The Frogs

Susan Granger’s review of “The Frogs” (Vivian Beaumont Theater – July-Aug., 2004)

Back in 1974, I saw “The Frogs” performed at the Yale University pool. While teaching there, Burt Shevelove wrote his irreverent, free-wheeling adaptation to which Stephen Sondheim contributed six songs, including the title number that inspired a water ballet. Back then, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang – as Yale grad students – were in the chorus.

It’s 30 years later on a dry stage and, while Aristophanes “The Frogs” is still croaking exuberantly, it hasn’t improved with age. This time, the ancient Greek satire stars Nathan Lane as Dionysos, the god of wine and drama. He journeys down the River Styx to Hades to get at great playwright in hopes that a play with big ideas might set a moral example and  illuminate our muddled world, one where corrupt and inarticulate leaders have entered “a war we shouldn’t even be in”. This leads to a debate between George Bernard Shaw (Daniel Davis) and William Shakespeare (Michael Silbery) with Dionysos as judge as to whom is the greater playwright.

As a comic Dionysos, Nathan Lane as no comic peer but, as a co-writer, he’s saddled with a soggy story that becomes an anti-Bush allegory. Roger Bart, as his slave Xanthias (a last-minute replacement for SNL’s Chris Kattan) suffers the same fate. The only role that succeeds in being truly funny is Pluto, played by Peter Bartlett, particularly when he’s warbling “Hades.”

But even director/choreographer Susan Stroman and costumer William Ivey Long are unable to overcome the confines of the satirical, yet stagnant, contemporary libretto which also traces its demented origins to the Shevelove/Sondheim “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Somehow its sophomoric silliness and schtick seems better suited to college audiences.

Shakespeare’s Women

Susan Granger’s review of “Shakespeare’s Women” (Blue Heron Arts Center 2004-2005)

The one-man – or, in this case, one-woman – show has always seemed to me to be the height of theatricality. It’s a unique genre that cannot be adapted to the screen. So it was with a special delight that I viewed Susannah York’s “Shakespeare’s Women.”
This one-woman show, conceived, written and performed by the veteran British thespian, introduces and explains Shakespeare’s most memorable female characters. Above all, Ms. York links these disparate women together with the general theme of love in its many permutations: maternal, passionate and filial.
There’s Juliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Hamlet’s mother. Those are the best-known. But there’s also Emilia from “Othello,” Constance from “King John,” Queen Margaret from “Henry VI, Part III” and Cressida of “Troilus and Cressida.” While Ms. York obviously takes special pleasure in romping through Mistress Page and Mistress Ford of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” her interpretation of the cross-dressing Rosalind of “As You Like It” borders on campy.
For 80 minutes, Susannah York weaves her own personal magic spell over the bare stage, adorned only with set designer Krishan Khana’s tapestries, a candelabra and end tables, and illuminated by lighting designer Christopher Bailey. At 63 years, Ms. York is eternally blithe and lithe with her spiky blond hair and ultra-blue eyes.
Whether you catch “Shakespeare’s Women” off-Broadway at the Blue Heron Arts Center or at other venues around the country, it’s an indelible lesson about the minds and motivations of the Bard’s top female characters.


Susan Granger’s review of “Democracy” (Brooks Atkinson Theater 2004-2005 season)

It was improbable that Michael Frayn’s historical play about post-war Germany and German politics would become a major Broadway success – but it has. Perhaps because the artful drama is based on a notorious spy scandal that contributed to the fall of Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Willy Brandt (James Naughton) won a Nobel Peace Prize for his overtures to Eastern Europe, but during the four years that he was negotiating with East Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, he was careless, leaving him vulnerable to close surveillance and betrayal by his unctuous assistant, Gunther Guillaume (Richard Thomas), who was actually a spy for the East German secret police.
Peter J. Davidson’s duplex set is based on the real office in which Guillaume worked in the Palais Shaumburg. The upper tier doubles as Guillaume’s cubicle as well as Brandt’s political platform for delivering speeches, while the lower tier is where the gray-suited politicians meet and converse. It’s a highpoint of drama that, as the Berlin Wall comes down, the shelves of color-coded files collapse and tumble as well, adding depth to the theme of conflicting duality. .
Director Michael Blakemore is considered the playwright’s alter ego, having directed eight of Frayn’s 16 plays, including “Copenhagen,” and credit Blakemore for simplifying Frayn’s often complicated literary concepts. Yet it was also Blakemore who cast James Naughton who, unfortunately, evidences little of the charisma for which Willy Brandt was renown. This is a major flaw since there is little or no conventional physical action on-stage. In short, the continual talk becomes quite tedious, punctuated only by the actors’ entrances and exits. It’s too bad the original British cast from the U.K.’s National Theater couldn’t have crossed the pond instead.

After the Fall

Susan Granger’s review of “After the Fall” (American Airlines Theater, 2004-2005 season)

Arthur Miller’s obviously autobiographical play which exorcises leftover demons from his marriage to Marilyn Monroe is not one of his best. It premiered at Lincoln Center in 1964 and was revived, unsuccessfully, once before in New York. Now it’s back again – and still unrealized.
Quentin (Peter Krause) is a prominent lawyer who is afraid to commit to a new Viennese love (Vivienne Benesch) because he’s still coping with his guilt over the suicide of his previous wife, Maggie (Carla Gugino), a breathless, sweet-natured if dim-witted singer-superstar who worshipped him. “I would do anything for you,” Maggie says to him. “You’re like a god!”
But she’s not the only personal demon from his past who torments Quentin during his introspective, stream-of-consciousness reverie of guilt and redemption. There’s his domineering mother (Carol Buckley), an embittered ex-wife (Jessica Hecht) and a morally adaptable attorney (Jonathan Walker), obviously based on director Elia Kazan, evoking the Hollywood blacklist.
Best known as Nate on TV’s “Six Feet Under,” suave Krause seems a bit reserved for the role, so the evening belongs to Gugino (TV’s “Karen Sisco”) whose astute performance embodies the voluptuous Maggie’s pathological self-destructiveness along with her desperate need to be loved.
Michael Mayer’s direction, utilizing set designer Richard Hoover’s airport terminal – like Eero Saarinen’s defunct TWA building at JFK – as the backdrop for Quentin’s psychological conflict, evokes an abstract emotional distance, augmented by the 40 years that have passed since Monroe’s death. So in this Roundabout Theater revival, “After the Fall” once again fails because it is unable to unravel the unfocused emotional labyrinths created by Arthur Miller.

Dracula: The Musical

Susan Granger’s review of “Dracula: The Musical” (Belasco Theater, 2004-2005 season)

It’s debatable whether this incarnation of the vampire from Transylvania is the worst musical I’ve ever seen on Broadway, but it certainly comes close.
Frank Wildhorn, composer of “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” once again relies on the appeal a virtuous, hapless heroine who is seduced by a menacing stranger. So did Andrew Lloyd Webber in “Phantom of the Opera.” But there are no soaring arias in this syrupy score. Based on the familiar Bram Stoker 1897 novel, the book by Christopher Hampton (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) and lyrics by Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard”) are confusing and illogical. The heroine, Mina, is supposed to try to resist Count Dracula; instead, she welcomes him with open arms, discarding the garlic and crucifixes that are supposed to ward him off.
Nevertheless, actors Melissa Errico, Tom Hewitt, Kelli O’Hara, Don Stephenson and Stephen McKinley Henderson do their best with the creepy, insipid drivel that they’re given. In fact, it’s a credit to their own obsessive professionalism that they even show up night-after-night.
Director Des McAnuff (“The Who’s Tommy”) keeps Count Dracula and his blood-thirsty acolytes continually soaring through the air, as if a distraction from what’s earthbound will help. Michael Clark’s dark, glossy design and Heidi Ettinger’s inspired pre-Raphaelite sets are commendable, as are Catherine Zuber’s Victorian costumes and Howell Binkley’s evocative lighting. But even the best production values – and glimpse of nudity – don’t keep the majority of the audience awake and interested in this seemingly aimless gothic tale that drones on deep into the night. This “Dracula” is a total disaster. It sucks!

Twentieth Century

Susan Granger’s review of “Twentieth Century” (Roundabout Theater Company ’04)

Revivals are always tricky propositions but, with the current furor over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” there’s an unexpected timeliness and relevance to this Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur battle-of-the-sexes parody, edited and adapted by Ken Ludwig.
Set in the Art-Deco era of the 1930s on a sleek, luxurious train that’s traveling between Chicago and New York, Alec Baldwin stars as the irascible, flamboyant Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe with Anne Heche as Lily Garland (a.k.a. shopgirl Mildred Plotka), his former leading-lady who is currently basking in her fame as a silver-screen goddess. Desperate to get her name on a contract, Oscar seizes upon the presence of a German troupe of “Passion play” actors who are aboard and entices Lily with the role of Mary Magdalene, which he embellishes to a hilarious degree, much to the chagrin of his religious fanatic “backer,” played by Tom Aldredge. Under the direction of Walter Bobbie, Anne Heche evokes memories of the irrepressible Carole Lombard, who created the role on film but, physically, she’s a poster-girl for anorexia, never approaching the glamour of a genuine star. In contrast, the now-portly Alec Baldwin works too laboriously on his comic timing, particularly when you contrast it with his earthy Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar Named Desire” back in 1992. Julie Halston captures the essence of the farce as Oscar’s manager, as does Dan Butler as his alcoholic press agent. Stephen De Rosa doubles as the German actor and Oscar’s producing rival, Max Jacobs. John Lee Beatty’s streamlined 20th-century train sets are stunning, as are William Ivey Long’s costumes. While the pacing chugs a bit at times, on the whole, “The Twentieth Century” offers retro, nostalgic fun.

Sight Unseen

Susan Granger’s review of “Sight Unseen” (Biltmore Theater – 2004-2005 season)

Before Donald Margulies won a Pulitzer Prize for his “Dinner With Friends,” he wrote this deceptively simple, yet persuasive, play about the poignant reunion between a celebrated, ego-centric artist, Jonathan Waxman (Ben Shenkman), and his former lover Patricia (Laura Linney), who lives with Nick (Byron Jennings), her sarcastic archeologist husband, in an isolated, rustic farmhouse in Norfolk, England.
Years ago, when Jonathan was an aspiring painter, Patricia was his nude model. Now, he has become rich and famous, celebrating his first European exhibition in London, while she is stoically trapped in a lonely, stultifying marriage. This reunion forces them to re-visit their past relationship and reevaluate their lives. In the midst of their discussion about personal and artistic integrity and the commercialism of the modern art world, there’s an amusing interview with Grete (Ana Reder), a conniving German reporter whose questions are tinged with anti-Semitism.
Curiously, in 1992, when “Sight Unseen” premiered in New York at the Manhattan Theater Club’s intimate Stage II, Laura Linney played the supporting role of the journalist – and it’s the play in which she first made a name for herself on the New York stage. Now, sensitively directed by Daniel Sullivan, she radiantly charismatic in her utter authenticity as Patricia, while Ana Reder exudes ferocity as Grete. Byron Jennings delivers a delicately nuanced performance as adoring but insecure Nick, while Ben Shenkman oozes enough charm to make Jonathan’s innate selfishness tolerable. “Sight Unseen” is compelling drama about memory and moral compromise.


Susan Granger’s review of “Wicked” (2003-2004 season at Broadway’s Gershwin Theater)

Based on Gregory Maguire’s best-seller, “Wicked” is the prequel to Frank L. Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” explaining the origins of Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. With a banal, conflicted, sanitized book by Winnie Holzman (“thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life”), it’s filled with sly illusions to the Oz tale. Problem is: the music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin”) are so generic that they’re forgettable, even as you hear them. The bloated first-act seems interminable, awaiting the enchantment of the second act.
On the other hand, because of its superbly talented cast and inventive production values, “Wicked” is an audience-pleaser, particularly for children. Directed by Joe Mantello and with musical numbers staged by Wayne Cilento, Kristin Chenoweth, as Glinda, appears to be a chirpy clone of Elle Wood, the character created by Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde.” Her comic timing is impeccable. Idina Menzel, as the angst-filled, green-hued Elphaba, oozes psychological trauma, belting out each song. Carole Shelley mugs shamelessly as the caustic headmistress of the Hogwarts-like School of Sorcery where Glinda reluctantly befriends Elphaba. Despite the fact that he has one, mediocre musical number, Joel Grey cavorts admirably as the Wizard, while Norbert Leo Butz does his best as Fiyero, the obnoxious boy-friend desired by both witches.
Behind-the-scenes, credit Eugene Lee (set design), Susan Hilferty (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting), Tony Meola (sound), Chic Silber and Paul Rubin/ZFX Flying Illusions (special effects). Despite their valiant efforts at yellow-brick-road razzle-dazzle, what “Wicked” desperately needs is some witty, musical magic.

Big Bill

Susan Granger’s review of “Big Bill” (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 2003-2004 season)

Back in the 1920s, Bill Tilden, known as Big Bill, was acclaimed as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. A handsome aristocrat from Philadelphia’s Main Line, he won seven U.S. championships and changed the elite country-club game to the sport status of professional athletics. But timing is everything – and Big Bill was a homosexual when that sort of behavior was deemed socially unacceptable. Worse yet, he was a pedophile, fond of underage young men.
It’s altogether appropriate that the thwap…thwap…thwap sounds of tennis balls punctuates Mark Lamos’s production of A.R. Gurney’s perceptive drama which chronicles Big Bill’s secret isolation, self-deception and public humiliation. But it’s the performance of John Michael Higgins in the title role that elevates this melancholy character-study to a “must-see”. Best remembered from Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey,” Higgins cleverly captures the complex torment of this flamboyant athlete who never sacrificed either his dignity, his elegance or his charm.
Nostalgically, the story begins in Bill’s youth, when he was dubbed “Junie,” for Junior, not to be confused with his father, a once-successful businessman. Early on, his mother recognized his bachelorhood, steering him toward a career as an antiques dealer. Back then, playing tennis for a living was unacceptable, particularly for an upper middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (W.A.S.P.) But William Tatem Tilden II was persistent, sacrificing his amateur status.
In supporting roles, Margaret Welsh, Stephen Rowe, David Cromwell, Alex Knold, Michael Esper, Donal Thoms-Capello and Jeremiah Miller are superb, in addition to John Lee Blatty’s grassy set and Jess Goldstein’s costumes. But it’s John Michael Higgins’ portrayal that’s powerful.

Sly Fox

Susan Granger’s review of “Sly Fox” (Barrymore Theater: 2003-2004 season)

Something goes terribly wrong with this revival of Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox,” based on Ben Jonson’s 1906 comedy “Volpone.” And it’s a critic’s job to dissect what and why.
Set in San Francisco, “Sly Fox” revolves around a wry, miserly con-man, Foxwell J. Sly, who pretends to be on his deathbed so sycophants will dote on him, making sure they’re his heir.
The subject is avarice, which is certainly relevant these days – what with the Enron, Tyco and Martha Stewart revelations. And as the creator of “M.A.S.H.” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Larry Gelbart knows his way around comedic situations, as does director Arthur Penn. The ensemble has impeccable credentials: Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, Bob Dishy, Rene Auberjonois, Bronson Pinchot and Professor Irwin Corey. George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck’s sets and Albert Solsky’s costumes lend authenticity.
So what went wrong? First, miscasting. Richard Dreyfuss does not have the duplicitous stature and energy of George C. Scott, who propelled the 1976 version into a hit. And his curmudgeon con-man “shtick” shows, particularly when he doubles as the corrupt Judge. Eric Stoltz is charming yet bland as Sly’s manipulative manservant/protégé. Then there’s the discordant time structure and diverse acting styles of the supporting players. The dialogue is contemporary, using terms like “bimbo” and “twit,” yet the costumes suggest turn-of-the-century. As a prostitute, Rachel York does a Mae West imitation, while Elizabeth Berkley (last seen cavorting nude in “Showgirls”) tries unconvincingly, to act pious and prim with her clothes on. Add these miscalculations together, and the greedy delight of “Sly Fox” quickly fizzles.