In addition to August: Osage County, PJ and I saw three other plays while we were in NYC this month: Things We Want, The Seafarer, and Spring Awakening. Here is a brief review of each play.

Thnigs We Want We saw Things We Want on the first evening we were in NY. It’s playing at the Acorn Theater, part of The New Group, an Off-Broadway company. The play was written by Jonathan Marc Sherman, was directed by Ethan Hawke, and stars Peter Dinklage, Paul Dano, and Josh Hamilton.

The play is about three brothers. Dano plays the youngest brother, Charles, who has quit college and returned home after breaking up with his girlfriend. His older brothers still live in their parents’ apartment. Hamilton plays the oldest, Teddy, who works for a self-help guru. Dinklage plays Sty, an alcoholic. With Teddy gone on a business trip, Sty decides to set Charles up with a neighbor, Stella, played by Zoe Kazan. The first act introduces us to these four characters; act 2 picks up exactly one year later, showing us what’s become of them. Not to give too much away, but just about everyone’s fortune has changed over the course of the year. Thus, the play examines these brothers’ relationship as the dynamics of who is happy and who isn’t changes.

We soon learn that their parents’ each committed suicide by jumping out of one of the apartment’s windows. This window becomes a focal point of the play, as each brother at one point or another contemplates jumping out himself or the consequences of their parents’ deaths. Ultimately, the play forces its character to decide whether life is in fact worth living.

Another motif in the work is the guru’s system of prime numbers: 7-5-3-1, which stands for the 7 chakras, the 5 sense, the 3 words that sum up the 1 thing you most desire in life. Each character is faced with figuring out what that one thing is (even if the guru’s system turns out to be bogus).

Overall, I enjoyed the play. It was especially great to see three actors that I had seen on TV and in film. Dano is clearly an up and coming talent, and Hamilton is good as well. I found Dinklage’s acting really irritating in the first act, but he calmed down in the second. The real star of the show, however, is Kazan. We saw her last year in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was great in that and is excellent in this play as well. I guess we’ll have to try to see her next time we’re in NYC too!

Spring AwakeningOn Tuesday night we saw Spring Awakening, the 2007 Tony Winner for Best Musical. It stars Jonathan Groff as Melchior, a nineteenth-century German student who, like his classmates, is beginning to feel the sexual urges of adolescence. While Melchior is a good student, Moritz, played by John Gallagher, Jr., who won the featured actor Tony, is a fuck-up who’s being threatened with failing out of school. Melchior volunteers to explain the facts of life to Moritz — in graphic detail in the form of an illustrated pamphlet.

While Moritz deals with potentially getting kicked out of school, Melchior is falling in love with Wendla, played by Lea Michele. When the two of them consummate their love and Moritz flunks out, it sets off a series of tragic events that pits their parents’ puritanism against the children’s spring awakening.

The music for this show is by Duncan Sheik, and the idea behind it is that the musical numbers are the children’s inner monologues. The fusion of (an adapted form of) the original nineteenth-century play by Frank Wedekind and contemporary music/lyrics by Steven Sater and Sheik is kind of awkward at first, but ultimately I thought this was a successful musical. I especially like that it has a minor gay subplot — two of the boys in the school are interested in each other. I also thought it was particularly interesting that the straight characters all end the play tragically, but the “gay” characters don’t.

While the choreography, music, lighting, design, acting, etc. were all good, our enjoyment of the play was slightly hindered by two other factors. First, PJ was sitting behind some teenager with an abnormally huge head. I mean it was monstrous. It completely occluded PJ’s view of much of the stage for the first act (we moved during the intermission). I could feel his frustration at not being able to see, and it started to affect my enjoyment too. Second, Groff spits a lot when he sings. And by “spits a lot” I mean that at least the first two rows must have needed raincoats during the performance. He has a great voice — it’s especially good on the soundtrack, which PJ subsequently bought — but the spitting is very distracting. I became a little obsessed with trying to see whether the other actors winced whenever he was singing to them as a result of all the spray. Despite these factors, we liked the musical and would definitely see it again if we lived in NY. In fact, Gallagher has now left the production — we saw one of his last performances — and it would be interesting to see how his replacement interpreted the role. He’s so great in it that it’s difficult to imagine someone else playing Moritz. (He too has a great voice, btw.)

The SeafarerAnd finally, on Wednesday night was saw The Seafarer by Conor McPherson. It’s about an Irishman, “Sharky,” played by David Morse, who returns home to help his older brother, who has become blind as the result of an illness. The older brother, Richard, played by Jim Norton, is also an alcoholic and spends most of the play drinking with his friend, Ivan, played by Conleth Hill.

The plays takes place on Christmas Eve. The first act sets the situation. When Act 2 begins, the brothers and Ivan have gone shopping for food and spirits for Christmas. While they were out they met up with Sharky’s ex’s current boyfriend, Nicky, played by Sean Mahon. He returns to their house with them to play cards and brings an acquaintance with him, Mr. Lockhart, played by Ciaran Hinds. Lockhart turns out to be the eponymous seafarer, a pseudonym for the devil. He’s come to collect Sharky’s soul, but he gives Sharky a fighting chance: if Lockhart wins the game of poker, Sharky will come with him to hell; if not, Sharky gets to keep living. Let’s just say that the odds are stacked against Sharky.

This play is also getting a lot of buzz, in part due to the cast. Morse is great in this role. He’s completely believable as an Irishman, and he imbues his character with the right amount of pathos and despair. Norton is brilliantly funny. His character’s alcohol-fueled rants are comic gems. And Hill is also great in his role as sidekick. Though I had high expectations for Hinds, who starred in my favorite film of a Jane Austen book, Persuasion, and the terrific HBO series Rome, the part of the devil surprisingly doesn’t give an actor much to do. If I ever teach my special topics class on the devil in literature, I’ll definitely consider including this text since it does ultimately manage to make the devil a figure of pathos, the only character in the play without the possibility of love.

So, I’d have to say that our four days of New York theater were very successful and entertaining. We wish we had had time to see Yellowface, the new play by David Henry Hwang. We heard an NPR story about it on the way to the airport. But we didn’t. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a little while before we go back to NY. This was a good trip, however, and we made some memories and had a great time. (Is that too Hallmark?)

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