Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to a pair of East Coast shows. The first is a new Broadway musical, The Pirate Queen. The second is a Baltimore revival, CenterStage’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! The first is horrible, the second terrific:
Has there ever really been a musical so bad that it was funny? (I mean an actual show, not “Springtime for Hitler.”) “Taboo” and “In My Life” both began promisingly, but my sense of humor was swamped by their sheer awfulness well before intermission. “The Pirate Queen,” on the other hand, is a gift that keeps on giving: It starts out dumb, then gets dumber, and at no time does anything other than preposterous ever take place on stage or in the orchestra pit. If it were somewhat shorter, it might actually be worth seeing, but at two and a half hours, I can’t recommend it in good faith to anyone who isn’t (A) a full-fledged hit-me-again masochist and/or (B) deaf….
“Ah, Wilderness!” is an unabashedly autobiographical play about a turn-of-the-century Irish-American family whose members include a charismatic patriarch, a sensitive young author-in-the-making and a drunken uncle. Any resemblances to “Long Day’s Journey into Night” are strictly intentional–only this time O’Neill made it come out happy, portraying the Connecticut childhood he wished he’d had instead of the one that scarred him for life. Yet there’s nothing phony about the warmth of “Ah, Wilderness!” Like Thornton Wilder in “Our Town,” O’Neill wasn’t afraid to show us the shadows with which his not-so-imaginary New England town is dappled, and the result is a nostalgic yet emotionally complex comedy that is at once open-hearted and open-eyed.
“Ah, Wilderness!” requires four sets and a biggish cast, making it hard to produce on a shoestring and meaning that it doesn’t get done nearly as often as it should. That’s why I made a point of going down to Baltimore last weekend to see CenterStage’s revival, which I’m pleased to say is tip-top. Some of the acting is too broad, but all of it works, and Tom Bloom couldn’t be bettered as Nat Miller, the small-town newspaper editor who isn’t quite as provincial as he looks. Mr. Bloom is genial yet strong–you never feel that he’s coasting on his charm–and his performance gives the play a hard core of credibility….
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