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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Moon for the Misbegotten'
Cherry Jones, Roy Dotrice and Gabriel Bryne in "Moon for the Misbegotten" (Photo: Eric Y. Exit)
Contents: May 5, 2000:
(1)O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten"
(2)August Wilson's "Jitney"at the Second Stage
(3)Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen"
(4)Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing"
(5) Sam Shepard's "True West"

"Moon for the Misbegotten"
by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Daniel Sullivan
Produced by Elliot Martin, Chase Mishkin, Max Cooper, Jujamcyn Theaters, with Anita Wasman, Elizabeth Williams, The Goodman Theatre
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48 Street
Opened March 19, 2000
Closes June 18, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar May 3, 2000
The curmudgeonly old sharecropper shuffles and skips and falls and scowls as Roy Dotrice brings to life the best element in Daniel Sullivan's production of O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten."

O'Neill's affection for the poor and wretched comes across clearly in Paul Hogan, the 60ish widowed tenant farmer who's been working a hardscrabble plot of rocky Connecticut land for twenty years, with drink his only amusement. The death of his wife in childbirth seems to have left him bereft.

Hogan gives O'Neill a way to express his contempt for the rich in "our land of the free and get rich quick." The 1943 play, which is set in the 1923 of robber barons, features an unsympathetic and snooty Standard Oil executive, T. Stedman Harder (Tuck Milligan), who appears in upper class riding costume, complete with crop and cap. He wants to buy up the farm to keep Hogan's pigs from getting into his estate's ice pond. Hogan remarks that this fellow bought his own land with "money stolen from the poor." The rascally farmer keeps breaking down the pond's fence so his pigs can get in. It is symbolic of the struggle between lower and upper classes and a story that occurs also in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

The main theme against that backdrop is the plight of Paul's slatternly, belligerent daughter Josie (Cherry Jones), who is trapped on the farm that her three brothers have escaped. ("Escape" is the word she uses.) Defiantly proclaiming that she doesn't want a husband, she says she'd rather sleep around. She seems cynical when she buys into her father's idea that her way out lies with James Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne), who owns their farm and is about to come into the inheritance of his mother's estate. She speaks derisively about just getting his money, but it's clear she wants more.

James, in his early 40's, is an unlikely catch -- a third-rate actor, by his own admission, and an alcoholic who fell off the wagon when his mother became fatally ill with a brain tumor. He's stopped working and hangs around with Broadway "tarts." James is based on O'Neill's own brother. As in James's life, the character brought his mother's body back from California in a train, picked up a prostitute in one of the cars, and arrived home too drunk to attend the funeral.

Both Josie and James are living in dream worlds. James fantasizes that things are different; he pretends she is a virgin and gets angry when she talks rough. "Nix the rough stuff, Josie." And she thinks if she loves him, she can get him to change.

In the end, they're all somewhat different than they seemed. Paul is wiser and more generous than his image as an intemperate drunk, Josie is more vulnerable that the woman who insists she needs no man, and James has lost his bantering bravado. But there will be no way out, especially for James, who at the start seems the most fortunate of the three: "There is not future or present, just the past repeating itself." The most Josie can provide to him is compassion and forgiveness.

The only time the production really catches fire is at that point, when Josie clasps the drunken James in her arms as they sit against a rock in the yard and he reviews the horror of his life. The problem is that Cherry Jones's stolid Josie exists on the surface, never showing the sorrow or humiliation inside her or the destructive judgment that pushes her to get him drunk and sabotage their crucial night together. And Gabriel Byrne as James Tyrone, until those moments late in the second act, doesn't persuade us that he is corroded inside and harboring a terrible depression that is pushing him to drink to the point of delirium tremens -- "the heebie jeebies."

Even Tuck Milligan's Harder is too much of a caricature. Roy Dotrice is the only one who is utterly convincing in every line and movement and gesture as the old farmer.

Eugene Lee has designed a stunning set, an old ramshackle house with some of the wood planks coming off, a roof-high pile of boulders to one side, a tree on the other, the dirt yard, a water pump, and a puddle that almost everyone manages to step in.

by August Wilson, directed by Marion McClinton
Produced by Second Stage Theatre, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, with Sageworks/Benjamin Mordecai
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43 Street
Opened April 24, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 21, 2000
August Wilson's rich drama is woven from the lives of black men who drive gypsy cabs in Pittsburgh in 1977. It was a time of rampant "urban renewal," which meant boarded-up homes and businesses and uncertain futures for many people living on the margins. That's what's going to happen to Clarence Becker's ramshackle "jitney" cab station.

The play was written in 1978 as one act, then expanded into a full-length drama.

David Gallo's richly designed set is like a collage; at the front a corrugated iron facade, old heating stove, worn wood table and chairs, faded ripped couch and old wall phone. Through the transparent walls, you see cars parked in the street in front of boarded up stores and the girders of a factory building.

Through the "do-wop" music and the black street vernacular, comes the strains between men and women as they live and tell of their private dramas. That is pierced by the stunning revelation of the return of Becker's son, who has just served 20 years for murder. The result, under Marion McClinton's lucid direction, is a totally absorbing, powerfully emotional drama -- half comedy, half tragedy, like the lives of the protagonists.

They are Becker, an imposing Paul Butler-- big, strong, uncompromising, a deacon in the church, whose views about morality trump forgiveness. Youngblood, portrayed by Russell Hornsby with a current of desperation and anger, a young man struggling to make a life for himself, his wife and child and get them a rung up on the ladder. Turnbo, given a wonderfully oily interpretation by Stephen McKinley Henderson, a gossipy, mean-spirited fellow who gratuitously interferes in peoples' lives. Fielding, brilliantly played by Anthony Chisholm, a sad, comic drunk who's always trying to cadge money. Shealy (Willis Burks II) a numbers man who is looking for a woman who doesn't call up the face of his lost love. And Philmore (Leo V. Finnie III), a hotel doorman. Their ordinary lives provide the texture for Becker's tragedy.

The heartbreaking fall of Becker's son Booster (Carl Lumby) is melodramatic and sketchy. A bright kid who won science prizes in high school, he got a scholarship to college, met a rich white girl, and came to grief. Becker is furious at his son for throwing his life away. But the irony is that the son's refusal to compromise, a trait he shares with his father, is what got him into trouble.

Booster's story, more symbolic than real, intrudes on the authenticity of the drivers' lives as an unlikely false note. The richness of the play comes from those "backdrop" stories and the superiority of the acting.

by Michael Frayn, directed by Michael Blakemore
Produced by James M. Nederlander, Roger Berlind, Scott Rudin, Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Ray Larsen, Jon B. Platt, Byron Goldman, Scott Nederlander
Royale Theatre, 242 West 45 Street
Opened April 11, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 19, 2000
Michael Frayn's absorbing play recreates the conversations between Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco), the father of modern atomic physics, and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty), his protege, inventor of quantum mechanics and a leader of the Nazi's atomic research program, in an attempt to plumb the ambiguities of moral responsibility. It's a fascinating event, rather like being at an informal debate or a riveting dinner party, though the uncertainties Frayn suggests at the end don't seem very uncertain at all.

In a stage backdropped by two tiers of seats filled with members of the audience, rather like grad students at a university lecture hall, Bohr and Heisenberg, and Bohr's wife Margrethe (Blair Brown), sit on steel gray chairs or walk around the floor (like particles in motion), recreating in narrative and dialogue Heisenberg's visits to Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 and 1949. It is directed by Michael Blakemore almost dispassionately, as if it were a colloquy in a lecture hall, to correctly allow facts to dominate emotion.

The issue was what went on in that first meeting at which Heisenberg insisted after the war that he had told Bohr, albeit perhaps obliquely, that he would forswear developing a German atomic weapons. A lot of people don't believe him, and Frayn's play doesn't help his case.

There's also another issue, the argument that the American dropping of atomic bombs on Japan is the immoral equivalence of the killings carried out by the Nazis.

The two men are quite different temperamentally, and the actors expertly imbue their characters with the personality traits that defined them. Cumpsty's Heisenberg is high strung, wired, rigid, quick to anger. Bosco plays Bohr as charming and avuncular. Blair Brown shows Margrethe Bohr to be shrewd, acerbic and cynical.

Physics provides a metaphor for the principle of uncertainty in life: you cannot know everything about the whereabouts of a particle.

Heisenberg makes his first visit in 1941 when Copenhagen was under Nazi occupation. Bohr, though half Jewish, has been allowed to live undisturbed.

Heisenberg cites a U.S. news report that America is working on an atomic bomb. He believes Bohr is working on fission, which can be used to make weapon. "I have to know. If the Allies are building a bomb, what am I choosing for my country? Germany is where I was born?" It holds all the hearts that speak to his heart. Is he deciding another defeat? He defends the occupation of Poland and says Germany will win the war. One gets the feeling he is motivated by opportunism, a chance to improve his career and status.

When Bohr talks about deportations, Heisenberg doesn't condemn them. He thought he was under surveillance, but there's no indication anything different is said when the two men take a walk in the woods. Heisenberg asks him about his sailing; Bohr reminds him the water is mined. Is Heisenberg totally oblivious? He wants to arrange for Bohr to make social contact with the local German diplomats. Bohr accuses him of inviting him to watch the deportation of fellow Danes from a window in the German embassy. It's one of Bohr's few political remarks. In another rare sarcastic comment, Bohr says, "Perhaps Margrethe would be kind enough to sew a yellow star on my jacket."

Heisenberg returns in 1949. Margrethe, acidly tells him, "Please don't try to tell us you're a hero of the resistance." He's not only not a hero, but reviled among his international peers and now trying to restore his reputation. Heisenberg protests, "What would it have achieved if I joined a plot against Hitler and died?" But it wasn't foreordained the plot would fail.

Heisenberg presents clear indications of his true feelings: "We have one set of obligations to the world, another to our country, family, friends." He talks about the RAF's "terror bombing." He suggests the moral equivalence to the Nazi's acts of Bohr's participation at the Los Alamos project to make an atomic bomb. "Does one as a physicist have the moral right to unchain the practical application of atomic energy?" It's another question that deserves it's own play, but is dropped. Heisenberg notes that Bohr contributed to killing 100,000 people while he had "no souls" on his conscience. It illustrates his refusal to take responsibility for the acts of the regime he served.

Bohr notes the crux of the matter almost kindly, "You saw the possibility of supplying Hitler with nuclear weapons." Heisenberg argues that he was trying to edge out a rival program run by party member, that he was ingeniously stalling the program. In return, he wanted western physicists to call their government off the atomic project. That's not what Bohr remembers. And there's nothing in the play to make us believe it happened.

"The Real Thing"
by Tom Stoppard, directed by David Leveaux. Produced by Anita Waxman, Elizabeth Williams, Ron Kastner, Miramax Films. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47 Street. 239-6200. Opened April 17, 2000. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 14, 2000.
These are times that "lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style." Or so it appears in Tom Stoppard's acerbic study of a narcissistic culture where people pop in and out of other's lives and beds, changing lovers with no more thought than they give to altering their clothes. It's set among the London theater crowd, but it could be anywhere.

This 1982 play is not one of Stoppard's clever, political intellectual jousts that skewer the audience in clever apercus and puns. In spite of its sophistication, you feel you've heard and seen it before, and at the end it's not as satisfying as his other, brilliant, efforts.

This is a cool, ironic look at the selfishness of relationships among people whose self-love seems to leave no room for anyone else. When Henry (Stephen Dillane) says, "I love the insularity of passion. There's you and there's them," you realize that "you" is a single person, not a couple.

There are several plays within a play, so that you're not sure when the characters are play-acting and when they're being real. But, perhaps they're also play-acting when they're being real, searching for "the real thing," which is love, as well as for their real selves.

Henry, a playwright, asks his wife Charlotte (Sarah Woodward), an actress, "How was last night?" She says, "I had to fake it again." Henry: "Actually I was talking about my play." Charlotte: "So was I." The play is "House of Cards," which is also a statement about their lives. Charlotte's character is confronted by her husband, played by Max (Nigel Lindsay), with proof of her adultery.

Annie (Jennifer Ehle), who is married to Max in real life, arrives at Henry and Charlotte's flat, bringing vegetables instead of flowers. "So original," says Henry. "I'll get a vase." Her other eccentricity is the leadership of a campaign of "justice for Brodie," a soldier who had gotten six years in prison for starting a protest fire at The Cenatoph using the wreath of the unknown soldier.

An affair surely follows. Now Annie is married to Henry. Real life and fantasy mix as she talks Henry into writing a play about Brodie, in which she will star. That throws her together with a young actor, with the attendant opportunity for infidelity and jealousy. Henry insists that for him happiness is equilibrium, but he's surely not picked the setting or the partner for it.

For all her fanciful politics, Annie is tough and acerbic and Henry is the romantic naif about love. She remarks, "There are no commitments, only bargains and they have to be made every day." A prescription for la ronde." The "real thing" seems pretty ephemeral.

Henry appears ill-suited to the flighty, exuberant, self-indulgent, Annie. You get the feeling Henry's daughter Debbie (Charlotte Parry) is right when she insists that all relationships hinge on sex. As you watch these people under David Leveaux's urbane, unjudgmental direction, you have difficulty seeing them and their partners sharing anything else.

A side issue is Henry's predilection for low culture rock & roll, which he apparently shares with Stoppard. When Annie asks him to identify an opera, he replies, "Verdi." When she presses, "Which?" He answers, "Giuseppe," and ripostes, "You can't tell the difference between the Andrews Sisters and the Everly Brothers." To which she counters, "There isn't." Musing about the tragedy of the death of Buddy Holly, he opines, "If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash, the history of music would have been very different. (Pause) As would the history of aviation, of course." But Stoppard's clever bon mots don't make up for the fact that, as it wears along, and after you eat up the sophistication, the plot becomes thin fare.

The set is a rectangle edged in brick walls, divided by gray steel translucent screens and furnished with a red couch and square chairs that offer up no warmth. This revival comes from London's Donmar Warehouse.

"True West"
by Sam Shepard, directed by Matthew Warchus
Produced by Ron Kastner
Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Bway & 8th Avenue
Opened March 9, 2000
Closes June 4, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 2, 2000
The strains of violence and neurosis that run through a family may range from the minute to the overwhelming, but Sam Shepard, who has written other autobiographical plays about violent relations between brothers, suggests here that people have a double nature and that it's quite easy for the members of a family to switch roles.

Director Matthew Warchus has gone him one better by having Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, playing a hustler and his screen-writing brother, switch roles in their acting assignments as well as in the script. As they change parts every three days, their virtuosity is evident. Indeed, the acting is the best part of the production. The 1980 play itself, on one level a satirical jab at Hollywood, descends even lower, to television sitcom, as shtick and slapstick take over.

Lee, played in the production I saw by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a paunchy grifter, a trucker's hat on his head and a can of Schlitz in his hand. When he sits, he cleans his toes. When he stands, he looks as if he might fall over. He is a hostile, crude, amoral social outcast who lives in the desert, makes a living from theft, and amuses himself at dog fights.

Austin (John C. Reilly) in chinos, a yellow knit sport shirt, and high-end sneakers, is an Ivy League grad who's trying to make it big by selling a Hollywood screenplay.

They meet at their mother's well-appointed suburban Southern California house, the white wrought iron kitchen counter edged by matching stools and hanging plants and the patio glass-and-metal garden table set on a patch of green grass.

Mom (Celia Weston) is touring Alaska. When we finally meet her we discover a loopy lady who thinks Picasso is alive.

The brothers haven't seen each other for five years. Slowly, the conflict between them trickles out and finally bursts into deadly confrontation. In the process, each takes on attributes of the other.

Lee is planning to "make a little tour" of the neighborhood -- to pilfer. The soft-spoken, reasonable Austin feels sorry for him; there's still some brotherly attachment. He wants him to turn his life around. But Lee is jealous of his brother's status, of his ivy league diploma, and insulted by his offer of money, designed to get him to drop the burglary plan. "They don't need their TV," he declares. "I'm doing them a favor."

The antagonism is heightened by the arrival of Saul Kimmer (Robert LuPone), a Hollywood producer in a baby blue suit and white patent loafers. He has come to talk to Austin, who's been working on a screenplay for him. He wants a script about the real west. The battle over who can write the better script becomes a microcosm of the brothers' rivalry.

Who better to write the screenplay than the half literate Lee who conceives a plot in which "The one who is being chased doesn't know where he's going. The one who is chasing him doesn't know where the other is taking him." (It could be said about the brothers' relationship.) Austin declares, "It's the dumbest story I ever heard in my life." Of course, three studios want it.

If even the scummiest individual has some hidden talent, at least from the limited point of view of a Hollywood producer, then, perhaps, reversing that, there's also more of the riffraff in an upstanding person than is apparent. In Shepard's conception, both brothers are opposite sides of the same person.

Shepard says that the Hollywood part of the play is about winning and losing, about success, failure and power, though the plot line is so broad and absurd, that the deeper meaning doesn't come through.

About the only thing that's believable is that Hollywood producers pay big bucks for dumb stories. The reversal leads to obvious comic bits such as the theft of a dozen toasters. But the action moves very slowly and sometimes seems silly -- the stomping destruction of a few dozen pieces of toast, the smashing of a typewriter with a golf club, and the angry destruction of a wall phone. The unfunny sitcom-style stapstick appealed to many in the audience, doubtless television fans to whom director Matthew Warchus was pitching the show.

The best part of the production is the virtuoso acting by Reilly and Hoffman.[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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