By William Wolf
THE LAST SHIP Send This Review to a Friend
A rousing working class musical, “The Last Ship” thrives on music and lyrics by Sting that augment the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. The setting is the town of Wallsend in northeast England, where Sting grew up, and the story and much of the music reflect inspiration that Sting derived from his roots and the toll changing times took on the town’s shipbuilding industry. The show emerges as a demonstration of worker pride in trying to keep shipbuilding tradition alive.
While one can accuse the book of being rife with plot clichés, including within its tale of love and loss, the acting and the music surmounts that with power and sensitivity that is involving. Sting’s music, some new and some from existing albums, not only makes for enjoyable listening but snugly fits and advances the theme of the determination by the shipyard workers to build one last ship in the face of the takeover that will close the yard. Choral strength and solo strength contribute to the at times wistful but ultimately uplifting tone.
Joe Mantello’s direction balances the tenderness with the labor perspective to maximize the dignity permeating the production. Set designer David Zinn, who also is the costume designer, provides the aura of a shipyard, as do Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Brian Ronan’s sound design. Steven Hoggett’s choreography is well-suited to the milieu.
The dramatic sparks flow from the personal situations. Young Gideon Fletcher (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) rejects his father’s demand that he uphold family tradition of working in the shipyard. Gideon hungers to become a seaman, and follows his heart even though it means leaving his girlfriend, the young Meg Dawson (Dawn Cantwell), heartbroken at his departure.
Time marches on. When Gideon returns 15 years later, played by a vigorous Michael Esper, Meg, now a mature woman portrayed by a lovely and spirited Rachel Tucker, has a new beau who has proposed marriage. Gideon attempts to claim his old love, but while she still harbors an attraction to him, she is resentful that he never contacted her in all those years. And wouldn’t you know, she has a son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet, who played the young Gideon), who turns out to be Gideon’s, setting up another plot thread of how the resentful son and his new-found dad can bridge the emotional gap.
All this, of course, is against the shipyard battle with the workers taking over the yard to show their strength by building one last glorious ship before all shuts down. (The construction is an awfully fast job.)
A key character is the plain-spoken, devoted priest, Father O’Brien, given a colorful performance by Fred Applegate. We learn that he is ill, and you can be sure he is not long for this world. Meg’s suitor, who has become a father to her son, is Arthur, played sympathetically by Aaron Lazar, who opposes the worker takeover. The militant leader of the workers is Jackie White, passionately played by Jimmy Nail.
As it should be in a musical, the emotional heft must come from the songs, and it does. Rachel Tucker as Meg is a powerhouse as she fills the stage defiantly singing “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Meg, Gideon and Arthur share the poignant “When We Dance” number. Applegate as Father O’Brien excels singing “The Last Ship” and, with Gideon, “So to Speak.” There is much, much more, and when the company pools its voices, the effect is electric.
“The Last Ship” is in the tradition of other shows, whether musicals or plays, that celebrate working men and women, and it is gratifying to report that, especially with Sting’s music and lyrics, the result is so appealing in communicating its overall message. At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed October 31, 2014
THE REAL THING Send This Review to a Friend
Tom Stoppard’s smart dialogue and incisive observations about relationships and interpretations by a fine cast are the main attractions in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “The Real Thing.” That’s where the pleasure is to be found, as one is likely to experience emotional involvement only occasinally.
As Stoppard fans know, the author is typically skillful with his use of language whether with an acerbic barb or clever character insight. However, here we find a group of actors parading their involvements and emotions as if on display rather than making us feel for them.
But it is amusing to watch the main performers in action—Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton, as well as the featured Alex Breaux, Ronan Raftery and Madeline Weinstein.
The play deals with the delicate balance between love, infidelity and jealousy, with the progression of partners and the ties that bind. Director Sam Gold’s staging, with important assists from set designer David Finn, handily accents the different time frames. Charlotte (Nixon) and Henry (McGregor) have had a long relationship. But Henry has moved on to a relationship with Annie (Gyllenhaal). Henry is a writer, Annie is an actress, and there is some very funny dialogue as Henry castigates Annie for agreeing to be in a play by Billy, whom he thinks is a terrible writer. But Annie will not be deterred, and we already sense that she’ll find more to like about Billy than his writing.
It is especially gratifying to see Ewan McGregor in his Broadway debut. He has had plenty of stage experience in England, but I have known him primarily through his films. He is a superb actor and a very likable one. His portrayal of Henry touched me the most in this production.
McGregor Gyllenhaal have the right feel for interpreting what Stoppard has to say about people in love and the strains they may need to overcome. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed October 30. 2014.
DISGRACED Send This Review to a Friend
Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” with its high-powered dramatic confrontations, ponders the conflicts engulfing a Muslim immigrant’s desire to assimilate despites his being considered as a outsider and his own ties to his Islamic roots and the behavior that he was taught as a child. Thwarted assimilation by the ethnic groups has long been a subject for exploration, but the focus on Muslims in the light of 9/11 and ISIS gives this play a contemporary impact and is likely to produce split reactions depending on one’s political outlook.
The action revolves around Amir, superbly acted by Hari Dhillon, who captures the emotionally torn complexity of the character. Amir, a lawyer, worked his way up into an important position in a legal firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions, but has lied in his bio by claiming to have been born in India, not Pakistan, where had a strict Muslim upbringing. As much as he has attempted to assimilate and discard vestiges of the Muslim religion that he purports to reject, his background makes him suspect. The situation is heightened by a newspaper account of his presence at the trial of an imam accused of supporting terrorism. Amir has attended at the urging of his militant and impassioned nephew, Abe, played with intensity by Danny Ashok. The newspaper report, Amir argues, makes him appear as if he were an attorney for the defense, very upsetting to the honchos in his law firm.
Amir is married to Emily, played nicely with steady intelligence by Gretchen Mol, who is an artist and fascinated with Islamic art, reflected in her work, rather odd for someone of her background. We see her at the start of the play painting a portrait of Amir inspired by a Velazquez painting of his assistant, a Moor.
Friends of Amir and Emily invited to dinner are an interracial couple--the Jewish Isaac (Josh Radnor), a curator who is including Emily’s paintings in an important museum exhibit, and his African-American wife, Jory (Karin Pittman), who is a colleague of Amir in the law firm where they practice.
The evening turns out to be a dinner party from hell, as clashing values and venom that Amir harbors deep down rise to a level of viciousness. The situation is fueled by a revelation of infidelity, which I first thought superfluous, but which, it turns out, ignites an eruption of violence.
Before the play concludes, not only the futility of Amir’s attempt to assimilate is bared, but his emotional ties to his roots take over and newly define his life, leaving the impression that Muslim militancy is very legitimate no matter how shocking that may be to others. “Disgraced,” tautly directed by Kimberly Senior, not only holds one’s attention despite its being overloaded with plot, but will make one think about the characters and the issues that the playwright explores. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 30, 2014
ON THE TOWN (BROADWAY) Send This Review to a Friend
The current revival of “On the Town” harks back to the World War II 1944 year when the show first appeared on Broadway. An American flag is displayed as the orchestra plays the national anthem and the audience rises to sing. Then the fun begins. The result is a smash splash of entertainment that more than does justice to this icon of creativity, with book and clever lyrics by a young Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the score by a young Leonard Bernstein and choreography by an up-and-coming Jerome Robbins. This new production is directed by John Rando, who previously staged the New York City Center Encores! concert version and a production at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, which has spawned this Broadway coup.
Now the choreography is in the hands of Joshua Bergasse, and while I can’t attest to how much of the Robbins original work remains, the current result is a glorious achievement with moving dancing by the principals and terrific work by the men and women of the chorus.
You could not ask for a better cast. Tony Yazbeck is perfect as Gabey, the sailor who arrives in New York on a 24-hour leave. His acting is appealing, and his dancing is dynamically wonderful. He certainly deserves awards for his performance. His two sailor pals Clyde Alves as Ozzie and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Chip also shine in both the acting and dance departments.
Gabey is smitten by a poster of Miss Turnstiles, the title changing monthly for women selected from among subway riders. His mission is to find her, and his buddies pledge to help, although in the course of their wanderings they find adventures of their own. Ivy, Miss Turnstiles, is played by Megan Fairchild in a lovely performance. When she and Gabey get to dance together, they are a dream team and an absolute joy to watch in some superbly choreographed sequences.
Elizbeth Stanley plays Claire de Loon, a ditsy dame who is studying anthropology and is kept by Judge Pitkin (Michael Rupert), a sugar daddy whom she deceives. Up to a point he keeps saying “I understand.” (In the original show Claire was played by Betty Comden.) Claire’s scene at the Museum of Natural History turns into a laugh riot, as it always has been when done properly.
Alysha Umphress as the romance-hungry taxi driver Hildy gives the best performance in that part that I can remember. In addition to being hilarious when needed, she is very likable in the romance department, a winning combination when that role can so easily turn into mere comic caricature. Her “I Can Cook Too” number is a gem. Hildy’s hapless, ever-sneezing roommate, Lucy Schmeeler, is portrayed by Allison Guinn, who gives the part exactly the comic turn required.
Veteran scene-stealer Jackie Hoffman can get a laugh from a shift in her body, and she is uproariously at work here as Maude P. Dilly, the boozing mess of a voice teacher in one of the studios of the kind that once existed at Carnegie Hall. She also turns up as downbeat nightclub singers Diana Dream and Dolores Dolores, and as if that were not enough, she appears as the little old lady forever dashing across the stage. A Hoffman decrepit dash is something to behold.
Supporting cast members, called upon to do more than one role, are excellent. The staging is consistently inventive, as when projection helps turn a taxi ride into a harrowing race through Manhattan. The scenic and projection design is by Beowulf Boritt, and the eye-catching costume array has been designed by Jess Goldstein. The lighting design by Jason Lyons and sound design by Kai Harada play especially important roles.
Then there are those songs—among them “New York, New York,” “Carried Away,” “Lonely Town,” “Lucky to Be Me,” “So Long, Baby,” “ I Wish I Was Dead,” “Some Other Time” and more. The pit orchestra deserves special praise for showing off the Bernstein score as it deserves to be played, figuring importantly in the general course of the action and dance.
My only quibble s with the mess of the plot in the Coney Island sequence when Ivy is doing supposedly erotic dancing and the cops raid. But that goes by quickly, and soon we are at the dock when the sailors must say goodbye to the women they have met and board their ship. The moment is tender, but comically capped when three just-arrived sailors get off their ship for their own expedition in Manhattan. The departure scene must have been particularly poignant during the war when the servicemen were off to face danger.
It is a tribute to the leading cast members that by the end of the show we can feel we have gotten to know their characters as real folk during the day passed in theater time. “On the Town” now exists as a great new Broadway treat. At the Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed October 24, 2014.
LENNON: THROUGH A GLASS ONION Send This Review to a Friend
British-born John R. Waters, who has built a career in Australia and who summons the life and art of John Lennon in the show that he does with Stewart D’Arrietta at the piano and sometimes pitching in with the singing, gives a warm tribute to the late revered Beatle. Whether or not you enjoy the voice of Waters is another matter.
Waters makes no pretense of trying to imitate Lennon in “Lennon: Through a Glass Onion.” But after the show I listened again to a few examples of Lennon’s singing. As the world knows, he had a rather melodic, appealing voice, but the raw singing of Waters mostly sounded more as if he were channeling Bob Dylan in a tone so very different than Lennon’s.
Still, it is good to hear the array of songs chosen as a refresher to help keep Lennon’s memory alive. Where Waters excels is in the biographical comments interspersed with the music and delivered in the first person as if he were Lennon. The show begins with the sound of shots fired, and near the end we again hear the gunfire. In between, Waters provides assorted anecdotes, some of them humorous, including what it was like being a Beatle.
He talks of his relationship with Yoko Ono, about the drug scene, and his family background. There is a light, reflective tone to most of it, but not when he talks about the stranger he sees linger outside his apartment building. Lennon finds it odd but doesn’t recognize the danger.
Among the 31 songs performed by Waters are “All You Need Is Love,” “Come Together, “Imagine,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The show was conceived by Waters and D’Arrietta in 1992 and first performed on a small stage in Sydney, Australia. Since then they have been touring with it.
At the Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street. Phone: 1-800-982-2787. Reviewed October 16, 2014.
INNER VOICES 2014--'GRACE' AND 'THE OTHER ROOM' Send This Review to a Friend
Two solo offerings in this season’s “Inner Voices,” presented by Premieres, dedicated to bringing new musical theater to light, are “Grace” and “The Other Room,” continuing through November 1. The voices may be “Inner,” but they contain bursts of outer passion in the respective performances.
“Grace,” with music by Kirsten Childs and libretto by Charlayne Woodard, is performed dynamically by Ancrea Frierson, who sings title character role. It is a tale of a successful writer who discovers that she is going blind and must struggle to triumph over this adversity.
As Grace, Frierson has a powerful voice and a sparkling personality, as she looks back on her life, referencing her mother and her strong father, and her feelings as a writer. A collection of canes are present as symbols, a sturdy cane epitomizing the strength of her father, and others stand-ins for the blindness that awaits her.
The performer is moving as she hears her fate from her doctor, “Wet Macular Degeneration! Wet Macular Degeneration! Wet Macular Degeneration!!!” ...“Tempus fugit. Too soon. It is all happening too soon...I’ve run out of time. I took ‘Cane Class’ as suggested.”
The music by Childs comes in the style of a strong force in synch with the passion of the libretto and the dynamic quality of Frierson’s persona as Grace. Under the direction of Shirley Jo Finney, the piece succeeds in providing a perspective on a lifetime up to the point where a writer must cope with the inevitable that has descended upon her.
“The Other Room,” the second offering on the program, deals with an even more tragic subject—AIDS and the death of an artist’s friend. The loss is off-stage but woven passionately into solo lament by actress-singer Phoebe Strole.
Strole portrays Lena, a painter, who works at her easel and sings and talks about her friendship and political activism. The libretto is by Mark Campbell, the music by Marisa Michelson.
In the beginning Strole is hard to hear against the loud competitive piano, but she rises to the occasion at key moments when the balance is better and her voice shines through. Strole has a winsome personality in capturing the theme of the piece, directed by Ethan Heard.
As Lena paints and gazes at what she has done, the repeated reference to the color green becomes symbolic, and the work ends with a projected gradual splash of her art in the background. In the interim “The Other Room” builds poetically and musically to express Lena’s range of thoughts and emotions to the ultimate telephone revelation that her friend Steve has died with the dignity he wanted. There is a tearful breakdown by Lena, until she composes herself and returns to her painting.
Both “Grace” and “The Other Room” are alive with depth of feeling and creativity, but musically and in terms of libretto and performance appeal, I found “Grace” the stronger selection. At the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, Phone: 212-866-4444. Reviewed October 14, 2014.
WHILE I YET LIVE Send This Review to a Friend
Billy Porter has poured his heart out in his new play, “While I Yet Live,” a Primary Stages presentation. We know Porter primarily from his dazzling award-winning performance as Lola in the musical “Kinky Boots.” Now his play demonstrates his writing gifts as well, and although it may have far too much going on, its passion is dramatically and emotionally touching, and the fact that it has been inspired by his own background adds interest.
The setting is a two-story house in Pittsburgh occupied by an African-American family, and an exemplary cast brings to life the assorted characters, their relationships and problems. In particular, there is a memorable performance by S. Epatha Merkerson as Maxine, the mother whose humanity and spiritual strength in the face of her declining muscular powers as a result of illness anchors the play.
I have known Merkerson mostly via the endless hours I have enjoyed her in the “Law and Order” television shows. I have also seen her doing excellent work on stage before. But at last, here is a role that demonstrates what mighty power she has as an actress. It is a glowing, deeply moving performance that makes her character seem absolutely real and further burnishes her reputation.
Larry Powell is convincing as her gay son Calvin, who, as well as needing to come to terms with his sexuality, carries the baggage of having been molested by his stepfather Vernon (Kevyn Morrow), a dark secret that nobody wants to address. Calvin moves from home, leaving his younger sister to cope with their ailing mother.
Sheria Irving as Tonya, the sister, is a delight in the early scenes as she spiritedly regales the audience with amusing insights into the process of growing up in the household. Later, with the passage of time and the return of Calvin, we see her as a strong young woman demanding her own opportunity in life.
Another key character whom we meet is Maxine’s close friend Eva, finely acted by Sharon Washington, who is suffering from cancer and has her own secret that undercuts the strong religious beliefs both share. Lillias White plays Maxine’s mother, Gertrude, with Elain Graham cast as Aunt Delores.
Porter demonstrates a gift for writing sharp dialogue, and injecting humor into the lives of his characters, although it is risky to pack so much into the drama. The staging in the hands of director Sheryl Kaller maintains the required intimacy, aided by the realistic set designed by James Noone.
One carries away sympathy toward Porter’s people, and I still have visions of Merkerson as Maxine struggling up and down the stairs, step by step, and finally moving about in her mobile scooter when walking becomes nearly impossible. All of this makes the communication of her determination to retain her dignity all the more impressive. At The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Phone: 646-223-3010. Reviewed October 13, 2014.
IT'S ONLY A PLAY Send This Review to a Friend
Until now I thought that the revived “You Can’t Take It With You” was the funniest play on Broadway, but not to take anything away from that laugh-getter, the return of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” offers its own brand of laugh-aloud hilarity delivered by a smashing cast.
The new arrival is geared particularly to those who follow the Broadway theater with plenty of “in” jokes and name-dropping, the latter not empty celebrity references but attached to bitchy humor and uproarious observations. There are also allusions to Hollywood and television that earn more laughs.
The scene is a lavish New York townhouse (smart set design by Scott Pask) of producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally), who knows nothing about the theater, and not much else for that matter. (She thinks the “C” word is spelled with a K.) But she is loaded and has invested in a play written by Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick).
Before we get to meet either of them we meet Nathan Lane as actor James Wicker, and he sets the audience laughing as Nathan Lane can reliably do when he is at his best making cracks and using his sharp timing. He encounters a newcomer to New York with acting aspirations, Gus P. Head, given an outstandingly funny performance by Micah Stock, who has a job tending coats for the opening night party going on downstairs. The new play has been unveiled and the tense wait for the reviews is on.
Wicker, who has a TV series about to be cancelled, has seen and hated the play, but can’t let on at first to the playwright, a long-time close friend. Head has insinuated himself into the mix, and gets his own laughs as he brings back coats from guests—a huge, furry, blanket-like garment that belongs to Tommy Tune and a bubbly plastic design of a coat from Lady Gaga, two among the elite mentioned but whom we never see at the party.
We do meet acerbic Virginia Noyes, given an extremely funny performance by Stockard Channing, who has performed in the play in an effort to make a comeback. With her career on the skids and a history of rehab, she sniffs cocaine, even from her coat when she drops some on it, and when she flashes her legs, there is an ankle bracelet signifying her status with the law.
A flamboyant Rupert Grint in the character of Frank Finger broadly satirizes British directors working in the New York theater. F. Murray Abraham turns up as Ira Drew, a critic known for his nastiness and with an agenda of his own. It is unlikely that he would be hanging around througout the night, but as long as he is there, it is yet another occasion for laughs and barbs hurled at critics.
The piece de resistance comes as a lacerating review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, so mean that line after line is funnier that the previous one. Those skewered react accordingly, as tension explodes, guaranteeing further guffaws from the audience, which at times is also targeted, as with Noyes making fun of the senior crowd who can’t hear and are always asking companions, “What did she say?” McNally has cleverly altered the play to include present day targets replacing former ones. When the play originally opened in 1986, Frank Rich was the ruthless Times critic quoted. Now Brantley gets the spotlight.
Director Jack O’Brien doesn’t allow for many lulls, although some relatively quiet moments are necessary for pacing, as well as for leading to further comedy. Broderick is excellent and relatively restrained as the playwright. Mullally is ditsy and uses a high-pitched, squeaky voice with an accent I can’t define. There is an occasionally barking dog out of sight in the bathroom, described as a vicious menace guilty of biting, and there’s a surprise at the end of the show.
Writing about farce only goes so far. You have to be there. But rest assured, when you are, you’ll find plenty to laugh about. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 12, 2014.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME Send This Review to a Friend
I’ve never seen a play before that gets into the head of its protagonist with the effectiveness that we find in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a National Theatre production of the play by Simon Stephens based on the novel by Mark Haddon. The achievement, excitingly directed by Marianne Elliott, is especially impressive because the15-year-old youth in question is autistic, with his brain in perpetual turmoil and his behavior impulsive. One constant is that he can’t stand to be touched and screams when he is.
Christopher Boone is portrayed by Alex Sharp in what is surely an outstanding, award-level performance of the current season. (Taylor Trensch play plays Christopher on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees.) Sharp manages to be very likable so that we are deeply sympathetic to him. A magnificent array of highly unusual stagecraft helps us to penetrate Christopher’s certain type of brilliance.
Complementing the engaging acting are complex projections, a box-like black and white set with all sorts of openings when needed, great lighting effects, and a terrific sound design that accentuates Christopher’s inner and outside world. Much applause is due Bunny Christie (scenic and costume design); Paule Constable (lighting design); Finn Ross (video design); Jan Dickinson and For Autograph (sound design); Adrian Sutton (music) and Scott Graham and Steven Hogget for Frantic Assembly (choreography).
The swift movements of the large supporting cast are choreographed to emphasize the turbulence in Christopher’s life. He is brilliant mathematically and with meticulous tasks, but he has trouble caring for himself. Yet he is a determined lad when he sets out to see his mother in London by taking a train on his own. Christopher has been living with his father (Ian Barford), who when his wife left, first told Christopher that his mother (Enid Graham) was in a hospital, then that she was dead. When the lad sees letters from his mother, he is determined to visit her.
The scene in which Christopher struggles to take a train and make the trip is harrowing, and the effects here reach special heights. He travels with a pet white rat, and when the rat escapes onto the tracks in the London underground, Christopher leaps from the platform to search for it and bystanders are frantic as a train approaches. Given his phobia, Christopher doesn’t want to let anyone touch him to pull him up.
The title of the play comes from Christopher’s discovery at the outset that a neighbor’s dog is dead, with a pitchfork protruding from the animal. He is determined to find out who killed that dog. What he learns is deeply upsetting.
Christopher’s world is effectively explored, with cast members playing multiple roles as teachers, policemen, train officials and others in the mix of those he encounters. Francesca Siobhan excels as the boy’s special ed teacher, who sets an early tone by reading from a diary that he has written. By the end of the play, all’s well in the immediate situation, but of course, Christopehr’s autism is still there. A big help is the new puppy his father brings him, a face-liking pet bound to elicit “ahs “from the audience.
One thing I did not like was the ultimate lone curtain call that Sharp takes. He gives a dazzling turn explaining aspects of math in rapid-fire cadence, complete with wall illustrations. The audience may enjoy the bit, but the gambit turns Christopher into a vaudeville act that diminishes the sensitivity of the play we have just seen and creates an air of pandering show biz rather than the fine work that has been so moving. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 9, 2014.
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE Send This Review to a Friend
When the play by Frank Marcus first emerged in the 1960s on stage and in a screen adaptation, it was quite unusual to have a drama about overt lesbian relationships and attention was paid accordingly. Actually, the play is also a spoof of soap operas. TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) has now given it a revival, and even though times have changed it is still an interesting and entertaining piece of work that is a good showcase for the four actresses in the cast.
Caitlin O’Connell plays June Buckridge, known as George because for many years she has starred as Sister George, a good-hearted nurse in a BBC radio serial in England. She lives with Alice “Childie” McNaught (Margot White), whom George subjugates in their lesbian relationship. Alice acts much younger than her age, and as the stage set demonstrates so effectively, dotes on her a vast collection of dolls and toy animals. George can be sadistic and disciplinarian in controlling and taunting her companion.
The crisis begins when Mrs. Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris) of the BBC visits to tell George that
her role is going to be eliminated in an effort to seek a a younger audience. The representative informs her that that she will die in a car crash, and the plot description delivered solemnly by the wonderful, scene-stealing Harris, much to the consternation of George, is hilarious. It turns out that to appease George and her fans, there will be a funeral to commemorate her death.
A friend of George, Madame Xenia, who considers herself a psychic, is given an over-the-top but amusing performance by Dana Smith-Croll.
If my recollection is correct, the much-lauded Beryl Reid, who played George originally, was more strident and flamboyant than O’Connell is here. However, O’Connell’s interpretation is human and realistic. White meets the difficult challenge of playing Alice on her different levels, adult and child-like, and she and O’Connell are well attuned to the mood of this staging, as directed by Drew Barr.
The actions by Mrs. Croft of the BBC turn out to be more than just that of a messenger. She is attracted to Alice and subtly moves to steal her away from George. I have to say another word about Harris. She is brilliant in the delineation of this character, both in furthering the satire of soap operas, and even more so in the delicate way in which she indicates her lesbian feelings as she delicately seduces Alice.
The overall effectiveness of the production makes for a valuable look back at the way in with the author creatively approached a theme that cried out for attention at the time. As for the satirical skewering of soap opera, that transcends time, as similar series treatments persist in various guises on television. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 9, 2014.