TIME Theater

John Cameron Mitchell to Reprise Hedwig Role on Broadway

John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell Charles Sykes—Invision/AP

The actor and writer created Hedwig in 1998 and went on to direct and star in a 2001 film aversion

Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells and Michael C. Hall have all taken a crack at the Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but now the man who first brought its titular character to life is taking over.

Next year, John Cameron Mitchell will reprise the role he co-created in 1998, when Hedwig made its debut at the Jane Street Theater. The musical follows a transgender frontwoman of an East Germany rock band.

Mitchell begins an eight-week run at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre on Jan. 21. The 51-year-old told the New York Times that he would be working with a trainer and adjusting the choreography to accommodate his age.

“15 years ago she kicked my butt so hard that I quit acting,” Mitchell said in a statement. “But like an expertly face-lifted ex-wife, she’s lured me back.”

Mitchell also starred in the 2001 film adaptation of the play, which he directed himself.

TIME Theater

Review: Musical Triplets: The Band Wagon Times Three

The cast of 'The Band Wagon' during the Curtain Call on Nov. 9, 2014 in New York City.
The cast of 'The Band Wagon' during the Curtain Call on Nov. 9, 2014 in New York City. Walter McBride—Getty Images

First a breakthrough Broadway revue in 1931, then a legendary 1953 MGM musical, the grand old show gets a spiffy makeover in the latest Encores! revival

“This show is silly,” says the snooty choreographer to his colleagues as they prepare a new musical. “It won’t mean anything to anybody in 50 years.” The audience at City Center Encores! a knowing giggle. The show, The Band Wagon, was a popular and critical success when it opened as a Broadway revue in 1931, with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele in the cast, and achieved legendary status when reworked into the 1953 MGM movie, again starring Fred. Now, more than 80 or 60 years later, it’s back in New York for an 11-day run (ending Sunday), with the implicit hope of transferring to Broadway.

The new team has a superb pedigree. Broadway’s leading baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, in the Astaire role, is supported by Aussie star Tony Sheldon (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Laura Osnes from Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and ace stage and TV comics Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean. Kathleen Marshall, the director-choreographer, has brought polish and pizzazz to many a venerable musical, from Anything Goes and The Pajama Game to Wonderful Town, the 1953 show by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein that she spiffily revived in 2003 here at City Center.

Encores! itself is a New York musical treasure, having staged concert version of classic shows for 21 seasons. One of these, Chicago, made it to Broadway in 1996 and celebrated its 18th birthday Nov. 14th.

So how it the new show? A fine night at the theater, with Marshall’s bright staging, some clever lines in the Douglas Carter Beane book, a starry cast eager to please, pearly arrangements for Todd Ellison’s 12-piece orchestra and hummable melodies galore (“Dancing in the Dark,” “By Myself,” “New Sun in the Sky,” “Shine on My Shoes”) in the score by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. If this revival glides rather than soaring, that’s due not to the performers but to a curious misunderstanding of the source material: that The Band Wagon — intended in both its earlier incarnations as a showcase for the elegant, swellegant Astaire, the most revered dancer of the 20th century — should mostly just stand around and sing. If Arthur Freed, the producer of The Band Wagon at MGM, had seen this version, he would have ordered it and its leading man to get up and dance.

In his reign as MGM’s musical maestro, from The Wizard of Oz in 1939 through Gigi in 1958, Freed occasionally dipped into the trunks of famous songwriters and turned their legacy of hits into either musical bio-pics — Words and Music (Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart and Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers) and Three Little Words (with Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby) — or new scenarios with old songs, such as Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. Freed hit the jackpot in 1952 when he dusted off the tunes he had written with Herb Nacio Brown in the first years of talking pictures. He handed the job to ace scripters Comden and Green, let star Gene Kelly direct it with Stanley Donen and, voilà!, Singin’ in the Rain, widely and wisely considered the best original musical in Hollywood history.

Like Freed, Dietz worked at MGM; he was the studio’s chief publicist, creating the Leo the Lion mascot and the “Ars Gratia Artis” motto. On the side he wrote Broadway revues with Schwartz, a lawyer with enough spare time to put music to Dietz’s words in the scores of 10 Broadway shows from 1930 to 1937. These guys wrote fast: hired to provide the songs for a radio musical-comedy series called The Gibson Family, they composed 94 numbers in 39 weeks. In his memoir, Dancing in the Dark, Dietz recalls, “We weren’t touchy about criticism. I would say, ‘The tune stinks.’ He would say, ‘The lyric is lousy.’ We aimed to please each other. We figured that if we succeeded, there were a lot of people like us.”

Given the Dietz-and-Schwartz catalogue to shape into a Band Wagon movie, Comden and Green applied the same technique they’d used for Singin’ in the Rain: a backstage musical, but set in the theater instead of in 1920s Hollywood. Aging movie star Tony Hunter (Astaire) has returned to New York to get his mojo back by starring in a Broadway show. His old writing pals Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) provide him with a cute script and good songs. But renowned director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) sees the production as a modern Faust, solemn as a Teutonic funeral pyre, and hires ballet master Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) as choreographer, with Paul’s girlfriend Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the leading lady.

When high art clashes with showbiz in a musical comedy, guess which wins? Tony and Gaby fall in love, Jeff gets into the populist spirit, and at the end everyone sings “That’s Entertainment,” a perennial hit that that Dietz and Schwartz wrote specially for the movie — in 30 mins. Like we said, fast.

As directed, ever so sumptuously, by Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon doesn’t reach the Singin’ in the Rain stratosphere. In part, that’s because the movie was satirizing something that didn’t exist: the takeover of musical comedy by pretentious directors and choreographers.

On a helpful, if madly gushing, Band Wagon commentary track with Minnelli’s daughter Liza, show-tune historian Michael Feinstein says that Comden and Green based the Cordova character on José Ferrer, who in the late ’40s stoked the envy and animosity of old-fashioned Broadway types when he filled the actor-director-producer boy-genius role taken by Orson Welles a decade before. But Ferrer didn’t directed a Broadway musical (1958′s Oh Captain!) until four years after The Band Wagon was released. There’s no reason to make fun of a serious director except from the need to build some bogus conflict: Jeff is the guy who gets in Tony’s way, then gets out of it.

As for the tradition of dance directors infusing ballet into musical comedy, that had been a staple since the mid-1930s, when George Balanchine worked with Rodgers and Hart on four ’30s musicals, including Babes in Arms and On Your Toes. Another, younger genius, Jerome Robbins, choreographed such musical comedies as Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, Berlin’s Call Me Madam and the Comden-Green-Bernstein On the Town, proving an expert pleasure giver whether his dancers were sporting tap shoes or pointe shoes.

The most sensational early merger of ballet and Broadway was a piece that choreographer Albertina Rasch devised for her fellow Austrian, Tilly Losch, who wore long phosphorescent gloves in front of a large mirror on a pitch-black stage so that the audience saw only Losch’s arms in graceful motion. The song: “Dancing in the Dark.” The show: The Band Wagon.

O.K., so the 1953 story reeks a bit of anti-intellectualism. But the script percolates with attractive opposites: the all-American Tony vs. veddy British Jeff, the sour Lester vs. the perky Lily and, at its romantic center, the veteran hoofer Tony vs. the young ballerina Gaby. (When they made the movie Astaire was 53, Charisse 31.) Once the plot entanglements are unraveled, The Band Wagon becomes what the 1931 show was: a revue, a cascade of top songs brilliantly staged and performed.

The “Triplets” number presents three homicidal siblings (Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan in baby clothes) wishing they “had a gun / A wittle gun / It would be fun to kill the other two and be only one.” And “That’s Entertainment” has become a showbiz anthem, including the immortal couplet that reprises the plot of Hamlet in a dozen succinct words: “Where the ghost and the prince meet / And everyone ends in mincemeat.”

With Astaire as its star, this song-and-dance movie has lots of both. Michael Kidd, who came to MGM after choreographing the Broadway hits Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls, fashioned two Astaire solos — the moody “By Myself” at a train station and the exuberant “Shine on My Shoes” in a penny arcade — and the 12-min. “Girl Hunt Ballet,” a parody of Mickey Spillane’s tough-guy crime novels that’s aswirl in pulp poetry, with Astaire as a gum-chewing gumshoe and Charisse as the fatal dame with fabulous gams. Most gorgeous is “Dancing in the Dark,” in which Tony and Gaby, heretofore adversaries, take a walk through Central Park that slowly morphs into a pas de deux: courtship made palpable, poignant and rapturous.

In the new Encores! version, Tony (Mitchell) is still the fading movie star attempting a comeback on Broadway — like the Michael Keaton character in Birdman — but instead of a superhero legacy Tony’s fame came from musicals. (Pop quiz: Name a top star of the Hollywood musicals they don’t make any more.) Again, Lily and Lester (Ullman and McKean) have an idea for a fun show that Jeff (Sheldon) wants to turn into a modern Faust; and the choreographer (Michael Berresse) insists that his ballerina girlfriend (Osnes) take the female lead. For second-act wrinkles, Beane has added a one-way romance of Lily for Tony; it doesn’t resonate, but it allows Ullman to sing the lovely ballad “Sweet Music.”

This version restores some of the saucier Dietz lyrics that the 1953 film bowdlerized. In “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” Tony sings the original “Why did I buy those blue pajamas / Before the big affair began?” And the drinking song “I Love Louisa” restores the couplet, “Ach, when I choose ‘em / I love a great big boosom!” Beane has also written a elaborate number in which Lily pitches the script and the major songs to Tony and Jeff — a marvelous turn for Ullman, who could run away with this show standing still, but has the chops and body English to sell every line and emotion. If The Band Wagon does get to Broadway, she’s a cinch for a shower of awards. Sheldon, a late replacement for Roger Rees, is another bringer of brio. He makes Jeff’s bullheadedness seem almost innocent: an overflow of his zeal to put on a show.

Though this Band Wagon runs about a half-hour longer than the movie, it excises some important elements: the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the “Dancing in the Dark” pas de deux — indeed, any notion that dance is at the core of the story. Mitchell is a wonderful actor-singer, as he showed on Broadway in The Man of La Mancha and in the 2002 Encores! revival of Carnival opposite a 19-year-old Vassar student named Anne Hathaway. Osnes, who played Margaret in the Randy Newman Faust at City Center this summer, is a winning, charming soprano. What these two aren’t, and were never expected to be, are sublime dancers. So Gaby’s admiring declaration to Tony that “You got me dancing, the thing I love most in my life” is meaningless. Tony might as well be the cowboy star who made Gaby want to ride a horse.

Beane would have to admit that his Band Wagon (which played in a 2008 San Diego version as Dancing in the Dark) is an anachronism even for Broadway. The only performers who parlayed their dance skills to live-theater stardom in the past few decades are Savion Glover — a natural ti play the lead here in an all-black revival of the show — and Tommy Tune. The Jeff Cordova of his day, Tune starred in and directed the 1983 hit My One and Only and, in 1991, The Will Rogers Follies. At 75 he’s still lithe and active: he has workshopped a revival of Astaire’s Top Hat and a Studio 54 musical, Fifty*Four*Forever; and this Thursday he’s doing his one-man show as a Minneapolis fundraiser.

Tune is Fred Astaire as a 6-ft.-6-in. Texan, with the same ability to light up a stage through a down-home personality and electric footwork. If Beane and Marshall want to give one more rethink to a silly show with many pleasures and a few unrealized promises, they know which Tune to call.


There’s Going to Be a Duck Dynasty Musical

Duck Commander 500
Willie, Phil and Si Robertson of Duck Dynasty take part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 6, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas. Jonathan Ferrey—Getty Images

Break a beard, everyone

The Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame will soon add a new accolade to their litany of show business accomplishments: stars of a Broadway-style musical.

The reality stars have commissioned a team of Broadway producers to adapt their tale for the stage, although the theatrical rendition of the Robertsons’ life will not actually appear on the Great White Way. Instead, the production of Duck Commander will debut in Sin City, at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas this February, the New York Times reports.

Actors will be cast to play the Robertson family, which skyrocketed to fame thanks to some quirky personalities and inflammatory comments. Last year, family patriarch Phil Robertson was suspended by the Duck Dynasty network A&E after comparing gay relationships to bestiality.

The family reportedly has final say over the script and production, which will be based off the 2012 book The Duck Commander Family by Willie and Korie Robertson. So far they’ve “enjoyed the process.”


TIME Theater

Theater World Catches Fire With New Hunger Games Play

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Murray Close—Lionsgate

The odds are ever in its favor... to make lots of money

Katniss will soon be making curtain calls, as the Hunger Games book and movie mega-franchise comes to the live stage.

The forthcoming production will be held in “a brand new purpose build theater next to Wembley Stadium in London, UK,” film studio Lionsgate announced Friday.

The Hunger Games play, produced by Broadway producer Robin de Levita, will aim its arrow right at the heart of the franchise’s streak of victories. The original books by Suzanne Collins topped every bestseller list, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, headed by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, was the highest grossing film of 2013, with Mockingjay: Part 1 expected to throw a knock-out punch when it hits theaters on Nov. 21.

Lionsgate says the theatrical show will use “state-of-the-art technology” to “provide a uniquely immersive experience for fans.” The studio added that inspiration came from De Levita’s recent experience producing the Dutch musical Soldier of Orange, in which the audience sits in a 360-degree auditorium that rotates from set to set.

TIME Theater

REVIEW: Sting’s The Last Ship Is Rudderless

"The Last Ship" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals And Curtain Call
Sting with the cast during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'The Last Ship' at the Neil Simon Theatre on Oct. 26, 2014 in New York City. Walter McBride—WireImage

Even though his tunes are exceptional, the Broadway version of his song cycle is lost at sea

The Last Ship, the first Broadway musical from rock star Sting, has plenty going for it. The story, about the workers in an English seafaring town who occupy their recently closed shipyard to build one last vessel, has a lot of working-class authenticity and autobiographical cred — based, as it is, on Sting’s own experiences growing up in the northeast England port city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Sting has written some excellent, evocative songs — many of them delivered by a brawny, foot-stomping baritone chorus, with earthy, less-is-more choreography by the talented Steven Hoggett. The Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, is polished and well cast, serious and occasionally stirring.

All that’s missing is the ship.

It’s probably unfair to point out that a stage musical can’t capture the realism of a movie. But The Last Ship is so reminiscent of those British indie films about gritty working-class folks in dreary north-country industrial towns — some of which have been turned into decent musicals (Billy Elliot, The Full Monty) — that you can’t help feeling something is missing. This may be the first Broadway musical that pales in comparison to the movie it wasn’t based on.

The story is a fond tribute to the proud English shipbuilders who were thrown out of work by globalism, Thatcherism and the sheer march of progress. Yet the show doesn’t have much social-political context, nor dramatic tension. The decision to close the shipyard is made at the very start, and the confrontation between management and labor is muted and pretty much forgotten midway through. It’s not even clear just what this quixotic project is meant to accomplish, beyond a symbolic demonstration of the men’s work ethic and skills that are no longer in demand.

On screen, the sight of the ship gradually coming into hulking being would have provided a concrete focus for the drama, or at least a sense of forward motion toward a visible, if ultimately futile, conclusion. Here, the whole project takes place offstage, and no one has come up with a visual metaphor or imaginative staging idea to represent it in theatrical terms.

Instead, the book (by Brian Yorkey and John Logan) fills out the two and a half hours with a boilerplate story about a prodigal son, Gideon (Michael Esper), who returns home after a 15-year absence, the girlfriend (Rachel Tucker) he left behind, and the son (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) she has raised and who turns out, naturally, to be Gideon’s. There’s a standard collection of colorful locals and gruff working men (among them the lean and weathered Jimmy Nail as the foreman who leads the construction project), as well as a kind-hearted, cutely profane parish priest (Fred Applegate) straight from central casting — for some Irish film, apparently.

The show’s uncontrovertible high point is Sting’s vigorous and lyrical score — maybe the best from a major rock artist to come to Broadway. (Bono and The Edge’s songs for Spider-Man, in comparison, sound slick and inconsequential). There are yearning, romantic love ballads; hearty workers’ anthems with echoes of sea chanteys, Irish folk music and The Threepenny Opera;and a touch of Broadway pizzazz, to keep the old folks who predate the Police happy.

Yet the score is not really enhanced by the show surrounding it. A concert version of songs from The Last Ship (including several that were cut from the show) that Sting delivered at New York’s Public Theatre last year is actually more powerful, personal and genuinely moving than the fully staged musical. PBS aired it on Great Performances early this year (http://video.pbs.org/video/2365183664); give a listen to a terrific song cycle that, unfortunately, falls a little short as a Broadway show.

TIME conflict

The Death of Klinghoffer and What Actually Happened on the Achille Lauro

Achille Lauro
Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro leaves Port Said harbor on Oct. 10, 1985 after Egyptian authorities stopped it from sailing to the Israeli port of Ashdod. Mike Nelson — AFP/Getty Images

A controversial opera is based on the events of a 1985 terrorist attack

For New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, this week has been one in which the relationship between art and history got a little bit more complicated, as Monday’s opening night of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer provoked protests. Those opposed to the production, who included former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, believe that the opera glorifies terrorism in the way it presents the story of those who caused the titular death; those who support it say that the opera, though about the 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer, does not celebrate the people who killed him. At its heart, the controversy is about the difficult distinctions between expression and endorsement–and perhaps even the very purpose of art.

But it’s also bound to raise a much more easily answered question, at least among younger observers of the debate: who was Leon Klinghoffer and what happened to him? Some hecklers reportedly yelled during the performance that his murder should never be forgotten, and there’s no sign that the opera’s supporters would disagree with that statement.

TIME covered the murder in the Oct. 21, 1985, issue, as a key element in a cover story about terrorism. As the magazine reported, the Achille Lauro was an Italian cruise liner taking about 750 passengers around the Mediterranean; those on board included 11 friends from New York and New Jersey, brought together by Marilyn Klinghoffer, who celebrated her 59th birthday during the trip. Leon Klinghoffer, Marilyn’s husband, was confined to a wheelchair after having had two strokes.

The ship also carried four other passengers, terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front who supposedly planned to attack when the ship reached the city of Ashdod in Israel. But according to an Italian report at the time, after a waiter saw them with their guns they decided to launch their attack early, hijacking the ship and ordering the captain to steer the ship toward Syria. If their demands — for the release of 50 prisoners being held in Israel — were not met, they would begin to kill their hostages.

Leon Klinghoffer, tragically, was first. Here’s how TIME reported what happened:

At exactly what point these sadistic threats became reality is not known. But in a now familiar ritual of terrorism, the hijackers had decided to underscore their seriousness by taking a sacrifice. First they separated Leon Klinghoffer from his wife. “No,” said one gunman to the wheelchair-bound passenger. “You stay. She goes.” Marilyn Klinghoffer never saw her husband again. For the next 24 hours she and her friends were consumed by anxiety. When the hijacking was finally over, they looked all through the ship for him, though they expected the worst. Some passengers had noted that the trousers and shoes of one of the hijackers had been covered with blood. And besides, as one recalled, “We had heard gunshots and a splash.” Giovanni Migliuolo, the Italian Ambassador to Egypt, later chillingly reconstructed the event: “The hijackers pushed [Klinghoffer] in his chair and dragged him to the side of the ship, where, in cold blood, they fired a shot to the forehead. Then they dumped the body into the sea, together with the wheelchair.”

After it became clear that no nation would allow the hijacked ship to dock and the PLF negotiated for the hijackers to leave the ship, the Klinghoffers’ children were told that all of the passengers were safe. Hours passed before the State Department informed them that their father had not been found. About two days passed before the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt announced that Leon Klinghoffer had been murdered.

Marilyn Klinghoffer — who reportedly told President Reagan that she spat in the terrorists’ faces when asked to identify them in a line-up, to which he responded “You did? God bless you.” — died of cancer the following year. The opera The Death of Klinghoffer premiered a few years later, in 1991, in Belgium. Though it was controversial then as well, TIME’s critic Michael Walsh wrote that fears over the subject matter should not keep it from the ranks of operatic greatness. “Just as the lyrical and deeply humanistic [Nixon in China, an opera by the same creative team] confounded many who had expected a leftist demonization of the old unindicted co-conspirator,” he wrote, “so has this sweet, sorrowful Klinghoffer upended everyone’s expectations.”

Read the full story of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, here in TIME’s archives: The Voyage of the Achille Lauro

Read TIME’s review of the premiere performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, here in the archives: Art and Terror in the Same Boat

TIME Theater

Al Pacino Is Returning to Broadway to Star in David Mamet’s New Play

Al Pacino, Barry Levinson
In this Aug. 30, 2014 file photo, actor Al Pacino poses during the photo call for the movie "The Humbling" at the 71st edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy. Andrew Medichini—AP

In 2012, Pacino wowed audiences as the star of Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross

Al Pacino will return to Broadway next fall in a new production by playwright David Mamet, who describes his latest work as “better than oral sex.”

Mamet, who has worked with the Tony and Oscar-winning Pacino on four previous projects, says he wrote the latest play, China Doll, “for Al,” The Hollywood Reporter says.

China Doll, set to open next October at New York City’s Shubert Theater, is “about a wealthy man, his young fiancé and an airplane,” says Mamet, in a statement.

“The man has just bought a new plane as a wedding present for the girl. He intends to go into semiretirement, and enjoy himself,” Mamet continues. “He’s in the process of leaving his office, and is giving last minute instructions to his young assistant. He takes one last phone call…”

“The characters are Mickey Ross, a billionaire; Carson, the assistant, and a telephone,” Mamet says. “It is better than oral sex.”

Pacino said in a statement that China Doll was a chance “to create a new character in the David Mamet canon.”

“So Dave gave me China Doll, a new play he had written for me and it blew me away,” said Pacino, calling his part “one of the most daunting and challenging roles I’ve been given to explore onstage.”

“It’s a special gift to originate a role in the theatre, especially written by such a formidable writer,” he said, “and I haven’t done that in a long, long time.”

[The Hollywood Reporter]

TIME Theater

It’s Only a Play on Broadway: Inside Job

It’s Only a PlayGerald Schoenfeld Theatre
©2014 Joan Marcus

Terrence McNally's '80s comedy has been updated, but the laughs still seem tired

It seems ungracious be too harsh on It’s Only a Play — the revival of Terrence McNally’s 1986 comedy that has just opened on Broadway. McNally, a New York theater mainstay who once wrote funny plays (Bad Habits, Next) before winning Tonys for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, concocted the work as a frothy send-up of Broadway, packed with inside jokes, topical references and catty theater-world wisecracks. For the new revival, the references and in-jokes have been updated (from Charles Nelson Reilly and Arlene Francis to Harvey Fierstein and Kelly Ripa). The new production, moreover, has attracted the most star-studded cast of the Broadway season, headed by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, together again for the third time (after The Producers and the 2005 revival of The Odd Couple). The jokes are nonstop, most of them get big laughs, and the standing ovation starts almost before the curtain can drop.

But holy David Merrick — what a mess. We’re at the opening night party of a new Broadway show, written by a celebrated but insecure playwright (Broderick) and attended by his good friend (Lane), an actor now doing sitcoms in Hollywood. The room quickly fills with the Broadway equivalent of the bomber crew from an old World War II movie. There’s the show’s rich but clueless producer (Megan Mullally); its eccentric, critically acclaimed British director (Rupert Grint); an alcoholic, over-the-hill leading lady (Stockard Channing); a pompous theater critic (F. Murray Abraham) who, for some inexplicable reason, is hanging out for the evening with the people whose show he is about to trash; and an eager young coat-check attendant (Micah Stock) who is entranced by the whole scene.

I wasn’t. The jokes may be updated, but the satiric targets seem awfully familiar: the influx of British shows, actors who leave the theater to do bad television, critics who secretly want to write plays, and anybody who lives outside the Big Apple. (“New York without the theater is… Newark.”) No joke is too lame that it can’t be repeated a half-dozen times (a character named Wicker mistakenly called Wacker) and flogged mercilessly. Any decent sitcom writer could have boiled the thing down to a passable 60 minutes, but at two bloated acts, the show is both self-indulgent and interminable.

There is no plot, just the ginned-up suspense of waiting for the reviews to come out. In the ’80s, the New York TV stations all had Broadway reviewers, and the wait at least made some real-time dramatic sense. Now the TV critics are gone, and so characters are forced, awkwardly, to simply repeat the print reviews as they’re read to them over the telephone. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley is name-checked so often that he should be getting Equity scale for the show. (Brantley was sitting two rows in front of me at the preview performance I saw, and seemed to be a good sport about it.)

As for the starry cast, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. Lane is his usual vibrant, ingratiating self, milking every laugh with his rubbery eyebrows and crack comic timing. Channing is fine as the drunk diva, and Abraham, that old pro, does the best he can with the patently ridiculous part of the critic. But Rupert Grint (of Harry Potter fame), dressed in a garishly patterned three-piece suit, looks like a refugee from Carnaby Street in the 1960s, not a parody of the grunge-chic British esthetic of today. Mullally’s spaced-out, vaguely southern producer is grating from start to finish. As for Broderick — well, his monotonous, winsome, sing-songy acting style has become something akin to kabuki theater. Any resemblance to an actual living person is purely coincidental.

Yes, it’s only a play, and a sellout hit besides. But for Broadway audiences — at least the ones who don’t attend Terrence McNally’s opening-night parties — it’s only a trifle.

TIME Theater

Broadway Mind Games: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Theater-Curious Incident of the Dog
This image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows the cast during a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," in London. Brinkhoff-Moegenburg—AP

A dead dog, an autistic genius and an extraordinary play from London

“Don’t you ever think about other people for one second?” a character demands of Christopher Boone, the 15-year-old protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The line, which comes late in the play, would be funny if it weren’t so tragically dense.

Christopher, inside whose world we are thrust in Simon Stephens’ extraordinary play, is autistic. He is unable to have normal social interactions or to handle stimuli from the outside that upset his familiar, carefully ordered reality. He avoids eye contact. A mere touch sends him into hysterics. He takes words literally and cannot process new and complicated information — unless it relates to numbers, at which he is something of a genius. The diagnosis today would be Asperger’s disorder, though neither that term nor the word “autism” is ever spoken in the play.

One of the achievements of this stage adaptation of the bestselling 2003 novel by Mark Haddon is that it is a play about a disabled teenager that totally avoids medical explanations, or conventional, courage-in-the-face-of-illness sentimentality. The play, which has just opened on Broadway after acclaimed runs at London’s National Theatre and on the West End, is part mystery story, part family drama, part young-adult adventure tale. But mostly it’s a demonstration of the power of theater to transport us to exotic places, none more exotic than the inside workings of a discombobulated human mind.

Like such previous British stage triumphs as War Horse and Matilda: The Musical, the play seems to have been imagined in entirely fresh, wonderfully utilitarian theatrical terms. The set is a black box of cross-hatched graph paper — the grid of Christopher’s rigid but wildly disconnected mind, Director Marianne Elliott (who was also the mastermind behind War Horse) orchestrates a dazzling array of sound and light effects, video projections and choreographed movement by a group of actors who remain onstage at all times — alternately handling props, helping animate scenes by impersonating kitchen appliances and other household objects, and playing all the people in Christopher’s life.

The plot is minimal. The dog of the title appears in the play’s first startling, flashbulb-lit image — dead on a neighbor’s lawn, gruesomely impaled by a pitchfork. Christopher, though first suspected of the crime, sets out to solve it, in his obsessive, rigidly logical manner. In the process he discovers deeper secrets about his family — the gruff but caring father (Ian Barford) with whom he lives, and a mother (Enid Graham) from whom he has been parted for years.

In lieu of the novel’s first-person narrative, the play tells much of the story through Christopher’s own writing — a story he has presumably written, read aloud in snatches by his teacher (Francesca Faridany). But his point of view is most vividly conveyed by the inventive, subjective staging. Christopher’s trip to London, alone for the first time in a bewildering environment, is a particularly harrowing sensory assault — a cacophany of signs, voices, heedless crowds, hurtling subway trains, an escalator that appears out of thin air. But it’s more than just a sound-and-light show: a pantomimed sequence in which Christopher tries to negotiate a commuter-train bathroom is a tiny masterpiece of wordless, detailed theater-verite.

Alex Sharp, a recent Julliard graduate who is making his Broadway debut, is stunningly good as Christopher. He does wonders with his eyes — squinting as if shying away from the light one minute, wide-eyed with wonder the next, never really focusing but always sharpening our focus on his disoriented mind. Every single cast member — all Americans, though you wouldn’t guess it — forms an indispensable piece of the seamless whole. The Curious Incident is a real Broadway curiosity, a play that works on every level — crowd-pleasing, eye-opening, life-affirming and unmissable.

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