Drama Rush

Illustration by Shane HarrisonPhoto: T. Charles Erickson (Broke-ology); Johan Persson (Hamlet); Joan Marcus (Let Me Down Easy, Wishful Drinking); Carol Rosegg (Love, Loss, And What I Wore)

For whatever reason—stars’ schedules? Sunspots?—this month is uncommonly packed with openings, ten of them on Broadway alone. Here’s our halftime lineup; look for reviews of the second half next week.

At the Broadhurst Theatre
There have been as many different Hamlets as there have been actors to play them, but Jude Law may be the first in danger of blowing away in a stiff wind. In the Donmar Warehouse Hamlet, directed by Michael Grandage, Law plays the melancholy Dane with the intense single-mindedness of an insect; his movements, fascinating to watch, are as precise and as elegant as those of a praying mantis.

But is it better to be a fascinating Hamlet, or a visceral one? Law has sophistication and hauteur to spare, but he’s lacking in red blood cells, and his willful anemia is part of what makes this a remote, chilly evening. The production practically wills itself into a state of torpor: The main feature of Christopher Oram’s set is a somber expanse of grayish stone stretching skyward, so adamantly oppressive that it’s almost awe-inspiring. No one wants to see a laff-riot Hamlet, but a few flashes of visual brightness wouldn’t have hurt. Even Law’s costuming—wrinkly dark pants, smoke-colored jerseys—makes him look like one of those brooding guys who own every Guided by Voices B-side.

Most of the actors’ performances are solid enough on their own, but they don’t connect, or clash, as they need to—each seems locked in his or her dignified little sphere. Geraldine James’s Gertrude is suitably regal, but she and her troubled son act like they’ve just met. The ditheriness of Ron Cook’s Polonius has a mechanical, calculating quality. And while Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ophelia is fine in her early scenes—she’s earthbound and sensible—she plays her eventual madness as flightiness, as if she’d merely misplaced her house keys.

If Law’s performance lacks punch, it’s certainly disciplined. He’s polished every line to a crystalline gleam, and as Hamlet’s madness kicks into high gear, Law channels his character’s grief into nervous energy: He mimics copulation with the zeal of the Energizer bunny; he squats and hops like a lolloping, pop-eyed frog. But he’s also reduced this complex, spoiled, frustrating character into an angular wraith glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Law’s Hamlet is fastidious instead of robust, an almost translucent presence—less solid, even, than his father’s ghost. –S.Z.

At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Describing the plot of Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology (two brothers—one successful, one not—tussle over how best to care for their ailing father) could make the Lincoln Center Theater production sound like a grinding burden-of-responsibility drama, laced with questions of racial identity. But Broke-ology is a lot funnier than it is grim, and director Thomas Kail (In the Heights) has made the most of the play’s buoyant spirit, even as he and his actors remain mindful of their characters’ pain.

The drama rests on classic clashes between the two brothers: Ennis (Francois Battiste) has remained in Kansas to care for their father, William (Wendell Pierce, of The Wire), and with a pregnant girlfriend and a dead-end restaurant job, his life has become too much to bear alone. Brother Malcolm (Alano Miller), with his new graduate degree and a job offer back East, has returned to help, and Ennis makes no secret of wanting him to stick around. Grand themes are touched upon, but Jackson’s terrific ear for dialogue keeps the play lively and fluid (one recurring bit has Ennis promising to chant “I love black people!” every time he uses the N-word). The title Broke-ology refers to Ennis’s amateur study of the science of having no money. But Jackson isn’t out to make the African-American Long Day’s Journey Into Night. These people are broke, not broken. –S.Z.

Wishful Drinking
At Studio 54
As she’s documented in her books, Carrie Fisher has endured mental illness and substance-abuse problems, trials that would surely break a lesser human being. But it takes a truly strong sense of self to survive a cinnamon-bun hairdo. In this fleet, breezy one-woman show, Fisher proves she can stand up to any coif. She spends the first half riffing on her life in headlines, from the high-profile marriage and breakup of her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, to her own ignominious couplings and uncouplings. She details, for example, the end of her second marriage, to Bryan Lourd, who claimed she had turned him gay by dosing him with codeine. (Pointing to a present-day photo of him, she muses, “Well, he had hair when I met him … I turn them bald, I make them gay, and my work is done.”)

Fisher has a light touch: Her zingers are sharp, but she always stops short of cruelty. (When Mike Todd, her father’s best friend and Liz Taylor’s husband, died in a plane crash, Eddie Fisher “flew to Elizabeth’s side—gradually making his way slowly to her front.”) She’s toughest on herself, and the show’s second half, focusing on her rehab and treatment for mental illness, veers close to self-help platitudes. But Fisher, padding around the stage in black silk pajamas, doesn’t stand still long enough to feel sorry for herself. At one point she even resurrects the Bunned One, donning a Princess Leia wig and taking us on a visual tour of Star Wars merchandising deals made in her image. “If someone offers to turn you into a pez dispenser,” she says, with understated sardonicism, “do it! Because it’s just made my life better.” –S.Z.

Let Me Down Easy
At Second Stage Theatre
In 2000, Anna Deavere Smith came to the Yale School of Medicine to interview patients and staff about their experiences; at the end of her stay, she performed a show, based on those interviews, called Rounding It Out. Substantially expanded, the play is now called Let Me Down Easy, and it’s having its New York premiere. Poetic and broad-ranging where Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror were fierce and narrowly focused, it has moments of great beauty but feels mostly as though it had been rewritten and developed within an inch of its life. I’d diagnose this play about health, medicine, and death, nine years in the making, with a case of overwork.

Smith isn’t an actress so much as a master impressionist, re-creating her interviewees’ every hem, haw, and (as her script at one point specifies) thirteen-beat pause with a transcriptionist’s care. She’s by definition incapable of transcending her material, and would be doing her subjects a disservice if she ever did. The play is thus strongest when she tells the stories of people on the front lines, like a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Katrina, or a cancer patient who just happens to be a dean at the Yale School of Medicine. The show’s power completely dissipates when she turns to play pontificating academics or celebrities like Lance Armstrong or Lauren Hutton.

Smith is a crucial artist who takes on questions no one else bothers to address, and it’s too bad this uneven anthology of a play has kept her out of New York theaters for so long. Was Rounding It Out so inferior to this production that it was worth years of extra interviews, a task that seems to have fuzzied rather than sharpened her aims? Let Me Down Easy, for all its thoughtfulness, just let me down. –D.K.

Love, Loss and What I Wore
At the Westside Theatre
In Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss and What I Wore, a rotating series of celebrity women (currently: Tyne Daly, Rosie O’Donnell, Samantha Bee, Katie Finneran, and Natasha Lyonne) tell stories of bra-fitting, high heels, and handbag regret. Much of the material comes from Ilene Beckerman’s thin but charming memoir of the same title, but a lot of it was generated by the Ephrons through theatrical-crowd-sourcing: They sent e-mail questionnaires to 100 of their friends, then fashioned their answers into a play.

Well, into an evening. The show’s theatricality is nil; the women of What I Wore sit on stools reading from scripts, and barely even try on accents, let alone acting. The two attempts at Anna Deavere Smith–like characters—a Latina gang moll bragging about her coat, and a pair of brides telling the story of their wedding outfits—fall flat. Most of the stories feel vaguely universal rather than prickly and specific, and so, like its Westside predecessor—Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues—I imagine this will run for years, or as long as there are bachelorette parties and mother-daughter weekends to feed it. (There may be no quieter, more solitary place in New York right now than the men’s room at the Westside Theatre. You could write a novel in there.) The current cast is clearly having a lovely time, especially O’Donnell, who reminds us that she has no equal as a punch-line delivery service. If you go, though, do it by November 15, so you can see Daly, who performs the story adapted most closely from Beckerman’s book. Her warmth and good humor, like the perfect black turtleneck, are irreplaceable. –D.K.

Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson’s own life story combines those of the two brothers in Broke-ology. Before he was accepted at Juilliard, Jackson was a lot like Ennis, working at a barbecue joint in Kansas, with a wife and a baby on the way, barely making ends meet. (“Life was nasty,” he recently told one interviewer.) Then came Juilliard, a Williamstown premiere for Broke-ology, and a surprise request from Lincoln Center Theater to produce the play—a turnabout that makes the successful brother Malcolm’s rise out of poverty look downright run-of-the-mill.

See Also
At Home With Carrie Fisher

See Also
Q&A With the Ephron Sisters

Drama Rush