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They Say the Lights Are Bright Off Broadway 

Hop, Skipping and Jumping around Gotham

Wednesday, Apr 8 2009
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On a visit to New York earlier this year, Wall Street was in full nosedive, while a blizzard blew loud and cold. But if you think these are metaphors for the crisis of theater in New York City, think again. Though The New York Times wrote a beautiful homage to a large swath of Broadway shows closing in January, hinting that this may be the start of a long, moribund era for the industry, that same newspaper issued a notice to a number of off-Broadway theaters that coverage has been curtailed because of so many scheduled Broadway openings, which the Times will use the majority of its space to feature and review.

So how does one reconcile so many Broadway openings with the current economic climate? How does one reconcile the full house for a Sunday matinee for Roger Bean’s jukebox musical, The Marvelous Wonderettes, off-Broadway at the 283-seat Westside Theatre at $75 to $150 a seat, with a climate in which we’re told that people have stopped spending on frivolities? There was also a packed house at the York Theatre Company for Joseph Stein and Stan Daniels’ musical, Enter Laughing, based on an earlier, failed Broadway musical (So Long, 174th Street), which was in turn based on a novel by Carl Reiner.

One explanation is that these productions are benefiting from the push of rave reviews and word-of-mouth. Yet as an indication of how tough things are, there are also instances of off-Broadway theaters announcing discounts of 75 percent — an unprecedented policy — in order to woo preview audiences.

click to enlarge MICHAEL PALMA - Is he king; or is he just dreaming it?: “La vida es sueño” (“Life is a Dream”) at New York’s Repertorio Español
  • Michael Palma
  • Is he king; or is he just dreaming it?: “La vida es sueño” (“Life is a Dream”) at New York’s Repertorio Español

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One can’t predict whether such strategies will work. They’re aimed at propelling theater’s biggest draw, word-of-mouth. At least the hits that have already staked their claim are hanging in. Here’s a look at four of them, two of which have closed on schedule.

LA VIDA ES SUEÑO (LIFE IS A DREAM) We don’t see much of this centerpiece of Spain’s Golden Age, written around 1637 by Pedro Calderón de La Barca; two years ago South Coast Rep premiered Nilo Cruz’s lush translation; but here Repertorio Español performs it in its glorious, original Spanish. Headsets are provided for those who require an English translation, which drones along sometimes simultaneously, sometimes a speech or two behind. For the non-Spanish speaker, the experience is far richer if one familiarizes oneself with the scenario, found all over via Google, and then lets René Buch’s elegant, austere staging tell the story. The essence of that story is a prophecy, not unlike that in Oedipus the King, that the son of Poland’s King Basilio (Francisco Rivela) will rebel against his father and cause civil strife. In order to prevent such unpleasantness, Basilio imprisons his son, Segismundo (Luis Carlos de La Lombana), in a cave, where the child grows into a man guarded and in chains. In a fit of conscience, Basilio deigns to return the now furious young prince to the court, just to see if the younger monarch can mind his manners. If not, Basilio’s strategy is to drug the prince with a sleeping potion before returning him to his cave. When he awakens, he will be told that whatever life at court that he remembers was just a dream. Segismundo is nothing if not angry; within moments of his arrival in court, he attempts rape and throws one of the guards out of a window. Curiously enough, despite his return to prison, the prophecy of his violent ascent to the throne becomes true and false at the same time, in a twist that speaks to the powers of forgiveness found in The Tempest, with the pageantry found in the plays of Christopher Marlowe. This beautiful story casts a large net of doubt upon the “reality” of what we take to be real, and how larger truths can be found in what’s imagined, which renders it a play of striking optimism that manages to skirt the pitfalls of naivete. Much of the richness in Buch’s production comes from Jimmy Tanaka’s ethereal, orchestral original music, broadcast over a terrific sound system. Robert Weber Federico’s production design (which includes costumes, lighting and scenery) are in stark, minimalistic tones of black and white. This places the larger part of the storytelling responsibility on the language and the actors, who are uniformly lucid in Buch’s tele-novella acting style that borders on the melodramatic. Repertorio Español, 138 East 27th St., New York, in rep, indef. (212) 225-9920.

THAT PRETTY PRETTY; OR, THE RAPE PLAY aims for shock and awe: There are a few scenes of coked-up strippers (Lisa Joyce and Danielle Slavick) on a spree of killing the leering men who are horny or stupid enough to follow them to their motel room. After imperiously demanding that one of the gals keep her hat on for sex, one sloppy joe (Joseph Gomez) gets shot in the head for his attitude. The women then have munchies around his corpse. The scenes are variations on each other, from different perspectives, often employing the same dialogue but spoken by different characters; in one variation, one of the women gets bludgeoned. Blood spurting from behind the bed is part of the humor in Sheila Callaghan’s black-ice comedy. Oh yes, Jane Fonda (Annie McNamara) wanders through with helpful workout tips. The play’s mysterious and sometimes sprawling construction accounts for its mixed reviews, yet Callaghan knows exactly what she’s doing. It eventually settles into the conceit that its renegade feminism comes from the brain of a smug and lug-headed screenwriter named Owen (Greg Keller). Callaghan’s purpose is strategically foggy at the start; this upset critics in need of a tour guide. Yet had she made clear at the outset that all those repeated scenes were simply Owen working through his terrible screenplay, why would we have cared? I cared later, not for Owen, who’s a dolt, but that those misogynistic and man-hating images running through his septic brain pervade the mentality of the pop culture. That’s the play’s satirical point, an aesthetic rebuttal to so many plays by Neil Labute. The cast is in aerobically top form under Kip Fagan’s effervescent direction. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York. (212) 868-4444. Closed.

ENTER LAUGHING is one of only a few musicals off-Broadway; written by Joseph Stein and Stan Daniels, it’s based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel about the theatrical ambitions of a terrible actor named David Kolowitz. An ode to 1930s New York, it comes rife with stock Jewish humor based on its protagonist’s sexual awakenings and delusions of artistic grandeur. Add to the mix the sundry guilt-trips of his family, particularly David’s mother (Jill Eikenberry), his father (Michael Tucker), his boss (Ray DeMattis) and an ensemble that spins the jokes and songs with such wry ease under Stuart Ross’ direction, the show wraps itself around you like a warm shawl on cold winter’s day. Josh Grisetti plays geek David, trying to make it on the stage. When told by his director (Bob Dishy) that he must stop speaking and even mouthing the lines of his scene partner, his attempts to restrain himself result in a kind of flush-faced agony and inadvertent squeals that show Grisetti to possess the physical dexterity and comic temerity of Buster Keaton. After the theater decides to stop charging David for his apprenticeship, he exults with a line that should ring all the way to Los Angeles: “I get to act for free!” York Theatre Company at the Theatre at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Ave., New York. (212) 935-5820. Closed.

THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES L.A. publicist-producer David Elzer’s labor of puppy love just keeps going and going. Writer-director Roger Bean’s jukebox musical, set in 1958 and 1968, was born in 2001 at Milwaukee Rep and enjoyed an unusually lengthy run in L.A. before transferring to New York’s Westside Theatre, where it’s been packing them in for months. (It also had a brief run in Laguna Beach.) It tells the story of four sassy cheerleaders asked at the last minute to perform at the Springfield High prom. Farah Alvin, Beth Malone, Bets Malone and Victoria Matlock croon, in pitch-perfect harmony, ditties ranging from “All I Have To Do Is Dream” to “It’s My Party.” Wrapped in scenic kitsch, the quartet’s comic timing and improv skills with audience participants are equally well-honed. The New York Times called it irresistible, The New Yorker described it as “candy-coated nostalgia.” Elzer insists that the confetti content of Act 1 is merely a setup for the quartet’s 10-year reunion in Act 2, which — echoing Vanities — demonstrates how their sometimes competitive friendship can sustain through divorces and other life crises. The crowd I saw didn’t appear to be shelling out $100 a pop for the musical’s darker aspects. Westside Theatre/Upstairs, 407 West 43rd St., New York; Mon.-Wed.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. & Sun., 3 p.m.; indef. (212) 239-6200.

That the lighter-hearted fare is drawing much stronger press notices, and audiences, than the darker fare supports the commonplace that New York audiences are seeking escape from these economically icy times.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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