Close, but no cigar

In today’s Wall Street Journal I review the new Broadway revival of A Delicate Balance. Here’s an excerpt.

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Everybody knows Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Not so “A Delicate Balance,” which came along four years later, in 1966, and failed to make the same culture-shifting stir. Though it won the Pulitzer Prize that “Virginia Woolf” absurdly failed to nail, the first production ran for only 132 performances, and the 1996 Broadway revival, despite glowing reviews, didn’t do much better. While “A Delicate Balance” is now seen regionally with some regularity, I doubt it would have returned to Broadway for a third try were it not for Glenn Close, who was last seen there 20 years ago and whose inclusion in the cast is making it—at last—a very hot ticket indeed.

B20d8g8CYAEsJJ2Aside from Ms. Close’s presence, what has changed about “A Delicate Balance” in the intervening half-century is that its author has metamorphosed from American theater’s angry young man into its grumpy elder statesman. In between he was seen as a back number, a writer of eccentric, sometimes impenetrable plays who after “Virginia Woolf” couldn’t get a good review to save his life. At length the critical tide turned, but Mr. Albee is still what he always was, a wildly uneven author whose worst plays are so bad that it hardly seems possible that they were written by the same man who gave us the best ones. Where does “A Delicate Balance” fall on that spectrum? At its best, it’s thought-provoking and sometimes challenging, but it takes a long time to get moving, and I wonder whether modern-day audiences will be willing to wait for it.

The place is “a large and well-appointed suburban house.” The time is “now.” The occupants are Agnes and Tobias (Glenn Close and John Lithgow), a hard-drinking couple of the “upper-upper middle-middle” class (Mr. Albee’s phrase) who are leading the usual lives of quiet desperation, and Claire (Lindsay Duncan), Agnes’ hatchet-tongued alcoholic sister, who seems to have no occupation beyond drinking, playing the accordion and saying horrible things to everyone she meets. Enter Harry and Edna (Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins), Agnes and Tobias’ best friends, who drop in for (of course) a drink, confess to having become “frightened” for no specified reason, ask to spend the night and return a little later with all of their belongings. Agnes puts them up in the bedroom of Julia (Martha Plimpton), her grown daughter, who has been married four times and comes home in between husbands. Julia arrives and finds that her room is occupied, upon which all hell promptly breaks loose.

While the notion that well-do-do WASPs are dead inside is perhaps the least little bit overfamiliar, this is still a fairly promising setup for a theater-of-the-absurd comedy. But “A Delicate Balance” runs for two hours and forty-five minutes, and nothing much happens until midway through the evening. Instead we get a truckload of genteel drawing-room badinage, none of which glitters nearly so much as Mr. Albee supposes…

Ms. Close’s performance is quiet, tasteful and underprojected, not surprising for an actor who has been absent from the stage for so long. Mr. Lithgow, by contrast, is in extraordinary form, by turns tightly inhibited and almost shockingly anguished….

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Read the whole thing here.

A scene from the 1973 film version of A Delicate Balance, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Joseph Cotten, and Betsy Blair:

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Clever—and then some

mike nichols 1Just as I was sitting down yesterday morning to write my review of A Delicate Balance, I got a call from The Wall Street Journal telling me that Mike Nichols had died and asking if I could also write his obituary—right now. I took a very deep breath, quickly looked up a couple of favorite anecdotes, and went to work. The results were posted last night on the Journal‘s website:

It hardly seems that Mike Nichols is dead—not just because he lived so long and productive a life, but because the work continued to pour out of him all the way to the finish line. Just last year he directed a Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal.” There seemed no end to his burgeoning vitality. The shape of his career tells you everything about the unstoppable inner force that pushed him forward: He started out as a standup comedian and ended up one of a handful of directors to have won equal fame on Broadway and in Hollywood. “If you’re in any contest at all where you can win or lose, try to win,” Nichols told André Previn. He usually won. He bagged a best-director Oscar, two best-director Emmys, seven best-director Tonys—and in 1961, a Grammy for best comedy album of the year.

It isn’t hard to figure out what made Nichols so competitive. Born in Berlin in 1931, he got out of Germany at the age of seven, mere steps ahead of the Holocaust. After that, nobody had to tell him that Jews got no favors. Characteristically, he claimed that it was an advantage. “The thing about being an outsider,” he said in 2012, “is that it teaches you to hear what people are thinking because you’re constantly looking for the people who just don’t give a damn.”

Nichols made his name in the Fifties by improvising supremely sharp-witted comedy routines with Elaine May. The lightning-quick timing that he cultivated on nightclub stages served him well when he took up directing in 1963. During a rehearsal for the Broadway premiere of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” he got into a shouting match with Walter Matthau. “You’re emasculating me!” the actor shouted. “Give me back my balls!” “Certainly,” Nichols replied, then snapped his fingers to summon the stage manager. “Props!”

Nichols’ work was unshowy, even self-effacing. “It’s not a filmmaker’s job to explain his technique, but to tell his story the best way he can,” he said. Hence no one will ever think of him as a groundbreaker, a radically original creative artist. He was, rather, an interpreter, and in the studio he almost always did his best work with familiar material like Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (his first film) and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” both of which clearly convey the visceral impact of the plays on which they were based. I suspect that few of his other films will be as well remembered. Even “The Graduate,” which vaulted him into the pantheon of Hollywood superstars in 1968, now looks like a period piece, a carefully posed snapshot of a key moment in postwar American culture.

But the fact that Nichols did make films means that he himself will likely be remembered longer than any other American stage director of his generation. No art is more evanescent than that of the theatrical director, which evaporates when the show closes. Yet Nichols’ track record on Broadway was astonishing….

Read the whole thing here.

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Mike Nichols and Elaine May perform “The $65 Funeral” on The Jack Paar Program:

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Play it again—and again

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I talk about Desert Island Discs, the BBC’s longest-running radio program. Here’s an excerpt.

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The BBC aired the three thousandth episode of “Desert Island Discs,” its longest-running radio series, last week. The anniversary attracted no attention on this side of the Atlantic, however, because the perennially popular “Desert Island Discs,” whose guests are invited to select and discuss the eight records they’d take with them were they to be shipwrecked on a distant isle, has never been heard in the U.S. save by fanatical Anglophiles with shortwave radios….

1967-roy-ploml_ey_2398417bFortunately, the “Desert Island Discs” page on the BBC’s website contains a fully searchable database that allows users to listen to any of the 1,500-odd surviving episodes. In addition, you can use the database to find out which records were picked by everyone who has appeared on “Desert Island Discs” since it first went on the air in 1942.

Not only is the “Desert Island Discs” database a largely unquarried diamond mine for scholars, but it’s dangerously easy to blow an evening looking up guest after guest on your laptop. The genius of the show, which was created by Roy Plomley, is that it invites not just musicians but celebrities of all sorts to talk about the records they love. Among the people who have appeared on “Desert Island Discs” are, just for starters, Louis Armstrong, Lauren Bacall, Isaiah Berlin, Eric Clapton, Cyril Connolly, Aaron Copland, Elvis Costello, Noël Coward, Margot Fonteyn, John Gielgud, Stephen Hawking, Alfred Hitchcock, David Hockney, Philip Larkin, Liberace, J.K. Rowling, Jimmy Stewart and Desmond Tutu….

The first thing you notice are the surprises. Who on earth would have expected for Margaret Thatcher to choose Bob Newhart’s “Introducing Tobacco to Civilization” to cart off to her desert island along with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto?…

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Read the whole thing here.

Anybody who writes about Desert Island Discs can scarcely avoid wanting to play along, so here goes. The program invites you to choose eight records. These are mine:

glenn-gould-studio-piano• Bach’s Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1955 by Glenn Gould

• Mozart’s G Minor Symphony, performed by Benjamin Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra

• Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed by Copland and the Columbia Chamber Ensemble

• Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording of “West End Blues”

• Nancy LaMott’s recording of “Skylark,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer

• The complete performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot recorded in 1956 by Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall, Kurt Kasznar, and Alvin Epstein, the cast of the first Broadway premiere

If my “record player” will also play videos, I’d like to bring along

• New York City Ballet’s 1977 PBS performance of George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, whose score is by Paul Hindemith

• Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu, the greatest movie ever made

If not, I’d opt for

• Beethoven’s G Major Piano Concerto, recorded in 1942 by Artur Schnabel, Frederick Stock, and the Chicago Symphony

• Steely Dan’s Aja

747px-Paul_Cézanne_-_The_Garden_at_Les_Lauves_(Le_Jardin_des_Lauves)_-_Google_Art_ProjectYou are always asked to pick one favorite record on Desert Island Discs, and mine is the Goldberg Variations.

In addition, you’re also asked to pack a book and a “luxury item.” It’s stipulated that the island already contains copies of the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible (though that may change). In that case, my book would be Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and my luxury item would be my favorite painting, Paul Cézanne’s “The Garden at Les Lauves.” To be sure, the latter item is one of the Phillips Collection’s most celebrated and treasured possessions…but I want it anyway. (I promise to give it back to the Phillips if rescued!)

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Almanac: Stefan Zweig on happiness

INK BOTTLE“States of profound happiness, like all other forms of intoxication, are apt to befuddle the wits; intense enjoyment of the present always makes one forget the past.”

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

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For the price of one

In the second of my three Wall Street Journal drama columns for this week, I review the Broadway premieres of the revised version of Side Show and Jez Butterworth’s The River, starring Hugh Jackman. Here’s an excerpt.

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It isn’t usual for musical-comedy flops to get a second crack at Broadway, but “Side Show,” a 1997 bomb that closed after 91 performances and thereafter became a cult classic, has now been radically revised and brought back to New York in the wake of well-received runs at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and Washington’s Kennedy Center. While I didn’t see the original production, it’s obvious why it tanked: “Side Show” tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins who became Depression-era vaudeville headliners, then starred in “Freaks,” Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film about a carnival sideshow. No matter how good such a musical may be, the tourist trade is more likely to prefer something a trifle less dark. So does the new “Side Show” have a shot at the brass ring of box-office success? I think so—though it’s still flawed.

side-show-kennedy-centerFirst, the good news: This production, directed by Bill Condon, who also rewrote the book, packs a thermonuclear wallop….

Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are very, very fine as the Hilton twins, though I wish they’d take a few more chances when they sing. Sometimes they sound like first-class choristers who are trying to match each other’s tones rather than a pair of sisterly but dissimilar rivals (one is shy, the other brassily extroverted) who just happen to be joined at the hip….

While the first act now works impressively well, the second act gets gooey, and the show ends with such unconvincing abruptness that you feel as though a guillotine has been used to amputate what by all rights should have been an unhappy ending…

“Side Show” is a rare example of a musical whose words are significantly more expressive than its music. Henry Krieger’s pop tunes are effective enough in their power-ballady way, but they lack the touch of acid that the plot leads you to expect….

Jez Butterworth is hot in England, vastly less so in the U.S. The only reason why “The River” has made it to Broadway is the onstage presence of Hugh Jackman, who could move tickets merely by standing in the lobby and smiling. He’s good—he always is—but the play is pretentious beyond belief, a three-hander about a fisherman-artist-hunk (Mr. Jackman) who brings his new girl (Cush Jumbo) to an isolated cabin, where he lectures her on the spiritual significance of fishing in between tumbles in the sleeping bag…

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Read the whole thing here.

The real-life Hilton sisters sing “Every Hour of Every Day”:

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So you want to see a show?

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.

BROADWAY:
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Love Letters (drama, PG-13, closes Feb. 1, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
002211A259The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility (drama, PG-13, playing in alternating repertory, closes Dec. 21, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
Indian Ink (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 30, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Stefan Zweig on betrayal

INK BOTTLE“When one does another person an injustice, in some mysterious way it does one good to discover (or to persuade oneself) that the injured party has also behaved badly or unfairly in some little matter or other; it is always a relief to the conscience if one can apportion some measure of guilt to the person one has betrayed.”

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

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Visit from a missing person

This is an unusually busy week for mid-season theatrical openings on and off Broadway, so The Wall Street Journal has given me an unprecedented two extra columns to cover them. In today’s paper I report on Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho. Here’s an excerpt.

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Christianity is the great blind spot of American theater. Most Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of heaven and hell—but in most American plays, these beliefs are treated either as proofs of invincible ignorance or as signs of black-hearted villainy. It says everything about the gap between who we are in life and how we look onstage that the best-known shows of the past decade in which religious believers of any sort figured prominently were “The Book of Mormon” and “Doubt.” So it is stop-press news that the most important new play of the year to date, Katori Hall’s “Our Lady of Kibeho,” not only tells the story of a modern miracle but dares to suggest that it might really have happened.

1.171481Actually, it’s not quite right to say that “Our Lady of Kibeho” is about a miracle. Rather, its subject is what is known to theologians as an “apparition.” In 1981 and 1982, three Rwandan schoolgirls, all of them devout Catholics, claimed to have seen and heard the Virgin Mary. Their last apparition was a terrible vision of apocalyptic violence that was later interpreted as a prophecy of the genocidal convulsion in which, a decade later, as many as a million Rwandans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. The Catholic Church subsequently investigated these apparitions and declared them in 2001 to be “authentic.”

This is the stuff of high drama, and Ms. Hall has used it thrillingly well, shaping the real-life story of the girls of Kibeho (one of whom was later killed in the war) into a tightly written play that places a chokehold on your attention right from the opening line. It’s tempting to say that you can’t go wrong with material like this, but part of what makes “Our Lady of Kibeho” so impressive is that Ms. Hall circumvents all kinds of possible dramaturgical pitfalls along the way….

Ms. Hall and Michael Greif, the director, have opted to show the girls’ visions onstage, leaving it to you to decide whether they were fantasies. No spoilers here: I’ll say only that it’s been a long time since any playwright rang down her first-act curtain with a louder bang….

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Our Lady of Kibeho:

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