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June 12, 2009

TT: Listening to Lincoln

I spent last weekend in New York seeing two shows, the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Norman Corwin's The Rivalry and Playwrights Horizons' New York premiere of Theresa Rebeck's Our House, and I report on them in today's Wall Street Journal drama column. Here's an excerpt.

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19191a.jpgMost educated people have heard of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but how many know anything about them beyond the fact that they were about slavery? Even if you're not in need of a refresher course, I suggest you pay a visit to the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of "The Rivalry," Norman Corwin's 1959 play about seven debates that changed a nation's course. Yes, it's a history lesson, but a painless one that, unlike most latter-day docudramas, sticks surprisingly close to the truth.

Mr. Corwin, who turned 99 last month, is a near-forgotten giant of golden-age radio, the author of "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas" and the man on whom CBS called in 1945 when it wanted to commission a play to celebrate V-E Day. After TV put an end to radio drama, Mr. Corwin turned to other pursuits, writing the screenplay for "Lust for Life," Vincente Minnelli's marvelous 1956 biopic about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Three years later he took a shot at the legitimate stage with "The Rivalry," which ran for only 81 performances on Broadway but has since had a vigorous afterlife in regional theaters around the country....

So why not just stay home and read the transcripts? Because, among other things, you'll be depriving yourself of the chance to see Christian Kauffmann impersonate Lincoln. Not only does he bear a close physical resemblance to the man he plays, but his homespun, humorous acting is utterly plausible. Unlike the secular saint portrayed by Henry Fonda in John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln," Mr. Kauffmann's Lincoln is recognizably human, and even when he's flinging great shafts of rhetoric across the platform, he still seems like a small-town lawyer who has been ennobled by fate....

Theresa Rebeck's latest play is yet another toothless satire about the mindlessness of pop culture. "Our House" invites us to sneer at the nefarious activities of a network TV executive (Christopher Evan Welch) who decides to boost the sagging ratings of one of his news programs by ordering its sexy anchorwoman (Morena Baccarin) to cover reality TV as if it were real news. What follows is a minor miracle of mediocrity, a play in which no one says or does anything unpredictable...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted June 12, 2009 12:00 AM

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