By William Wolf
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2016) Send This Review to a Friend
The big news of this production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” by the Roundabout Theatre Company is the triumph of Jessica Lange in the role of Mary Cavan Tyrone. Back when she starred on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the problem was that the excellent screen actress had trouble projecting for the stage. But she wowed London in 2000 with her Tryone role, and now she is wowing Broadway with a performance that is totally geared for theater and a season highlight.
Lange poignantly captures the many nuances of Mary’s sad, troubled life—her descent into drug addiction; her disappointment in her marriage to James Tryone, falling in love with him when he was a matinee idol but seeing their marriage disintegrate into a vacuous life for her as he turned into a boring, miserly skinflint; her attempt to live with illusions rather than reality; the pain of refusing to face the illness of her son Edmund; the feeling that she is being constantly watched and her climactic recapturing in memory the days of her youth, beauty and aspirations, hauntingly expressed in the sensitive speech O’Neill has given Mary. Lange rips us apart emotionally in what is surely the finest work by an actress this season.
The production as a whole, under the direction of Jonathan Kent, with the action taking place in 1912 in the bleak Tyrone summer home designed by Tom Pye, is compelling in various ways. There are excellent performances by Michael Shannon as the bitter, jealous and disillusioned son, James Tyron, Jr., and John Gallagher, Jr. as the younger, ill Edmund, who longs to be a writer, as did O’Neill. Colby Minfie is refreshingly good as Catherine, the feisty Irish maid.
As for Gabriel Byrne as James Tyrone, husband and father, he is strong in a mostly one-note fashion. His stinginess has taken a toll on Edmund by his father not sending him to a doctor better than the local but cheaper one, and the decision to send Edmund to a state facility for treatment instead of a superior one that would cost more. Byrne expresses Tyrone’s exasperation with his sons, especially James, and there are powerful scenes with flashes of anger at them, yet also moments of attempted compassion, as is the case with his attempt to be compassionate with Mary, but finding it impossible to deal with her addiction. Byrne gets this portrait of Tyrone right.
What’s missing in Byrne’s performance is any indication that he could have once been the matinee idol that captivated Mary and the theater-going public. Laurence Olivier achieved that it a production I saw in London. You could envision him as an actor in the past. None of that is conveyed by Byrne. But Byrne is forceful as the man Tyrone has become.
Shortcomings aside, this production provides engrossing theater, and most of all, offers the pleasure of seeing Jessica Lange rise to the challenge and give us a memorable Mary Tyrone. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed May 1, 2016.
WAITRESS Send This Review to a Friend
Vibrant performances compensate for the far-fetched storyline in “Waitress,” a musical based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly. The top attraction is, of course, Jessie Mueller (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”), who gives a performance that is amusing and heartfelt, with the second quality expressed primarily through her singing, especially when she unleashes her climactic “She Used to be Mine.” The show, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, also gets a hefty lift from supporting performers.
The musical’s book is another matter, as its author Jessie Nelson piles on the outrageous situations. Mueller, playing the abused wife Jenna, who works as a waitress and thrives on baking incredibly tasty pies, falls in love with her gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter, played by Drew Gehling, who, like her, is married. No, he doesn’t examine Jenna in view of the audience. But they do make love on the examination table, and at one point with her legs spread wide apart, he eats pie where he should be inspecting her. You get the suggestion.
Of course, the doc could have his license stripped away for sex with a patient, and a nurse has caught them in the act. She frowns, but that’s about it. As it happens, I’m not a stickler for credibility when it comes to musicals that are basically geared to be entertaining. It certainly is amusing to see Jena and the smitten doctor violating protocol despite the lack of ethics.
There is also a show-stopping number by Christopher Fitzgerald as Ogie, prancing about and singing “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” summarizing his instant infatuation with waitress Dawn, portrayed by a partner in show-stealing crime, Kimiko Glenn, who displays a real gift for nailing the kooky but nice-gal spirit of her character.
Another waitress, Becky, portrayed by Keala Settle, is often amusing but also seriously dynamic when she lets go with her big song “I Didn’t Plan it.” I felt that hit the emotional high of the show, churning up more feeling for her than for the leading lady, as good as Mueller is.
Nick Cordero is appropriate nasty as Earl, the husband from whom Jenna must escape. Eric Anderson is enjoyable as the testy diner owner, who gets the hots for Becky, and Dakin Matthews has a warm supporting role as the elderly Joe, who regularly eats at the diner, dispenses advice and gets the spotlight with a special song, “Take It From an Old Man.”
Scott Pask has designed a large, impressive diner that can contain racks of Jena’s delicious pies, as well as accommodate the band at the side of the stage. It is a bright-looking production, which director Diane Paulus is able to keep moving nicely, except when she grapples with the serious dramatic plot sections.
I haven’t yet mentioned that Jenna gets pregnant. Guess who delivers the baby?
I couldn’t leave the show without feeling sad about the fate of the lovely Adrienne Shelly on whose film the musical was based. She came to speak at a film class of mine in connection with an earlier film and was charming and fascinating, as well as obviously talented. She was subsequently murdered, both a horrible personal tragedy as well as a loss for the arts.
At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed April 28, 2016.
TUCK EVERLASTING--THE MUSICAL Send This Review to a Friend
Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel “Tuck Everlasting” has been turned into a charming musical that should appeal to family audiences. The fantasy story of everlasting life and appreciation of what can be enjoyed in the normal life cycle is told with panache and winsome acting, abetted by the imaginative woodsy set design by Walter Spangler. One can sit back and give oneself over to the good vibes from the pleasant book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federe, the music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Casey Nicholaw has directed and choreographed the mix with a tone that is easygoing and inviting.
The premise at the core of the story is that drinking from a magic spring will give everlasting life. Examples of this can be found in the Tuck family, which attempts to guard its secret. Carolee Carmello is outstanding as Mae Tuck, Michael Park is solid as the father, Angus, and their two sons are played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Jessie, who is 17 but, thanks to the magic drink, is really 102, and Robert Lenzi as his brother Miles.
Into their lives arrives Winnie Foster, an 11-year-old girl played and sung with show-stealing charm by Sarah Charles Lewis. Before that, we see how she longs to escape from her home, where her mother (Valerie Wright), still grieving over the death of her husband, keeps a tight rein on Winnie, even denying her the chance to go to the circus. Her only excitement is the frog that has become her pet.
Once Winnie is with the Tucks, kidnapped in fear of what she has learned and could tell about the spring, the romantic aspect takes old. Jessie falls for Winnie and wants to wait until she is 17 and then let her drink the water so they can marry into everlasting happiness. Meanwhile, Winnie’s mom is desperate to find her.
Every show like this must have a villain, and he is The Man in the Yellow Suit, played with evil glee by Terrence Mann, who wants to find the life-giving spring and make money from it. He is in hot pursuit of Winnie. Also looking for her on behalf of her mother is Fred Applegate as Constable Joe, with his sidekick Hugo (Michael Wartella). Applegate is quite entertaining and looks as if he could do a good job playing W. C. Fields.
When Winnie is finally given a bottle full of the coveted water by Jesse, she passes up the everlasting life opportunity and gives in to her frog. It doesn’t take any genius in anticipating plot turns to know that the frog will be sure to turn up alive years from then.
The circus scene depicted is colorful and the choreography by Nicholaw is spirited. Note that unlike some shows in which the women dancers tend to be sexy looking long-stemmed beauties, the attractive dancers here are of modest height and mostly with movements that fit into the family-oriented atmosphere.
The major choreographic coup comes after Winnie opts for her normal home environment, and we see the life cycle depicted beautifully as Winnie has a son, ages, becomes a grandmother etc., as we watch the generational flow through dance. This is a show in which, for one family, life goes on and on, and for the other, time passes as usual. And the time you pass in the theater can be quite enjoyable. At the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 1, 2016.
FULLY COMMITTED Send This Review to a Friend
When Jesse Tyler Ferguson comes on stage in the revival of Becky Mode’s play “Fully Committed,” he already has the audience committed to him as a result of his television stardom even before he launches into his solo performance. Ferguson plays Sam, an aspiring actor who works in the basement of a top restaurant taking phone reservations while hoping for an audition that can get him ahead in his chosen profession. The gimmick is that he portrays all the voices involved in the course of his stint. The play, originally done off Broadway with the original star, Mark Setlock, who riffed on his own experience to join with Mode in creating the characters, is now getting a full Broadway outing with an elaborate set designed by Derek McLane.
The restaurant is one of those where it is tough to get a coveted reservation, tables being fully committed night after night, leading to cajoling, maneuvering and manipulating. I don’t know how many of those eateries exist in New York today, but let’s take the problem on face value. Ferguson’s Sam is a master of juggling phones and people. Ferguson has a gift for all kinds of voices, and at times, directed by Jason Moore, he adds doses of body movement comedy to the challenge.
Without meaning to denigrate Ferguson, the problem is that after a while, the idea gets to be same-old, same-old and one can get restless. The 90-minute play could use about 20 minutes trimmed away. Yes, Ferguson consistently shows off his talent, and we can get caught up in his goal, but after all this is only a restaurant.
In the realm of solo shows, I recall “Application Pending,” in which the ultra-talented actress and singer Christina Bianco was perpetually on the phone handling all the voices as she dealt with anxious parents trying to get their kids into a coveted school. She was fabulous. Even that play could use some cutting, but it is a lot more meaningful dealing with children’s education and the competition involved for admissions than getting a restaurant reservation.
But let’s not take anything away from Ferguson, who turns in a frenetic, colorful and appealing performance as the man of multiple voices, some 40 of them! At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 28, 2016.
IN THE SECRET SEA Send This Review to a Friend
It takes a while to find what Cate Ryan’s new play “In the Secret Sea” has on its mind, but once the big problem is revealed, the drama hits hard in a contemporary way and on different levels. I can’t really discuss what the problem is, for that would remove the suspense of a big chunk of the plot.
This is a drama of relationships and how to cope with a challenge that a young husband and wife face and that has also jolted their respective parents. The setting is Easter Sunday of 2016 and the set by Beowulf Boritt and Alexis Distler is a home in an upscale Connecticut suburb where Joyce and Gil Osborn live. They have just returned from church and await the arrival of their son, his wife and her parents.
Gil (Paul Carlin) gripes about church and says he is moving toward becoming an atheist, and chides Joyce (Glynnis O’Connor) for sucking up to the clergyman. It soon becomes clear that they are in a marriage in which they get along on a surface level, but there are deep fissures. Gil resents that his wife doesn’t want to sleep in the same bed with him and says he misses closeness. She sees it only in terms of his wanting more sex. Joyce has no love for their daughter-in-law or her mother and resents getting stuck with hosting the holiday dinner, even though everything is pre-ordered. Tempers and accusations flare.
Tension mounts further as their son, Kenny (Adam Petherbridge), whose wife is pregnant, arrives very sullen and obviously unhappy. He wants to talk with his father alone, which his mother resents. She leaves the room, but not for long. They both pepper him with questions about what’s troubling him. Instead of waiting for an answer, they each start playing guessing games, stupidly not giving him a chance to speak. The playwright lets this go on for much too long, and I wanted to yell, “Spit it out already.”
When the parents do learn what’s plunged him into a funk, each has a completely different view and hostility between Gil and Joyce explodes in front of Kenny, which is the last thing he needs. When Jack (Malachy Cleary) and Audrey (Shelly Burch), the in-laws, arrive, at first all pretend not to know anything about the problem Kenny and his wife are having. We assume differently, and it doesn’t take long for all to tear into the open.
When Kenny leaves to pick up his wife, whom we never meet, the play becomes one of the parental couples clashing with ideas about what’s right and wrong, who’s right and who’s wrong, and as if that were not enough, something in the past that Joyce confesses about her life leaves her husband flummoxed, but generates understanding from Audrey as another woman. There is much argument about who has the right to make certain decisions.
Audience members may have their own thoughts about the main issue at hand, and in that sense the drama succeeds. The play ends on a future note that leaves Kenny, with a rather forced set of lines, to inform us about what ultimately has happened.
The cast members are all excellent, and Martin Charnin has directed in a manner that keeps the dialogue crackling, even when the drama begins to resemble soap opera or typical problem plays. A lot of human conflict is covered in the absorbing, intermission-less 80 minutes. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed April 25, 2016.
AMERICAN PSYCHO--THE MUSICAL Send This Review to a Friend
How could one turn “American Psycho,” based on the controversial novel by Brett Easton Ellis, into a Broadway musical? It previously was turned into a film (see my review under Search), but given the bloody slaughters depicted and the serial killer insanity involved, a musical?
Whatever one thinks of Ellis’s basic material, Duncan Sheik, provider of the music and lyrics, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who has written the book for the show, have correctly nailed the mood and the bloody ambiance, as have director Robert Goold and, especially importantly, choreographer Lynne Page.
But what would any production be without the right actor to play the maniacal Patrick Bateman? Nobody could be more right than Benjamin Walker, who is to be remembered for his title role in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” When Walker first appears with his upper torso unadorned, he is a physical knockout. What toned muscles! He is surely magnificently tempting to gay men and adoring women.
Bateman quickly becomes a symbol of what Ellis was satirizing, the dedication of Wall Street types and vacuous men and women in general trying to impress their peers with name-brand possessions and look-at-me-me-me fashions. Among the funniest numbers are “Cards,” in which one-upmanship through the design of business cards is spoofed, and “You Are What You Wear.” There are amusing references to symbols and personalities of the time.
Importantly, the tone of the show is set early by the choreography, best described as aggressively sexy. The dancers stomp away in movements that suggest the inherent evil in the story, just as Walker does when his very gaze reflects the murderous impulses in Bateman’s warped mind. Virtually all of the musical and the supporting performances are kept in tune with the basic satirical depravity.
With a gruesome murder depicted at the end of the first act, there is so much fake blood splashed at the transparent scrim that it takes a crew to spend the intermission cleaning up the mess. And there’s more depicted slaughter to come.
Those who have read the book or seen the film, will, of course know that a question is raised whether all of this is real or in the head of Bateman. Whether real or imagined, the importance is the linking between the killing of men and women, and the various murder tools employed, to the overall theme of what constitutes success in Ellis’s take on the 1980s. The connection is a far-fetched one, and what made the book controversial was that many were merely repelled by the violence without getting the humor or the point. But while the musical doesn’t solve the problem of the over-reaching tie of violence to the one-upmanship, there is too much macabre fun for anything to be talen seriously.
Walker’s performance is a wicked delight, as he goes through all of Bateman’s scheming and actions. Helene Yorke is bizarrely amusing as the woman whom Bateman is supposed to marry. Jennifer Damiano is quite charming as Bateman’s secretary, who falls for him. Alice Ripley turns up in three roles. Theo Stockman, Drew Moerlein and Morgan Weed also contribute importantly.
Costume designer Katrina Lindsay has given both the dancers and the actors the distinctive look meant to characterize the period, and scenic designer Es Devlin delivers the sleek, cold look required. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, lighting designer Justin Townsend and video designer Finn Ross contribute to the mayhem. The production overall is a slick mounting that succeeds in rendering Ellis’s vision. Whether you are smitten or resistant, this staging is what it should be to capture the work that inspired it. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 22, 2016.
THE FATHER Send This Review to a Friend
Frank Langella is giving the outstanding male performance of the season in “The Father,” Florian Zeller’s play presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club by special arrangement with Theatre Royal Bath Productions. His acting is a marvel to behold, as we see André, the character he plays, mentally disintegrate step by step as we watch the tragic story of his descent into dementia. As sad as the drama is, Langella at times provides a humorous twinkle in his complex performance, and one can constantly be thrilled at the overall portrait that he communicates.
This is not Langella’s triumph alone. The French playwright has written an astute, super-sensitive drama, translated by Christopher Hampton with the kind of clarity one would expect if it had been originally written in English. Doug Hughes has directed most creatively. The staging helps get into André‘s confused mindset, with major contributions toward this by lighting designer Donald Holder and set designer Scott Pask. “The Father” also features an excellent supporting cast.
One can say that technically the play is set in Paris, but the real location is in the deteriorating mind of the protagonist. From the audience’s perspective, we see Kathryn Erbe as his daughter Anne struggling to cope with her father’s illness. We see the women helpers brought in to nurse him. There are scenes between Anne and her boyfriend Pierre (Brian Avers). Cast members include Charles Borland, Kathleen McNenny and Hannah Cabell.
The action keeps shifting in time, accented by flashes of lights embracing the proscenium. (Although very effective, the flashes come a bit too often). Dramatically, André becomes increasingly confused as to where he is. Furnishings are adjusted to reveal his state of mind, as is his interplay with characters and events, real and imagined by him.
There are moments of levity, as when he tells an aide that he used to be a tap dancer and gives an amusing example, much to the surprise of Anne. But he also has burst of anger and frustration aimed at his daughter and the helpers she tries hard to retain. There is the inevitable talk about putting him in a home. Always underlying is his fear of abandonment and the puzzlement that comes from knowing things are seriously amiss and he is losing mental control, all brilliantly registered by Langella.
Throughout Langella communicates emotions with impulsive gestures, piercing looks, a roll of the eyes, expert line delivery and at moments an appearance of sheer bewilderment. By the time we get to the ultimate situation in a rest home, André wonders what the hospital bed is doing in his living room, and his breakdown is unbearably poignant. We have come fully from the early days of his dementia to the point where he tearfully pleads for his mother and the nurse on duty cradles him in her arms in a memorable tableau.
Langella in effect is providing a master class in acting, a peak moment in his already illustrious career. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-399-3050. Reviewed April 17, 2016.
NATHAN THE WISE Send This Review to a Friend
I suppose one should not be too surprised to see a play by an 18th century author having relevance to the present. Still, it is quite amazing how “Nathan the Wise,” written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German philosopher, critic and playwright, deals so incisively with competing religions in terms of the need for peaceful accommodation. With a translation by Edward Kemp, the play, set in 1192 Jerusalem, is being given an astute production by the Classic Stage Company.
Through an intricate group of relationships, the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths come to the fore. Under the direction of Brian Kulick, projections on the wall start with a display of writing, then switch to a contemporary Jerusalem-looking street. The cast members are seated in a row and, as they come forward to speak, they don costumes covered with writing representing their respective faiths. As a prelude, Muslims kneel on a rug reciting their prayers (either accurately or simulated--I am in no position to verify).
We meet Nathan, the Jew, portrayed by F. Murray Abraham with a skill that becomes ever more apparent as the stakes dramatically mount. It is a canny and eventually moving performance by this impressive actor. Nathan is hiding something that endangers his life, a fact that is ultimately sprung on us.
Nathan has raised a daughter, Rachel (Erin Neufer), looked after by Daya (Caroline Lagerfelt). Rachel nearly died in a fire, but was rescued by a Templar, a knight played by Stark Sands, who wears an outfit marked by a large cross. Not surprisingly, he has fallen for Rachel, as she has for him. But more than the problem of interfaith looms in this situation. We also learn that the Templar, despite being Christian, was spared from execution by order of the powerful Muslim, Saladin (Austin Durant), for a very personal reason.
In one of the play’s more interesting and meaningful confrontations, Saladin poses the question of which faith is the true one. Nathan responds with a parable about a magic ring with the power to make others love the wearer. A father wants to pass on the ring to a son, but since he has three sons, how can he do so without offending the other two? His solution goes to the heart of the three religions under inspection. Abraham spins out the clever parable with logic and elegance.
The play, of course, becomes increasingly complicated. To provide details would be a spoiler, as although one may have suspicions, the enjoyment lies in seeing how neatly all is worked out dramatically. Others in the cast include George Abud, John Christopher Jones and Shiva Kalaiselvan, with Lagerfelt doubling in the role of the Patriarch.
One can become increasingly caught up in the relationships, the story and the issues as the play unfolds, as well enjoy the effectiveness in the writing as per Kemp’s translation. One also cannot help but think about today’s Middle East and the centuries-old conflicts of religion in general. At the Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 212- 677-4210. Reviewed April 14, 2016.
HEAD OF PASSES Send This Review to a Friend
Phylicia Rashad as Shelah, the mother in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Head of Passes,” delivers the longest and most fiery dramatic monologue one is likely to hear in this or any other theater season. A religious believer, she shouts at God, pleads for him to reverse the tragedy that has hit her African-American family, wails, thunders, wallows in self-blame, puts all of her faith on the line and feels helpless in the face of her demanding prayers being unfulfilled. Her mighty speech takes up most of the second act, and Rashad summons her formidable acting skills to show what she can do with the dominating opportunity the author has given her.
How emotionally caught up you will be in her ravings probably depends on how much you have taken to heart all that has led to Rashad’s big moment. The play, presented by the Public Theater in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and directed by Tina Landau, depicts a family living at the Head of Passes, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexcio. G.W. Mercer has designed an attractive home setting, all the better to contrast with the shambles it becomes when a fierce storm rips the place apart. Talk about striking the set.
There is also is an emotional storm brewing as Shelah tries to cope with the various strands of family life, involving employees as well as her sons and a troubled woman whom she has raised as her daughter.
The plot explodes with the force of Greek tragedy, leading up to Rashad’s outstanding and memorable speech. The storm that hits the home becomes symbolic of other destruction. But somehow the play makes us voyeurs without the depth of feeling that should be there for its characters. The storytelling proceeds as required, but it rambles on looking much like other plays about families torn asunder.
The acting is all worthy, with the cast including John Earl Jelks, Kyle Beltran, Arnetia Walker, Francois Battiste, Robert Joy, J. Bernard Calloway and Alana Arenas. To tell more about the plot would be a spoiler. Give strong credit for the look ot the drama, especially, in addition to Mercer’s set design, to lighting designer Jeff Croiter and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. But ultimately this is Rashad’s show. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed April 10, 2016.
THE CRUCIBLE (2016) Send This Review to a Friend
Arthur Miller’s 1953 “The Crucible” is inherently such a powerful play that its strength comes through even when director Ivo van Hove gets his hands on it. Such is the situation with the current revival, which van Hove stamps with his own flashy staging, some of which absurdly runs counter to what the play is about.
As is well known, Miller wrote the play at the time of the Red Scare witch hunts when people were hauled up before committees, pressured to confess to being Communists and/or sympathizers and to name others as a price for their survival. Miller based the play on the 1692 trials and execution of people accused of being witches in the Massachusetts Bay colony, Salem. In Miller’s play, hysterical young girls influenced by one seeking revenge and getting the man she coveted make up wild accusations about being possessed by the devil, and soon hysteria runs rampant.
So what gimmicks does van Hove impose? Early on he shows a scene of levitation. Later when the girls are feigning fits of hysteria, all hell breaks loose scenically, with gusts of wind blowing through the windows, parts of the ceiling falling down and papers blown all over the stage. Really? Doesn’t all of this metaphysical visual pounding suggest that possession by the devil occurs? You can’t chalk it up to dramatization of what the girls are imagining, as they are blatantly indulging in fakery. To compound matters, at moments there are projections on a blackboard showing trees starting to move and birds flying upon the claim of an accuser seeing a bird supposedly in synch with the devil’s handiwork. All of this runs counter to the play’s exposé of false, made-up accusations. But it does provide a chance for scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld and video designer Tal Yarden to help van Hove sensationalize the play.
Also, by setting the drama in modern dress, the characters looking contemporary seem awfully foolish talking about witches. This is a play that cries out to be in its historical setting when such a crazy situation actually existed. There is no need to strain to make any modern connection, as the play speaks for itself as a metaphor for the hysteria that can occur in different eras. When “The Crucible” played on Broadway in 1953, people stood outside the theater passing out leaflets against the impending execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in that time of hysteria.
Yet despite staging that calls more attention to the director than to the play, Miller’s drama cuts across time with its overall portrayal of persons who would rather die than falsely accuse others in the name game, and demonstrates how easily a community can be swept by hysteria generated by those with ulterior motives. There are also excellent parts for actors.
In this case Ben Wishaw gives a stalwart performance as the falsely accused John Proctor, and Sophie Okonedo is outstanding as his wife Elizabeth. Poignancy is reached in the ultimate scene, in which the two, bloody from apparent torture, tenderly support one another in the face of John’s scheduled execution if he doesn’t make a false confession. Saorise Ronan is appropriately rigid and defiant as Abigail Williams, leading the accusations in her effort to get revenge against Proctor for shunning her following their dalliance in hope of getting him for her own by disposing of his wife. But although Ronan does the strident part well, it doesn’t begin to measure up to what she achieved as the star of the film “Brooklyn.” But it does give the play a star-casting lift.
Tavi Gevinson is excellent as the fearful servant Mary Warren, who wants to tell the truth but is browbeaten to go with the pack. Ciarán Hinds make a strong villain as inquisitor and enforcer Deputy Governor Danforth. Jim Norton makes a vivid impression as Giles Corey, who, defiantly and desperately, is trying to save his wife. Others giving good performances include Brenda Wehle as Rebecca Nurse, Jason Butler Harner as Revered Samuel Parris and Bill Camp as Reverend John Hale.
The cast members have to work against the staging. For one thing, while the tale is one of intimate intensity, the playing area representing a schoolhouse is so spread out and with the ceilings so high that the cast must project with extra strength to avoid the more intimate talk getting lost. Also, in the trial scenes, instead of being tightly focused, actors are often scurrying about in heated arguments in a very loose and unlikely manner. Then there is the annoyance of Philip Glass’ needling score which rumbles along softly but is nonetheless distracting.
I have seen various productions of “The Crucible,” and even though this one is the least effective in my theatergoing experience, Miller’s durable work still resonates. Its finely-crafted dialogue and its message come through meaningfully and younger-generation theatergoers who haven’t yet seen the play, as well as others, can be impressed and moved even by this version. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed April 3, 2016.