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Theater Thoughts


The fall theater season is in full swing, and I’ve been lucky enough to catch some recent openings. If you’re interested, here’s my take on three of them.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, is just thrilling theater. It's presented in an ornately decorated tent on what was a parking lot on W. 45th St. You're seated at tables, and it's a 360-degree experience, with musicians in the corners and the action taking place all around you - in the aisles, on platforms, practically in your lap.

It's a pop opera, based on a portion of War and Peace set in Moscow, the big city of culture and decadence, with a multi-talented cast and a propulsive score, which has a couple of standout numbers. (The cast recording is now available on iTunes.) It's like the cast of Once doing Les Miz, with an assist from Spring Awakening.  I must warn you, it’s on the pricey side (though they do serve complimentary borscht and pierogis).

Speaking of Russia, a very Chekhovian new play, The Snow Geese, by Sharr White, has just opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The avian title echoes both Chekhov (The Sea Gull) and Ibsen (The Wild Duck), though the play it most resembles is The Cherry Orchard. It’s set not in Russia, but in a hunting lodge in upstate New York as America is entering World War I.

The Gaesling family is dealing with their father’s death and their failing estate.  While the mother is in denial, the two sons quarrel over how urgent their financial crisis is. It’s a great cast, with Mary-Louise Parker as the mother, Elizabeth, Evan Jonigkeit and Brian Cross as the sons, a couple of Broadway’s best, Victoria Clark, as Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, and Danny Burstein, as her German-American doctor husband, and a Broadway newcomer, Jessica Love, as a Ukrainian refugee as the maid. The scenic design, by John Lee Beatty, and the lighting design, by Japhy Weideman, are spectacular, and the direction, by Daniel Sullivan, is as sure-handed as ever.

Ben Brantley in the Times didn’t care for it much, calling the play “a muddle” and Parker’s performance “stiff” and “uncomfortable.” Though it was a bit old-fashioned, I thought it worked for the period, and that Parker used her gift for resilient fragility (or is it fragile resilience?) without falling back on mannerisms.  The theme of a family losing it all certainly has contemporary resonance, and in the end, I found it moving.

On the other hand, Brantley was ecstatic about Fun Home, a musical about a dysfunctional family at the Public Theater, and though there was a lot I liked about it, it didn’t blow me away.  Based on a book by the graphic artist Alison Bechdel, it’s about a woman looking back on her childhood and her complicated relationship with her father. He runs a funeral home (a.k.a. “fun home”), but also is so obsessed with making his house a showcase that home is no fun.  Oh, and he’s a closeted homosexual. “Dad was gay and killed himself,” his adult daughter says. “I was gay and became a lesbian cartoonist.”

With a wig and glasses, Michael Cerveris looks a bit like Austin Powers (without the overbite), but is brilliant as a manic man full of both charm and self-loathing. Judy Kuhn is very good in the tricky role of his wife, and all three actresses playing Alison – as a child, a college student, and an adult – are excellent.

There’s comedy from the kids’ point of view (including a wonderful Brady Bunch fantasy about the ideal family) and good singing throughout, but I didn’t like Jeanine Tesori’s music as much here as in Caroline, or Change. And Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics, which make us see the struggle about both father and daughter coming to terms, didn’t hit me hard on an emotional level.

Now, I’m also the guy who liked, but didn’t love, Next to Normal, which Fun Home has been compared to, and the audience at the Public gave it a standing ovation, so maybe it’s just me. It'll be interesting to see what lies ahead for it.