A delicious sampling of the uptown New York theatre scene. This week; in this order: Anything Goes, War Horse, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More, Lombardi, and Freud’s Last Session. With these daily viewings I know how a Tony voter must feel. I’m here to report that there’s no shortage of talent this season.
First I want to say something about Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. On the force of love-letter reviews and consistently delighted audiences, the run of The Importance of Being Earnest has been extended to early July. I left the company (my choice to do so, just in case you were wondering) two weeks ago, and have been at large taking in shows. Brian has had a long, distinguished, and hugely successful career as a man of the theatre. He is a highly accomplished performer in all departments, although his great strength is comedy, and he has some x factor too.
There’s a part of his talent which is not easy to imitate or understand. Back in 2001 I worked with Brian in a similar function to the one I’ve just performed in the Earnest company – see my last blog entry – when I understudied him as Sganarelle in The Moliere Comedies in Los Angeles. On the first night at The Mark Taper Forum there was one of those wonderful moments that can only happen in live theatre. A laugh that peaked, fell, rose to another peak, and another beyond that, and finally, after several crescendos erupted into a round of applause.
What happened was this: on the line ‘All this is true no doubt…’ a lady way back in the house spontaneously uttered a sympathetic groan of agreement. Brian was sufficiently in the moment (he always is as an actor) and sufficiently on the back foot (something a comic has to be even in frenetic moments) to respond to the sound, and work what had happened into a laugh that went for more than a minute (a very long time on stage). And all he did was look.
He looked out into the house to see where the sound had come from. Then he stood still and thought about it. Then he turned front and thought some more. Then he turned back to the lady. Each of these movements was simple and minimal, exquisitely timed and therefore punctuated with another wave of laughter. Finally he took two steps in the direction of the lady (she now helpless with mirth), and the house, as the saying goes, fell in.
It may not sound like much as described in a couple of fumbling paragraphs, but, and you’ll have to take my word for it, if you had been there you would have experienced a great comedic actor displaying the prime of his ability.
The reason I’ve tried to describe this moment in detail is this: the skill level in the theatrical community is high, which is as it should be, and not particularly surprising – given that people naturally get good at things they practise. Of course senior actors routinely bemoan the lack of linguistic technique, or the corrupted vowels in the generation coming up. And, of course, mistakes (particularly in casting) do occur, and also (of course) public perception is shaped by the organs of media – in this town, by the mighty New York Times – with sometimes, silly results. But on the whole, people are pretty good at what they do. So too with Brian Bedford. His ability to speak classical text and make even the most opaque of it clear to a contemporary audience… well he has a mastery in that department. Again, not surprising given his many decades of work… but the ability to ride a piece of the present moment (that which the sages of all traditions tell us is the gateway to eternity), and to shape it, that, that is inimitable. It’s x-factor.
Talking of which:
Sutton Foster in Anything Goes sheds light that is pure fun. For virtuosity in hoofing and singing this is one to see. I suspect that some parts of New York taste will compare her with the last Broadway production starring Patti LuPone whose virtuosity comes from a very different part of the forest. There’s a simplicity here, and a purity, also reflected in the design, which makes the evening a confection you just want to have.
War Horse transferred from The Royal National Theatre in London, now with an all American cast – well, they make a horse gallop on stage with puppetry. World War One seen through the eyes of a cavalry horse – amazing.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore: fascinating. Tennessee Williams in his own last act struggling with mortality, the text moves from the transcendent to the vicious, from the quotidian to the rare. Kudos to The Roundabout (my late employers) for producing this little-known play.
Lombardi: a simple story, simply told – with a lot of heart. The finest ensemble acting I’ve ever seen on Broadway. Led by a star turn in Dan Lauria, and another one in Judith Light, the play is beautifully staged in the round, and the acting is superb and somehow allowed to breathe – a welcome feature in an environment where plays are frequently over-directed.
Freud’s Last Session: starring the splendid Mark Dold of my acquaintance (I was Court Composer to his Emperor in Amadeus) is a piece of thinking person’s theatre. A very verbal play treating on the hypothetical meeting between Freud in his last year of life and the young C.S. Lewis. Astoundingly successful. Originating at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield Mass., has now played more than 10 months off-Broadway, with several regional productions in development.
But for now I’ve quit the maelstrom of theatrical New York and gone to San Diego, California to appear in the US premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 74th play, Life of Riley, at The Old Globe. The character I’m to play is called ‘Colin’ – a tweedy middle-aged Englishman.
Now who do we know like that?