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The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

June 1, 2007

Just got back from a wonderful week in Prague, working on a feature about architecture and a story about a missing Czech playwright. On my way to the Czech Republic, I stopped for a few days in New York to see friends, have some meetings and see some plays.

If I have a few days for theatre-going in New York, I usually divided it between uptown and downtown, which is to say, Broadway and off- / off-off Broadway. Perhaps it was because I was staying at my friend Chris' place in Hell's Kitchen, which is very close to Times Square, or because of the Tony and Drama Desk hype surrounding Broadway shows right now, or because the friends I was meeting all wanted to see big, splashy productions rather than things in basements in Williamsburg involving mime, but I ended up seeing three Broadway productions and nothing else.

Frost/Nixon was the best of the bunch. Especially Michael Sheen who imbued his slimy, cocky David Frost with more than a touch of the Amadeus that brought him last to the Great White Way. But the theatre was very big and the actors ended up shouting half the time.

Less interesting was The Year of Magical Thinking, which I saw at a packed matinee. The simple, bleached wood floor and monochrome silkscreen backdrop sets were beautiful, like steely gray landscapes of the mind. But the whole play was exceeedingly drab and lacking in vitality. I love Didion's book. It's full of wonderful insights into the way a grieving mind works, conveyed through such minutiae as the food she cooked for dinner on various evenings. But the colorful details were completely missing from the flat, sensible stage version. And Vanessa Redgrave wasn't in the slightest bit believable. The whole performance felt stiff and rote-learned. I'm disappointed to hear that HBO is planning on capturing the performance on screen. Frankly, I think the network should save itself the trouble. The book is all anyone needs to read.

Worst of all, I'm afraid to say, was Spring Awakening. I went because of all the fuss the production is getting as a result of Tony and Drama Desk interest. It was hard and expensive to get tickets. The theatre was packed. But I left feeling like I'd seen Rent for the Teletubby generation rather than the fresh, dangerous musical theatre work that I'd been promised by virtually all the critics. Most of the songs, bar a spiky, Cure-like ballad in the middle of the first half whose title I can't remember, were stock rock fare. The contrast between Frank Wedekind's austere 19th century German society and the contemporary sensibility conveyed by the lyrics and music felt forced. The on-stage sex was embarrassingly bad and I was left feeling like the young female protagonist wanted to go along with it rather than was raped, which had the effect of decreasing the power of the tragic denouement in the second half. The splattered neon lights were overdone. The actors were condemned to using a tiny square space in the middle of the stage throughout almost the entire show. And I don't understand the conceit of putting a few audience members on stage. There doesn't seem to be any context for it in the musical.

In short, I don't think I've experienced a musical this ridiculous since Lennon, which never even made it to Broadway after its flat-footed, pre-Broadway San Francisco run a couple of years ago. Wish I had gone downtown to see Betrothed, an experimental dance theatre piece that looked promising instead.



  • Lennon did make it to Broadway Chloe! I went over to review it for the Telegraph newspaper in Britain. It was bad...


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