The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column this week in which I report on two off-Broadway premieres, Bedlam’s New York Animals and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Important Hats of the Twentieth Century. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
Bedlam specializes in radically original small-scale classical revivals but thrives on the unexpected. So instead of Shakespeare or Shaw, its latest production is…a musical! Truth to tell, “New York Animals,” a play by Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”) with songs by Mr. Sater and Burt Bacharach (yes, that Burt Bacharach), doesn’t quite fill the bill, but it comes close, and Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s artistic director and resident wizard, has mounted it with his accustomed flair and resourcefulness. While the show itself has some problems, the production has none at all. It’s a miracle of frugal ingenuity, the kind of mega-ingenious zero-budget staging that makes you wonder why Broadway even bothers.
Set in Manhattan circa 1995, “New York Animals” looks at first glance like an updated version of a Julius Monk-helmed sketches-and-songs cabaret revue from the ’60s. The sketches, however, turn out to be interlocking tales of urban disaffection whose sad characters, some seemingly privileged (“I embrace my cellulite!”) and others more obviously desperate, converge in an emergency room at show’s end. The songs, which are affectingly sung by Jo Lampert and performed by a five-piece band, illustrate the story line rather than driving it, neatly splitting the difference between Mr. Bacharach’s familiar brand of glamorously romantic melancholy and Mr. Sater’s harder-edged postmodern bleakness (the first line of the first song is “Don’t f— with me”).
If “New York Animals” sounds a bit awkward, that’s how it plays, and Mr. Sater’s sketches would profit much from being more pointed. Not at all surprisingly, it’s still a work in progress—the script was not yet “frozen” when I went on Sunday—and I expect it will continue to evolve further as the run progresses. But there’s already much to like about the show…
Tell me what you laugh at and I’ll tell you how old you are. No art form is more sensitive to generational cross-currents than comedy—but nowadays American theater is increasingly in thrall to the comfy needs of 50-plus playgoers. So it’s a heartening surprise to see the Manhattan Theatre Club, most of whose subscribers appear to measure up, putting on a charming farce called “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century” that feels more like a zany cable-TV sitcom episode than an old-fashioned stage comedy.
Written by Nick Jones, who is best known for his work on “Orange Is the New Black,” “Important Hats” doesn’t exactly lend itself to terse synopsis. Imagine two clothes designers from the ’30s (Carson Elrod and Matthew Saldivar) whose rivalry assumes a planet-threatening aspect when one of them gets hold of a time-traveling hat. Got it? Part sci-fi parody, part Ayn Rand spoof and 100% screwball comedy, “Important Hats” covers a stageful of bases in a way that is less than ideally disciplined but never anything other than funny….
* * *
To read my review of New York Animals, go here.
To read my review of Important Hats of the Twentieth Century, go here.
Carson Elrod talks about Important Hats of the Twentieth Century: