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SPRING BLOOMS ANEW

The month of April is one of the busiest of the theater season every year, for the same reason the month of December is jammed with more movies than you can shake a stick towards. Simply, all the producers are getting as much product as possible into the theaters before the annual parade of awards are announced, judged upon, and finally awarded. The month of April will see a new Disney musical, “Newsies”, a new Disney play with music, “Peter And The Starcatcher”, the British imports “One Man, Two Guvners” and “End Of The Rainbow”, the new musical “Leap of Faith”, based on the Steve Martin movie and starring Raul Esparza, an all star production of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” with James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, an all new take on “A Streetcar Named Desire” with a black and Asian cast, a revival of The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Evita”, with Ricky Martin and Michael Cerveris, a new play by David Auburn starring John Lithgow called “The Columnist”, Matthew Broderick in the new Gershwin musical, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, and a revival of the classic “Harvey”, about a man and his imaginary rabbit, starring “The Big Bang Theory”’s Jim Parsons.

There’s also a last minute addition to Roundabout’s theater season, the 60’s French farce, “Don’t Dress For Dinner” by Marc Camoletti, the man who wrote “Boeing, Boeing”, which itself had a smash-bang revival a few seasons back, directed by Matthew Warchus and having starred the great Mark Rylance in his Tony Award-winning performance. This time around, we have ourselves a farce without either Warchus or Rylance, unfortunately, and the results are decidedly mixed. Would that Warchus had the time to direct this, but he has his hands full trying to get the musical “Ghost” in shape for a late April opening (good luck with that, Mr. Warchus), and so we have a French farce directed by the veteran British director John Tillinger, who, over the years, has given us “Judgement At Nuremberg”, “Night Must Fall”, the revivals of both “The Sunshine Boys” and “Inherit The Wind”, and many off-Broadway hits, including “Sylvia”, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”, “A Perfect Ganesh” (which is long long overdue for a revival to match the brilliant original production) and “The Lisbon Traviata”. Mr. Tillinger has done his best with “Don’t Dress For Dinner”, but he’s dealing with a often tryingly convoluted plot and a cast that tries its best, but often seems lost at sea. The plot? Well, as best as I can descibe it-Bernard and his wife are staying in their country house expecting guests just as Bernard’s wife, Jacqueline is ready to leave for a visit with her mother. While she’s away, Bernard is expecting his mistress Suzanne for a weekend tryst, and for some odd reason, expecting his old friend Robert for a visit as well. Bernard has hired a cook for a lavish dinner for the three of them, but Bernard’s wife gets wind of the imminent arrival of the mistress, so she cancels her trip to her mother’s place, to stay and throw a monkey wrench into her husband’s plans. But it turns out Robert shows up first, and after necessary plot-setting between the two men, we discover Robert is having an affair with Jacqueline. Meanwhile, after Bernard and his mrs. leave Robert alone in the house, the cook arrives, whom Robert mistakes for his friend’s mistress, and thus the plot starts spinning, as do most of our heads. The cast does its best with the material, but the material is decidedly thin, the plot overstuffed with too many rotations and coincidences, and the director’s hand with this stuff is kind of shaky. The cast is game, and there’s some nice work from Ben Daniels, Adam James, Patricia Kalember and Spencer Kayden, but in the midst of all the French and English accents, when the mistress, in the person of Jennifer Tilly, finally blows in, it’s a real letdown when she doesn’t even attempt a French or English accent, substituting her well-known high pitched voice and occasional squeal instead. But then, Miss Tilly wasn’t hired for her vocal abilities, and if you’re familiar with Miss Tilly, that’s all you need to know. I was hoping this would be another “Boeing, Boeing”, instead we get the equivalent of a Piper Cub.

Off-Broadway, two of the best productions of the season are currently running, and that’s where you should be headed. Over at the new Signature Theatre Center, there’s an exquisite production of Edward Albee’s neglected and underpraised black comedy, “The Lady From Dubuque”, starring Laila Robins and Jane Alexander, not to mention the brilliant turn from veteran character actor, Peter Francis James. This is one of the Albee plays you never hear about, even though it marked the last stage appearance by Maggie Smith when it played London’s West End a few years back. It’s a nasty, yet redemptive piece of work, given a terrific production by Albee veteran David Esbjornson.

At Playwrights Horizons, which is having a terrific season, a new play called “The Big Meal” is breaking hearts nightly upstairs in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. It spans 80 years in the life of an extended family, with the actors playing multiple roles in the same family, and leaves you breathless and shaking by the conclusion. Think of it as a cross between A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and you get an idea of what you’re in for. The cast includes the great, clever, wonderful Anita Gillette, who hasn’t had this meaty a role in years, and makes the most of it, and is directed by one of the theater’s great new directors, Sam Gold, who has yet to exhibit a false move in his extensive bureau of talents. Gold mines the material for all its worth, succeeds, and then will be moving on to Annie Baker’s new translation of “Uncle Vanya” this season and a Broadway revival of “Picnic” next season.

Personally, I can’t wait.