REVIEWS: “The Great Society”, “The Height of the Storm”, and “The Rose Tattoo”
Here is a quick overview of three plays that opened on Broadway over the past month: “The Great Society”, “The Height of the Storm”, and “The Rose Tattoo”—a “the” trilogy!
“The Great Society” (New Play): following the Tony Award-winning triumph of 2014’s “All The Way”, playwright Robert Schenkkan returns to Broadway with a less-successful sequel that picks up on the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) where his last play ended. Partly, this is endemic to the source material of history. The period of LBJ’s presidency from the assassination of JFK to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was dramatized in “All The Way” formed a more uplifting and dramatically-compelling story. The focus of “The Great Society” is the tumult surrounding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the creation of Medicare, and the way the war in Vietnam came to cannibalize LBJ’s ambitious domestic agenda, dubbed “The Great Society”—a far more somber and depressing plateau of an affair that sows seeds for the rise of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Trump. “The Great Society” offers nothing to be nostalgic for, but also not much that is instructive to the present, resulting in a laborious retread of history that is unsurprising to anyone who already knows it. LBJ is flummoxed by the same question Democrats face today: what is the answer on the left to the animating forces of racism and white supremacy on the right?
Brian Cox (“Succession”) steps into the role of LBJ previously performed by Brian Cranston in a Tony-winning turn. Unlike Mr. Cranston, though, Mr. Cox does not look or sound the part. His public characterization of LBJ is foreign to anyone familiar with the real deal, and the private paranoia of this LBJ resembles more the current occupant of the White House. An ensemble cast of 19—including such heavy hitters as Frank Wood, Richard Thomas, Marc Kudisch, Bryce Pinkham, and David Garrison—play some 40 characters, but rarely make an impression. Mr. Garrison’s Richard Nixon, in particular, is a thin caricature. The entire play, coming in at nearly three hours long, has the feel of a historical diorama, rather than an engaging drama. It moves along at a nice clip, but toward an ambiguous end. Is LBJ a hero? Is he a villain? The playwright is too sympathetic for the latter, but too cautious for the former. The most exciting part comes at intermission, when patrons have the opportunity to enter voting booths set up in the lobby and cast a ballot for their favorite 2020 candidate. I suppose looking forward is always more fun that loitering in the past. Opened October 1st; runs through November 30th at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Rush Tickets.
“The Height of the Storm” (New Play, Manhattan Theatre Club): French playwright Florian Zeller returns to New York with this acclaimed production from London’s West End, transferring with the titantically-talented Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce as leads, and director Jonathan Kent at the helm. Known for infusing his work with a disorienting inversion of time and reality, “The Height of the Storm” presents a confusing and kaleidoscopic portrait of a married couple, André and Madeleine, in the evening of their 50-year life together. Over the course of an intermission-less 90 minutes divided into three acts, multiple iterations of reality play out within each, imagining scenarios in which the dementia-addled André precedes Madeleine in death, and vice versa, and passing through versions in which both are alive.
As was the experience with seeing Mr. Zeller’s play “The Mother” (read my review) last spring, the audience is constantly left to question what and even who is real. Through it all, an impression emerges of the way in which André and Madeleine’s lives intertwine and inform each other—a fascinating look at what happens when one’s conception of self becomes so defined by partnership with another. Ms. Atkins is a particular standout with a performance wholly devoid of a single false note, but both she and Mr. Pryce deliver stunning turns, accompanied by Amanda Drew, Lisa O’Hare, Lucy Cohu, and James Hiller. An impeccable lighting design by Hugh Vanstone aids in the seamless shift of time and reality, and handsome set and costume designs by Anthony Ward serve the tone well. However, the play remains a bit of a mystery on first encounter, and one, no doubt, far more engrossing and insightful for those who have lived longer than I have or enjoyed the benefit of a long-term partner. “The Height of the Storm” is a cerebral prestige play with all the right elements to make it worthy of acknowledgement, but also one that is difficult to access or, at times, even understand. Opened September 24th; runs through November 24th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Discount Tickets.
“The Rose Tattoo” (Revival Play, Roundabout Theatre Company): playwright Tennessee Williams is best known for his lyrical dramas, often set in a southern gothic milieu. The big ones—“The Glass Menagerie”, “ A Streetcar Named Desire”, and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”—for which he earned the mantle of being one of America’s greatest dramatists, are performed in New York in a near-constant loop. “The Rose Tattoo”, now in its only third revival on Broadway—the first since 1995—was his fourth major play and a Tony Award winner in 1951. Williams, who was in the throes of a new relationship with a young Sicilian-American while writing it, experimented with a lighter form of ethnic comedy uncharacteristic of his other work. For this production, directed by Trip Cullman and starring Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei, Williams’ intention for the piece to be a broad and romantic comedy is fully honored. The result is a mixed bag—an early iteration of a form we now know well, but written by a playwright still hewing closer to the comfort zone of his other, darker works.
Ms. Tomei stars as Serafina Della Rose, a Sicilian immigrant living in a Sicilian village on the Gulf Coast of the United States in 1950 with her tween daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), and her husband, a truck driver and smuggler with a rose tattoo on his chest. After being widowed, the story jumps three years during which Serafina the seamstress has lived reclusively in mourning, haunted by rumors of her husband’s affair with neighbor Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko) and taunted by her now-teen daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. Act one is entirely exposition, interpolated with abrasively inapposite interruptions by a large (for a play) ensemble of peripheral characters who sing and scream across stage. Only in act two does the story become propulsive, as Serafina is successfully wooed by another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott), with a clownish personality. Mr. Cullman pulls out all the stops to make an antique play shine in its contemporary reception—including a striking and poetic set design by Mark Wendland—and fortunately, Ms. Tomei is a fabulous, antic anchor. Still, the total effect of this play is somewhat confounding and bizarre as it chafes against the strictures of its time. John Patrick Shanley would have much better luck with “Moonstruck” in 1988. Opened October 16th; runs through December 8th at the American Airlines Theatre. Discount Tickets.