F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
In today’s Wall Street Journal I review off-Broadway productions of two shows by Alan Ayckbourn. Here’s an excerpt.
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Alan Ayckbourn, England’s comic Chekhov, is also a famously accomplished stage director. In recent seasons 59E59 Theaters’ “Brits Off Broadway” summer festival has been doing theater-loving New Yorkers a signal service by importing Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, which Mr. Ayckbourn ran for 37 years, to perform his stagings of his own plays. This year’s fare includes the U.S. premiere of “Hero’s Welcome,” his 79th play, and the New York premiere of “Confusions,” a 1974 mixed bill of interconnected one-act plays. Both are musts: “Confusions” is funnier than just about anything else to be seen on a New York stage right now, while “Hero’s Welcome” is one of the most poignant dramas that Mr. Ayckbourn has given us.
First performed in 2015, “Hero’s Welcome” is a dark comedy of domestic strife, the story of three married couples who become ensnared in a tight tangle of mixed motives that leads inexorably to violence and despair. Unusually for Mr. Ayckbourn, Murray and Baba (Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins), a returning war hero and his waif-like refugee bride, still have a fair chance at happiness, but the other two couples exemplify in sharply contrasting ways his long-standing conviction that marital life is a state in which, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, much is to be endured—most of it by women—and little enjoyed….
Unlike the impressively substantial “Hero’s Welcome,” “Confusions” is a dessert platter, five sketches about various aspects of middle-class life. One of them, “Gosforth’s Fête,” is a pulverizingly ludicrous miniature farce about a small-town church bazaar that disintegrates into utter chaos when a witless know-it-all (Mr. Dixon) leaves a backstage microphone switched on just in time for the whole town to overhear…but I’d better stop there. Only in the last play, “A Talk in the Park,” a snapshot of five strangers sitting in a park, each of whom wants to do all of the talking and none of the listening, does Mr. Ayckbourn draw explicitly from the well of melancholy that flavors most of his major work. Yet the other four plays, even “Gosforth’s Fête,” are sadder than they look, and though they’re all wonderfully funny, someone pays for every laugh….
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Read the whole thing here.
Alan Ayckbourn talks about his work in the theater in a 2016 interview:
Salvador Dali appears as the celebrity guest on an episode of I’ve Got a Secret, originally telecast by CBS on February 25, 1963. Garry Moore is the host and the panelists are Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, and Bess Myerson:
(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday)
“Genius is unquestionably a great trial, when it takes the romantic form, and genius and romance are so associated in the public mind that many people recognize no other kind. There are other forms of genius, of course, and though they create their own problems, they are not ‘impossible’ people. But O, how deeply we should thank God for these impossible people like Berlioz and Dylan Thomas! What a weary, grey, well-ordered, polite, unendurable hell this would be without them!”
Robertson Davies, “Dylan Thomas and Hector Berlioz”
In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I pay tribute to the late Peter Shaffer. Here’s an excerpt.
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The obituaries for Peter Shaffer, who died the other day at the age of 90 and for whom Broadway is dimming its lights on Thursday, were respectful but not effusive. The respect makes sense, since he wrote, among other things, “Amadeus” and “Equus,” two of the most successful plays of the postwar era. The conspicuous lack of wholehearted enthusiasm, however, also makes sense, since Mr. Shaffer, for all his success, wasn’t anybody’s favorite playwright, nor is his work frequently seen in this country nowadays….
Why has Mr. Shaffer faded from the scene? The main reason is undoubtedly that most of his best-known plays, which were written for England’s state-subsidized theaters, were large-scale works whose big casts (“Amadeus” and “Equus” both require 15 actors) put them out of reach of most American companies. At the same time, though, I get the impression that Mr. Shaffer is regarded by many drama critics as a middlebrow, a purveyor of high-minded, impeccably effective plays in which he watered down challenging subjects to make them palatable to the masses. A poor man’s Tom Stoppard, you might say.
It may be that there’s something to that indictment, though it certainly fails to do justice to “Amadeus,” which has long struck me, both in its original 1979 stage version and in Miloš Forman’s justly successful 1984 screen adaptation, as an immensely potent parable of the terrible mystery of human inequality. As for “Equus,” in which Mr. Shaffer took the tale of a stableboy who blinds horses for no apparent reason and turned it into a gripping study of middle-class emotional inhibition, it’s a bit creakier, but the 2008 revival proved that it still packs a walloping theatrical punch when staged with skill and conviction.
More to the point, though, is that Mr. Shaffer’s plays, whether you like them or not, were both genuinely serious and hugely successful….
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Read the whole thing here.
Paul Scofield in a scene from the original production of Amadeus, directed by Peter Hall and filmed at London’s National Theatre:
F. Murray Abraham in the same scene from Miloš Forman’s film version of Amadeus, adapted for the screen by Peter Shaffer:
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
• An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, reviewed here)
• The Color Purple (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
• Eclipsed (drama, PG-13, Broadway remounting of off-Broadway production, closes June 19, original production reviewed here)
• Fully Committed (comedy, PG-13, extended through July 31, reviewed here)
• Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Hamilton (musical, PG-13, Broadway transfer of off-Broadway production, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Matilda (musical, G, closing Jan. 1, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, closes Sept. 4, reviewed here)
• On Your Feet! (jukebox musical, G, reviewed here)
• She Loves Me (musical, G, suitable for bright children capable of enjoying a love story, nearly all performances sold out last week, closes July 10, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Sense & Sensibility (serious romantic comedy, G, remounting of 2014 off-Broadway production, closes Oct. 2, original production reviewed here)
“I aint got all that many regrets. I could imagine lots of things that you might think would make a man happier. I think by the time you’re grown you’re as happy as you’re goin to be. You’ll have good times and bad times, but in the end you’ll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I’ve knowed people that just never did get the hang of it.”
Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
The Wall Street Journal has given me a second drama column this week in which to review the Public Theater’s Central Park production of The Taming of the Shrew. Here’s an excerpt.
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“The Taming of the Shrew,” like “The Mikado,” is one of those theatrical masterpieces that have been rendered all but unperformable by the rise of militant political correctness. It’s been six years since I last reviewed a “Shrew,” and the only reason why this one, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, was deemed suitable for performance in Central Park by the Public Theater is that it’s being performed by an all-female cast. The problem with this production, however, isn’t that it’s politicized—it’s that it’s not very funny. Boisterous and good-humored, yes, but “The Taming of the Shrew” is a comedy or nothing, and I’ve never seen a staging that made me laugh less.
The culprit is presumably Ms. Lloyd, who is most familiar to American audiences as the director of “The Iron Lady” and the film version of “Mamma Mia!” but is known in her native England as a stage director of distinction. Be that as it may, there isn’t much in her resumé to suggest that comedy is her forte, and little in this production to contradict that impression. While it’s full of baggy-pants slapstick, the timing of the gags is loose, unsure and short on the head-turning, split-second snap of surprise without which such antics invariably come off as noisy rather than funny.
Similarly bothersome is the conceptual vagueness of the production, whose setting is, or appears to be, a seedy big-top tent. No sooner do you enter the outdoor theater than you see Mark Thompson’s set and think, “Oh, I get it—a ‘Shrew’ set in a circus! Petruchio will be…a lion tamer!” But then the play gets under way with a beauty-pageant talent contest, followed by a series of equally over-obvious visual non sequiturs (Petruchio and Kate spend their honeymoon in an motor home whose exterior is festooned with Vargas-type pin-up girls and whose license plate reads PISA-ASS) that fail to add up to anything in particular….
Could it be that the in-your-face feminism of Ms. Lloyd’s staging, in which Petruchio (Janet McTeer) makes “his” entrance toting an outsized pair of pink handcuffs, is somehow getting in the way of the laughs? I can’t see it. There’s nothing intrinsically unfunny, after all, about a “Shrew” whose modus operandi is to have women in drag exaggerate stereotypical male behavior. The best musical revival of 2015, Jessica Stone’s Two River Theater production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” was an all-male version whose casting deliberately inverted the show’s dumb-blonde stereotypes to bold comic effect….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for The Taming of the Shrew: