a theatre, film & pop culture review
Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winner will be in orange.
If Arcadia is Tom Stoppard’s mastework, I suppose I’m just not a Stoppard fan. But the current revival does very little to support the playwright’s strengths in lyrical language and densely-packed ideas — in this case, about mathematics, Byron and romance across the centuries. David Leveaux’s direction is entirely misguided: the performances are uneven — partially due to miscasting (Lia Williams) and partially because the actors talk at each other (Billy Crudup, nominated, and Bel Powley — why is she screeching?), as though given no motivation to connect not only what they’re saying — but to each other. The major exceptions are Raúl Esparza (not nominated) as Valentine, who appears to feel, deeply, each line he speaks, and Tom Riley (not nominated), who is quick-witted and charming as Septimus Hodge. Even the set design, with its huge openness, is bafflingly vague and unsupportive (and a dead ringer for the design of the recent The Seagull — oh wait, it’s the same designer. Right.). This Arcadia is simply a misfire all around.
You can’t go wrong with Oscar Wilde, but you can easily fail to take risks because the material is so damn witty that it’s nearly fool-proof. That’s exactly the case with Brian Bedford’s very solid, ho-hum production of The Importance of Being Earnest which originated in Stratford, Ontario two years ago. The cast is great, the costumes are perfectly fine, and Bedford received rave reviews across the board for his hilariously dour dowager (yes, Lady Bracknell is played by — yawn — a gentleman in Victorian drag). But what it comes down to is this: whoever the marketing genius was that came up with the “Jersey Shore Gone Wilde” videos (see example below) is the one who should have directed this production. That is just the kind of winking attitude that would’ve utterly delighted the devilishly-witted Wilde.
As previously stated, director Daniel Sullivan takes the so-called comedy The Merchant of Venice and smartly draws out its most tragic undertones, starting with the dimly-hued lighting and skeletal metal set to the devastating performances, including Lily Rabe‘s wise and witty Portia and Al Pacino‘s harrowing and humanized Shylock. Sullivan’s production is sensitive, complex testament to how the problem play can work wonderfully given the right director and vision.
Equal parts hostility and heart, George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey‘s searing, minimalist production of The Normal Heart does exactly what it should do by focusing on content over context with a spare, direct design that draws out the most staggering ensemble work on Broadway, including a vigorous standout performance by Joe Mantello. It’s an astonishing example of how truly worthy plays — even less than perfect ones like the preachy-passionate Heart — can endure over time, no matter how specific to a date and place they appear to be. The Normal Heart is visceral and gripping theatre, and Broadway hasn’t been this exhilarating in a long, long time.