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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from Kiss Me Kate
When temper meets ego: Marin Mazzie gives Brian Stokes Mitchell a lesson in determination. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Contents: December 18 1999:
(1)"Kiss Me Kate" at the Martin Beck Theatre Club
(2)"Dinner With Friends" at the Variety Arts Theatre
(3)"Maybe Baby, It's You" at the Soho Playhouse
(4)"The Rainmaker" by The Roundabout at Brooks Atkinson Theatre
(5)"Saturday Night Fever" at the Martin Beck Theatre
(6)"Ghosts" at Century Center for the Performing Arts

Kiss Me Kate
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, directed by Michael Blakemore
Produced by Roger Berlinnnnnd and Roger Horchow
Martin Beck Theatre, 302 West 45 St.
Opened November 18, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 23, 1999
Michael Blakemore's production of "Kiss Me Kate" is witty, sophisticated, and utterly delightful. He has a lot to work with. Cole Porter's music and lyrics are as sharp and perceptive as Shakespearean texts. Marin Mazzie's soprano is rich and lush, Brian Stokes Mitchell's lyric baritone is burnished by charm, and Kathleen Marshall's choreography is a glorious fusion of jazzy balletic jumps, kicks and attitude.

The sensibility is so modern that it's hard to believe this show premiered in 1948. When Mitchell as Petruchio sings, "I come to wive it wealthily in Padua" and rhymes that Italian town with "what a cad you are," when yearning for "the life that late I led," he exclaims, "Where are you Alice, in your itty bitty little Pitti Palace," you yearn for the time when lyrics had such flair.

The story, of course, is about a Baltimore tryout of "The Taming of the Shrew. Fred Graham (Mitchell) is producer and co-star. Lilli Vanessi (Mazzie), who gets top billing because she's a movie star, is his ex-wife, and the Shakespearean antics on stage are matched by their fights offstage, stoked by his ego and her temper. The show's original producer, Arnold Saint-Suber, says he got the idea while witnessing the behavior of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who performed in "Shrew" and kept the verbal fisticuffs going after the curtain.

Mazzie is a priceless comic actress, tossing off Kate/Lilli's ill-tempered cracks with delicious style, especially in the sneering musical pronouncement, "I Hate Men. The dialogue by Sam and Bella Spewak is a match for Porter's lyrics. When Lilli shows him her engagement ring," Fred devilishly inquires, "Is it the Hope Diamond -- the one with the curse?"

Bianca, rather a nonentity in "Shrew," is here a.k.a. Lois Lane (Amy Spanger) a funny gold-digging redhead with a full, sweet voice, who croons "Why can't you behave?" to her gambler boyfriend Bill (Michael Berresse), but practices a double standard as, in a jazzy, flirty style, she promises, "Je suis toujours fidele, darling, in my fashion." (Porter's audience is expected to know French.)

Lilli announces she's quitting the show to marry her uptight Army general fiance. To keep her working, Fred makes use of some thugs who've come around to collect Bill's gambling debt. These Damon Runyonesque characters, Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren, in black and white striped suits and white spats, stop the show with a soft-shoe "Brush up your Shakespeare," using the titles of the Bard's play to advise men on how to deal with women.

Especially in "Too Darn Hot," choreographer Kathleen Marshall, soloist Stanley Wayne Mathis and the troupe remind you what elegantly inventive show dancing looked like when the influence was ballet, not disco.

Robin Wagner's sets are striking, from a high brick wall and catwalks backstage, side-by-side dressing rooms and the theater alley to the cartoon cutout Padua. A scroll pulled through the traveling players' wagon cleverly maps the road show stops for "We Open in Venice." Marti Pakledinaz provides gorgeous costumes in pastels, brocades and lace.

"Wunderbar" says it all.

"Dinner With Friends"
By Donald Margulies, directed by Daniel Sullivan
Produced by Mitchell Maxwell, Victoria Maxwell, Mark Balsam, Mari Nakachi, Ted Tulchin, Steven Tulchin
Variety Arts Theatre, 110-112 Third Ave.
Opened November 4, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 12, 1999
It's not whether the two people in a couple are neurotic, playwright Donald Margulies would have you believe. It's just whether the neuroses are complimentary or conflictive. And also, of course, whether a little love creeps in and the partners care about each other.

Margulies approaches these serious matters in a play that is suffused with wit even as it deals with the difficulties of marriage and relationships -- about the impediments to communicating, and about friendship, loyalty and feelings of betrayal.

The play is set in a trendy upscale world of stylish Connecticut country kitchens and well-stocked Martha's Vineyard cottages.

Two couples are in their early 40's. Karen (Lisa Emery) and Gabe (Matthew Arkin) are so close that their sentences intersect, as they interlace phrases and finish each other's thoughts. Gabe is mild, passive. Karen is loud, a bit over powering and tends to dominate, even as she ironically tells Gabe, "Feel free to jump in at any time."

They are shocked when Beth (Julie White), who's visiting for dinner, breaks the news that after 12 years and two children, Tom (Kevin Kilner) is leaving her. They feel as if they are being divorced from the couple they thought would be their friends to old age.

Gabe writes on food; he and Karen are gourmet cooks. Margulies subtly emphasizes everyone's inability to talk about personal feelings by contrasting how voluble they are when it comes to gourmet cuisine. In the midst of discussing Beth's marital crisis, one of them recalls the last time they went to dinner and segues into a reprise of the menu. Later, interrogating Beth about her visit to Karen and Gabe, Tom demands, "was it right before desert -- what was it, lemon? Was it great?" Still later, breaking off from a conversation about their friends' crisis, Karen asks Gabe, "What do you think of the Shiraz?"

The fixation on food is also a droll commentary on the obsession with style. When Beth declares Tom is in love with a stewardess, Karen's reaction is "how tacky." Beth reports that, according to Tom, the new woman "is truly devoted to him, she hangs on his every word," and she sniffs, "The stuff coming out of his mouth is like bad greeting cards."

They are so focused on what's outside, that they can't see what's inside. Tom is distraught, wrung out, miserably lonely. A lawyer, he accuses Beth of destroying his self-confidence; she ripostes that he doesn't respect her as a painter. You learn enough to think they're both wrong and mismatched from the start. Even their passion is roused by hate and anger. Tom confides to Gabe that, "Rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac."

Margulies also has incisive insights into the complexities of friendship. Beth tells Karen, "I think you love it when I'm a mess. As long as I'm artsy and incompetent, everything is fine."

After laughing all the way through the play, you realize you've heard some sensitive commentary about the difficulties of relationships and of making life-altering choices in middle age.

Lisa Emery is terrific as the strong-minded, tough Karen and particularly effective when she's trying to get her husband to talk about their marriage. And Arkin is moving when he struggles to explain that this is "what happens to couples, the inevitable evolution." Julie White is half tragic, half comic as the slightly ditsy Beth who finally realizes what will put her life on track. And Kevin Kilner is convincing as the hyper Tom, who seems not sure what he wants unless someone else wants it first.

Director Daniel Sullivan makes the characters come alive, enriching the play with subtle moments such as the realistic impatience Gabe and Karen show when they can't decide who will quiet the kids.

Neil Patel's Connecticut kitchen is out of a decorating magazine, with a painted wood table, steel stove, shelves of cookbooks, glass jars filled with beans, painted vases, and the perennial Italian rooster pitcher. The other sets, including a bedroom with blue wallpaper and white chenille spread, and the rough Martha's Vineyard cottage, make you feel as if you've been there. Perhaps many in the audience have.

Maybe Baby, It's You
By Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson, directed by Jeremy Dobrish
Produced by Madeline Austin, Roger Alan Gindi, Bruze Lazarus, Dana Matthow, Scott Benedict, Libby Anne Russler, Allan Sandler
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.
Opened November 9, 1999
Closes November 5, 1999
Let's start with a nerdy young man who has a blind date with Medea. In a red fright wig and long, black gown, she (Shari Simpson) comes into the restaurant screaming, "Life is a sharp knife through the guts." When Paul (Charlie Shanian) ventures, "I'm happy to meet you," she howls, "Ravens peck out the eyes of liars!" And, "Let a serpent swallow me whole before I'm forced to make small talk. I am recently out of a somewhat difficult relationship."

What does she drink? A bloody Mary, what else?

If these two had performed in the 1960's, they would have been Nichols and May. Or if Nichols and May had been born three decades later, they would have been Simpson and Shanian. At any rate, they are wonderfully clever and inventive and funny. And they demonstrate that by doing a show on the traumatic topic of finding the right mate without ever once being silly or vulgar.

Their comedy depends on audiences intelligent enough to catch subtle jokes. What comedy club audience would even know who Medea is? A skit about reduced expectations has a metronome ticking to represent time passing. A warning to a young Italian man begins, "When you're 30 and looking for another woman to cut your meat for you..."

Of course, there are wonderful groaners. A "gumshoe and dame" skit has the gumshoe growl, "I need a light," to which the dame replies, "I can see just fine." And the gumshoe talks in metaphors: "Your eyes are darting around like a mosquito at a nude beach."

Jeremy Dobrish directs with his trademark tongue-in-cheek sophistication. Underneath the comedy, there's a lot here about the problem of people who have nothing to say to each other, of people waiting endlessly for the perfect partner, of finding the wrong one, of reevaluating standards, of being disappointed. But don't worry. It's an upbeat show, and even improbable odd-balls luck out.

Simpson and Shanian are very good actors and also extraordinarily energetic, even acrobatic, in skits that seem to move over twice the floor space of the small stage. If you like intelligent comedy, there's no maybe -- this show's for you.

"The Rainmaker"
By N. Richard Nash, directed by Scott Ellis. Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47 St.
Opened November 11, 1999
Closes February 6, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 16, 1999
"The Rainmaker" is a story about 1936 written in the early 1950's, both times when the lives of women who didn't marry could be as barren as the parched earth of drought stricken wheat fields in the Depression dustbowls. That was especially true in Midwestern farm country, where life for women offered few choices, and options for intelligent women were even slimmer.

That's the world of Lizzie Curry (Jayne Atkinson), who looks in her thirties and is already branded a "spinster." Into it comes Bill Starbuck (Woody Harrelson), the rainmaker and dream-seller. He promises water for farmers' fields and love for the parched woman. In N. Richard Nash's narrative, he's anything but a villain, for dreams are worth pursuing.

It's a rather hokey, sentimental, thin story, but it gets an appealing production by Scott Ellis in this Broadway revival.

James Noone has created an attractive set with suggestions of the old farmhouse: a rough table and desk, a door fame, and outside, a windmill. In the background are rows of wheat and above that, an expanse of terrain dotted with cutout houses, lights shining through their windows.

Lizzie has just returned from an embarrassing sojourn to Sweet River, sent by her father and brothers in hopes she might meet a beau. But she is a serious woman and can't bear the ruses and tricks women are expected to use. "'You got to get a man the ways a man gets got,' she mimics. "Isn't it stupid. It's not even good English."

The most eligible local bachelor is File (Randle Mell), the deputy sheriff, but he tells people that since his wife died six years ago, he doesn't want to get married. It turns out he's really divorced and afraid of being rejected again. Besides, he doesn't know how to talk to women -- which had something to do with his wife leaving him.

Into their lives walks Starbuck. In a white linen suit, he's an obvious charlatan, promising that with imprecations like "cumulus," he can make white buffalo, ie. clouds, stampede across the sky.

Father (Jerry Hardin), sweet and naive, takes him up on it, to the disgust of son Noah (John Bedford Lloyd) who wants to keep the family from foolishness. Being that it's the 30's (or the 50's), nobody leans on Noah about getting married, although he has no wife and seems at least as old as Lizzie.

In Ellis's production, Starbuck seems a good-natured, almost inadvertent swindler, and you believe his declaration that all his life he's been wanting to make a miracle. When Lizzie protests, "It's not good to live in dreams," he replies, "It's not good to live outside of them either."

Harrelson is an engaging Starbuck, with an aspect more like a leprechaun than a con man, especially in his acrobatic seduction scene. Atkinson shows poignant distress at her empty life and a great comic sense when she tries to emulate a local flirt. David Aaron Baker is also very funny as the hyper, overexcited Jimmy.

It's a charming fable.

Saturday Night Fever
By Nan Knighton, based on a story by Nik Cohen and screenplay by Norman Wexler, directed and choreographed by Arlene Phillips.
Produced by Robert Stigwood
Minskoff Theatre, Broadway at 45th Street.
Opened October 21, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 26, 1999
The stage version of "Saturday Night Fever" is an unsubtle caricature of the movie's story about the hopelessness of working class life, a theme that on stage gets lost in cliches and comic strip snippets of plot.

The most imaginative part of the play is the set by Robin Wagner, which includes a giant mock-up of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with miniature cars whizzing by. A few of the best dance numbers occur on a close-up section of the bridge since they require choreography that's more imaginative than disco dancing.

Tony Manero, played by a stiff James Carpinello with about as much charm or charisma as a cheese sandwich, is a working-class guy with no life except on Saturday night, when he goes to the disco and is king. But the bits of story are chopped up and sprinkled around as if they were seasoning on the dance numbers. And much of it is silly. Tony shaking his pelvis and flexing his muscles seems pathetic and ridiculous. The dialogue, in exaggerated Brooklyn accents, is often inane.

The basic plot is sketchy. It's 1976. Tony, a clerk in a paint shop, lives in a family that gives him no emotional support. Father is a laid-off construction worker who gets annoyed when his wife talks about getting a job. Both his parents put him down, favoring Frank, his brother the priest. The family throws a lot of slaps, which prompts Tony to complain, "Would you watch the hair, I work on the hair a long time."

Tony lives in a neighborhood full of people without futures. Sometimes that seems based on their own neurotic fixations. Annette, who is supposed to be a pitiful man-identified woman, seems simply ludicrous as she repeatedly hits on him and asks, "Can we make it now?" He keeps turning her down, at one point declaring in an absurdly simplistic way, "What are you a nice girl or a slut? You can't be both, that's something a girl's got to decide early on." The male-female issues are seriously, but they're treated cartoonishly. Actually, Orfeh is anything but pitiable when she belts out the most memorable number of the evening, "If I can't have you."

Bobby C, played by an engaging Paul Castree, gets taken advantage of because he has a car, but then he ruins his life by getting his girlfriend pregnant. (Roe v. Wade had occurred in 1973, but one assumes that in Catholic Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, church law took precedence over civil law.)

Stephanie, a clerk in her 20's, comes from the same situation and is trying to get out. She works at a music company in Manhattan and knows there's something on the that side of the East River. She doesn't know she's getting out only because she's young and an older record executive is sleeping with her. Stephanie tells Tony he's got no class. She says, "You're a cliché, you're nowhere on your way to no place." He replies, "I'm thinking you're full of shit." To which she replies, "You got no class." Maybe this works better in a movie with real scenery and context and acting, but on stage the conversation seems "no place."

There's also a soupcon of white hostility against Hispanics.

At the end, Tony realizes that they are all dumping on each other, father on mother on him, the boys on the girls, the whites on the blacks and Hispanics.

The thin plot keeps getting injudiciously interrupted by dance sequences, which are the raison d'etre of the play but make the story even more disjointed.

Bryan Batt is funny as Monty the dance studio owner and disco DJ with his glitter and gold amulets, satin pants and long curls. Andre Ward and Karine Plantadit-Bageot, playing Chester and Shirley, the black disco dancers who should have won the crucial contest, make the usually repetitive, uninteresting disco dancing look truly good.

By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Rolf Fjelde, directed by J.C. Compton.
Produced by the Century Center for the Performing Arts
Century Center Ballroom Theatre, 111 East 15 St.
Opened November 21, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 19, 1999
It's hard to imagine the stir that Ibsen's "Ghosts" caused when it first appeared in 1881. It was denounced by the Norwegian press and literary community, and the major Scandinavian theaters would not stage it. A year later, it got a world premier before a Scandinavian audience in Chicago.

One critic wrote about "Ibsen's positively abominable play entitled Ghosts...this disgusting representation...reprobation due to such as aim at infecting the modern theatre with poison after desperately inoculating themselves and others...an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly. . ."

On the other hand, anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman declared in "The Social Significance of the Modern Drama," in 1914, that not only did Ibsen undermine "the Social Lie and the paralyzing effect of Duty, but the uselessness and evil of Sacrifice, the dreary Lack of Joy and of Purpose in Work are brought to light as most pernicious and destructive elements in life."

She called the play a "thundering indictment of our moral cancers, our social poisons, our hideous crimes against unborn and born victims," and added, "We need, therefore, not be surprised at the vile abuse and denunciation heaped upon Ibsen's head by the Church, the State, and other moral eunuchs."

The story that aroused such virulent attacks and fulsome praise assailed the sanctity of marriage, advocated free love, alluded to venereal disease, and even suggested a place for incest and euthanasia. Ibsen wrote it when he was 53, two years after the equally feminist "A Doll's House." Nora leaves the marriage; Helen Alving stays in hers.

J.C. Compton stages the play it in a period drawing room that encompasses the audience. The red plush drapes, wine and gray striped settee and chairs, and the use of the real doors of the room for exits and entrances provide a sense of intimacy, as if you were in the very house of Mrs. Alving (Kathleen Garrett).

We meet her as her son Oswald (Dennis Turney), 26, a painter, has just returned from Paris where he's lived for years. Pastor Manders (Mark Elliot Wilson) is visiting to make arrangements for the dedication the next day of an orphanage in honor of Mrs. Alving's late husband, who died ten years earlier.

We learn that everything in this household is built on a socially convenient lie. Helen Alving married her husband because he was rich. She comments that her mother and aunts "wrote up my bill of sale." She wanted to leave him a year into the marriage and sought the help of her friend Manders, then a divinity student, who she loved. He returned her to her marital duty.

But Captain Alving continued to be a promiscuous drunkard. His wife sent their son away to school when he was 7 to protect him, and she took over the management of the estate, suffering Alving's presence for another 10 years.

Ibsen puts into Manders' mouth all the cant and hypocrisy of the time. The pastor notices books lying on Mrs. Alving's table and questions their morality. He hasn't read them but knows they're bad. How could he judge without reading them? "How else could society function?" he asks. (This must have been an oblique swipe at Ibsen's critics.)

Mandere admits he relishes when Jacob Engstrand (Stephen Payne), the drunken handyman, comes to him helplessly and confesses his faults. He condemns Oswald's artist friends who live together because they can't afford to marry. But Oswald exposes the hypocrisy of the visiting husbands and fathers who frequent artists' cafes and "talk of things and places we never knew existed. They are experts about immorality abroad."

Oswald is attracted by Regina (Heidi Dippold) the flirtatious maid, which frightens Mrs. Alving, makes her see "ghosts." But Oswald turns sickly, and Regina drops her interest in him. (At 17, Ibsen had an illegitimate child with a servant girl.)

Even after Mrs. Alving reveals the truth of her life to Manders, he replies, "It is only the spirit of rebellion that craves for happiness in this life. What right have we human beings to happiness? No, we have to do our duty!" Instead, she speaks for Ibsen, denouncing "dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs" and curses herself for cowardice.

This is a political tract that Emma Goldman could well embrace, yet, for all its melodrama, J.C. Compton has staged it in a manner that is utterly believable, even as the tragedy reaches its peak.

In her wine dress with black striped bodice, Kathleen Garrett is an elegant, sensitive Mrs. Alving. Stephen Payne is excellent as the dissolute, derelict Jacob, his voice cracking as if to herald his disintegration. Dennis Turney is an intense Oswald. Marc Gwinn's sound effects add the reverberation of natural calamities to those taking place on stage. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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