Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Broadway Reviews: Capsule Reviews Include the Deliciously Sadistic “Hangmen,” the Absurdist “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Leading Up to the Tony Awards

Hangmen (c) Joan Marcus

2022 Tony Awards Recap: Part 1

In honor of the upcoming Tony Awards, I have collected thoughts of Broadway shows I’ve seen that I didn’t write a proper review for. This is the first part, which covers two shows, that are currently still playing on Broadway, as well as three mini-reviews of Tony nominees I saw in their Off-Broadway incarnations. 

Review: Hangmen 
At the Golden Theatre 

   Best Play by Martin McDonagh 
   Best Actor in a Play: David Threlfall 
   Best Featured Actor in a Play: Alfie Allen 
   Best Scenic Design of a Play: Anna Fleischle 
   Best Lighting Design of a Play: Joshua Carr 

Martin McDonough, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” is well known for his edgy and bloody plays for the theater, including his breakthrough “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and my favorite play of his, the apocalyptic but equally gory “The Pillowman.” For his latest play, “Hangmen,” the gore is kept to a minimum, which is ironic, since it’s literally about an Irish hangman in the 1960s before it was outlawed in the UK. McDonough, however, is drifting away from excessive gore (but not completely) and is embracing a more menacing approach, like what Harold Pinter did in plays like “The Collection” and “The Homecoming.” The play takes place in a bar run by the second most known hangman, Harry Wade (David Threlfall), when a mysterious stranger named Mooney (Alfie Allen) arrives to put into question the guilt of a man Wade hung two years earlier. In the original 2018 production at the Atlantic Theater Company, Mooney was played by a then unknown Johnny Flynn (who has since played the noble Mr. Knightly in the most recent “Emma” film starring Anya Taylor-Joy), who gave Mooney a cheeky humor. Allen (Theon Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones”), on the other hand, is a bit more refined but very obviously mentally unstable, which takes away from some of the mysteries of the play. Dan Stevens (of “Downton Abbey”) played Mooney on Broadway in 2020 before the pandemic shutdown, and I envy the people who saw him do that for 13 previews. Still, the current incarnation of “Hangmen” is nothing but a good time thriller and the audience giggles and gasps in equal amount. This is probably the most unlikely escapist play on Broadway, and I for one enjoyed it for that reason. 

The Skin of Our Teeth (c) Julieta Cervantes

Review: The Skin of Our Teeth 
At the Vivian Beaumont Theatre 

   Best Actress in a Play: Gabby Beans 
   Best Director of a Play: Lileana Blain-Cruz 
   Best Costume Design of a Play: Montana Levi Blanco 
   Best Lighting Design of a Play: Yi Zhao Best 
   Best Scenic Design: Adam Rigg 
   Best Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan 

Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1938 for his most popular play, “Our Town,” which was probably the most produced play in high schools for a couple of generations in the 20th century. Wilder repeated this feat four years later with “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a quite different, highly absurdist and politically minded play that is rarely produced, but when it is, is quite the head scratcher. The story surrounds the exploits of the Antrobus family of New Jersey and how they survive a sort of Ice Age where dinosaurs and mammoths are among the many visitors trying to find refuge in their house. It’s nothing if not daring, but I have never seen a successful production of the play. I would have loved to have seen the Broadway premiere in 1942 with a cast that included Tallulah Bankhead and Montgomery Clift. Lincoln Center Theater’s latest attempt is noble, and they certainly did not skimp on the sets, which is ideal in its simplicity and extravagance (the second act Atlantic City Boardwalk setting is perfection). Unfortunately, director Lileana Blain-Cruz has not clarified the script for the audience, sometimes presenting the work as a product of the Depression (as originally intended) but she also occasionally references post-Civil War slavery imagery, which is powerful but bewildering overall. I kept hoping the production would coalesce by the third act, but despite the valiant efforts of the cast, the play’s point continues to be elusive to me. 

Mini Reviews: 

I saw the following Broadway productions during their Off-Broadway runs before the pandemic. Most are the same production with only cast changes, but know that my opinion is based on the production I saw. 

Dana H. (c) Carol Rosegg

Review: Dana H. 

   Best Actress in a Play: Deirdre O’Connell 
   Best Director of a Play: Les Waters 
   Best Sound Design of a Play: Mikhail Fiksel 

There has never been a play on Broadway quite like “Dana H.” It’s a one-person play in which the actress portraying the title character stays mostly seated in a chair and never utters a word in her own voice. As written by Lucas Hnath, the play is based on an interview with his mother, Dana Higginbotham, in which she retells the story of her kidnapping, her fight against Stockholm Syndrome and her ultimate escape. Deirdre O’Connell basically just lip-syncs to the audio interview (with all the “um”s and “oh”s and unfinished thoughts left in), but there is nothing basic about her performance. She seems to inhabit Dana H.’s whole being in her performance, and you forget the theatricality of the presentation and follow Dana’s story from top to bottom to unimaginable hell. If there’s any justice, O’Connell will win the Tony Award in a landslide. 

A Strange Loop (c) Marc J. Franklin

Review: A Strange Loop 
At the Lyceum Theatre 

   Best Musical
   Best Book of a Musical by Michael R. Jackson 
   Best Original Score by Michael R. Jackson 
   Best Actor in a Musical: Jaquel Spivey 
   Best Featured Actor in a Musical: John-Andrew Morrison 
   Best Featured Actress in a Musical: L Morgan Lee 
   Best Direction of a Musical: Stephen Brackett 
   Best Scenic Design of a Musical: Arnulfo Maldonado 
   Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Jen Schriever 
   Best Sound Design of a Musical: Drew Levy 
   Best Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen

Composer and playwright Michael R. Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for the Off-Broadway production, and when it was announced that it would move to Broadway, I was worried that it would be too edgy and esoteric for a Broadway audience. The semi-autobiographical musical follows a black, gay playwright as he tries to write a musical about a black, gay playwright who is trying to write a musical. The Jackson stand-in is named Usher, as he works as an usher for the Broadway production of “The Lion King” while interacting with the six other actors (all from the Off-Broadway production) who function as a Greek chorus and personify all the neurosis that keep Usher from writing his show. Usher was played in the Playwrights Horizons production by the wonderful Larry Owens (who is now on the TV shows “Life and Beth” and “Search Party”), but he is now being played by recent college graduate Jaquel Spivey in what is supposedly a breakout performance. The musical starts off with a bang of a song, “Intermission Song,” but it doesn’t ever reach that height again. Jackson doesn’t shy away from themes of racism, homophobia and past traumas, and for that he should be applauded. 

The Girl from the North Country (c) Matthew Murphy

Review: Girl From the North Country 
At the Booth Theatre 

   Best Musical
   Best Book of a Musical: Conor McPherson 
   Best Actress in a Musical: Mare Winningham 
   Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Jeanette Bayardelle 
   Best Director of a Musical: Conor McPherson 
   Best Sound Design of a Musical: Simon Baker 
   Best Orchestrations: Simon Hale 

One of the oddest choices of Irish playwright/director Connor McPherson’s first musical is to use Bob Dylan’s quintessential 1960s cultural protest songs and transport them to a 1930’s Depression Era story about a boarding house in Duluth and the sad and poor occupants that inhabit it. The show opened on Broadway in March 2020 after a successful run at the Public Theater before the pandemic theater closures. Because not many of the Tony voters would have seen the show for the 2020 season, the show is now eligible for the current season. Since I am not familiar with most of Bob Dylan’s non-iconic songs, I have no nostalgia for the score or how different it is in the show from Dylan’s original. Without this context, the musical is a head-scratcher as it wallows in the tragedy porn of various characters, including the boarding house owner (currently played by Jay O’Sanders) and his wife (the wonderful Mare Winningham), who is dealing with dementia. There’s a lot to admire in this musical, but without the hook of knowing the Dylan songbook (I still haven’t figured out why the show is titled for that particular break-up song), it may be a bit of a slog.

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