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New York Playbill

She's feeling A Touch of the Poet

Broadway took a slight beating during New York’s pre-Christmas transit strike, with theater attendance during this already slow time of year down a few percentage points. One show bucking the trend was Spamalot, winner of a mantelpiece full of 2005 Tonys and a show that, when my wife and I were in town, was selling out even with the city in a traffic lockdown. L.A. actor John Fleck and lighting designer Anne Militello walked more than 50 blocks to see if they could get Spamalot tickets through TKTS, the Times Square discount agency. They came away empty-handed but told us over dinner and drinks at Joe Allen’s that they were optimistic about getting into that night’s show. Fleck and Militello did eventually get in — but had to pay two separate ticket holders full price for seats in different parts of the theater, to watch a cast of understudies. Worse, they hated the show and grumbled all the way back on their long walk to Washington Square. As far as drama was concerned, Broadway closed out 2005 eclipsed by the strike: a passion play shaded by race, class and ambition. Still, a few plays stood out that are still running through January.

Revival: A Touch of the Poet. Gabriel Byrne is forgiven Ghost Ship and other Hollywood shipwrecks whenever he appears onstage. Here he essays the part of Cornelius Melody in Eugene O’Neill’s late-career play, set in 1828, about a vain, hard-drinking Boston tavern owner who is stricken by delusions of grandeur and contemptuous of plebeian values. Reliving a long-ago battle fought in Wellington’s army against the French, Con puts on his red Dragoons’ tunic during the engagement’s anniversary and struts about his tavern, playing an Irish Caesar to a galley of drunks while lording over his long-suffering wife (Dearbhla Molloy) and sabotaging a romance between his daughter (Emily Bergl) and an unseen suitor. Director Doug Hughes’ (Doubt) Roundabout Theater Co. production is both monumental and subtle, thanks to Santo Loquasto’s dark, towering set, David Van Tieghem’s ever-thunderous and portentous music and, above all, Byrne’s nuanced realization of the self-destructive, imperious patriarch. Byrne makes the role far more than a star turn (compare his performance with Al Pacino’s self-promotional 1996 appearance in O’Neill’s Hughie) and helps this two-and-one-half-hour evening fly by. Studio 54, through January 29. (212) 719-1300.

Musical: Altar Boyz. Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport’s goofy new musical applies every boy band tic and quirk to a fictional combo called the Altar Boyz — a group of four Catholic youths (Scott Porter, Danny Calvert, James Royce Edwards and Nick Sanchez) and one Jewish kid (Dennis Moench), who view their performance tours as proselytizing opportunities. (Each of the Catholic quartet is named for one of the Gospels’ four saints while Abraham is, well, Abraham.) Instead of being driven by a reasonably involved book, the show is essentially a dozen tunes linked by a few moments of drama and crises of faith suffered by the photogenic lads. (Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s music and lyrics accompany Kevin Del Aguila’s slender plot.) It works surprisingly well, thanks to a likable cast — the show’s mostly rock-blues score is the kind of silly fluff that “serious” musicals like Wicked pump out with complete sincerity. The story sometimes steps close to risqué behavior (usually by its closet case, Mark) but, alas, always pulls back in time to keep its PG rating. Viewers may quibble that the young men’s religious fervor seems more in step with born-again Protestantism than the Church of Rome (not to mention the really, really unresolved matter of Abraham’s participation), but this is a show that glosses over such inconsistencies — and, at 90 minutes, knows when to stop. Dodger Stages, open run. (800) 432-7250.

Parody: Dog Sees God. Braving potential lawsuits from cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s estate, playwright Bert V. Royal’s “confessions of a teenage blockhead” examines the “Peanuts” comic strip characters years after Schulz retired the franchise in 1999. The episodic story follows the Charlie Brown figure, “C.B.” (Eddie Kaye Thomas), through a high school milieu of dazed and confused teens who confront sex, drugs and death. Perhaps “confront” isn’t the right word, because the characters (like C.B., all discreetly renamed from the strip) already seem immersed in adult realities when the show opens with the burial of Snoopy, who has died of rabies. Everyone here seems a little rabid — from dread-headed Van (Keith Nobbs), who’s graduated from carrying around a security blanket to packing spliffs, to Matt (Ian Somerhalder in the Pigpen role), a nerd-bashing jock and C.B.’s best friend. Royal has all of the strip’s character neuroses down cold, and director Trip Cullman’s design team makes sure the proceedings look and sound like a pubescent version of Schulz’s kidscape. A working knowledge of Schulz’s strip is obviously a must, and it also doesn’t hurt to know of its pop-cultural interpretations (e.g., that years ago Peppermint Patty and Marcie were outed as lesbian icons). Still, after acknowledging Royal’s cleverness in updating Schulz’s characters, you can’t help but feel there’s something missing where a heart should be. Sometimes C.B.’s gay yen for Beethoven (Logan Marshall-Green as the Steinway-playing Schroeder character) drones on past the conceit, and the frenetic Valley Girl interactions between Tricia and Marcy (Kelli Garner and Ari Graynor in the Peppermint Patty and Marcie roles) go on way too long. The evening strays far enough away from its source material so that its conclusion seems inspired more by Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening than “Peanuts.” Century Center for the Performing Arts, open run. (800) 432-7250.

For Kids: Moscow Cats Theater. Russians have always taken their clowning seriously and this 90-minute spectacle combines the seasoned physical shtick of MCT founder Yuri Kuklachev and his fellow human clowns with the acrobatics of an animal ensemble of 20 felines and two dogs. In fact, viewers expecting this outing to be mostly cats jumping through hoops are in for a surprise, as much of the performance consists of traditional clown sketches that play out while the cats catch their breath between stunts. The cats ride in Hummers, shimmy underneath tightropes and roll balls, all while Kuklachev and his comrades provide slapstick to a score of 1970s Euro-lounge music. Call it Cirque du Silly. This has proven to be a popular ticket in town and will move from its downtown auditorium in February to Lamb’s Theater near Broadway, making it a good bet for tourist families. Tribeca Performing Arts Center, open run. (800) 432-7250.

Nostalgia: Souvenir. Although this production has announced its early closing at the Lyceum Theater, author Stephen Temperley’s two-hander certainly had its critical and audience partisans. The story opens in a 1964 Greenwich Village bar, where a gay lounge pianist (Donald Corren) takes us back 40 years, when he was hired by Florence Foster Jenkins (Judy Kaye) to accompany her during the many private recitals she held for charity. To the uncharitable, Jenkins was an eccentric society matron who, ensconced in her rooms at the Ritz-Carlton, fancied herself to be a coloratura of the highest talent. In fact, she couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, and her clangorous interpretations of Mozart and Verdi became the hot ticket for New York’s smugeoisie, who, along with the likes of Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead, filled Carnegie Hall to gasp, slack-jawed, at her tone-deaf butchering of arias and pop tunes. The play’s “moral center” should be the pianist, Cosme McMoon, a composer who has struck a textbook Faustian bargain — in return for Jenkins’ largesse, he agrees to play along and flatter the grand dame’s malarial delusions. Yet Temperley shows no interest in looking at the corrosive effects of Jenkins’ money on Cosme’s artistic ambitions. Instead, Cosme goes along with the gag, even when Jenkins begins to rightly suspect she is the object of ridicule and not admiration. Just, however, when you think Temperley could — must — finally plunge the dagger into the demented old tabby, he pulls back and has Cosme reassure Jenkins of her talents, retrieving sitcom from the jaws of tragedy one more time. Souvenir is really Sunset Boulevard written as a comedy, making it an exercise in moral finger-painting with disturbing results.