Like many other pillars of city life hammered by September 11, New York theater began to find its feet between the holidays following both a plunge in ticket sales and a period of uncertainty about what shows should even run. Shortly after the terror attacks, L.A. director David Schweizer, who had been in town preparing Ann Magnuson’s Rave Mom at P.S. 122, was asked to remount Obie winner Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales, which had premiered last year — as much to send a signal that theater was still alive as to fill a house with a proven winner. “People were grateful that things that somehow informed the human spirit were being put on,” Schweizer says. Nevertheless, Broadway, whose lifeblood is tourist audiences, is still haunted by dark houses, and the city has had to improvise a plan with which to lure visitors back to the city and its biggest theaters. Here are some shows that are still running.
The Shape of Things Neil LaBute’s comedy-drama is a sly commentary about love, art and the many splendid manipulations we allow ourselves to suffer in the pursuit of both. In one of two romantic pairings, LaBute craftily develops a college romance between a nerd and a free-spirited woman, one that lets us lose ourselves sentimentally in the details of courtship — until the story takes a jarring twist. Under LaBute’s direction, the play’s two young couples are portrayed with intelligence and verve by Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller, who almost steals the show in a supporting role as a cynical Big Man on Campus. At the moment, this overly long work (130 minutes without intermission) could be the season’s most fascinating and infuriating play, though I’m not sure the Promenade, which often seems like a snack bar with a theater attached to it, is its best venue. Promenade Theater, Broadway at 76th Street; thru Jan. 20. (800) 432-7250.
Puppetry of the Penis The ultimate don’t-try-this-at-home entertainment, Puppetry is a smart and winning evening put on by Aussies David Friend and Simon Morley, who perform an anthology of parlor tricks with dicks. The show has our two brave lads, dressed only in sneakers and capes, transforming their members into hamburgers, didgeridoos, brains and — yikes! — vaginas. A few of the tricks are, well, a little limp, but most are truly inventive. Friend and Morley are two affable blokes who have completely mastered their instruments and elevate their material above the titillating level of closing-hour pub antics. Judging by the diverse composition of the Houseman house, their audience appeal swings from gays to bachelorette parties. John Houseman Theater, 450 W. 42nd St.; indef. (800) 432-7250.
Drummer Wanted Richard Maxwell’s two-hander has closed at P.S. 122, but there seem to be plans afoot to tour it, with a possible stop in L.A. Frank (Pete Simpson) is a surly slouch of a 29-year-old drummer treading the waters of rock slackerdom until a motorcycle accident sidelines him at the home of his mother (Ellen LeCompte). In this suburban purgatory, Frank recuperates, ruminates and waits for an injury lawsuit to settle. Mom gets on his nerves, and Frank pays her back with occasional profanity and resentful blasts from his kit. The exquisitely rendered dialogue is both robotically declarative and tender, and the characters weirdly Shepard-like — but in a good sense.
And God Created Great Whales In this sweet, melancholy look at a doomed labor of love, directed by David Schweizer, author-composer Rinde Eckert plays a piano tuner losing his memory while struggling to compose an opera based on Moby-Dick. Each day, he awakens to a room cluttered with color-coded tape recorders and plastered with Post-it notes to himself — strategies designed to guide his faltering senses toward the completion of his final project. His most important tape recorder — the one that gives him his daily instructions — hangs from his neck like a certain albatross. Both a deft compression of Melville’s novel and a guide to the frailties of the heart, Whales is the perfect answer to those who say poetry is dead on the stage. Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St.; thru January 13. (212) 253-9983.
Urinetown This surprise hit musical moved from off-Broadway to the Great White Way in a golden shower of rave reviews, although the reason for its success is only half-apparent. A kind of Cradle Will Rock that also skewers, among many other theatrical icons, Brecht and Les Miz, the show is about a greedy public-lavatory utility that charges everyone exorbitant fees for the right to use its toilets during a futuristic drought. It’s a wonderful concept that theoretically leaves room, on Scott Pask’s marvelously sepulchral set, for both contemporary political satire and a good spoofing of the very same genre; however, composer-lyricist Mark Hollmann and librettist-lyricist Greg Kotis never turn down an opportunity for making fun of the very concept of musicals, agitprop, political satire, etc. — worse, they seem terrified of being taken seriously at all. In the end we’re left with a big, empty feeling, mixed with an awakened sense that we really are living in a time that cries out for theatrical attacks against utility companies, even if Hollmann and Kotis are not the people to lead them. Henry Miller Theater, 124 W. 43rd St.; indef. (212) 239-6200.
Sexaholix . . . A True Love Story Time and fatherhood have softened the edges of John Leguizamo’s oversexed-freak shtick. Here, he has moved a nightclub standup routine onto the boards of a large stage, and, despite Leguizamo’s attempts to fill the space with nonstop movement and a brief trip to the aisles, the venue swallows up his personal rapport with the audience while magnifying his pandering instincts. In the show (a version of which previewed in L.A. at the Wiltern last year), Leguizamo talks a lot about family, girlfriends and pot, and, despite an abundance of four-letter words and scatological discourses, serves up an unexpectedly cuddly, suburban-safe monologue. Leguizamo’s reminiscences about Queens, his teen street pals and the well-traveled waitress who initiated him into a boudoir apprenticeship have moments of wit but ultimately sound imported from the Catskills; worse, Act 2 anecdotes about his two kids turn Leguizamo into yet another parent forcing the family photo album on a trapped listener. Leaving this one-man show, you feel that Leguizamo could have been America’s next Lenny Bruce but has chosen to be its new Jackie Mason instead. Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th St.; indef. (212) 239-6200.
[sic] Melissa James Gibson’s three-character play has become one of the first big post-9/11 hits, a disjointed look at three ur-slacker neighbors — two men (one straight, one gay) and a put-upon woman who keeps using the others for various favors. There are some funny situations and deadpan lines delivered in a jagged staccato (“If you can spell bourgeois, then you’re bourgeois”), and the cast does a good job delineating the three personalities, often playing inside the phone-booth confines of their apartment rooms, which are placed, like upended shoeboxes, side by side. (Below them is another, larger apartment that only occasionally flickers to life and is inhabited by an estranged couple — an enigmatic touch shrewdly exploited by director Daniel Aukin.) Before long, however, it’s apparent that Gibson regards her characters as little more than sock puppets and that the wispy, episodic plot merely exists to remind us of their names. [sic] only seems deeper than its stage and really should be a much shorter segment of an evening of other sock-puppet apartment-life one-acts. Soho Repertory, 46 Walker St.; thru January 18. (212) 206-1515.