Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of "The River" - Broadway

Relationships.   Commitment.  These are the central themes in the listless new play, The River, that stars a more sedate, thoughtful Hugh Jackman.  For theater-goers looking for the full throttle, action hero Jackman normally plays in his movies, The River is not the show for you.  This 85 minute, intermission-less play is a talkative, languid production.  Playwright Jez Butterworth has woven a tale of fishing as a metaphor for one man’s failed romantic encounters.

The play takes place at a cabin on a river where sea trout have returned to spawn.  The Man (Hugh Jackman) is revved up for the hunt, the sport of fly fishing and wants his lady friends, The Woman (Cush Jumbo); The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly); and a third female to share in his enthusiasm.  In fly fishing the challenge, after much patience and courting, is to land the silvery fish.  We see Jackman pursue his women with this same fervor and exhilaration.  However, he is never able to hook one of the sea trout just as he is incapable of successfully wooing any of the women he becomes close with.    

Hugh Jackman, potentially sinister, and circumspect, is intense, but also rather staid in his performance.  He can deliver passionate speeches and create moments of tension, but the problem is his character is one-dimensional, without much depth.   Both Cush Jumbo, as The Woman; and Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman are competent actresses.  But they are more like the river trout—plain and satisfying–rather than like their more accomplished, transformative brethren, the sea trout.

Jez Butterworth’s work, which has been described as lyrical and full of imagery is, unfortunately, tedious and sluggish here.  Not much happens, but a number of monologues and exhortations that just don’t register as two people truly interacting and communicating.  Butterworth can rhapsodize beautifully as when Jackman’s character describes the art of fly fishing, but overall the play lacks luster.

Director Ian Rickson hasn’t brought much life to the show.  There are a lot chairs and furniture being moved around the small Circle-in-the-Square stage, but not much else.  On the other hand, his collaboration with Hugh Jackman on preparing a sea trout for dinner is quite impressive.  Too bad none of the characters actually eat any of it—they are too busy talking.

The River, playing now through February 8th.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review of "It's Only a Play" - Broadway

Playwright Terrence McNally skewers, eviscerates, and satirizes every aspect of producing a Broadway play in the tepid, mostly lackluster revival of his 1986 Off-Broadway show, It’s Only a Play.  Nothing is sacred from his barbs—Disney musicals, self-centered stars, Hollywood actors in limited runs, exorbitant union costs, and more.  McNally has updated parts of the script so today’s theater audience, maybe not too familiar with theatrical history name-dropping, which is rampant in the production, won’t have to be scratching their heads for total understanding.

The show has been a sellout since previews began in August because of the stellar group of actors, led by Nathan Lane (who is only in the play through January 4, 2015 when Martin Short takes over his role).  There is Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham and, making a splashing Broadway debut, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies).  Micah Stock, also making his Broadway introduction, rounds out the cast as a na├»ve, just-off-the-bus, would-be actor.

The premise of the show is a cast party held by the rich, neophyte producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) in her opulent townhouse for playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick).  The action takes place upstairs where members of the creative team, and others, gather.  There is the former theatrical thespian James Wicker (Nathan Lane) now ensconced on television, a Hollywood starlet Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing) seeking a comeback on The Great White Way, mean-spirited theater critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), an enfant terrible director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint), and a young actor Gus Head (Micah Stock) coat-checking for the night.

At first It’s Only a Play is funny and entertaining.  Nathan Lane’s comic timing and shenanigans are priceless.  His bantering with Micah Stock, who’s main function throughout the production is bringing guests’ coats upstairs (and commenting on the attire), is quite amusing.  Soon, other members of the ensemble appear onstage, constantly commenting and trash-talking about their friends and colleagues.  Yet, after a while, the jokes and set-ups are few and far between and the show becomes more humdrum and wearisome.  The actors, almost all seasoned professionals, are just not served well by McNally’s script.  The exception is Rupert Grint, who makes a memorable showing, upstaging his more accomplished co-stars. 

McNally, a multi-Tony Award winner, can write wickedly funny vignettes such as the second act opener, which is simply the recitation by a number of characters of a devastating, godawful review of the show’s play as might be written by New York Times head theater critic, Ben Brantley.  But as a cohesive whole It’s a Play is one of the playwright’s lesser efforts.

Director Jack O’Brien has almost a spread offense style, placing the actors strategically around the stage, but not having them necessarily interact.  They speak their lines, yet sometimes it felt like the characters were reciting self-contained monologues instead of being integrated into a well-balanced whole.  O’Brien could also have prodded Matthew Broderick to show more vitality in his role.

It’s a Play, for star gazers only.