The History Boys Might as well start at the top. In addition to its Tony nods, this London import was just named best play of the season by my colleagues in the New York Drama Critics' Circle. But the high marks mystified me when I saw the show in London, and again in the (virtually identical) New York version. Alan Bennett's comedy-drama about a class of public school boys and their lovably old-fashioned teacher, struck me as a sentimental, highfalutin' version of Welcome Back, Kotter. Only in this case, the teacher (the dismayingly rotund Richard Griffiths) also likes to diddle the boys' privates when he gives them rides home on his motorcycle, and the classroom cut-ups reenact entire scenes from Dark Victory and know all the words to Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Oh, please. The play's central conflict, and claim to seriousness, lies in the rivalry between the old teacher and a hotshot newcomer who cracks the whip to prepare the boys for their exams to get into Oxford and Cambridge. Trouble was, I found the new guy's classes more stimulating. And he kept his hands to himself.
Lestat Now for an easy one. Whose bright idea was it to take a genre that almost nobody likes the vampire musical concoct a story (based on Anne Rice's novels) that spans a couple of hundred years and loses us at about year 65, and induce Elton John to write a score that (except for one lively rock number in the second act, in which a tween-age vampire cries for “More”) sounds instinguishable from Broadway's usual power-pop Muzak? Lestat is a predictable bore, sometimes a laughable one. Only redeeming feature: it prompts some retrospective kind thoughts for two previous vampire musicals Jim Steinman's Dance of the Vampires and Frank Wildhorn's Dracula, both of which had more going for them..
The Wedding Singer This musical version of the Adam Sandler movie looks like nothing so much as one of Broadway's ubiquitous jukebox musicals — in which a cheesy, tongue-in-cheek story is draped with old pop hits from Elvis or the Beach Boys. Except that this time someone has written new songs, which kind of defeats the purpose. The show winks at the audience so relentlessly, with references to ‘80s icons from Flashdance to Mr. T, that eventually you just tune out. Some good tunes would have helped, but the score (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin) is forgettable, like most of this overblown show.
The Faith Healer The one-person show is, I confess, not my favorite form of theater, and this play by Irish dramatist Brian Friel is essentially four of them, delivered by three different characters who never interact onstage: an itinerant faith healer (who, being the title character, gets to talk twice), his wife and his manager. The actors — Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid — are wonderful, but this is one very long slog, with whatever dramatic momentum is generated dissipated by a climax of rather annoying obliqueness. This is the sort of self-conscious showcase for “writing” and “acting” that separates critics from ordinary theatergoers. In this case, I'm with the folks trying to stay awake in the mezzanine.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Marshal This revival prompts a question: Herman Wouk, what were you thinking? In the context of his great sea saga published as a novel in 1951 and turned into a 1954 film, then this play the court-marshal of the psycho Captain Queeg is a demonstration of what happens when real-world wartime chaos gets translated into the cool legal niceties of the courtroom. But unmoored from its seagoing prologue, all that talk about Queeg's obsession with shirttails and strawberries lacks any dramatic punch. And why make so much of the betrayal of Lt. Keefer (the egghead officer played by Fred MacMurray in the film) when he's on and off the witness stand before we barely know who he is? Zeljko Ivanek makes a mundane Queeg, David Schwimmer an overly sour defense attorney, and director Jerry Zaks plays too much of it for laughs. But did this play ever really work?
Awake and Sing This one is sad. Clifford Odets' leftwing '30s drama about the struggles of a Bronx family in the depths of the Depression made a big impact on me during my English major days and in one previous staging I've seen. But I was let down by this slack, erratically acted Broadway production, which was (again) unaccountably hailed by the critics. I'll buy Zoe Wanamaker as the strong-willed matriarch, but the overrated Mark Ruffalo is simply grating as the gigolo next door, and the estimable Ben Gazzara doesn't seem to have the energy to make much out of the Marxist grandpa. But expect to see at least some of them onstage on Tony night.
I left out Julia Roberts, making her Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain, but the poor girl has had enough grief from the critics not to mention a Tony snub. She's too stiff, and her Southern accent isn't even very good, but the real shame is how tinny Richard Greenberg's once-intriguing play now seems.