The initial production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins fell victim in part to the Gulf War; hardened as we have become to horror, the Iraq war won’t affect the current revival. And a lavish and well-considered production it is, directed by Joe Mantello in the spacious Studio 54. The musical tells the story—part fact, part fiction—of our nine actual or foiled presidential assassins, from Booth to Hinckley, and climaxes with the other eight gathered in the Texas book depository to spur on Lee Harvey Oswald.
Robert Brill’s powerful set, evoking the spookiness of an abandoned roller coaster and arcade; Susan Hilferty’s careful costumes; and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s spectacular lighting enhance the uniformly cogent performances, among which Denis O’Hare’s whimsical Guiteau, Mario Cantone’s quirky Byck, Becky Ann Baker’s befuddled Moore, Michael Cerveris’s histrionic Booth, James Barbour’s shattered Czolgosz, and Marc Kudisch’s demonic shooting-gallery proprietor are particularly memorable. A second-best Sondheim score, attractively orchestrated by Michael Starobin and conducted by Paul Gemignani, is still the equal of just about anybody’s best; Weidman’s book is at once funny and creepy; and Jonathan Butterell’s minimal choreography is up to its restricted task.
“What is it all for? Assassins, however colorful, hardly inspire empathy.”
But what is it all for? Too many principals precludes in-depth treatment, and assassins, however colorful, hardly inspire empathy. If the point is sympathy for the devil, it fails to come off as it does, to some extent, for Sweeney Todd; nor are the two weird women in a league with, say, the weird heroine of Passion. We leave having witnessed something more grandiose than grand, and of which we can make no more sense than of an earthquake.
Larry Kramer, whose 1985 The Normal Heart is being revived in its original theater, is an early and courageous gay activist as well as a worthy writer in diverse genres whose magnum opus this is. An important document of the early history of the AIDS crisis—with, unfortunately, no less urgency today—it is a searching, often witty, and rousingly humane drama. It has been given taut, moving (in both senses) direction by David Esbjornson, a sensibly no-frills look, and a flawless cast.
As the author’s alter ego, Raúl Esparza proves himself yet again one of our finest and most versatile actors, sovereignly blending force and finesse, humor and deadly earnestness. As his doomed Times-journalist lover, a newcomer, Billy Warlock, gives a subtly variegated performance, and Joanna Gleason brings a cool intensity to the polio-stricken, wheelchair-bound doctor who was one of the first and best aids caregivers. There is no less stunning support from the others, notably Fred Berman, Mark Dobies, Richard Bekins, and McCaleb Burnett. For 165 minutes—not excluding the ten-minute intermission—you will find yourself held by a play that never relaxes its firm but unstrangulating grip on you. In the end, you will hear fellow theatergoers weeping all around you, the sound muffled only by that of your own cathartic sobbing.
Everything about Sixteen Wounded (even the unearned title) reeks of contrivance and dishonesty. A feel-good fabrication with a contradictory ending, Eliam Kraiem’s play pretends that a rabid Palestinian and a laid-back Jew can become the best of friends, and that rampant melodrama can pass for tragedy.
Hans is a stoical Jewish baker in 1992 Amsterdam, when a young Palestinian medical student, Mahmoud, a wanted man back home, crashes through Hans’s glass storefront while escaping from some thugs. The baker, whose parents died in the Holocaust, takes on the youth as an apprentice, and, over a two-year period, Mahmoud becomes the lover of the now expectant Nora, the shop’s salesgirl. Time passes in a series of half-baked vignettes, until Ashraf, Mahmoud’s brother, arrives from the homeland and stirs his sibling to political action. In a subplot, Hans has a steady relationship with a Russian whore, Sonya, who refuses his marriage proposal. Leopards, whether Palestinian or prostituted, do not change their spots.
Under Garry Hynes’s undistinguished direction, Judd Hirsch growls his way through Hans, and Martha Plimpton coasts through Nora, as does Waleed F. Zuaiter through Ashraf. Omar Metwally is impressive as Mahmoud. I can’t forgive Kraiem for the skimpy, stick-figure Sonya, who falls to the magnificent Jan Maxwell. But such is the paucity and shabbiness of drama on Broadway that this supreme artist has to make do with crumbs.
Nowadays, more and more plays—those of Stephen Adly Guirgis, for example—are mere actors’ exercises. The text is deliberately sketchy, if not embryonic, and the rest is up to the director, designers, and, especially, actors to flesh out. Harold Pinter began it, David Mamet Americanized it, and now it seems almost everyone is doing it—certainly Joe Hortua, the author of Between Us, who is very adept at it.
This is a play about two friendly married couples. In Act One, in 1999, Carlo and Grace are visiting Joel and Sharyl somewhere upstate in their elegant, understatedly opulent and modern house. Joel and Carlo were grad students together; defying their strict Catholic backgrounds, they were going to be artists. Carlo turned into a promising photographer, beginning to make it; Joel sold out to advertising and wealth. This makes him drink too much, which Sharyl strongly disapproves of, torn between watching a drunken husband downstairs and a crying baby upstairs. Carlo and Grace are embarrassed by the infighting and apparently divorcing spouses; they want to leave.
Act Two: complete reversal. Joel and Sharyl, sickeningly lovey-dovey in 2002, drop in unannounced at Carlo and Grace’s modest New York City pad. Now it is the latter couple, undermined by insolvency and heavy debts, going at each other while the former cannot keep their hands off each other. Between Us is routine stuff, but it does very neatly provide a good director (Christopher Ashley), an apt set designer (Neil Patel), and four actors with something to sink their teeth into. Daphne Rubin-Vega, whom I have deplored in the past, is a perfectly adequate Grace, Bradley White and Kate Jennings Grant are appositely slick and savvy as Carlo and Sharyl, while, as Joel, David Harbour is emerging as a comedian of genius.
Bare is the kind of obstreperous junk that thrives in California, then arrives here in the hope of making it in the wake of successful junk like Urinetown. That show, at least, was shrewd enough to crib from Kurt Weill, and compared with Bare, smells like Rosenkavalier. Avoid it, unless you are a punker or developmentally challenged.