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New York Report

by | Apr 18, 2019 | Review | 0 comments


I saw some phenomenal work while I was in New York City last week. I also some saw flawed performances and productions—but Broadway is so intense it felt like everything was on a grand scale.


Ruth Wilson’s Fool tries to steady Glenda Jackson’s King Lear. (Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times)

King Lear   During the first moments after Glenda Jackson entered as King Lear, I thought, “I am in the presence of greatness”: Jackson is tiny, but the force of her voice—and her manner—could blow you to the back wall of the theatre. Before long though, I had adjusted my assessment to: “I am in the presence of very goodness.” Jackson’s performance didn’t fully engage me emotionally; it’s a bit technical, a bit deliberate, and, when Lear is raging on the heath, Jackson hits one bellowing note and stays there.

Jackson is 82 and she’s doing eight three-hour shows a week so it might be unfair to demand self-sacrificing immersion in madness every time, but understanding that doesn’t erase the degree of hollowness I experienced as an audience member.

There are highlights, including John Douglas Thompson’s butch, tender Kent and Elizabeth Marvel’s wounded, voracious Goneril. But the overall level of performance is inconsistent. Aisling O’Sullivan’s portrait of Regan is so eccentric that she seems to be in a universe of her own: that weirdness works well in the play’s descent, but not in the set-up, during which one hopes that the characters will be able to pass as (relatively) normal. Sean Carvajal (Edgar) seems intent on showing us how hard he is acting.

And conceptually director Sam Gold’s production is a hodgepodge. Casting Jackson as a male Lear whose sexuality has been erased by time works, but casting Jane Houdyshell as the sexually insinuating—and therefor sexually engaged—Earl of Gloucester simply results in a characterization that feels false, at least at the beginning. Lear’s daughters all come from different countries: Goneril is American, Regan is Irish, and Cordelia (Ruth Wilson, who is double cast as the Fool), is English. Regan’s husband, The Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard), is deaf, so there’s sign language and interpretation. Then, suddenly, Cornwall can speak without apparent impediment. A string quartet wanders around playing an original score by Philip Glass. And why are some elements of the set’s single gold room so tacky? (I’m thinking of the large ceramic bulldog and lion. Symbols of England, yeah, but why so vulgar when Lear, who’s running things off the top, isn’t?)

In a coherent production, any of these elements might work—I’ve seen some similar choices succeed in other shows—but, because Gold doesn’t provide a clear framework, I couldn’t understand the world he’s trying to conjure.



Curly (Damon Daunno) and Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) think they’ve found happiness in Oklahoma!. They don’t know what’s comin’. (Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times) 

Oklahoma!   Director Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma! left me shaken—like quivering-stomach shaken—and grateful. Without changing the arrangements or script, Fish and his team have turned this musical inside out.

Daniel Kluger has orchestrated the score for a seven-member bluegrass band rather than the original 27 musicians, so Rodgers and Hammerstein’s swoon-inducing songs find new life as folk music.

And Fish unearths the darkness of the story.

In Oklahoma!, a cowboy named Curly and an itinerant ranch hand called Jud, compete for Laurey’s picnic hamper. As written, Jud is creepy, but Fish leans into the cruelty of the ways in which Jud is excluded.

Miffed by Jud’s interest in Laurey, Curly sings “Pore Jud Is Daid” to his rival. It’s about how the townsfolk will realize what a good man Jud was—once he’s no longer breathing. In Fish’s staging of this number, the lighting collapses into blackness. Then we see live, grainy, black-and-white video of the two men projected onto the large back wall. As he sings, Curly is humiliating Jud and seducing him. Their lips are so close that they almost touch. Jud is crying.

Oklahoma! has always climaxed in a murder. In the standard staging, the crime is barely disguised: Jud falls on Curly’s knife at Curly and Laurey’s wedding. Here, Jud takes a step towards the white-clad couple and Curly shoots him. Blood spatters their clothes and faces.

Oklahoma! has always ended in a cover-up. When the sheriff threatens to arrest Curly, Laurey’s Aunt Eller says something like, “We’re not gonna let that boy go to jail on his weddin’ day” and the people of the town stage a fake trial that exonerates him. In Fish’s vision, the sheriff is black so, when he says, “I don’t feel comfortable with this,” the resonance is nauseating.

When the company delivers a final rousing refrain of “Oklahoma!”, Jud stands and joins in—singing with fury.

So that’s different.

But most of the musical’s innocent charms remain. The subplot about Ado Annie and her boyfriend Will is as fresh as clover after rain. Ali Stroker, who’s playing Ado Annie, is a star who brings the house down with her character’s signature number “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No”.

Other standouts include Patrick Vail, whose Jud feels like he’s had the skin peeled off him, and Damon Daunno, whose Curly is so seductive I think I might be carrying his baby. Daunno’s got a high, sweet, lazy voice—like summer—and he moves in this crazy slinky way that shouldn’t be sexy on a cowboy but is.

The originality of Fish’s vision and the consistency of its realization make Oklahoma! the best show I saw on this trip. And, hey, if you move fast enough, you can get free chilli and cornbread at the intermission.



Hillary and Clinton opens tonight, April 18, so production photos aren’t available yet. But note director Joe Mantello’s name on the poster: he has done a stellar job of realizing playwright Lucas Hnath’s vision.

Hillary and Clinton   Actor Laurie Metcalf is spectacular—because she’s so humble.

In Lucas Hnath’s new script, we’re in New Hampshire in the Democratic primaries of 2008 and Hillary Clinton’s campaign is struggling to regain ground lost to Barack Obama’s. (As Hnath cannily notes in the script, he’s not exactly presenting us with the historical Hillary we’re familiar with: he’s showing us one of the infinite possible Hillaries theorized by quantum physics.)

Metcalf’s genius is that, the moment she steps onstage, she is Everywoman: the effect has to do with her ease and directness, the slight self-deprecation in her humour—and probably her large, soulful eyes.

But Metcalf’s humble relatability isn’t just about manner; it also involves a crazy level of artistry. Metcalf doesn’t use many gestures and they all appear casual, but they are extraordinarily well chosen and potent.

The play works best when it’s examining the relationship between Hillary and Bill, especially the ways in which Bill’s legacy is an ongoing burden to his wife. That burden includes the public’s judgment of Hillary’s indulgence of Bill’s sexual incontinence and the ways in which her resulting exhaustion might make her appear hard.

The passage in which Obama appears in Hillary’s hotel room is about political machinations and feels more…mechanical.

John Lithgow, who plays Bill, is, of course, exemplary.

And Chloe Lamford’s set is extraordinary. She has created a virtually featureless white cube in forced perspective with no back or front walls. After a brief preamble in which Metcalf speaks directly to the audience as herself, the entire set glides forward—massively, ominously. And the lighting shifts so that the back wall is suddenly solid black. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is operating-room fierce and selected seams of Lamford’s set also vibrate with seering strips of white. The force of this simplicity puts the complex figures of the actors under intense scrutiny. They appear iconic, but they are also subject to relentless examination—which feels exactly right for the private lives of public figures.



Heidi Schreck debates Rosdely Ciprian (left) about whether or not the US Constitution should be scrapped. (Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times)

What the Constitution Means To Me   Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me is autobiographical—and sometimes oddly American. (Maybe.)

In real teen life, Schreck took part in competitions sponsored by the American Legion. Each contestant had to give a speech about their personal relationship to the American Constitution. Apparently Schreck’s canned but heartfelt oration was so compelling that her winnings paid for her entire college education.

The hinge in the play is that the girl who sometimes beat Schreck in those contests did so by referring to her pioneer grandmother. Schreck didn’t want to talk about her own grandmother, whose second husband beat her. He also sexually and psychologically abused his stepchildren. The Constitution does not adequately protect women—or a whole lot of other people. But, as Schreck notes in the play, it has done an excellent job of what it set out to do, which is to secure the rights of white men.

What the Constitution Means to Me could hardly be more topical and seeing it with an American audience is so electric that you can feel the voltage running up and down the rows of seats.

So the political context is American. And so is part of the style, I suspect.

Schreck performs herself in the show—as a fifteen-year-old and in her current fortysomething embodiment. When she’s 15, she’s obviously in character. And, when she’s putting forth an argument as her grown-up self, or hitting emotionally raw material, it feels like she’s being directly honest.

But there are also supposedly spontaneous interactions with other performers that are clearly scripted and set. To most of the audience that I saw the show with, the enthusiasm of these moments, their sense of showing off, seemed to override—or possibly render invisible—their artificiality, a quality I found disconcerting. This tendency to prioritize energy and entertainment—this celebration of the vivacious presentation of the self—strikes me as American. (Possibly. I’m trying to articulate my sense of alienation.)

Of course, performers from all over fake spontaneity in ways that you wouldn’t associate with conventional acting. I’m thinking of Australian comic Hannah Gadsby in Nanette, for instance. But she’s a solo performer, so the illusory nature of her spontaneity is less obvious and she is responding to a de facto scene partner, the audience, which is genuinely unpredictable.

What the Constitution Means to Me is also odd in that it is more argument than story. Its climax is probably Schreck’s assertion that the Preamble to the Constitution should include “all of us.” Her family story also reaches a resolution—but in a way that is more thought through than emotionally evoked.

But what the heck. What the Constitution Means to Me is an intellectually bracing evening of theatre. And the world needs it right now.



Quinn Carney (Brian D’Arcy James) is the father at the centre of a sprawling clan in The Ferryman. 

The Ferryman   Virtually every major American critic has peed his or her pants over the American production of Jez Butterworth’s script—and much of that excitement is warranted.

It’s certainly hard to imagine a more fully realized rendering of the text than the one director Sam Mendes is offering in New York.

Butterworth’s story is about former IRA member Quinn Carney. A farmer in the play’s time period (1981), Quinn hopes that he has freed himself from the organization’s grasp, but the IRA reaches out for him again when the body of Quinn’s brother, who may have been an IRA informant, is found in a bog after ten years.

The first act, in which we meet Quinn and his extended family in their tumbledown farmhouse, is irresistibly charming. There are 22 characters, including an infant and a bunch of kids—there’s also a live goose—and every human member of the company who’s old enough to talk is acting their Irish wool socks off.

But then a stylistic rift emerges. A lot of the script’s charm relies on what you might call leprechaun Irishness, which is fuelled by linguistic vivacity, consequence-free alcoholism, and fantastical tales of fairies and banshees.

This sits very, very oddly with the brutality of IRA threats and murder; the only thing I can see that connects the violence and the blarney Irishness is their shared commercial viability.

The play is stylistically slack in other ways, too. An elderly relative called Aunt Maggie Faraway has a poetically convenient form of dementia that allows her to lurch out of stretches of catatonia to launch into spooky/hilarious/prescient tales of time travel. And there’s a criminally cliché plot turn that involves a mentally challenged English farmworker called Tom Kettle.

Because of the play’s stylistic inconsistency, its violent ending feels too ungrounded to be justified. And that’s a shame because so much of what precedes it is beautifully crafted.



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