PJ and I saw three Broadway plays and one off-Broadway play while we were in New York this past week. I’ll briefly review each of them here. On the whole, I’d say that we enjoyed our theatrical experiences, but I was surprised by which one I enjoyed the most and which I enjoyed the least.

While this is my first experience with Broadway and off-Broadway theater, I have seen several excellent productions in London. In 2004, for example, PJ and I saw productions of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Suddenly Last Summer starring the incomparable Diana Rigg, and the Globe Theatre’s production of Measure for Measure, starring Mark Rylance. This past summer we saw Juliet Stephenson in The Seagull at the National Theatre, an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the wonderful musical Billy Elliot, all of which were quite good. (We also saw a laughably bad production of The Merchant of Venice in Oxford this summer, but I think it’s best not to reflect too much on it!) So, I was excited to finally have the chance to compare English theatre with what New York has to offer. Ultimately, I’d have to say that England comes out better in the comparison.

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The Vertical Hour

One of the first things PJ and I did in NYC was see David Hare’s new play, The Vertical Hour, starring Julianne Moore, Bill Nighy, and Andrew Scott. It is currently at the Music Box Theater. Here’s the “official” summary of the play:

Nadia Blye (Julianne Moore) is a young American war correspondent turned academic who now teaches Political Studies at Yale. A brief holiday with her boyfriend in the Welsh borders brings her into contact with a kind of Englishman whose culture and beliefs are a surprise and a challenge, both to her and to her relationship. David Hare’s new play, about the interconnection between our secret motives and our public politics, seeks to illustrate how life has subtly changed for so many people in the West in the new century.

What this summary doesn’t say is that the play is also about the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq, an exploration of the ethics of invading a country in order to “spread democracy” or to end a dictator’s violent oppression of his people.

To be honest, our main reason for seeing this play was to see Julianne Moore in action. PJ loves her in such movies as Shortcuts, Far from Heaven, The Hours and especially Magnolia. Her performance was perfectly fine in this play, but the pairing with Nighy was a little weird. They seemed to be performing in two different plays at the same time: she was in a serious political drama, while he was is a comedy. The only other time I’ve seen Nighy is in the film Love Actually. His acting style in The Vertical Hour is weirdly similar to that in Love Actually. Ultimately, this seems the fault of the director, Sam Mendes. I think he should have curtailed Nighy’s mannerisms a bit and given Moore a bit more direction of what to do when she wasn’t speaking.

Scott, who plays Moore’s boyfriend and Nighy’s son in the play, was really the stand-out performer. Of the three, I thought he was best able to bridge the play’s comedic lines with its serious drama. He seemed the most natural of the actors, by which I mean that he embodied his character more naturally than Moore or Nighy did theirs.

The biggest problem with the play, it seems to me, is its depiction of academia. Like most plays and films, The Vertical Hour‘s take on what professors do seems out of whack. Here, Moore’s character is seen conferring with two students, one in scene 1 and one in scene 5. In both cases, her character is the stereotypical know-it-all who is trying to enlighten her somewhat dim-witted students with “the truth.” To some degree, I suppose one could argue that these students are representative of attitudes of the Bush administration, of its members’ intellectual laziness and ineptitude, versions of George Bush and Condoleeza Rice. And I suppose Hare chose to set these scenes at Yale in part because it is Bush’s alma mater. Even so, Moore’s Nadia Blye doesn’t seem like a fair representation of academia. Maybe a fairer depiction would be less interesting, but maybe someday someone will write a play that seems to actually know something about being a professor.

One last comment about The Vertical Hour and the Music Box Theater: our enjoyment of the play was definitely lessened by circumstances beyond the actors’ and playwright’s control — the theater was hot as hell. By the intermission, Paul was red-faced and sweaty, and several other audience members were equally distracted by the heat. I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed the play more — or at least have more concrete criticisms of it — if the heat hadn’t been so unbearable.

Avenue Q

playbillThe second night we were in New York, we saw Avenue Q, which has always been billed to me as a kind of queer Sesame Street, which is clearly not the way to think of it. This is the only musical we saw, and everyone we know who has seen it agreed that we’d “love it.” It’s a pleasant enough musical — the songs are fun, especially “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” and “For Now.” But its message is really kind of old fashioned and is certainly not particularly queer. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. But I can’t really say that it was as socially relevant as I would have liked. It’s no Billy Elliott, which is now my standard for a great musical.

All of the performers were good. As you probably know, Avenue Q, like Sesame Street, combines human actors and puppets. The night we saw it, the lead was played by an understudy, Jonathan Root, who is totally hot. He was great in both parts he performed — Princeton and Rod — and an excellent singer. My favorite performer in the play was Robert McClure, who performed several parts. He too is really cute (note my standards for excellent performances revolve around how the actors look — just wait until I get to The Little Dog Laughed!). McClure’s juggling of his various roles was a virtuoso performance. Overall, I’d say Avenue Q was enjoyable fluff.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

playbillOn Wednesday night, we saw an off-Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Cynthia Nixon. As with The Vertical Hour, we decided to see this production largely to see its star. PJ and I both love Sex and the City and especially like Nixon as Miranda in it. PJ thought she was fine as Miss Jean Brodie, a Scottish school teacher who wants to put old heads on young shoulders. As she tells “her girls,” “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” By virtue of her attention, they become the “creme de la creme” of the Marcia Blaine School. But I thought Nixon was a little overwhelmed by the role. I was especially put off by her accent, which seemed to dominate the performance rather than just be a part of it. Nixon is definitely likeable and comfortable on stage, but this role didn’t seem to fit her strengths.

Neither of us have seen the 1969 movie version of Muriel Spark’s novel, so all we had to go on in evaluating the play was the performance itself. What impressed me the most were the young actresses playing the Brodie girls, all of whom looked 14 or 16 years old when the actresses were each in fact 18- to 21-years old. They were all excellent performers.

This was probably the weakest of the plays we saw. Everyone involved in the production did the best they could with the material, I’m sure, but the play itself just doesn’t add up to much. I hope I get the chance to see Nixon again sometime in a better play (and one more suited to her talents).

The Little Dog Laughed

playbillAnd finally, on our last night in New York we saw The Little Dog Laughed, a biting satire on how Hollywood’s drive to make money at all costs sucks the soul out of everyone involved in it. Simply put, this play is hilarious. It’s definitely the best one we saw this week. Julie White, perhaps best known for co-starring on Grace Under Fire, stars as a Hollywood agent whose big star, Mitchell, played by Tom Everett Scott, is tottering on the edge of coming out. She buys the rights to the film version of a hot new Broadway play for Mitchell to star in, but the play is too gay for a gay actor to film (no one will believe he’s acting) or for most American audience members to see. So, she’s got to keep him in the closet and/or get the playwright to rewrite it as a heterosexual love story. Complicating her machinations is Alex, a prostitute Mitchell hires and then starts dating. Johnny Galecki, from Roseanne, plays Alex. His life is in turn complicated by his best friend/girlfriend, Ellen, played by Ari Gaynor. The entire cast is great, and the play’s satire breezes by like an old 1940s screwball comedy until its resolution, which is even more caustic and bitter.

The Little Dog Laughed is a great production. White especially stands out. She is the reincarnation of the kind of hard-talking women played by Rosalind Russell and Bette Davis. The rapidity of the dialogue in two of her scenes is particularly funny and well executed. Scott is also good as the movie star, though the limitations of his character also give him less to work with than White or Galecki, who is also great. The two actors have a scene early in the play that involves nudity, but Galecki certainly steals the scene at that point. All I’ll say is, “Wow!”

The Little Dog Laughed is the best of the plays we saw. At times, I could not stop laughing, and the ending really hit me. Its bitterness and cynicism, especially in contrast to the earlier laughs, really got to me. In fact, I found its ending to be the most depressing of the plays we saw. It’s truly brilliant.

While these plays didn’t quite stand up to the ones I’ve seen in London, I can’t wait to go back and visit the New York theater scene again soon!

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