We recently fled L.A.s globally warmed climes to take in some of New Yorks fall theater season, and found the big town as reassuringly cold and anti--Los Angeles as ever. Whatever your opinion of the two cities, a week in Gotham will provide a veritable festival of quality theater work -- a festival that is virtually permanent, as long-running hits are constantly replaced by new shows and by short-run works appearing off-off-Broadway and at performance spaces like P.S. 122 and HERE. At heart, New Yorkers remain closet romantics: The most telling spectacle we witnessed took place in Chelsea one afternoon, when a double rainbow formed over the Empire State Building, emptying bars and cafes of people who oohed and aahed into their cell phones as they described the sight to friends -- even The New York Times felt compelled to report the event. Below are what we saw onstage one week; unless otherwise noted, call (212) 239-6200 for tickets and information.
COPENHAGEN Michael Frayns moral drama speculates on what a meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and Bohrs wife, Margrethe, would be like. Such a gathering, occurring after World War II, would have more than passing interest to historians: Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty), who had formulated the principle positing that the mere observation of an event changes that event, however subtly, was one of Hitlers chief A-bomb-program planners; the Danish Bohr (Philip Bosco) was his mentor and a half-Jew who fled ahead of the Nazis to America and Los Alamos. In Frayns initially frosty reunion, the two are really obsessed with re-enacting an earlier tete-a-tete that took place during the war when Heisenberg, then deliberately trying to throw the German bomb program off track, went to Niels and Margrethe (Blair Brown) in Denmark to satisfy his own curiosity as to whether or not the Allies were working on a nuclear device to annihilate Germany. Just what did the two estranged friends reveal to one another, and how did it affect their behavior during the war? This is a must-see evening that combines the best in theater: a seemingly unsolvable mystery, an intractable moral dilemma, and a cast that completely inhabits the playwrights characters and themes. Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th St.
PROOF David Auburns drama about the troubled daughter of a brilliant but demented mathematician has generated enormous buzz here. Its easy to see why critics and public alike have fallen for actor Mary-Louise Parker: Her performance as the mercurial Catherine, who converses with her departed father (played by Larry Bryggman) and who herself may or may not have worked out an important new math proof, is a bewitching display of rage and awkward vulnerability. And, in director Daniel Sullivans steady hands, the rest of the cast, even though composed of single-note portrayals, runs with those repetitive characterizations for all they are worth: Would-be boyfriend Hal (Ben Shenkman) and sister Claire (Johanna Day) are both endearing and vexing as they demand evidence of Catherines authorship of an innovative arabesque of figures. But by Act 2, its clear that those steady hands of Sullivan are less busy steering a fully realized work than they are playing a shell game with a script that is, at best, only three-quarters complete. Parkers portrayal confers upon Auburns anemic second act an unwarranted emotional grandeur and, ultimately, more importance than his play deserves. Walter Kerr Theater, 219 W. 48th St.
TABLETOP Theres something delightfully formulaic about the characters and situations in Rob Ackermans satire about a bickering crew of filmmakers. Here is a young, arty rebel whose ideas are routinely dismissed as uncommercial; there are the technicians -- one a closeted gay, the other a get-along black -- who try to play the degrading industry game without making waves; the A.D. who rides herd and busts balls to compensate for being the sole woman onboard; and finally, the aging director who faces professional extinction if he cant bring this shoot in on time. What gives such stereotypes their brio is the storys milieu: Our crew doesnt make Hollywood movies but TV commercials -- and not even the whole ads, only the product inserts that highlight those 30-second spots known in the trade as tabletops. Ackerman, a career property master in this business, knows his territory all too well, and from the opening moment we are drawn into a claustrophobic, esoteric world of lighting and camera equipment, and the technical Esperanto with which his characters communicate. Ackermans play, which closed at the American Place Theater this week, is a fascinating study, uncompromising in its bleak comedy and, it would seem, a natural export to Los Angeles.
JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN Heres one difference between L.A. and N.Y.: In our theater-program bios almost every actor seems to have been on ER, a while in New York Law and Order is the great TV showcase and rent payer. Stephen Adly Guirgis grim prison drama about two men living in a protective-custody wing on Rikers Island boasts three such L&O alumni, including Guirgis, whose unrelenting story may be considered a nightmare spinoff of that TV show. Even the lighting seems brutal, so its not surprising Jesus Hopped the A Trains somber story is told in a language both sinewy and harshly poetic. Guirgis stumbles somewhat by having his attorney character (Elizabeth Canavan) clarify plot points through direct address to the audience, but this show, effortlessly guided by director Philip Seymour Hoffman, belongs to John Ortiz, who plays a man accused of shooting a cultish preacher, and to Ron Cephas Jones as a born-again Christianserial killer. Their moments of quarreling or comforting each other within their respective holding cells are never less than electric -- a chemistry whose catalyst is often their sadistic guard, played to a fine point by David Zayas. Guirgis is clearly a playwright to watch; this LAByrinth Theater Company production has just closed at the East 13th Street Theater, but there has been talk of its opening at another venue this spring.
THE TALE OF THE ALLERGISTS WIFE With such camp farces as Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Red Scare on Sunset, playwright Charles Busch always seemed to be trying a little too hard to be funny and subversive, but in this thoroughly middlebrow comedy he has perhaps found his metier. Linda Lavin plays a woman whos read much but done little in her life, except remain married to a plodding, self-satisfied allergy doctor (Tony Roberts) whose lifes mission has been the clearing of sinuses -- the couples conflicting concerns represent a case of atman vs. asthma. Then, one day, Lee (Michele Lee) -- an old school chum, a woman who is everything Lavins Marjorie is not: experienced in the world of sex and political intrigue, not to mention well-dressed and manicured -- brightens her door. Much of the play is the story of Marjories big make-over from frump to adventuress. La Lavin is achingly funny as the plaintive intellectual manque and receives fine support from the shows more caricatured figures (including Shirl Bernheim as Roberts harpy mother). The Tale of the Allergists Wifes rather conservative domestic tone, however, becomes intrusive at plays end, when Busch makes an unambiguous play for the loyalty of the houses middle-aged and elderly Jewish audience members by abruptly suggesting that the vivacious Lee is, of all things, some sort of anti-Israeli terrorist sympathizer! Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St.
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COMIC POTENTIAL Alan Ayckbourns latest comedy to come over the pond is a futuristic piffle that, in this Manhattan Theater Club production directed by John Tillinger, is happily redeemed by a single performance. In this near-future setup, TV is not only no longer live but also no longer populated by expensive live actors. Instead, automatonic actoids enact the TV viewers dream lives. Ayckbourns story revolves around one of these robots as it makes the evolutionary leap from programmed response to dawning intelligence. Janie Dee, who originated the part in London, plays Jacie Triplethree, the actoid in question, and it is her marvelously articulated human gestures and vaguely inappropriate laughter that make the show a surprisingly effective cultural spoof and such fun to watch. It will have closed by the time this appears, but is almost certain to arrive here within a year or two.
4 GUYS NAMED JOSE . . . and una mujer named Maria! This surprise crossover musical hit is an eminently likable omnibus of choreographed songs from Latino pop culture, delivered -- or so Dolores Pridas story would have us believe -- by a quintet of emigres performing at a VFW hall in wintry Nebraska. Our Joses are from Cuba (Ricardo Puente), Puerto Rico (Allen Hidalgo), Mexico (Henry Gainza) and the Dominican Republic (Philip Anthony), while Marias (Lissette Gonzalez) origins are a well-kept secret. A charming, if harmless, evening of tunes and dance, 4 Guys Named Jose presents a broad cross section of insurgently romantic ballads and celebratory numbers, from Santiago to Veracruz to, yes, Livin la Vida Loca. The downside to the fun is that in order to run through a formidable list of 40 ditties, many are thrown into that blender called medley or otherwise given short shrift in truncated formats. Also, the show simply needs more shtick onto which to hang these songs. As likable as the cast is under Susana Tuberts tight direction and Maria Torres fluid choreography, Pridas English-language book is basically held up by two thin strands -- the national competitiveness of the four proud men and their macho claims on Maria. This doesnt make for an engaging narrative, and there really needs to be more story to sustain our attention -- although this show screams to run in L.A. Blue Angel Theater, 323 W. 44th St.
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW One doesnt readily admit to having spent a precious assignment night covering Richard OBriens oft-produced glitter-camp chestnut, but this newest production is a pure -- if guilty -- pleasure. The show bounces along at a furious pace, fronted by Tom Hewitts ebullient turn as Dr. Frank N. Furter (whose blond flattop runs against the trad grain of Tim Currys black coif) and balanced by the arid commentary of Dick Cavett (yes, that Dick Cavett). It also features some inspired casting choices that include a shaved-headed Joan Jett as Columbia and Lea DeLaria as EddyDr. Scott. Director Christopher Ashley has also amped up the show by making Frank N. Furters boy-toy creation Rocky (Sebastian LaCause) a much more assertive creature of sensual comfort than previously glimpsed, and the good director also gets an energetic turn from Daphne Rubin-Vega as Magenta. Since this is Broadway, audience-participation kits are available before the show in the lobby at $10 a pop and include, among other items, miniflashlights, confetti, playing cards -- in other words, the stuff people have been bringing to the movie screening for years. (Note: no rice or squirt guns.) That said, the show holds up very well, even if Cavetts post-election japes about chads and the state of Florida seemed positively musty only two days after the Supreme Courts own horror-show verdict. Circle in the Square, 50th Street west of Broadway.
DIRTY BLONDE Author-performer Claudia Shear, who was such a revelation in her autobiographical look at the job market, Blown Sideways Through Life, has created an homage to Mae West that re-enacts moments from the bawdy entertainers life while paralleling her career with an awkward dating game played between two shy West aficionados (Shear and Tom Riis Farrell). This show has enjoyed a lot of popularity, although it is sadly inferior to the sharper-edged Sideways. Shear turns in an engaging impersonation of West, but the reverent timeline-narrative she establishes for her idol betrays too much wasnt-she-a-sassy-dame? awe and seems more suited for prime-time television than for an examination of a sexual rebel who often pushed the innuendo envelope beyond the point of no return. Kathy Najimy is scheduled to replace Shear this week, and its difficult to imagine how the authors departure will help this show. Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St.