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State of the Art

Dja vu all over again in the 2000 Broadway season



It's the era of amnesia in the American theater, where everything old is new again, and the Broadway stage has never been more alive than in a season dominated by revivals and "premieres" of 20-year-old classics.

There was a time not long ago when Broadway was known for its capacity to reinvent itself, but in this turn-of-the-century season, Broadway is making a reputation for reincarnating itself. When the industry celebrates its season with the Tony Awards ceremony Sunday night, the nominations will be dominated by revivals and reissues, with these albeit worthy retreads boasting more than half of the major acting and directing nominations, including a sweep of the category for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.

Among the anomalies featured in this season is the arrival, finally, of "new" plays by two of the great American masters, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard. Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan opened in 1991, but played in the London theater without ever crossing the water. Shepard's True West is an even greater fluke, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of its premiere production in 1980 at the Magic Theater in San Francisco. The two plays compete against each other in the Best [New] Play category, with True West the odds-on favorite.

The double-edged verdict appears initially to signal a new respect for playwrights by the Broadway theaters, but the message is also clear: prove you've got a classic -- give it 10 or 20 years to stand the test of time -- and then we'll take the financial risk to stage it in our theaters.

Copenhagen and Dirty Blonde

More noteworthy from a new play, state-of-the-art perspective are the other two nominees in the category, Copenhagen by Michael Frayn (a toddling two years old after premiering in London in '98) and Dirty Blonde by Claudia Shear. Dirty Blonde is the prototype for the new American play, an inventive story told by a cast of three, abandoning linearity for a deft fusing of alternate realities centered around an unusual interpretation of modern romance. It is also the only truly new play in the category.

The comedy is an homage to Mae West, told by two characters, a man and a woman who meet at West's grave on the anniversary of her death. These characters are hilariously and creatively obsessive about their devotion to West. And while the cast doubles to recreate West and a dozen characters from her life and career -- including husbands, lovers, Cary Grant, and W.C. Fields -- the central characters, Jo and Frank, have their own version of the doppelganger as Halloween simultaneously gives Jo her chance to dress up as West. Accidentally, Frank's own secret about his connection to the red-hot momma is revealed.

The play thrives on the performances of its cast of three, all nominated for acting awards. Claudia Shear, who doubles as playwright, is brilliant as Jo, capturing a character who is dubbed "the movie star equivalent of Venice. There's nowhere in the world you can say 'it's a little like Venice.' " The performance seems to come naturally to Shear, even the puckered incarnation as West, but the real coup for her is the creation of the play itself. She is generous enough to make it seem like Frank's play. In a vulnerable performance by Kevin Chamberlin, we discover a hero for the Zeros decade, and the three-way affair between man, woman, and Mae West is delightfully original, a little like Venice.

Copenhagen adapts the same practical restraint that all new plays must acknowledge, sticking to three characters on a single set -- designed to look like the observation stage of a scientific research facility. The play masterfully lifts the cloak of science to discover the human drama in the fabled 1941 meeting between Danish physicist Niels Bohr with his former protegee Werner Heisenberg, who remained in Germany and rose to the pinnacle of atomic research under Hitler. The subject and motive for their meeting was never known, and speculation runs from theories about Heisenberg giving warning to Bohr, who later fled to America, to rumors that he tried to recruit Bohr for the German effort in atomic research, that he tried to pump him for information and tutelage, or that he tried to sabotage his own mixed motives around being half-Jewish and working for Hitler.

It is achievement enough to make a play primarily concerned with the elements of the atom not only comprehensible but exciting to us laypeople. Frayn and director Michael Blakemore craft a production in which all action, characterization and theme are represented within the symbolic language of the atom. The encounter itself, given several onstage interpretations, is seen as a faithfully executed experiment, and most ingenious is the incorporation of Heisenberg's noted work on the Uncertainty Principle. Uncertainty deals with limits of simultaneous measurement of connected variables such as position and momentum, or energy and time. The more precisely you measure one variable, the less precise your measurement of the related variable can be, with a precise formula backing up the relationship. Knee-jerk reaction prompts us to expect a dreary scientific treatise, and audiences are well-advised to be adequately caffeinated by curtain time, but ultimately the execution of this play of ideas is nothing short of astonishing, all the eye-opener you'll need.

Copenhagen's climactic scene has Heisenberg, Bohr, and his wife Margrethe carefully choreographed like electrons circling around a nucleus. The quality of observation that blinds the observer at the center from being able to see himself is beautifully played out as the three characters try to understand their own nature by watching how the others in the room react to their presence. The apex of the play comes with a double "ah so!" as the implications of "quantum ethics" (where people are measured only by observable characteristics) are brought explosively to light at the same moment that the play's atomic structure falls elegantly into place.

The Wild Party

On the musical side of the street, The Wild Party is probably not the show that's going to fill the vacancy left on Broadway when the long-running Cats and Miss Saigon close their doors later this summer. The play puts the purists on edge for very different reasons than the other original "musical," Contact. The latter ruffled feathers for being classified as a musical despite the fact that the dance-play set to pre-recorded classical and pop music features no original music and no live musicians.

The Wild Party, on the other hand, ruffles for all the right reasons. It's racy, sexy, surreal and intoxicating. The play is based on the lost jazz poem from 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, and under George C. Wolfe's direction, the narrative story of a vaudeville singer -- "Queenie was a blond in a vaudeville show/And she hid what she was with a mask of snow"-- her sexually ambitious relationship with Burrs, a violent clown in the show, and the party to end all parties they throw combine to create a hip party in itself. The Wild Party is the only recent opening to attract young, diverse audiences with an understated spectacle that's colorful as sin.

The dingy apartment Queenie and Burrs share turns into a vibrant hallucination of an upscale New York party, a twisted interpretation of Gatsby's fondest dream where "The creatures of the night come here to play/ We don't like the light and we don't need the day." Joey McKneely's choreography is at its best as candlelit shadows dance across the high back wall, invoking the poem's haunting description: "Enormous blurred hands kept stealing/Spider-like across the ceiling;/Crossing with sharp, prismatic masses/Of light from swaying spectre glasses."

Wolfe highlights all the social mores turned on end as "uptown is looking more like downtown every day," encapsulated at a party that offers "Girls with girls, boys with boys, blacks with whites, checkereds with plaids." Mandy Patinkin is over-the-top as only he can be, and by evening's end he accomplishes the victory of seducing his audience into believing no one else could ever do this role justice. Blending his own affinity for jazz singer Al Jolson with Wolfe's desire to sharpen the racial tension in the play, Patinkin makes Burrs into a clown in black face, a broad interpretation that is not entirely successful at underscoring the musical's thematic edge.

Toni Collette is smooth and seductive as Queenie, and her clean, soulful solos stand in stark contrast to the show's bluesy high points. Eartha Kitt gives a show-stopping performance as Delores, a singer passing as a descendent of Spanish aristocracy but who is really "somewhat Negro and a great deal Jew." Kitt's vocals lend the jazz play the authenticity the rest of the cast can only pretend at, and when she isn't singing she uses glares armed with daggers and a walk part slink, part stagger for powerful and comic effect.

Moon for the Misbegotten

Just in case anybody needed a primer of the well-made play and the unparalleled production, Moon for the Misbegotten showcases one of the most stunning tour de forces of acting in an under-appreciated Eugene O'Neill play from the same period that brought his Long Day's Journey Into Night into being, if not into light. The set alone is a jaw-dropper. The curtain rises on a tumbledown shanty with a tar-paper shack attachment on a rocky farm in Connecticut, replete with a mountain of boulders stage left -- "If cows could eat rocks we'd have a fine dairy farm" -- and a never-ending set that disappears well beyond the wings, enlarging the stage for those lucky few sitting on the side sections who are accustomed to gazing into the black beyond the proscenium. The visuals are enhanced by the subtle, undetectable shifting from sunset into moonlight, the accompanying sound of birds singing from the back wall trees made of light, and the sweet smell of patriarchal pipe tobacco.

Cherry Jones' Josie is a strong character in high work boots and a burlap apron, bluffing her way out of love and masking her misgivings about her physical appearance. But her character is uncommonly heroic in the context of O'Neill, and imagination can't fathom what we all wouldn't give for a woman like Josie. Jones and Roy Dotrice share wonderfully dynamic and textured father-daughter scenes filled with more wit, insight, and above all fondness than O'Neill has ever summoned. Jones wields a club like a baseball bat as a means of defense against her father's "trick hidden behind your trick," but their relationship never crosses into the explosive violence O'Neill can so deftly threaten.

Gabriel Byrne's Tyrone is a masterpiece of alcoholic shifts and yearnings, completing the trio of stellar Tony-nominated perfomances. He enters from the wings "when he thinks no one's watching with his eyes on the ground like he's carrying his own coffin" and he takes on the far away look that only a bottle can fill, the shaking and sweating when he's too long dry-throated, and the sign language spoken in his fingers' delirious tremors. Byrne's bravura performance lends more hope than can be bargained for with O'Neill, thanks to "You and me and the moon...and the bonded bourbon." Josie offers him the purging of a confession as he lies safe within her legs. The night hints at salvation, but the dawn brings regression, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to spend intermission downing a whiskey from behind dark sunglasses on the corner of Broadway and 48th.

"There is no future or present," Tyrone promises Josie, "it's just the past repeating itself over and over again. You can't get away from it." O'Neill's lyricism is not simply an antidote for the "be here now" crowd, but a new motto for the Broadway stage, rejuvenating its health by reconnecting itself to its inspiring legacy.


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