THEATRE

New York’s cavalcade of the stage

LARRY BLACK,BOB HARRINGTON,MIKE MEYER,1 more... November 17 1986
THEATRE

New York’s cavalcade of the stage

LARRY BLACK,BOB HARRINGTON,MIKE MEYER,1 more... November 17 1986

New York’s cavalcade of the stage

THEATRE

During the past few seasons, the good news for New York’s troubled theatres has often come from London. Such big West End London hits as Cats and The Mystery of Edwin Drood have illuminated Times Square’s darkened marquees, and at least two other English smashes— Les Misérables and Starlight Express—are scheduled to open in Manhattan next spring.

And after recent sellout engagements by Kevin Kline (Hamlet),

Jack Lemmon (Long Day's Journey Into Night) and Robert De Niro (Cuba and His Teddy Bear), considerable numbers of prominent film and television actors are returning to Broadway to enjoy the pleasures and prestige of live theatre. Among the names going up in lights along the Great White Way before the end of the year: John Lithgow, Mary Tyler Moore, Molly Ringwald and Lauren Bacall.

Those trends, together with upcoming new creations from Marvin Hamlisch and Neil Simon—among others — promise to fill the seats left empty in past years.

The season’s biggest attraction is the English show Me and My Girl at Broadway’s Mariott Marquee Theatre. The production, throbbing with life and enthusiasm, marks a return to the musical as pure entertainment. A hit in London in 1937, Me and My Girl— written by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber with music by Noel Gay—vanished for decades. The show was revived in London last year and has gone on to become a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Me and My Girl tells the story of a brash Cockney dandy, Bill Snibson (Robert Lindsay), who unexpectedly stands to inherit the title of the Earl of Hareford—if the stuffy executors of his long-lost father’s will agree

that he is worthy. To help convince them, his aunt, Maria, the Duchess of Dene (Jane Connell), tutors him in the ways of the aristocracy, which means that he must abandon his Cockney girlfriend, Sally Smith

(Maryann Plunkett). But Snibson refuses to give her up.

The success of Me and My Girl is largely the result of the talented cast, especially Lindsay. In addition to being a superb comic and romantic actor, he demonstrates a consummate appreciation for Britain’s song-and-dance music-hall tradition. That performance, together with the show’s sparkling choreography and elaborate sets, make Me and My Girl everything a musical comedy should be.

The English invasion has yielded an-

other of the season’s highlights, Simon Gray’s brilliant and biting new drama, The Common Pursuit. Now playing at Broadway’s Promenade Theatre, it is a British Big Chill, chronicling 20 years in the lives of six Cambridge University undergraduates. The characters first meet in the 1960s in the college rooms of the witty Stuart Thorne (Kristoffer Tabori) to launch an idealistic literary magazine, The Common Pursuit. Drawn to Thorne like planets around the sun are an assortment of acolytes: Martin Musgrove (Michael Countryman), an amiable, catloving millionaire; Humphry Taylor (Peter Friedman), a flinty philosopher-poet; Peter Whetworth (Dylan Baker), a skirt-chasing satyr; and Nick Finchling (Nathan Lane), whose twin obsessions—chasing women and becoming a celebrated critic— impel him to a life that ends in self-destruction.

Over the next 20 years the magazine’s fortunes rise and fall. One of the friends cuckolds another, a third commits a bloody suicide. What makes it all work, aside from the crackling wit and superb acting, is the empathy Gray (author of Butley and Otherwise ^ Engaged) builds for his £ troubled characters.

£ And he does it with a grand historical flourish.

Although British creativity is strongly in evidence, some of this season’s New York successes are homegrown. One of the more unusual—and exuberant—is the dreamer examines his pillow. Written by John Patrick Shanley and playing offBroadway at the Double Image Theater, the piece is a surrealistic psychodrama sprinkled with comedy and anxiety-ridden pillow talk. Tommy (Scott Renderer), a would-be artist, has retreated into social catatonia while he resolves his problems with women. He has thrown out his girlfriend, Donna (Anne O’Sullivan), and bedded her 16-year-old sister. The acting is occasionally overwrought and the script is at times needlessly vulgar. But the play’s wit, passion and poetry are always entertaining: its earthy epigrams include the heroine’s father, known only as Dad (Graham Beckel), warning Tommy, “God is bigger and more rotten than you know.”

Another American play, The Early Girl, is a provocative tale set in the whorehouse of a small town in the Midwest. Written by Caroline Kava, the drama—at the Circle Repertory Company theatre—is about the humanity that relatively dehumanized people manage to preserve.

Demi Moore, star of such movies as St Elmo’s Fire and “About Last Night . . , ” makes her stage debut as Lily, the new girl in Lana’s businesslike bordello. A naïve 18-year-old single mother, she arrives in an innocent yellow summer dress, planning to stay only until she has made $20,000 to support herself and her child. She becomes what her housemates call “the early girl,” who services daytime clients.

Like Lana’s four other girls,

Lily’s sense of worth soon depends on her demeaning job, especially when she becomes Lana’s most-requested employee. By the time she makes her $20,000, she has become an ambitious, competitive professional, reluctant to leave. But the house’s other inhabitants are determined that she have a better life than theirs, and they threaten to quit if Lana does not fire her. The ingenuous Moore is well-suited to her part, although she exaggerates Lily’s character transformation. Still, playwright Kava has created an engaging story, free of brothel-drama clichés.

One of the more powerful sources of creativity in modern American theatre comes from black experience. Joining such recent successes as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Mama, I Want to Sing is Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, a onewoman show at the Westside Arts Theater. The play brings to life the legendary black jazz singer Billie Holiday who, after a life racked by alcohol, heroin addiction, rape, prostitution, prison and racial discrimination, died a sordid death at 44 that cut short a brilliant career.

Film star Lonette McKee (Round Midnight, The Cotton Club) recreates one of Holiday’s last desperate per-

formances at a small club in South Philadelphia four months before her death in 1959. But Lanie Robertson’s play is much more than a tribute to her music. Between Lady Day’s 15 songs, the elegant McKee—whose forceful, wide-ranging voice is quite unlike Holiday’s —exchanges disjointed reminiscences, banter and moments of pain and paranoia with band leader Jimmy Powers (Danny

Holgate) and the audience. Through it all she builds a well-rounded, uncompromising portrait of the great singer whose music, to the end, was a moving expression of joy as well as suffering.

Race is a more dominant theme in The Colored Museum, which opened last week at the Public Theater. The piece is a collection of 11 skits—called “exhibits”—that satirize American blacks. At times, writer George C. Wolfe’s humor falls flat; at other points it is sharp and biting. In the best skit, “Symbiosis,” an up-andcoming black executive (Tommy Hol-

lis) tries to escape his racial identity, throwing away his Afro comb, his photo of 1960s black radical Stokely Carmichael and his copy of Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver’s outburst of black rage.

“Being black is too emotionally taxing,” the executive explains. “Therefore, I will be black only on weekends and holidays.” But when it comes time to jettison his Motown album by The Temptations, the determination to white-face his identity regrettably wavers.

The new Broadway season has also claimed several heavy casualties. Two expensive musicals, Rags and Raggedy Ann, have already flopped. But waiting in the wings are more potential hits: Smile, a musical about beauty contests by Marvin Hamlisch, begins previews this week; Broadway Bound, the final play in Neil Simon’s autobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy, opens in early December; Wild Honey, an adaptation by Michael Frayn (Benefactors, Noises Off) of Anton Chekhov’s Platonov, starring Ian McKellen, opens before Christmas. With such offerings to come, Broadway’s neon lights seem brighter this fall than they have been for some time.

-LARRY BLACK, BOB HARRINGTON, MIKE MEYER and JOE TREEN in New York City