A Chicagoan's report on Broadway's latest shows

January 3, 2012

Five days in New York, four shows. Here with my thoughts:

I don't know quite what to make of Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway. It's a one-person show, but it's not a comic one-person show like the one Alan Cumming tours with, nor a multi-character one-person show like the ones Anna Deavere Smith creates.

Instead, it's a charming one-person  show, meaning that it depends on some preexisting agreement that the person in question is the most charming man on earth. Jackman is charming, and handsome, and he works hard to please, but he's working with nothing: no theme, no plot, no comic patter beyond what you'd hear at an ordinary dinner party. So if it's going to be anything, it has to be a display of the consummate song-and-dance man, whereas the night I saw it his voice sounded reedy and his diction mushy, as if all these years singing in an accent not his own had left him unsure how to pronounce ordinary words.

His dancing was good and you have to admire a performer so secure in his straight masculinity that he doesn't hesitate to put on pedal-pushers and a skin-tight shirt and camp it up with a tambourine. But there were only a few moments that gave evidence of what he can do when he's not exhausted or under the weather or carrying a show by himself, just a few notes that blew me back in my seat with awe at his talent.

I had a perfectly nice time but no one need shed a tear over having missed it---unless you're the sort of person who would pay $700 at a charity auction for his sweaty t-shirt. And if you are, you're on your own. 

Despite uniformly poor reviews, I went to see On A Clear Day because I wanted to see Chicagoan Jessie Mueller make her Broadway debut. It was worth every dime and every minute I spent on it. Mueller was terrific, and there was something more. You know how when the Bears win (whenever that is), a fan will say, "We won!" even though s/he had nothing to do with it? That's how I felt about Mueller's star-is-born, blow-the-doors-off performance as the woman Harry Connick Jr. loves trapped in the body of the man who loves Harry Connick Jr. (Don't bother trying to figure it out: If the book made sense, the reviews wouldn't have been so terrible.) Her performance didn't just thrill me as an audience member---it also made me proud in some obscure native-daughter way.

As for the show itself: either Connick was unwell the night we saw him--from the second row you could see him lapsing into that thousand-yard stare characteristic of feverish children--or he was phoning it in. But even at the top of their respective games, nobody on that stage is a match for Mueller's energy, musicality, warmth or wit. May her next show be worthy of her.

Just as normal people went to see On A Clear Day for Connick, they went to see Private Lives for Kim Cattrell. But having never seen Sex and the City she meant nothing to me; I was there for Paul Gross, previously irresistable as the lead in Slings and Arrows, the CBC's roman-a-clef about the Stratford Festival. He likewise did not disappoint: An accomplished comic actor, he managed to get everything possible out of the tenuous balance between love and fury that activates every moment of the play.

But just as most rock-and-roll songs weren't designed to be played for 40 years, and just as Chicago's sewers weren't built to last 100 years, Noel Coward's play is ripe for retirement. It's unfair, in fact, to expect a piece of boulevard comedy organized around obsolete sex roles to continue to please decade after decade, and sure enough, it doesn't. If I never see it again it will be too soon. You may throw brickbats at your convenience. 

Finally, I saw Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, with Alan Rickman and Lily Rabe. The cast was first-rate but nonetheless I'm glad I didn't take Jonathan up on his offer to get me backstage to meet his old family friend Hamish Linklater. What if he'd asked what I thought of the play?

Rebeck is probably better known right now for her legitimate public complaint about sexism in theaters' choice of plays than she is for playwriting itself, but I would have expected at least a feminist sensibility in her work. Instead she gave us a play which dismissed the two female writers in the eponymous fiction workshop and offered the hoary old tale of the dying lion anointing one of the (male) cubs. Rabe's character Kate starts off as the focus of attention, and indeed her growth as a writer is the only action in the play that doesn't involve a condom; but by the end she's been relegated to a job as a ghostwriter while her ex-lover becomes teacher Rickman's pet project.

Meanwhile the other female character is an Asian woman whose entire shtick is being sexy; but instead of satirizing or commenting on the sexualization of Asian women by white men, Rebeck and director Sam Gold participate in it by having the character pull off her shirt so as to display and discuss her nipples for a full three minutes. (Kate also gets a moment of gratuitous nudity, while the worst that happens to the men is that they're seen in their boxer shorts.)

Having introduced a whole series of relationships and plot points, the play fails to resolve any of them: was Rickman really a plagiarist? Does the game of musical beds represent competition or cooperation among the students? Is Kate's writing so weak that she should be satisfied to be a ghostwriter while the men are out there speaking in their own voices? The more I think about the play, the more pissed-off I get, but at least it engaged me---which is more than I can say for the other three.

A long-winded way of saying: if you want great theater, stay right where you are.  I'm planning to.