Starry Nights

Elusive Illyria: Jimmy Smits in Twelfth Night, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.Photo: Michal Daniel

In Twelfth Night or What You Will, the subtitle, I assume, refers to what an audience desires, not to what a director excogitates. In the earliest known reference to the play (February 1602), John Manningham, a lawyer, noted in his diary that it was “much like The Commedy of Errores.” The Central Park revival, directed by Brian Kulick, equitably parcels out the commedy and the errores. Thus Walt Spangler’s sprawling free-form set includes a giant slide down which actors can whoosh in on their behinds, which is funny-haha. Also a wrecked ship that can likewise glide downward, but is used for everything except the opening shipwreck, which is funny-weird. So that’s what’s going down.

That initial shipwreck already augurs ill as Viola makes her entrance not from the broken hull, and, every hair in place, sports an immaculate white ball gown and dancing shoes. Before you know it, at Duke Orsino’s, there is entertainment by a Feste (Michael Potts) straight out of a minstrel show. No use pondering right or wrong here, given that to the park audience, errores and commedy are equally yummy.

Spangler’s set is not uninventive, and Kulick’s direction, however erratic, is not without its clever touches, such as a stage strewn with stylized rosebushes that get put to funny uses – unfortunately over and over again. The set allows for entrances in the most unusual, albeit inconsistent, places, which, as expertly lit by Michael Chybowski, can make for striking effects. Miguel Angel Huidor’s costumes – entire scenes all black or white or red, except for those notorious yellow stockings – are a trifle schematic. Duncan Sheik’s music ranges from unchic to crude.

The acting is similarly up and down. The dependably excellent Michael Stuhlbarg is the best Aguecheek you’ll ever see; the stately Kristen Johnston is a surprisingly vivacious, if oversize, Maria. The always spirited Kathryn Meisle offers a thoroughly workmanlike Olivia, and several lesser parts are decently handled. But the Illyria PD officer Orsino of Jimmy Smits disappoints: too much gesticulation, singsong, exaggerated dynamics, and no hauteur. Julia Stiles is a lovely and determined Viola, but monotonously and unpoetically spoken. Christopher Lloyd, despite some telling moments, is a Malvolio more distinguished by gravelly voice than comic gravitas. Oliver Platt’s Sir Toby is charmlessly standard stuff, and the Sebastian of Zack Braff is a disaster: unappealing of voice, aspect, and acting, and totally unlike his supposed sisterly look-alike.

Well, Shakespeare, it’s not quite what you willed. But it is a summer night in a pleasant outdoor setting, even if the stars stay stubbornly overhead rather than glide across the stage.

Among the many mansions in the house of Thespis, why not one for the Tired Businessman and his culture-hungry spouse? Just because, unlike other motley theatergoers, they are not protected by the laws of P.C., and are even accused of sponsoring “digestive theater,” said to bypass the cerebellum for the esophagus? Pshaw!

So why not Herb Gardner’s works, such as, recently, A Thousand Clowns, and now I’m Not Rappaport, the title derived from an old vaudeville act. Vaudevillish, too, are the principals, Nat, an old Jew, and Midge, an aged black man, who keep meeting, garrulously and querulously (but symbiotically underneath), on a bench in Central Park. Nat, a curmudgeonly retiree with a comically inventive fantasy life, must ward off the attempts by his daughter, Clara, to ship him off to a retirement home. Midge, the by now purblind janitor at 123 Central Park West, must dodge the efforts of Danforth, representing the board of the co-op, from evicting him with a niggardly severance pay.

How the two oldsters both harass and support each other makes for an extended vaudeville routine, but not quite a play. So Gardner grafts on a punk who brutally preys on the old guys, and a drug pusher who ferociously threatens a young woman who comes to sketch quietly in the park, but unfortunately owes the dealer some drug money. Thus old-style melodrama and vaudeville are uneasily mated like the hoary codgers on the park bench. Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen (the former repeating his role in the 1985 premiere) seem to the park bench born, and are worthily supported by Anthony Arkin, Tanya Clarke, and Mimi Lieber. Daniel Sullivan (direction) and Tony Walton (set), likewise repeaters, complete the jubilee atmosphere; seekers of burnished repartee and nostalgic patina, look no further.

On with the Kennedy Center’s sondheim Celebration. Passion, Sondheim’s most operatic work, continues to baffle the ear and bemuse the mind. Based on an old Italian potboiler’s adroit movie adaptation, it centers on an improbable love triangle. Giorgio, a young officer, is caught between Clara, his gorgeous but married mistress back in Milan, and Fosca, a slavishly adoring but unsightly would-be lover in his godforsaken garrison town. Fosca, a sickly hysteric, is the commandant’s cousin, with nasty consequences for Giorgio, who, torn between contradictory attachments, goes crazy.

James Lapine’s book cannot make the unlikely goings-on believable, and Sondheim’s not unimpressive score, shuttling between quasi-operatic arias for the principals and musical-comedy numbers for the garrison gossips, ends up schizophrenic. Under Eric Schaeffer’s direction, Rebecca Luker and Judy Kuhn are wonderful as the women, but Michael Cerveris, looking like Andre Agassi on a bad no-hair day, cannot conquer a fairly ridiculous role.

Merrily We Roll Along is about two youths and a girl, struggling artists, who meet on their rooftop at dawn, watching Sputnik go by. They gradually achieve success, but variously pay the price imposed by a capitalist society: Composer Franklin sells out to Hollywood; book writer Mary (unhappily in love with him) becomes a drunk; lyricist Charley, an unreconstructed idealist, gets a Pulitzer on his own, but loses his best friend and collaborator.

The slow erosion of the team, in George Furth’s libretto from a Kaufman and Hart play, unfolds backward in time, which makes for some heavy dramatic irony. Hal Prince’s original 1981 production, with a cast of mostly-unknowns, was a famous botch, and Sondheim has been fiddling with it ever since. What makes the show supremely winning is the fetching score and, in the present case, savvy direction by Christopher Ashley and fine performances from all. Michael Hayden (Franklin) and Miriam Shor (Mary) are pretty terrific, but Raúl Esparza (Charley) is nothing short of sensational. Try to see this one.

Twelfth Night
Starring Julia Stiles, Jimmy Smits, Kirsten Johnston, Christopher Lloyd, etc.
I’m Not Rappaport
Revival of the Herb Gardner comedy, starring Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen.
Sondheim Celebration
Revivals of Passion and Merrily We Roll Along, at the Kennedy Center.

Starry Nights