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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Man Who Came to Dinner'
Nathan Lane is the nasty, name-dropping critic you love to hate in "The Man Who Came to Dinner."
Contents: September 17, 2000:
(1)"The Man Who Came to Dinner"
(2)"Julius Caesar"
(3)"Joe Fearless"
(4)"The Cradle Will Rock"
(5)"Spinning Into Butter"
(6)"Hotel Suite"
(7)"Cyrano de Bergerac"
(8)"It Ain't Over 'til the First Lady Sings"

"The Man Who Came to Dinner"
by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, directed by Jerry Zaks
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company
227 West 42 Street
Opened July 27, 2000
Closes October 8, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 17, 2000
There's something delightfully 1940-ish about Jerry Zaks' staging of "The Man who Came to Dinner." And why not, since Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman opened the comedy sixty years ago. Most of the actors affect the inflections you'd find in a movie of that era, and that adds verve to the production which, after all, tells a rather silly story. Nathan Lane, in the starring role, doesn't go along with that period style, which is too bad. He's the only disappointment in the cast.

Lane plays Sheridan Whiteside, a mean, self-centered radio personality who is full of himself and all the famous names he knows -- "an intimate friend of the great and near great." He refers to Ghandi as "Bubu." In a small Ohio town to give a lecture, he's gone to dinner at the home of the local factory owner, slipped on the icy steps, and, diagnosed with a broken hip, is forced to remain there for weeks. He commandeers the handsome living room, designed by Tony Walton with doors topped by pedestals, a baby grand piano, and a staircase to the upstairs to which he's banished his hosts. He also takes over the phone to continue his transcontinental, transatlantic pretentiousness.

Whiteside's frustration feeds his nastiness. He insults everyone, including his put-upon secretary Maggie (Harriet Harris), whom he derides as "repulsive." When she meets the local newspaper editor and falls in love, Whiteside, loathe to lose her services, resorts to dirty tricks. No slouch, she fights back. Their tactics involve cruel romantic deceptions.

The play has some references to the times. Daughter June Stanley (Mary Catherine Grrison) is in love with a labor organizer at her father's factory who, it is noted, can't be fired because of the Wagner Act. (That legislation, passed in 1935, was and is routinely ignored.) A quip, "Have you kidnapped somebody?" gets the response, "Yes, that was the Lindbergh baby." Whiteside tells the nurse, "I loved you in 'Rebecca'."

But there are some curious anomalies in the text. It's 1939, but though there are crossings and phone calls to England, there's no hint of Nazis marauding in Europe.

There's also a bit of inherent sexism: though Whiteside sets in motion the plot to derail Maggie's romance, it's Lorraine (Jean Smart), a visiting actress, who pays the price.

Banjo, a movie comic vividly portrayed by Lewis Stadlen, adds of bit of knowledge not known in '39 when he minces to poke fun at J. Edgar Hoover. Stadlen's best moment is a wildly frenetic vaudeville shtick, "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go?"

The main drag on the play is the character of Whiteside. Lane plays him as unrelievedly nasty and obnoxious. He's flat and without physical presence. He has not the curmudgeonly charm of a Monty Wooly who originated the role. He doesn't seem like a guy with the right to be arrogant. He is bereft of sensitivity, which makes it hard to imagine him supporting a home for the convicts who arrive for an elegant lunch. Or backing the Stanley children in their desires for independent lives. One can't imagine him as benevolent.

Zaks also passes up the chance to bring more satire to his celebrity name-dropping, which certainly is apropos in the present era of suffocating celebrity adulation.

The show is saved by the other characters. Harriet Harris is a sympathetic, warm Maggie Cutler. Jean Smart is a wonderfully comic, glamorous Lorraine, squealing good-naturedly in her slinky black and red gowns. She's a hoot when she squeezes her eyes to try to force out tears. Byron Jennings is appealing as the slightly fey Brit, Beverly Carlton. And Julie Boyd as Sarah the maid and Hank Stratton as newsman Bert Jefferson bring fresh-faced 40's innocence to their roles. Stephen DeRosa is a funny flaky German Professor Metz.

For all its flaws, for sixty years, the play has been a crowd pleaser, and it still is.

"Julius Caesar"
by William Shakespeare, directed by Barry Edelstein
Produced by The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park at 81 Street
Opened August 20, 2000
Closed September 3, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 20, 2000
In Barry Edelstein's staging of "Julius Caesar," you don't really care when Caesar is slain. In fact, you sympathize with his assassins. Edelstein's "Julius Caesar" turns the standard interpretation on its head. As a result, though it is crisp and finely acted, it lacks emotional power.

David McCallum's Caesar is nervous, petulant, blustery, physically decrepit and utterly without grandeur. Brutus, portrayed by Jamey Sheridan, is steady and decisive, rather like a 1940's clean-cut movie aviator; he never seems wracked by doubts. When he suggests that one think of Caesar "as a serpent's egg which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell," you can't help but agree.

Even Cassius isn't evil or power-hungry, but a resolute fighter against a tyrant. The shady side of his character comes through only in the second act. Edelstein has Ritchie Coster turn the conspirator Caska into a fey comic who at one point skips across the stage. It further reduces the sense of the coup-plotters as hard-bitten traitors.

It's the laconic Mark Antony, played by Jeffrey Wright, who seems dangerous and certainly not majestic. You wouldn't want him running the country.

These shifts in Shakespeare's characterizations extinguish the sense of tragedy the murder should provoke. They turn the play instead into a period adventure story. That explains why Caesar, already stabbed four or five times, manages in almost campy fashion to struggle across the stage to Brutus to declaim, "Et tu, Brute?"

Like the best adventure movies, this production arrests the senses. There's an ambiance of the future more than of the past. The first-act backdrop is made of large, concrete blocks. A huge bronze head of Caesar hangs on one side and a massive open hand on the other. Later the scene changes to a giant erector-set scaffold.

The men's suits remind one of characters from "Star Wars." McCallum wears a robe over a tunic; the others sport pants and shirts with leather belts and boots. In battle, they don leather or metal chest armor over khaki and beige shirts and pants. The crowd and servants dress in robes and caps that seem South Asian or Indonesian. Brutus's servant looks like an Oriental house-boy.

Stark colors -- reds, blacks, the blues of the crowd -- are set off by sharp lighting. Gongs and drums played by Bill Ruyle add to the eerie mood. It would make a good movie.

"Joe Fearless"
by Liz Tuccillo, directed by Craig Carlisle, choreographed by Taro Alexander
Produced by Patrick Blake, Andrew McTiernan, Beth Schacter and Allyson Spellman
The Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20 Street
Opened June 19, 2000
Closed September 3, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 15, 2000
Liz Tuccillo's play is a very funny satire of sports fan culture which depicts the absurdity of some fan's all-consuming involvement in the game while at the same time treating them with understanding and affection. It is staged with real-time basketball playing by eight men whose movements are well-scripted by Taro Alexander, who also choreographed the lively cheerleader disco dancers.

Poor Joe Donnelly (Michael Leydon Campbell) has no life outside his adulation for the beloved K-9's basketball team. Joe is a fanatic, which appropriately encompasses the word "fan." His father is dying, but instead of going to the hospital, he watches the game. Conversation on any other subject is literally "yak, yak." He pays no attention to his work and gets fired. He buys a $5,000 TV set, and his wife (Julie Dretzin) leaves him. He has a desultory affair with another fan, and knows that something is wrong with this, but lacks the energy to straighten out his personal life. Joe has no center or self. He lives for the game. And if his team loses, he will die.

Director Craig Carlisle has a strong ear for parody, especially evident in the wildly comical sportscaster, played with delicious abandon by Nathan Deane, and the loud, gum-chewing ref, portrayed with perfect exaggeration by Dan Fogler. The sportscaster pulls the mike away just as the players start to answer his dumb questions.

Among the other players, Callie Thorne as the girlfriend, Matthew Dawson as Joe's brother and Charlotte Colavin as his mother turn in excellent performances. And Fred Benjamin is an especially appealing morose basketball player.

The basketball players race around the court, shoot hoops, get into fights, and interact with the audience. The aggressive ref demands that patrons rise for the national anthem: they do. He says, "Make noise." They do. At half time, audience members are invited to compete at free throws.

The one white basketball player, a Croatian, intones, "I understand nothing." Not so the creative team for this play.

"The Cradle Will Rock"
by Marc Blitzstein, directed by David Fuller
Produced by Jean Cocteau Repertory
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery
Opened August 27, 2000
Extended Run: Closes November 16, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 26, 2000
Jason Crowl's performance as the union organizer in "The Cradle Will Rock" would have delighted author Marc Blitzstein. He is electric, charismatic; he exudes Broadway star quality. He lights up this production of Blitzstein's powerful, stylized, radical play that was first staged in 1937, a time when company bosses were setting thugs and police and judges on workers trying to organize unions. It's a play that still resonates, both historically and today, when workers who organize still confront unscrupulous bosses.

The play was considered so radical, and the Federal Theatre Project (like the federally-funded PBS today) was so pusillanimous, that it suddenly banned all sponsored plays opening between June 10 and July 1, 1937, which "coincidentally" happened to be when "Cradle" was to start.

Blitzstein, with director Orson Wells and producer John Houseman, took it to another theater, where actors, who ironically were ordered by their unions not to appear onstage, spoke and sang from seats in the audience. They made theater history and from there toured the country.

The play is part operetta, part musical theater in its sensibility. Vignettes tell the story of what happens when Mr. Mister (Craig Smith), the swaggering, cigar-smoking, pinstriped owner of the Steeltown factory, orders police to arrest union organizers gathering there. By mistake, they pull in some of the "upstanding" townsfolk Mr. Mister has bought: the reverend, the doctor, the college president, the newspaper editor.

Director David Fuller recreates some vivid scenes, such as the Greek chorus of townsfolk, in blue blazers and Liberty Committee armbands, pleading in night court for Mr. Mister to come to their rescue. Their cries echo to the bemusement of a prostitute (Elise Stone) and an alcoholic (Harris Berlinsky) who've also been pulled in. The street-walker notes that she's in "the company of professionals."

The police have also seized organizer Larry Foreman (Cowl), -- and beaten him -- for making a speech and passing out leaflets.

The story is full of broad caricatures which, given their times and ours, couldn't be more on the mark. Mr. Mister orders the newspaper editor to make his son a journalist. Such nepotism is not unheard of in our town. And one-by-one we see the town's leading citizens sell out to power. A bomb blast is set to entrap a Polish workman and his wife, so it can be blamed on the union.

Cowl is so good, so sassy, so dominating, that, curiously, he makes the others seem lackluster. The Cradle really rocks when he sings. While David Fuller's direction is competent, and many of the individual performances credible, the production never attains the emotional power it must have had at the time.

Bowyer is very good as the smarmy reverend whose sermon changes from being anti-war to promoting war, depending on what's good for corporate interests at the moment. Fluttery Mrs. Mister (Angela Madden) is wonderfully full of herself as the stupid art patron who buys local painters and writers. It's a hoot to watch the others suck up to her. Jolie Garrett, does well as Dauber the debonair painter, who complains, "She asked me to bring El Greco to tea." Kyra Himmelbaum shows fine voice and style as the violinist. Jennifer Herzog is delightful as both the Polish woman and Sister Mister, with a sweet, bell-clear voice. Michael Surabian is an hysterically funny punch-drunk football coach who also happens to be the elementary French teacher.

This is a production worth seeing for its historical value alone.

"Spinning Into Butter"
by Rebecca Gilman , directed by Daniel Sullivan
Produced by Lincoln Center
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 West 65 Street
Opened July 27, 2000
Closes September 17, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 17, 2000
Rebecca Gilman has an uncanny ear for dialogue and a ready talent for skewering pretensions. She has written a funny-serious play about how the best-intentioned people are trapped by their own fears when it comes to race. The work sometimes seems rather thin for the importance of its subject -- rather like going after a whale and coming up with a small fish -- but it's nonetheless engrossing.

Sarah Daniels (Hope Davis) is dean of students at a small college in Vermont. She's having difficulty with Patrick Chibas (Michael Ray Escamilla), a student she wants to help get a $12,000 scholarship for minorities. He wants to list himself as Nuyorican. She says the judges will react better to "Hispanic." For him, "Hispanic" means "imperialists of European descent who colonized Puerto Rico."

A tougher challenge comes when a black student receives hate mail. And the title, a commentary on the reaction of the whites, refers to the story of Little Black Sambo, when the tigers threatening him started arguing among themselves and chased each other around a tree so fast that they melted into butter.

Sarah's colleagues respond with cliches -- "make it a learning experience" -- and bureaucratic self-protection. Dean Catherine Kenney (Brenda Wehle) wants Sarah to make bulleted list of things to do that won't cost money. Another student, Greg Sullivan (Steven Pasquale) figures out how to use the crisis for self-promotion. He'll set up a tolerance committee: his application to law school is "a little thin." The longest laugh goes to his comment, "Where I'm from, I don't think anybody's racist."

"Where are you from?"

"Greenwich," long pause, "Connecticut."

Some of the best, biting parts are about male-female relationships. "I never in my life thought I would have two girl friends!" declares professor Ross Collins (Daniel Jenkins), which gets an outsized laugh from a lady in the audience. "What was I, a temp?" remarks Sarah caustically.

The point of the play is that while everyone expresses disgust at the unknown harasser, they have also inculcated racism. This is true for Sarah in spite of the fact that, overwhelmed by guilt, she tried to compensate, reading prominent black authors and acknowledging that through her privilege, "kept black people down."

But when she took a job at a black college in Chicago, she was appalled by the behavior of black youths who stormed through the halls. She decided, "In the abstract, black people were fine, but in reality they were so rude!" And that colored the way she felt toward all blacks.

She's decided that she'd made a false conversion, that her desire to help stemmed from a plantation mentality, that she'd objectified blacks. The message: to idealize is not to respect. You need to look at people as real people.

Some of Gilman's plot device appears strained. Sarah over-dramatizes her guilt. After all, it's her good instincts that make her so hard on herself. As she says, "Really, what is wrong with giving $12,000 to someone who needed it?" The particular instance of racism that has her in paroxysms of remorse is pretty minor, which makes the plot device seem overblown.

The events occur in Sarah's expansive oval office furnished with wood desk and cabinets, an oriental rug and a large window through which you see a colonial brick building.

Director Daniel Sullivan handles the play with an appropriate cool, light touch. There's an expert cast, beginning with Hope Davis as a solid, sensitive Sarah and Michael Ray Escamilla as a sharp, self-assured Patrick, the "Nuyorican." Henry Strozier and Brenda Wehle are quintessentially bureaucratic college deans, the first thick-headed, the other hyper-efficient. Daniel Jenkins is a very credible two-timing professor, and Matt DeCaro brings an unselfconscious humanity to the role of the college guard.

"Hotel Suite"
by Neil Simon, directed by John Tillinger
Produced by The Roundabout Theatre Company
Gramercy Theatrer, 127 East 23 Street
Opened June 15, 2000
Closed September 3, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 9, 2000
Neil Simon's Hotel Suite has the half funny, half nasty sensibility that animated the famous TV sitcom, "The Honeymooners."

A British couple -- Diana (Helen Carey), a self-absorbed actress, and Sidney (Leigh Lawson), a bisexual antiques dealer -- spar and bite at each other. They share a neurotic love. As one of them comments, they're each a refuge for the other's disappointments. But the 12-year relationship is corroded by his liaisons with men.

At the first act, they're in Hollywood about to go to the Oscars; she's been nominated. Her insecurity is so palpable, she thinks people will think the billowing chiffon knot on her shoulder is a hump. She drowns her worries in gin.

The scene features lots of Simon's trade-mark one-liners: "Were the hypocrites there? Are they still together?"

The same Hollywood suite is taken by a Philadelphia couple in town for a nephew's bar mitzvah. Marvin (Ron Orbach) arrives a day earlier, gets drunk with his brother, Harry, and wakes up shocked to see the bimbo (Amanda Serkasevich) Harry sent to entertain him. When his wife phones from downstairs, he panics at the need to dispose of the breathing but alcohol-sodden body. When Marvin finally confesses to adultery, wife Millie (Randy Graff) retorts, "In her condition, it's necrophilia."

Both couples have challenged marriages, though bisexuality proves harder to overcome than one night's infidelity.

Eight or so years later, their lives have taken predictable turns. Diana, still drinking, is in London promoting her successful Hollywood TV series, and Sidney arrives from Mykonos (she calls it Mickey Mouse) to ask a desperate favor. Marvin and Millie are at the Plaza in New York for the wedding of their daughter.

But here the plays diverge. The Diana and Sidney story is pure soap opera -- with chords of love, death, and devotion. Noel Coward portrayed straight woman-gay man marriage better in "A Song at Twilight."

The Marvin and Millie story is downright silly, replete with walking on window sills eight stories up, split morning coats and soaked wide-brimmed hats. People in the audience laughed a lot; they probably thought they were watching television. (Orbach reminds one of Jackie Gleason in style and girth.).

Helen Carey as Diana and Randy Graff as Millie are particularly credible; one can't say the same for Leigh Lawson as Sidney or Ron Orbach as Marvin.

It's hard to know what Simon's point was. The tragi-comedy of married life? How hard it is for women to find suitable men. Director John Tillinger sets the first couple's mood as tragedy leavened by comedy and the second as comedy with an undertone of tragedy. But the two halves don't make a whole. The play has no subtlety or wit, if one defines the latter as something distinct from clever one-liners.

Sidney makes it clear he doesn't think much of Diana's TV sitcom. The most prescient line is Diana's comment that she's doing television, because, "Our theater doesn't exist any more. They're all revivals, and then they revive the revivals."

Simon went that one better: this play is a semi- or maybe a triple revival crafted from acts taken from three Simon plays, "California Suite" (1976) "London Suite" (1995) and "Plaza Suite (1968)." The repackaging ploy doesn't work. Maybe Simon should take "Hotel Suite" straight to television.

"Cyrano de Bergerac"
by Edmond Rostand, adapted and directed by Robert Richmond
Produced by the Aquila Theatre Company
Studio Theatre at Lincoln Center, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza
Opened August 19, 2000
Closes September 17, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 17, 2000
In the signature style of the Aquila Theatre Company, this "Cyrano de Bergerac" is a lively construction of dramatic lighting, striking music, stylized movement, and the accomplished performance of lead actor Anthony Cochrane.

Director Robert Richmond has staged "Cyrano," which Edmond Rostand wrote in 1897, as if it were a fantasy mixture of street theater-puppet show-commedia dell' arte. Lights sparkle on the skeletons of umbrellas dangling upside down. The Paris theater audience and the crowd come alive through the interaction of actors and puppets who move and dip and talk. Guardsmen arrive in somersaults. Characters walk off in stylized marches.

The famous story turns on Cyrano's hopeless love for Roxanne. A guardsman and a poet, Cyrano (Anthony Cochrane) is brilliant, witty -- and ugly, with a monstrously long nose. The beautiful Roxanne (Lisa Carter) has fallen for Christian (Alvaro Heinig), a not-very-bright cadet guardsman, and she confesses her love to Cyrano, begging him to watch out for his rival. Condemned to love from afar, Cyrano takes pleasure in unburdening his heart by writing Christian's letters to Roxanne.

Cyrano lives at odds with most of the ruling society. He can't abide falsehood, compromise, and stupidity, which author Rostand ascribes to 17th century court culture but which, of course, were rife in his times as they are in ours. Cyrano's bluntness makes him a lot of enemies.

Doltish power is represented by Viscount De Guiche, who commands the guards, wants Roxanne, and maliciously orders Cyrano and Christian to the front against the Spanish.

Everything about the staging expands your sense of what you are seeing: Cochrane's loud, portentous music, puppets dancing wildly in carnival fashion, smoke and lights that bombard the stage. Battles are fought in dance-like slow motion.

Cochrane plays Cyrano in a black raincoat, a white feather sticking out of his fedora. Affecting various British accents, he is dazzling in the depth of his anger, rage, and sorrow.

Lisa Carter, in skirt hoops covered only partially by bits of tulle, is sharp, flirty, and charming as Roxanne. And Jennie Israel is a comical Southern-accented companion-aide to Roxanne.

The show, however, suffers from the fact that most of the cast members are of Aquila's relatively inexperienced second string. They never create the magical transference that persuades the viewers they are who they pretend to be.

Though Alvaro Heinig is a very funny Valere, a foppish aristocrat who affects a yellow beehive headdress, he portrays Christian as too milk-soppy. Sean Fri overplays Viscount De Guiche. The minor characters are not much better. They're a weight on the production, which would otherwise fly.

" It Ain't Over 'Til the First Lady Sings!"
written and directed by by Bill Strauss and Elaina Newport
Produced by Eric Krebs and Capitol Steps
Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, 432 West 42 Street
Opened June 15, 2000
Closed September 2, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar August 11, 2000
I've given up reading or watching the political pundits, whose self-importance, pretentiousness and sanctimony makes me gag. But I find their places eminently well taken by the on-the-mark, but good-natured, Capitol Steps. In fact, the roles seem reversed. The pundits have become clowns, and the clowns are delivering serious political commentary. They're also very funny and even have good singing voices. And the direction by Bill Strauss and Elaina Newport brings just the right touch of shtick and mugging to the mix. The excesses of the caricatures are helped by excesses of false eyebrows and hair which make the figures into near look-alikes.

They hit all the bases: foreign policy, domestic policy and of course, the campaigns. Here's a sample.

On foreign affairs, speaking of the rush to do business in China, "We'll have a cut throat sale on human rights." Russia's Putin is "putting on a blitz" and "shooting them (his critics) to bits." Pakistan and India are joined by nuclear bomb-packing Sadam and China in "City City Bang Bang."

To the tune of "Day-o," soldiers sing, "NATO come make the Serbs go home." That is illustrated by a map displaying the countries of the region, including Armenie, Their Meenie, 4th Reich, and Das Boot (Italy).

And the favorite which stays in every show, "Hello mudda, hello fadda, here I am in Intifada," is paired, for equal time, with "Sheik to Sheik" -- "Hebron, I'm in Hebron...where "your vacation's just a stone's throw away.

Domestic policy features Charleton Heston at a new Times Square NRA Theme restaurant; Full Metal Janet (Reno); and a gravely-voiced, coughing, cigarette-smoking Dr. M. Fezima , spokesperson for Philip Morris. For the New Yorkers, a screaming woman runs past cops who are warbling, "Standing on the corner watching all the thugs go by....you never had a softer occupation, Rudy will give our alibis."

Finally, the campaigns: "Who will buy a seat in Congress for $10 million? The answer is corporate bigwigs. George Bush's son Shrub, known for his "thousand pints of light," wails, "I wanna be like you dad," who promises, "You're gonna have a good time then." Joe Lieberman, whose election will put an end to pork barrel politics, sings, "One guy, one special goy." And Hillarita, in pink tulle under her black suit jacket, trills, "Don't cry for me Giuliani. When you dropped out you knew I'd beat you."

The Capitol Steps came to New York for the summer, while continuing in Washington D.C. and turning up at conventions and colleges around the country. Now if only they could replace those boring Sunday morning talk shows. [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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