As we head into a summer where a good number of shows won’t make it until Fall, we should celebrate the ones that are only around for a short time, whether the actors and producers involved are aware of it or not. There are shows that expect they’ll be around for awhile that won’t, and others that are going to make the most of their time here. One of those shows here for a sadly limited time is a new play by Adam Rapp, featuring an amazing performance by one of our brightest and most talented actors.
I have to admit straight off, it took me a while to warm to the writing of Mr. Rapp, his is the kind of style that tends to veer into the absurd, and when, it doesn’t, it tends to head off into the realm on the bizaare and the unpalatable. But jeez, when this guy is cookin’. there’s absolutely no one like him. The first play of his I experienced, “Red Light Winter”, had an exceptional first act that was subsequently sabotaged by a meandering and illogical second, and I left not only dissatisfied but angry and cheated as well. But it was my first exposure to Rapp, and since then, I’ve grown to admire and appreciate his plays, especially terrific works like “Essential Self-Defense”, “Kindness”, and “American Sligo”. But now comes this blindingly vital play called “The Metal Children”, running at the Vineyard Theatre, directed by the author and starring the exhilarating Billy Crudup. Mr. Crudup showed his estimable talents right off the bat, some 15 years ago, in Tom Stoppard’s ” Arcadia”, which happened to be his first major NYC stage role. He was just out of school at the time. Even then, it was obvious he was a force to be reckoned with, and indeed he was, and indeed he has been ever since, in plays like “The Pillowman”, “The Elephant Man” and in his Tony-award winning role in Mr. Stoppard’s “The Coast Of Utopia” at the Vivian Beaumont. In “The Metal Children”, he’s playing yet another writer (the writer as artist seems to be Crudup’s forte’), but this writer is a miserable, self-pitying mess. He’s broke, his wife has left him for her editor(she might actually be a better writer than he is, but we never know for sure), he’s 9 months behind on his overdue novel, and even though he’s blessed with an editor that probably only exists onstage or in fiction, he seems to be falling down a bottomless well. But there’s this little problem out in the heartland of America that could just be what his fragile ego needs. His “young adult” novel, “The Metal Children”, has been banned by the local school board and egged on by the local church, every copy has been locked in a vault. His editor(a terrific,understated David Greenspan, who I thought couldn’t pull off understated) convinces Crudup’s character, Tobin, to go out there and defend his work at an upcoming town meeting. Tobin agrees, and what follows is a surrealistic, tortuous, and often violent, descent into the dark heart of 21st century middle America. The local teacher who had been using the book in his class is being threatened and assaulted, townspeople dressed in pig masks roam the town vandalizing at will, and there are young women taking to emulating the characters in Tobin’s book; dyeing their hair and skin, attempting to swell themselves with child and disappear, as the children in the story do. It’s a harrowing tale, a kind of mindmeld of John Irving at his angriest and Stephen King at his most cynical, but what emerges is probably the best Adam Rapp I’ve experienced yet, but be warned, the journey, however fulfilling, is disturbing as a nightmare during a thunderstorm. But oh, this cast, led by the wondrous Mr. Crudup, is more than up to it and it’s one helluva ride. See it.
The revival of “Promises, Promises”, which I was so looking forward to, having seen the original production while a junior in high school, just doesn’t cut it, unfortunately. This is a bright, funny musical based on Billy Wilder’s film, “The Apartment” (now there’s cynical, for ya), which, in this revival, is no longer bright, and very seldom funny, despite the fact that it still has a book written by Neil Simon. But something here has gone horribly wrong. There’s a leading man, who, as written for the show, uses the audience as his confidantes, speaking to them in asides, confessing his innermost hopes and wishes and fears, and yet- in Sean Hayes’s performance, there is no rapport with the audience, there is no taking of us into his confidence-when he talks to the audience, it’s as though he’s talking into a tv camera-all performance, no rapport. It robs the show of a vital cog, and then to make matters worse, he’s partnered with a terrific actress, Kristin Chenoweth, who’s unfortunately, about 20 years too old for the role, and comes off more like a disgruntled wanna-be hooker than a junior secretary. The two bright spots in the show-Dick Latessa and Katie Finneran do their best to save this sinking ship, but it’s a lost cause. Too bad, too-a few years back, Encores did pretty well by the piece with Martin Short in the lead. As long as the producers were casting their leading lady too old, couldn’t they have at least considered Mr. Short in the role again. And this was my birthday show this year, too!
Two new musicals that showed so much promise while being conceived, then were kind of spat on by the NY critics, are “The Addams Family” and “American Idiot”. I have to admit, I enjoyed both of them a lot, and a whole lot more than I did “Promises, Promises”. Nathan Lane is at the top of his game in “Addams Family”, but it’s Kevin Chamberlin, as Uncle Fester, who steals the show, and comes across as this year’s frontrunner for Best Featured Actor in a musical. If only he weren’t up against the stupendous Chris Fitzgerald from “Finian’s Rainbow”. Maybe they’ll tie. ads for “American Idiot”, I’m not a Green Day fan, I’ve never paid attention to Green Day, but this rockin’ musical had me jumpin in my seat. It’s an experience unlike any other on Broadway, and yes, it’s loud and it’s often unintelligible, but in this case, that’s not bad thing. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to Berkeley in the 60’s, and that’s good enough for me. And what’s weirder, it has NOTHING to do with Berkeley in the 60’s. But here’s my rant on “American Idiot”. It’s so deftly and skillfully directed and paced and staged by Michael Mayer, how the HECK could the Tony nominating committee have decided he didn’t deserve to be even NOMINATED? Do these people really actually see these shows, or did they sit this one out.
Finally, I haven’t seen “La Cage Aux Folles” in its current incarnation, but I did see the production in London last summer, granted with a different cast, but I think it was best put by my bud John, who saw the show the same night as the botched terrorist event in Times Square, a few blocks from the theatre. He said, “Afterwards, I couldn’t tell which was the bigger bomb, the one outside or the one I was stuck seeing”.
John gets the last word.