New York — Editor’s Note: Cathy Ritchie, who writes the monthly Pages from the Arts column for TheaterJones, recently took her annual trip to New York and caught several Broadway plays, and one off-Broadway. Below are her thoughts on The Little Foxes, Present Laughter, A Doll’s House Part 2, and Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall. Look for another report of NY theater, largely off-Broadway, coming soon on TheaterJones.
THE LITTLE FOXES
by Lillian Helman
If you are a seasoned theatergoer, chances are you don’t take your seat in the audience on a given evening expecting to be all that surprised or transformed by what you’re about to view. But if you’re very fortunate, that’s exactly what might still happen for you, as it did for me the night I attended the current outstanding revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 classic The Little Foxes, directed by Daniel Sullivan and produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, running through July 2.
The “gimmick” surrounding this production has consisted of the show’s two phenomenal leading ladies, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, alternating every third performance in the roles of Regina Hubbard Giddens, the strong-willed head of a conniving, corrupt Southern family, and her seemingly weak and emotionally frail sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard.
While I confess I had been hoping to see the Tony-nominated performances of Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie (Nixon won her category of Actress in a Featured Role/Play), I felt no disappointment upon learning it would be other way around on my evening. In retrospect, I know I received an amazing gift that night. I can only hope all theater devotees will someday be similarly blessed by the artistic greatness I experienced in that audience.
In a career spanning over three decades, Tony- and Emmy-Award-winning Nixon has proven herself a versatile yet seemingly effortless performer, able to convey lightness and mania, deadly intentions and wounded innocence, sometimes within the same persona. So it’s no surprise that she totally embodies Regina’s steely dark side, yet also covering herself with coquettishness as needed. Her Regina is downright scary at times, while still implementing charm as a manipulative tool. It’s all there—body language, vocal inflection, facial expressiveness. Bottom line, this lady is not to be messed with—yet, in the play’s final moments, is that a hairline crack in her armor we see? Who’s to say? From every standpoint, Nixon’s Regina is yet another first-rate performance from this stellar actress.
I’ve never been one for sensing atmospheric shifts while at the theater, but I can honestly declare that Laura Linney lit up the stage as Birdie in a portrayal that left me stunned. Her character is onstage for far fewer minutes than is Regina: her longest sustained “action” occurs in the play’s final act, at which point she exits the play permanently, but her impact even while merely listening silently and reacting to other characters’ dialogue, is palpable. I found myself watching her closely even when my attention perhaps should have been elsewhere. It’s hard to characterize how Linney does what she does, but its cumulative impact is enormous.
Her Act 3 “drunk scene aria,” to coin a phrase, in which she is finally honest about her relationship with the husband who abuses her and the son she dislikes, is beyond riveting. This sweet-natured, well-meaning, seemingly weak lady crumbles before our eyes, and her radiant beauty becomes hardened and compromised.
At the monologue’s conclusion, Regina’s daughter slowly and silently guides her beloved, trembling Aunt Birdie off the set—our final moments with her. That night, nary an audience sound was heard until Linney was fully offstage: at that point, the room seemed to exhale, as all joined forces in a reverberating, deeply-deserved ovation. I, too, had been holding my breath up to that moment, out of appreciation for one of the greatest performances I will likely ever witness.
We are so fortunate to have Nixon and Linney in our midst, representing the current glories of American acting talent. But there is much else to appreciate in this production, including Richard Thomas as Regina’s ailing husband Horace. He literally and figuratively holds the key to the Hubbard family’s financial aspirations but, despite his sardonic awareness of just how venal his pseudo-loving relatives really are, sadly proves to be no match for those thieving brothers-in-law and their sister, his icily-determined wife. Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein offer fine portrayals of the not-so-devoted brothers in question.
As a fine revival of a seminal play in American theater history, this production is exemplary. For the purposes of experiencing and celebrating two great actresses fully inhabiting two legendary roles with passion and skill—no matter who’s portraying whom—consider The Little Foxes a gift not soon forgotten.
by Noel Coward
We may all hope to experience live theatre that is thought-provoking and relevant, exposing social ills and potentially rousing audiences to positive action. But there are other times when we simply wish to be entertained, by stories with intriguing characters portrayed by top-notch actors sharing eloquent dialogue emerging trippingly from their tongues.
Such audiences currently need look no further than the St. James Theatre, where Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (written in 1939), directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, holds riotous court through July 2. Thanks to a seamless cast headed by the incomparable Kevin Kline, elegance and hilarity reign arm in arm.
In 1939 London, aging ham actor Garry Essendine (Kline)—characterized as a “prancing circus horse” who never passes a mirror without checking his appearance—is having a tough week. When all he really wants is some peace and quiet, the poor man is beset on all sides.
As Essendine reluctantly prepares to depart on a troubled show tour of Africa, he is besieged by: an adoring yet fixated playwright with a script for him to perform; a sweet young would-be starlet longing for his career guidance (among other things) but who has supposedly misplaced her “latch key” (oh, really?) thus staying overnight in his not-so-humble flat; his valiant assistant and estranged wife who both seem to need things from him constantly; and his managerial team whose solidity is being challenged by the new wife of one of its members having an affair with another. Not to mention the constant ringing of his phone and doorbell: it’s the limit.
As per the title, much farce and hilarity ensue from this scenario, but intermixed with the frenetic moments come glimpses of a sad, lonely man who is surrounded by many people yet is truly connected with very few. A happy ending of sorts does result, but we suspect Essendine’s life won’t be all that peaceful any time soon.
This production, with gorgeous set design by David Zinn, boasts an ensemble cast for the ages, with nary a weak link in the bunch. However, first among equals would be Kristine Nielsen as Essendine’s long-suffering secretary; Tedra Millan as his latest “latch-key girl”; and Cobie Smulders of TV’s How I Met Your Mother fame in a smashing Broadway debut as the adulterous wife, meeting Essendine’s match in unpredictable ways.
In a role he was arguably born to play, 69-year-old Oscar- and Tony-winning Kline displays the physique and energy of a man half his age. His supple physicality, comic timing and facility with Coward-ian language are remarkable to witness. In a multi-decade career, the seemingly ageless Kline has shared his versatility on both stage and screen in roles dark, musically comedic, and Shakespearean. Most will likely agree this alternately hilarious and poignant turn as Essendine will be considered one of his finest moments. THAT’S entertainment.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2
by Lucas Hnath
We have a fascination for sequels, be it on small or large screens, live or on tape. Probably not every work ever written deserves a “What happened next?” treatment, but sometimes, our intellectual curiosity won’t be ignored.
When, thanks to Henrik Ibsen circa 1879, Nora Helmer slammed the front door of her Doll’s House and left her family and seemingly comfortable existence to embark into the great unknown of life as a single woman, audiences in the 138 years since the play’s premiere may have understandably wondered what might have befallen Nora in subsequent years. Lucas Hnath has now suggested some answers in his own “sequel,” A Doll’s House, Part 2, directed by Sam Gold and in performance at the John Golden Theatre for an unlimited run.
Nora (Laurie Metcalf) has unexpectedly returned to her home 15 years later for a surprising reason: after lengthy freedom and success as a writer of books exhorting women to find life fulfillment without the crippling shackles of marriage, she has learned that her own husband Torvald (Chris Cooper) never actually finalized their divorce after her sudden departure. If this situation isn’t remedied quickly, Nora faces legal and reputational disaster, so she has returned to demand her freedom from him once and for all.
To do so, Nora must also persuade the family housekeeper Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), who largely raised Nora’s children post-desertion, of the rightness of her cause—not an easy task. And surprises still await, in the form of Nora’s grown daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad) who was a mere girl when her mother slammed that door. And, of course, Torvald himself appears, leading to a roller-coaster 90 minutes for our heroine.
The play, set in a brightly lit triangular room with only a few chairs and an end table along its walls, seems to be a hybrid of sorts. It’s rollicking comedy at one moment, then segues into a thoughtful discussion of why women should forego marriage, and later becomes a moving depiction of a man and woman with family, love and conflict in their past and present, both trying to arrive at a permanent “final solution” for their lives. It’s a challenging play with perhaps no fixed answers, but with much to absorb and ponder.
Not surprisingly, all four performers in this production were Tony-nominated (Metcalf won Best Actress in a Play). The role of Torvald marks Oscar-winner Cooper’s first appearance on Broadway in 40 years, and his vocal and physical stage presence are remarkable. Rashad’s verbal dexterity with her long monologue about all that she has “learned” from Nora over the past 15 years as a motherless child is electrifying: Nora has clearly met her match. 2016 Tony-Award-winner Houdyshell shoulders much of the pure comedy to be found in the play and does so with her usual mastery and panache.
As the Nora we’ve waited to see once again, veteran stage performer Metcalf displays superlative timing, articulation, and physical expressiveness in the comedic and dramatic demands of her role, reinforcing yet again her deserved reputation as one of our finest actresses. A Doll’s House Part 2 may raise more questions than it actually answers, but it offers an intense and intriguing journey.
BUILDING THE WALL
by Robert Schenkkan
The phrase “ripped from the headlines’ has become common parlance to describe topical crime/medical/social drama shows on television, but how often have we seen the same “farm to plate” action occur in live theater?
Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Robert Schenkkan, author of 2012’s All the Way, about the early stages of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency, recently brought audiences Building the Wall, written mere months ago and inspired by President Trump’s intended ban on Muslim immigration to America. The 75-minute two-person drama, directed by Ari Edelson and starring James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie, completed its run at off-Broadway’s New World Stages on June 4. It also had separate productions in Denver; Santa Fe; Santa Monica, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Washington, D.C.
It is 2019; two people meet in the visitor’s room of an El Paso, Texas, prison. President Donald Trump has been impeached and exiled to Palm Beach. Rick is serving time for having overseen imprisonment of immigrants per Presidential fiat, leading to a state of martial law. He is interviewed by Gloria, an African-American college professor. Rick relives his experiences as a security chief who unintentionally became a “front man” for what escalated far beyond just immigrant detention in deportation camps, up to wholesale “factory” murder: he is an ordinary, yet obviously flawed citizen caught up in an unimaginable scenario.
This play blazes with red-hot political passion on Schenkkan’s part, and its amazingly fast genesis from page to stage says much about Politics in America, circa 2017. The New World Stages performances were solid and absorbing. Tweaks and revisions to the script in the foreseeable future might help smooth a few rough polemical edges, but Building the Wall represents the “artist as dystopian visionary” to an undeniable degree. It’s inspiring and reassuring to be reminded that Theater still has a vital role to play in addressing societal ills and issues in all their complexity—and, sometimes, horror.