What's Wrong with This Spring's Broadway Plays?

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Robert J. Saferstein / The O&M Company / AP

Marin Ireland, left, and Thomas Sadoski in a scene from Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, now playing at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre

Looking for one place that seems to be surviving the economic crisis quite nicely? Try Broadway. After a bleak January, during which nearly a dozen shows closed (including former hits like Hairspray and Spring Awakening), things are looking improbably bright on Broadway this spring, at least judging by the number of openings. No fewer than 20 new shows will have premiered between the first of March and the end of April, bringing the total number of new productions for the 2008-09 season to 43 — more than in either of the past two seasons.

Even more surprising, relatively few of them are musicals, with their ready-made tourist appeal. And while there's the usual spate of revivals — from crowd-pleasing chestnuts (Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, starring a blithely ageless Angela Lansbury) to more challenging rediscoveries (Ionesco's Exit the King, with an all-stops-out performance by Geoffrey Rush) — what's really striking is the number of new plays that think they've found a home on the Great White Way. (See the top 10 plays and musicals of 2008.)

Less surprising, alas, is how forgettable most of them are. It's probably too much to expect Broadway theater to reflect our current economic troubles, but there's something particularly rarefied and irrelevant about the plays arriving this spring. Most are short (waiting out an intermission is apparently too much to ask of an audience these days), slight and largely oblivious to much that is happening in the world outside the theater. Even the season's hit political satire, Will Ferrell's You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush, is one Administration — and what seems a whole political era — out of date. Dan Gordon's Irena's Vow, starring Tovah Feldshuh as a Polish-Catholic woman who saves a dozen Jews from the Nazis by hiding them in the cellar of the SS officer's house where she works as a housekeeper, seems just as old hat: an earnest but clumsily staged Holocaust melodrama of the sort we've seen many times before, and usually better.

Even the Broadway dramas that deal with more contemporary characters and issues seem intellectualized and aloof. In 33 Variations, Jane Fonda (making her first appearance on Broadway in 46 years) plays a musicology professor suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease who tries to solve a musical mystery: why Beethoven, late in his life, became obsessed with writing variations on a minor waltz by a now forgotten contemporary composer. Writer and director Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project) jumps back and forth in time — we see Beethoven in flashbacks — as the professor races to finish her research before the disease incapacitates her, while also trying to connect with the grown daughter from whom she has always been distant. Fonda gives a graceful if unexciting performance, and the Beethoven music (performed by an onstage pianist) is nice, but the play hits nothing but familiar chords. (Read "Is West Side Story Overrated?")

Fittingly, the central character in Michael Jacobs' new play Impressionism is yet another emotionally stunted middle-aged woman (Joan Allen) too obsessed with art to be able to relate to other people. The art, in this case, is a beloved collection of Impressionist paintings in the gallery she owns; the significant other is a globetrotting photographer (Jeremy Irons) who comes to work for her. Again, two excellent actors struggle to bring life to an underenergized wisp of a play whose organizing conceit — we see key incidents from their lives in flashbacks, through the images of the famous paintings on the wall — becomes tiresome very quickly and never connects in any emotional way.

French playwright Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is at least livelier, though it's set in a similarly claustrophobic world of refined, self-involved people. Two upper-middle-class couples (transplanted, in the U.S. translation, from Paris to Brooklyn) get together in the tastefully decorated living room of one to calmly discuss how to resolve a schoolyard fracas between their two boys. One of the parents is a corporate lawyer who can't extricate himself from his cell phone. Another is a socially committed writer who proudly displays a collection of art books on the coffee table. A third is a neurotic financial adviser who, after the stress of the evening gets to her, throws up all over the art books. (See the top 10 theater productions of 2007.)

I'm not sure how you can take seriously a play whose comic coup de théâtre (it gets uproarious laughter) is a scene of projectile vomiting. But it's typical of Reza's quest for easy laughs at the expense of her superficially serious theme: the familiar one that civilized upper-middle-class people are really barbarians underneath. The unsavory revelations that emerge during the play's one long scene (e.g., one dad secretly got rid of his kid's pet hamster by turning it loose on the street) are mere contrivances played simply for laughs; I get more insights into parenting (not to mention more amusement) from a typical episode of Two and a Half Men. What makes the play tolerable are the four good, and very different, actors — Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James (Tony Soprano) Gandolfini — who at least have some juicy, if stereotypical, characters to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, the play only made me grit mine.

The first five minutes of Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty has more real, squirm-inducing human behavior on display than in all the sitcom Sturm und Drang of God of Carnage. We're plunged into the middle of a screaming fight between Greg and Steph, 20-somethings who have been living together for four years. She is furious over a disparaging comment (repeated to her by a girlfriend) he apparently made about her looks. LaBute's sharp dialogue avoids zingers but captures the way people really act when they are hurt and angry: irrational, inarticulate, unconsciously (and often consciously) cruel. And it's not just a prelude to a sentimental kiss and make up: a couple of scenes later, still angry but realizing something larger about their relationship, Steph moves out. "I'm taking the bedroom TV," she shouts on her way out, a poignant last gesture of defiance. "I bought it with my own money, and so I'm taking it." There's a line I can believe.

LaBute (The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, Some Girls) is America's great chronicler of the unbridgeable chasm between the sexes. Men treat women terribly, or are manipulated by them, or simply can't be honest with them. Kent, Greg's friend at the big-box store where they work — the kind of place the people in Impressionism or God of Carnage have probably never walked into — is one of LaBute's signature characters: the brutish user of women, cheating on his wife (a cute security guard at the store) and enlisting the weakling Greg in his deception. LaBute's plays often take surprise twists, but not here; the characters play out their roles to the bitter, inevitable conclusion.

Reasons to Be Pretty is another fairly slight play (but with an intermission!), and it was frankly more comfortable on the small off-Broadway stage where it was introduced last year. But it is tight, tense and emotionally true, and it portrays characters who actually seem part of the world that the rest of us live in. Its four no-name stars (Thomas Sadoski as Greg is the empathetic standout) won't draw the crowds the way Jane Fonda and James Gandolfini do. But they're bringing to life the best new Broadway play of the season.

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