Little Demons

The good news about the revival of Nine is that the director, David Leveaux, dares to make it different from the Tommy Tune original. The bad news is that most of the differences don’t work. You’ll recall that the book is Arthur Kopit’s version of Mario Fratti’s version of Fellini’s 8 1⁄2, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. The master film director Guido Contini is desperate for a new script idea that won’t come; his marriage to Luisa is on the rocks; his glamorous leading lady and ex-lover, Claudia, has retired to Paris with a new man; his sexually grasping mistress, Carla, is getting a divorce dreaded by him; his producer, Liliane La Fleur, justifiably impatient, is on his back; and more women than he can handle are eager to get on their backs for him.

Everyone converges on a spa near Venice where Guido and Luisa hoped for some peace together. There ensues a roundelay of sex and jealousy and demands on Guido, interspersed with memories of his dead mother and the 9-year-old Guido’s discovery of erotics through the fat slut Saraghina.

The lyrics are engaging, the music lilting, the story serviceable. Scott Pask’s arid set is steel panels, runways, and a spiral staircase, with a bathetic Botticelli mural for backdrop, but no Venice. Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are a well-meaning hodgepodge, Jonathan Butterell’s choreography will just do, and only Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is, as usual, exquisite.

The cast is mostly good. Antonio Banderas’s Guido, barely intelligible, overdoes childishness at the expense of charisma. Mary Stuart Masterson, however, is a winningly sung and persuasively long-suffering Luisa; a near-nude Jane Krakowski pleases as Carla and shows exceptional spunk singing while being hoisted sky-high upside down. The ageless Chita Rivera proves undauntably compelling as Liliane, but the talented Laura Benanti is miscast as Claudia: In no way does she suggest Cardinale, the Ur-Claudia, or any other Italian sex goddess. The remaining women are fine, as is William Ullrich’s plucky little Guido.

And the innovations? Omission of “The Germans Are Coming” (why?); a Carla who, in Guido’s imagination, descends from the sky (why not?); and a cast at times awash in ankle-high water (why on earth?). Still, Nine gives more tuneful musical than anything else around.

Peter Nichols is a not quite unsung yet still underrated hero of the British theater, an accomplished author of plays that breathtakingly skate the razor’s edge between comedy and drama, or even tragedy. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg simultaneously tickles the ribs and pierces the heart: From bitter personal experience, Nichols created a comedy about how a young couple, Sheila and Bri, invents games to stifle the grief over a daughter, Joe, who is a vegetable.

Bri is a schoolteacher and amateur painter; Sheila, an amateur actress. Though they have other problems as well, the biggest is coping with the spastic Joe for what by now is an exhausting decade of improvising vaudeville skits—often based on actual experiences with unhelpful doctors and bumbling clergymen—meant to alleviate an irremediable situation. Even if Nichols cheats a bit about a few details, he makes his main characters tragicomically true to life, racily human enough to wrest sympathy from the sourest souls. He also gives the subsidiary characters—a dim married couple and a meddlesome mother-in-law—meaty roles whose farce is grounded in wry truth.

Admirably, Joe Egg allows neither laughs nor tears to obscure its point: that accommodation is as close to contentment as we can come, and that, finally, this isn’t enough. The fabric of life (or tissue of lies) eventually rips, and then who knows what awaits? Laurence Boswell has resourcefully directed a well-designed and trenchantly performed revival. Dana Ivey, Margaret Colin, Michael Gaston, and little Madeleine Martin contribute staunch support; for rarer-than-rare perfection, there is Victoria Hamilton, whose Sheila warms the spirit even as it breaks the heart. Not far behind is Eddie Izzard, better known as a stand-up comic, with an intricately devised Bri. Miss Joe Egg at your own peril.

Yasmina Reza has proved her cleverness with the slickly amusing Art, and at least provided such great actors as Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates with a showpiece in The Unexpected Man. In her new play, Life (x) 3, her cleverness is treading air. An astrophysicist, Henry, and his corporate-lawyer wife, Sonia, have invited a higher-ranking astrophysicist, Hubert, and his hapless wife, Inez, to dinner. But they arrive a day earlier than expected, on an evening when Sonia, in her bathrobe, is trying to work, and Henry is struggling to pacify 6-year-old Arnaud (unseen), howling and yammering in his adjoining room.

The arrival of the guests—what with Hubert maliciously announcing that the scientific paper over which Henry has been toiling for three years may have been anticipated by a Mexican work just published, a frantic Sonia racing to put on some clothes, Inez fussing with an embarrassing run in her pantyhose, a distraught Henry risking his labors’ going down the tubes, and Arnaud squawking away—spells disaster. Especially since there is no food in the house, but much wine on which to get royally drunk. Sonia may be having an affair with Hubert, Inez and Hubert hate each other, Hubert has eaten the cheese bits and chocolate bites that might silence Arnaud, Inez blabs out things she shouldn’t, and Henry’s future may be in ruins. This propels three playlets showing how, depending on trifles, the evening may turn out in three different ways, variously affecting four lives.

But the obvious possibility of sending out for food or going out for dinner is dishonestly ignored, and the different turns of things are too arbitrarily manipulated. And the characters are so superficial that we hardly care which of these different fates may befall them. The dialogue has some surface sheen and occasional humor, but it, too, is thin gruel.

Linda Emond manages to make enough out of Inez; but John Turturro’s Henry exudes Brooklyn; Helen Hunt’s Sonia, Hollywood; and Brent Spiner’s Hubert, the Upper East Side. All lack the European histrionic polish, the sophisticated razzle-dazzle, to turn fool’s gold into the real thing. Director (Matthew Warchus), translator (Christopher Hampton), and designers (Mark Thompson and Hugh Vanstone) are herewith absolved of blame.

Revival of the musical, starring Antonio Banderas.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Revival of the play, starring Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton.

Life (x) 3
By Yasmina Reza, with Helen Hunt and John Turturro.

Little Demons