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April 13, 2012

TT: Life studies

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review three plays that are all based on real-life characters, Side Man, 4000 Miles, and Magic/Bird. Here's an excerpt.

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Warren Leight is best known in his latter-day capacity as showrunner for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," but theater buffs also know him as the author of "Side Man," a 1998 play about a young man's attempts to come to grips with the irremediable incompatibility of his trumpet-playing father and alcoholic mother ("The rocks in her head fit the holes in his"). Though it won a best-play Tony in 1999, "Side Man" doesn't get produced nearly as often as it should, nor is its exceptional quality sufficiently recognized. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful "memory plays" of the 20th century, a little masterpiece fully worthy of comparison to Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" and Lanford Wilson's "Lemon Sky," and 1st Stage, a four-year-old theater company located in a suburban strip mall not far from Washington, D.C., has given it a revival that is no less deserving of comparison to the original New York production.

sideman3.jpgFor those lucky enough to have seen Edie Falco and Frank Wood in "Side Man" 14 years ago, those will be fighting words, but Lee Miseska Gardner's perormance as "Crazy Terry" Glimmer, who has been driven to drink by the bland, oblivious indifference of her husband Gene (Chris Mancusi), a jazzman who only comes to life on the bandstand, is snarlingly true to life. Mr. Mancusi is with her every step of the way....

"4000 Miles," in which Amy Herzog portrays the awkwardly loving relationship between a 91-year-old Communist (Mary Louise Wilson) and her neo-hippie grandson (Gabriel Ebert) who thinks that "Marx is cool," is the best new play by a young writer to come my way since Brooke Berman's "Hunting and Gathering." Part of its excellence arises from the seemingly paradoxical fact that Ms. Herzog has had the good sense not to make "4000 Miles" a political drama (though she takes care not to let the unrepentant grandmother off too lightly). It is, instead, a finely wrought, closely observed character study, funny and serious in just the right proportions. Everyone in the play is believable, and everything they say to one another sounds as real as an overheard conversation.

Not only does Ms. Herzog never put a foot wrong, but Lincoln Center Theater has given "4000 Miles" a production so strong that I can't see how it could possibly be improved....

Eric Simonson, who brought football to Broadway last season with "Lombardi," has gone back to the well of big-league sports with "Magic/Bird," a basketball-themed play about the friendly rivalry between Earvin "Magic" Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers (played by Kevin Daniels) and Larry Bird (Tug Coker) of the Boston Celtics. Unlike "Lombardi," a well-crafted family drama that was strong enough to hold the interest of playgoers who knew nothing about Vince Lombardi, "Magic/Bird" is a loosely knit string of evasively one-dimensional vignettes (one might well conclude after watching the play that Mr. Johnson picked up the HIV virus from a toilet seat)....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 13, 2012 12:00 AM

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