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BLESSINGS IN MIDWINTER

January was rough. No matter where you are as you read this, you have to agree the month of January was rough. And the Broadway community took a real beating in January, as it usually does, with more closings than usual,and some really harsh, box office- beating, weather. There are lots of dark theaters right now, theaters that will, fortunately, be filling up again in the next few months, with brand new product, NOT revivals, so in the midst of a bitter winter, there are blossoms of hope as we look forward to Spring. Only two upcoming musicals are revivals, and they are Roundabout’s “Anything Goes”, and the Daniel Radcliffe “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” co-starring John Laroquette, but there are brand new musicals coming in as well…”The Book Of Mormon” by the creators of “South Park”, “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”, poised to make a Broadway superstar out of Nick Adams, and the Whoopi Goldberg-produced “Sister Act” with the sensational Patina Miller repeating her London performance. But let’s not forget the new Shaiman/Wittman musical, “Catch Me If You Can” starring Tom Wopat, Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit. But these are still weeks and weeks away. Right now, the hot news is what’s playing off-Broadway. And off-Broadway, thanks to people like John Robin Baitz, is scorching hot at the moment.

I’ve had a curious history as a theatregoer when it comes to the work of Mr. Baitz. The first play by Baitz I remember seeing was “The Film Society”, in a small theatre on the Upper West Side, seemingly another lifetime ago. It was set in his home country of South Africa, my companion in the audience that night was a transplanted South African, and I remember being quite moved by a lovely, quiet play-not overwhelmed, not bowled over-but quietly and charmingly moved. “Substance Of Fire” came next-a stellar story of family betrayal and redemption with a knockout performance by Ron Rifkin, and I was hooked on the writing of Robbie Baitz. At times he could be too clever, too pat in his portrayals, too easy in his conclusions, but, Jeez, the man had a unique and beautiful voice I was more than happy to listen to. But Baitz could be exasperating and annoying as well. I recall all too well, storming out of the theater at Playwrights Horizons after a performance of his play, “The End Of The Day”, which I found anti-American, anti-social, heck, anti-EVERYTHING, snarling at a Playwrights Horizons volunteer like it was her fault I hated the play, and then striding up 42nd Street, wishing I could meet Mr. Baitz and tell him how much I hated his play. Twenty years later, I wish I could see the play again and see if anything has changed.
And yet, I stuck by this talented, extraordinary playwright, seeing everything he’s written for the theater, the terrific “A Fair Country”, the beautiful “The Paris Letter”, the heartfelt “Ten Unknowns”, which featured a brilliant, rare stage performance by Donald Sutherland. But nothing could have prepared me for his latest work, currently running in the tiny Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, his most accomplished and startling play to date-”Other Desert Cities”, a family drama populated by his strongest, most beautifully etched characters so far, and directed to the hilt with finesse and artistry by the always surprising Joe Mantello. Mantello has done his best work in a decade here-every move by every actor is right, and vivid, and true-and consequently, while experiencing this play, you are witnessing live theater at its finest with a cast that is simply unbeatable-an ensemble that feels God-given.

Oh, what a cast it is, too. Stockard Channing, as the iron-willed matriarch of this Palm Springs, California clan, gives her best performance since her other landmark matriarch (in the same theatre, by the way) in John Guare’s “Six Degrees Of Separation” almost 25 years ago. She gives a carefully modulated, angry performance tinged with acid, bordered by effusive maternal affection, that is riveting. Stacey Keach, as her husband, is a clenched mountain of fury, alternating between laid-back calm and erupting anger, until his final scene, when he seamlessly breaks the entire audience’s hearts. Linda Lavin, as Channing’s alcoholic sister, has the Thelma Ritter role-the acerbic truth-teller, the voice of no-nonsense reason, the one who knows all the secrets and will resort to anything to protect who she has to. Elizabeth Marvel, an actress I have long admired, here lives up to her surname-she is a marvel of restraint when she needs to be; but her character has battled depression for so long, she’s due to break at any moment, and her family confrontation could destroy everything she needs to keep going. Then there’s the superb Thomas Sadoski, another young actor who I will follow for the rest of his career, as the reality show-producing son in this Republican family, who is the buffer-the one person who seemingly has nothing to lose, but be careful of first impressions-he could be the most important cog in this flawless machine. This is an ensemble of actors to die for-which is why it may be near-impossible to get a ticket for “Other Desert Cities”’s current limited run. They say it’ll be moving to Broadway next fall-BUT-timing in the theater is everything. There was time not so long ago when a play like this would move immediately to a Broadway house so as not to lose its momentum-sadly, the kind of producer/theatre owner who once could make this happen no longer exists-when Gerald Schoenfeld passed away, we really did lose a giant-so we wait with baited breath to see how long it will take for the play of the season to get the Broadway berth it deserves. Wait too long, and what happened to “Scottsboro Boys” could happen again. This giant of a play needs a bigger house and a longer run now.

In the meantime, John Robin Baitz has claimed his rightful title of the playwright’s playwright. His is the most important work of the theater season thus far.