Titus Andronicus 2: This Time It’s Personal
Broadway is making me wacky lately, as it veers between Julius Caesar set at Studio 54 and a Britney Spears jukebox musical in which nine women play the pop star at various stages of her career. Those aren’t real titles, but they could be, as East Village-style performance art competes with Top 40 shlock for ticket buyers’ attention. I’ll take the former any time, which is why I was excited for Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, the first Broadway effort by the clever playwright-performer whose pronoun of choice is judy. Here, Mac is looking for a way to clean up the mess left at the end of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, as the Roman Empire collapses and the casualties pile on high.
Notable names have been attached to get this Big Mac to a large theater, including stars Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White, plus director George C. Wolfe, Bill Irwin (who did the movement), Danny Elfman (music), and Santo Loquasto, whose fab set is a mass of corpses waiting to be excavated and processed.
Lane is the cleanup guy Gary, who was a street clown but longs to be a fool (someone who puts you down with actual wit as opposed to entertaining you by juggling pigeons). Nielsen is Janice, the servant in charge, and is usually bellowing orders at Gary, though she lightens up a bit when trying on some bling left in the coup and suddenly feels glamorous. And White is Carol, a middle-class midwife who’s upset about the fate of Titus’s daughter’s black baby, though she always has time to find a cleft chin in her cake.
With flatulence shtick and dick jokes (Lane jerks off a corpse in what Nielsen calls his “puppetry of the cadavers”), things are hilariously Mel Brooksian, especially when Lane flirts with a hunky dead male, whom he says has a certain “noncommittal charm.” Stoppard, Durang, Giraudoux, Beckett, commedia dell’arte, and the Theatre of the Ridiculous all come to mind throughout these antics, but though you’re laughing, the absurdism doesn’t seem based in enough grounding to fully take off, and the cast is directed at a pitch of hysteria, even more so than the leads in Hillary and Clinton (see below review).
But I still cheer this kind of anything-goes burlesque, since perverse verse is always cherce and the three priceless clowns—sorry, fools—dive in with all burners lit, White seeming to channel Judy Tenuta and the other two taking relish in playing to each other and “the court” (we, the audience). Knowing the back story—when Andrea Martin got hurt, Nielsen quickly replaced her as Janice, while White came in to fill Nielsen’s shoes as Carol—adds to one’s admiration for their professionalism. By the time a chorus line of big-dicked centurions emerges, the result might not merit its tonal shifts from lunacy to philosophical ruminations about class struggle to lunacy again, but it’s definitely more giddily elevating than the inevitable Kool and the Gang jukebox show.
Hill and Bill Try to get Back in the White House Via Broadway
Throw in a little fact and a lot of conjecture, and you’ve got Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, a satirical but pathos-laced take on the former president and ex-first lady reuniting as Hill tries to garner the Democratic nomination in 2008. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Hillary, was an under-appreciated spouse in a Hnath play before (A Doll’s House, Part 2, for which she won the 2017 Tony). And this new, Joe Mantello-directed play could be seen as a dry run for the Mantello-helmed revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, coming to Broadway next season with Metcalf as Martha; as in the Albee show, H&C’s lead characters go at it, screaming harsh truths and half-truths at each other for almost the whole play.
In this fantasia of a dramedy, Hillary has cut Bill (John Lithgow) off, thinking him damaging to her campaign, but now she summons him back and he comes running, desperately wanting a hug. But all she wants is for her disgraced and lonely husband to transfer some of his charity earnings to her, so she can try to regain strength after losing the Iowa caucus. Bill thinks she should just pull out of the campaign (“Don’t let them see you rot!”), whereas Hillary is determined to win, even if her loving hubby thinks she’s incapable of it because she hasn’t shown any true feelings and people don’t think of her as a real person. What follows is a vitriolic furor from Hillary, who feels she was responsible for everything good that Bill did in the White House and suspects that he wants her to fail this time because if she wins, she’d eclipse his presidency.
What’s more, she feels that Bill gets the best version of her (the rest of the world gets sloppy seconds), whereas she gets the worst version of him (because he’s charming to everyone he talks to except her). And by the way, all that adultery stuff hurt so much that she can’t even cry anymore. (A clunky expository monologue has Hillary remembering Chelsea’s reaction to the philandering news during a family get together.) And then things seem to be turning around for Hill—to a point, anyway.
In Hnath’s vision, when Hillary wins New Hampshire, Bill takes credit, since key factors were her crying during a speech (showing emotion, as he had said she needed to do, though she’s not even aware that she might have cried) and the fact that he’d made some appearances stumping for her without her permission. Even more galling, it becomes obvious that he’d said some crude things about Obama in those appearances of the type that Trump—her later opponent—would say, which is not exactly high praise. “You just seem to follow me around like a stench I can’t shake,” rages Hillary, as Bill sits in shorts and blithely downs pizza.
Meanwhile, Hillary’s campaign manager (Zak Orth) gets into a tussle with Bill, screaming that the ex prez will only be remembered for one thing, and that ain’t balancing the budget. Very little of this seems conceivable—especially when Obama (Peter Francis James) comes over for a muted showdown—but I guess it has a sensational appeal (that Republicans would probably get a special kick out of) and there are some laugh-out-loud moments, as deftly played by Broadway titans Metcalf and Lithgow. The absurdist comedy bits work better than the screaming rages, which become wearying, even as wrapped up with a mind-blowing framing device.
You see, the short, intermissionless work is done in a black-and-white-box of a hotel room, but it’s bookended by Hillary talking into a mic about how, if the world is infinite, there are endless versions of her, some slightly different than the alternate-universe one we’re seeing right now. When she says, “I’m fighting to win and I know I can win, but I can’t win,” you feel that maybe in some other galaxy, there’s a Hillary who will win. And maybe there’s a better play about her, too.
Straight and Gay Pathos in Burn This
A gay man’s death propels the action in Burn This, the 1987 work by gay playwright Lanford Wilson being revived in a Michael Mayer-directed Broadway production. In the play, a dancer named Robbie has died in a freak boating accident with his boyfriend, and his roommates—Anna, his dancing partner (Keri Russell) and gay advertising exec Larry (Brandon Uranowitz)—are left in a distraught and brittle state.
Anna has a boyfriend, an upper-crustie screenwriter named Burton (David Furr), though they seem to be more in like than in love and their sexual spark is not exactly lighting up the sky right now. When Pale (Adam Driver), the rambunctious, seething older brother of the dead man, enters the picture, Anna’s world explodes. An obsessive, unglued restaurant manager, Pale is in a constant rage, hates carrying around little pieces of paper, has no sense of propriety, aches with guilt about his brother, and falls for Anna like a ton of bricks. He’s also homophobic and more than a bit of a vulgarian, but he harbors a sweet side and a passion that appeals to Anna, who’s shut herself off from epic emotions and is afraid to really feel again. But with Pale—who’s come to gather his brother’s things—it’s almost like Robbie, whom she platonically loved, has now come back in angsty hetero form!
That their barriers will break down seems inevitable, but the joy is in Wilson’s colorful and poetic writing, and in this case, the excellent direction and performances. In one of the season’s most memorable turns, Driver is a bull in a china shop and charismatically raging, but also droll, as he reveals surprising sides to the character. (The last revival I saw—with Edward Norton and Catherine Keener—emphasized the brooding aspect, but this production deftly brings out the comic elements; there’s a lot of hilarity along with the pathos.) For the most part, Russell is a fine Anna, all sardonic and prickly, trying to hide her vulnerability and needs, and Furr is very good as Burton, making him seem like a decent guy who’s just run out of luck. (And by the way, he has a sexual revelation that’s worth paying attention to.)
As the gay, Uranowitz scores, playing a role that long ago became pretty standard—the wisecracking, culture-referencing gay best friend—while making him seem witty and real. Coming off like a sort of early Nathan Lane character, Larry is the kind of guy who exclaims that he’s “always ready to drape the joint in crepe”; who, after a bad experience, laments, “I have sympathy for Olga in the Three Sisters”; and who deadpans that Anna happens to be dressed at one point like Lucia di Lammermoor. But he also has a backbone, describing a confrontation he had on a plane with a Jerry Falwell-type who mouthed off about Christian family values. “Being a cocksucker, of course,” Larry told him, “I disagree with everything you said!”
The play doesn’t reflect the mounting AIDS epidemic of the ’80s, but it mirrors gay pain in its own way, as a sidebar to the hetero heartbreak at its core. Derek McLane’s moody Manhattan loft and Natasha Katz’s lights add to the ambience, along with period music from the likes of Janet Jackson and Patti Smith.
My only reservation is that when Driver is furiously storming around Anna’s apartment on their first encounter, I didn’t feel Keri Russell’s motivation to just stand there and let him keep doing so. Her character is apparently attracted in a scared but fascinated way, but she and Driver don’t seem to share a burning chemistry that they’re struggling to ward off. But their physical differences make them an interesting odd couple, and the way they’re so often placed on opposite sides of the stage emphasizes their alienation. When they come together for some mutual hair kissing, it’s lovelier than anything in the gossip headlines. I’m burning to see this again—and I pray there is never Burn This: The Musical, where the dance piece Anna creates to work out her various relationships with men is actually seen!
Not Hellish at All: Welcome to Hadestown
An ambitious mix of the hipster and the precious, Hadestown tells the story of a guitar-playing Orpheus and his paramour, Eurydice, interspersed with that of underworld king Hades and his good-time wife Persephone, in a New Orleans-esque setting with flawless staging by Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812).
The once-smallish musical—which was a school show, then a concept album, then an off-Broadway entry—fills up the big stage at the Walter Kerr, with help from Rachel Hauck’s majestic set design, Bradley King’s evocative lighting, Michael Krass’ ambient costumes, and musicians grouped onstage to back up Anais Mitchell’s diverse score, some of which is thrilling, some dull. A series of set pieces, which especially soar in the first half (the second act gets a little indulgent), Hadestown is full of feeling, movement, and journeys to the dark side, though it strains for profundity and is a bit twee in trotting out old-time views of young love.
Broadway’s own André De Shields is wonderfully charismatic as the instructive narrator, Hermes, and the three Fates—Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad–pop in and out like the Pointer Sisters meet Lady Gaga en route to a Greek chorus. Patrick Page effectively uses his rich baritone as the king of hell—or, actually a mining operation, filled with sweaty, leather-clad studs and divas—and his number “Why We Build the Wall” (to keep poverty out and be free) turns out to be stunningly haunting and timely.
As Persephone, Amber Gray (from Natasha, Pierre) is a growling mix of Eartha Kitt and Julie Wilson, and has a lot of fun as the moody party girl who’s always ready to fill your glass. As for the young leads, Eva Noblezada (Miss Saigon) sings ably while selling her soul to the underworld, though Reeve Carney is all coiled and earnest, seemingly constrained by the role, especially as he’s made to hit uneasy high notes to counter Page’s low ones. If the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, Hadestown still has effective elements that come together for the best atmosphere on Broadway.