Both plays challenged theatergoers to set aside politics and simply to engage with one of the great actresses of this or any other age.
The new play, by and co-starring Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), is no great shakes. But this Rattlestick Playwrights production allows the 76-year-old actress to astonish us as Maria, a juicy, engaging character, in an intimate off-Broadway theater.
Maria lives alone in Szczecin, which the program tells us is a port city by the Baltic Sea. Her walls are covered with photographs of relatives in the U.S. who never visit. The apartment is barely large enough to accommodate her, let alone a guest.
Nevertheless she’s overjoyed at the arrival of her young second cousin David (Eisenberg), who has come hoping a shakeup of routine will end his writer’s block, allowing him to fix the manuscript of his second novel.
David is that Eisenberg specialty, a spoiled narcissistic overgrown brat. Upon arriving he removes a pipe and some dope from his backpack (really? post-9/11?) to toke up, bickers with Maria over just about everything and is scandalized when he walks in on her having her legs shaved by a doting friend (the gruff and amiably bearish Daniel Oreskes). Scandalized?
So credibility isn’t the fine point of director Kip Fagan’s production as it builds to Maria’s inevitable Big Reveal. Her story, when she finally tells it, comes close to Holocaust porn in its voyeuristic sketch of tragedy.
Yet Redgrave redeems Maria in a performance suffused with humanity, feeling and a great accent. It’s a compact, 100-minute tour de force.
John Doyle is the director who had actors toot their own horns in an alarmingly well-received chamber production of “Sweeney Todd” a few years back. Such gimmickry is not, thank God, the case with his elegant revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 “Passion,” which Doyle also designed.
The orchestra, expertly conducted by Rob Berman, is safely offstage, allowing a wonderful trio of leads to make a new case for this masterpiece.
Handsome Italian army officer Giorgio is in the throes of an ecstatic affair with beautiful, married Clara when he’s dispatched to a distant post. There he catches the eye of Fosca, his commanding officer’s homely, infirm cousin.
Fosca’s relentless pursuit of Giorgio (the one-act musical is based on Ettore Scola’s “Passione d’Amore”) will strike you as either creepy or transformative. Either way, the story inspired some of the most hauntingly lyrical music in the Sondheim canon.
Melissa Errico is a ravishing Clara, charmingly conveying the smug confidence of someone whose life is as smooth as her skin. Ryan Silverman’s Giorgio grows from vain vagueness into heartfelt, vulnerable self-knowledge as Giorgio. Best of all, Judy Kuhn underplays Fosca’s obsessiveness beautifully, with unhistrionic acting and gorgeously quiet singing.
Through April 7 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.classicstage.org. Rating: ****
Carousel horses hang over the Avery Fisher Hall stage, which is about as elaborate as the decor gets in the New York Philharmonic’s concert version of “Carousel.”
That’s fine since the evening is all about the music, and it’s a winner. You can see it live through tomorrow night, or catch it on public television at the end of April.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II transported Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play about the brief troubled marriage of a rough- hewn carousel barker and a maid from Budapest to the New England coast.
Along the way, they injected a strong dose of American optimism into Molnar’s fatalistic story.
With a second act that moves into the cosmos, a Middle European sensibility nevertheless survived in a score that starts out with the unparalleled “Carousel Waltz” and continues with some of the greatest musical-theater songs ever written.
Conductor Rob Fisher coaxes every textural nuance from Don Walker’s rich orchestrations. Opera baritone Nathan Gunn, a bit stolid as Billy Bigelow, delivers “Soliloquy” with verve. As Julie Jordan, Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara is never better than in the lovely “What’s the Use of Wond’rin.”
Jessie Mueller and Jason Danieley are entertaining as lovebirds Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow. Shuler Hensley, everywhere these days, is gravel-voiced, snarky and on-target as Jigger Craigin, snarling “Stone Cutters Cut It on Stone.”
But the most fun is had by Stephanie Blythe as Nettie Fowler, with her booming “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.”
Warren Carlyle’s choreography for the Act II ballet danced by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, is outstanding.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at email@example.com.
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