News Column

Recent New York stage productions hum the same old tune

June 16, 2013

YellowBrix

June 16--I appreciate newspaper nostalgia as much as any other ink-stained wretch, and so it was with a sense of keen anticipation that I took my seat for the late Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy," starring Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut.

That "The Front Page," the 1928 Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, should remain the only well-known American play about newspapers has always puzzled me. Newsrooms can be dramatic places, especially when editors and reporters start yelling at one another.

Maybe, I hoped, Ephron could bring us up to date. She does, sort of, if you consider the 1980s and '90s up to date.

Yet "Lucky Guy," based on the wild career of New York tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, is just as full of macho bluster, wisecracks and romanticized heavy drinking as the Hecht-MacArthur script.

Ephron began her journalism career at the New York Post, so it's not as if she didn't know the territory. But like so many of us in the dead-tree business, she can't resist a nostalgic view of the supposed glory days when newsrooms were anarchic gangs of reporter/gunslingers ruled by autocratic editors.

A few days before seeing the show I caught up with an old friend, a writer with The New York Times who had seen the play. He and his wife and a number of their peers knew the people depicted in "Lucky Guy," which might constitute an "interpretation" of the facts. (According to a program note the play includes "fictional elements" and "compressed chronology.")

City editor John Cotter, performed vividly by the marvelous Peter Gerety, enjoyed his liquor, my friend said, but was not the 24/7 drunk depicted in the play.

Oh well. Drama isn't journalism, even when written by an ex-journalist. The play depicts a newspaper world dominated by hard-drinking, chain-smoking Irish-Americans, whose high-decibel verbal exchanges grow tiresome pretty quickly.

It's a man's world, and the only female reporter in sight, a composite character played by Deirdre Lovejoy, holds her own by out-cussing the men during her brief stage time.

For a guy whose career has been almost exclusively in film, Hanks does an impressive job inhabiting McAlary's hard-to-take personality. Hanks, relaxed and in command, looks like he belongs up there surrounded by Broadway veterans. Give part of the credit to director George C. Wolfe.

The show traces McAlary's career in chronological bio-drama fashion, from scoop-hungry young reporter to highly paid columnist and, eventually, to Pulitzer winner.

Ephron attempts an affectionate portrait of McAlary's life and times, but he's not a very nice guy. He's aggressive, ambitious and self-interested. He's not a particularly attentive husband (Maura Tierney plays his infinitely patient and supportive wife). He's personally and sometimes professionally irresponsible. He totals his car while driving drunk and spends months in physical rehab.

His one redeeming virtue? He's a great newsman who knows how to get people to talk.

His low ebb as a journalist occurs in Act 2, when he writes a column inaccurately accusing a lesbian rape victim of inventing her story. Later he bounces back and breaks the story of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was sodomized by cops in a station house. That earns him the Pulitzer.

Toward the end, when he's battling colon cancer, McAlary gets some humility. In Ephron's account, he delivers a poignant, redemptive newsroom speech about how he may not really deserve the Pulitzer he has just won.

The most sympathetic character is Hap Hairston, an editor who helped McAlary and worked with him off and on for years, and he's played with depth by Courtney B. Vance. Vance collected a Tony Award for his performance.

Unfortunately, Ephron took the "tell don't show" approach, allowing various characters, including McAlary, to relate his story in direct address to the audience. The technique sacrifices narrative drive and leaves viewers feeling like they've over-stayed their welcome in an Irish bar.

Motown and more Motown

"Motown the Musical" emits the unmistakable odor of a crass commercial vehicle, which is precisely why it's a box-office hit. Think of it as the most expensive cruise-ship entertainment you'll ever see.

Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records, decided that the Motown story and the Berry Gordy story are one and the same. He wrote the book for this show based on his own memoir. It traces his career from his beginnings as a contract songwriter to the founder of one of the most important record companies in history.

We see the relationship problems with Diana Ross, the pilfering of his talent roster by the major labels, his cultural breakthroughs (booking the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show, etc.).

There's a framing device -- will Gordy show up at a reunion concert with all the former Motown stars who left the company for better deals? -- but the story is laid out in mundane chronological order (yawn). It includes so much sketchy history and glossy rationales that we're never in fear of believing that what we're seeing is particularly accurate. This is Berry's story according to Berry.

Brandon Victor Dixon is a charismatic performer and does a credible job as the cardboard cutout version of Gordy. Valisia LeKae makes a strong impression as Diana Ross, although on the night I saw the show her vocals were too thin on some of the high notes -- indicating, perhaps, that Ross' distinctive style isn't so easy to emulate.

Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye and Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson bring some authority to the stage.

When you pack in something like 57 songs, you have to truncate them unless you're planning a four-hour show. This one felt long as it is. End result: You rarely get the satisfaction of enjoying a whole tune. It's like a greatest-hits revue in fragments.

'Murder Ballad'

I ventured off-Broadway for another musical, the initially intriguing but ultimately disappointing "Murder Ballad" at the Union Square Theatre. Julia Jordan (concept, book and lyrics) and Juliana Nash (music and lyrics) seek to evoke the tradition of folk ballads about "love gone awry" in which somebody is sure to die. But they've chosen to make it a sung-through rock musical set in contemporary New York.

The Union Square Theatre has reconfigured itself for this show, erecting the main stage in what had been the orchestra section and converting it into a bar and pool-hall with some viewers seated at cabaret tables in the middle of the action. A three-piece band at one end of the stage achieves a remarkably full sound.

The show kicks off with the title tune -- sung with throaty authority by the luminous Narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones) -- that invokes references to the tradition of murder ballads while sucking the listener in with a distinctive, chunky electric guitar motif.

After that the story begins, and at once we're dragged down to a more prosaic level than the opening song promised. It's a love triangle involving Sara (Caissie Levy) and Tom (Will Swenson), two young hot people in the East Village.

Tom has fantasies of a music career that don't pan out. They break up and Sara falls into a relationship with Michael (John Ellison Conlee), a literature professor. They stay together for years and have a child, but then one day Sara reconnects with Tom and they discover the heat is still there.

The only real suspense rests in a basic question: Which one of them will die? Or how many? The answer, ultimately, is something of a cop-out, but the real problem with the storyline is how ordinary it is. The music occasionally rises to memorable heights, but a rock musical isn't an easy thing to pull off.

This show runs about 90 minutes without an intermission, the music is nonstop and Nash's score, while occasionally impressive, simply doesn't generate enough variety.

It appears to be a hit, principally because the onstage and front-row viewers get to sit close enough to the actors to touch them. They call it "immersive" theater. It's an interesting gimmick that can't quite compensate for the hollowness of the material.

New York then, New York later

Richard Greenberg's "The Assembled Parties" was nominated for best play in the Tony Awards. It didn't win, but it should have. Greenberg's work is that rarest of commodities: a play that achieves honest poignancy without pandering or resorting to sentimentality.

It's a family comedy/drama set entirely in an old 14-room apartment in Central Park West. The first act takes place on Christmas Day in 1980. Act 2 unfolds on Christmas 20 years later.

The principal characters include Julie (Jessica Hecht), a German Jew and former teen movie star, whom we see happily preparing Christmas dinner; Ben, her somewhat blustery husband (Jonathan Walker); Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a good-natured college friend of their son Scotty; Faye (Judith Light), Julie's comically candid sister-in-law; Mort (Mark Blum), Faye's opportunistic husband; Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), Faye and Mort's under-achieving daughter; and Julie and Ben's son Scotty (Jake Silbermann).

In Act 2, we see a now-widowed Julie, who has fallen into financial difficulties; a middle-aged Jeff, who wants to help; and an old-age version of Faye, a loving but still sharp-tongued presence. Timmy, Julie and Ben's other son (also played by Silbermann), also appears with some revelatory news.

This play is remarkable in several ways. Greenberg's script is a masterpiece of subtlety and understatement. Plot threads are implied or suggested, and while they become important as the play progresses, their importance is never explicitly enunciated. Things are said that come into play later, even if the characters' memories are less reliable than the viewer's.

The acting is superb. Light won a Tony, but the entire cast approaches its work with as much subtelty as the script demands. Essential to the show's success is the scenic design by Santo Loquasto. In Act 1 the action shifts from room to room in the sprawling apartment via a turntable. There are moments when we see characters disappearing down hallways as the set rotates and others when a character passes through and overhears a cryptic remark in another room. The physical environment of this production is exceptional; Loquasto creates an utterly convincing illusion.

The play itself deals with human memory and expectations and the nature of love. In its own gentle way, it reminds us that the human relationships that matter are never easy.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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