THEATRE

Spotlight on drama

Broadway hosts a wealth of serious plays

PATRICIA HLUCHY May 28 1990
THEATRE

Spotlight on drama

Broadway hosts a wealth of serious plays

PATRICIA HLUCHY May 28 1990

Spotlight on drama

THEATRE

Broadway hosts a wealth of serious plays

Musicals have traditionally captured the spotlight on Broadway. And this year, they continue to dominate the box office, with song-and-dance extravaganzas ranging from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, Aspects of Love, to the rags-to-riches classic Gypsy. But it is also an unusually strong season for drama on the Great White Way. Last fall, Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending and such new works as Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men were among the highlights. Now, the spring’s new Broadway hits include five serious plays, three of them featuring major film actors. And off-Broadway, Kevin Kline is adding big-star allure to Hamlet, which he directed and stars in at The Public Theatre. Harvey Sabinson, executive director of the Manhattan-based League of American Theatres and Producers, says that not only has serious drama been making a stronger showing in the past few years, but the quality of the plays is better. “The most significant trend I see is the arrival of some interesting new young writers," he added. “And then there’s the continued good work being done by August Wilson.”

Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, which last month won the black American playwright his second Pulitzer Prize for best drama (his first was for Fences in 1987), is one of the hottest tickets on

Broadway. Playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, it tells a funny, moving and provocative story about a black family from the American South. It is set in 1936 in Pittsburgh, where the widowed Bemiece Charles, formerly of Mississippi, is living with her uncle Doaker and her daughter, Maretha. The household is a humble one: Bemiece (S. Epatha Merkerson) works as a maid for a wealthy white family, while Doaker (Carl Gordon) is a railway cook. One of their few luxuries is the ornately carved piano that sits in the parlor. The instrument is weighted with Charles family history: its former owner, a white landowner, traded two of Bemiece’s slave ancestors for the piano; her great-grandfather carved images of family members on it; and Bemiece’s father was killed in retaliation for stealing it.

For the strong-willed Bemiece, the piano is an irreplaceable souvenir of her family’s anguished past. But, to her sharecropper brother, Boy Willie (Charles S. Dutton), visiting from Mississippi, it is a route to equality—a piece of merchandise that could be sold for enough money to buy the land that his ancestors worked as slaves. Through the struggle that develops between Bemiece and Boy Willie, Wilson explores how black people can redeem the past without losing sight of their roots.

The first half of the play is rich with humor

and pungent dialogue as the characters gather at Berniece’s house to drink, sing and reminisce. Husky and full of life, Dutton is engaging as Boy Willie, a man obsessed with owning his own land. Also appealing are Lou Myers as Wining Boy, Boy Willie’s dandyish, dissolute uncle, and Rocky Carroll as Lymon, his guileless friend. But, in the second act, Dutton’s acting becomes overblown as the symbolism of the piano becomes deafening. And the play’s silly supernatural resolution, which involves a ghost, seems a facile conclusion.

New York City-based playwright Craig Lucas also has a hit with his offbeat drama Prelude to a Kiss, playing at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre. It begins conven

tionally, with a courtship and marriage. The sobersided Peter (movie veteran Timothy Hutton), who works for a New York company that makes microfiche, meets the mildly eccentric Rita (Mary-Louise Parker), a bartender, and they marry six weeks later. But something weird happens at the wedding. A strange old man (Barnard Hughes) kisses Rita, and she begins to change drastically. It turns out that his soul has invaded her lithe body, while she finds herself in his decrepit skin.

Lucas has set out to create a fairy tale about the durability of love. When Peter discovers what has happened, he proves his commitment by continuing to love Rita in her new, decidedly unappealing exterior. The play’s first scenes, however, lack the whimsy and passion necessary to prepare for the fantasy that follows. Instead, they are funny glimpses of a courtship: the false starts, the awkward conversations and the insecurities that make love seem so risky. Writer Lucas and director Norman René are so intent on satirizing middle-class conventions of romantic love—Peter and Rita go through their wedding like automatons—that they fail to establish a truly deep bond between the couple. Hutton’s Peter is charming but bloodless, while Parker's Rita seems too callow and insubstantial to love deeply.

Another current success, Lettice & Louage, a comedy that ran for nearly two years in London before reaching Manhattan’s Barrymore Theatre, is enough to restore faith in the power of plain, old-fashioned theatre. British playwright Peter Shaffer, who wrote the play Amadeus and the hit movie adapted from it, has created a role that seems tailor-made for actress Maggie Smith. She is captivating as Lettice Douffet, a tour guide in Fustian House, a historic country manor outside London so unredeemably dull that she feels obliged to invent elaborate tales of events that never took place there. The tourists are enraptured by her flights of fancy, but her government boss, a stem realist named Lotte Schoen (Margaret Tyzack), is outraged.

It is a play about theatricality. And it affords Smith an opportunity to do what she does best: revel in baroque language with flamboyant elocution. Meanwhile, Tyzack makes an excellent foil, a symbol of the grey, unremarkable world of what Lettice dismisses as “the mere.” Through the metaphor of architecture, the play launches an impassioned attack on modernism, minimalism and anything else lacking the gusto that Lettice brings to life. And Shaffer’s broadside against the banality of Thatcherite Britain is hilarious—a resounding triumph over “the mere.”

Another Broadway hit seems designed to showcase a star—Kathleen Turner. In fact, Turner’s agent approached producers with the idea of mounting Tennessee Williams’s 1955 play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and her celebrity is likely the main reason that audiences pack the Eugene O’Neill Theatre night after night. The role of Maggie the Cat—the sultry southern belle who tries to tease some signs of libidinal

life from her husband, Brick—is one that Turner seems, superficially at least, bom to play. She has the smoky voice, the smouldering presence, the air of sexual sarcasm. And she certainly looks the part. For most of the first act, which Maggie dominates, she slinks around the stage, and when she boasts that “nothing’s fallen on me, not a fraction,” the claim is credible.

But while Turner is physically commanding, her performance seems strained. Her voice, so seductive in the intimate confines of a movie set, does not project well in the theatre. Her southern accent is unconvincing. And she appears to be applying so much energy to the sheer mechanics of the role—simulating a Dixie drawl and generating body heat—that there is little room left for acting. When

Charles Duming, as the sick and ornery Big Daddy, finally takes the stage in the second act, Turner’s shortcomings become clear by contrast. Duming’s southern accent is no better than hers, but he melts into the character and his voice fills the theatre.

Cat’s staging is inspired—an airy living room furnished in rattan against a dark backdrop of trees draped in Spanish moss. But British director Howard Davies brings a crude sitcom sensibility to the Williams melodrama. His production lacks the palpable tension of the memorable 1958 screen version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

Broadway’s new version of The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma dust-bowl migrants to California, also reworks a hallowed patch of American literary ground. And it, too, stands in the shadow of a screen classic, the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda as the heroic Okie, Tom Joad. Still, the $1.7-million production at the

Cort Theatre, created by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, provides an ambitious, innovative and earnestly faithful adaptation of the Steinbeck novel. Adaptor/director Frank Galati captures the earthy lyricism of Steinbeck’s prose in his script. He reinstates Steinbeck’s critical scene of Rose of Sharon breastfeeding a starving stranger, which was omitted from the movie. And actor Gary Sinise, who heads a 35-member cast, creates a leaner, meaner Tom Joad, making Fonda’s seem sentimental in comparison.

But the production is too ambitious for its own good. Despite the barren look of the set, the stagecraft almost overwhelms the drama. Men sit around real campfires. An actor strips off his clothes and jumps into a river—a large pool built into the stage. Later, it even rains. A

great curtain of water forms a cascade across the front of the stage. Despite the crackling of thunder, it still looks like a waterfall in a fancy mall. Such Hollywood effects are not just distracting; they undermine the drama’s theme of Depression-era austerity.

By contrast, Kline’s Hamlet at The Public Theatre is an exceptionally spare production. The set is empty except for two black pillars and a burgundy velvet curtain at the back. The lighting is simple, and the modern-day costumes are mostly sombre. With such minimal staging, what comes to the fore are Shakespeare’s language and the psychological complexities of the characters.

That puts a lot of pressure on the actors, and the supporting cast, particularly Diane Venora as Ophelia, is mostly excellent. But Kline’s Hamlet is unfocused. His portrayal of the Danish prince comes alive only when Kline draws out his character’s sarcasm and black humor. It is as if Kline, who excelled at portraying a comic psychopath in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, sees Hamlet as a sort of demented wise guy. When Shakespeare’s lines call for introspection and anguish, the actor simply does not deliver convincingly. He handles the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with a coolness bordering on apathy. Still, the production on the whole is intriguing—another sign that serious drama has vigor and star power this season in Manhattan.

PATRICIA HLUCHY

BRIAN D. JOHNSON