Archive for the ‘Serious Essays’ Category


by David Lefkowitz

The Season on and Off Broadway (1998-1999)
(Overview of the New York theater season)
(Published in Theater Yearbook: The Best Plays of 1998-1999, Limelight Editions, 1999)

The Season on and Off Broadway (1997-1998)
(Overview of the New York theater season)
(Published in Theater Yearbook: The Best Plays of 1997-1998, Limelight Editions, 1998)

The Season on and Off Broadway (1996-1997)
(Overview of the New York theater season)
(Published in Theater Yearbook: The Best Plays of 1996-1997, Limelight Editions, 1997)

Thanks for Reminding Us: We Must Remember This?
(Overview of a video series about “The Greatest Television News Stories of All Time”)
(Published in Playboy magazine, Feb. 1990)

A Dramatic Event that Happened this Summer Involving Myself and an Unpleasant Fat Woman
(unpublished; written for NYU Dramatic Writing course, Sept. 1984)

Review: Imagine
(Album review of John Lennon’s Imagine)
(first published in The Literary Underground, Dec. 1980)

NOTE: Also see Theater Reviews and Feature Stories in separate sections


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by David Lefkowitz

(This essay was commissioned by and published in the 1998 Best Plays volume)

Think of the 1998-99 New York season as the hangover after a big party.

Broadway was heady with music and money in 1997-98, fueled by the commercial success of The Lion King, the artistic grandeur of Ragtime, the Disneyfication of 42nd Street, the ceaseless runs of epic pop operas, and by a schedule so crowded, producers actually held back new shows because there were no Broadway theaters to put them in.

It was almost inevitable that 1998-99, the year after Art, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Cabaret would be a groggy one, reverting to a typical mid-1990s formula of flop plays by tyros (More to Love, Getting and Spending), return engagements (Peter Pan, Fool Moon), one-shot solos (Aznavour, Seinfeld, Bernhard), snob hits from the UK (The Weir, The Blue Room), star-driven revivals (Little Me, The Lion in Winter, Death of a Salesman, Annie Get Your Gun, Night Must Fall, The Iceman Cometh), pastiche revues (Fosse, Marlene, The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm, Band in Berlin), and musicals that used marketing to stay one step ahead of the critics (Footloose, and a re-cast, rewritten The Scarlet Pimpernel). 

Somehow it all translated into another banner year at the Broadway bank. According to the League of American Theaters and Producers, Broadway grosses hit another new peak, reaching $588.5 million—up 5.4 percent from the record year before. It helped that 39 shows (by their count) opened, as opposed to the previous season’s 33, and that the average paid admission soared to $50.45—nearly two dollars higher than the prior season ($48.58). As expected, prices for top ducats routinely hit $80, with good seats at The Iceman Cometh costing $100. Pundits noted that the seemingly exorbitant Iceman was, in fact, a 37 cents-per-minute bargain, especially when compared to Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, which charged a dollar for each of its 45 excruciating minutes, or Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up solo, where tickets were scalped for up to $1,500 apiece, or roughly $5 a joke.

Credit where it’s due: the League wasn’t just hiding behind higher ticket prices for its record numbers. Broadway box office attendance rose by 200,000 humans to 10.7 million, a 1.6 percent increase from the year before. Touring attendance and revenues dipped a bit, since there were only 25 legitimate road tours (as opposed to 34 in 1997-98), but road grosses still reached $716 million. As such, between The Street and the streets of America, Broadway product took in $1.3 billion, with 26.5 million in attendance.

Ah, but what of “Broadway product?” By mid-season, the closest thing Broadway had to a bona fide hit musical had no lyrics at all and a score by . . . Tchaikovsky. If 1997-98 rode on “The Wheels of a Dream” and `round “The Circle of Life,” 1998-99 traveled on a straight and colorless line.

It didn’t start out that way. Warren Leight’s exceptional drama, Side Man, opened the season with tremendous promise. Not only was it a new American play by a previously unknown playwright, it began as an off-off-Broadway offering by Weissberger Theater Group (at the CSC space) and was picked up by the Roundabout Theater when their planned Bacharach-David revue stalled on the West Coast. A tender, wryly comic play with a truly sad undercurrent, Side Man proved such a winner on the Roundabout’s mainstage, the show moved to the John Golden Theater in October 1998 and there played out the season.

A Pulitzer finalist and best play Tony winner, Side Man impressed on two fronts: milieu and character. Leight’s tale of a dissolving marriage between a musician and his unstable wife occurs against the backdrop of the decline of jazz as America’s popular music. It’s a world of late-night diners, gigs until sunrise, unemployment lines, drugs, tenements—and a musician’s gut feeling that everything worth saying in this world can be expressed in a trumpet solo. 

We first meet Gene and Terry when they first meet, he a budding jazzman with a casual air, she a good Catholic, albeit with one failed marriage and a nervous condition already in her past. Gene settles comfortably into the life of a jazz musician, trading all-night anecdotes with his fellow side men as easily as they trade chops. That he’s never home and always two paychecks away from poverty doesn’t bother him much. Terry’s okay with it too until, unexpectedly, they have a child (who turns out to be the grown-up narrator of the piece). The rest of Side Man charts Terry’s mental breakdown and Gene’s slow retreat from everyday life. The camaraderie among Gene’s buddies that was so playful when they were younger now has an air of the pathetic; though, throughout, their dedication to the purity of art maintains a certain glow and nobility.

Several performers won praise for Side Man, notably Edie Falco as the mother brought `round the bend by a life spent hearing “`Round Midnight.” Falco got to have her cake and eat it too. She was hailed for playing Terry at CSC but couldn’t travel with the show to the Roundabout because she’d inked a deal to appear in an HBO mini-series, The Sopranos (which turned out to be wildly popular). Wendy Makkena stepped in for Side Man’s Broadway transfer, but when the show moved again, to the John Golden, Falco returned to the cast. (As powerfully haggard as Falco was when I saw her off Broadway, on a second view of the show, her Broadway understudy, Angelica Torn, made a gentler, more gradual, and, therefore, more affecting, descent into domestic hell.)

Equally fine was Tony nominee Frank Wood, who showed how Gene allows passivity to overtake his entire personality. Robert Sella picked up a Clarence Derwent Award (given to up `n’ comers) for playing Clifford, the young man looking back with surprising fondness on his wretched parents. Of the colorful sidekicks, Kevin Geer proved most memorable as Jonesy, a raspy-voiced, sweet-natured heroin addict whose brilliant horn playing will never recover from one bad encounter with the cops.

Not a box-office blockbuster (despite stints by filmdom’s Christian Slater and teen TV’s Scott Wolf as Clifford), Side Man ran the length of the season—albeit at punishingly low grosses by late spring. The horror was that by season’s end, Side Man was the only new American play to win both acclaim and audiences on Broadway. Straight plays were plentiful, but revivals aside, the Brits wrote all the hits.

Unless you count Not About Nightingales, that is. So what if the playwright’s been dead for 16 years, and he wrote this one in 1938, and it took a British cast to dig up this early “lost” work? Not About Nightingales proved an undeniable find (as Outer Critics Circle voters no doubt felt when they picked it as the year’s best Broadway play). Anyone expecting a typical Tennessee Williams foray into the psyches of eccentric Southern belles and the asexual men they crave had to sit up and take notice at this harsh, moralistic, and generally gripping prison melodrama.

First staged by Trevor Nunn at the Royal National’s Cottesloe, the drama marked the return of Circle in the Square’s Broadway space to active production. Nunn and designer Richard Hoover trisected the circular stage, with the prison barracks on one end, the warden’s office at the other, and a space in the middle reserved for “Klondike,” that is, the place where disobedient prisoners are sent to suffer. (The Alaskan term is horrendously ironic, as Klondike is a steambath where offenders are locked for hours at a time and subjected to inhuman temperatures and scalding blasts.) Williams, then in his late 20s, based Nightingales on actual events in a Philadelphia jail involving rebellious inmates, a hunger strike, and sadistic punishment.

Though containing—and occasionally hampered by—flights of poetic writing, Williams’s drama did not lack for juice. “Boss” Whalen, the warden and a Southern good ol’ boy, keeps a lecherous eye on his new female secretary and a sadistic thumb on his captives. His low-key assistant, inmate “Canary” Jim, endures vicious threats by his fellow prisoners for being a stoolie, while suppressing his rage at his pitiless overseer. The latter continues to pilfer money earmarked for the captives’ meals, leading to chow so indigestible, a hunger strike ensues. Fearing media muckrakers, the warden gives the felons a choice: eat or face hours upon hours in Klondike. 

Will Jim and the new lady clerk (they’ve fallen in love, of corse) be able to leak word of prison conditions to the outside world and escape before it’s too late? Will brash and bullying prisoner Butch O’Fallon survive temperatures hot enough to boil a potato? Will Whalen’s brutality (think of him as a diabolical Big Daddy) push the inmates’ bodies and spirits beyond endurance?

Admittedly, young Williams got in over his head structurally and was forced to fudge some of these answers, but with a buildup so gripping and a climax so rousing, no one in 1999 was complaining. In fact, an unintended poignancy grabbed us now and again when we realized that Williams would hardly ever be this energetic, or full of hope, again. 

Trevor Nunn’s staging of Nightingales, a triumph all its own, managed to make Circle in the Square feel downright intimate. With Chris Parry’s lighting often carving entire rooms and moods out of empty space, we felt discomforted by the zoo-like calls, uncomfortably near to the sleazy warden, and all too close to the tortured inmates writhing in eruptions of steam.

Like the play itself, two members of the ensemble scored Tony nominations—Finbar Lynch as “Canary” Jim and Corin Redgrave as the warden—though a half-dozen other cast members might just as easily have been recognized, notably Sherri Parker Lee as the secretary desperate enough to take a job working for Whalen but not so cynical as to turn a blind eye, and Theater World Award winner James Black as the Mussolini-esque O’Fallon, who menaces his fellow inmates yet ends up being crucial to their survival.

Promising kid, that Tennessee Williams. And Warren Leight seems destined for fine work in the future. But who else?

Nobody found anything to love about More to Love, an autobiographical comedy by Don Imus’s portly radio sidekick, Rob Bartlett. The play, subtitled “A Big Fat Comedy,” set Bartlett’s character in his garage as he sorted through 40 years of family and career detritus. Dana Reeve and Joyce Van Patten served, respectively, as the comedian’s supportive wife and sardonic agent. By all accounts, Bartlett tried to shoehorn his stand-up comedy act into the format of a nostalgic meditation on middle age. The shoe didn’t fit, and Broadway wore it for just a week.

By contrast, the one-week run of Jerry Seinfeld’s solo show, I’m Telling You for the Last Time, kept ticket scalpers in ermines. A “greatest hits” collection of material Seinfeld was doing before his TV show, which had ended its run three months earlier, evolved from culty urban comedy to America’s favorite weekly dose of caustic angst. Last Time was filled with PG-rated jokes about dry cleaners, horse racing, and stray hairs in the shower. As evidenced by the live HBO broadcast of the second-to-last show, Seinfeld’s cruise-control demeanor and unflappable logic could be pretty darn funny: “Why do airline pilots tell us everything about the flight, like altitude? See the place printed on my ticket? Just get me there. Do I go to the cockpit and tell them, `I’m having a bag of peanuts now’?”

Just to prove being a Seinfeld isn’t as easy as it looks, Colin Quinn’s An Irish Wake, a reminiscence of his Irish-Catholic Brooklyn childhood, proved surprisingly flavorful and sophisticated in its writing but drearily bland in performance. Playing a panoply of not-too-stereotyped priests, nuns, teachers, neighbors and relatives, Quinn showed a knack for bringing out details of character, as each flawed personage proved to be, if not sympathetic, certainly understandable within the context of the lower-class urban milieu. Quinn eschewed the “dese-dem-dose” bluster that makes him a lively Saturday Night Live Weekend Update anchor, however, and instead played the show low-key, sometimes to the point of inaudibility. Reviews were mixed-to-positive for the limited engagement, though even in the smallest theater on Broadway, the 499-seat Helen Hayes, An Irish Wake felt tiny and inconspicuous.

The drubbing continued for American playwrights with Getting and Spending by Michael J. Chepiga. It wanted to be a savvy, up-to-the-minute comedy with a conscience, a plea for nouveau riche corporate traders to feel guilty about their less fortunate peers. What it was, however, was a dumbed-down sitcom with a bleeding heart, the tale of a button-cute corporate trader (Linda Purl) finding herself in legal turmoil when she repents and wishes to give her ill-gotten gains to charity. From the opening scene—in which two monks kneel in what appears to be ritual prayer, only they’re actually trading stock tips—to the relentless breast-beating of its protagonist, Getting and Spending thought itself oh-so-clever when, in fact, any episode of TV’s Law & Order or The Practice offered more ambiguity and moral distress. And less overacting.

Getting and Spending ran several weeks at the Helen Hayes, mainly because co-producer Martin Markinson also owned the theater. He’d make an even greater boo-boo later in the season when he turned down the illustrious Wit (subject matter too depressing for a mass audience) for the more commercially desirable Band in Berlin. But more on that snoozical later.

To be fair to producers, when they gave respected American playwrights a Broadway forum in the 1997-98 season, they got burned. Christopher Durang’s Sex and Longing, Neil Simon’s Proposals, Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter, and David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child all proved commercial flops (though the latter two plays deserved a better fate), while David Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood should’ve been torn down and its citizens deported. Still, putting Getting and Spending and More to Love in coveted Broadway theaters is the equivalent of stocking a banquet table with Fishamajigs. When diners turn up their noses, the caterer then feels justified in importing caviar, but he might’ve tried a homecooked meal by Julia Child first. 

Broadway Tries Three or Four Different Hare Styles

Judging by producers’ tastes, David Hare turned out to be both the Le Cirque and the McDonalds of British playwrights. He had three different plays running on Broadway in 1998-99, four if you count The Judas Kiss, which spilled its flabby plot over from the previous season. Though no play in Hare’s trio had the emotional pull of his Skylight or the brilliance and depth of his Racing Demon, he did score three different successes. Amy’s View gave Broadway audiences both an old-fashioned mother-daughter conflict and a star turn; the monologue Via Dolorosa earned Hare good reviews both for his objective writing about volatile issues and his debut as a performer; and The Blue Room packed a box-office wallop, thanks to a dash of Hollywood glamour.

Not that everyone wanted to wear Broadway’s latest Hare-style. By season’s end, a sufficient backlash against the playwright’s Broadway dominance had already taken hold so that none of his plays—all of which managed some level of critical acclaim and audience interest—received a best play Tony nomination. (Patrick Marber’s Closer and Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West took the other two slots.) Hare did win Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Solo for Via Dolorosa.

The latter play seemed the least likely to succeed, especially since Via Dolorosa’s subject—Hare’s recent visit to Jewish settlements and Arab-occupied territories in Israel—could easily offend the Jewish core of the Broadway audience. Hare’s tourist-like objectivity calmed those worries, however, and audiences identified with Israelis dismayed by the stalled peace process, with settlers ready to fight for an undivided, Jewish Jerusalem; with Arab organizers who castigate Arafat’s regime as corrupt and powerless; and with ordinary Arab citizens who see no end to a life of poverty and scattered revolt.

Hare’s lecture-cum-travelogue stayed on safest territory when recounting the personalities encountered and their impassioned arguments. Via Dolorosa lost ground when its author/star felt compelled to turn metaphorical or over-explain the obvious: “Stones . . . or ideas? Stones . . . or ideas?” Nevertheless, Hare proved an engaging guide through the ideological minefield of Arab-Israeli relations, and his capturing of a sense of universal disillusionment was borne out by current events: in mid-May 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was voted out in favor of Ehud Barak, the latter seen as more pro-peace and less bound by Orthodox special-interest groups.

Politics and drama have long intersected in Hare’s career, with the author often chastened for letting characters become mouthpieces and dialogue turn into thinly veiled parliamentary debates. The aforementioned Racing Demon, about clerical hypocrisy, proved a turning point, wherein the characters’ struggles expressed and humanized, rather than schematized, their sociological condition. Amy’s View continued this salutary turn in Hare’s writing, though the plot’s shapelessness worked against its welcome dollops of sentiment. Not a lot happens in Amy’s View (mother-daughter tussles don’t tend to be action packed, unless you count screaming and bitching). Middle-aged Esme, a well-known and deeply respected stage actress, welcomes a visit from her semi-independent daughter, Amy (a compelling Samantha Bond). Mama doesn’t like Amy’s boyfriend, Dominic (Tate Donovan), an amiable cineaste who sees theater as an outmoded form of entertainment. It’s detente for awhile, until Esme lets slip a secret she assumes will wreck Amy and Dominic’s relationship. Instead, they get married and have kids, with Dominic becoming a rich and famous filmmaker. 

Happy ever after? Not quite. By the mid-1980s, Dominic’s work schedule makes him an absentee husband and, eventually, a philanderer. Meanwhile, Esme, who never really bothered to sort out her finances when money was readily available, discovers that not only were her investments in the Lloyd’s of London “Names” program wiped out, she’s liable for millions of pounds lost by other investors. In other words, no matter how much or how little she earns for the rest of her life, it all goes to the government, which then doles her back a small stipend to live on. She still manages to do theater and even finds herself in an unexpected, albeit small-scale, smash. But she’s also forced to act in a ridiculous television soap opera for income.

The play’s most resonant scene comes 16 years after the opening. Still great but emotionally ravaged, the actress sits at a makeup table in the theater’s dressing room and receives a visit from her hated son-in-law. She doesn’t want his money (he offers); she doesn’t want his sympathy, and we eventually learn that her tragedy has extended well beyond financial liquidation. The sequence doesn’t hit us the way it should because Hare has never decided whether Amy’s View is about Amy or Esme, and he doesn’t make clear whether the play’s true thematic conflict is marriage vs. independence, “art” vs. mass entertainment, or personal choice vs. sensible expectations. The dressing room scene has all the makings of a great, affecting showdown but is curiously unmoving. Or at least it would be without the presence of Judi Dench, whose gravitas rends the heart. Until this pivotal scene, the role, and her performance, aren’t all that different from the Shirley Valentine/Auntie Mame prototype of a bustling, slightly eccentric, haughty but engaging middle-aged lady dynamo. But in act three, Dench finds a well of bottomless grief in Esme. This is the opposite of weepy, histrionic sorrow; Esme has become a shell-shocked victim who presses on with life, even though she’s lost absolutely everything of value except the comforts of her beloved theater. Just the way Dench’s Esme, expressionless and with a deep, cracked voice, says “perhaps” is enough to connote an ocean of despair. 

If, in Amy’s View, Hare fails at milking melodrama from philosophical affrays, in The Blue Room, it doesn’t seem as though he’s doing anything except giving us just what the world needs—another adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde. The latter’s sardonic look at relationships got its kick from viewing sexual and romantic encounters as a daisy chain of dominance and submission. The man holding the cards in one scene becomes the jilted lover in the next, while the lady saying “Dear John” to him will, minutes later, be throwing herself at a disinterested cad. By using only two actors, however, The Blue Room neutralizes this conceit; we see the play as an exercise in versatility rather than as a series of juxtaposed manipulations. 

Under any other circumstances, The Blue Room would have come and gone in a week or two, the victim of its sterile core and disconnected framework. Instead, Hare’s play was the hottest ticket on Broadway all winter long, on track to gross $4 million for its limited run until lead actress Nicole Kidman bowed out a week early owing to throat trouble. Quite honestly, Kidman could have played the role mute, and patrons still would have lined up around the block. Though anyone can see her unclothed in such films as Billy Bathgate and Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, for some reason, theatergoers went berserk over seeing 40 seconds of her naked tush live onstage. Ticket buyers pored over seating charts at the Cort Theater for the best angle to ogle Kidman during her brief, dorsal nude scene. A magnificent backside it was—and not a bad performance, either, in roles ranging from a devil-may-care actress to a slutty wannabe. Capable co-star Iain Glen showed even more flesh as well as a typically ineffectual, Brit-leading-man steadiness, but no amount of sex appeal or talent could overcome such a vacant enterprise. 

Closer, the second work by UK wunderkind Patrick Marber, took a fishtank view of four sexy, sex-starved, very messed-up Londoners and surfaced with a lacerating look at modern-day sexual politics. Voted best foreign play by the New York Drama Critics Circle, Closer showed perfectly intelligent people allowing themselves to be governed by their yearnings. Marber allows us to envy these sybarites who find exhilaration in one relationship while still pursuing other objects of desire, but we’re never allowed to forget the awful consequences selfishness can leave in its wake. 

In Closer, flirtatious but accident-prone Alice picks up writer Dan, and they fast become an item. She even serves as the muse for his first book, but when it’s time to take the picture for the dustjacket, Dan finds himself lusting for the photographer (Natasha Richardson). though attracted, she repels his advances for Alice’s sake. In a plot turn similar to (but more playful than) Craig Lucas’s the Dying Gaul, Dan uses the internet to make mischief. He impersonates Anna online and arranges an erotic “date” for her with a horny dermatologist, Larry (Ciaran Hinds). This hilarious sequence was played in silence, with the two men typing at computers on opposite sides of the stage, their “dialogue” appearing on a big screen for the audience to read. It was this scene’s graphic sexual references, on-the-edge humor, and cheeky honesty that truly announced Closer as the 1990s heir to Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Real Thing and other gloves-off dispatches from the male-female boxing ring.

Dan’s online escapade backfires, but in a sweetly positive way—Anna and Larry end up meeting for real and hitting it off. But few other events in Closer are so serendipitously romantic. Dan’s persistence eventually wins Anna over, while Larry lives out his lustful fantasies for Alice by becoming a client in the strip club where she works. Needless to say, the changing of partners in Closer often has the casual cruelty of 1990s business mergers, but the play’s great strength—aside from Marber’s clipped, straight-for-the-jugular dialogue, which already gripped New York in Dealer’s Choice—is recognizing the emotional devastation wrought by these breakups and assignations.

Though too raunchy for the blue-hair set, Closer used its hipness quotient and hot cast to draw crowds. Anna Friel, as the pixie-like nymph Alice, served as the show’s visual icon (her photo becomes a bigger and bigger backdrop as the play progresses), while the more womanly but equally sexy Natasha Richardson served as the play’s moral center (weak as her character turns out to be). Ciaran Hinds proved memorable, also, as the creepy-charming, dominating-yet-desperate doctor.

Hare and Marber’s treatment of characters, be they wealthy or impoverished, invariably had the tone of privileged onlookers peering in through the window; Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West offered a view of Irish hell through a mouse-hole. Funnier but less rich than his The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West carried McDonagh’s tit-for-tat cruelties to even greater extremes. Set like its predecessor in the wretched Galway backwater of Leenane, West pitches its fraternal rivalry in a so-awful-it’s-funny vein that lures us into expecting homilies about brotherhood, only to turn vicious and unpleasant.

Brothers Valene and Coleman share a dingy flat—actually, share isn’t quite the word. Valene has scrawled a magic-marker letter “V” on every object belonging specifically to him, from the stove to religious icons lining the shelves. If his brother wants a packet of potato chips, he’d better be ready to cough up money for them. Coleman, calmer than his sniveling sibling, simply wants to read his newspaper, nosh on crisps, and not be bothered by Valene’s relentless goading. It doesn’t take much to get the two rolling around the floor and pummeling each other, a ritual even the good-hearted local priest can’t undo.

All this is amusing in a True West kind of way until we realized that Coleman, to all appearances a typical working-class layabout, is also dangerously psychotic and prone to malicious violence. So hateful are his actions, in fact, that Lonesome West has difficulty reconciling its dark and light sides. The sweetly written opening scene of Act II, wherein Father Welsh bids a touching farewell to Girleen, a young woman with an unrequited crush on him, leads us to figure that he will, indeed, have some ameliorating effect on the boys’ behavior. And sophisticated audiences are even primed for the classic comedy-sketch setup that follows: The brothers make an attempt at detente, falling all over themselves to forgive each other’s sins, only to find the catalogue of offenses piled so high, rage once again conquers all. Yet audiences were likely turned off by the final showdown, whose ugliness choked all laughter and turned an enjoyable black comedy into something nasty. Despite four Tony nominations, including best play and best director, and some excellent reviews (notably from the New York Post’s Donald Lyons, who called it “a tragicomedy of great power”), The Lonesome West had a rough time at the box office. Near the end of the run, the Lyceum Theater was 80 percent empty, making it unlikely New York will see A Skull in Connemara, the third play in McDonagh’s “Leenane” trilogy.

Perhaps the strangest part of all this is that another Irish-themed play, Conor McPherson’s The Weir, showed resiliency despite facing greater box-office odds. The Weir received exceptional notices for its cast but only a couple of glowing reviews for the play itself. Worse, the Tony Awards snubbed the quiet drama completely, though actors Michelle Fairley and Jim Norton both seemed likely for nominations. Nonetheless, when close to a dozen Broadway shows shuttered in the weeks following the Tonys, The Weir held steady.

If only this ghost of a show were worthy of longevity! Judging by The Weir and the previous season’s St. Nicholas off Broadway, McPherson certainly has the gift of gab but nary a clue as to how to shape a narrative and drive it forward. (His This Lime Tree Bower, late in the season at off-off-Broadway’s Primary Stages, was a heartening step in the right direction, but even that jaunty piece put all its dramatic situations into monologues.) What’s especially disheartening about The Weir is that McPherson defaults on what seems like the ideal premise for a good old-fashioned ghost story. The Weir deposits us in a rustic Irish tavern with its rusted denizens, including a garrulous old geezer, a reserved homebody, and a blase barkeep. These same few guys, day in day out, suddenly find themselves on their best behavior when Valerie, an attractive, middle-aged woman, arrives. It seems each dweller at the tavern has a different other-worldly experience in his past—nothing too horrific, but something years of mundane country life can’t efface, either. when it’s Valerie’s turn to spin a tale, hers is spookier and more profound than the rest put together. 

One imagines the optimal format for this sort of thing is television: think Tales from the Crypt meets Northern Exposure. Think The X Files meets Cheers. Think anything but the lifeless two hours McPherson dribbles out of this setup. Each yarn spun by the barflies is so mild as to be inconsequential, while Valerie’s past, while sad, is neither supernatural nor distinctive. Her sorrowful tale supposedly draws everyone in the bar together into some kind of cathartic bond, but I’d sooner wrestle with Coleman and Valene than raise a glass with this moribund crew.

In fact, one slogan for the season might be: For two hours that passed like four and a half hours, there was The Weir; for four and a half hours that passed like two hours, there was The Iceman Cometh. Eugene O’Neill’s epic drama proved one of the year’s major events, a painstakingly mounted, marvelously realized epic, boosted by a star performance from Kevin Spacey. Whereas Jason Robards’s Hickey was an avuncular Good Time Charlie (think Willy Loman on a bender), Spacey was a coiled snake, a truly icy iceman one could imagine wheeling and dealing with Wall Street suit-and-tie types. 

Whether the interpretation was enough to carry such an epic became the show’s most debated element. An outcry went up when Spacey wasn’t even nominated for best actor by the Drama Desk, although the theater community was less aggrieved when he was nominated but beaten out for a Tony by Salesman’s Brian Dennehy. While Spacey’s presence ignited ticket sales, not everyone found his glad-handing sociopathy a revelation. To these eyes, the more Spacey appeared, the less he had to offer. The first time we see him in the play (after O’Neill’s slow, hourlong buildup), we’re primed to be electrified, and the actor doesn’t disappoint. He’s both the life of the party and the poison in the punchbowl. In ensuing scenes, his energy never flags, but we also don’t get the feeling these people are really his friends and comrades. Not only isn’t he one of them anymore, it’s hard to believe he was one of them even in his most debauched long weekends. In turn, that makes it tough to believe he would spend so much time desperately convincing them to drop their life-lies. When Spacey delivers Hickey’s equivalent of an 11 o’clock number, a half-hour monologue that begins as a lecture and ends as a confession, he bullets through it, his torrent of words sounding more like a suburban psycho than a common man driven over the edge by crushed expectations.

Among the more memorable pipe dreamers in Harry Hope’s saloon: Paul Giamatti’s dissipated Jimmy Tomorrow, Clarke Peters’s fierce Joe, and James Hazeldine’s persuasive Harry, whose walk around the block is forever fated to boomerang back to his own front door. Michael Emerson, so memorable as Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, played the effete, posturing Willie Oban, while Taxi’s Tony Danza, the production’s other “marquee name,” proved able as Rocky the barkeep and pimp.

To be sure, more than one acquaintance of mine hailed Spacey’s performance in Iceman as volcanic and called the production their all-time greatest experience in the theater. I acknowledge that Howard Davies’s epic staging was an estimable achievement, as diligent with each minor character as it was with the obvious star turn. Still, the production did not shake my conviction that Iceman takes 260 minutes to tell a 200-minute story. And unlike Long Day’s Journey into Night, which reaches deeper into the Tyrones’ psyche each time it digs into the same patch of ground, Iceman feels merely repetitious. “Pipe dreams” is not a phrase that rolls easily into everyday conversation, especially when used more than two dozen times in the same context.

An Enthralling Salesman Also Cometh

Of course, any theater season breeds competition (however meaningless), and I freely admitted to my friends I was biased towards Death of a Salesman. Like the season Six Degrees of Separation lost the Tony to Lost in Yonkers, Iceman awed the intelligentsia, but Salesman captured the hearts of the masses. In 1998-99, those masses responded with Tonys for best revival, actor (Dennehy), featured actress (Elizabeth Franz), and director (Robert Falls), plus a special lifetime achievement nod for Arthur Miller. Adding further sentiment to this revival was its opening on February 10, 1999—50 years to the day from its 1949 Broadway debut.  

Haven’t we all been bludgeoned with Salesman since grade school, the sight of slump-shouldered Willy Loman and his two shabby suitcases ingrained on our brains as the image of the 20th century everyman? And haven’t we all had enough of Willy’s daydreams, his crankiness, his foolish pride, his favoritism of Biff over Happy, his inability to grasp what’s really going on at any given moment?

No, says Robert Falls’s enthralling revival, we sure haven’t. In fact, if we think of Salesman only from textbooks and Dustin Hoffman’s pint-sized little-man-gets-kicked-again interpretation, we’ve hardly appreciated the scope of it at all. When mountainous Brian Dennehy goes down, fiercely protected as he is by wife Elizabeth Franz, refuted yet honored by loafing son Kevin Anderson, and cajoled by caring neighbor Howard Witt, it’s like watching the downfall of a middle-class emperor, the spearing of a mighty dinosaur. Or, as Hollywood Reporter critic Frank Scheck put it, “There’s something about watching a big man fall.”

The poeticized graveside coda still doesn’t work (nor does Mark Wendland’s distractingly mobile set), but otherwise five decades’ passage have only made Salesman’s human drama even more lacerating. In the late 1990s, Iceman’s themes of pipe dreams and political disillusionment may still engender stimulating discussions, but Salesman’s issues of downsizing and domestic trauma are front-page news. And here they’re conveyed with immediacy by a stunning cast. Dennehy’s Willy is less a bully than a bag of wind, a natural optimist who finds all his reasons to hope slowly pulled away from him. We wish he’d take Charley’s job offer, or at least punch his boss in the face, but we also understand why he’d consider it a humiliating admission of defeat. And because so much of his pain is self-directed, he’s just a little more sympathetic when taking Linda and Happy for granted, or expecting too much from Biff. 

If Dennehy lived up to our expectations of a colossal Loman, other performances proved revelatory by blasting away vague memories of generic supporting roles—the wife, the kindly neighbor, the nerd turned conqueror. At first, we think we have Elizabeth Franz’s Linda pegged; her tremulous, verge-of-tears smile and rose-tinted optimism make her a pushover, a put-upon Fifties wife dominated by her husband and fretting over her kids. But soon we realize Willy is more than her companion and provider, he’s her rock, and when Biff and Happy start chipping away at what’s left of him, Franz’s Linda exhibits a ferocious protectiveness that would give even Antigone pause. Kevin Anderson’s Biff wavers, piercingly, between wanting to be a loyal son and punishing pop for his one unpardonable sin (infidelity). Director Falls overstresses the just-wants-to-be-noticed angle of Ted Koch’s Happy, but he’s spot-on showing the banality of Howard’s evil and simplicity of Charley’s decency. As played by Chicago veteran Steve Pickering, Howard is a middle-man bureaucrat, not heartless, just exasperated by Willy’s decreased productivity and unwilling (as so many of us would be) to sit down and give him a hearing. Howard Witt’s Charley has a take-it-or-leave-it gravity that somehow conveys both charm and a deep reserve of ethics. He deserves having Richard Thompson’s duckling-to-swan Bernard for a son.

For a son only a mother-type could love, audiences turned to Night Must Fall, a mediocre but surprisingly popular revival of Emlyn Williams’s thriller. Matthew Broderick played Dan, the sweet-faced, Welsh handyman-cum-homicidal maniac getting on the good side of a rich, handicapped old lady (Judy Parfitt). What with Dan wandering around Essex toting a head-shaped carrying bag, Night Must Fall isn’t so much a whodunit as a “When will they finally realize HEdunit?” Parfitt had some fun as the snippy oldster warming to Dan’s affability—and later succumbing to his bloodthirst—but John Tillinger’s direction did little to make sense of the iffy motivations in Williams’s potboiler. Performances roamed all over the English countryside, with some horrendous overacting by the servants, and even the reliable J. Smith-Cameron was adrift in a role that called for her to be hypnotically drawn to the visitor’s dark side. James Noon’s black-white-grey set was eyecatching and apt, however, and Night Must Fall drew well enough for National Actors Theater to move it from the Lyceum to the Helen Hayes. (For his part, Broderick must have really loved the role or been well paid, since he backed out of a previous commitment at Hartford Stage—the premiere of Horton Foote’s latest, The Death of Papa—to effectuate Night’s commercial transfer. 

Uneven casting and direction also hurt The Lion in Winter, which should’ve been a sure thing. After all, James Goldman constructed his tale of family infighting as a series of knife-edged witticisms, a delicious concatenation of power plays that keep us guessing until the final showdown of king, queen, and rotten kids. With Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing as the collusive sovereigns and ubiquitous golden boy Michael Mayer at the helm (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Side Man), Lion should have roared, but all Broadway got from the Roundabout mounting were grunts and chuckles. Fault not Channing; her Eleanor of Aquitaine mixed bitterness and rue with just the right tone of playful dark humor. As Henry II, Fishburne was not Channing’s match, in regality or intensity. Their offspring were a mixed lot, with Neal Huff’s manipulative Geoffrey coming off best. All were hampered by the production’s on-the-cheap set and costumes, which reduced Goldman’s life-and-death intrigues to a game of dress-up. 

Another revival to come and go with decent notices and little hoopla was Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon. Once the toast of Broadway, Anouilh’s satires, which scrape away the facades of the rich, have had a difficult time competing against such swift, high concept pieces as Art or such sexually blunt entertainments as The Blue Room and Closer. A poorly presented revival of his masterwork, The Rehearsal, a few seasons back did little to renew interest, and Lincoln Center Theater’s capable mounting of Ring Round the Moon played like a drawing trifle rather than an exciting discovery. Toby Stephens darted about in the lead roles of twins, one rakish, the other timorous, both causing confusion during a party at the state of their aunt, Madame Desmermortes. The latter role was to have been played by Irene Worth, but she suffered a stroke during previews, leading the producers to replace her with Marian Seldes, who’d already been doing the matinees. Seldes’s reward? Good reviews and a best-actress Tony nomination. (Oddly enough, Ring wasn’t the only show to have a “stroke” of bad luck; Ron Taylor, a cast member and co-creator of the revue It ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, suffered a similar ailment that took him out of the lineup till mid-summer.)

Though in no way memorable, Gerald Gutierrez’s staging of Ring had its felicities, mostly the wisecrack witticisms of Mme. Desmemortes, the chic costumes of the party guests, and the overall waltziness of the piece, essentially a farce without doorslams. Gretchen Egolf evoked sympathy as the poor ballerina used as a pawn by haughty twin Hugo, though her third-act histrionics proved hard to listen to. Joyce Van Patten had her best role in recent memory as Isabelle’s vulgar mom, while Fritz Weaver was a welcome presence as a rich millionaire whose money has made him miserable (though ore than one critic charged that Ring’s treatment of this semi-likable character, who sees money as the forge of all allegiances, smacked of Shylockian anti-Semitism).

Ring ran all spring, but the season’s winner in the high-class froth sweepstakes was Lincoln Center’s Twelfth Night of the previous summer. Not that Nicholas Hytner’s Shakespeare was any more special than Mayer’s Anouilh, but famous names brought in the bucks. Helen Hunt, a household name thanks to TV’s Mad About You, played the masquerading Viola; Kyra Sedgwick the petulant countess Olivia, and Paul Rudd the lovesick, self-absorbed Duke Orsino. Clown roles went to such veterans as Brian Murray (Sir Toby) and Max Wright (Sir Andrew), with Philip Bosco an amusingly peeved Malvolio. 

Critics faulted a mish-mash of anachronisms (take-out Chinese food??) and acting styles on view, from Murray and Bosco’s classical approach to Hunt’s flat American accent and Sedgwick’s (often funny) hamminess. Audiences, as they did with many reviled Shakespeare-in-the-Park entries during the Papp era, arrived in droves and left with no complaints. In fact, so popular was the mounting, PBS broadcast the final performance live, and the Resmiranda CD label released a disk of the show’s songs and incidental music. (That composer Jeanine Tesori would get a Tony nomination for best original score was less a function of her pleasant tunes than the season’s woesome lineup of musicals. More on that anon.)

Much was made of Twelfth Night’s costumes and design. Hunt, shining blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, cut an appealing figure in her cream-colored men’s garb (and she really looked like the equally blonde actor laying her long-lost twin brother). Sedgwick got to show off her impressive bust—in outfits that looked like cast-offs from I Dream of Jeannie. Bob Crowley’s set, much lauded for its prettiness and its inviting inlets of water, nevertheless left pundits puzzled over what to call its Spain-meets-China motif—Deliria? Still, watching Murray’s proud slob and Wright’s hilariously self-abnegating nerd hold back laughing while Malvolio got his comeuppance delighted as much as any Shakespearean comic scene in recent times. 

Broadway also rolled out the welcome ramp for Sophocles, courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse’s spare mounting of Electra that premiered at the Chichester Festival in 1997 and came to New York via New Jersey’s McCarter Theater. The main element of Johan Engels’s set design was a wooden plank tipped seesaw-like on a rock. The rest was bleak and burnt out, meant to evoke a very modern war zone. In his program notes, director David Leveaux referred explicitly to the Balkan conflict and being influenced by an amateur documentary in which a shell-shocked young girl still “communicates” with her dead brother. Attempts to contemporize Electra should have stopped on that metaphorical level, but Leveaux used this as an excuse to make Sophocles’s tragedy a stew of ancient masks, 1940s dress and 1990s haircuts, including a spiky `do for Zoë Wanamaker that led New York magazine scribe John Simon to draw comparisons to both Giulietta Masina and a hedgehog. 

Electra isn’t the most proactive character in the canon; whether in Sophocles’s original or Frank McGuinness’s respectful adaptation used here, she spends most of the drama’s 80 minutes sneering and grousing. In this production, she got to roll around, stumble, and wail in paroxysms of grief that, I think, were meant to imitate some kind of “birth” but came off (at least to these eyes) as an embarrassing display of hysterics. To be sure, Zoë Wanamaker secured a Tony nomination, as did the production for best revival. On the plus side, even the production’s detractors had to give Claire Bloom her due. As the regal but careworn Clytemnestra, she was the epitome of grace and concealed fervor—would that we could see her as Gertrude of Denmark. As Electra’s long-lost brother, Orestes, Michael Cumpsty offered his usual noble-Roman oratory; Pat Carroll’s Chorus had much of Juliet’s nurse about her, and Daniel Oreskes’s faceless Aegisthus deserved whatever punishment Orestes was ready to dish out.

Our historian, Thomas T. Foose, adds this comment: “As the present century nears its end, a familiarity with the Electra plays of either Sophocles or Euripides by theater audiences is a phenomenon of this century. These plays were rarely seen on our stages in the 19th century and rarely seen on London stages during either the 19th or 18th century.”

In a season where incidental music could be considered an original score, and where the director and choreographer of a modern ballet could win two musical Tonys while the ballet itself wasn’t actually considered a musical, little wonder shows that weren’t one thing or another proliferated on the Great White Way.

For example, Sandra Bernhard’s I’m Still Here . . . Damn It! was a typically in-your-face farrago of anecdotes, diva humor, and rock n’ roll posing. Her fans were in ecstasy; the rest of us cast our nets into the sea of attitude and were grateful to catch a belly laugh now and again: “Forget Caller I.D.,” she ranted. “I wish they had Caller I.Q.!”

Sure, super-hip viewers laughed and whooped at every mention of Mary J. Blige, Linda Evangelista, and Radiohead. Everyone else chuckled uneasily, not wanting to be left out but wishing Bernhard had taken more trouble to think up funny things about these 15-minute icons. Johnny Carson could tell a bad joke wait for the punchline to flatten out, and then get a laugh by holding the moment and implying to the audience, “You know it flopped; I know it flopped. Tomorrow, I’ll fire the writers, but tonight, let’s laugh at it anyway.” When Bernhard didn’t get a desired laugh, she’d pause—half wounded, half cocky—and insinuate that the audience wasn’t  hip enough to get these topical references. Her anecdotes of life as a pseudo chic, jet-setting, Kaballah-reading, lesbian mother of an infant could be amusing, but her tales became so exaggerated, we wondered what parts of her stories of meeting Courtney Love, reciting doggerel at Lilith Fair, and visiting an Islamic bath house were true. Take away the gossipy angle of “did this really happen?” and the stories vanished even faster than they were told. (Comparing Bernhard’s tale to those of Alexander H. Cohen in his OOB solo, Star Billing, made the difference clear. He embellished his reminiscences of Garbo, Burton, and Chevalier with obvious jokes, but the celeb stuff fascinated because its authenticity augmented the quips.

In I’m Still Here, Bernhard belted out a few rock numbers with strength and some sexiness—entertaining enough until the volume became irksome. Overmiking also detracted greatly from a limited-run solo concert by Charles Aznavour, the French-Armenian singer-composer best known to us under-40s as the guy who wrote “Yesterday When I was Young.” He sang that, and a lot of other career hits in French and English, while making charming small talk with the “Why aren’t they at Westbury Music Fair?” crowd. If the shrill sound system didn’t give them a headache, they got what they came for.

More welcome was Mandy Patinkin’s latest Broadway stint, Mamaloshen, an evening of songs in Yiddish filtered through the voice, theatricality, and occasional overabundance of the Chicago Hope star. A fully conceived song cycle, Mamaloseh offered a dozen of the world’s best-known Jewish ditties (“Oyfn Pripitchik,” “Raisins and Almonds”), bracketed by Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” The latter served as a between-song palate cleanser and reminder of just how closely these songs are now identified, not with Russia or Poland, but with the American immigrant experience. Mamaloshen (translation: “mother tongue”) tried out at the Lower East side’s Angel Orensanz Center in summer 1998. A synagogue and Jewish Center, the Orensanz should have been the ideal venue for such an ethnic undertaking, but the atmosphere was neither intimate nor spiritual, and the stuffy air and comfortless chairs made even an hour’s sit burdensome. Broadway’s Belasco, and its cushioned seats, temperate climate, and more effective lighting (by Eric Cornwell) gave the uptown version a boost, as did newly added encores, including a freilich “Elimelech” and more playful interaction with talented featured violinist, Saeka Matsuyama.

As if to prove not all forms of nepotism are bad, the Belasco’s dark nights were given over the Patinkin’s wife, Kathryn Grody, for a revival of her monologue, A Mom’s Life. With so many shows joking up home and family, A Mom’s Life came as a gentle refreshment, a low-key evening that was nothing more, or less, than a mother recounting the daily heartaches and miracles of raising two children. People can complain all they want about how busy they are at the office, but Grody revealed there’s nothing more hectic in the universe than making lunch, calling babysitters, potty-training, dressing a two-year-old and placating a seven-year-old. A Mom’s Life was originally produced at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, and, like An Irish Wake at the Helene Hayes, the no-frills piece felt undersized for Broadway. Response to the run was positive enough for Grody to reopen the show in the spring at the ArcLight Theater where, undoubtedly, its sincerity and sweetness filled the space twice over.  

By the same token, one doubted that the Broadway musical Band in Berlin could keep a ten-seat theater awake. Gratifying as it was to have a musical that didn’t crank its amplifiers up to eleven, B in B was as soft in the brain as it was on the ears. This bizarrely constructed entertainment started with a good story but picked all the wrong ways to proceed. Certainly there’s drama to be found in the true tale of the Comedian Harmonists, a half-Jewish, half-Christian musical sexted (five singers and a pianist) that gained fame during Germany’s Weimar years but found itself besieged once Nazism tightened its stranglehold on the region. Shortly after the Nuremberg Laws restricting Jewish rights were passed, the Harmonists held a meeting about whether to stay in Germany or leave as a group for the U.S. The non-Jews stayed, dissolving the team and, one would imagine, a number of close friendships.

A still-born lecture with music, Band in Berlin eschewed actual documentary footage in favor of a black-and-white video of an actor impersonating one of the Harmonists, accompanied by fake “home movies” of the group. As for the live material, watching the Band in Berlin Harmonists mix barbershop quartet and German art song with a dash of mild cavorting was like sitting through a passable Ed Sullivan act stretching their gig to 15 numbers instead of one. Two bright spots had the players vocally mimicking instruments, once for a New Orleans-style blues, the other for a truly entertaining Barber of Seville overture. Later came the heavy irony, as the group sang “Whistle While You Work” while photos of the death camps loomed behind them. It was hard not to be touched when works of Holocaust-inspired art accompanied a lullaby, but even these moments showed directors Patricia Birch and Susan Feldman artificially imposing meaning instead of revealing what any of this meant to members of the band.

If nothing else, Marlene, another hybrid play-musical, tried to get at the psychology of its famed subject, actress and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich. Alas, according to Pam Gems’s script, the key to understanding Dietrich lay in her sexual recollections, catty comments, neurotic mood swings, and fetish for cleaning. With nattering dialogue that made William Luce’s puerile Barrymore look like Dostoyevsky by comparison, Marlene placed the diva in her dressing room, alternately sharing stories directly with the audience or ordering around her assistant, Vivian (Margaret Whitton). For further excitement, Marlene’s other longtime helper, an ancient Holocaust survivor (Mary Diveny), shuffled around and slept a lot.

To be fair, Gems did attempt to show the contradictions that constituted La Marlene. As Gems saw her, Dietrich was an icon-goddess and an extremely messed-up human being; she was fiercely loyal but also took advantage of those closest to her; she mopped her own dressing room but wouldn’t take the stage unless the bouquets of flowers pre-planned for her encore were distributed in just the right sequence. As displayed in Marlene, however, these quirks conveyed no greatness, no fascinating depth, nothing more than Gems’s need to score an easy laugh line when things got dull. (Gems’s previous New York contribution, Stanley, also used artistic temperament to excuse its protagonist’s abominable behavior; but at least that piece, for all its repetitions and slow patches, explored rather than showcased Stanley Spencer’s pathology.) After 90 minutes of Dietrich’s self-absorption, punctuated by the occasional classic ditty, we were rewarded with a concert recreation; that is, a half-dozen songs as Marlene would have performed them. 

Critics were split on the Dietrich-imitating powers of English actress Siân Phillips, best known for playing wicked Livia on I, Claudius. Dietrich aficionados faulted her German and said Phillips captured the movements but not the essence of Marlene. She seemed fine to me, even if her reproduction of Dietrich’s celebrated speech defect had a little too much Elmer Fudd in it. From the concert, one did get a strong sense of Marlene’s political leanings and musical tastes. While it might strike us as bizarre for her to sing Pete Seeger’s “Where have All the Flowers Gone,” that song was in Dietrich’s repertoire (it’s been captured on video), and Phillips reminded us how much power the diva’s anti-war sentiments added to the number. Negligible as Marlene was, there are worse ways to spend an evening at the theater than hearing a very good Marlene impersonator doing “Lili Marlene,” “La Vie en Rose,” and “Falling in Love Again.” The Tony Awards Administration Committee must have agreed, for they declared Marlene a musical (rather than a “musical play,” as denoted on the Playbill) and nominated it for best book(!) and best actress in a musical. Betcha the morning after the Tonys, playwrights all over America started jamming half a dozen songs into their scripts, just to hedge their bets . . .

An All-Music, Non-Musical: Swan Lake

Certainly a song or two might have helped Swan Lake be considered a musical, as opposed to a special, um, thingie. Matthew Bourne, artistic director of the U.K.-based Adventures in Motion Pictures company, took hope Tony Awards for direction and choreography, but Swan Lake itself though wall-to-wall music, did not qualify as a musical, nor could Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky compete against Frank Wildhorn and Jason Robert Brown for score honors. Though it didn’t quite become the cause celebre in the States that AMP and co-producer Cameron Mackintosh had hoped for, Swan Lake did make waves, its audacious uniqueness adding spark to a season that desperately needed a boost. Backed by a full orchestra (remember those?) with nary a synth in sight, Swan Lake was not your typical display of willow swañoritas. Bourne’s version begins in the bedroom of a spoiled Prince as he fends off the ministrations of his controlling mother and prepares for a night out with his girlfriend. Things get worse for him at the Opera House where, in a riotously funny sequence, he and his lady friend watch a ridiculous ballet about a Moth Maiden, Butterfly Maidens, and an “Evil Forest Troll.” So bored is the Prince’s trampy gal pal (played to perfection by Emily Piercy), she finds a dozen ways to keep busy, from snacking noisily to waving at her friends in the gallery. (Bourne cruelly split the audience’s attention here; one didn’t know whether to watch her antics or those of the ballet troupe trying to ignore her. Both were equally ribtickling.) 

If more of Swan Lake were this engaging, Bourne would have pulled off a coup indeed, turning a weepy, if beautiful, dance classic into a work of vibrant, albeit wordless, musical theater. At 40 minutes into the show, however, the Prince does a rotten thing: he goes to the park and looks at swans. This turns out badly for him, since the male swan he falls in love with turns out to be his undoing. It turns out much worse for us, because we’re then subjected to a half hour of male swans in unflattering feathered tutus, fluttering about without much grace, beauty or . . . anything. Of all times for Bourne’s choreographic inventions to fail him!

Maybe the wunderkind felt he was making a statement by having the traditionally female swan corps played by men, but shouldn’t the result be that we’re as moved and impressed by the dancing as in a traditional Swan Lake? By the time the Prince finally exits the park, we’ve lost the narrative thread—not to mention our appetite for roast goose. Act II featured a good scene where a randy gay stud (is he the same swan in human form? You got me) crashes a fancy ball and abuses all the guests, but the violent finale proved incomprehensible and the “touching” coda just ridiculous. 

Those in search of pure, wordless nonsense were better off catching the third go-`round of Fool Moon, Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s magnificent evening of mimed comedy. With The Red Clay Ramblers band as ever providing ideal underscoring, the rubbery Irwin and snarky Shiner trotted out the same old routines-which galloped along with the same old greatness.

No Sondheim, no Lloyd Webber, no Ahrens & Flaherty, no Maltby & Shire, no Hamlisch, no buzz. While the one-two punch of The Lion King and Ragtime was expected to make musicals the hot commodity on Broadway this season, the actual roster was dreary indeed, without a single new score that critics and audiences could take to heart. It didn’t help that only three original scores reached The Street all year: Parade, by Jason Robert Brown; The Civil War, by Frank Wildhorn, and Footloose, by Dean Pitchford and Tom Snow (plus several songs from the hit film by various pop tunesmiths). All the other “new” musicals were revues of extant material: An Evening with Jerry Herman, Fosse, The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm, Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A., and It ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues. Tchaikovsky anyone?

Certainly the highest hopes went out to Parade, a Lincoln Center Theater mounting backed by Livent and co-conceived and staged by the one and only Harold Prince. Theater buffs worried that the subject matter—the judicial railroading and lynching of Leo Frank by an anti-Semitic Southern community—wasn’t right for a musical, even a Serious-with-a-capital-S one. But naysayers were comforted by the creative team’s pedigree. Brown, a relative newcomer, had worked his way up the scene as musical director and arranger for such tuners as When Pigs Fly and Dinah Was. he got his big composing break in 1995 with the generally well-received WPA Theater staging of Songs for a New World. Librettist Alfred Uhry, though best known for such non-musicals as the Tony-winning Last Night of Ballyhoo and Pulitzer-winning Driving Miss Daisy, had his share of musical experience, including penning the Tony-nominated libretto for The Robber Bridegroom. (He lost, but his competition was A Chorus Line, Chicago, and Pacific Overtures!) Lead actor Brent Carver won a whole passel of honors for Kiss of the Spider Woman, while choreographer Patricia Birch’s resume boasted enough New York credits to lead any parade.

What all these talents came up with was an intelligent, carefully measured, melodic show that bored critics to tears and worked like bug spray at the box office. After the first round of negative reviews, second stringers were more appreciative of Parade’s good points, but by then the damage was done. A planned extension was rescinded, and Broadway’s musical hopes floated belly up. Even the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, Tony Awards for Uhry and Brown, and a late-season announcement of a planned regional tour couldn’t quash the feeling that Parade was a show nobody wanted except the folks who devised it.

The general complaint was that Leo Frank wasn’t a terribly sympathetic character, and that by taking his innocence for granted, the show passed up a number of options to make the story more intriguing. Parade therefore followed a straight-forward path: Frank working late at the factory, young Mary Phagan found dead, the iffy evidence pointing to Leo, Lucille Frank (Carolee Carmello) standing by her husband, the guilty verdict, Lucille crashing high society to aid her husband, the politician who helps reverse the death-penalty ruling, the mob who make sure “justice” is done. Along the way, satirical stabs are taken at newshounds right-wing preachers, and a public hungry for blood lust.

Parade unquestionably had its head in the right place, but that wasn’t enough for theatergoers spoiled by Ragtime’s intricacy and more accomplished score just a year earlier. Give Jason Robert Brown his due, though. Rather than pen a sung-through atonal bore—as so many of his contemporaries have been doing this past decade—the composer-lyricist wrote actual songs, crafted in a recognizable music-theater/folk song style. Perhaps the most inspired moment had the Governor visiting a chain gang to pry more honest testimony out of the prosecution’s questionable star witness, Jim Conley (a dynamic Rufus Bonds Jr.). Conley responded as if the questions were a call-and-response blues holler, both upping the ante of the scene and making it thrillingly musical. Critics unanimously appreciated a lively fantasy sequence during the trial, wherein Leo emerged from his nerdy persona to invite a chorus of factory girls to “Come Up to My Office.”

Parade skidded off the track a couple of times, especially in beefing up the cliched character of a boozy journalist (a hyperactive Evan Pappas) using the Frank trial as his meal ticket. So much effort was expended on that kind of local color, there wasn’t enough time to humanize Leo and Lucille’s relationship, or even wrap up important secondary characters at the finale. That said, I’m not so ready to agree with my colleagues that it was a mistake to portray Leo as a model of self-righteous decency. Would they rather contradict history and give Frank a seedy side just for the sake of drama? As Parade told us repeatedly, sometimes an innocent man is simply that. Carver made Leo an honorable fall guy, Carmello made a strong impression as a reserved, loving wife forced by circumstances to be an outspoken public advocate for her spouse. In fact, many thought the show should have followed her journey rather than his.

Audiences seemed to want a livelier take on historical tragedy than Parade, but when one did come along, they eschewed it as well. With The Civil War, composer Frank Wildhorn had three musicals running on Broadway, including Jekyll & Hyde and a revamped (and significantly improved) The Scarlet Pimpernel. That all three continued to lose money did little to slow the gears of the Wildhorn machine—until the usual negative reviews greeting a Wildhorn musical, combined with a Tony loss, combined with the size of the St. James Theater, conspired to kill The Civil War just after the Tonys. With The Scarlet Pimpernel shut down near season’s end for yet another overhaul (this one specifically to make it cheaper to operate), the S.S. Wildhorn, for better or worse, finally hit a reef.

The queer thing about Civil War was that its songs converted many previous Wildhorn agnostics. Those who found Jekyll & Hyde overblow and Pimpernel hampered by a silly book had no libretto to scold here. A collection of songs on the theme of Yanks versus Rebs, the piece played to Wildhorn’s strength as a rousing tunesmith—as well as a marketing guru. Two CDs of the material were released before the show opened, one mixing songs and authentic Civil War correspondence as read and sung by celebs and pop stars, the other a Nashville disk of the more country-oriented ditties. Ironically, as of this writing, an actual original cast CD of the show has yet to be recorded. That’s a shame, because ballads like “Virginia” and propulsive numbers like “That Peculiar Institution” and “Oh! Be Joyful!” would be well worth hearing again (and maybe even again and again). Other tunes, including the much-boosted “Freedom’s Child,” sounded a little too much like car commercials, and the non-narrative shape of the show led to some scatterbrained moments as when, five minutes into the production, two soldiers—one blue, one grey—ran onstage. One got shot, the other turned, looked at the fallen body, and shouted, “He’s my brother!”, allowing the dying man to sing a wretched ballad. The action was so sudden, and the characters so unexplained, the song had no context in which to be effective. On the other hand, most of the “slave” numbers worked, and a number of performers registered strongly, including Michael (Show Boat) Bell and Cheryl Freeman on “If Prayin’ were Horses” and Leo Burmester offering comic relief as a contemptible profiteer who steals from a corpse once too often. 

And speaking of profiteers . . . hating Footloose would have been easy, since there was no reason on God’s green earth to do Footloose as a stage musical except to make money and to offer yet another amusement park-ish entertainment on Broadway. When the youthful cast bounded onto the stage (shades of Big, another, better attempt to lure a middle-American, Stepford audience that may not actually exist), Footloose seemed to promise nothing but noise, phony high school wisecracking, and lights shining right into our eyeballs. More than one colleague called it one of the worst musicals ever staged, so imagine my reticence to pipe up and say, “Hey, I kinda liked it.”

Shrill and overzealous as the piece was, and unmemorable as nearly all the songs were (including the movie tunes), damned if the show didn’t hook you in. The story of a happy-go-lucky visitor to a small town where dancing is banned because of an accident years before made not a whit of sense in its plotting, but, surprisingly, its themes and emotions hit home. Other critics shook their heads at being expected to believe that a preacher would condemn an innocent dance party but allow his own daughter to dress like a tramp and accept motorcycle riders behaving like hoodlums at the Burger Blast. Other reviewers couldn’t get past the illogic of the new kid in town confessing in Act II that he needs to get a school dance going to establish his credibility, even though by then he seems not only surrounded by friends and well-wishers, he’s their leader. Footloose’s inconsistencies were not to be ignored, but neither was the emotional soliloquy delivered by the Reverend (Stephen Lee Anderson), which did exactly what such an 11 o’clock number (actually, 10 o’clock) should: take the character into a breakthrough and move us while doing so. The marketing of Footloose concentrated on the energetic performers and love story between Jennifer Laura Thompson and Jeremy Kushnier—the latter an agile and appealing newcomer. The musical ultimately clicked, however, because the preacher’s journey of self discovery was both convincing and universal. At least here, Footloose kept one foot solidly on the ground.

Meanwhile, Cathy Rigby captured even younger crowds by staying up in the air. So popular was her Christmastime return visit as Peter Pan, she flew back again for a late-season run, generally receiving the same good reviews as for her 1991 engagement. Critics were also pleased by the political correcting of the material, with the generally discomfiting :”Ugg-a-Wugg” transformed into an athletic Stomp-like shindig that made the Native-American crew look considerably more evolved than those three pasty English kids. 

Peter Stone tried to do the same for the Injuns in Anne Get Your Gun, but all he came up with in his well-meaning adaptation of Herbert and Dorothy Fields’s book was a stalled plot and even lamer jokes. Audiences gladly tolerated the verbal drivel, however—and the miscasting and choreographic fiascos—and flocked to Annie to see Bernadette Peters do one of the signature roles in American musical theater. A half century from now, show buffs will no doubt read this essay and gasp, “You saw Bernadette do Annie Oakley, and you dare criticize?” Well, yeah. She wasn’t ideal for the role, and Graciela Daniele and Jeff Calhoun sabotaged the material as often as they nurtured it. No one was asking for the return of Merman, and Peters’s ragamuffin sweetness was a legitimate approach. There is something to be said for a genuinely feminine Annie; Frank’s romantic interest can be believably kindled, and she can be “as soft and as pink as a nursery” if she so chooses, especially on ballads. But Peters’s mushy delivery and coy presence hurt many of the uptempos, especially “Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally,” which got so carved up by Annie and her kids, one could hardly tell it was a ribald song about coitus. 

For his part, handsome and effortlessly macho Tom Wopat proved a natural choice for a kinder, gentler Frank Butler, whose sexism isn’t so much about keeping a woman in her place as it is dread of being bested. Peters won Tony, Drama Desk (a tie with Parade’s Carmello) and Outer Critics Circle Awards; Wopat was nominated but lost in all three, though he delivered the most consistent work of the night. Heaven knows Jeff Calhoun’s dancework roamed from fun to appalling, the nadir being “My Defenses are Down,” wherein Wopat’s Frank gamboled with three swishy male cowpokes.

Each time this Gun hit a couple of bullseyes, it deliberately and cringingly misfired. Some of Tony Walton’s settings looked road-show tacky (e.g., ballroom chandeliers that resembled hundreds of fly eyes), and pointless subplots used up time that could have spared the excised “Colonel Buffalo Bill” and “I’m a Bad, Bad Man.” So many wrong choices were made, it wasn’t until the last half hour (of a nearly three-hour evening) that one could truly enjoy the romantic sparring of Annie and Frank. Peters cavorted deliciously on “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” the final shooting match satisfyingly resolved a seemingly unfixable rivalry, and the ending managed to be sweetly romantic.

In fairness, the phrase “Annie Get Your Gun starring Bernadette Peters” comes attached to a very high set of expectations, and when those are (mostly) not met, we may feel more let down than the final result warrants. On the other hand, what does the phrase “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with a talented ensemble cast” carry with it but a shrug and a hope for the best? As such, Michael Mayer’s revival of Clark Gesner’s musical, starring Rent’s Anthony Rapp, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Courtesy of designer David Gallo, the Charles Schulzian cartoon colors looked great on a big stage and helped give the show an amplitude the material was never even meant to have. After all, the well-remembered original version ran forever off Broadway; when it moved uptown, it closed in a couple of weeks. Even in this artistically successful revival, to score Gesner’s script joke by joke was to learn why, when blown up to Broadway size, the show landed in the dog house. (An off-Broadway Gesner revue, The Jello is Always Red, closed at the York Theater after dismissive reviews.) More punchlines missed than succeeded, and even the best ones tended towards subtle irony rather than belly laughs—and Broadway musicals are more likely to thrive on the latter. Worse, other blackouts in this essentially narrative-free revue ended with a thudding finality, as one Peanuts character traipsed off the stage to silence and the audience waited for the next to say something funnier.

But Mayer’s revival had a number of game-savers up its sleeve, among them Roger Bart’s tirelessly chipper Snoopy, B.D. Wong’s beatific Linus (his odd and distracting lisp aside), and Kristin Chenoweth’s Sally, a pint-sized cross between two dolls, kewpie and Chuckie. Both Bart and Chenoweth won featured actor Drama Desk and Tony Awards, with Chenoweth really leaping to star status, courtesy of a New York Times rave and a Clarence Derwent newcomer prize. Hard to tell whether she was that good as Charlie Brown’s opinionated sister, or whether this was just one of those magic, ideal-actress-for-ideal-role situations (Chenoweth also did good work in William Finn’s off-Broadway musical, A New Brain), but hey, the role of Sally didn’t even exist years ago. That she quickly became the most memorable character in this revised version was definitely a credit to the young actress. Certainly Sally’s big song, “My New Philosophy,” written by Andrew Lippa especially for this revival and for Chenoweth, proved a highlight. By contrast, another new tune, the ersatz gospel “Beethoven’s Day,” sounded generic and anachronistic.

And yet, despite two Tony Awards, an overnight leap to minor stardom, an obvious target audience, a playing schedule constantly revised to accommodate school kids, a cluster of pretty good reviews, and the enduring American love story with the Peanuts gang, Charlie Brown rarely managed better than 50 percent attendance and threw in the towel just after the Tony Awards, becoming the season’s most unexpected flop. By contrast, the previous season’s decent but far from revelatory The Sound of Music revival ran more than a year and even brought in a high-priced—and very well-received—Richard Chamberlain to give the show a pre-tour publicity boost in its last weeks.

Charlie Brown may have been a modest failure, but the usually savvy George C. Wolfe launched a commercial nightmare when On the Town, a revival of the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green tuner, took a $5 million bath in its transfer from 1997 Central Park hit to 1998 Gershwin Theater dud. Despite a rave from Sunday Times critic Vincent Canby and generally good reviews elsewhere, plus the presence of ace-in-the-hole Lea DeLaria (shall we call her last year’s Chenoweth?) and the charm of a show that looked at 1940s New York through the most loving of eyes, On the Town proved energetic but empty, an exercise in forced nostalgia. DeLaria, an essentially unknown comedienne launched to stardom when the Times gushed about her during the show’s Central Park run, again justified the huzzahs. A brassy, belty broad who could hoist the story, the ho-hum sets, and all the scrawny sailor boys on her barrel-shaped back, DeLaria made “Come Up to My Place” an unalloyed delight. Mary Testa, as voice teacher Madame Dilly, struck me as shrill, but most critics sided with The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin in praising her “girdled propriety and transparent looniness.” She scored a Tony nomination; DeLaria’s Hildy got skunked. Few other Town dwellers made such an impression, though Sarah Knowlton was a fetching and melodious Claire DeLoone, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as Chip, was believably bowled over by Hildy’s man-hungry tactics.

If the ensemble nature of On the Town worked against DeLaria being able to carry it, near-single-handedly, across the finish line, Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Carolyn Leigh’s Little Me can, if it has the right lead, sit back and watch the jokes land, the songs bounce, and the show satisfy. Now it would be great if Little Me could have two unforgettable comic turns, but for the Roundabout’s mounting, it was not to be. Faith Prince, startlingly zaftig and less than convincing as Belle, a poor but dainty naif bumbling her way to fortune through a series of unhappy accidents (though no fault of her own, every man who gets near her has the misfortune of dying soon after), became a secondary presence in her own show, someone we tolerate while waiting for the funny guy to come back. The magical moxie of her Adelaide, the assuredness as Anna Leonowens somehow abandoned her here, leaving the field clear for her co-star, Martin Short. With the possible exception of Bill Irwin and David Shiner, no eyes twinkled brighter on Broadway this season, no body moved with more sheer abandon, no person cavorted with more zest than this diminutive Canadian. Whereas Sid Caesar no doubt used his boundless vigor and facility with foreign accents to milk the comic possibilities of such characters as spoiled rich boy Noble Eggleston and nightclub bon vivant Val du Val, Short was always lovable Short (okay, with a touch of Ed Grimley in his dance moves). Especially on the irresistible “Boom Boom,” Short invited comparisons to old-style pros like Bobby Clark and Ed Wynn, virtuosi who could take an agreeable musical comedy number and turn it into a treasurable moment of joy.

Revues: Collecting the Musical Collectibles

Since composers and lyricists had a tough time creating new gems, producers again Frankensteined their way through old ones, fashioning musicals from material by everyone from Kander and Ebb to George Gershwin to, well, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Perhaps the season’s most unlikely Broadway transfer was a revue first staged at the Denver Center and then brought to off Broadway’s family-oriented New Victory Theater. When Parade closed sooner than Lincoln Center had hoped, a gaggle of producers joined forces to bring It ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues to the Vivian Beaumont. Nothin’ was nothing more, or less, than 40-odd 20th century pop tunes, all with some kind of underpinning of the blues. Though too long and, like everything else these days, over-bloody-miked, Blues offered a slew of nicely performed hummables, including a sexy woman’s take on “I Put a Spell on You,” a smokin’ “Wang Dang Doodle,” and a hard-driving “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” Conceptually, Blues erred on the side of inclusion, which weakened its overall effect. Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, and even Patsy Cline have legitimate blues roots, but calling “Good Night, Irene” and “Fever” blues numbers is pushing it. Certainly, you could fill an evening with Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and their ilk without resorting to potluck pop.

In Blues, an ensemble of five African-American and two white performers, sometimes playing their own instruments but mostly backed by a band, ran through one sketchy classic after another, occasionally stopping for chit-chat on the order of “You know, what we think of as country music also has some blues in it.” “Really?” “You bet. Just listen.” Somehow the Tony Nominating Committee found the libretto worthy of a nomination, though the adjudicators stood on more solid ground when recognizing such performers as Show Boat Tony winner Gretha Boston and the aforementioned Ron Taylor, who suffered a stroke just two weeks after the Tony Awards. Speaking of the Tonys, a tiny tempest ensued when the ceremony, pressed for time in its two hours on CBS, cut Blues’s musical number, leading the show’s producers to whine about mismanagement, favoritism, and even racism (i.e., why was it the black show that got axed?). CBS tried to make good by putting the snipped number on The Late Show with David Letterman that week, and Blues ended up getting more publicity from all the angry breastbeating and damage control than it would have from simply doing its thing on the broadcast. In fact, box-office grosses were strong enough for the producers to declare, midsummer, that the show would move to the Ambassador Theater in September. 

Whatever the fate of Blues, it’s already been a hundred times luckier than another off-Broadway transfer, Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A., which, despite a reportedly amateurish feel, generated enough good response to try for a commercial move. This musical look at black performers during the vaudeville era (the letters “T.O.B.A.” officially stood for Theater Owners’ Booking Association but were privately acronymed as “Tough on Black Asses”) moved into the Kit Kat Klub after Cabaret jumped to the more capacious Studio 54 (yes, the old disco club!) to continue its wildly successful run. Although the Tony Administration Committee gave Cabaret official Broadway status, they would not do the same for T.O.B.A. Their reasoning—that the Kit Kat (nee Henry Miller’s Theater) was not, of itself, a Broadway house, and that Cabaret merited special treatment because of its quality and the Roundabout’s track record—sounded pretty arbitrary, but what isn’t arbitrary in this business? Facing mixed reviews, a limited ad budget, and no possible publicity or awards from the Tonys, T.O.B.A. soon stopped rolling. 

Not that it offered much consolation to the producers of T.O.B.A., but being n official Broadway show didn’t help The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm fare much better. A pastiche of George and Ira ditties, Rhythm had a whiff of bargain basement about it that only socko reviews could deodorize. Critics were not kind, however, and declared the Mark Lamos and Mel Marvin concoction an insult to the Gershwins’ exalted ouevre. Certainly Michael Yeargan’s disastrous set didn’t help (think of grey Kodak camera shutters irising in and out all night), but I have to go out on a limb and say the show as a whole was misunderstood and therefore got short shrift. Theatergoers come to a Gershwin revue with a host of preconceptions, usually involving two men and two women in suits and dresses (tuxes and evening gowns in Act II), congregating around a piano and acting all coy and sophisticated for two hours. These shows usually crap out on Broadway, too, but we’re so used to them, any messing with the formula feels like blasphemy. Fascinating Rhythm dared take George Gershwin out of the Rainbow Room and put him in the Tiki Room. Cry kitsch all you want, the show didn’t give the same old songs the same old arrangements. Instead, the tunes sounded like 1970s Cy Coleman, heavy on the beat and percussion, with spunk replacing suavity as the overriding approach on nearly every song. As such, “I Love to Rhyme” became a veritable toe-tapper, and Darius de Haas worked the crowd, and his vocal dexterity, on “Little Jazz Bird.” Best of all was a de Haas duet with Orfeh [sic] on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” sharing the season’s comic showstopper honors with Annie Get Your Gun’s “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” and Little Me’s “Boom Boom.”

Boom went another revue, An Evening with Jerry Herman, which critics deferentially applauded and audiences walked around the block to avoid. It was satisfying, in a real-life fairytale way, to hear how Herman, hoping to write the score for Hello, Dolly!, played four hastily written songs for David Merrick and was told by the usually sinister producer, “Kid, you’ve got the job.” But Herman should have hired different folks for the job on his mummified retrospective. The composer played piano throughout, but most of the warbling was done by Florence Lacey (star of The Grand Tour) and the show’s director, veteran musical actor-dancer Lee Roy Reams. Lacey earned audience cheers for her second-act torch song, “Time Heals Everything” (from Mack and Mabel), though the profusion of her own tears stanched any that might have sprung from my eyes. While a certain gay urtext was necessary for Reams’s duet with Herman on “Bosom Buddies,” or when Reams donned a red boa for La Cage aux Folles’s “I am What I Am,” the performer’s effeminacy proved embarrassing in other songs that called for something approximating a leading man. Reams also pushed too hard and gestured too broadly, calming only for two gentle numbers, “Penny in My Pocket” (a tune for Horace Vandergelder cut from Hello, Dolly!) and “Mrs. S. L. Jacobowsky” from The Grand Tour. Both were show highlights, especially since they were textbook examples of lyric writing and building a full, entertaining story from a single idea.

Simplicity was also the key to Fosse’s commercial and critical success: just cobble together a host of highlights from shows directed and/or choreographed by Bob Fosse, and let the dancers strut their stuff. Like Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Fosse was lucky to open in a weak year for new, original musicals and thus trotted off with three Tonys, including orchestration and best musical. Not that the overrated Fosse didn’t have its jewels, but when, oh when will Tony realize the inherent injustice of forcing virgin efforts to compete with beloved standards?

Directed by Richard Maltby Jr. with co-direction by Ann Reinking, who also recreated the master’s dance numbers with Chet Walker, Fosse was a serviceable overview, filled with beautifully sculpted, dexterous dancers but somehow missing the spark of something moving or exhilarating. One had to wonder what “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Mr. Bojangles” were doing in a show about a man who injected darkly sexual overtones into every leg extension and finger curl? Of course, those songs did have reasons for being in a Fosse-based revue (for example, “Cherries” was in his last Broadway show, Big Deal; “Bojangles” was a sequence in Fosse’s influential, all-hoofing Dancin’), but they also made an oddly bland approach to the man whose work conveys perhaps the most alluringly dark persona of all commercial choreographers. Not that Fosse didn’t have other facets to his work besides slinky hookers and gymnastic exhibitionists, but those were his lures and his specialties, and when they’re paraded in a faceless, “and-then-he-dance-directed” procession, against a road-show cheesy set (by Santo Loquasto, surprisingly), the results felt like they should have come with a salad bar and $20 in chips. 

Much of Fosse’s dull first act concerned itself with dance-abstract, movement-oriented work (mostly from Dancin’); the second act lumped together disparate movie and commercial theater projects. Only in Act III did we sense a connective tissue, which helped make it by far the best of the three. The audience’s tumultuous reaction to the just-okay “Steam Heat” mystified, though the aforementioned “Bojangles” provided an oddly welcome bit of schmaltz that had a young and agile dancer acting as the shadow of the titular, bibulous subject. A “Sing, Sing, Sing” finale proved undeniably kinetic, and a Pippin segment made one hanker for a full-scale revival of that tuner. Heck, if the producers are smart, they’ll go one better and mount “Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin Parade,” a revue of Pippin highlights rearranged just enough to qualify as a new musical. From a marketing perspective, it can’t miss.

Ovarian Cancer, Internet Sex, and Gay Jesus

No, not a week on Oprah, these were the off-Broadway season’s most potent topics, relating to three plays specifically: Wit, The Dying Gaul, and Corpus Christi. Wit, of course, was the year’s darling, snagging the Pulitzer, Lortel, Drama League, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle (off Broadway and John Gassner) and New York Drama Critics Circle prizes. Only the second play by Margaret Edson, a grade-school teacher who’d briefly worked in hospital administration, Wit stunned with its spartan language, economical storytelling, unsentimental approach to cancer, and brilliant use of two other literary works to comment on the protagonist’s quandary. In telling its fast-moving tale of John Donne scholar and perfectionist professor Vivian Bearing being struck down by fourth-stage ovarian cancer, Wit beautifully incorporated both a Donne sonnet and the children’s story The Runaway Bunny. Not only is the sonnet an attempt to come to terms with death, which Bearing herself must do, but Bearing’s students complain that the poem is intentionally arcane and obfuscated, masking its feelings behind a veil of words—something Bearing later discovers she’s been doing all her life. The Runaway Bunny, one of Bearing’s favorite books as a child (and one that kindles her desire to disappear into the complexities of language), ironically becomes the book her professor reads at Vivian’s hospital bedside. In less than 90 minutes, Edson’s play dissects a fascinating character, argues that too often medicine is treated as research rather than treatment, and makes an impassioned plea for the rights of patients (only a nurse listens to Vivian’s request not to be revived by artificial means if her vitals flatline). Concluding his rave review of Wit, John Simon write, “Margaret Edson teaches elementary school in Atlanta. For this play alone, she should be handed the Harvard English department.

Her head shaved, her eyes burning, Kathleen Chalfant was indelible as Vivian. Hers was not a study in frailness and self pity; much like Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman, this was a towering figure succumbing to an awful force she could no longer fight. In a way, that’s also the through-line of the Christ story: a great, if intractable, figure who knows what he’s up against, shoulders it dutifully, but also doubts the meaning of his mission. Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi threw in an extra, not necessarily germane, element: what if Jesus were gay and his crucifixion the ultimate manifestation of homophobia? Despite bias crimes and anti-gay violence still polluting the American landscape, McNally’s notion felt very 1970s, especially when the show opened with the cast introducing themselves as actors about to enact the passion play. McNally further confused the issue by neglecting to anchor the when and where of the piece; half of it was set in ancient Nazareth (I think), the other half in small-town 1950s Texas, yet it was all supposed to be one story about a gay man preaching tolerance, betrayed by one of his friends and murdered for his beliefs. 

Manhattan Theater Club had been promising Corpus Christi for two seasons as the author had worked over rewrite after rewrite. The draft he finally came up with didn’t make anybody happy, but MTC dutifully staged it for fear of losing McNally’s future good will. That’s when the media got hold of it, and headlines about “Gay Jesus” kissing his disciples reached the New York Post long before the first preview. Then came death threats from right-wing nutjobs who screamed blasphemy without having seen a word of the script. MTC, in a rare act of cowardice, canceled the production for fear of being unable to guarantee the actors’ safety. This set off a firestorm from the left wing, with McNally rightfully charging MTC with self-censorship and Athol Fugard, whose The Captain’s Tiger was also due on the theater’s schedule, threatening to pull his show from the lineup. Once it became clear that the violently anti-Corpus corps was just a few kooks, Manhattan Theater Club reinstated McNally’s drama, kept the actors’ names out of the papers, set up metal detectors at the entrance, and went on with the show without incident.

The greatest irony turned out to be that the play, while showing an occasional male kiss and the Jesus character sanctioning a gay marriage, turned out to be a thoughtful, even pious take on the Passion. Any worries about Last Supper orgies or Judas betraying Jesus with something raunchier than liplock were unfounded. If anything, critics complained about the play’s hesitancy and dullness—a little apostasy would’ve been welcome. (Further irony: Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, which put a gay spin on the entire Old Testament and some of the New, proved riotously heretical, yet nary a peep from the holier-than-thou crowd.)

No other off-Broadway plays caused such a fuss as Wit and Corpus Christi, but a half dozen excellent works showed playwrights grappling with the morality of their characters. Best of all was Stop Kiss, a nimble comedy-drama with craft, swift pacing, a sly tongue, and not a little heart. It also had Jessica Hecht, out of her Ballyhoo ruffles and here creating an endearingly neurotic and quirkily sexy protagonist. Callie (Hecht) has taken in an apartment roomie (Sandra Oh), newly arrived in New York. They become fast friends, but there’s an undercurrent of romantic desire between them, even as heterosexual Callie resists making any kind of overt move on her roommate. At long last, they’re ready to take the big step, but when they do, an act of senseless urban violence greets their first tentative smooch. 

Diana Son structured Stop Kiss cleverly—interposing scenes building up to the climactic buss with those following the brutal attack, wherein Callie’s yearning for Sara moves beyond physical curiosity into deep and poignant affection. After awhile, the scene juxtapositions caused a slight seesaw effect, but the technique never smacked of gimmickry because Son used the concurrent patterns to build suspense and our emotional connection to the characters. Set designer Narelle Sissons ably recreated a cluttered apartment that, like Jo Bonney’s staging of this very New Yorky gem of a play, felt immediate, lived in, and real.

Craig Lucas, rebounding from the execrable God’s Heart, brought forth the acidulous The Dying Gaul. First staged in early summer 1998 at the Vineyard Theater, the show returned for a brief commercial run in the fall. Yet another look at Hollywood nouveau riche immorality, the one probed deeper than most, telling of a young gay screenwriter still grieving over the loss of his partner to AIDS. Soon Robert is seduced not only into cheapening his work but into sleeping with a married honcho at the studio. Here’s the twist: in his spare time, Robert likes to play around in gay internet chatrooms. The studio exec’s wife finds out and, as a means of revenge on this man she knows is sleeping with her husband, begins to impersonate the spirit of Robert’s dead lover. More unsettling turns follow, with no party coming out unsullied.

The same could be said for Snakebit, a remarkably well-observed comedy by David Marshall Grant, best known as a baby-faced actor on TV’s thirtysomething and in Angels in America. Hollywood again plays a looming evil in Snakebit, though here it’s more incidental to the character foibles on view. Likeable but drifting Michael (Geoffrey Nauffts) shares his L.A. beach house with Jonathan and his wife, Jenifer. Both Michael and Jenifer feel left out of things, especially since career-obsessed Jonathan (David Alan Basche), an actor, spends 24-7 worrying about a major film audition. Not much happens in Snakebit per se, yet somewhere along the way everyone gets betrayed, and all are forced to reevaluate their lives.

Didn’t sound very promising, but author Grant’s dialogue was so pointed, the performances so polished (under Jace Alexander’s direction), we listened eagerly throughout, waiting for the next hurtful aside or hint of personal crisis. And just when the second act threatened to turn too hermetic, along came a house-hunting surfer type (Michael Weston), bringing with him both laid-back humor and an unexpected plot turn.

Cut of the same cloth, almost as winningly, was This is our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan’s microcosmic look at the slacker generation, its lack of ambition and oh-so-jaded `tude. Warren (Mark Ruffalo) looks up to worldly Dennis as a kind of guru, with Dennis repaying the favor by belittling and patronizing his friend. Dennis does try to help out when Warren, having stolen a stash of cash from his dad, needs help spending the loot. Along comes Jessica (Missy Yager), a cute girl attracted to Warren’s better nature but so afraid of being hurt, any wrong move sends her out the door. Set all in one day, Youth was most memorable when charting Jessica and Warren’s half-step courtship, though its more familiar student-besting-masters plot was also handled with hipness and wisdom.

A.R. Gurney turned in another of his seemingly effortless light dramas in Far East, the story of a Naval officer stationed in Japan during post-war rebuilding. Cocky but noble, Sparky Watts gets under the skin of his captain, a career officer who can’t help feeling fatherly toward the young man. that Sparky (Michael Hayden) has to fight an attraction to the captain’s fetching wife (Lisa Emery) causes less trouble than his deeper relationship with a local girl, a no-no that crosses the boundaries of both race and, the captain worries, national security. Not helping matters is a blackmail scheme that makes Michael’s friend Bob (Connor Trinneer) a legitimate security risk.

All these elements could explode into something terrifying, but author Gurney backs away from that kind of emotional carnage. Faced with a fastball, Gurney’s characters tend to flinch and hope the pitch is low and outside, with Gurney the pitcher-playwright often obliging. Thus, Far East, like many of his plays, maintains a comfortably air-conditioned tone, even when the slightest turn of events could thrust the characters’ feet in the fire.

As evidenced by her Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel has no problem letting a confrontational scene play itself fully out, but the author of The Baltimore Waltz also has a farcical, absurdist side, allowed to run free in The Mineola Twins, staged at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels space. A truly zany piece with a 1950s kitsch set design to match (by Robert Brill with Scott Pask), Twins hit on such serious themes as reproductive rights and the changing nature of womanhood (and wifedom) in America. It was also a tour de force for the cherishable Swoosie Kurtz, who played twins Myrna and Myra, one a bosomy but old-fashioned Fifties lady, the other a “bad” girl embodying all the so-called vices of the era. The passage of 20 years doesn’t change their values, however; by the Nixon administration, the good girl has morphed into someone who helps bomb abortion clinics, while her sister’s nonconformity makes her much closer to a modern role model.

Warped perspectives were also on view in Christopher Durang’s latest, Betty’s Summer Vacation, his first full-length work since Sex and Longing tanked at Lincoln Center. Back when Durang was penning comedies like `Dentity Crisis and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You, it was easier to shock an audience into laughter and uncomfortable disbelief. All you had to do was release the violent side of a strict nun, or show what men and women were really thinking on a first date. Now we have the President’s semen stains on the front page of the Times and Albanian war casualties on CNN. When the sensational becomes commonplace, a satirist’s options are more limited. If you’re Paul Rudnick (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told), you have a store of impeccably phrased one-liners; if you’re Paula Vogel (The Mineola Twins), you explore the way a constricted society affects exaggerated but still-human characters. If you’re Chris Durang, well . . . you make a hundred sophomoric shock jokes, then you turn around and vilify the audience that (at least in your assumption) revels in the humor. One one level, Betty’s Summer Vacation, set in a seaside timeshare, followed a classic comedy format in that a half-dozen weirdos were thrown together in one place while the straight man (Here, straight woman Kellie Overbey) tries to stay sane. Durang salts this formula with tastelessness (okay, we’d expect nothing less from him), hysteria, and preachiness disguised as post-modern satire. Mystifyingly, Betty garnered raves from the same critics who torpedoed his long, uneven, but certainly more substantial Sex and Longing. One hilariously rude sight gag during a charades game in Betty did not make up for the shrill, contemptuous tone Durang and director Nicholas Martin took throughout. 

Sordidness filled another, better play, Killer Joe, a cult hit in Chicago finally reaching off Broadway (OOB’s 29th Street Repertory staged it, very well, in 1994) with a host of film and TV stars in various roles. Tracy Letts’s sicko comedy told of a loser who hires a cop gone bad to kill his father’s ex-wife for her insurance money, only to find that in order to pay off Killer Joe Cooper, he has to prostitute his mentally unstable sister, Dottie, to the hit man. Who can blame a playwright for wanting to shock jaded theatergoers out of their complacency? If it meant throwing in mayhem-level violence and jaw-dropping sexual content, well, we’re all adults, we can take it. Enticed by Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer in lead roles, downtown audiences made the show a long-running hit at the Soho Playhouse. What we might have asked for from author Letts is something stronger than cheap thrills. The plot has nothing deeper in it than cynicism, and some of its sexual content—particularly the oddest fellatio sequence sine the “kielbasa queen” plied her trade on Howard Stern’s TV show—felt gratuitous.

By contrast, Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, finally making its New York debut, came on like a nasty, synthetic thriller only to swerve into farce territory before turning again into a surprisingly poignant finale. The opening was, indeed, creepy. A depraved old man and his sociopathic butler, both living in a swanky London hotel (circa 2018), hire a call girl for the night—but not for the usual reasons. Before the butler can murder her, Poopay manages to find a doorway out. Only it’s not out of the room; instead, the door deposits her back in the same suite two decades earlier. Poopay’s not quite out of the woods, though, because the time travel (and another trip 20 years further back still) has given her the opportunity to avoid not only her own assassination but to stop the butler’s previous killing.

Ayckbourn’s usually ingenious plotting wasn’t so airtight this time, for so many rules governed the workings of the time-travel door, one sensed the author was simply adding caveats as each scene required. Logic gaps aside, Communicating Doors had both cat-and-mouse chills and charming humor, as the low-born, free-spirited Poopay (Mary-Louise Parker, and, later in the run, Anne Bobby) developed a winning comradeship with the old man’s wife, Ruella (the superb Patricia Hodges). 

Appealing, too, in a more sitcom way, were Peter Ackerman’s Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight and Joe DiPietro’s Over the River and Through the Woods. The former, despite brief nudity and no-holds-barred comic sex talk, proved a Neil Simonesque trifle, occasionally more dumb than funny but savvily building up to a climax (literally) wherein three partners finally table their relationship troubles long enough to shag the night away. DiPietro’s River, a sweet bit of ethnic fluff, told of a young man forced to decide whether to take a job offer that means moving far away from his loving but overprotective Italian family. Sadly, River lost one of its family: co-producer James Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein II, died three months into the run.

The agreeable but inconsequential Beautiful Thing dealt with two boys, Jamie and Ste [sic], coping with a mutual attraction as they grow up in a rough South East London neighborhood. Throw in another neighbor who thinks she’s Janis Joplin (and abuses her system the way Joplin did) and you had a coming-of-age comedy that tried to be off-kilkter but was mostly standard stuff. The best character was Janie’s mom, Sandra (Kirsten Sahs), whose sexiness, short fuse, and liberal attitudes made her very different from the usual cliche of an urban mother struggling to make ends meet.

Speaking of cliches, Harold Pinter’s latest, Ashes to Ashes, made his previous inscrutable off-Broadway effort, Moonlight, look like Barefoot in the Park. The Roundabout Theater didn’t even bother to come up with a double bill, going on the assumption that Pinter’s one-act had enough meaning to fill an evening all by itself. Sure, Ashes spent 40 minutes teasing us with clues to a horror story that attractive, middle-aged heroine (Lindsay Duncan) finally allows herself to recount in the last five. Questioned by her husband (David Strathairn), she lets drop certain details—women giving their “bundles” up at a train station, streams of people disappearing like lemmings into the water—that have intimations of the Holocaust, though she’s obviously English, and she keeps saying it all happened in Dorset. Could she be referring to English women sending their children to the countryside for their safety during WWII? She isn’t telling, and neither is Pinter. Ashes to Ashes climaxed with Rebecca piecing together one thread of her biography but connecting to nothing else—not her marriage, her former lover, her time and place, her current malaise. Actress Duncan nearly mesmerized us with Rebecca’s lethargy and internal despair, but really all she had to do was change the subject every five minutes and zone into a look of anguish every ten. David Straithairn played hubby Devlin as solicitous rather than menacing, which only made him sound like an addled interviewer. (On a happier note, OOB, the Atlantic Theater Company revived The Hothouse—penned when Pinter still wrote with exuberance, rich dark humor, and a looming sense of danger. Most reviewers agreed the heat of Hothouse left the arid nonsense of Ashes in the dust.)

Arthur Miller, enjoying the plaudits for Death of a Salesman on Broadway, also scored a minor success off Broadway by exploring the spiritual death of a bigamist in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. The provocative and entertaining piece, while not substantial enough for a two-and-a-half-hour character study, reminded us anew how wrong we were to picture Miller as some stuffy classicist, best left for high-school theater texts. Mt. Morgan, like The Price and other excellent “second-tier” Miller works, bubbled over with a wicked sense of humor and an understanding of how to keep an audience engaged despite having very little plot to work with. The setup: a vibrant businessman has crashed his car down a snowy mountain. When Lyman (Patrick Stewart) wakes up in hospital, he calls the nurse over and begs her to make sure two women don’t visit him: his wives. Theo (Frances Conroy), the first wife, aided his rise to power, raised their daughter and ran the household with a strong Protestant backbone. Leah, younger, prettier, more sensual, more recent, is the mother of Lyman’s second child and the woman he runs to when Theo’s stability bores him. Too cowardly (or sybaritic) to divorce Theo and marry Leah, Lyman cheats on both, rationalizing that he’s made them both happier than they would have been without him, and that he’s had a more satisfying life by being able to spend it with two very different women. In essence, that’s the whole story, though Miller added other elements he didn’t sufficiently tie to the main narrative. For example, Lyman’s pronouncements to his black nurse (Oni Faida Lampley) make clear he has racist leanings, yet he claims to have done a lot for minorities in his company. This should dovetail with Lyman’s attraction to Leah’s Jewishness, after years of denying his own background to get ahead (his last name, Felt, was shortened from Feldman). But these seemingly connected elements of Lyman’s makeup don’t add up to anything tangible.

As Lyman, Patrick Stewart used his brisk machismo, clarion voice, and playful pupils to imbue the weaselly protagonist with picaresque charm. His two femme foils were fine, with Frances Conroy (brought in at the last minute when Blythe Danner begged off owing to a family emergency) especially notable. Not only did she do the brittle, upper-crust matron to a “t,” Conroy was unexpectedly vibrant when demonstrating that Theo had more appetites and adventurousness than one would first suspect. How nice to be reminded that the same held true for Arthur Miller. At season’s end, there was even talk of bringing Mt. Morgan back for a commercial run in the fall.

It would be an odd choice for a return engagement, but of this season’s revivals, sometimes the oddest were the most appreciated. Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories, a 1997 Pulitzer finalist that starred Maria Tucci off Broadway, came back just two seasons later as a vehicle for Uta Hagen, which only added further justification (as if any were needed) for her Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. For its first show at its new midtown digs, Second Stage Theater revived That Championship Season, Jason Miller’s Pulitzer winner about former high school basketball players now besotted by middle age, mediocrity, and mendacity—potent stuff in 1972, an artifact in 1999, albeit one with a number of meaty roles. Fossilized was apparently the word for the Public Theater’s Central Park mounting of The Skin of our Teeth starring John Goodman, Frances Conroy, and Third Rock from the Sun’s Kristen Johnson; Andrei Serban’s outdoor staging of Cymbeline scored an Obie Award for lead Liev Schreiber.

Musically, City Center’s Encores! series offered Babes in Arms, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and Do Re Me, with the latter’s all-star cast, including Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Randy Graff, receiving ecstatic notices. Critics called the 1960 musical itself a conventional bit of froth with second-act trouble—and just the kind of show they wish Broadway still knew how to do. 

Solos and Singularities

On the one-person front, 1998-99 proved a quiet season, with Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride arguably the most acclaimed and honored of the bunch. One-fifth of the Five Lesbian Brothers troupe, Kron cleverly and affectionately linked together two real-life episodes involving her father. One had the old man, a Holocaust survivor with a history of heart trouble, joining her on the “Mean Streak” roller coaster ride at a Sandusky, Ohio amusement park. In the other, the two visited Auschwitz. Occasionally too fast-talking and strident in her performance, Kron nonetheless found powerful metaphors in the material, notably during “slide show” segments where she’d point to a picture projected behind her, only the frame would be empty.

In other solo action, Aviva Jane Carlin was naked and fat in Jodie’s Body. I’m not being mean; those were just the first two things to notice at the start of her solo. Carlin’s stomach and thighs were beyond even Rodin’s most clay-caked undertakings. This didn’t bother her, and after a few minutes, it didn’t much bother us. In her meandering, 75-minute solo about the politics of the body influencing the body politic, the South African-born Carlin explained why she has always been comfortable with a body that others treat with embarrassment or even cruelty. Convincingly, she recalled the moral and physical strength of her mother, who saved a little girl’s life by diving, gracefully, into the water after her. Carlin also remembered the adiposity of her mom when she blocked the doorway as Afrikaaner cops searched houses for a “troublemaker” family friend. 

Also autobiographical, Dael Orlandersmith’s The Gimmick spoke powerfully of young Dael discovering poetry as a way out of her horrific Harlem childhood. Orlandersmith’s love of the written word saved her from the clutches of drugs, alcohol, and illicit livelihoods running rampant through her community. Her first boyfriend, an artist, was not so lucky. Given a ticket out via his gift, her swain spent his newfound money on booze and, later, drugs. No one put the spoon to his nose or the needle to his arm; even those who are inoculated with a remedy can be reinfected by a sick community. Without a shred of white-bashing, The Gimmick showed how a culture of decay destroys its own without any help from outside forces. 

A more positive look at a tight ethnic enclave came via Sakina’s Restaurant, featuring promising newcomer Aasif Mandvi, who crossed the facial expressions of Harpo Marx with the gleeful, tribally detailed imitations of John Leguizamo. This actor-author opened his Restaurant endearingly, looking in on a naive fellow leaving his Indian homeland for the wilds of New York City. After bidding his parents goodbye (including the traditional kissing of his mother’s feet), the fellow finds himself working—where else?—at a restaurant on East Sixth Street. Hours are long, and the city can be overwhelming, but his boss proves wise and fair, and his boss’s family form a circle of much-needed companionship. Like a more serious version of Sherry Glaser’s Family Secrets, Sakina’s Restaurant featured Mandvi as all these characters, from the restaurant owner who can’t tolerate his daughter’s trampy American ways, to her betrothed, who is so weighed down by exams, his pending arranged marriage, and his Islamic fundamentalist upbringing, he turns to a prostitute for relief. To Mandvi’s credit, the play did more than just show off the exactness of his physical gestures (as both men and women). Each monologue told a complete short story, ever surprising us by becoming hilarious when we expected disaster and poignant when we were primed for mere spoofing.

Another solo winner, A Night in November, stayed mainly with one character, a Northern Irish Protestant discovering the pointlessness of bigotry. At first, Kenneth McAllister (Dan Gordon), a welfare clerk, takes pleasure in saddling his Catholic customers with belittling, bureaucratic garbage. Both Kenneth and his wife take overweening pride in his admittance to an exclusive golf club, not the least because his Catholic boss can’t get in. The worm turns, however, when Kenneth’s aged, cough-hacked father-in-law drags him to a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Northern and Republican Irish teams. Ugliness reigns in the stands, as pro-Brit fans hurl insults and chant “trick or treat”—a reference to an act of terrorist slaughter committed weeks earlier on Halloween. Kenneth doesn’t want to be identified with this level of hatred and is further swayed from his prejudices when he visits his boss’s house in Belfast. The messiness Kenneth has always associated with poverty and poor breeding instead come to represent a personal freedom and liveliness he can’t feel in his dull job and rote marriage. Act II of A Night in November followed Kenneth’s wild and crazy decision to drop everything and follow the Republic’s Irish team to New York for the World Cup. He is joined, of course, by thousands of countrymen just as desperate for a life change as he is. Marie Jones’s play, though longish for a solo, plunged us into the details of each scene until we cringed when Kenneth had to lie to his wife and say that everything’s fine, and we exulted when he reached Eamonn Doran’s bar in Manhattan and perceived an instant sense of community with everyone around him. Dan Gordon, with a soccer player’s build and a rugby player’s stamina, carried the two-hour plus show, helping make November’s spiritual journey as inspiring as any pilgrimage, sports victory, or all-night party.

Wowing the crowds in just such a fashion was De La Guarda, which played all season and beyond at the Daryl Roth Theater. Lucky audience members got a chance to swing from the rafters (literally) with the acrobatic De La Guarda troupe, who also shpritzed the spectators with water, chanted with them, and generally caused an hour’s worth of Blue Man-influenced havoc.

On the musical front, Savion Glover brought his Downtown show back to the Variety Arts Theater for two hours of noisy stomp-dancing, all of it lacking the context that made Noise/Funk such a revelation. Audiences flocked to it anyway. They also made a surprise hit out of Symphonie Fantastique, a performance piece utilizing a 500-gallon fishtank and various shapes passing through the water under different lighting effects. Lovely as some images were, the absence of any narrative, and the repetition of visual elements quickly wore out the novelty of Basil Twist’s ingenuity. For awhile, we desperately invented mini-scenarios to go with the Berlioz music, as when a shaft of bright light flitted across the glass, then zipped off just as ominous flashes “chased” it away (to Berlioz’s rumbling kettledrums). More often, pretty handkerchiefs swam, guppy-like, to our ever decreasing amusement. All of this, even the dullest bits, would have been pleasantly watchable if the music’s volume wasn’t cranked high enough to make every violin note sound like nails on a chalkboard. Though puppeteer Twist worked admirably on the unforgettable Peter and Wendy, he hectored with his Berlioz.

And what of the off-Broadway “legit” musicals? Alas, a half dozen of these opened, each with more detractors than champions. The closest to a snob hit was William Finn’s A New Brain, his first major work since Falsettos. Based on his own real-life medical scare, A New Brain followed the turmoil of dissatisfied gay yuppie Gordon, sick of writing for a children’s show but addicted to his paycheck. Suddenly, he’s faced with a brain tumor, and his world narrows to relationships with the hospital staff, his lover, his close friends, and his buttinsky mother. Gordon survives the operation only to wonder what meaning his life had before it.

Unlike Falsettos, which had a devastating cumulative power, A New Brain offered a host of entertaining numbers and catchy tunes, but the whole was shapeless. For example, Gordon’s mother (Penny Fuller) worries herself to distraction over her son’s ill health, and she has a haunting cabaret number late in the show (“The Music Still Plays On”), but the actual relationship between her and Gordon (Malcolm Gets) is never touched. Gordon’s boyfriend (Keith Byron Kirk) sings the hummable “I’d Rather Be Sailing” to explain his ambivalence about visiting his lover in the hospital, but when they do get together, their relationship feels generic, the song incidental. Though Mary Testa’s singing and acting were far more ingratiating here than in On the Town, her character—an obnoxious bag lady—added little to the story.

A New Brain took the Outer Critics Circle Award for best off-Broadway musical, but to most, that was the equivalent of “D” winning for best fourth letter of the alphabet. By most accounts, Captains Courageous at Manhattan Theater Club and starring Treat Williams, was a good story turgidly told, while York Theater’s Little by Little was a watchable but trivial love story. The major critics dismissed New York Theater Workshop’s Bright Lights Big City as a soulless Rent wannabe, too literal in its lyrics, too diffuse in its storytelling, and saddled with a jejune and superfluous narrator. Then again, second-string reviewers were more taken with the show’s indictment of 1980s self-indulgence and mindlessness, some finding it more cohesive than the aforementioned Lower East Side musical. 

Cy Coleman, who’s never been shy about borrowing from his past, reworked his Broadway flop, Welcome to the Club, and came up with Exactly Like You, an astonishingly silly piece with a thumpy score, a few belly laughs, and perhaps the most incoherent second act in history. Somehow, Michael McGrath and Lauren Ward managed to stay charming as once-married lawyers now representing opposite parties of a high-profile, Court TV-style divorce. The evening’s zaniest (and for some, most tasteless) moment came during “Don’t Mess Around with Your Mother-in-Law,” itself taken from Welcome to the Club (where a very different four-letter word was employed instead of “mess”). During a break in the trial, the TV commentator started interviewing people in the street about their mothers-in-law, including a family of German tourists and an Indian taxi driver. The latter, played by McGrath, not only sang in a stereotypical Hindi accent but sniffed his armpits for body odor.

Similarly wicked gags were employed in the latest installment of Forbidden Broadway, Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up its Act!, though here they felt more at home amidst Gerard Alessandrini’s sometimes malicious spoofing, including cruel but hilarious potshots at Andrew Lloyd Webber (Bryan Batt, his face pulled into a grotesque canine configuration by scotch tape), Jennifer Jason Leigh (who lumps for her apparently pitch-imperfect sally Bowles in Cabaret), and the Side Show twins. We also got a delicious “what if”: what if Cabaret’s Alan Cumming served as the emcee for the Von Trapps’ last concert before fleeing the occupation? The joyous results featured the emcee, in bowl-cut black wig and requisite shirtless suspenders, leering at the audience and goosing the kids.

Like rising performance artist Reverend Billy, who one night hid tape recorders in the Times Square Disney store so that customers heard messages warning them of Disney’s mercantilism, Alessandrini, too, attacked the Monster Mouse. Aside from an extended Lion King parody (featuring an hysterically funny elephant costume), the four-member cast tweaked the Disneyfication of Broadway, seeing it as the Tower of Babel in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign to G-rate all of New York entertainment.

Capitol Steps would have none of that sanitizing, either. Returning to Manhattan with a better review than their 1997 effort, the troupe titled their evening Unzippin’ My Doodah, a dig at President Clinton’s sexual exploits with Monica Lewinsky. A team since 1981, the Steps are all former Congressional staffers, now devoted to poking fun at their Washington bosses. The group rose from doing just-for-yocks gigs at local nightspots to become something of a national brand name, with CDs, television appearances, and even performances in front of four U.S. presidents (five, as the Playbill noted, “if you count Hillary”). Non-musical sketches were limited to a rather lame “who’s on first” take-off, a gumshoe who talks in ribald metaphors, and two monologues loaded with naughty-sounding spoonerisms (“she socked his knocks off!”). Bread and butter for the Steps, however, were their song parodies, by Bill Strauss and Elaina Newport. One hilarious bit put the India/Pakistan nuclear race to the tune of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” while another showed an Orthodox Israeli warbling, “Hebron, I’m in Hebron . . . dancing sheik to sheik.”

Also getting a revamp this season was Dan Goggin’s Nunsense, featuring an all-male cast. Press releases assured us the show’s text hadn’t changed to underline the cross-dressing and campiness, though the jokes certainly sounded more risque than I remember from years ago. A clever number about the sisters’ disastrous stint in a leper colony may surprise those who think of Goggin’s musical as kiddie fare about men romping in their habits. No, Nunsense isn’t Finn, or Brown or Guettel or any of the up-and-coming “serious” musical makers, but playwrights and composers alike could learn from watching how Nunsense (or Nunsense A-Men) entertained an audience. Certainly, a sense of looseness helped; when Mother Superior (David Titus), who has accidentally gotten high on Rush, broke up in laughter and could barely get her lines out, we were unsure whether that was the character as scripted or if the actor had simply lost it. It didn’t matter; the performer was having an awfully good time, and that bonhomie consumed the audience, as well.

A similar spirit imbued Everett Quinton’s hit revival of The Mystery of Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam’s lampoon of Rebecca-style thrillers. Sometimes, as the characters in Vep discover, all it takes is a change of scenery. Lady Enid marries lord Edgar and finds herself in the lush—but haunted—trappings of Mandacrest Manor; she then follows her new husband to an Egyptian tomb, where weird trysts ensue; and every time poor servant Nicodemus goes out to explore the grounds, he has to brave the stalkings of a wild animal. For Quinton and cohorts of the now-defunct Ridiculous Theatrical Company, however, a change of venue proved salubrious. Just a few seasons ago, Quinton, Eureka, Stephen Pell, and other special talents of the Ridiculous were trotting out serviceable revivals of the troupe’s campy epics. Stuck in the deteriorating confines of One Sheridan Square, however, the show had a moth-eaten air, as if they were being put on for the membership of a dwindling club. With five producers chipping in, The Mystery of Irma Vep benefited from being in the comfy, nicely appointed Westside Theater downstairs space. The sets (by John Lee Beatty) weren’t any cleverer than the witty designs the company used to use, but they looked smarter and more vibrant on a professional-looking mainstage. The jokes got bigger laughs, too, in part because an uptown audience was having its first taste of Ludlam and Quinton’s madness. Thus, although Vep showcased but two actors (Quinton and Stephen DeRosa), the evening felt like a full and richly comic play, even something of an off-Broadway event. All Quinton needed was a pair of enormous false teeth (as Nicodemus), or a particularly flashy dress (as Lady Enid), and he was already halfway toward the finish line of every scene. DeRosa was no slouch either, whether as a snippy maid who spars with the new lady of the house, or the husband whose brio hides a darker secret.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Ridiculous (after the canon of plays by late co-founder Ludlam is the approach to a play’s text. Every line—every word—is played to the hilt. if there’s a double-entendre to utter, an “r” to be rolled, a consonant to be snapped, a phrase that just cries for a grimace, a sneer, a tightening of the neck and a crossing of the arms, they’ll all be done and then some.

The 1998-99 season as a whole could have used more of that kind of go-for-broke zeal. Or is it just that last year’s grass always seems greener when you’re looking too closely at this year’s weeds? Pull back a bit, and the towering trees (Dennehy, Franz, Kurtz) awe us once more with their majesty, the funny-looking clumps of bushes amuse anew (Snakebit, Vep, Most Fabulous Story), and the beautifully landscaped hedges stir us with their careful mastery (Wit, Stop Kiss, Closer, Side Man). The new millennium awaits; come, let us tend our garden.



Categorized below are all the new productions listed in the Plays Produced on Broadway section of this volume. Plays listed in CAPITAL LETTERS were major 1998-99 prizewinners. Plays listed in italics were still running on June 1, 1998.



More to Love

Getting and Spending



The Blue Room


The Weir

Amy’s View

The Lonesome West


The Last Empress (return engagement)


The Scarlet Pimpernel (revised version)

A Christmas Carol (return engagement)



Band in Berlin


The Civil War

The Wizard of Oz (return engagement)


An Evening with Jerry Herman

Riverdance (return engagement)

Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A. (transfer)

The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues


Twelfth Night


  Little Me

  The Lion in Winter

On the Town

Peter Pan


You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Death of a Salesman

Annie Get Your Gun

Night Must Fall

The Iceman Cometh

Ring Round the Moon


Jerry Seinfeld: I’m Telling You for the Last Time

Swan Lake

Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Fool Moon


Colin Quinn – An Irish Wake


Aznavour on Broadway

I’m Still Here . . . Damn It!

Via Dolorosa.


Categorized below are all the new productions listed in the Off Broadway section of this volume. Plays listed in CAPITAL LETTERS were major 1998-99 prizewinners. Plays listed in italics were still running on June 1, 1999.

PLAYS (29)

Love’s Fire

Stupid Kids

Chaim’s Love Song

The Dying Gaul

Playwrights Horizons:

  The Uneasy Chair


  Betty’s Summer Vacation

  Goodnight Children Everywhere

Over the River and Through the Woods



Manhattan Theater Club: 

  Corpus Christi



  Impossible Marriage

The Mineola Twins

Killer Joe


The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told

Far East

Public Theater: 

  The Ride Down Mt. Morgan

  Stop Kiss

  Everybody’s Ruby

  Tongue of a Bird

This is Our Youth

The Primary English Class

A Couple of Blaguards


2 1/2 Jews

Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight


The Jello is Always Red

Unzippin’ My Doodah 

Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up its Act

Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues


York Theater Company:

  Little by Little

  Exactly Like You

A New Brain

Nunsense: A-Men


Captains Courageous

Bright Lights Big City


Communicating Doors

Manhattan Theater Club:

  The Memory of Water

  The Captain’s Tiger

  East is East


  Anna Karenina

  Blue Heart


Ashes to Ashes

Beautiful Thing


Public Theater:

  The Skin of our Teeth


You Never Can Tell

Smoke on the Mountain

Collected Stories


The Mystery of Irma Vep


Zora Neale Hurston

Stratford Festival: 

  Much Ado About Nothing

  The Miser


  Phedre & Britannicus

  Le Cid


  Babes in Arms

  Ziegfeld Follies

  Do Re Mi

That Championship Season

The Acting Company: 


  Twelfth Night


Symphonie Fantastique

De La Guarda

International Festival of Puppet Theater

Culture of Desire

Mujeres y Hombres

Savion Glover: Downtown



Sakina’s Restaurant

A Night in November

Behind the Counter with Mussolini

All Under Heaven

James Naughton

Jodie’s Body

2.5 Minute Ride

The Gimmick.



For three consecutive years I wrote the introductory essays for the Burns/Mantle/Guernsey Best Play series and consider these overviews of Broadway and Off among my proudest moments as a theater journalist. Looking back at these intros twenty years hence, of course I find phrases to would change and redundancies I would finesse, but overall, I really do pat myself on the back for these. It’s also fun to see how history has treated the shows I personally loved and hated. Warren Leight (Side Man) has gone on to a great career in TV, although Not About Nightingales has kinda been forgotten again. Colin Quinn has done a bunch of solos on and off-Broadway, and his delivery STILL bugs me, but he’s a smart dude, no question. Christopher Durang would eventually find his mojo again with Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, while Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) has become a major force as both actor and playwright. 

Weirdest deja vu moment: Recently (summer 2019) went to see the Encores! revival of the musical Working, which featured Helen Hunt in several roles. The first thing I noticed (from a fairly far-away seat) was how her blonde hair shone under the stage lights. What a shock to go back and read about her “shining blonde hair pulled into a ponytail” when she was doing Twelfth Night three decades ago. The more things change. Or maybe I just have a latent hair fetish.

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by David Lefkowitz

(This essay was first published in The Best Plays of 1996-1997, edited by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., published by Limelight Editions in 1997.)

Oh, happy season!

For a critic to take a positive, even joyful, stand on the merits of a year of theater can be seen by some as intellectual dishonesty, by others as sacrilege. We are supposed to stand back, even in the best of times, and dissect worrying trends, find the flaws in over-popular hits, and wring our hands over fine works that got short shrift. Far be it from me to disregard such time-honored activities in my overview of the 1996-97 New York season, but let it be said, first and foremost, this has been the best season in years.

I won’t go as far as The League of American Theaters & Producers, who’ve termed 1996-97 the “Broadway season best ever” because it raked in $499 million (up 14.5 percent from the previous year). And if you asked me to name the great theatrical masterwork penned in the past 12 months, or the innovative, unforgettable musical that sprang to life on a New York stage, I could not. As evidenced by the Pulitzer’s vote of no confidence this year, no great work of drama rose to lasting distinction; no musical became the next My Fair Lady or Falsettos, for that matter.

What New York did get was four new Broadway musicals—of markedly different styles—and a host of straight plays that made off Broadway as adventurous as a day in Disneyworld. If new works by Christopher Durang, Steve Tesich, and Craig Lucas failed to win the usual critical rapture, Patrick Marber, John Patrick Shanley, Alan Zweibel, Paula Vogel, David Rabe, David Hare, Leslie Ayvazian, Alfred Uhry, Jonathan Reynolds, and Peter Hedges were turning out works of serious entertainment value and dramatic worth.

Fears that increased productivity and competition would have a Darwinian effect on shows, with only the most expensive, honored, and well-hyped surviving, had some validity, but no more than in weaker seasons, when one big hit would leave its compadres choking in the dust. If anything, 1996-97 Broadway proved that supply/demand in theater just doesn’t fit the mold of high school economics. On Broadway, more product creates more demand; a busy season with much to see creates the illusion of success, which in theater, anyway, is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Helping the illusion along was the fruition of the 42nd Street Development Project, a gleam in former Mayor Koch’s eye that lay dormant until picking up furious steam in 1995. All at once, the street of peep shows, fake I.D.s and chop-socky flicks became a Disneyland kaleidoscope of candy-colored, shops, family bistros, and theaters-in-the-making. A prolific venue for PG-rated fare, the New Victory Theater started the ball rolling in late `95. This season saw the nearby Liberty Theater housing Fiona Shaw’s The Waste Land and the Selwyn Theater serving as the venue for The Wooster Group’s The Hair Ape. Sadly, the 1904 Liberty Theater will most likely become a video-game and amusement parlor, but a renovated (yet still rococo) New Amsterdam Theater, now Disney turf, hosted a concert staging of Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s poorly received oratorio, King David, and will eventually host a live-action version of Disney’s The Lion King.

Only a few years after the Hellinger Theater became a church for lack of use, Canadian theater entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky was donning a hard hat and giving reporters a mid-construction tour of the Ford Center, a new playhouse on the site of the old Lyric and Apollo Theaters. Soon to be the home of Ragtime and other Livent projects, the $30 million, 1,839 seat venue can house epic, tour-conscious musicals generally reserved for caverns like the Gershwin and Majestic. Necessitating the move are the seemingly endless runs of ubermusicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables. As for using the name of a car company to grace a legit theater, Drabinsky assured reporters Ford paid “substantially more” than a million bucks for the privilege.

By mid-April, 34 or 35 legitimate Broadway theaters were booked, with audiences paying an average ticket price of $47.24 (up 2.5 percent from the previous year). With 10.6 million fannies in the seats, Broadway had its largest audience in 16 years, the second-highest ever. Even the Tonys were up, bouncing back in the ratings and hyped by the presence of host Rosie O’Donnell and the awards’ new venue” the enormous Radio City Music Hall. Not only were over 3,000 theater fans able to buy tickets to this usually exclusive event, but musical numbers on the CBS broadcast looked grandly larger than life. Theater zealots attained even greater ecstasy from CBS’s deal with PBS, allowing the first hour of the Tony show to be broadcast on public television. This turned the ceremony into a smooth, unhurried, three-hour love fest, instead of the traffic jam in a hurricane seen in recent years. There was even time for a new award: for orchestrations, an acknowledgment that Broadway’s sound can be nearly as important as its songs.

A Sly and Sexy Beginning: Chicago

The first part of the season could be summed up in one word: Chicago. Mounted in a bare-bones staging evolved from last season’s concert version as part of City Center’s Encores! series, the Kander & Ebb show that was too cynical for its own time suddenly became the ideal musical for ours: sly, sexy with an ironic wink, an brimming with 20/20 hindsight for an America that watched O.J. Simpson get off while his lawyers became celebrities. The show took Tonys for best revival, director (Walter Bobbie), choreographer (Ann Reinking), actress in a musical (Bebe Neuwirth), actor in a musical (James Naughton), and lighting (Ken Billington).

Despite back problems and personal tragedies that kept choreographer and star Ann Reinking out of the show as much as she was in it, Chicago stayed the hottest ticket of 1996-97. The show’s appeal ran across the board: Joel Grey’s return to Broadway (as a memorable Mr. Cellophane). TV star Bebe Neuwrith’s perfect Velma, James Naughton’s unflappable Billy Flynn, fond memories of Bob Fosse called up by the song “All that Jazz,” and by Reinking’s Fosse-based choreography, John Kander & Fred Ebb at the height of their ricky-ticky cleverness in tunes like “Class” and “We Both Reached for the Gun, and a small corps of dancers so sexy they wound up on as many magazine covers as the leads.

Early in the run, complaints rippled across the aisles that the show hadn’t changed much from its tumultuously reconceived concert staging at Encores!. $75 a ticket was considered a lot of money to pay for no sets and for costumes seemingly cross-pollinated by Victoria’s Secret and Danskin. Most audiences were more than happy, though, to tolerate the stripped-down visuals in exchange for stripped-down chorines—and the year’s most successful match of tuneful tunes, tart dialogue, and stylish razzle-dazzle. Late in the season, the producers of an insipid revival of Annie that was, somehow, also nominated for a best revival Tony, took the extraordinary step of admitting in a letter to Tony voters that the orphan didn’t have a chance against Chicago. Instead, the producers begged Tony voters simply to come “with an open mind” and enjoy Annie on its own terms.

Those were meager terms indeed, considering the hoopla Annie made on its way to New York. It had been 20 years since Charles Strouse, Thomas Meehan, and Martin Charnin pocketed a mint from their Depression Era musical. Chastened by the box office failure of Annie Warbucks off Broadway and the disastrous train of other Annie sequels behind it, Charnin & Co. went back to the drawing board, preferring the safer confines of a revival. Instead of waiting until they discovered a sensational talent who just had to be the new Annie, or finding a Miss Hannigan to rival Dorothy Loudon, the creators went for hype over inspiration. In cooperation with Macy’s department store, they staged a series of national, open auditions for the new orphan. Hundreds of entrants, some in red wigs and peasant dresses, auditioned for director Charnin, leading to an agonized decision-making process. An ABC-TV documentary on the Annie search captured Charnin on the day he was supposed to announce his choice, telling his creative team, “She’s not here.” Moments later, however, he changed his mind and picked an 11-year-old Pennsylvanian, Joanna Pacitti, for the coveted role.

Brimming with spunk, projecting well, and looking like the comic-book orphan, Pacitti seemed a natural. Reports from the road tour said her performance was a bit showy and mechanical, but hey, the role wasn’t Desiree Armfeldt.

All was well until Pacitti, only weeks away from opening on Broadway, took a couple of days off to nurse a sore throat. Understudy Brittny Kissinger stepped into the role—and the producers apparently saw what they’d been missing. Pacitti got the ax, which led to her tearful appearances on talk shows and an outpouring of public sympathy for the rejected actress, who wasn’t even born when Charnin and Strouse wrote, “the sun will come out tomorrow.”

Rather than settle back into the obscurity of her father’s barber shop (where she’d sung for customers), Pacitti fired off a lawsuit—not against Charnin & Co., but against Macy’s for reneging on their “prize.” (The still-pending lawsuit charges that the audition was advertised by Macy’s as a “contest,” with the winner entitled to play Annie on Broadway.) However bland the final product on Broadway, the Annie journey had enough twists to keep Agatha Christie bemused: Zappa, the dog playing Sandy, was fired and replaced by its understudy. Pacitti then adopted Zappa in real life—and both were chosen to appear together in a summer production of Annie in North Carolina. Neill Carter suffered a hernia and then fought with the producers for marketing the show in TV commercials that displayed her name prominently but featured 15-year-old footage of Marcia Lewis as Hannigan. And since children became restive watching the 160-minute musical, Charnin & Co. shaved a few scenes off—including that pessimistic “Herbert Hoover” number and its pesky homeless, proving the destitute are as politically expendable in entertainment as they are in life. Conrad John Schuck (formerly plain old John Schuck) graced Annie with his professional Oliver Warbucks, and Raymond Thorne reprised his fine work as FDR. But Nell Carter’s clowning proved less than skillful, the orphans were a motley lot, and the set had a sawdusty, pack-up-and-tour look.

Replace orphans with courtiers and the same criticism would hold for Once Upon a Mattress, another missed opportunity that nonetheless hung on for over half a year until closing the night before the Tony Awards. As critics clamored for Carol Burnett, willowy Sarah Jessica Parker brought sweetness to Princess Winifred, but little vocal oomph or moxie. If the producers wanted to keep Parker’s weak points a secret, they weren’t helped by lyricist Marshall Barer, who was barred from rehearsals after screaming that Parker was all wrong and that Gerald Gutierrez’s direction was putting Mattress to sleep.

Even critics weren’t that severe, and the show fared well when marketed to younger audiences. For bizarre offstage twists, consider the tale of the Jester. Michael McGrath, lauded for playing Groucho in the American Jewish Theater’s popular mounting of The Cocoanuts, left that show—much to the producers’ ire—to take the Jester role in Mattress. In one of those “mutual agreement” spats, Mattress bounced McGrath in rehearsals, returning to Cocoanuts just before that show closed out its commercial engagement at the American Place Theater. Taking over as the Jester was David Hibbard, himself the object of controversy in (of all things) Cats.

Yes, Cats continued at the Winter Garden, on its way to a June 19 record as Broadway’s longest-running musical. But things in kitty-land got a little hairy when Hibbard, then playing the randy Rum Tum Tugger, got too aggressive with his character’s sex appeal. When a New Jersey woman failed to respond to Tugger’s gyrating, Elvis-meets-Long-John-Holmes dancing, Hibbard/Tugger turned up the heat, straddled the arms of the patron’s seat, and thrust his pelvis in her face. Juts a bit of R-rated fun in a G-rated musical, right?

Not for the distraught audience member who sued Cats for $5 million for causing her mental anguish and disrupting her sex life. The suit had a dreadful effect—not on Hibbard, but on Harold Prince’s production of Candide at the end of the season. What had been conceived as an audience-friendly, acrobatic, actors-in-the-aisles vaudeville was scaled back to a more traditional proscenium staging. Mere remnants of interactivity remained: Candide squeezing his way across a row of seats, narrator Jim Dale suspended from a birdcage-like box above the audience. Amazingly, this lamentable mounting of Leonard Bernstein’s operatic farce scored a number of Tony nominations and glowing reviews, though only Andrea Martin, as the Old woman, prevailed over Prince’s incoherent staging.

If the aforementioned audience member put the fear into Broadway producers, Cameron Mackintosh sent the gooseflesh of actors rippling up and down Shubert Alley. With the ever-popular Les Miserables nearing its tenth anniversary, March 12, 1997, Mackintosh flew in with his creative team to give the show a freshening up. What they saw, apparently, were tired performances from long-term cast members, many of whom had grown too old for their roles. The media termed what followed “a bloodbath,” as the performers were lined up across the stage and handed letters that detailed their futures in the show. Some performers were terminated, others were asked to re-audition for their roles or for different parts in the show.

Actors’ Equity threw a conniption but had little recourse, since the Really Useful Company skated around the rules for firing contracted actors. They paid the casualties off with a sum larger than the performers could have gotten had they challenged the firing, won, and received the standard compensation called for by Equity rules. Sabres were rattled, rules were changed (slightly), and a refurbished cast reopened Les Miserables March 12. Hoopla aside, the show still felt like, well, Les Miz, an overlong but absolutely sensational evening of musical drama.

None of the 1996-97’s new musicals reached that kind of glory, but they were as varied a crop as any in the past half-dozen years. Steel Pier, Titanic, Jekyll & Hyde, and The Life were all brand-new works, in music and lyrics, if not story. All but Jekyll & Hyde were nominated for best musical Tonys, Hyde’s place taken by the novel and superbly designed Juan Darien. Two other musicals, Play On! and Dream, plugged old songs into new stories. Both were essentially ignored for major awards, which wasn’t altogether fair, but also spared the industry from the embarrassment of another Crazy for You or Jerome Robbins’ Broadway categorized as a “new” musical.

Juan Darien, though typed as a musical, was really more a specialty item, a puppet play with ambient sound employing masks, bunraku, marionettes, and shadow-play. The elliptical tale of a young boy (played by a human), more comfortable with jaguars than the cruel hunters and carnival barkers in his town, received critical huzzahs and led to Disney choosing Julie Taymor to stage their The Lion King late in 1997. Taymor’s ambitious allegory, backed by Elliot Goldenthal’s environmental soundscape, had moments of wonder but also outstayed its welcome. Done in shadow-play, the funniest scene in Juan Darien showed a tiger swallowing the boy and then evacuating both his boots. Low comedy indeed, but more entertaining than the headache-inducing crucifixion sequence an hour later.

Overworked critics groused that none of the above musicals was a clear triumph. All had book problems; most of the scores had a familiar, warmed-over feeling. Certainly, following the year of Rent and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, the absence of a modern, relevant musical with some acknowledgment of the rock/rap era, was keenly felt. Nevertheless, the health of a theater season lies in the wealth of its talent and the quantity of its quality. When Newsday’s Linda Winer derides The Life for its sexism and vulgarity, while half a dozen others praise it as the best score of the year; when New York’s John Simon calls Titanic a sinker while The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin hails the ship; when nearly all the major critics trash Jekyll & Hyde but audiences go wild over it; when Steel Pier gets dissed as second-rate Kander & Ebb yet looked like the one to beat for the Tony, that makes for a helluva lot more excitement than, say, sweep years by Rent or Sunset Boulevard.

In truth, each of the six musical musicals (I thus exclude the sound effects and choral yowling of Juan Darien) was worth a trip to theater. Each had moments to cherish; each merited serious consideration.

Mixing the pastiche-esque concept of Crazy for You with the style of what August Wilson has sneeringly dubbed “the chitlin circuit” of black theater, Play On! was a huge hit at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater before coming to New York. Not only did playwright Cheryl L. West interpolate classic tunes by Duke Ellington into her romantic comedy of 1920s Harlem, she and director Sheldon Epps took as their cue the dress-ups and mix-ups of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. That’s a tall order, and the silly results sometimes missed their mark, with the audience remaining distant from the show’s two central love stories. At an American Theater Critics Association conference, lead actress Tonya Pinkins said much character material was cut from the text between San Diego and Broadway, leaving performers pushing for emotions that had come more naturally when the script was longer.

Plot did spill out of Play On! helter-skelter, and the performances weren’t always calibrated to reach a consistent tone. Moment to remember? Andre De Shields and Larry Marshall teaming up for a happy blues, “Rocks in My Bed,” that rocked the house. Oddly enough, the specter of August Wilson loomed large even here: the musical number resembled nothing so much as the way characters in The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars break into natural, joyous, pulsing song.

Pinkins blamed the quick demise of Play On! on the discomfort of New York audiences with black culture—which again brings us to August Wilson. The playwright’s public argument with A.R.T. head Robert Brustein was the hottest one-night ticket of the winter. Anna Deavere Smith chaired the debate, which pitted Brustein’s multi-culturalism and non-traditional casting against Wilson’s call for a more specifically African-American theater. To Wilson, blacks playing traditionally white roles smacks of dishonesty and represents an assimilation that severs American blacks’ connection to their African homeland. Yet, contradictorily, Wilson can’t abide  the so-called “chitlin circuit,” a rudimentary, sitcom type of theater (usually gospel musicals) that sell a lot more tickets in the black community than Wilson’s plays do. This season’s semi-hit, Born to Sing (part 3 of the Mama, I Want to Sing trilogy), was an example of the form, though that had more of a cross-over audience than the usual fare at venues like the Beacon and Amsterdam Theaters.

The dance musical Dream dispensed with dialogue and built a show out of musical numbers and set pieces. The tunes all have one thing in common: lyrics by Johnny Mercer. He’s a name to be reckoned with (“One More for the Road,” “Moon River,” “Goody, Goody”), but as Stardust and A Grand Night for Singing demonstrated, a tribute to talent is not enough to hang a musical on. Then again, Dancin’ and Noise/Funk proved choreography is enough to fill an evening, and director/choreographer Wayne Cilento had previously managed to turn The Who’s Tommy from a rock antique into a visual phenomenon. Louise Westergaard and Jack Wrangler (the latter a former adult film star and husband of Dream singer Margaret Whiting) conceived the idea of tracing four decades of American life through Mercer’s music, but the vision on stage is Cilento’s. He starts in a small town straight out of Oklahoma!, moves to a posh nightclub, then to a WWII soldiers’ cantina, and finishes with a salute to Hollywood’s Oscar-time glitz. Missing, despite some marvelous dancing and two dozen songs we all know the first lines to, was a sense of the musical going somewhere, rather than just going.

Dream’s lead, Lesley Ann Warren, took a critical beating for not being as big a star as the sexpot “character” she played, and the New York Times faulted the piece as a whole for having the pre-packaged feel of an Andy Williams TV special. An older, less censorious audience would have likely found much to enjoy in John Pizzarelli’s tasty jazz guitar licks and the verve of up-`’n’-comer Jessica Molaskey, who gives her all on “Something’s Gotta Give.” It remains a mystery why Cilento didn’t do more with Whiting singing “My Shining Hour” to the servicemen. That she did so in real life, just before the soldiers were shipped off to the Pacific, was a far more moving concept than any on view at the Royale Theater.

Titanic: Sweeping, Admirable, Inspiring

Of the new musicals, Steel Pier may have been the most classically structured, Jekyll & Hyde the most passionate, and The Life by far the most hummable, but Titanic was the most sweeping, admirable, and, sometimes, inspiring. Everyone laughed when technical problems beset the musical during previews (“They couldn’t get the ship to sink!”), and cast members gritted their teeth to see their songs and characters whittled away to pare the ensemble musical to two-and-a-half hours. Reviewers from the major dailies took librettist Peter Stone to task for trotting on dozens of characters as “types,” giving them brief bits of business in the middle, and then expecting audiences to care whether they lived or died after the ship’s collision with an iceberg. It’s valid criticism: Ida Straus’s decision to die with her husband (department-store magnate Isidor Straus), rather than save herself in a lifeboat, raises nary a tear when it should devastate.

What the anti-Titanics are missing, however, is an appreciation of the show’s scope. Most American theater takes a magnifying glass and holds it over a half dozen strongly detailed characters. Titanic’s approach was more sociological—and more grand. Nearly everyone on the ship wants to be somewhere, or someone, else. The Captain has been about to retire but was talked into staying for one last voyage. A meddlesome second-class passenger (the delightful Victoria Clark) spends much of the first act doing anything she can to hobnob with the VIPs on the upper deck. Poor passengers on the lower tier simply want to start a new life in America. To Stone and composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, the tragedy of the Titanic is not that a few lovable or fascinating characters got killed in a high-seas accident; the tragedy is that hundreds of middle and lower class passengers died because there weren’t enough lifeboats on the ship—because storing more lifeboats would have taken up too much space in first class.

Even anti-Titanics were impressed by the show’s opening sequence at ship’s boarding. Passengers and crew are briefly introduced, as are the Captain (John Cunningham) and his nemesis, moneyman Ismay (David Garrison), who prefers speed to safety. Though all we see of the ship is a long boarding gangway, the music rises to such majesty, our mind’s eye conjures a vessel of monumental splendor.

Nothing in the rest of Titanic matches its opening scene, but one doesn’t leave the Art Institute of Chicago after viewing Seurat’s Grand Jatte because everything else on the walls is anti-climactic. Impassioned encounters, clever touches, and an expansive, macro-cosmic perspective inform the entire piece. Stewart Laing’s set design could not be more uneven (the crash is laughable: a tiny model ship sliding across the stage to rumbling sound effects), but his best moments are awesome: the overhead crow’s nest, the Robert Wilson-style division of stage space into rectangles, squares, and circles. Despite roaring through the Tonys with a surprise clinch of most of the major creative awards (best musical, score, book, orchestrations, and set), Titanic may yet fail on Broadway because of its huge budget, mediocre reviews, and the perception that Yeston’s score offers no catchy tunes. In a more equitable universe, however, Titanic will find its way to, say, Houston Grand Opera, add an extra half hour of character development to its running time, and be far better appreciated as a hybrid opera than as a hybrid musical.

With Steel Pier, Kander & Ebb and writer David Thompson actually managed a typical old-fashioned musical—with typical second-act book trouble. Pier’s set-up played to the strength of its creative team, notably choreographer Susan Stroman, who evoked the world of Depression-era marathon dancing through a center bandstand, swirling lights, and couples jitterbugging, foxtrotting, and showboating on the dance floor. Pier panners dismissed the show as a pale copy of the Jane Fonda film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which took a pitch-dark view of the marathon mentality. In defense of librettist Thompson, dance marathons wouldn’t have been as popular and long-lasting if they were always as grimly pathetic as the one depicted in Horses. Even dancers who couldn’t go the long haul (sometimes weeks) could make money by being sponsored or doing specialty acts, not to mention receiving free room and board. Stroman and Thompson did a commendable job of showing the marathon’s glamour and excitement, as well as its desperation: the weary participants sprint like panting dogs around the bandstand; one dancer (Tony-nominated Joel Blum) loses his mind from exhaustion.

Steel Pier also set up a strong central relationship: sweet, disingenuous Rita (Karen Ziemba), a contestant, is actually in cahoots with the guy running the tournament. The fix is in, but she wants to give up the marathon scene, much to the dismay of her dashing but menacing husband (Gregory Harrison), who knows the next marathon can net them $5,000.

Where Steel Pier started to splinter was its introduction of a third character, a handsome pilot (Daniel McDonald) who becomes a potential love interest for Rita. That he’s actually a dead guy come temporarily back to life is both confusingly and ineffectually handled, and Rita’s inner struggle just isn’t sufficiently compelling to fill the second act. The nadir comes when the terrific Ziemba must dance `round and `round a pole, forced to sing the poor lyrics of “Running in Place.” Thus, despite having all the elements of a vintage musical, Steel Pier underwhelmed and became less than the sum of its parts. Ziemba and Harrison were fine, though, with Debra Monk a stand-out as a straight-talking, coarse, but compassionate fellow dancer, Shelby. The evening’s best scene had Monk’s Shelby wowing the marathon’s spectators (and audiences at the Richard Rodgers Theater) with the raunchy “Everybody’s Girl,” only to be cheated out of her big moment by a conniving competitor.

If Steel Pier lacked a passionate raison d’etre, Jekyll & Hyde’s raison d’etre was passion. The Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn musical had spent seven years on the road before reaching Broadway, making more changes and jettisoning more songs than any musical in recent history. Always an “audience show,” J&H had the reputation of being a critical bête noire, while fans cried buckets over the tragic story and cheered the high-octane cast.

That reputation held in New York, where critics fired poisoned darts at Bricusse’s adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, saving special arrows for his generic lyrics and the show’s perceived kitsch factor. At least New York Times scribe Ben Brantley offered a back-handed compliment, writing that the show had a passionate belief in itself not evident in Titanic or Pier.

Ironically, and not undeservedly, Jekyll & Hyde has the best chance of sticking around for two or three years, no matter who won the Tony (J&H wasn’t even nominated). Bricusse and Wildhorn’s musical did have fire in its blood, as well as a captivating matinee idol in Robert Cuccioli, and a voice to shake the rafters in Linda Eder. Her performance, as Lucy the tragic prostitute in love with Jekyll but also drawn to the abusive Hyde, was believable enough, but the real buzz is over her singing, with the “new Streisand” tag actually starting to stick.

Why does it take so long for Jekyll’s friends and acquaintances to put two and two together? And why does Jekyll’s best friend leave the doctor alone (knowing full well he’ll turn into the murderous Hyde) and then run to warn Lucy to leave town, rather than locking Jekyll in his study and calling the police? On an intellectual level, Jekyll & Hyde stopped making sense very quickly, but on an emotional level, the show was a grabber all the way. Cuccioli’s dashing Jekyll wins women’s hearts, while his growling Hyde has the mordant wit of a Sweeney Todd (his victims, besides Lucy, are rich hypocrites who repudiated his experiments). In one scene, Cuccioli, sans special makeup, even gets to flip, line by line, between the doctor and the demon, like a 19th century Sybil. Borderline foolish, it’s also the kind of risky, heart-on-the-sleeve gambit that makes Jekyll & Hyde a riveting ride. Bricusse remains the weakest lyricist on Broadway, but because the story has real fire, his work here showed improvement over his previous vehicle, Victor/Victoria.

That 1996 show continued to pack in audiences, even though the number of missed performances by star Julie Andrews led the production’s insurance company to drop her from its policy. Overtaxed and desperate for a monthlong vacation, Andrews temporarily left the show in the hands of her good friend Liza Minnelli. Notwithstanding reports of backstage friction between the diminutive diva and Vic/Vic co-star Tony Roberts, who balked at Liza’s verbal gaffes (e.g., “I’m just an old hooker” instead of “I’m just an old hoofer”), audiences took the frail, pale belter to heart. Andrews returned to the role (well, on and off with understudy Anne Runolfsson), but only until summer, when the producers will push the show’s kitsch factor to a higher level: Andrews’s replacement will be Raquel Welch.

Though ineligible for awards, high-profile replacements are big business on Broadway now, with Jerry Lewis’s devilish turn in 1995’s Damn Yankees meriting a whole new opening night. Patti LuPone received raves when she replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Zoe Caldwell in Master Class, and when she left, Dixie Carter stepped in, with many critics calling her performance the most moving of the three. Faith Prince, excoriated for her last Broadway appearance in What’s Wrong with this Picture?, won back all her fans and then some as the replacement for Donna Murphy in Christopher Renshaw’s acclaimed The King and I revival. Meanwhile, rather than close Defending the Caveman to begin its road tour, author/star Rob Becker left his solo show in the capable hands of TV’s “Commish,” Michael Chiklis.

Causing the greatest stir was the replacement for Nathan Lane in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Pundits bandied about a dozen names for the role of Pseudolus, but no one guessed the producers’ choice: Whoopi Goldberg. The gender change was snot as daunting as one would imagine, since the slave is essentially an asexual role (for example, it is Marcus Lycus who brings out the courtesans; Pseudolus is just an observer). Goldberg turned out to be a revelation. What she lacks in vocal training she makes up for in the sheer joy of clowning. Whereas Lane grimaced in mock pain with every wisecrack, Goldberg, who probably has to work harder technically than Lane did, looked like she was having a ball. Adding to the specialness are occasional scripted wisecracks (Pseudolus points to a handsome Roman and says, “What do I want with one of them white boys? I got one at home,” a winking reference to Goldberg’s real-life friend, Frank Langella) and the subtext gained by having a black woman in a traditionally white male role. Without losing any of its comedy, the great Sondheim song, “Free,” takes on tremendous resonance when sung by a black woman playing a slave.

Sunset Boulevard’s Elaine Paige, imported from London, was about as good a Glenn Close replacement as one could imagine. She sang with power and skill, and her performance was far more shaded than Betty Buckley’s. But Paige’s unknown name was a blip to theatergoers, and the show closed, just one more headache in a difficult year for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not only was his Washington D.C. tryout of Whistle Down the Wind deemed unready for Broadway, his By Jeeves stalled regionally, as well. When productions of Sunset Boulevard around the world started closing, massive layoffs and shut-downs of Really Useful Company offices also ensued. The composer even auctioned off his beloved wine collection. Optimists are hoping Lloyd Webber’s rewrites of Wind and his plans for a Phantom sequel will bring him back to the top of his game.

At or near the top of his game was composer Cy Coleman, who penned so many catchy songs for The Life, the first act stretched past a hundred minutes just to fit them all in. Audiences didn’t seem to mind, nor were they thrown by Coleman’s, David Newman’s, and Ira Gasman’s ludicrous book, which had some grit in its look at 42nd Street, circa 1980, but still felt like Damon Runyon trying to be Melvin Van Peebles. The Life followed Queen, a black woman working as a prostitute to support Fleetwood, her drug-addicted boyfriend (and personal pimp), and paralleled it with the rise of Mary, a seemingly naive, cornfed cutie, making “easy money” in the same world. Just one example of The Life’s absurdity: Queen finally dumps her useless boyfriend and does so publicly—by accepting a necklace from big bad pimp, Memphis (Chuck Cooper), at the annual Hooker’s Ball. Yet when Memphis invites her to his pad after the party, she’s shocked—shocked!—at his presumption that she will now be one of his whores. What did she expect, a day job licking envelopes?

G-rated The Life wasn’t; brutal moments and coarse humor are, rightfully, part of the landscape here. But the prostitutes, though a less-than-glamorous bunch, were still too clean-looking and mentally sharp to convince. 1980 may have been pre-AIDS, but it wasn’t pre-heroin, pre-amphetamines, and pre-syphilis.

Curiously unmoving despite its operatic finish, The Life got by—in a big way—on Cy Coleman’s score. As of shows of old, we sat through the tolerable but dumb libretto to get to the next hummable number, pretty ballad, or show-stopping stomper. When you have Lillias White’s marvelous clowning on the bluesy “The Oldest Profession,” White and Pamela Isaacs’s sunniness on “A Lovely Day to be Out of Jail,” Chuck Cooper’s terrifying baritone on “My Way or the Highway,” Bellamy Young’s sexy take on “Easy Money,” and the ensemble’s verve on “Why Can’t They Leave Us Alone?” and “My Body,” who cares that the story makes no sense? (The strange thing is that critics and audiences cared a lot when Coleman’s Welcome to the Club, which had an equally miserable book but similarly catchy songs, folded ignominiously in 1989.) A 1996 concept album of The Life’s tunes, sung by Liza Minnelli, Lou Rawls, and other guest artists, didn’t do the score justice but did feature a near-death George Burns putting his signature rasp to “Easy Money.” Much like the show itself—which won the Outer Critics Best Broadway Musical Award—if you can get past the insanity of it, it’s a hoot.

Identify the Creative Contributions?

Though still alive, the symbiotic relationship between writers and directors in the commercial theater could be reaching a crisis point. When Florida’s Caldwell Theater essentially copied Joe Mantello’s unforgettable staging of Love! Valour! Compassion!, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers decided to assert the creative contributions of its members. A pending lawsuit charges that a director’s contributions to a show should be as protected from plagiarism as the script itself—a position that could prove impossible to enforce. As a second shot across the bow, SSDC then sent a letter to play publishers and licensing organizations, demanding that they cease and desist from publishing stage directions, choreography, ground plans, and technical choices not part of the playwright’s original script. The question of who contributes what to a production has suddenly gone from a critic’s headache to a legal morass bound to get more complicated as these cases multiply and drag on.

If the creative contributions of 1996-97 showed a resurgence of new musicals on Broadway, straight plays again proved few and far between—only three new American and new foreign plays arrived there this season. After a long stretch of dabbling in cabaret, Christopher Durang returned to the boards with Sex and Longing, a scathing satire of American hypocrisy over sexuality, one of the two new American scripts brought to Broadway’s Cort Theater by Lincoln Center Theater. With Sigourney Weaver as loping, light-hearted and lascivious Lulu, a sex addict who has to get laid every hour to be happy, the play got off to a rambunctious start. Adding to the fun was Dana Ivey as the sourpuss wife of a drunken, philandering senator. But like The Life, which was a decade behind the times in its look at Times Square prostitution. Sex and Longing’s corrupt politicians and licentious priests were extremely old news, especially for the man who burned his religious bridges years earlier with Sister Mary Ignatius. Weaver and Ivey couldn’t save this nasty, overwritten work, nor could a clever sequence portraying Congress as a panel of blowup dolls overcome the feeling that Durang started with a good idea but got stuck trying to out-Durang himself.

Sex and Longing was an obvious and immediate disaster, but the cool reception given the latest work by Durang’s friend and perennial Broadway favorite, Wendy Wasserstein, still puzzles. Lauded by Newsday’s Linda Winer but dismissed by other major critics as far-fetched and artificial, An American Daughter, second of Lincoln Center’s Broadway offerings, mustered but one Tony nomination (and win)—for supporting actress Lynne Thigpen. Daughter is very much part of the Wasserstein canon; its protagonist is a modern woman who appreciates the stability of domestic life yet yearns, with a degree of ambivalence, for success, respect, and, yes, power. Like Heidi and Sara Rosensweig, Daughter’s Lyssa Dent Hughes gets swept along in a society where the rules change daily for feminism and women as leaders.

All seems in place for Lyssa (Kate Nelligan) to become the next Surgeon General of the United States, until a soulless television interviewer discovers that she once neglected a jury-duty summons. Suddenly, she’s cast in the public’s mind as a member of the privileged class, above rules that apply to common folk. Sinking her chances utterly are statements she makes, taken out of context, that denigrate middle-American housewives and indirectly chastise the President for not coming to her defense.

With complexity and cleverness, Wasserstein’s dramatic satire examines the media’s ability to construct “news” out of half-truths, sound-bytes and public-opinion polls. She turns on its head the old adage about being able to see ourselves as others see us. In the world of Daughter, Lyssa behaves one way, is perceived as another, changes her behavior to fit the perception, is then misperceived, changes again…on and on like reflecting mirrors in a not-fun funhouse. Less convincingly, Wasserstein also puts forth Lyssa’s bland marriage (to a somnambulant Peter Riegert) and her unsteady relationship with her respected father (Hal Holbrook), a state senator. We’re captivated as Lyssa gives one last interview to salvage her chances for surgeon generalship, yet bored by the meandering father-daughter chat and husband-wife resolution that closes the play.

Kate Nelligan did fine work as a woman aching to stay true to herself while everyone else tries to morph her lifestyle into their version of what the public wants. As Judith, Lyssa’s black-Jewish best friend with a suicidal bent, Lynne Thigpen couldn’t always walk the character’s fine line between absurdity and believable eccentricity, but the problem was with the writing, not the performance. Cotter Smith precisely caught the TV journalist’s medium-cool amorality, while Hal Holbrook couldn’t have been better cast as the salt-and-pepper-haired senator, whose speech defending Lyssa is a perfect bit of spin-doctoring and characterization.

Whatever An American Daughter’s shortcomings, it had more depth and resonance than the year’s other drama of political inquisitions, Taking Sides. Set in Germany after World War II, Ronald Harwood’s play pits a brash, vulgar American major against proud, dignified orchestra conductor Willhelm Furtwangler. The central question, whether the musician was pro-Hitler, anti-Hitler, or somewhere in between, received Columbo-style treatment in a diverting but surface-deep exercise. Ed Harris’s volatile Major was reason enough to see the play, though Daniel Massey’s showy, birdlike Furtwangler detracted from the one-on-one fireworks.

Conversely, David Hare’s Skylight, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best foreign play, burns in the memory precisely because he had such ideal interpreters in Michael Gambon and Lia Williams. Instead of sinking into soap opera or settling for a political debate. Hare’s look at a wealthy capitalist visiting his former lover became a harrowing, poignant look at wounded souls. Like Larry the Liquidator in Other People’s Money, Gambon’s charming mogul convincingly defends his business practices yet learns he can’t be both tycoon and white knight. By the same token, Kyra may posit herself as a shining martyr for the underclass, but layers of masochism and guilt pervade her self-denial. Critic John Simon, who’d generally found Hare’s plays dry political rants masquerading as drama, wrote that the playwright had turned a corner with 1996’s Racing Demon and 1997’s Skylight, putting Hare, finally, on the same playing field, if not the same team, as countryman Tom Stoppard.

Another British drama, Stanley, was cause for celebration, not so much for its merit, but because it successful reopened the doors of Circle in the Square, at least for the time being, under the leadership of Gregory Mosher and executive producer M. Edgar Rosenblum. Eager to rebuild a theater that never recovered from the calamitous box-office failure of 1992’s Anna Karenina, Mosher offered inexpensive subscriptions (called “memberships”) that started with a $37.50 annual fee, plus a mere $10 per ticket charge. Since the annual fe was less than the cost of a normal Broadway ticket, Circle presumably wouldn’t have to be locked into a multi-play season. That is, if they had a long-running hit, subscribers wouldn’t bristle at paying for a season with only one or two shows in it—a problem that killed Chicago’s Candlelight Theater when their Arthur Kopit-Maury Yeston Phantom played 54 weeks and alienated their subscriber base.

Shortly after season’s end, the Messrs. Mosher and Rosenblum resigned their Circle in the Square posts, and it looked as though the organization might never finally reemerge from its difficulties. For different reasons, after 17 years the off-Broadway Lamb’s Theater company, founded by Carolyn Rossi Copeland, also called it quits, although its space still serves as a home for theater, such as the long-running Magic on Broadway. And in October, Circle Repertory Theater, described in the Times as “a mainstay of off Broadway for 28 years,” went most regrettably out of business, for lack of financial support.

As for Pam Gems’s award-winning drama on the life of painter Stanley Spencer, the fine actor Antony Sher invested his selfish artist with zest and zeal, almost making us understand the painter’s amoral stance on relationships—to wit, loving one woman at a time just isn’t enough. At three hours, Stanley became a repetitious exercise of the painter ignoring the woman who loves him and getting dumped on by the lesbian for whom he lusts. Saving the play from pointlessness was its autumnal final scene, with Stanley making a kind of peace with the ghost of his long-suffering spouse (Deborah Findlay). A vivid, sexy Anna Chancellor and a wry Selina Cadell also contributed memorable performances, but the show belonged to director John Caird, who ably turned the difficult Circle space into an artist’s playground.

If the Pulitzers were at a loss this year, Tony voters had little trouble choosing a best play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Alfred Uhry’s serious comedy, commissioned for the 1996 Atlanta Olympiad and brought to Broadway with skill by director Ron Lagomarsino, was the kind of classically commercial work that hasn’t taken Broadway honors since Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. Like that masterwork, Ballyhoo touches on a dark theme: class-based anti-Semitism within the Jewish community, where German Jews are perceived to have a higher status than their Eastern European counterparts. In the first ten minutes, Uhry unloads traincars full of exposition yet does so in the kind of straightforward, amusing way that used to come naturally to Broadway writers of yesteryear. An hour later, we see the jealously Lala Levy has for her prettier, more socially accepted cousin, Sunny, and the first-act curtain sweeps down with a resounding whoosh of confidence; Uhry knows we won’t dare leave without finding out what will happen to Lala, Sunny, Peachy, and the rest of the denizens of this extended 1939 Atlanta family.

Dana Ivey emerged unscathed from Sex and Longing to give another acclaimed performance, as the sarcastic but fiercely protective mother of Lala (Jessica Hecht, excellent). Exceptional, too, were Terry Beaver, as laconic papa Freitag, Celia Weston as the dazed but sensitive mother of comely Sunny and Stephen Largay as Peachy, the upper-class twit who inadvertently saves the day. A review by Mark Sommers of the Atlanta production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo appears in the Season Around the United States section of this volume.

Horton Foote’s first Broadway outing in years also came with heavy baggage. Part of the Signature Theater’s all-Foote season two years back off Broadway, The Young Man from Atlanta got another chance to prove itself after a stunned world said, “Huh?” when the domestic piece took the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. A pulitzer voter told me the choice was more of a cumulative career award for elderly Foote than a specific nod to Atlanta, which merely maintained “his career-long level of excellence.” Still, the story of Will Kidder, a businessman fired by his company and then thwarted in his attempts to start a new career, should hold an audience, if not electrify it.

Sometimes all it takes is a big stage and some big actors. Robert Falls’s production at the Longacre Theater had its longueurs but certainly redeemed a play that was dull as dirt in its 1995 mounting by Signature Theater. Whereas Ralph Waite’s Will was a laid-back, defeated codger, Rip Torn played him Texas-tall and raring to get back in the saddle. As wife Lily Dale, Shirley Knight’s fluttery desperation made us think of Edith Bunker thrust outside the safe world of television. William Biff McGuire scored a Tony nomination as a family friend who brings temporary equilibrium to the household. The Young Man from Atlanta stalled in the second act with a leisurely, pointless visit from a former housekeeper, but until then the show was, at the very least, lively enough to make us forgive the Pulitzer pickers. A little. (Atlanta became the first Tony casualty, though, closing a week after losing to Ballyhoo.)

The weightless Barrymore marked a considerable improvement for playwright William Luce, which isn’t saying much. The author of Zelda: The Last Flapper and Lucifer’s Child had become a master of turning famous historical persons into tedious windbags. That Barrymore runs less than two hours, including intermission, shows astonishing restraint on Luce’s part. That Barrymore stars Christopher Plummer is very good luck. If anybody can lend nobility to John Barrymore’s dirty limericks and disconnected reminiscences, it’s the artful and agile Plummer. All the same, Nicol Williams’s Barrymore solo the year before, titled Jack: A Night on the Town, was far more interesting for the risks it took and the more comprehensive view it offered of The Great Profile’s training, marriages, and dissolving career.

Play revivals on Broadway this season were a generally underwhelming lot. Financially troubled, the National Actors Theater had high hopes Charles Durning and Julie Harris would set the box office ringing for The Gin Game. That hasn’t quite happened, though reviews were very good and Harris received her tenth Tony nomination—more than any other actress in Broadway history. D.L. Coburn’s two-hander about aging retirees, one a prissy perfectionist, the other a card player with a rage problem, still works as comedy but now feels hollow and familiar as drama. Harris and Durning are pros, but their dialogue work can be sloppy, and we miss the whip-crack exchanges of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. (Whatever the fortunes of the N.A.T., its artistic director, Tony Randall, had a good year: the 77-year-old actor and his young wife, Heather, gave birth to a baby girl.)

Critics split over Scott Elliott’s splashy staging of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, some calling it an innovative, go-for-broke farce that took into account Coward’s own vanity and homosexuality, others viewing the production as over-heated and under-funny. Star Frank Langella proved a smooth and delicious farceur, though, with Tim Hopper, Caroline Seymour, and Allison Janney standouts in the uneven ensemble.

Even less assured was a half-English, half-American revival of Jean Anouilh’s masterwork at the Roundabout, The Rehearsal, directed by Jeremy Sams. Set monotonously against a bleached white drawing room, the story of lies, betrayals, and rich people “who break things” had little resonance, even when the story took its harsh, unforgettable twist into tragedy. Roger Rees was a well-spoken, convincingly dissipated Hero; David Threlfall (who looked and sounded strikingly like Monty Python’s Eric Idle) amused as the Count, who renounced his game playing for true love; but Frances Conroy gave a shrill and rushed performance as the manipulating Countess.

Conroy struck out again in the kvetchy Arts & Leisure on Playwrights Horizons’s 1997 schedule but came through in the later innings with Lincoln Center’s revival of The Little Foxes. Less a star turn for Stockard Channing’s capable Reina than an effective, nicely stage ensemble piece, Foxes showcased Conroy’s specialty—high-strung helplessness—to memorable effect. Many reviews dismissed Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play as creaky melodrama, presumably because to them, strong-willed family members fighting viciously and openly over property somehow lacked sophistication, even when played on John Lee Beatty’s opulent, two-level set. To others, the play’s stomach-tightening ugliness still worked like strong medicine, with Hellman turning the brilliant trick of making us hate Regina, yet forcing us to root for her because her brothers are so much worse. A crass, menacing Brian Murray; a terrified, pathetic Conroy; and a commanding Kenneth Welsh (as Regina’s ailing husband) made The Little Foxes satisfying, properly upsetting evening.

Critics had little use for Scott Ellis’s revival of Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, calling it a sitcom thoroughly stuck in its time period. Entertaining as it is, the comedy has an unsatisfactory protagonist in Murray Burns. His crabby non-conformity consists of shouting at his neighbors, calling the weather bureau every morning, and visiting the Statue of Liberty instead of going to work. Hoo-boy, some rebellion. 1996 audiences, accustomed to corporate downsizing and four-digit layoffs, enjoyed watching Judd Hirsch but were tempted to tell his Murray, “Shut up and get a job.”

Also unevenly staged, yet better received, was the last show to open during the Tony season, the Roundabout’s London Assurance. (The Tony season doesn’t exactly coincide with the Broadway season. The former ended April 30, the latter May 31.) Few actors are as beloved on Broadway as Brian Bedford, so he had reason to bring tremendous self-assurance to his role in Dion Boucicault’s farce. Bedford’s smug Sir Courtly chuckled at his own jokes and then waited expectantly for audiences to respond, which they did, surprisingly, with gales of laughter. A little of this went a long way, but the crazy-quilt comedy perked up with the arrival of Helen Carey as a spanking Lady Gay Spanker. Eyes shining, front teeth jutting forward, husky voice bespeaking a lusty nature, Carey rescued London Assurance from Joe Dowling’s erratic direction and forced Bedford’s Courtly to stop showing off and become part of the story.

Our historian, Thomas T. Foose, notes for our added information that “London Assurance was that great rarity in New York, a play from the first half of the 19th century. It was Dion Boucicault’s first success, at London’s Covent Garden March 4, 1841, when the author was about 20. The play came to New York very speedily for those days, and it was seen at the Park October 11, 1841. The Lady Gay Spanker was the very famous actress Charlotte Cushman, who looked something like Marjorie Main and who sometimes played men’s parts (in 1945 she played Romeo to her sister’s Juliet). London Assurance was a huge favorite in New York in the 19th century, with productions almost every season until the last decade.”

Al Pacino was the story in a sold-out revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, a one-act about a down-and-out gambler boring a hotel clerk with his ramblings. The actor not only starred in but directed the hour-long drama, which featured Paul Benedict as the laconic clerk. Audiences clamored, critics fawned, the benefit (for Circle in the Square) raised a bundle, so why grouse that Hughie was a dull exercise with a plot that didn’t even get going until just before the ending? At $1 a minute, it was the most expensive snob ticket on Broadway.

Most honored of the season’s revivals was A Doll’s House, imported from England on the strength of Janet McTeer’s performance as Nora. McTeer’s Olivier-Award winning turn netted her a best-actress Tony as well, though John Simon and Linda Winer objected to McTeer’s girlish housewife, wondering how such a scattered debutante could find the gumption to make Ibsen’s world-shaking exit speech. The Nora of the last ten minutes did seem too radically different from the Nora of the previous 2:45, but otherwise McTeer and the rest of the cast created a nuanced and detailed world. Overt physical affection between husband (Tony winner Owen Teale) and wife made Torvald’s dinosaur values all the more unfortunate. Also strongly conveyed in this mounting was the dual nature of Dr. Rank (John Carlisle), one of literature’s most complex villains.

A more black-and-white view of good and evil was shown in Into the Whirlwind, performed in Russian with simultaneous English translation by Moscow’s Sovremennik Theater for a limited Broadway engagement. Author Eugenia Ginzburg experienced first-hand the terrors of political imprisonment in Stalinist Russia, and an elderly member of the deeply committed cast was actually her cellmate. Far removed from women-in-prison B movies, the play had chilling moments (as when a new mother, caught “hoarding” food, watches an officer pour a cup of her saved breast milk on the floor) and a convincing sense of camaraderie. Repetition did lessen the plays effect, as it fell into the typical pattern of torture, reprieve, torture, reprieve. It was far more gripping, however, than Sovreminnik’s other entry, Three Sisters, a lifeless affair (though some critics cheered) weakened by half-baked directorial touches.

Just a few weeks later, off-beat, all-star casting made an all-American mounting of Three Sisters at the Roundabout frequently engaging. John Simon called the production a good introduction to Chekhov, acknowledging that the characters and motivations were made clear, as were the author’s themes. The sisters themselves were oddly chosen, with Amy Irving most comfortable as self-sacrificing Olga. As Masha, Jeanne Tripplehorn had glamour but not much range; as irina, Lili Taylor had energy but not much control. Best of the supporting players were Paul Giamatti as neurotic and unhappy Andrei, and Calista Flockhart, cast against type as the ice-veined, manipulative Natasha. The Roundabout also offered a respectable revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, starring a wan Mary McDonnell as Alma Winemiller. As the doctor who pushes Alma to the brink of love, Harry Hamlin, though the target of critical brickbats, offered both machismo and brooding angst.

If Jimmy the Greek were still alive, he’d have drooled over the odds of two plays about Saturday Night Live comediennes stricken with cancer both arriving in the same season. He’d have lost a bundle. Off-Broadway, Alan Zweibel’s Bunny Bunny proved a delight, a celebration of Gilda Radner’s big-hearted charm in pop colors and zippy vignettes. (So many plaudits were heaped on David Gallo’s adorable set design, people overlooked the pleasures of the play itself.) On Broadway, Julia Sweeney served up a quieter piece, joking gently about her years at SNL (she played the androgynous “Pat” character), the annoyances of living in New York, her brother’s death from cancer, and her own battle with the disease. By steering clear of tear jerking, Sweeney may have undersold the material’s emotional impact. It was nice not to be overwhelmed by bathos, but audiences accustomed to catharsis in these kinds of evenings went home from God Said “Ha!” feeling a tad shortchanged.

Surely, no one felt shortchanged by Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, a two-and-a-half-hour seminar by marriage guru John Gray. There was no reason to bring this infomercia-style monologue to Broadway (let alone the enormous Gershwin Theater) except for Gray to sell some books and sign up couples for his weekend counseling retreats. Grazing the same turf as Defending the Caveman, Gray did dispense a few handy tips for keeping a marriage fresh, but a second-act guest panel bombed so precipitously on opening night, he dispensed with the segment for the rest of the week-long run. Instead, he closed the show by having the audience chant in unison, “I love sex! I love sex!” Chris Durang’s Lulu would’ve been in heaven.

Like John Gray, Spalding Gray idealized his own current marriage—but not before revealing unpleasant truths about the end of his 17-year relationship with another companion. It’s a Slippery Slope not only showed Gray to be a bit of a cad but offered a hilarious and poetic account of Gray’s travails on America’s ski trails. Pam Gems’s Stanley spent three hours vainly trying to convince us Stanley Spencer’s selfishness could be justified because he was a great artist. In 90 minutes, Spalding Gray frankly offered half a dozen examples of his behaving like a complete scoundrel—and we revered him all the more for it. Go figure.

Heads were also scratching over Dreams & Nightmares—this time with viewers wondering, “How did he do that?” David Copperfield brought his flashy, big-budget magic show to Broadway, pulling in record box-office grosses and finding a dozen variations on the-body-is-not-where-you-think-it-is illusions. Less grandiose, but often more fun, was an off-Broadway show that went under the half-misleading title, “Magic on Broadway.” Despite little advance publicity, decent reviews and strong marketing to family audiences helped Magic become a long-running hit. A smooth pro, illusionist Joseph Gabriel brackets his disappearing birds, swords-through-boxes, and mind-reading gimmicks with Benny Hill-style dancers and gentle, Copperfieldian patter. Pushing the evening to must-see status is guest artist Romano Frediani, who bounces tennis balls off drums, juggles with fervor, and catches hoops around his neck. Imagine crossing Sam Kinison’s insane vigor with the winsome glee of Invisible Circus founder Jean Baptiste Thierree, and you have some idea of the delight Frediani, only 22, evokes in audiences.

Along Came How I Learned to Drive

It had been a numbing dry spell for Paula Vogel, productions of her Desdemona and And Baby Makes Seven making critics question the promise of her delirious classic, The Baltimore Waltz. Hushing the complaints with a controlled, mature honesty heretofore unseen in Vogel’s work was How I Learned to Drive, staged off-off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater and then moved to the newly built Century Center Theater for a commercial run. We see the hand that shaped Waltz in Drive’s vignette style, its frankness about a woman’s sexuality, and proficiency at using almost vaudevillian laugh breaks to soften the impact of the trepidation lurking around the corner.

Winner of the New York Drama Critics, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play, How I Learned to Drive follows the relationship between teenaged Li’l Bit and her alcoholic Uncle Peck. In Peck, Li’l Bit sees a soothing older man, savvy with the secrets of the world. If indulging his masturbatory needs is a key to understanding that world, so be it. In Li’l Bit, Peck finds a trusting and nubile disciple, too naive to be a tease but too grown-up to be wholly innocent. Only near play’s end do we learn that Peck’s sexual misbehavior with his niece began, not a year or two before her 18th birthday, but when she was 11.

Throughout Drive, we hold our breath waiting for the moment of hell: the scene in which Peck will lose patience and rape the girl, or lose control and beat her up, but Vogel’s motive was not sensational ugliness, i.e., the vicious kicks of a Killer Joe or sordid “honesty” of, say, The Life. Compassion is shown for this very sick man, while Li’l Bit grows into a young woman who can eventually look back at the worst—and best—moments of this relationship, put her foot to the pedal, and speed off into adulthood. Mark Brokaw’s direction of Drive lets the scenes between Li’l Bit and Peck, played marvelously by Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, hum with a quiet tension. More raucous looks at Li’l Bit’s family—a vulgar bunch, happily spouting risque remarks yet hush-hush about the truth of their daughter’s predicament—offer a cheery but not frivolous release.

All over the map in its themes was Jonathan Reynolds’s Stonewall Jackson’s House, certainly the year’s nerviest work and sometimes the most dazzling. Scene 1, directed in cartoonish, bad-sitcom style, offers a young black woman showing white tourists around the house of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. LaWanda fields questions from a sweet, middle-American couple, as well as complaints from a redneck duo who’ve read every conceivable book on Stonewall and are fanatically concerned wit the furniture’s “authenticity.” So sick is LaWanda of her life, her job, and her cranky tourists, she begs to come home with the gentle retirees—as their slave. The debate that ensues, pitting the advantages of slavery (free meals, a settle existence) against its obvious shortcomings, is funny and sharp, but just the beginning.

Reynolds turned the rest of the play on its head. We discover the actress playing LaWanda in this skit is, in fact, the literary manager of a subsidized regional theater. The artistic director and his wife, the company’s lead actress, are considering the work for their season. They know the race theme will be controversial but think the comedy will make an important statement about black in America. LaWanda vociferously disagrees, calling the play-within-the-play (which was penned by a young white dramatist) insulting to African-Americans’ memory of 400 years of slavery.

With arguments that are angry, hilarious, and deadly serious, Stonewall Jackson’s House looks at every aspect of modern black life in America. Like the playwright in his play, author Reynolds is Caucasian, yet the work here is as far removed from Driving Miss Daisy condescension as How I Learned to Drive is from TV movies about incest. To the play’s serious detriment, Reynolds all but jettisons the plot and makes the evening a freewheeling debate. it’s too much of a half-digested thing, but one that makes us wonder how much better Broadway would be if Mastergate and Angels in America had been box-office hits instead of just good deeds.

Exhilarating as Stonewall Jackson’s House could be, the year’s most scarifying look at black culture was yet to come. Adventurous New York audiences could watch the performance of the year unfold in the Public Theater’s unadorned LuEsther Hall. A man, a chair, a cigarette. Well, first no man, just an (overlong) audio collage of soundbytes from the 1960s, heavily favoring black radicals Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Then Roger Guenveur Smith, as Newton, took a seat. The man before us was nervous, sucking har on his cigarette, his voice tremulous, each phrase strongly considered before uttered. Within 20 minutes, this character would be joking, bellowing, wittily goading the audience. In another 20, he was pacing like a tiger around the tiny stage, doing pushups to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (the one about Mr. Jones who doesn’t know what’s happening), and hurling himself back against the chair seat, again and again and again and again in fits of drug-induced agony. Good performances are a dime a dozen in New York, and great ones can be had for a sawbuck, but Roger Guenveur Smith in A Huey P. Newton Story truly made an audience question the line between actor and character. Smith’s choice to greet patrons after the performance, no doubt to assure us that he wasn’t a drugged out, psychotic, former leader of the Black Panthers, wasn’t enough to shake the sense that biographical one-person shows had been pushed to a thrilling extreme.

Certainly Spalding Gray’s Slope and Smith’s Newton made other solos look like educational exercises, though this year’s crop were livelier than usual. Writer-performer Eddy Frierson’s “Matty” offered a loud, long, but often jovial evening with legendary Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. Donal Donnelly received positive notices for his George Bernard Shaw solo, My Astonishing Self. Chubby, Jackie Gleasonish John DiResta (who, I confess, sat in my high school homeroom), caught the media’s eye with Beat, an uneven look at his career as a police officer on subway and homeless detail.

Appealing in a low-key way was Boychik, which studied a man in mourning trying to reconnect with the memory of his Orthodox Jewish father. Though the show had a built-in audience and starred Richard Kline of Three’s Company fame (he played sleazy friend Larry), Boychik came into New York under-funded and succumbed before it could build a paying crowd. Conversely, Late Nite Catechism, a long-running Chicago hit, arrived with little hoopla and caught on almost immediately. The acclaim was merited, for Maripat Donovan and co-writer Vicki Quade have managed a delightful hybrid. Though Catechism features a strict but joke-cracking nun, it offers neither the fierce apostasy of Sister Mary Ignatius nor the nuns-as-penguins pablum of Nunsense. Donovan’s Sister Mary spins tall tales of saints and martyrs, yet makes clear they’re not meant to be taken literally. She also doesn’t shy from the hard stuff—wooden rulers as a disciplinary tool, audience questions about abortion—yet always treats Catholicism with loving respect. Catechism surely gave lapsed Christians a hankering for the real thing, while giving the rest of us a yen for more Chicago cult hits crossing the Hudson (when, oh when, will Hellcab come?).

The season offered other strong solos based on characterization. Most celebrated was Fiona Shaw’s The Waste Land, captivating as much for its location (the dilapidated midtown Liberty Theater) as for its breathless spectacle of Shaw turning T.S. Eliot’s disconnected prose into flashes of real people living in blitz-era England. So effective was the bare bulb swinging over the stage of t his austere piece, the Drama Desk nominated Waste Land for bets lighting. A more traditional character solo was offered by Felix A. Pire concentrating on gay culture in Miami. Men on the Verge of His-Panic Breakdown was a breakout cult hit featuring Pire as a series of homosexual Latin-American men created by author Guillermo Reyes. Funniest was the vignette ESL: English as a Stressful Language about an adult education instructor so tortured by his own social status he viciously berates students who’ll never reach his level of proper American speech. The sequence featured Reyes’s best writing, as did the quieter scene of a restaurateur pleading for his chefs to use authentic ingredients (“Never replace the yucca!”). Other pieces have trouble integrating far-out comic touches into realistic monologues, but Pire proved a 110 percent gung-ho interpreter. He took home an Outer Critics Circle Award for solo performance, beating out Maripat Donovan, Julia Sweeney, and Charlayne Woodard for her solo, Neat.

Another off-beat winner was The Santaland Diaries, scripted by David Sedaris, co-author of One Shoe Off and The Little Freida Mysteries. “Santaland” (that is, the extravagant holiday set-up at Macy’s department store) is a world where kids make wee-wee in the fake snow, where one gay elf comes on to all the other elves, and where harried shoppers toss dirty diapers into this man-made winter wonderland. Timothy Olyphant’s fey performance deflated the material, though even his insipid delivery couldn’t kill the show’s best laughs or surprising poignancy.

An award-winning West End comedy by Patrick Marber, Dealer’s Choice, showed the decidedly ungodly side of what Leonard Cohen once termed “the holy game of poker.” Though they can scarcely afford to, employees of a mid-level restaurant take part in a weekly high-stakes poker game with their well-off boss. An examination of the boys’ jealousies and empty lives as they lose hundreds of dollars, yet can’t say “no” to the weekly game, would be enough for a gritty comedy, but Marber raised the stakes by adding one extra player: Ash, a “friend” of the owner’s compulsive gambler son, who turns out to be a loan shark come to collect his debt. Precisely directed by John Tillinger, Dealer’s Choice was arguably the year’s most satisfying all-around production, the mix of English and American actors up to the writing. In off-Broadway’s other 1996-97 new foreign play, The Steward of Christendom at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Irish actor Donal McCann won unanimous acclaim for playing a former chief of police committed to an insane asylum in Sebastian Barry’s elliptical drama.

Nicky Silver could very well have penned the shrewd and delirious Psychopathia Sexualis—but he didn’t. This farcical look at obsessive personalities kin to Silver’s The Food Chain, was instead written by John Patrick Shanley, in a major return to form at Manhattan theater Club. Shanley started the season OOB with a pair of one-acts, Missing/Kissing, then came roaring onto the scene with the tale of a groom-to-be confessing to his best friend the one problem that could wreck his wedding night: an argyle sock fetish. Arthur has lived comfortably with this fixation for years, but his narcissistic psychiatrist (Edward Herrmann) reaches the breaking point. He steals the offending footwear, forcing Arthur to go cold turkey. Not only do the one-liners in Psychopathia Sexualis land with the crunch of a Monty Python (sockless) foot, Shanley’s play also explores the fragility of external behavior—and has a good, nasty laugh at therapists in the bargain. As if providing a wonderful evening of comedy weren’t enough. Psychopathia also reminded us how frustratingly long the treasurable Edward Herrmann has been typecast as stuffy delegates, malicious advisors, and Franklin Roosevelts.

After a tiresome opening sequence, Leslie Ayvazian’s familial Nine Armenians dove strongly into its central question: how does privileged, well-adjusted Virginia incorporate the tremendous suffering she sees when she visits her family motherland, Armenia, into a “normal” life back in America? Ayvazian overstuffed her drama with obvious metaphors and clan crises, yet the Manhattan Theater Club had a tremendous ace in the hole: Kathleen Chalfant as Grandma, who teaches Virginia the secret of living with suffering. Chalfant’s angular body and and Grant Wood face worked against any element of pathos in her performance, so when the older woman shared a ritual of sorrow with her granddaughter, the result was double heart-rending.

The Blues are Running, two one-acts by Michael Cristofer, also at MTC, barely hit stride but did introduce Paul Giamatti to the theater scene. He’d later appear (as essentially the same neurotic character) in Three Sisters and as radio programmer “Pig Vomit” in the Howard Stern movie Private Parts. Oh, and speaking of excretions, the year’s worst play was an off-Broadway two-hander called Jasper in Gramercy Park, with two senior citizens chatting endlessly about the size, shape, and consistency of their dog’s bowel movements.

Something to Celebrate: Old Wicked Songs

The commercial transfer of Old Wicked Songs was something to celebrate. Jon Marans’s study of an attentive but secretive voice teacher and a snotty piano prodigy could have served as a textbook on writing a chamber drama. There was humor in the characters’ eccentricities, charm in their budding regard for each other, tension in the ugliness that develops between them, and sorrow in the revelation, and healing, of the instructor’s psychic wounds. Proof of the playwright’s brilliance comes when instructor Mashkan is about to tell his pupil, Stephen, about the horrors he experienced in concentration camps. Instead of beating us over the head with yet another tale of Nazi atrocities, Marans has the teacher move his mouth silently while we watch the reaction on Stephen’s face. Like us, he can respond only in tears. This extraordinary moment is then matched by the last scene, where the Schumann lieder that gave its title to Marans’s play becomes a deeply moving coda.

Initially staged OOB by the Barrow Group in 1995, then remounted by Jewish Repertory Theater, Jon Marans’s drama also received a West End production this season, the latter starring Bob Hoskins. Off Broadway, the show featured Hal Robinson as Mashkan and Justin Kirk (Michael Stuhlbarg played the role OOB).

Gay themes were interestingly handled by David Ives in The Red Address, a strange but compelling drama at Second Stage about a harried, married businessman escaping from the pressures of competition by donning a red dress and high heels. Tremendous pains were taken, by Ives and director Pamela Berlin, to keep the tone of this drama from turning silly. Consequently, Red Address sometimes moved slowly and left many critics scratching their heads as to the play’s intent. Yet one confrontation, between the protagonist and his second-in-command, was so pointed, so wrenching, and so well-structured, it was impossible to dismiss The Red Address as mere wing-stretching by the master of one-acts. Ives also offered a program of six new one-acts OOB at Primary Stages, Mere Mortals, destined to be raised to full off-Broadway status early in the coming season.

Lanford Wilson’s Sympathetic Magic, also at Second Stage, hoped to encompass the entire universe. When two young physicists at an observatory discover an anomaly that could effect tremendous changes in scientific thinking, they must content with an egotistical supervisor whose first thought is towards public relations, his second towards funding of the college sponsoring the research. Faced with looming deadlines and pressure to reveal results too quickly, one physicist must also contend with the unexpected news that his wife is pregnant. Her decision to abort, made without his consultation, sends him into a violent tailspin. Add to this a subplot about her brother—a gay priest—and a gay friend who guides the church choir, and you can see why Sympathetic Magic was as frustrating as it was intriguing.

With MTC’s vivid 1996 revival of Blue Window still lingering in the memory, expectations were high for Craig Lucas to continue his exploration of random events linking people who would otherwise remain solitary in their ecstasies and woes. Certainly Lucas has made a career of turning haphazard twists of fate into something mystical, from the harmless old man stealing a bride’s soul in Prelude to a Kiss to the dead family members who pop up in the oddest places in Moving Pictures. With God’s Heart, alas, Lucas pushes the “what if” quotient past the breaking point. Not only does an Upper-West-Side mommy-to-be get mixed up with a black look-out for a drug dealer and a hospitalized friend who turns out to be a murderer. Lucas also lards the piece down with sci-fi nonsense about a computer-savvy scientist able to preserve the personality of a dying AIDS victim in purely cyber form. Though God’s Heart did little to advance the cause of multi-media in commercial theater (as opposed to recent uses in The Who’s Tommy and The Monogamist), even those of us shaking our heads and wondering what Lucas was about when he wrote the play had to admit the three-minute video that encapsulated the AIDS patient’s entire life was touchingly done.

Another major disappointment in New York was One Flea Spare, which sprang from the Louisville Humana Festival with enough huzzahs to make playwright Naomi Wallace sound like the second coming of Tony Kushner. A look at class distinctions breaking down during the plague years, Flea had elements of Pinter in its casual sadism and enough cryptic AIDS metaphors to make the sordid tale “relevant.” By most accounts, the Public Theater mounting didn’t do the script justice (said text was certainly poetic, but I couldn’t make head or tail of its plot or themes).

A cross-Atlantic, modern-dress production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, starring Globe Theater artistic director and wunderkind Mark Rylance, tried hard to be audience friendly but had few workable ideas besides keeping the houselights on throughout (to approximate the Globe’s outdoor conditions). More potent off-Broadway revivals were a keenly directed A Soldier’s Play for Valiant Theater Company and a 50th anniversary staging of All My Sons at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels space. Miller’s vision of suburban America as a facade of picket fences and front porches that hide secrets and mistrusts between neighbors, has become familiar. But his simple tale of a father forced to acknowledge a terrible misjudgment in his past, because it threatens the future of his mentally anguished wife (Linda Stephens) and marriage-minded son (Michael Hayden), hasn’t lost its force. John Cullum convincingly took Joe Keller from groggy codger to desperate prevaricator, and, as we all saw in Wings, no one plays haunted women like the incomparable Linda Stephens.

The New York Times review killed the chances of an off-Broadway piece which any critics considered the year’s best musical, Violet. A chamber work by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, Violet told of a young Southern girl on a journey in 1964, in company with two servicemen (one black) and the facial scar she received when her father had an accident with his ax. Though the girl finds physical affection with the good ol’ boy soldier, it is the black one she loves. Facing Violet, then, are prejudices to overcome from without and within. Producers were lined up to bring the Playwrights Horizons musical to commercial attention when a pan in the Times nipped Violet in the bud. The New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical at least ensured that the piece will be preserved on CD.

Violet notwithstanding, few brand-new musicals made their presence felt on the off-Broadway scene. Charles Busch and Rusty Magee’s The Green Heart was an under-appreciated gem, campy yet sweet. Fortune-seeking William (David Andrew MacDonald) marries painfully shy horticulturalist Henrietta (Karen Trott) in the hopes of bumping her off and collecting her millions. When those plans go awry, William reconsiders whether killing someone so innately good, and who loves him so much, would be a wise move. Funny subplots abound, with Alison Fraser camping it up a la Madeline Kahn as Uta, William’s spoiled girlfriend. A lovely title song, and a captivating turn by Karen Trott (especially on the show-stopping “Henrietta’s Elegy”) should have brought greater success to this generally delightful work.

On a smaller scale, there were laughs to be had at the witty lyrics and better gags of the Star Trek parody, Space Trek, and even a few gross bellylaughs at the otherwise unendurable Warp!. Radio Gals, which hoped to be this year’s Cowgirls, was actually better than Cowgirls (how can you not like a show which boasts a song titled, “Edna Jones, The Elephant Girl”?), yet failed quickly at the box office.

Musical revues had better luck off Broadway than new musicals. Most lauded was Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly, a sequel-of-sorts to Crabtree’s previous revue, Whoop-Dee-Doo!, which celebrated gayness in a G-rated, La Cage way. A jolly joie de vivre and outlandish, rainbow-hued costumes helped make the latter a surprise hit for designer Crabtree, but When Pigs Fly was even better. Mark Waldrop’s sharp lyrics matched to Dick Gallagher’s sprightly tunes matched to cast members dressed as decks of cards, chests of drawers, and legendary Broadway characters made the evening soar higher and faster than any animal, pigs included. Pop-eyed, large-framed Stanley Bojarski got the biggest laughs, most notably when he played the artistic director of a Wisconsin community theater announcing the season’s upcoming schedule (“We know you had some problems with this past season. We know you didn’t understand Ruthless. We know, hey, how many times can you Paint Your Wagon? So this season we tried changing the pace with some revues. There was our evening of Frank Loesser World War II songs: Brutally Frank. And then there was our rediscovered Richard Rodgers evening: You Don’t Know Dick. Hey, they were fun, right?”). Hilarious, too, was Jay Rogers, offering torch songs to those great lovers of culture, New Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Strom Thurmond. If Pigs made it all look so easy, another revue with a gay motif, Disappearing Act, showed there’s more to the form than lumping together a few nice songs (by Mike Oster) and a hard-working cast. Flat and badly mounted, Disappearing Act soon made like its title.

Sadly, Howard Crabtree never saw When Pigs Fly take the Outer Critics Circle Award for best off-Broadway musical; he died of complications from AIDS June 28, 1996, days after completing his costume work on the show. It was the second consecutive year that the creative force behind the season’s hottest musical died in his prime; last year it was Rent’s Jonathan Larson. Another very great loss this year was the death of Broadway’s greatest anomaly: a beloved critic. Walter Kerr, who served 15 years at the Herald Tribune and 17 at the Times, died at age 83.

Forbidden Broadway strikes Back was a heartening return to form for composer/lyricist Gerard Alessandrini. After a dabbling in movie parodies with Forbidden Hollywood because Broadway offered so little to satirize. Alessandrini couldn’t resist ribbing the passel of major musical revivals. As with every FB, all the cast members proved tremendously versatile with each specializing in two or three impersonations. Bryan Batt convincingly cavorted as Jerry Lewis, David Hibbard hobbled happily as American Theater Wing doyenne Isabelle Stevenson, Christine Pedi was a stitch as Stritch, and Donna English looked and sounded so much like Julie Andrews in her 1960s-era prime, it took a full minute for gasps to ease into laughs.

Charming the hetero crowd was Joe DiPietro’s and Jimmy Roberts’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, cute sketches and songs about the singles scene, nuptials, and parenthood. Song titles such as “Cantata for a First Date,” “He Called Me,” and “Marriage Tango” point to a lyrical sophistication a few miles short of William Finn. but the show struck a chord in audiences so deluged with gay themes they’re relieved to be reminded that 90 percent of the  time men still date women, marry them, and make babies.

Washington D.C. favorite Capitol Steps, a musical sketch group composed entirely of current and former Congressional staffers, of­fered a buoyant, if surprisingly docile, evening of political satire. Two monologues utilizing spoonerisms for comic effect long outstayed their welcome, but a wicked Bob Dole turn, and keen lyric-writing by Bill Strauss, made for capital fun. For pastiche, audiences have been turning to A Brief History of White Music, an energetic rendering of a clever idea: since racism dictated that white artists cover blues and soul

recordings in the 1950s and 60s, in 1997 why not have three black performers giving an R&B spin to white songs of the same period? The results were an instant hit for the newly reopened Village Gate, moved up to posher digs on West 57th Street.

Considered to have the Midas touch thanks to Chicago, Encores! had another smash year of musical stagings in concert form, with a Martin Short Promises, Prom­ises the most likely to find future commercial life. Dorothy Loudon brought down the house in Sweet Adeline, as did the gorgeously sung and orchestrated number, “The Girl Is on His Mind.” Similarly rapturous reviews greeted the season’s final offering, The Boys from Syracuse.

Melodic Irish music was abundant in Peter and Wendy, a special Mabou Mines presentation  that, though low-key and too long, became an ineffably poignant re­-telling of the J.M. Barrie fable. In a year of tour de force work by African-American actors (Roger Guenveur Smith in A Huey P. Newton Story, Lisa Louise Langford and Starla Benford in Stonewall Jackson’s House, Lynne Thigpen in An American Daughter) Karen Kandel stood alone as the most versatile. The only human on a stage filled with puppets and marionettes, Kandel not only provided all the voices for Peter Pan, Hook, Smee, and the rest but had to play Wendy as both naïve adolescent and grown woman, her heart breaking when forced to put away childish things.

Still wondrously childlike, The Flying Karamazov Brothers returned to New York in Sharps, Flats & Accidentals, their juggling as breathtaking as ever, their jokes vastly improved, their gimmicks a delight. Loud, repetitious and grating, Australia’s Tap Dogs nonetheless staked its claim as this season’s Stomp, with construction girders and platforms replacing garbage cans and broomsticks as objects of percus­sive dance. Ireland’s Riverdance and Lord of the Dance also became something of a phenomenon, huge audiences turning out for their crass blend of fine step-dancing, portentous narration, over-amplified Celtic music, and endlessly repeated combina­tions.

Lacking the skill of the Karamazovs, a clown trio in The New Bozena tried to scrape by with a few clever gags and characterizations, just not as funny as the creators must have thought they were. The evening was partially redeemed by the final sequence, which had the trio appearing in an Eastern European drama titled “Winter Is the Coldest Season.” Anyone who’s seen Czech opera at the Met couldn’t help howling at the skewed-angle kitchen and ridiculous family melodrama of the play-within-a-play, especially when lanky Spiv, timid Ramon, and hyperactive Re­vhanavaan incorporated their lunatic novelties into the form’s dour conventions.

In a category—nay, a species—all their own were The Tokyo Shock Boys, a quartet of Japanese men who had nothing better to do than risk their lives, and dignity, nightly in front of an audience. Oh, they did a lot of time-killing fake stuff, like drumming on an audience member’s head, getting the crowd to chant along to the pumped-up music, and having a pseudo-swordfight in the dark (the sparks were made by a third member with a cigarette lighter). Killing the show’s chances off Broadway was the lack of an overall tone, or sense of build-up, to the various stunts. The quartet were like schoolkids going, “Look at me! Look at me!” though half the time they weren’t worth looking at, even though they wore punky haircuts and colorful Japanese costumes. And yet … Gyuzo put a live scorpion in his mouth—yes he did, I saw him. Danna ate handfuls of dry ice and blew white smoke out his nose. He also drank milk and made it shoot out the side of his eye. Other Shock Boy talents included lighting their farts, ingesting dishwashing liquid, and turning one Shock Boy upside down with his head in a metal garbage can, his only company: a lit firecracker.

I’ve spent this much ink on The Shock Boys in order to lead up to their greatest “trick,” one that had even jaded New York jaws dropping and palates tsk-tsking. Gyuzo stuck a toilet plunger to his head. Attached to the end of the plunger was a long rubber string. The other end of that string stopped at Nambu. It wasn’t tied around Nambu’s neck. It wasn’t held between Nambu’s teeth. No, the other end of that string was tied around Nambu’s testicles, and for the next three minutes, both men engaged in a tug of war, presumably to see which would detach first, Gyuzo’s plunger or Nambu’s family jewels. No denying this was a deranged form of enter­tainment, yet I like to think Samuel Beckett would have appreciated the calculated absurdity of it, William Shakespeare would have cheered its grounding aspect, and the Greeks would have drawn heroic metaphors from the elemental contest. When stripped of its stylistic pretensions, its million dollar budgets, its trappings of sets and costumes, even its addiction to themes and meaning, theater really does come down to, “Hey, look at us!”

And happily, for those who looked this season, there was much to see.



Categorized below are all the new productions listed in the Plays Produced on Broadway section of this volume. Plays listed in CAPITAL LETTERS were major 1996-97 prizewinners. Plays listed in italics were still running on June 1, 1997.


Lincoln Center:

  Sex and Longing

  An American Daughter




Taking Sides



MSG Productions:

   A Christmas Carol (return engagement)

   The Wizard of Oz

Juan Darien

Play On


Steel Pier

The Life

Jekyll & Hyde




God Said “Ha!”

Men are from Mars

Mandy Patinkin



Moscow Sovremennik:

   Three Sisters

   Into the Whirlwind



   A Thousand Clowns

   Summer and Smoke

   The Rehearsal

   Three Sisters

   London Assurance


H.M.S. Pinafore


Present Laughter


Once Upon a Mattress


The Young Man from Atlanta

A Doll’s House

The Gin Game

The Little Foxes



Riverdance (return engagement)

Radio City Music Hall:

   Christmas Spectacular

   Spring Spectacular

Dreams & Nightmares

Lord of the Dance

King David


Categorized below are all the new productions listed in the Off Broadway section of this volume. Plays listed in CAPITAL LETTERS were major 1996-97 prizewinners. Plays listed in italics were still running on June 1, 1997.

PLAYS (29)

Making Porn

Grace & Glorie

Acts of Providence


900 Oneonta

Playwrights Horizons:

  Fit to be Tied


  Cloud Tectonics


  Blues are Running

  Nine Armenians

  Psychopathia, etc.

  Collected Stories


The Santaland Diaries

Family Values

Public Theater:

  Golden Child

  Insurrection, etc.

  One Flea Spare


Second Stage:

  The Red Address

  Sympathetic Magic


Stonewall Jackson’s House


Minor Demons

Bunny Bunny

God’s Heart


Bermuda Avenue Triangle


Magic on Broadway

The New Bozena

Late Nite Catechism

The Queen of Bingo

Sharps, Flats, & Accidentals

Peter and Wendy

The Tokyo Shock Boys

Tap Dogs


Born to Sing!

Radio Gals

Space Trek


The Green Heart


I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

When Pigs Fly

Disappearing Act

Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back

A Brief History, etc.

Capitol Steps

Doctor Doctor


The Steward of Christendom

Dealer’s Choice


Aliens in America


Back on the Boulevard


Full Gallop (return engagement)

Political Animal

The Waste Land


The Springhill Singing Disaster (return engagement)

Fyvush Finkel


My Astonishing Self

A Huey P. Newton Story


The Gypsy and the Yellow Canary

Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown


Shakespeare Marathon:

  Henry V

  Timon of Athens

  Henry VI (in two parts)

  Antony and Cleopatra

Louisiana Purchase

The Boys in the Band

The Cocoanuts

Valiant Theater:


  A Soldier’s Play

The Tooth of Crime



  All My Sons


New Audience:

  Two Gentlemen of Verona

  The Changeling


  Sweet Adeline

  Promises, Promises

  The Boys from Syracuse

The Hairy Ape

As You Like It



This essay was written to open the 78th edition of the annual Theater Yearbook: The Best Plays of 1996-1997. I don’t even remember how I got hooked up with editor Otis Guernsey (who took over after founder Burns Mantle), but before this volume, I was helping with the main section of the book. Once plays and musicals were chosen for “Best Plays” inclusion, their scripts would have to be abridged, with descriptive prose subbed in for long dialogue passages. Having proved myself an able truncator, Otis asked me take on the intro essay—a task previously held by Jeffrey Sweet, who got too busy writing his own good plays to stay on with the project.

I fondly remember meeting Otis for chats and status updates at The Yale Club, his hotel of choice whenever he would venture from Connecticut to the wilds of Manhattan. Having been rejected from Yale as an undergrad, I always felt both petulantly out of place in the tony surroundings of the Ivy club but also defiant (“See? You Whiffenpoops tried to keep me out, but here I am!”).

Reading back over the essay two decades later, I have to say I’m pretty impressed. Sometimes I’m vague in my descriptions, I rely too much on lists of three items, or (my forever curse) I get adjective happy, but I think I covered an enormous topic with depth, breeziness, and heart. (Damn, there’s that three again!) Makes me wish I’d done this essay every year since, as it’s not only a thorough encapsulation of a theater season but also puts me right back where my head was when seeing all those shows.

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REVIEW: MUSIC – John Lennon’s Imagine


(c)1980 David Lefkowitz

(This album review, first penned in December 1980 was first published in “The Literary Underground,” an independent newspaper distributed near the campus of George W. Hewlett High School, Hewlett, NY.)

I don’t think I could possibly give a totally unbiased evaluation now, so I’m not even going to try.

The album, now destined to become a classic, begins with Lennon’s most famous solo song, and one which has been drilled into our heads by every radio station on the FM dial ever since his death. Sorry, “Imagine” is not John Lennon’s best composition. Not even without the other three. It is, however, a superb piece of music. The simple but hypnotic chord structure gives the tune a lilting, gentle flow made to sparkle by the moving, if flawed, lyrics:

“Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try.

No hell below us.
Above us only sky.”

Let’s face it. That’s very strained simplicity by even seventh-grade standards, but what seventh grader could be so poetically honest as to write:

“You may say that I’m a dreamer,

but I’m not the only one.

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one.”

Simply beautiful. Even if we do recite it in our sleep by now.

The second tune on the first side is a throwaway honky-tonk whose deceptively giddly charm almost belies the brutal refrain,

“One thing you can’t hide

Is when you’re crippled inside.”

“Crippled Inside,” a foot-tappingly entertaining tune can even be seen, interestingly enough, as a precursor to Dylan’s “Serve Somebody.” Both songs set up one-line caricature types and situations to be lumped together and told that they’d better be ready for the truth. What differentiates between the two, aside from tempo and emotional commitment by the author, is the fact that while Dylan’s work deals with “serving somebody” in the afterlife, Lennon talks about the here and now, and how our physical selves can’t always cover up our spiritual torment and despair. It’s a fun song.

The most hauntingly beautiful piece on the album follows, and it’s a remorseful, Harrisonesque apology entitled, “I’m Just a Jealous Guy.” Probably as a reaction to Yoko’s eviction, John sadly intones,

“I didn’t mean to hurt you

I’m sorry if I made you cry.

I didn’t want to hurt you;

I’m just a jealous guy.”

The lyrics here, as in almost all of the cuts on this record, are simple, not even deceivingly so. But whereas they sometimes sound a bit silly and juvenile in spots on other tracks, on this one they are as sweet and heart-tugging as the piano and violin complements.

“I was feeling insecure.

You might not love me anymore.

I was shivering inside.”

It’s one of those forgotten classics that should be rediscovered now that such a large resurgence of Lennon’s popularity is imminent. Don’t pass this one by.

The remainder of side one is a major step down in quality.

“It’s so hard” is a forgettable blues number that sounds as if it were recorded in a tin can. Its stark harshness belongs on one of his earlier primal efforts, not here.

Closing side A is “I Don’t Wanna be a Soldier (I Don’t Wanna Die).” If only it made as good a song as it did a political statement. The piece seems to go on for hours without a decent lyric change and ends with an ominous synthesizer swell that makes you feel like you’ve missed something important when you really haven’t. We’d better move on to side 2 as soon as possible.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing things

from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites.

All I want is the truth.

Just gimme some truth.”

Lennon punches these words out the way a starving rooster pecks at pellets, making “Gimme Some Truth” the finest angry rhyming word-game song since Dylan’s “Homesick Blues-Rolling Stone” duo. This hard-rock track makes its anti-establishment point by linking terrifically biting rhyme chains with what may be Lennon’s best vocal of his solo career.

“I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians. . .

I’ve had enough of seeing scenes with schizophrenic, egocentric, paranoid prima donnas.

All I want is the truth.

Just gimme some truth.”

The song is undeniably great, but it does raise one question: if he really believed in what he was singing (and Lennon almost always did), why in God’s name did he want to live in New York?

Anyway, the next cut isn’t anywhere near as great, but it boasts an entrancingly soft melody which provides a superb contrast to the exciting vehemence of its predecessor. “Oh My Love” is what “Julia” tried to be. Both are remarkably similar in melody and lead vocals; however, whereas the latter is sleep-inducing Muzak wandering aimlessly on the White Album, the former is a silently joyous paean of life with a gentle, melodic hook. The lyrics are a bit cloying:

“I see the wind,

Oh, I see the trees.

Everything is clear in my heart.

I see the clouds,

Oh, I see the sky.

Everything is clear in our world.”

But the deeply felt emotions behind them keep them from becoming nauseating, while the music almost makes them poetic.

After this simple exercise in quiet beauty comes the jarringly bitter, “How Do You Sleep.” This song, more famous for its subject matter than its musical attributes, is John’s attack on former comrade Paul McCartney for writing banal and weightless material. (An ironic point when one considers Lennon’s work on Double Fantasy.) The melody is catchy and memorable but made unpleasant by the ugly, stinging lyrics aimed at his old friend.

“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead;

The only mistake you made was in your head.

The only thing you did was yesterday,

and since you’ve gone you’re just another day.”

Looking at the song from our seven-year perspective, we realize that it was something John had to get out of his system, but not the type of material that makes for a peace-loving, philanthropic, hero-genius. The song would best be treated as a childish phase that is interesting only as such. There were much better things to love him for.

The next track isn’t quite one of them, but it certainly is good enough to stand on its own measured feet. The most appealing thing about this cut is its halting, off-beat beat that never seems to lose its refreshing uncommonness, not to mention the lyrics, which are about as good as on any other song on “Imagine.”

“How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?

How can I go forward when I don’t know which way to turn?

How can I go forward into something I’m not sure of?”

They are plain, direct, honest, and poetic:

“How can I have feelings when my feelings have always been denied?”

“How is a special song from the very first off-rhythm line to the perfect Randy Newmanesque, slow violin fade-out ending. I like this one more and more each time I hear it.

The final track on the album is a kick-out, hoe-down grin maker, dedicated to that special and important woman in John’s life, “Oh Yoko.” Of course, some of the lyrics are silly:

“In the middle of a bath.

In the middle of a bath I call your name.

Oh, Yoko!”

but the joyous sentiments are so honestly and deeply felt, even the most coy, trite lyrics become adorably cute and singable. And, after the final, fading harmonica flourish ends sides two, you realize that you’ve just listened to one of Lennon’s finest solo albums and that you’ve also heard, for the most part, a rock-and-roll classic.

PS: Goodbye, John. Peace be with you.

Yerluvinuncle, Dave.



Wow, lots to unpack here. We’ll start backwards with the signature: Yerluvinuncle, Dave. I used this sign off to all my columns for the Literary Underground, an “underground”-ish newspaper I put out when I felt the official newspaper of George W. Hewlett High School, The Spectrum, was just too straitlaced and insular for me and my weird (but occasionally brilliant and endlessly creative) friends. The “Yerluvinincle” bit I stole directly from Michael Palin and Terry Jones’s very funny tome, Dr. Fegg’s Nasty Bit of Knowledge, wherein the monstrous sicko who gives children horrible activities always signs his editorials “Yerluvinuncle, Fegg.”

As for the review itself, well, it was one of my first, and I was all of 16. And John Lennon had been dead —— weeks, so there’s that. The only aspect of the review that now makes me cringe is dismissing “Julia” on “The White Album” and rather overpraising “How Can I.”  I like to think that, to paraphrase a later John song, I have grown.

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