Photo by Paul Kolnik
New York theater’s droopy 2003 fall season found some solid footing toward year’s end with such late openers as I Am My Own Wife and Caroline, or Change. December also saw quintessential L.A. playwright Justin Tanner show up at the John Houseman Theater to stage, with his original Los Angeles cast, a reading of Heartbreak Help. Judging by the audience’s enthusiastic reception of his comedy, New Yorkers might soon be in for more of Mr. Tanner — and for the quirky California he writes about. Outside the theaters themselves, small theatrical events warmed the New York evenings: The Boy From Oz’s Hugh Jackman’s nightly stage-door meetings with mobs of fans and the three members of a Florida family who lived in a Dodge SUV for five days in order to win it, while crowds trudged by the Times Square showroom where they were parked. As of press time, the following notable shows were still running in town.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (The Public Theater, 800-432-7250). This beguiling, bittersweet musical trip down memory lane might seem to be a big departure for writer-lyricist Tony Kushner, who is better known for polemics fierce and wistful about the politics of AIDS, the collapse of the USSR, and Taliban rage. Caroline is still a deeply political foray, however, semiautobiographically recalling the Southern childhood of Noah (Harrison Chad) while revolving around his Jewish family’s eponymous black housekeeper in 1963. Caroline (Tonya Pinkins) toils in the Gellmans’ laundry basement, 16 feet below Louisiana’s sea level, haunted by the memory of a runaway husband and fears for a son now serving in Vietnam. The washing machine is incarnated by what appears to be an antebellum washerwoman (Capathia Jenkins), while a nearby radio is personified by a trio of Motown singers (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller) and the dryer, by a do-ragged, demonic spirit resembling James Brown (Chuck Cooper). The story hinges upon an attempt by 9-year-old Noah’s stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox), to teach the boy fiscal responsibility by instructing the moody Caroline to keep for herself any spare change the child leaves in his pockets. Kushner nicely develops a fable of irreconcilable racial differences and wounded pride, played out against the backdrop of the civil rights struggle. The Gellmans are well-meaning whites who cannot help but step on the toes of stoic Caroline — a hilarious Hanukkah party scene involving Rose’s Old Left father (the outstanding Larry Keith) sets Noah on a collision course with the housekeeper he adores. Under George C. Wolfe’s graceful direction and Jeanine Tesori’s bluesy melodies, Caroline glides merrily along like an old Cadillac on a road potholed by its characters’ good intentions.
I AM MY OWN WIFE (Lyceum Theater, 800-432-7250). Drawing from his personal interviews and reminiscences of Lothar Berfelde, who dressed up and eventually became Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, playwright Doug Wright has turned the life story of this German transvestite into a tour de force solo performance for actor Jefferson Mays (who also portrays the playwright as a narrator). Von Mahlsdorf recounts her travails growing up gay in Hitler’s Germany under a Nazi father, whom she would murder during WWII, and of reaching a somewhat dubious rapprochement with the Stalinist state that succeeded fascism. The key to her existence was a fabulous antique-furniture collection — a personal museum she curated in a family home in Berlin: Victrolas, armoires and gilded clocks served as both refuge and camouflage for the narrator. Von Mahlsdorf seems like one of the 20th century’s most likable survivors until we learn that she was compromised by a contractual arrangement with East Germany’s feared Stasi. Mays, who also portrays a variety of people who interact with von Mahlsdorf, mostly appears dressed in a simple black frock with pearls and is so convincing in the role that we never doubt that the character before us is an elderly woman and not some aging cross-dresser. Mays’ quiet yet powerful performance, guided with a silk touch by director Moisés Kaufman, prevents him from becoming dwarfed by set designer Derek McLane’s monumental wall of antiques that are illuminated by David Lander’s melancholy lighting. The show does not blow you away, however, possibly because its subject is a little too precious for her own good, possibly because of her moral ambiguity and perhaps because we’re nagged by the knowledge that 11 million of von Mahlsdorf’s contemporaries never had the choice to put on a dress and curate their own antiques museums.
MATT & BEN (PS 122, 212-352-3101). This wildly popular rental has been playing in the East Village since August, but it’s hard to see why. Respectively, though hardly respectfully, authors Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers portray Ben Affleck and Matt Damon during their salad days in a fantasy scenario in which the script for Good Will Hunting mysteriously plops into Affleck’s apartment living room. Amid visits by J.D. Salinger and Gwyneth Paltrow, the two buddies fight over what to do with the script, grapple with hypothetical fame and reopen wounds inflicted in high school. The gimmicky conceit of two women playing Damon and Affleck quickly wears thin, and, worse, Kaling and Withers never follow it up with anything as subversive, so we’re left for 80 minutes with the writer-actors cracking themselves up over an idea that must have been awfully funny when it first occurred to them, but which plays like a comedy sketch that won’t end.
NOBODY DON’T LIKE YOGI (Lambs Theater, 800-432-7250). Yogi Berra, the immortal New York Yankees catcher, has enjoyed a second career outside baseball as the Oscar Wilde of malapropisms, spoonerisms and generally uncategorizable Yogi-isms. “It’s déjà vu all over again,” “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” are some of the Möbius-strip phrases Berra has uttered over the decades as a player and manager of the New York Mets and Yankees. Alas, these alone can’t power playwright Tom Lysaght’s solo show. Someone should tell somnambulant actor Ben Gazzara or director Paul Linke that, while Berra is a humble figure, he isn’t a stroke victim. Then again, Lysaght should have given him something to talk about besides how fortunate he felt to play the game and how much he loved his parents. True, Yogi touches upon his bitter feud with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, as well as a son’s drug problems, but not deeply enough to hold our interest; nor does he talk about his first meeting with pioneering baseball impresario Branch Rickey, or about the Yankees’ tardy acceptance of black ballplayers, or of the team’s wild boys, such as Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. Mark Twain Tonight! this isn’t.
TABOO (Plymouth Theater, 800-432-7250). Boy George’s autobiographical musical, imported from London by Rosie O’Donnell, had gotten such iffy press that I felt lucky it was still running when I got to New York. It’s still there as of this writing and isn’t quite the turkey it’s been basted as by some critics. No worse than Rent or Hedwig, it’s another fable of bohemian corruption, via the careers of Culture Club crooner George (nicely played by Euan Morton) and performance-art legend Leigh Bowery (George O’Dowd, a.k.a. Boy George). While Mike Nichols and Bobby Pearce’s extravagant costumes (a mix of hyperpunk and New Romantic fluffery) hold our attention, the twin stories of Boy George and Bowery, along with the presence of five other major characters, considerably diffuse the evening’s focus. Playwright Charles Busch translated Mark Davies’ original book into American, which may also account for some of the show’s lack of visceral punch, but the fact remains that the Broadway musical is an inherently conservative medium of storytelling that will always make the edgiest history sound like a network-TV movie of the week. Suffice to say, the production’s Hallmark-y orchestration, which features both old Culture Club tunes and original music and lyrics by Boy George, comes with plenty of strings attached.
THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW (Booth Theater, 800-432-7250). A good cast and Daniel Sullivan’s sensitive direction barely compensate for an inchoate second act and British playwright William Nicholson’s nattering about filial devotion. Edward (John Lithgow) is a high school teacher who’s recently become enamored with the history of Napoleon’s devastating
withdrawal from Russia during the winter of 1812. The retreat’s Darwinian lessons about survival versus loyalty form the metaphor used to organize this story about a disintegrating marriage — a metaphor that Nicholson (Shadowlands) would probably do better to spend less time belaboring in favor of
plot development. Still, he displays a painfully keen
understanding of the frailties of relationships, and his play occasionally sparkles with erudite repartee. Eileen Atkins,
who plays Edward’s wife, Alice, is the main reason to see this
production — her portrayal of a romantic and somewhat manic woman being tossed aside, late in life, for another is a wrenching study in pathos.
WONDERFUL TOWN (Al Hirschfeld Theater, 800-432-7250). Talk about chestnuts roasting on an open fire — this gotta-see revival of the 1953 Comden-and-Green musical, scored by Leonard Bernstein, is one of a few surprise hits that have lifted up the dragging tail end of a wan year for Broadway. Based on the play My Sister Eileen, it’s a Depression-era homage to a cartoony Greenwich Village of painters, zoot-suiters and other Runyonesque characters. The story involves two sisters from Ohio who have come to the big city seeking fame and fortune, and this production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, revels in the narrative’s sheer hokiness while never condescending to its appeal. Its opening number, “Christopher Street,” in which a group of tourists are guided through picaresque sights, resembles its counterpart tune in The Producers — a thrilling, nostalgic evocation of an unapologetically imaginary New York. Donna Murphy stars as big sister Ruth and brings all the sassy charm necessary to launch the show into the winner’s circle, even though the story does seem to trail off and then end rather abruptly.