REVIEWS: The Revivals Cometh – Broadway’s 2017-2018 season ends with “The Iceman Cometh”, “Saint Joan”, and “Travesties”
If Broadway had a single artistic director, she would never produce the season that ended on April 26th—deeply devoid of new material and heavily imbalanced with a procession of limited engagement revivals of well-known plays by well-known writers, many starring well-known film and television actors.
To wit, 33 productions opened this season (the lowest number since 2000-2001), including 13 revivals, 6 London transfers, 3 concerts, 3 one-man shows, and 1 musical revue. No new musical was wholly original (that is not based on existing material) and only 3 new plays opened as new productions on Broadway (all 3 have since closed). This is not to say the season was bad—many individual productions were quite excellent—but only to point out that as a whole, it was a largely recycled and uninspiring season. It is fitting then that the last three shows to open were three revivals of plays. Below is a roundup look at each.
The 2018-2019 season kicks off, unsurprisingly, with the first Broadway production of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play “The Boys in the Band”, a (you guessed it) limited engagement featuring a collection of just about every well-known out gay actor in Hollywood (Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, and Andrew Rannells, among others). It opens May 31st.
“The Iceman Cometh” (Play Revival): clocking in at nearly four hours, “The Iceman Cometh”—the last production of the Broadway season—closes what might be remembered as “the year of the long play”. Denzel Washington stars in this new production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1946 masterpiece, directed with characteristic theatrical flair by George C. Wolfe, and boasting an outstanding ensemble of supporting actors. While Mr. Washington’s Playbill bio statement that he is “the most lauded stage and screen actor of his generation” is arguable (and a little wince-inducing), he does give a fine performance as Hickey, an energetic and newly teetotaling salesman who’s returned to Harry Hope’s seedy, dead-end saloon and rooming house in 1912 New York to evangelize his gospel of rejecting self-delusion and so-called “pipe dreams” to his pugilistic alcoholic friends and a trio of Runyonesque prostitutes. Unfolding in four acts, O’Neill sketches some 19 characters played here with devastating acuity. Bill Irwin as retired circus man Ed Mosher, Austin Butler as runaway teenager Don Parritt, and David Morse as former anarchist Larry Slade are particular standouts in an ensemble without a weak link. Notable is the blunt, mood-shifting lighting by veterans Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, which colorfully accentuate speeches and shapes the desolate set by Santo Loquasto. This is the first “Iceman” I’ve seen and it strikes me as a fairly conventional but fast-paced production of an episodic, behemoth play. Mr. Washington doesn’t move about the stage so much as dance, and Mr. Wolfe is an expert at crafting vignettes and smoky tableaus that keep the eye constantly engaged. Here he constructs a symphony from O’Neill’s lyrical text, aided with no doubt the strongest ensemble cast on Broadway. This “Iceman” is ideal for newbies, but will no doubt offer new insight for those familiar the play as well. If you can brave the run time (and the ticket prices), it is well worth it. Opened April 26th; runs through July 1st at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre.
“Saint Joan” (Play Revival, Manhattan Theatre Club): Poor Joan of Arc can’t catch a break on stage. Last year’s “Joan of Arc” the musical at the Public Theater was a boring and tedious slog, tragically staged and wholly devoid of a distinct voice. This year, Manhattan Theatre Club caps an otherwise stellar season with a perfunctory and low-energy revival of George Bernard Shaw’s 15th century drama “Saint Joan” (1923), directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Condola Rashad (“A Doll’s House: Part 2”) in the titular role. I lost track of how many people walked out of the performance I attended, but this dramatically inert, oddly comical, and pageant-like production has all the subtlety of, well, a pageant (literal, medieval costumes by Jane Greenwood and all)—running at nearly three hours and feeling every bit as long. A visually arresting set design by Scott Pask, consisting of what must be hundreds of golden chimes, welcomes the audience to the cozy Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (one of the best playhouses on Broadway) but offers an unfulfilled promise—spoiler alert: the chimes never chime. A fitting metaphor, the whole production feels incomplete, lacking a spiritual spark despite its ecclesiastical elements. Tricky from the get go, in Shaw’s verbose text so much of the story is told instead of being shown. Joan remains too roughly sketched for audience investment, and in this stuffy production, grand political dialectics about God vs. Church are given no focus or punch. Instead, the tone is largely light and colorful, rarely as intense or engaging as the themes call for, with a suddenly surreal epilogue that is bizarre. Adam Chanler-Berat gives an energetic performance as the reluctant warrior King Charles VII of France, but it, too, feels out of place. Ms. Rashad is clearly a great talent (she’s Tony nominated for this performance; the show’s only nomination), but that talent is misused here, her understated Joan lost among a sea of male characters. Joan of Arc remains one of history’s most fascinating figures. Maybe some season soon she’ll get her due on stage. Opened April 25th; runs through June 10th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
“Travesties” (Play Revival, Roundabout Theatre Company): London’s sold-out 2016 Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play “Travesties” thankfully transfers to Broadway in this perfect Roundabout Theatre Company production directed by Patrick Marber and starring a terrific Tom Hollander, reprising his Olivier-nominated performance. A sort of kaleidoscopic, intellectual vaudeville summoning the spirit of the Cabaret Voltaire, birthplace of Dadaism, and structured with a dream-like logic, “Travesties” is mostly set in 1917 Zurich as real-life British ex-pat Henry Carr (Hollander) comes in contact with Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), radical artist Tristan Tzara (a scene-stealing Seth Numrich)–founder of Dadaism—and Irish writer James Joyce (Peter McDonald) in an entertaining and enlightening farce loosely mirroring Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Though fiction fantasy, all three men were in Zurich in 1917, refugees of World War I, and Carr starred in Joyce’s production of “Earnest”, resulting in dueling lawsuits over a pair of pants and the cost of unsold tickets (Joyce won, and named a character in “Ulysses” after Carr). “Travesties” is a fantastic beast of a play that ceaselessly interrogates big ideas with intelligence and wit. The genius of Stoppard’s text is that while academically dense, it remains facially accessible for those unfamiliar with the myriad references throughout; knowledge of political theory and literature certainly enrich the experience, but Stoppard also gives the audience everything they need to enjoy the play. At its core, “Travesties” questions the role of the artist, and his art, in society—particularly during time of war and hardship. Mr. Marber has imagined the play—in tandem with new edits from the playwright—with great propulsive and cheerful energy that serves as a cover for a melancholic and menacing political milieu exposed underneath. This is a brilliant play destined to resonate for the ages given its universal themes. Endlessly engrossing and wickedly funny, “Travesties” is a boon in the spring season, arguably the best and smartest play on Broadway right now, and a must see for any serious theatregoer. Opened April 24th; runs through June 17th at the American Airlines Theatre.