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By Glenn Loney, November 24

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] OK Corral Roundup
[02] "Night in November"
[03] "Conn, the Shaughraun"
[04] "Swan Lake"
[05] "Anna Karenina"
[06] "Oedipus"
[07] "Of Mice and Men"
[08] "Cunning Little Vixen"
[09] "Italian Straw Hat/Capella di Paglia"
[10] "Little Me"
[11] "Footloose"
[12] "The Scarlet Pimpernel"
[13] "Villa Villa/De La Guarda"
[14] "Corpus Christi"
[15] "Communicating Doors"
[16] "Over the River and Through the Woods"
[17] "Duet!"
[18] "The Old Settler"
[19] "Impossible Marriage"
[20] "Wolf Lullaby"
[21] "Retribution"
[22] "Getting and $pending"
[23] "Pericles"
[24] Stratford at City Center
[25] "The Mi$er"
[26] "Much Ado about Nothing"
[27] "The Duchess of Malfi"
[28] "The Mystery of Irma Vepp"
[29] "Rhinoceros"
[30] "August Snow" & "Night Dance"
[31] "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain"
[32] "The Life & Times of Ng Chun-Yin"
[33] Sandra Bernhard
[34] Alex Cohen
[35] Valerie Harper as Pearl S. Buck
[36] Mandy Patinkin
[37] Scott Baker's "Geek Circus"

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Round-Up at the OK and Not-so-OK Corrals—

Two weeks of New Theatre and Old Opera in the Republic of Ireland [see Show Notes columns for the Dublin and Wexford Festivals] have built up a big unreported backlog of new productions in New York.

By the time you read this, some of them may already have sunk into oblivion. But even shows which rapidly close may have some merits worth remembering. Or they may fare much better later on, in other productions elsewhere.

New York is a tough town for beginners and amateurs. Even seasoned professionals get the hook and/or the ax. Sometimes with just cause. Sometimes unfairly, with lip-licking malice.

So, to provide some Instant Catch-Up for the current season, I propose to salute the really outstanding shows with some stars [*****], but no more than five, and only a brief comment on their content and special attractions. And a production-photo, where possible.

For those listed shows where you don't see stars, neither did I! Or they were too briefly in the New York firmament.

The Irish Experience in Manhattan—

A Night in November/Douglas Fairbanks Theatre [*****]

Dan Gordon is marvelous as a tight-lipped, tight-assed Northern Irish Protestant. He's a middle-level civil-servant in the Belfast Welfare Office.

He resents the promotion to supervisor of a Roman Catholic Bog-side colleague. He loves to humiliate out-of-work RC laborers with seven kids to feed.

Invited to join an exclusive [No Catholics Need Apply] golf-club, he invites his supervisor to play the course.

Not because he likes him or is feeling generous. It is just another form of humiliation for the Catholics.

But he discovers the real depths of his anti-Catholic bigotry at the Belfast soccer match between the North and the Republic of Ireland team from the south.

For the first time, the horror of this mindless prejudice and viciousness is brought home to him.

An unplanned visit to his supervisor's home—in the midst of barbed-wire, armored-vehicles, and British soldiers—shows him an entirely different way to live and really enjoy life, even in adversity.

A sudden decision to use some secret cash and fly to New York to see the Southern Irish play in the World Cup finals shows him the depth of his Irish Humanity.

The feeling of the welcome, friendship, brotherhood, and joy he finds in New York is wonderfully evoked.

He begins to wonder if the reason the Proper People of his social class are content to overlook the violence and insult frequently offered Catholics by the police and others is because they fear Retribution for all the generations of injustice and repression since King Billy's War.

Gordon is a tornado of energy and conflicting emotions. He's worth seeing for his performance alone.

But Marie Jones' insightful monodrama has a healing power of its own, It should be widely read and seen—even if it's not possible to see what director Pam Brighton has done with it in this elemental production now on tour.

This show could provide great Emotional Uplift for the holidays.

The Shaughraun/Irish Repertory Theatre [*****]

Boucecault Play at Irish Rep
Patrick Fitzgerald as the roguish Conn, in Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun at the Irish Rep. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This colorful, rambunctious, joyous production should be at the top of your list for Holiday Treats. But the Irish Rep's playhouse is small, and its runs are limited, so plan now!

Conn, the Shaughraun, or Vagabond, is hilarious, athletic rascality itself, as played by the charming Patrick Fitzgerald. This was a favorite role of the play's author, Dion Boucicault.

He was a Master of 19th Century Melodrama, in Dublin, London, Paris, and finally in New York. He wrote or adapted over 250 plays, and some of them still hold the stage.

His Colleen Bawn has just been revived in Dublin at the Abbey Theatre. His London Assurance is regularly remounted.

Although Boucicault wrote for the mass-audience of his time—and used conventional stereotypes of melodrama plots and characters—his wit was sharp and apt. And even his formula heroes and villains always had something specially defining about them.

That's why, in this lively staging, such good actors as Ciaran O'Reilly, Lucinda Faraldo, Peter Rogan, Marian Thomas Griffin, and Geddeth Smith are able to play the human truth in their characters. Even while they are also playing the comedy more broadly than they would dare in, say, Uncle Vanya.

This isn't just a melodramatic thriller, complete with Coarse Acting. There's nothing coarse about it, except perhaps Conn's drink-loving mother and the cruel schemes of the greedy, murderous Kinchela.

In fact, as Michael Feingold has already noted, at moments the audience is on the edge of its seats. Despite the certainty of melodrama formulas.

Will the kindly old priest betray his ward, the wrongly-accused convict, secretly returned from Australia? Will the decent English officer fail in his duty because he's fallen in tongue-tied love with the convict's sister?

A rifle-rod erect, red-coated British Captain, Daniel Gerroll is both admirable and charming in this role. It also recalls his work as a British officer who must rename all the old Irish Gaelic villages and geography with British equivalents in Brian Friel's Translations. In that drama, he also fell in love with a beautiful colleen. But he was murdered for his presumption.

Director Charlotte Moore has done wonders with a generally outstanding cast. And set-designer Klara Zieglerova has ingeniously evoked the rocky coast and farmland of Western Ireland on the tiny stage.

She does this primarily with a big box, painted with a scene typical of the coast of County Sligo. But this rugged landscape has doors and windows in it. And it revolves to provide a variety of simple Irish Interiors.

Having just had two weeks of hearing real Irish brogues, onstage and off, in Dublin and Wexford, I was amazed at how good the accents are at the Irish Rep. Only the hero, played by Paul McGrane, seemed to have been around the British too long.

Classics Revisited & Revised—

Swan Lake/Neil Simon Theatre [*****]

Some critics have been really bothered that Matthew Bourne's version of the Tchaikovsky ballet has male swans. And bare to the waist, at that!

Actually, the boys of the befeathered corps de ballet are wonderfully, masculinely athletic in their routines. After all, if there were no male swans, there would never be any Cygnets or Swan Queens!

To hear the familiar score potently played, but danced in grandly stylized Art Deco spaces, telling a rather different tale, is a fascinating experience. Fabulous sets, stunning costumes.

Adam Cooper is outstanding as the Swan—and incredibly seductive as the Mysterious Intruder. Director-choreographer Matthew Bourne, as the Queen's Private Secretary, was a marvel of Machiavellian intrigue and oily insidiousness.

Isobel Mortimer as the sensual but censorious Queen, Ben Wright as the puzzled Prince, and Vicky Evans as the outrageous girlfriend were all impressive.

This is not quite a Charles & Diana Story. But it does have Royal Resonances. They do not, cannot, live the way we do.

As for the homoeroticism John Simon finds so disturbing, at the end, the spirit of the dead prince—who is lying sprawled and lifeless on his immense bed—is high above in the air, in the arms of the protective swan.

To some, this would seem an instance of Bestiality—or even Aviality—rather than same-sex affinity.

Anna Karenina/BAM—Brooklyn Academy [*****]

This remarkable production was only briefly at BAM. If you have the opportunity to see it back in Britain or anywhere else on tour, do so!

This production was first seen in Winchester, at the Theatre Royal, in 1992. So it "has legs." And it deserves to be even more widely seen.

It is an almost choreographic and kaleidoscopic celebration of the major moments of Tolstoi's great classic of desperate and doomed love.

If you have always been meaning to read Anna Karenina, this version will either save you the effort. Or make you want to digest it from cover to cover!

Adapter Helen Edmundson fragments the text, using Levin and Anna as two frantic travelers with suitcases who are constantly questioning each other about what is happening in that moment of their lives. And how they are feeling about it.

Director Nancy Meckler, of Shared Experience, urges her excellent cast to a frenzy of purposeful movement and searing experience.

Outstanding are Teresa Banham as a frantic, frustrated Anna and Richard Hope as a hopelessly idealistic Levin. Also admirable in dual roles—or more—Simeon Andrews, Karen Ascoe, Pooky Quesnel, and Derek Riddell, especially appealing as Vronsky.

Oedipus/Blue Light Theatre at CSC [**]

Frances McDormand was fascinating as Thebes' Oedipal Sphinx. Not as down-to-earth as in the Coen Bros.' Fargo, of course. But then the Sphinx had wings.

In Dare Clubb's new version of the Sophoclean Oedipus cycle, the princely young parricide is not required to guess the answer to the Fatal Riddle of the Sphinx.

Instead, she gives him the answer immediately. He has to guess what the question is! Not once, but three times!

The great Greek legends of Pre-History have been revisited and revised countless times, of course. All three of Athens' greatest tragic poets offered audiences different visions of Electra.

In the 2500 years since those Opening Mornings in the Theatre of Dionysus, many playwrights, in many languages, have had a go at dramatic revisionism. What would France's Neo-Classic Theatre have been without Greek gods and heroes?

What would Gozzi and Puccini's Turandot be without Three Riddles?

But Dare Clubb must have written this endless opus on a dare. It is unfortunately a club-footed club-sandwich of ass-backward mythology.

Learning of the Delphic Oracle that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, Clubb's Oedipus returns from the Holy Shrine and promptly murders his dad.

He then beds his mother, but she won't marry him after that sex-event because he's adopted. Something he did not know before. Why didn't she tell him before they fucked?

A Village Voice critic took this prior knowledge of the Oracle by Oedipus as an invention of Clubb's. True, in Sophocles' tragedy, King Oedipus does send Creon to Delphi to discover why Thebes is cursed with a terrible Plague.

The Orphic Answer is that Oedipus has all unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his own mother.

Already knowing the prophecy before his birth, Laius and Jocasta had the baby Oedipus put out to die on a barren hillside. Growing up as the son of Polybus and Merope—who never told him he was adopted—Oedipus also knew the prophecy.

But he fled his loving [foster] parents, rather than fulfill the dread prophecy. That, of course, was an act of Hubris, thinking he could outwit the Will of the Gods.

He does not know that the old man he killed in a sudden rage where three roads met was his real father. After freeing Thebes of the Sphinx, he marries the grateful widowed queen, not knowing she is his mother.

In Clubb's version, fleeing the carnage he has caused in Corinth, Oedipus meets some wandering rascals. They include his quarreling sons, Polynices ands Eteocles, who in the legend would not yet have been born.

Why Dare Clubb thinks it is a powerful dramatic idea to have Oedipus seek to fulfill the prophecy is itself an Eleusinian Mystery. The whole point of the legend is that he has done everything he believes he could do to avoid making it come true.

But puny mankind are not gods, and they cannot avert the fates the gods have decreed for them.

Nor could Clubb and this frantic production avert the dire judgment of the critical and gallery gods.

Whether other directors and drama-groups will dare offend the Shades of Oedipus, Sophocles, and Aristotle—seething down in Hades—remains to be seen. Before they produce Clubb's Oedipus, they should themselves make the pilgrimage to Delphi.

The Greek Gyro Heroes there are very tasty!

Music-Theatre and Musicals—

Of Mice and Men/NY City Opera/NY State Theatre [*****]

Andre Previn—who recently attempted to turn Streetcar Named Desire into an opera—should have studied very carefully what Carlisle Floyd achieved with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Just because Tennessee Williams' dialogue is so poetic—and Steinbeck's is certainly not—doesn't adequately explain Floyd's success and Previn's melodic failure.

The truth is that Williams provides his own music—though Summer and Smoke works well enough as an opera.

Steinbeck's power is in the raw simplicity of his tale of two Depression Era drifters, George and Lennie.

Today, Queer Theatre Theoreticians would surely decode some strong homoerotic attachment between the stolid, taciturn George and the child-minded giant Lennie.

That is not overt in Steinbeck's text, though the mutual need of these lost men is poignantly evident. But the friendship is not about sexuality.

Nor is it an equal one, for George always has to look out for Lennie. To keep him from getting into trouble by wanting to pet soft, furry things. He usually kills them unintentionally, when they try to escape his strokings.

The virtually verismo bunk-house tragedy is set in motion by the self-indulgent flirtations of overseer Curley's trampy blonde wife—who doesn't even have a name in Floyd's libretto.

Some modern operas based on novels or plays offer little more than thumping accompaniment for the truncated original dialogue. Or they impose serial atonalities—or numbing Glassian repetitions.

These have nothing to do with the powers of the drama, the realities of the characters, the vividness of the fictive venues, or the potency of individual emotions in conflict with others.

Carlisle Floyd has avoided all those musical traps or blind-alleys. His score is often melodic, tuneful. It evokes the time and place, the quiet desperation of the ranch-hands, and the powerful emotions which cannot be kept in check.

His Of Mice and Men adds tragic power and ineffable sadness to Steinbeck's minor masterpiece.

In the Glimmerglass/City Opera production, Anthony Dean Griffey was wonderfully gentle, trusting, and sad as the childish giant, Lennie. Not only in his lyric tenor interpretation of the sung text, but also in his facial and bodily responses. For a bulky man, he moved with great grace and affecting simplicity.

Dean Ely was a stalwart George, Joel Sorenson a hot-headed but impotent Curley, and Nancy Allen Lundy a properly sensual but trashy wife.

Rhoda Levine's staging was exemplary in its spareness. And John Conklin's simple settings wonderfully evoked the Salinas Valley in the Depression.

[I was there at that time. And some of my relatives are actually in Steinbeck novels. Uncle Bob's proudest boast was that he gave Steinbeck a bloody nose when they were in the sixth grade!]

Stewart Robinson conducted with sensitivity. When this production returns to the repertory at Lincoln Center, do not miss it!

The Cunning Little Vixen/ NY City Opera [*****]

Designed by the inimitable Maurice Sendak, this is also a City Opera staging you should see every season it is on view. Sendak's forest and village visions—complemented by the delicious insect and animal costume-confections of Steven Feldman—make it a visual treat for the whole family.

But there is also a seasoned and seasonal sadness to the story of a gruff forester who becomes so fond of an orphaned little fox-cub.

Growing up, it does instinctively what foxes do, to the fury of the forester's wife and the terror of the barnyard fowls.

The yearnings of the forest animals are echoed and even parodied on a much larger, human scale, rich with peasant comedy.

Moravia isn't quite Upstate New York, nor is Janacek's woodland Eden quite Disney World. But this is a most unusual masterpiece of music-theatre and a most affecting and family-friendly production.

George Manahan conducted a charming cast, headed by Richard Paul Fink as the sturdy forester and Robin Blitch Wiper as the Schlaue Füxlein, Vixen Sharp Ears. The resourceful Frank Corsaro staged this carnival of animals and peasants.

Leos Janacek crafted his own lively libretto for this magical score—balanced between rustic comedy, fairy-fantasy, and primordial sadness. How many noted opera-composers have done so well by singing animals?

Wagner's Dragon Fafner gets stabbed in the heart. And he doesn't even get a good aria as he dies.

Still, the forest-bird who sings to Siegfried might also have sung for Janacek in his musical reveries.

Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze/Juilliard Opera [*****]

If only the Glimmerglass Opera could mount a modern opera as charming as Nino and Ernesta Rota's version of Labiche & Michel's The Italian Straw Hat! And give it such an elegant, stylish Art Deco production as was just shown at the Juilliard Theatre!

What is even more astonishing about this totally delightful show is that it had an infectious charm, a thoroughly professional finish, and an evident joy in sharing its hilarious wedding-day mishaps with the audience.

All this even though it was to be performed only three times at Lincoln Center, never to be seen again. Even though it was already Broadway quality—and visually and musically a great deal more rewarding than some multi-million-dollar musicals currently on the Great White Way.

The great stage-designer Franco Colavecchia outdid himself in scene after scene of Art Moderne inventiveness, with flamboyant costumes to put Jekyll and Pimpernel to shame. John Gleason's lighting made these even more impressive.

And stage-director Frank Corsaro—long ago New York City Opera's presiding directorial genius—showed a talent for ingenious comic interactions not seen anywhere in Lincoln Center many seasons. His inspirations in helping student singers develop strong, interesting, and ultimately lovable comic characters from what are essentially farce stereotypes were astounding.

Choreographer Bradon McDonald caught Corsaro's antic spirit aptly, and he was able to work with some remarkably flexible young acting-singing talents. Randall Behr's conducting brought out the best in all the cast.

But Michael Sommese—as the harried bridegroom who has to replace an Italian straw-hat his horse has mistakenly eaten—looks very much like a Juilliard Star of Tomorrow. As does Samuel Hepler as an outraged husband, and Stacey Tappan, as the baffled young bride.

Other talents to look for in the future on opera and musical stages are Joshua Winograde, Cheryl Hickman, and Jennifer Granville. But the entire cast were all very good—they looked like seasoned farceurs!

This stunning production was so impressive from almost every aspect—except the difficulties in changing set-props swiftly—that it should be revived and given a longer life. If sung in English, it could surely win a much wider audience.

Little Me/Roundabout Theatre [***]

Little Me
Martin Short and Martin McGrath in "Little Me" (Joan Marcus Photo)
Way back before salacious photos were generally available, Chris Alexander's photo-parodies of the sexual exploits of Patrick Dennis' fictive heroine, Belle Poitrine, were deemed sophisticated jerk-off material.

Many a copy of Little Me had semen-stained pages. What multi-sexual fun Dennis, Alexander, and their attractive Upper East Side chums and West Side hustlers must have had after the photo-shoots!

Translated to the musical stage by Neil Simon, with songs by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, it was transformed into a marvelous parody of that legendary old Stairway to the Stars—with mattresses for steps.

Sid Caesar's zany impersonations of a variety of Dennis' wacky characters was irresistible. But not to the broader Broadway audience, so it did not have the run it deserved.

The current stylish Roundabout mounting—directed and choreographed by Cabaret's Rob Marshall—is the second attempt at a New York revival.

It is enjoyable enough, but it does seem dated. And Faith Prince seems a bit overblown as the titular heroine.

Critics have made much of Martin Short's virtuosity in the Sid Caesar role-changes. But Short is all too short on the maniacal frenzy which made Caesar's impersonations so explosively funny and deliriously incandescent.

He does seem a nice-looking fellow, engaging, hard-working, and all that. But the effort shouldn't show so much.

Footloose/Richard Rodgers Theatre [*]

Jeremy Kushnier and Tom Plotkin in "Footlose"
(Joan Marcus Photo)
Hope this works for you. Jonathan Dean Pitchford wrote the screenplay for this movie, now transformed by a Wicked Fairy into a frantic Broadway musical.

He also had something to do with the Broadway musical disaster called Carrie. This show—of which he is co-author and lyricist—proves even more superfluous.

Not that it isn't full of hyperactive movement and ear-splitting [mind-numbing] dialogue and shouted songs. The generally attractive kids knock themselves out to sell the show to the generally somnolent audience.

The generally ingenious John Lee Beatty has designed the garishly colorful juke-box of a set. And the full panoply of extra-expensive, full-functioned, new lighting instruments wildly gyrate and stab the eyes with even more maniacal motion than the dancers.

The germ—or virus—of the show's minuscule plot is the cruel ban on teen-dancing in a small town in Texas. This has been imposed by a tight-lipped, tighter-souled, anal-retentive Protestant Parson.

As written, as cast, and as played, he makes Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts look like Men of the World.

But his objections to dancing are rapidly overcome, so where's the real suspense and interest?

Had Pitchford and the producers had any insight and courage [read: brains and balls], they would have reworked the original premise.

How about a ban on teenage boys who like to dance and prance around because they are Not Real Men?

How about moving the action from Bomont, TX, to Laramie, Wyoming?

With the hero crucified on a barbed-wire fence? Or is that coming too close to Corpus Christi?

This show could have been both sexually trendy and socially relevant if the parson had a website called Godhatesfags. Which apparently some sanctimonious Born-Again Protestant Christian pastor actually has posted.

Footloose has a screw loose.

The Scarlet Pimpernel/Minskoff Theatre [***]

Scarlet Pimpernel
Rachel York in a highly improbable production at the Comédie Français—a new scene in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There were a lot of things wrong with the original production of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Some of them were subtly fixed last season.

Some severe critics thought the wrongest thing was the decision to put it on stage at all. But it does have a variety of popular appeals.

These have been deliberately enhanced in the new version, in which Rex Smith and Rachel York have strongly replaced last year's fading luminaries.

The blondly handsome and stalwart Douglas Sills remains as the mincing Pimpernel.

But the new director, Robert Longbottom, has played trump cards from his long suit by making the Pimpernel and his prancing English lords even more flamboyantly effete in their swishy gestures, shiny silks, and starched linens.

Audiences clearly love this. Especially because they are in on the Big Secret. These are really OK Guys, Country Squires with horses, hounds, whips, and rifles.

They are only pretending to be effete, to fool the Revolutionary French and any English who might suspect them of trying to save innocent people from Robspierre's Guillotine.

There are also some lovely new costumes, some new songs, and a new opening-number. In which the heroine seems to be performing Blossom-Time at the Comédie Française.

If you love Period Plays and Costume-Dramas, this show has more than enough to sate you. The musical numbers then become an added dividend!

Villa Villa/De La Guarda/Daryl Roth Theatre [****]

There's nothing effete about the raunchy, athletic De La Guarda Argentines performing Villa Villa in a handsome Beaux Arts bank on Union Square.

Unleashed on the audience, both men and women will hug you and even kiss you. Or maybe I was just standing in the right place at the right time?

If you show the slightest trace of daring, they will even hoist you up with them high over the rest of the common herd. De La Guardians fly through the air with the greatest of ease, bumping off the balcony railings to swing back and forth. Or to swoop down on the audience.

Spotlights constantly sweep the space. And it's often the Rainy Season, in which performers get soaked and unwary spectators are at least dampened.

Initially, spectators enter under a translucent canopy, studded with shadows of tiny helicopters and other plastic novelties. High above this membrane, unfocused shadows are swinging back and forth.

When they penetrate the membrane, all hell breaks loose.

This is great fun, but not for the faint-hearted.

Even little kids love it, but parents have to keep them from being trampled underfoot as the audience surges here and there.

Villa Villa recalls the great days of Happenings in the 1960s. But there's nothing Retro about it.

Dramas, Comedies, & Thrillers—

Corpus Christi/Manhattan Theatre Club [***]

Across West 55th Street from City Center, clumps of devout Roman Catholics maintain their vigil of rosary-chanting and placard-waving. Mostly at show-time.

This means that patrons of the Stratford Festival of Canada upstairs seem as much in danger of being consigned to Hell as those who dare to endorse a "Hate Crime Against Jesus" by watching Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi downstairs in the basement.

These Defenders of the Faith are also devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has made appearances at the former site of the Vatican Pavilion of the World's Fair of 1964, in Flushing Meadows Park.

Although the Blessed Virgin, Jesus' Sainted Mother, is usually associated with Unconditional Love and Total Forgiveness, she has made it clear out in Darkest Queens that she doesn't like Homosexuals one little bit.

There is a terrible fireball rushing toward Planet Earth, which will wreak such destruction that words cannot describe it. God is sending this flaming vengeance on Mankind because of American Abortion Clinics.

The BVM and the Heavenly Father also don't like any of the changes in RC liturgy and practice since Vatican II.

So New York City is to be singled out by God and hit by an epic earthquake, for its multiple sins. [Though the Vatican would seem a more logical target, having been the site of Vatican II.] This is in addition to the impending meteor.

Fortunately, for the Truly Faithful, if they post a rosary on all the doors of their houses [just like lamb's blood, before the Plagues of Egypt!], they will be spared "with little damage, or none at all."

How this fearful Divine Punishment can be avoided by Roman Catholics who live in Jewish-owned apartment-houses the Blessed Virgin did not reveal in this communication of 17 June 1989.

Maybe only the homes of Jews, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, Gypsies, Lapsed Catholics, and Homosexuals will be destroyed?

That is not, however, any concern of the fearless dramatist of Corpus Christi. He had an unpopular idea, and he has worked it out in dramatic form.

He may be the Anti-Christ to the Rosary-Chanters across the street from the Manhattan Theatre Club.

But to this seasoned theatre-goer, he seems just an unhappy manchild who cannot forget what it was like to grow up absurd and gay in Texas.

There are more echoes of Galveston than Galilee in McNally's frantic fantasia on the theme of Jesus and his Twelve Disciples as a kind of Gay Religious Collective.

Terrence McNally is certainly not the first to wonder about the male exclusivity of Jesus' ministerial circle. But, as some left their wives and children to spread the Gospel with Jesus, this could hardly have been a homosexually-oriented association.

And, as Jesus preached a message of Love—his Great Commandment to Love One Another replacing the previous Ten—that word obviously can be too narrowly or too specially interpreted.

Some Christian groups are outraged that McNally would even think of Jesus as a homosexual. So his decision to write a play to explore that idea is even more offensive to them.

Worse yet that the MTC would use tax-payers' money to produce it!

And that curious audiences are flocking to see it! Largely thanks to all the fuss the Religious Crazies have stirred up.

At least the Pope didn't issue a Fatwah demanding McNally's death! Leave that to the Mullahs and Ayatollahs.

The show has been inventively and dynamically staged by Joe Mantello on a rather bare stage. The talented cast play their various roles with total commitment, great energy, seriousness tempered with humor, and evident joy.

That said, the effort to couple Contemporary Texas to Roman Palestine offers more detours and diversions than it provides illumination of the presumed nature of Jesus' charisma and message.

No one is forcing the protesters to see the play, or even to read it. After all, it is a Grand Old American Tradition that self-appointed moral censors never read or see or experience the things they deem unfit for others.

But, if MTC's Lynn Meadow and Barry Grove were to cross 55th Street and offer free tickets to their "Blasphemous Play," some protesters would be on the verge of apoplexy.

Not only does the all-male cast warm-up with various huggings and strokings, but there are a number of demonstrations of physical, even sexual, affection during the playing out of the saga of the Passion of Christ.

Oberammergau was never like this! The Germans prefer sexual denial of all kinds in matters religious.

And they love the Sado-Masochistic images of Christ in torment on the Cross.

Every ten years in Oberammergau, they get to see a virtually naked man really suffering up there on a great wooden cross.

I've talked with two deeply religious Bavarians who have played the Oberammergau Christ. For both, it was the defining experience of their lives.

They were totally oblivious to the sexually masochistic nature of that experience—their twitching muscles exposed to some 5,000 people at every performance.

The current New York production of the Passion would surely upset some devout Methodists, Baptists, and Lutherans, as well as the Catholics outside.

It's one thing to read a play, often quite a different experience to see it professionally performed.

Had not the Republican Right and Kenneth Starr already made it clear to every American who watches TV what a blow-job is, mention of same in McNally's play might have been a real shocker.

As neither Monica Lewinsky nor Mary Magdalene appear in Corpus Christi to discuss their sexual specialties, viewers are spared even more moral outrage and anguish.

For many sincere Christians, the discovery that their beloved sons were not only gay, but also dying of AIDS, has been almost more than they can bear. For all too many, this has excited the emotions of shame and anger, rather than love and compassion.

So the mere suggestion that the Beloved Son of God might have been gay is, to them, a far worse crime than can even be imagined.

Every time the Methodists meet for their regular Conference, admission of homosexuals to church-membership has been voted down. So how could you worship, love, or even respect a Savior who was gay?

The problem seems to be his celibacy. It always raises questions. If he had only married and had children, like decent normal Christian men…

[There is a very old, almost legendary, belief that Jesus did, in fact, marry Mary Magdalene and have children by her. Some believe that their descendants are living today, as noted in the book, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.]

If you think Homosexuality is bad, what about Cannibalism?

Corpus Christi means Body of Christ, and there are millions of people who eagerly drink His Holy Blood and eat His Sacred Flesh!

Didn't Jesus once say: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have also done it unto me." Could he have meant cruel, bigoted actions, as well as acts of kindness and generosity?

Terrence McNally's play is informed by deep hurt and anger, as well as by compassion and forgiveness. That creates an almost unresolvable tension.

It's all very well to say—as devout Christians often do—Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself. But that motto isn't worth much if you do not really love yourself as you actually are.

Communicating Doors/Variety Arts Theatre [*****]

Even more prolific than Neil Simon, Alan Ayckbourn seldom lets a West End season pass without yet another novelty from his Scarborough hideaway. His inventiveness seems bottomless.

But his wryly comic characters are often clueless, even hopeless. And, over the years, his often riotous comedies have darkened into something approaching mystery and terror.

His Communicating Doors open on similar hotel suites. But opening one of these doors can project a character ten years back into the past.

This is a very tricky business, and not only from the point of plot-management. The cast is in a virtual fever of quick-changes, both of costumes and age-makeup.

At least Ayckbourn never confronts a desperate woman with her own self a decade before. But devious men and lovely women are a different matter.

As racily directed by the ingenious Christopher Ashley and handsomely designed by the inventive David Gallo, this is an exciting festival of Time Travel, complete with intrigues and carefully contrived murders.

It works on stage like a fine Swiss watch. Not to be missed!

Over the River and Through the Woods/Houseman [****]

This is a crowd-pleaser which leaves no dry eyes among the audience, thanks to a wonderful cast. And a calculated appeal to the guilts and needs which are aroused when lovable and loving old people are about to be deserted by their adored grandson.

Who isn't yet married, has of course provided no great-grandchildren for them to spoil, and has been promoted to a better job in Seattle.

No more Sundays of over-eating in Hoboken, with Joan Copeland always pushing some Italian specialty.

Joe DiPietro—creator of the charming musical, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change—knows just how to hit those secret places in the heart and gut. Especially among oldsters who feel abandoned by their children and grand-children.

Not to overlook the younger audience, who may weep because they weren't loved or fed enough by gramps and grandma. Or who suddenly realize they haven't made a real, honest, loving effort to be there for their parents and grandparents.

Guilt and Food! How could they miss with this formula?

In addition to Arthur Miller's sister [She must get very tired of being so identified so often?], the fine cast includes Dick Latessa, Marie Lillo, Marsha Dietlein, Val Avery, and Jim Bracchitta.

Joel Bishoff's staging is rapidly paced and deftly arranged on the splendidly intimate, Broadway-quality interior designed by Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman.

This is another show to add to your list of Holiday Possibles! Your relatives will bless you for such a gift!

Duet! /Actor's Playhouse [****]

Gregory Jackson and Erin Quinn Purcell as the Young Lovers in Duet! at the Actors' Playhouse. Photo: Tom Brazil.
At first, it looks like Amateur Night at the Playhouse, as cast members sell sodas and candy from the stage.

The impression is unpleasantly reinforced when an oily, sleazy cabaret MC, in a run-down club somewhere in the Outer Boroughs, appears to perform bad magic tricks badly and utter unctuous patter.

The high point of this imaginary entertainment is indeed Amateur Night. A nervous young singer tries out some romantic standards—from the days when they still had tunes and lyrics.

A quiet mousy blonde in the skeletal audience is quite taken with him.

It's Love at First Sight for both of them.

But on the walk home, the full moon shines down on some squashed frogs on the highway.

He asks her to turn away as he dives for the asphalt and begins wolfing down road-kill.

Does this sound Yucky?

Yes. But lots of people seem to love it. So much so that the original creators, the Adobe Theatre Company, have had to revive it several times.

It could become the new Rocky Horror Show, you know?

Marcia and Mike could become the Janet and Brad of the Millennium!

After all, what's a dead frog between friends? That's what Marcia has to work out for herself.

The Old Settler/Primary Stages [***]

Leslie Uggams and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., in The Old Settler at Primary Stages.
Leslie Uggams is the refined and lonely "Old Settler" of John Henry Redmond's title. It means she's a Harlem maiden-lady of a certain age who still longs for love.

She thinks she has found it with a callow southern boy who has just lost his mother and has come North to find his childhood sweetheart, Lou Bessie.

She's rented him a room, and she also shares with her younger sister who years ago stole the only man she loved. He dumped her sister, too.

Lou Bessie—who works as a Great Neck maid most of the week—has become a gaudily-dressed, high-stepping Lenox Avenue floozy on her days off.

Her plans for the country-boy do not include him, but they do feature his recent inheritance in a major way.

Before the Old Settler comes to her senses, everyone gets to wear a colorful range of stylish—and sometimes garish—costumes. There's even an orange Zoot Suit!

Impossible Marriage/Roundabout Theatre [*]

Gretchen Cleevely, Lois Smith and Holly Hunter in "The Impossible Marriage" (photo: Joan Marcus)
There's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Then there's Broad Daylight in the Garden of Beth Henley and Holly Hunter.

Writers desperate for themes have got to stop picking on Savannah. And devising paralyzed parodies of characters stolen from Tennessee Williams.

Unfortunately, this seems to be Henley's only stock-in-trade. This one isn't even Miss Firecracker's Crimes of the Heart. Though it has crazed elements of both those fictive explorations of Southern Weirdness.

The best thing about this production is the lavish garden created by Thomas Lynch. But, as it is exposed to the audience when they enter the theatre, you just know the evening will be all down hill from there.

Wolf Lullaby/Atlantic Theatre [**]

Wolf Lullabye
Kate Blumberg in Wolf Lullaby at the Atlantic Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Based on actual cold-blooded murders of small children by other small children, Hilary Bell's drama poses the problem of an anguished mother who fears her daughter may be a pathological killer.

Max Anderson—who gave World Theatre History Winterset—also gave Broadway the popular pot-boiler The Bad Seed. So we have been there already.

And it's a far more interesting, theatrical drama. Even without Patty Duke as the kiddie-killer. [Watch out, Claudie Daigle!]

Director Neil Pepe made a mistake to cast a grown woman [Kate Blumberg] as little Lizzie Gale.

Retribution/Lamb's Theatre

Plays like this will give the Holocaust a bad name!

It is a bare-bones mounting of a version of Daniel Stern's novel, Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die.

Read the book, if you cannot get enough Holocaust Angst.

Getting and $pending/Helen Hayes Theatre [*]

Linda Purl and Derek Smith in "Getting and Spending" (Carol Rosegg photo)
Wordsworth should sue. But what are words actually worth now?

Linda Purl plays a shrill, unsympathetic broker-bitch, accused of making millions trading on insider-tips.

She invades a vow-of-silence monastery to get a new novice [David Rasche] to defend her. He has been a hot-shot get-the-guilty-off trial-lawyer.

She did it all to build housing for the homeless in the Bronx. But she wants to keep her benefactions a secret.

Oh, she did squirrel off a few millions on the side, from the construction, to tide her over in her old age.

Designer James Noone used some colorful moving vertical and horizontal bars with running stock-quotations to dress the fairly bare stage.

They should all have taken a Vow of Silence on this one.

Breathing New Life into Old Plays—

Pericles/Public Theatre [****]

Thanks to the mechanical ingenuity of designer Mark Wendland, this production seems to be more about the permutations of Rubic's Cube or a Chinese Box.

But that's OK with me. I loved the tricks this multi-paneled set can do. And Anna Yavich's elegant, colorful costumes were worthy complements to it and the players.

Not to overlook the brilliant lighting-effects of Mimi Gordon Sherin, who has hung a fortune in lighting-instruments in the Martinson Theatre. Unfortunately, the historic plaster-work had to be savaged to achieve this wattage.

The prop ship-models—one of them in a large glass case on casters—were also a delight.

Then there's the matter of this episodic, picaresque, grab-bag of a play, held tenuously together by the story-teller, Gower [Philip Goodwin].

The script is nominally by one Wm. Shakespeare, but there is little enough of his work evident in it.

Which is why it is so difficult to animate.

Once at Stratford-Upon-Avon, when Ian Richardson was playing Pericles, he demonstrated for me in his dressing-room just how difficult it is to say the lines which were surely not written by Shakespeare. In contrast to the fluid imagery of the Bard.

Most of the major critics have dumped on this production. But I found the players' diction easy to understand—which is not often the case with Shakespeare at the Public.

Even more impressive were the intelligence and passion some of them brought to what are essentially stereotypical roles in an Adventure Pageant.

Sam Tsoutsouvas was especially interesting as three different Middle-Easterners of High Station.

Director Brian Kulick keeps things moving. And no one gets caught in the Magic Box's constant changes.

But it would be an interesting experiment to see a Kulick show on a bare stage in rehearsal clothes. Can he work without fantastic stage-constructions?

Stratford/Ontario at City Center—

The American Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in unforgiving Connecticut, died long ago. Its great barn of a theatre was abandoned to the schemes of various bookers.

Its precious display-case Shakespeareana was abruptly auctioned off. Although the original donors believed their beloved treasures would stay on view for many a season.

It was probably doomed from the start, for the local inhabitants of Stratford were never courted by the founders. Never won over to the idea. Never made to feel that this was their own festival.

The sorry result was that—despite the money the locals made from festival visitors—they were often openly hostile. And they even gave misleading directions to the Festival Theatre, which put you right back on the Throughway to New Haven and Hartford.

In Canada's Ontario, Tom Paterson—who had the original idea for a Canadian Shakespeare Festival in his home-town—did not make that mistake. He rallied all the merchants, officials, civic leaders, and ordinary tax-payers to support the scheme.

The rest is a long and glorious history of innovative Shakespeare production. As well as the premieres of new Canadian plays and experiments with opera and music-theatre.

Now Canada's Stratford wants to establish a beachhead in Manhattan. It proposes an annual mini-festival at City Center.

While any attractive productions of classics of the drama are always welcome, this Northern largesse may have a hidden agenda. It costs money to tour, especially for limited engagements, so getting rich very near—but not on—Broadway can't be the real reason.

In fact, the matinees I attended seemed largely populated with inmates from local Old Folks Homes. These often infirm—and occasionally obese—Gray Panthers seemed to enjoy themselves immensely, however.

As well they might, given the calculatedly crowd-pleasing quality of the stagings. I enjoyed them myself, though many critics were dismissive.

One notable reviewer, sitting across the aisle from me, fled at the end of the first of three acts of one show. It improved immensely from that point on, but he will never know what he missed.

My guess is that the folks up in Ontario thought a Southern Exposure of their work might encourage more New Yorkers to make the trip to Stratford during its regular season. Deciding to do that does require some help from the critics, however.

I'm not now in a position to sing Stratford's praises because I haven't been there—or in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, or Quebec—since my old Datsun died 25 years ago. But when I was a summer regular, it was worth a whole week of wonderful theatre-going. With a side-trip to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

On the evidence of the two shows imported for this First Season, the Stratford Planners need to consider carefully the problems of performing in the cavernous Shrine Auditorium that City Center once was.

What may work wonderfully on the broad open arena stage at Stratford apparently does not translate with visual power to the confines of a proscenium stage.

Molière's The Mi$er [****]

Given the three great gray walls of its set-box—relieved only by severe neo-classical door-frames—this Stratford staging seemed to be taking place in Grant's Tomb. With the thundering resonance of the actors' amplified speech, the effect was unfortunately reinforced.

Nonetheless, the level of energy was almost hyperactive. And the direction was so rambunctious—with many a pratfall and calamitous collision—that Richard Monette's staging gave new meaning to the phrase "knockabout farce."

The adaptation was very trendy—none of those boring old couplets to contend with—and audience-pleasing interpolations were the rule.

Stylish costumes made up for the grayness of the set, and the generally admirable cast played them to perfection.

As the notorious skinflint of the title, the venerable William Hutt huffed and puffed most maliciously. But all came well in the end.

Despite its seemingly frenzied pace, the production ran rather long. But it was well worth it for all the comic ingenuity of the players.

Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing [***]

The handsome Italianate Art Deco settings for Much Ado were much more effective than the attempt at French Neo-Classicism. They were flown panels and ornamental grills, rather than three-dimensional set-pieces.

List the good stuff first! The costumes and props were also colorful and attractive.

This was a great help, because the structural mainspring of the comedy is the tiresome plot-device of the wrongful repudiation of the virtuous Hero by her deceived bridegroom Claudio.

The major reason this play is so often revived is the sub-plot of tricking the tart-tongued spinster Beatrice and the cynical bachelor Benedick into love and marriage.

The low-comedy diversion of Constable Dogberry and his watchmen—with many a labored malapropism—becomes tedious after several viewings of this play. It is made even more so by the eagerness of insecure actors to turn it into a festival of mugging and pratfalls.

Shakespeare's Groundlings must have loved it. And so did some of the City Center audience—for whom all this coarse farce was obviously wonderfully fresh and funny.

So the heart of the real entertainment should have been the induced romance of Benedick and Beatrice.

Brian Bedford has been around for a very long time now. But in a beard and colorful uniform, he could pass for a potentially lusty lover in his prime. He certainly managed Benedick's satiric comments and formulaic comic reactions with aplomb.

But the venerable Martha Henry was completely miscast as what should still be a lovely young woman. Her costumes made her seem more like a reference librarian nearing retirement.

Her hair looked dyed. Her face seemed care-worn. Her manner appeared old-maidish and anxious, defensive and shrewish.

She looked like an aging Ayn Rand, long after the book-party for Atlas Shrugged.

There is no question that Martha Henry is an actress of great skill and many accomplishments. She was, in fact, brilliantly brittle as the scheming Frosine the previous day in The Mi$er.

That role showed her true mettle and variety. She is past the days of Cordelias, Juliets, and even Beatrices. But she could still be a fearsome and steely Lady Macbeth. Or any of the three witches!

The Duchess of Malfi/Juilliard Drama Division [*****]

This stunningly Post-Modernist production of John Webster's horrific Jacobean melodrama was an amazing achievement. It was both beautiful and shocking to see—the lovely young duchess completely nude, getting into her bubble-bath!

The stage was periodically and violently strewn with bodies stabbed, strangled, and poisoned. Sexy punk outfits and unusual tattoos and hairdos made Renaissance Amalfi look more like a Phillippe Starck party at the Royalton.

Michael Kahn staged these handsome and very talented Juilliard Drama students—the Stars of Tomorrow—in a most strident and sensual Dance of Death.

These remarkably self-assured young actors spoke Webster's sparkling poetry with a clarity and passion that could put both the New York and the Stratford Shakespeare Festivals to shame.

The wildly passionate widowed young duchess of Lynn Collins seemed to know no excess and no control. The actress has won the John Houseman Prize for 1998. Were this show a commercial production, critics might be talking about Obies or Tonys.

As her tormentor and executioner, the wily Bosola, Erin Gann was remarkable in his duplicity and villainy. Though short of stature, he was still an often impressive presence. A wily servant, but not servile—a killer, but with shreds of conscience.

This is an extremely difficult play to produce, and not only because of its varied visual horrors.

After the Duchess's murder, it often seems to descend into ludicrous excess. And the poetic imagery becomes less powerful as well.

The incestuous longings of the Duchess' twin-brother—who had her killed—are complicated by his descent into lycanthropy. He thinks he is a wolf.

Then there's her other brother, the adulterous Cardinal who poisons his mistress.

At the Juilliard, all these later developments were played with such passion and panache that they no longer seemed ridiculous astonishments.

So you missed this potent, unusual production? All is not lost. It will return next spring to the Juilliard, in repertory with several other newly mounted student productions. All of them will surely be worth sampling.

The Mystery of Irma Vepp/Westside Theatre [*****]

Part of the fun at an evening with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company—in the good old days, when the multi-talented Charles Ludlam was still alive—were costumes which looked like Thrift-Shop rejects. And cartoonish sets which seemed to have been cut from old corrugated-cardboard boxes.

With the ascendance of actor-director Everett Quinton, Ludlam's longtime partner in Ridiculous drama parodies, a new sheen, an almost Broadway elegance, has distinguished many of the productions.

Quinton's wonderful revival of Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vepp is one of the most lavish yet. And that parody of luxury—coupled with outrageous costuming—makes this hilarious show all the more impressive.

Not only is it a send-up of every Country House on a Haunted Moor and Werewolf-Vampire drama and film ever concocted, it is also a festival of quick-changes.

The agile Quinton and the delightful Stephen DeRosa between them manage to impersonate eight overwrought, over-acted characters.

This show is a Must for your holiday theatre-going in New York!

It's also a great script for school and community theatres!

Rhinoceros/Jean Cocteau Repertory [***]

Harris Berlinsky and Craig Smith in "Rhinoceros"  
This is a perfectly respectable, even attractive, staging of Eugene Ionesco's parable of the Triumph of Fascism. Or the Power of the Herd Instinct.

At first, decent people are horrified at the bellowing rhinoceri thundering through the streets. And, when friends suddenly metamorphose into these horned beasts, they swear they will never themselves join the herd.

False promise, falser hope.

When Berenger and Daisy fall in love—and vow never to change in affection or form—they go through the entire history of love in a matter of minutes. At the end, he stands alone, the only man surviving the Thundering Herd.

I'd admire this production more had I not first seen the play at London's Royal Court Theatre, with Sir Laurence Olivier and other luminaries of the British stage.

That spoiled even the Broadway production with Zero Mostel for me.

August Snow & Night Dance/The Mint Theatre [****]

August Snow
Parricia Dunnock, Chris Payne Gilbert in "August Snot" and "Night Dance" at the Mint (photo: Kevin Fox)
The distinguished Southern novelist, Reynolds Price, has already won plaudits and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for these two dramas about ordinary folks in a small-town in North Carolina. But they are entirely new to me.

The Mint specializes in revivals of important American plays. [Last season, director Jonathan Bank staged my edition of The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch. So I may be a bit biased.]

The two dramas are played in rep, or back-to-back on some evenings. I really hadn't planned to stay for the second, but they were so fascinating and the cast was so good—Lily Bart had returned as a Southern Good Old Girl—I stayed glued to my seat.

The day-to-day lives of plain people, with limited horizons and hopes, may not seem worth even one play. But Price has made them so compelling in their needs, their fears, and their confusions, that they become almost like people you know and love.

What distinguishes the dramas—and the people—is the almost poetic and often highly original imagery they use to describe the most commonplace of events and emotions.

Listening in fascination, I thought: "No one really talks like that. Not even in the novels of Thomas Wolfe."

I've been in the Carolina hill country, and there are certainly peculiar local phrases not to be heard elsewhere.

But I never heard such curt, incisive descriptions of people, or such crushing self-appraisals. This is not just a matter of poetic-diction, but of rare insight.

Reynolds Price insists that quality in their speech is what first attracted him. During the Depression Years, he notes: "The English language was lavishly spent by people who often lacked other coinage."

In the program-notes, Price answers my doubts: "Their virtuosity, though affirmed in the work of so many Southern writers, is often too astonishing for easy credence elsewhere. Surely no live creatures talk like this—well, maybe not since the Ireland of Synge and Joyce, O'Casey and Shaw."

These two impressive plays—one set in 1937, the other just after World War II—have been extended until January 10. And, because—even in their bare-bones productions—they are so eloquently played, I urge you to see them.

Or at least read them!

Asian Orientations—

Carry the Tiger to the Mountain/St. Clements [***]

Tisa Chang's Pan Asian Repertory continues its estimable work of producing provocative plays relevant to the Asian Experience, both in the Orient and in the West.

Cherylene Lee's ingenious drama evokes the tragedy of Vincent Chin and a racist miscarriage of justice in Detroit in 1982.

Chin was beaten to death just before his wedding by laid-off white auto-workers. Furious at the success of Japanese cars with American drivers, they assumed Chin was Japanese.

Vincent died for Toyota's sins. But his killers were virtually pardoned by a white judge.

His mother's fight for justice is the backbone of the drama. And it has an excellent cast, directed by Ron Nakahara.

The Life & Times of Ng Chung-Yin/Theatre for New City

If that name means nothing to you, not to worry. The saga of the young Hong Kong dissident—even with danced interpretations—is not all that compelling.

You really had to be there.

Oddly enough, I was in Hong Kong when local protesters built their own Statue of Liberty, to show solidarity with the Martyrs of Tienamen Square. But the name of Ng was not on everyone's tongue.

The Yangtze Repertory has mounted productions which have proved interesting and rewarding for both Asian and Western audiences before this one. And surely will again.

Solo Shows of Significant Sorts—

Sandra Bernhard/I'm Still Here Damn It! /Booth [****/PG]

For the older Broadway audience—those who loved both Marlene Dietrich and Jackie Mason—Sandra Bernhard may seem a cabaret-artiste and stand-up-comic from another galaxy.

Recently, when large patches of the orchestra did not respond to a Bernhard put-down of Naomi Campbell or Madonna, she sensed this herself. She even indicated that she had hoped for knowing laughter after one especially bitchy comment.

Finally, she waved her arm, microphone in hand, and urged the unresponsive spectators to follow her down the street to the show they had really planned to see—The Scarlet Pimpernel!

That got a laugh from everyone.

From the evidence of the current show, you do not want to be an ex-friend, ex-lover, or even an ex-employee of Bernhard. Her put-downs and parodies are often sharp, even cruel.

But she is also very smart and fearless. So she can spot artful phonies and pretentious bullshit a mile off.

And she can be both devastating and surgically precise in exposing her targets. She is almost more of a social commentator than a comic.

But her social frame-of-reference is Young and Now. It's not Boomer Suburbia, so some of her satires almost need program footnotes for Older Folks.

Those who have complained to her that "You can't be creative in LA!" will be relieved to know that Los Angeles is not the problem. Bernard says they can't be creative anywhere.

She is not only a tart critic of what passes for Cultural Scenes on both coasts, but also an exciting song-stylist. With a very good voice!

Alexander H. Cohen/Star Billing/Douglas Fairbanks [***]

Do call him Alex! There's nothing pretentious or stuffy about Broadway producer Alex Cohen.

In his one-man show, he recalls some epic moments in nearly a half-century on Broadway. Even when he's reading from what must surely be a Hildy Parks [Mrs. Alex] script, he's charming.

David Merrick and the Shuberts get the verbal back-of-his-hand. And Marlene Dietrich was, for him at least, the Hun from Hell.

Surveying his long career, he is more generous to himself regarding the quality of his productions than many critics would be. But he did have the wit and good taste to recognize excellent productions and outstanding talents elsewhere and bring them to Broadway.

And, yes, he did introduce Supertitles to the New York stage. I was so impressed with this device for providing instant, headphone-free, running translations of foreign productions, that I wrote a report about it for Theatre Crafts Magazine when Cohen unveiled it on Broadway.

The concept took quite a while to catch on, but is now almost standard in opera-houses. But Cohen's show, the Italian musical Rugantino, did not catch on.

Valerie Harper/All Under Heaven/Century Theatre [***]

All Under Heaven
The Nobel Prize novelist Pearl S. Buck, as recreated by TV's Valerie Harper at the Century Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Valerie Harper is valiant to attempt a monodrama re-cap of the long, honorable career of Nobel Laureate novelist Pearl S. Buck.

This show should have special appeal to all those who loved Harper on TV. And to those who still read The Good Earth and Pavilion of Women.

Actually, in Europe, Buck's fame is undiminished. She is widely admired. "Do you know the novels of Purlesbuk?" people often ask me there, making one word of her name.

Thanks to my late cousin Theron Zimmerman, who was pastor of the Moravian Church in Doylestown, I was able to meet the aged Ms. Buck at her Bucks County home, which is now a National Historic Landmark.

I have great admiration for her, her life, and her work. And for Valerie Harper as well.

But trying to recall or recreate an entire life in monologue—while also attempting to finish a new manuscript—doesn't do either one of these estimable ladies justice. The dramatic framing-device isn't interesting.

Henry Luce and John Hersey were also, like Buck, children of Protestant Missionaries in China. May we look forward to monodramas on their experiences in the Mysterious East as well?

Mandy Patinkin/Mamaloshen/Belasco

One of the First Principles of Public Speaking is: Make Eye-Contact With Your Audience!

That is also a very good idea if you are a vocal soloist, specializing in French Art Songs or German Lieder.

Unless, of course, you like to look over the audience's heads, into the Middle Distance, as though you saw the King of the Elves floating in the air. Or you can sing in a trance, like Mandy Patinkin.

As Mandy Patinkin prefers to sing in Yiddish, his repertoire sounds somewhere between Schubert and Irving Berlin. Almost Lieder.

But, when he's wrapped up in interpreting a lyric, giving his vibrato full-throttle, he can't be bothered to open his eyes and look at the adoring audience—which has paid big bucks for his short show.

Eyes closed, he is so enthralled with what he hears himself singing, he even hugs himself. Mandy Patinkin seems almost oblivious to his audience.

To paraphrase one of those Algonquin Wits: "The love-affair between Mandy and Patinkin is one of the prettiest we have seen this season!"

Oddly enough, his voice isn't all that good anymore. And his interpretations are often sentimental, corny, even bathetic.

Al Jolson he isn't! But he'll certainly be back again soon.

Scott Baker/Geek Circus/LaMaMa E.T.C.

poster for
In Scott Baker's "Geek Circus, The Twisted Shockfest," carnival sideshow meets Grand Guignol and performance art. Baker portrays a variety of characters from the Carnival. While doing so, he eats lit cigarettes (six at a time), swallows and regurgitates razor blades and pounds 30-penny nails into his skull. The nailing is performed while reciting Wordsworth. (Photo by Josh Kessler)
Few big-city-dwellers have ever seen a Geek Show. It isn't a feature of the Big Apple Circus or of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey.

Geeks are those wildly bearded, unwashed, drugged & drunken, stinking savages in Carney and Circus Side-Shows who bite off the heads of live chickens and then drink their blood.

Or bite off rats' heads. Or maybe chomp down on snakes—if that will really make onlookers want to throw up.

Obviously both PETA and the ASPCA are opposed to such gory entertainments. [Though PETA is more concerned about animal-fur than about chicken-feathers!]

That's why Geek Shows are no longer titillating side-attractions when the circus comes to town in most North American cities. But some small-time, small-town carneys and circuses traveling under canvas still tantalize rural and unsophisticated audiences with Freak Shows.

Geeks are about as disgusting and freakish as these shows can offer. But self-mutilation, eating glass, and walking on live coals are also masochistic demonstrations which enthrall some viewers.

Scott Baker—seen briefly at LaMaMa's Club—has made a study of various Freak and Side-Show specialties.

He is trying to keep some of these bizarre popular entertainments alive, even if only in anecdotal form. He can eat and spout fire—which he did out on the street in front of LaMaMa as a warm-up for his show.

He can eat glass and razor-blades. He can drive a spike up his nostril.

But then far more painful, dangerous, and yucky S/M acts are offered by the Jim Rose Circus and other trendy Post-Modernist Alternative Performance Art troupes. Several of which have been huge hits at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

What seems special and even endearing about Scott Baker is the way he has learned to perform the pre-show spiels for Geeks and other midway freak-show attractions. The pitchman's cant is what is dying out, not S/M horror-shows and Bearded Ladies. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 1998. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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