While we were in New York City this week, PJ and I saw four plays: Mouth to Mouth, off-Broadway, and three Broadway shows, In the Heights, The Seagull, and Gypsy. These four plays were all at least as good as the plays we saw last year, which was a little surprising since we hadn’t really planned on seeing two of them.

We arrived in NYC a couple of hours later than we had planned — airport delays — on Monday. So, we rushed to check in and then walked over to the TKTS booth to see what we could find to see. Unlike past years, we decided this time to only buy tickets at the discount booth, which obviously meant that we didn’t necessarily have control over what we saw. Furthermore, Mondays are mostly dark, which means that few shows are actually playing.

We had looked on the Internet before arriving in NYC to see what was playing on Monday. One of the shows we thought might be interesting was Kevin Elyot’s Mouth to Mouth. We also liked that this play was being performed at the Acorn Theater. Last year we saw Things We Want at the Acorn, and the year before that we saw The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie there. So, it’s now a bit of a tradition for us to see a play at the Acorn each time we’re in New York.

Mouth to Mouth is about a man who’s HIV positive, Frank, played by David Cale, who is racked with guilt over a secret he’s keeping from his best friend, Laura, played by Lisa Emery. Over the course of the play we go back and forth between the present and the previous year as we learn what Frank’s secret is and how it affects him and the people around him.

One of these people is Laura’s son, Philip, played by Christopher Abbott. Philip makes quite an entrance: he arrives onstage wearing only jeans. While the part calls for Abbott to be sexy and alluring, he manages to bring more than just a great body to the role. Philip is a complicated character, one that remains elusive since the play is more or less told from Frank’s point of view.

This elusive quality is one of the complaints I have about the play. I think it would work better and be far more engaging if we knew more about Philips’ motivations, behaviors, and point of view. Elyot is trying to explore very complicated ground in this work — I don’t want to summarize it too fully since that would lessen the play’s impact for anyone who might see it — but this ground could be even more complex and interesting.

Overall, I liked the play and admired the effort to explore issues of HIV, friendship, sexuality, and age. I especially liked the set design. The sets and set changes were rather involved; I liked the way the production handled them. In part, this included a long white curtain that flowed from left to right (or right to left) as the sets were moved. It seems strange to say it, but this curtain was actually a very playful and even cheeky way of augmenting the set changes. I really liked it.

It turned out that it was even more difficult to choose a play for Tuesday night, since the computer system was down, limiting the choices to just a handful. (We were told we could have come back later when the system might be back up, but we decided to get in line and just get something.)

We ended up getting tickets to In the Heights, which won the Tony for Best Musical earlier this year. We also have a bit of a tradition of seeing the previous Best Musical winner, so we went for it. We were pleasantly surprised. I really liked this show.

In the Heights is about a Hispanic community in Washington Heights. The show was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in it and wrote the music and lyrics. Miranda plays Usnavi, who owns the grocery store on the corner of the block. He’s in love with Vanessa, who just wants to get out of the barrio. Meanwhile, Nina, played by Mandy Gonzalez, has left Stanford because she can;t afford to pay for her education and study at the same time. Her family is having financial trouble. And finally, Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz, wins the $96,000 lottery. The musical’s action revolves around figuring out all three financial issues.

In many ways, this is a rather conventional musical — lots of rousing musical numbers, love stories, and inter-generational conflict. The difference is just that this one has a Latin spin. The music is great and all of the performers are excellent.

I especially liked one of the chorus members, Javier Munoz. Our seats were on the second row, and Munoz was often dancing or acting right in front of us, giving us — or me, at least — an inflated sense of his role in the musical. Hopefully, we’ll get the chance to see him in a show again sometime.

On Wednesday, we saw The Seagull starring Kristin Scott Thomas. We saw a production of this Chekhov play in London a couple of years ago; we also saw a production at the Clarence Brown Theater in Knoxville. And PJ and I have each taught the play. So, it’s a work we’re familiar with.

Plus, we really wanted to see Kristin Scott Thomas, who’s received good notices for her performance. She is really good in the role of Arkadina, a famous Russian actress visiting her summer home over two climactic summers. In particular, she makes this character rather flighty, reshaping her self-centeredness so that it’s both more natural and more terrible. It’s a great role, and she plays it really well.

The play also features Peter Sarsgaard as Trigorin, a famous novelist and Arkadina’s lover. Over the course of the play, he becomes attracted to Nina, played by Carey Mulligan, who wants to become an actress like her idol, Arkadina. Nina is, in turn, loved by Konstantin, Arkadina’s son, played by MacKenzie Crook, who played Gareth in the British version of The Office.

In other words, everyone loves the wrong person, someone who doesn’t really love them back. Classic Chekhov.

We also wanted to see this production because Zoe Kazan is playing Masha. A third tradition in our New York ventures is to see whatever Kazan is playing in. We loved her The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Things We Want. She was great in both of those plays. But I was really disappointed in her performance in this production. Her attempt at an accent seemed to overtake her performance, and she often seemed not to know what she was doing onstage.

Overall, this production was less interesting than the one we saw in London. Kristin Scott Thomas was good, but Juliet Stevenson was great in London.

The last play we saw was Gypsy starring Patti Lupone as Mama Rose. I’ve never been a Patti Lupone queen — until now. She was amazing in this role.

My only previous experience with this show was seeing the movie starring Rosalind Russell. That was a perfectly ok film, but nothing special. Based on that, I didn’t really know what to expect from this production, but it has gotten great reviews and the three leads all won Tonys this year. So, it was at the top of my list for what I wanted to see on this trip.

The first act was a little slow, I thought, but the second act was fabulous. First off, Laura Benanti, who plays Louise, is great. Louise ages from adolescent to adult woman over the course of the play. Bananti’s transformation from girl to woman is great. Her striptease number near the end of the show is really well done too.

But the really amazing part is Patti Lupone’s version of “Rose’s Turn.” She really stops the show with this number. Her vulnerability mixed with her vocal power and bravado is perfect. She clearly deserved her Tony.

YouTube has several clips from the show, including Lupone’s version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”:

This provides a glimpse into what she brings to the role, which seems ideally suited to her strengths as a vocalist and performer. There are a lot of roles I can’t imagine her playing well, but it almost seems as if this one were written for her. I can’t say it enough: she’s amazing.

Overall, it was a great trip. I enjoyed seeing all four productions. I look forward to going back again next year.

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