Some men are taken in by this Hollywood glamor stuff and some are not.
—Alec Baldwin as Stanley Kowalski in the current Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
At first glance, the facing marquees on either side of Manhattan’s West 47th Street seem to be advertising the latest movies. High above the sidewalk, over the entrance of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the names Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman light up the evening sky. Just across the street, Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin headline the entertainment at a stately theatre called the Ethel Barrymore. But the crush of patrons spilling out of taxis and limousines, or walking up the street from nearby Times Square, have not come to see celluloid images of big-screen stars—they are here to see the real thing. This spring, more Hollywood stars than at any time in recent memory are gracing Broadway. And, Stanley Kowalski’s reservations aside, they are attracting record audiences eager to watch them strut their stuff. Said Jane Clark, a 29-
year-old dancer and homemaker from Hackettstown, N.J., who was waiting to catch a glimpse of Lange (Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire) outside the Ethel Barrymore stage door: “Why did I come to see this play? It’s simple—Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.”
Stars of the silver screen are bringing a renewed lustre to the Great White Way. Despite a sluggish fall, ticket sales for the current season, which began in June of 1991, are expected to be up by $33 million to a projected total of $342 million. During the last full week of April, 220,000 Broadway tickets were sold, capping off the healthiest four-week period in the history of New York City theatre. And in addition to the impressive roster of performers, some of the country’s top stage authors, including Neil Simon, Herb Gardner and August Wilson, have written new productions. Declared Canadian actor Helen Shaver, who is co-starring with Alan Alda in Simon’s Jake’s Women, one of about two dozen shows currently playing: “What’s wonderful is that a year ago, this area of town was pretty much dead— there was no excitement. Now, everywhere
you look, people are lining up to see shows.”
The most solidly stellar of the new productions is Death and the Maiden, whose entire cast consists of Close, Dreyfuss and Hackman. Written by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman, it is set, according to the program notes, in “a beach house in a country that is probably Chile . . . that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship.” A psychological thriller, the play also poses a series of troubling political and philosophical questions.
Its central character is Paulina Salas (Close), who is emotionally scarred from torture by agents of the country’s former regime. One night, her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Dreyfuss), has a flat while driving and gets help from a passing motorist named Roberto Miranda (Hackman). When Miranda later pays a visit to the couple’s seaside home, a starkly furnished set of whitewashed walls and terra-cotta floors set against an eerie backdrop bathed in violet light, Salas becomes convinced that her husband’s Good Samaritan is one of her erstwhile torturers.
Salas acts quickly, knocking out Miranda, gagging him and tying him to a chair. She then begins a mock trial, inviting her husband—and, by extension, the audience—to descend with her into a world where revenge, rather than reason, is the law of the land. Calling the accused “a piece of shit,” she proceeds to physically and emotionally humiliate her captive, while giving her husband an unusual ultimatum: he must either rape Miranda, as she believes he once raped her, or help her to convince the accused to sign a written confession of his crimes. Powerful and terse (at two hours, the play is about 45 minutes shorter than most Broadway productions), Death and the Maiden is a chilling testament to the complex and destructive effects of dictatorship.
Exorcising past demons is also the subject of Conversations with My Father, playing at the Royale Theatre, a thoughtful, witty play by Herb Gardner, whose 1985 drama, I’m Not Rappaport, about two elderly people looking back on their lives, won the Tony Award for best play. Set in a lower Manhattan pub, Conversations with My Father chronicles the life of bar owner Eddie Goldberg Qudd Hirsch) across four decades, starting in 1936.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Goldberg is determined to win success in the New World by severing his roots in the old. But he is sandwiched between two generations of proud Jews who challenge his determination to “melt away,” as one of them puts it, into the American melting pot. Their constant haranguing, and Goldberg’s barbed replies, provide an insightful, often unsettling glimpse into the immigrant experience.
A loyal patron named Zaretsky, played by a curmudgeonly David Margulies, wryly berates the bar owner about the inconsistencies in his pursuit of the American dream. “You’ve decided the only way to become someone in this country,” he says, “is first to become no one at all.” Goldberg’s two sons, meanwhile, defy their father’s authority by publicly displaying their Jewish pride—sometimes with tragic re-
suits. Provocative but never proselytizing, Conversations with My Father is first-rate drama.
Jake’s Women, by Broadway veteran Simon and playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, portrays another man searching to discover—and sometimes cover up—who he really is. Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H, Alda contributes sardonic charm to the role of Jake, a middle-aged man working to save his failing marriage to the neurotic Maggie (Shaver). He does so by conjuring up imaginary conversations with his sister Karen (a raving Brenda Vaccaro), daughter Molly (Tracy Pollan), ana-
lyst Edith Ooyce Van Patten) and first wife Julie (Kate Burton).
Jake’s Women is occasionally weighed down by earnest observations on the nature of relationships. “I think we have to forgive those we love before we forgive ourselves,” Maggie tells Jake in the play’s closing scene. But on the whole, the play puts a clever and comic spin on the frustrations of modern romance.
A more brooding examination of the inner workings of family life is the classic Tennessee Williams melodrama A Streetcar Named Desire. The Barrymore Theatre is also where the
original Broadway production of Streetcar opened in 1947, starring Marlon Brando as Stanley and Jessica Tandy as Blanche. In its current incarnation, the play’s lead actors are only partly successful in living up to their legendary predecessors.
Making her first Broadway appearance, Lange gives an affecting performance as the high-strung Blanche, who arrives one night “all hot and dirty and shaken up,” as she describes it, at the tawdry New Orleans tenement of her sister, Stella Kowalski (Amy Madigan). Less convincing is Baldwin in the role of Stella’s hottempered, physically abusive husband, Stanley. The character is supposed to have a certain
rough-hewn charm (he apologizes for his sweat-soaked shirt by pointing out that people perspire in hot weather, “especially when you been exercising hard like bowling is”). But in Baldwin’s hands, Stanley’s boyish appeal almost eclipses his darker side. And neither Lange nor Baldwin manages to convey the sexual tension that is such an integral part of this great American tragedy.
Tragic in its own way was the life of the legendary Jelly Roll Morton, bom Joseph Ferdinand la Menthe, who played a pivotal role in the development of jazz in the early years of the
century. His story, set to 19 steamrolling songs based on Morton’s own compositions, is told in the ambitious revue Jelly’s Last Jam, playing at the Virginia Theatre. With a sizzling and tireless cast, lavish costumes and inventive choreography, it is an electric piece of show business.
An exuberant Gregory Hines plays the Creole pianist and composer who, according to a chorus line of admiring women, earned his nickname because he was “as sweet as jelly on a roll.” Brimming with talent, Hines seems to effortlessly convey Morton’s musical magic. And as Chimney Man, a shadowy figure with a booming voice, Keith David lends a larger-thanlife air to the chronicle of Morton’s rise to the heights of jazz—and his subsequent precipitous fall to obscurity after the dawn of the Big Band Era.
August Wilson’s fifth play in a series chronicling the African-American experience, Two Trains Running (at the Walter Kerr Theatre), peers into a decidedly more downbeat corner of that world. Two earlier shows in the cycle, Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990), each won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfolding in a drab workingclass diner in Pittsburgh in 1969, Wilson’s new play is driven by its strong and memorable characters—six men and one woman—following their lives of drudgery over the course of seven days.
The woman is Risa (Cynthia Martells), a clearly troubled young waitress who has carved gashes into her legs to dissuade men who might reduce her to an object of beauty. Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne) is a retired painter and restaurant regular who dispenses advice on the worth of hard work—“Niggers is the hardestworking people in the world, worked 300 years for free and didn’t take no lunch hour.” Yet he himself depends for guidance on a back-street clairvoyant who claims to be 322 years old. The star of the 1991 movie Boyz N the Hood, Larry Fishbume, gives an invigorating performance as Sterling, a recently released convict with a penchant for playing the numbers and a determination to break through Risa’s tough shell. Tart and disturbing, Two Trains Running offers a dramatic glimpse into the life of black America. Last week, the hum of a reinvigorated Broadway continued. Such long-running hits as Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera played to packed houses, and revivals of Man of La Mancha, with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton, and Guys and Dolls, which moves to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre next season, opened to rave reviews and healthy ticket sales. Said Shaver, explaining the attraction of Broadway: “It’s a flesh-and-blood experience—for the actors and audiences. And people are warming up to the thrill of it all.”
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