‘Follies’ Dazzles; ‘Sweet and Sad’; Hemingway Marathon: Review
Broadway’s sterile Marquis Theatre has never looked so good as in the state of faux decrepitude that welcomes us to the latest, and finest, revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”
“Follies” takes place in the wreckage of the “Weismann Theatre,” where Dimitri Weismann has gathered the remnants of the burlesque troupes that performed here between the two world wars.
It’s 1971, and the theater is about to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. The proscenium arch is crumbling and the walls are draped in black; you can almost gag on the dust. (The Marquis, built in a hotel, replaced the Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters.)
As they gather, the now middle-age and elderly performers are shadowed by versions of their lithe and lovely younger selves, decked out in bangles and beads and preposterously lavish fantastical costumes (from the inventive Gregg Barnes). They mingle on the stage and prowl, in silhouette, on catwalks above, ghosts of their glamorous pasts.
Girls and Boys
The story concerns two former chorines from the 1941 show, Phyllis Rogers (Jan Maxwell) and Sally Durant (Bernadette Peters), and the stage-door Johnnies they eventually married.
Urbane Ben (Ron Raines) courted Sally but married the more waspish Phyllis, eventually becoming an acclaimed politico. Buddy Plummer (Danny Burstein) married Sally and became a salesman; they’ve settled into domestic ennui in Phoenix, Sally ever carrying the torch for Ben.
James Goldman’s book moves freely between past and present. This mostly allows the four principals and other company members to sing songs written in the styles of the great composers and lyricists of those years, from Otto Harbach and Irving Berlin to Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers.
They include up-tempo numbers like “Broadway Baby” (sung with infectious razzle-dazzle by Jayne Houdyshell) and tone- shifting declarations (“I’m Still Here,” sung by Elaine Paige, and Sally’s harrowing “Losing My Mind”).
Maxwell nearly steals the show with Phyllis’s tongue- twisting “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” But the true thief is Raines who brings heart-breaking pathos to Ben’s two big numbers -- “The Road You Didn’t Take” and “Live, Laugh, Love.”
That song comes at the end of the Act II “Loveland” sequence, in which the two couples are transported back in time to a fantasy number right out of the Busby Berkeley playbook. This Kennedy Center import, staged by Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, goes for broke here, filling the stage with Derek McLane’s lush arches-within-arches of roses, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s moody shifts in lighting.
Near the end of the song Raines, through a brilliant trick, snaps Ben and us back into the reality of 1971. We’re still feeling the jolt as the curtain falls and Technicolor nostalgia recedes into grim reality.
At the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway at W. 46th St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.ticketmaster.com. Rating: ****
‘Sweet and Sad’
This country home provides the Chekhovian setting where two Apple sisters, Barbara and Marian, are joined by their siblings Richard and Jane, who have come up from Manhattan. The time, deliberately, is the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2011.
Lawyer Richard (Jay O. Sanders) is the apostate in this liberal Democratic family, having left public service to join a high-priced Wall Street law firm.
Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) lives in subsidized housing with her actor-waiter boyfriend Tim (Shuler Hensley). Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), the spinster sister, has taken in Marian (Laila Robins) in the aftermath of her own family tragedy.
Meanwhile, Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), once an accomplished actor now in the muddle of dementia, is meant to appear at the local high school commemoration of the attacks, reading Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” from which the play’s title comes.
Nelson’s “That Hopey Changey Thing” introduced us to these good Apples on election night, 2010. “Sweet and Sad” casts a subtler spell as the playwright deftly moves the evening conversation from the personal to the political.
Barbara and Marian have been recording Benjamin’s memories during his lucid moments. In a junk shop, they found a collection of datebooks that belonged to a Manhattanite, and whose entries stop at 9/11/01. Reading from them prompts talk about the world since then, in which Chicago’s parking meters are leased to a Middle East hedge fund and New York has grown increasingly hostile to all but the wealthiest.
This is a Public Lab production (all tickets are $15). The exquisite performances from an accomplished cast -- I single out DeVries because he makes Benjamin such a magnificent shell -- argues strongly that “Sweet and Sad” is the first great play to emerge from the horror of 9/11.
Through Sept. 25 at 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212- 539-8500; http://www.publictheater.org. Rating: ****
In the East Village, intense Australian Lucy Taylor is tearing through “The Select (The Sun Also Rises).”
That cumbersome title refers to the Paris dive where the American and British ex-patriates of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel drink, banter and flirt in the years between the two world wars. These mostly trust-fund members of what Gertrude Stein called “the lost generation” have time and money.
With an air of practiced boredom, they go slumming with artists, searching for the next thrill in the bars of Montmartre or the bullring at Pamplona. The emotionally vacant, sexually carnivorous Lady Brett Ashley is the generator that electrifies this tawdry group.
Her cheekbones set off by close-cropped hair, Taylor devours the stage the way Brett devours men. First is Jake Barnes, whose battlefield wounds have left him impotent and thus of little use to her except as procurer.
Then Robert Cohn, the manly Princeton boxing champion whose Jewishness prevents him from being regarded as anything more than a barely tolerable annoyance. And finally Pedro Romero, the teenage matador Brett beds as Cohn observes, consumed with jealousy.
“The Select” is part of this group’s trilogy of adaptations of landmark American novels. (“Gatz,” seen last season, and “The Sound and the Fury” are the others.) The company incorporates much of the novels’ text, deliberately blurring the line between narration and performance.
Staged by John Collins and employing a brilliant, often humorous digital soundscape (fish plop, booze gurgles), “The Select” is more gimmicky than “Gatz,” more burlesque in tone (and, at 3 1/2 hours, considerably shorter). Barkeeps juggle bottles like the Flying Karamazov Brothers. A conference table becomes a crazed, snorting bull.
The show is ambivalent about Hemingway’s anti-Semitism, abjuring the K-word the author himself used liberally. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether that counts as whitewash or sensitivity. What’s not in doubt is the appealing cleverness of this ensemble.
At the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.nytw.org Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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