It's been the rare theater weekend for me in which more than one show really stood out as high quality theater. Which made my most recent trip to New York, over Memorial Day weekend, all the more exhilarating. Overall I saw five shows: God of Carnage, Mary Stuart, Waiting for Godot, Rock of Ages, and Hair. And no fewer than three of these shows were simply outstanding, although the other two were thoroughly enjoyable in their own ways. Which shows fall into which categories? Ah, patience, dear reader. Below I present my capsule reviews of the straight plays. Look for my reviews of the two musicals in the days to come.
God of Carnage - In short, everything you've heard is true. Yasmina Reza's latest work to hit Broadway is one hell of a ride. For me, the play and its stellar cast more than live up to the hype. Marcia Gay Harden seems to be the odds-on favorite for the best actress Tony this year, and not without reason. Harden is a powerhouse on stage, chewing the scenery to be sure, but all in service of portraying a character whose seams are bursting before our eyes. Slightly less showy but no less effective is the wonderful Hope Davis who manages to render credible her character's numerous contradictions. James Gandolfini is superb as the brutish lout who's forced to make nice at first, only to drop all remnants of the facade over time. And Jeff Daniels is a revelation as the insensitive lawyer who, like the witch in Into the Woods, winds up being the only truly honest person in the piece. It would be a shame if director Matthew Warchus ends up splitting his own vote with his dual Tony nominations for this show and The Norman Conquests. With his work this season, as well as on last year's Boeing-Boeing, Warchus has shown himself a master of multiple genres.
Mary Stuart - Janet McTeer is my new religion. When I saw McTeer in A Doll's House in 1997 I was thunderstruck. Never before had I seen a performance of such depth and nuance. Thankfully, McTeer remains in top form with Mary Stuart, and what's more she's matched in passion and power by her formidable co-star, Harriet Walter. If I were handing out awards, I would give a Tony to both of these women for the sheer fire and dimension they bring to the roles of Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. I went in expecting great performances, but I figured the play would be this creaky history lesson. Quite the contrary. Adaptor Peter Oswald grafts vibrant flesh onto Friedrich Schiller's centuries-old skeleton of a play. And director Phyllida Lloyd redeems herself quite nicely after the abominable film version of "Mamma Mia." Rush, my friends, to the Broadhurst Theater to experience one of the most thrilling productions, and two of the most radiant performances, in many a moon.
Waiting for Godot - I received a call last week from the Roundabout Theater, asking whether I would be renewing my subscription. I would not, I replied, particularly in light of the Roundabout's miserable 2008-2009 season. "Yeah, we dropped the ball a few times," said the guy on the phone. Um, you never had the ball. Pal Joey was atrocious. Hedda Gabler was laughable. The Philanthropist is an embarassment. "Ah, but you haven't seen Godot yet, have you?," he replied. At that point I hadn't, but I did see it over the weekend, and it was really quite good, if not outstanding. Sure, Nathan Lane was extemely Nathan Lane-y, but it actually works for Estragon, and served to bring out the inherent humor in Beckett's work. Bill Irwin as Vladimir served as a perfect foil for Lane, offering up introspection and restraint to balance Lane's shtick. Director Anthony Page (who also directed Janet McTeer in A Doll's House) brings plenty of levels and a strong sense of pathos to the play, evincing both the vaudevillian and the existential, sometimes within seconds of each other. Tony winner John Glover has been rightly praised, and nominated, in the role of Lucky, immersing himself entirely in what could easily be a castoff role. John Goodman's Pozzo seemed to be stylistically in a different show, and it wasn't clear that he really understood the role, or whom he was meant to be. But, on the whole, this production helps to partially redeem what has indeed been a troubled year for the Roundabout.