TT: Historical hijinks

It’s another off-Broadway week for this Friday’s Wall Street Journal drama column, in which I review Verse Theater Manhattan’s The Germans in Paris and Second Stage’s The Scene:

The success of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” continues to bemuse me. How could a trilogy of plays about a group of 19th-century Russian intellectuals have become the talk of the town? If such miracles are possible, then perhaps “The Germans in Paris,” Jonathan Leaf’s thought-provoking comedy about the private lives of Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Richard Wagner, will become the sleeper hit of the Off-Off Broadway season. I wouldn’t bet on it, but stranger things have happened.

Mr. Leaf first came to my notice with “The Caterers,” a flawed but promising play about Islamic terrorism. “The Germans in Paris,” which is being revived by Verse Theater Manhattan after a brief run two years ago at 59E59 Theatres, is a very different piece of work, a historical extravaganza spun out of a real-life coincidence: Heine, Marx and Wagner all spent time in Paris, where they became swept up in the same revolutionary crosscurrents described in “The Coast of Utopia.” So far as I know, Marx and Wagner never met, but they could have, and Heine knew both men well. Upon this “Travesties”-like foundation of fact, Mr. Leaf has erected an elaborate superstructure of speculation whose premise suggests a joke told by an egghead: Did you hear the one about the poet, the philosopher and the composer?

Mr. Leaf has woven his web of fact and fiction with enviable skill, and the result is a sharp-witted comedy of manners that modulates neatly into high seriousness….

According to theatrical legend, anybody can write a good first act. I can’t, but I’ve definitely seen a lot of plays that were good until intermission and bad afterward. “The Water’s Edge,” Theresa Rebeck’s last play, was like that, and so is “The Scene,” a black comedy about an out-of-work actor of a certain age (Tony Shalhoub) who trashes his marriage to an ultra-competent TV producer (Patricia Heaton) by sleeping with an amoral young bimbo (Anna Camp). The first act is fast, funny and more than clever enough, and when the lights came back up I was sure I’d be filing a rave, but no sooner did the cast return to the stage than the plot ran out of steam….

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