By: John Mainieri
To celebrate June, there’s a little Off-Broadway, a little on Broadway, and a few predictions for the Tony awards.
A.R. Gurney has never been one of my favorite playwrights, although his output has been immense,going back to The Dining Room in the 70’s. I just never…got him. He’s written primarily about privileged wasps from upstate New York, and a lot of it felt like an inside joke I never quite got. All that turned around for me last year with a terrific little memory play he wrote called “Indian Blood”, which I found to be unlike much of his other work, and now he’s got a little something at Playwrights Horizons called “Crazy Mary”, which I connected to deeply and I honestly feel may be his best play yet. A play good enough to make me think I should start reconsidering his earlier plays, this one is set in a private sanitarium in upstate New York,where a once-privileged member of a great family has spent the last 30 years institutionalized. And well taken care of by trust fund set up back then, which is still going strong and not about to run out. Into this situation comes a cousin of Mary’s, her son in tow, who wants to question whether that money should continue going for Mary’s care, or Surprise-should be redirected to herself. That cousin, Lydia, is played by Sigourney Weaver, who is making a welcome return to the stage at Playwrights, and her son is played by a young actor who gives such a truthful, affecting performance, you can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s in front of you. His name is Michael Esper, and it is the kind of performance that changes the trajectory of careers. Mary is played by the wonderful Kristine Nielsen, and this trio of actors make this sad, funny play soar into the stratospere. I heartily recommend it. Mr. Gurney is a lucky man to have a first class production showcasing a first class play.
Elsewhere off-Broadway, down at The Public on Lafayette Street, my second favorite musical of the season(after LoveMusik) has been extended through the beginning of July, and if you want a hootin’, hollerin’ old time and two hours of great music, you need to get tickets to “Passing Strange” This is a musical piece that began life at Joe’s Pub, went off to Berkeley to mature, and came back a full fledged blowout. It is the story of the early years of its creator, a man simply called Stew, an artist whose work I did not know heretofore. Stew left home(South LA) at the age of 18, went to Amsterdam,then to Berlin,eventually returning to home base in LA. His picaresque journey is the stuff of great musical theater, combining rock, hiphop,gospel jazz and lots of soul. Told very simply on a practically bare stage(with the help of lots of fluorescent bulbs..what is the attraction of pastel colored fluorescent bulbs this season? This is such fun, told with such joy, you can’t help just sitting there grinning from ear to ear for two hours. I had a ball!
August Wilson’s last play, “Radio Golf” also happens to be one of his best. It’s the last one in his ten play cycle chronicling the lives of African Americans in the twentieth century, and it, like all the others, shows what results when the past and the present collide and can’t get along. The cast is impeccable,especially Anthony Chisolm, who I fervently pray will win a much deserved Tony Award for his stirring portrayal of a man out of synch with the realities of the present. For his performance alone, this play must be seen. But the entire cast shines.
And, of course, you really don’t need much prodding to see Audra MacDonald in anything, but her turn in Roundabout’s “110 In The Shade” is not to be missed or ignored. While the production values border on, shall we say, cost-cutting rather than out and out cheap, there is nothing miserly about MacDonald’s performance, which is glorious and all-encompassing She, and the musical, run through the end of July. as an added bonus in this one, you also get the legendary John Cullum as well.
I’m going out on a limb here, with some Tony Award predictions that will be out of date by June 11th when the winners are actually known, but after that, you ave a few weeks to see how I actually scored.
For Best Play-“The Coast of Utopia”.Best Musical-“Spring Awakening”. Actress in a play-Julie White. Actor in a play-Frank Langella. Actress in a musical-Christine Ebersole(although Audra could score an upset here) Actor in a musical-David Hyde Pierce(I’d love to see a tie with Raul Esparza). Featured actor,play-Anthony Chisolm.Featured actress,play-Martha Plimpton.Featured actress,musical-Mary Louise Wilson.Featured actor, musical(this is a tough one) David Pittu(although Christian Borle could snatch it) And the best directors should be Jack O’Brian and Michael Mayer. Go ahead, keep score.