Lloyd strives for relevance, the whole thing takes on the tenor of a policy debate, and all the gray suits don’t help

Walter’s Elizabeth is plenty regal, but she’s a cartoon, mannered and imperious, demanding our respect instead of earning it. McTeer’s Mary is lustier and more vital, which at least gives Mary Stuart flashes of life, but not enough. This is a classy enterprise, dressed in the right clothes, working the gray matter—so rigorously that you could almost miss that it’s dead from the neck down. –S.Z.

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Six Plays in Search of a Tony