Up on the Roof

The butcher's nightmare: Graff and Molina (in bed) in the dream sequence from Fiddler.Photo: Carol Rosegg

Ranking high among musicals, Fiddler on the Roof rates a 10 for Joseph Stein’s book, a 91⁄2 for the Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick score, and a resounding 10 for the Jerome Robbins choreography. The current revival earns an 8, which for David Leveaux, whose previous direction of Nine nearly scuttled that show, is pretty good. He has made changes, some for the better, some not. Most commendably, in addition to preserving the Robbins dances, he has resisted making the show what the original production verged on, caricature. There are no heavily Yiddish-inflected accents, there is less heftily farcical business, and both Tevye (the marvelous Alfred Molina) and Golde (the magnificent Randy Graff) are young and attractive, which merely enhances their winning performances. Nancy Opel, as Yente, the matchmaker, forgoes stereotype, without any loss of humor or Jewishness.

That the production is more ecumenical than previous versions is to be applauded; accusations that the show has been goyified are baseless. Leveaux’s pacing is brisk and his spacing painterly. He uses the full depth of the Minskoff stage and creates lively panoramas, abetted by Tom Pye’s brilliant set design. The gaunt Chekhovian birches add a subtle melancholy beauty, and various sliding panels induce shifts in time and atmosphere, as do raised or lowered lanterns. And whenever a large added space stage right is revealed, something riveting, poetic, or dramatic ensues. Suspending Tzeitel and Motel in midair during the splendid dream sequence adds a nice Chagallian touch. Other changes are less fortunate. Thus when the desperate Yente tries to arrange a match between Tevye’s two youngest girls and a couple of boys—all tots or nearly—the effect should be hilarious; making the girls nubile and the boys young men, as they are here, kills the joke.

The score comes across rapturously, and the dancing, supervised by Jonathan Butterell, thrills. Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are perfect, even for the onstage orchestra, another Leveaux plus that adds color and animation to the proceedings and, obviating an orchestra pit, creates intimacy with the audience. The great lighting designer Brian MacDevitt bathes the show in—dare I say it?—magic. All the performers are fine (what if some of them look more Upper East Side than Eastern European?), but Laura Michelle Kelly deserves special praise for her singing, acting, and looks, as Hodel.

More good news: A. R. Gurney’s Big Bill, despite some shortcomings, is the best of the latest batch of nonmusical offerings. The subject is terrific. What to do about a man like Bill Tilden, epochal tennis champion, man of breeding, elegance, and charm, but also a pedophile? Psychiatry can do nothing for him, jail even less. People who know him can forgive him just about anything. But still, a pedophile, and recidivist at that. This is a problem with no solution, the stuff of tragedy. I don’t know whether the real Tilden was quite as lovable as Gurney makes him out, but the play is based on solid research, and as the dazzling John Michael Higgins plays Tilden, in a performance no one should miss, the man is irresistible down to his flaws. How can you condemn him? How can you not?

The approach could be deeper, broader, more rigorous. But it is good enough, and the shuttling perspective between Bill in his witty, winning glory and Bill in his pitiful collapse keeps the dichotomy achingly alive. The victimized ball boys may have been more vulnerably younger than shown, and there was more than the one prison term included. But the essence is there: in Higgins’s superlative performance, in the solid supporting cast, in John Lee Beatty’s idyllic grassy tennis-club set (Newport still has something like it), and in Mark Lamos’s fluid, sympathetic direction. Look around at what else there is by way of drama, and be very, very grateful.

That else is, for one horrible example, Paul Weitz’s Roulette, ranging from smart-ass to asinine. It has been described as a comedy of suburban anomie, but anomaly and animality are nearer the mark. Russian-roulette-playing Dad starts out suicidal and ends up farcically insane; Mom is a wet dishrag sleeping with Neighbor; Sonny is a maniacal lunatic; Sis is a druggie bitch. Neighbor is a randy, selfish, cowardly oaf; Mrs. Neighbor is a nutcase yearning for the nunnery, although when demented Dad, who should never have been unhospitalized, keeps taking her for his wife and the apartment for a casino, she may be unable to resist him.

Things are not helped by Trip Cullman’s appalling direction. Tried-and-true older actors Larry Bryggman (Dad) and Leslie Lyles (Mom) manage to clear the hurdles; the others fall both forward and backward. Most victimized is Anna Paquin (Sis), whom Trip has speaking her lines so trippingly that an Olympic sprinter couldn’t catch them, and whom the costumer, Alejo Vietti, has gotten up in hooker attire, including fishnet stockings with holes big enough for a carp to swim through.

O for the good old lives of quiet desperation! Weitz’s loudmouthed desperadoes are topped only by Michael Friedman’s ugly, eardrum- violating music. Weitz, who was partly or wholly responsible for such movies as Antz and American Pie, should be deported back to Hollywood, which deserves him.

I’ve never understood Howard Korder’s appeal, and with Sea of Tranquillity, he sinks even lower than usual. Two Easterners, a guilt-ridden therapist and his floundering writer wife, have moved to Santa Fe and become embroiled with an array of oddballs, each drearier than the next. He loses patient after patient—one accuses him of rape, another seduces his wife, who develops a rash that leads to severe nosebleed that leads to lameness and, apparently, cancer, and leaves him. Abandoned by all, he and the alleged rape victim hunker down to a shared smoke. The writing wanders off into a desert of etiolated absurdism and rampant Mametism; people speak in incomplete sentences, sentence fragments, and even with words cut in half. Dylan Baker, Patricia Kalember, Betsy Aidem, and Lizbeth Mackay deserve better; some of the other actors don’t; all sink into a sea of futility. Too bad about Santo Loquasto’s attractive set being wasted on this meaningless play.

There are only two justifications, both arguable, for rewriting a classic play: obsolete language or obscure references. Neither obtains in The Seagull; after more than a century, Chekhov remains funny, wrenching, and crystal clear. There is scant excuse for Regina Taylor to transpose the play, retitled Drowning Crow, to South Carolina’s Gullah Islands, its language cloudier, its subtleties flattened out. Some of her equivalents are clever, e.g., the Negro Ensemble Company for the Moscow Art Theatre; others not, like Trigor for Trigorin, which provokes a horse laugh.

But even the change of bird is harmful. For crazed Nina to go around saying “I’m a seagull” is pathetic; for her avatar Hannah (mishandled by Aunjanue Ellis) to keep moaning “I am the crow” is wrong in both sound and overtones. But almost everything about the production misfires: Good actors like Alfre Woodard and Peter Francis James emerge uncompelling, the excellent David Gallo has designed inappropriately cutesy sets, the always-impressive video designer Wendall K. Harrington adds to the cutesiness, and the able director Marion McClinton has either caused this or let it happen. There is music and choreography about which the less said the better.

Although it appears in the program sans capitals, Sarah Jones’s one-woman bridge & tunnel is capital entertainment. In the format of a poetry slam, Jones impersonates a Pakistani host and ten contestants, some not even pretending to be poets but needing to unpack their chests. Of ethnicities ranging from Haitian to Chinese, from Baltic and Russian Jewish to Jamaican and Dominican, from Hispanic to Vietnamese, etc., all of them are made to matter. Jones’s accents are mostly right, but her diverse body language and multifarious material are always spot-on. Much of it is good-naturedly funny, quite a bit of it serious and even touching. Though in the tradition of Whoopi Goldberg and Anna Deavere Smith, Jones comes across more humane, more selflessly all-embracing. Her props are minimal, and I can’t imagine that her director, Tony Taccone, needed to do much. The honors and awards that have come this 29-year-old’s way seem to me unusually well deserved.

Up on the Roof