New Broadway plays diverse, enjoyable
Alan Rickman in "Seminar" on Broadway.
Stephen Pucci, who plays the Ohio businessman's local "fixer," and Jennifer Lim, the Chinese executive who actually ends up fixing things in "Chinglish."
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NEW YORK -- Broadway is the native haunt of big musicals, but this fall there's been an influx of eight of that less-seen beast, new plays. So on the recent Post-Gazette Show Plane visit, I slipped away to see four of them.
And at the risk of compromising my standing as a critic (we're expected to be stern or even sarcastic in judgment), I have to confess I enjoyed them all, although in different ways.
But there are gradations of enjoyment. So naturally I get asked which I liked the best. And although comparisons are odorous, as doubtless Pogo said and before him one of those Shakespearean clowns, I've developed an answer.
My favorite is undoubtedly "Seminar," but that has something to do with it being about writers and a lot to do with the presence of Alan Rickman. Nonetheless, I think the best play -- most demanding, most worthy of a revisit -- is "Venus in Fur." The one I'd most often recommend to regular theatergoers, and the one we're most likely to see first in Pittsburgh, is "Other Desert Cities." And that leaves "Chinglish," a perfectly entertaining comedy with some bite.
Here are two reviews today with two to follow on Sunday. But how do I pair them up? "Seminar" first, no doubt, then we'll see.
The setting is a spacious New York apartment inhabited by Kate, one of four 20-somethings (two male, two female, to facilitate the couplings to follow) who've paid $2,500 each for an intimate eight-week writing seminar with famed writer/editor Leonard.
You know you're in good hands with multi-award winning playwright Theresa Rebeck -- "Mauritius," "Spike Heels," "Omnium Gatherum" and "The Understudy," to name those I've seen elsewhere (although the first two have also been done here), plus the one I did see in Pittsburgh, "Bad Dates" (City Theatre). Ms. Rebeck creates interesting, plausible characters and knows her exposition, as she proves by setting these four to revealing their quirks, frustrations and obsessions while awaiting the arrival of the star.
He grumbles in, shrouded in contempt, first for their writing, then for them and soon enough, we see, for himself -- and that's not just a whiff of the sour Snape from "Harry Potter," which is how most in the audience know Mr. Rickman. His self-loathing is articulate, and Mr. Rickman makes it epic. Then Leonard is off to some world hot spot, apparently reduced to reportage for which he has little respect.
As Leonard's story gradually develops in his brief weekly incarnations, during which he trashes their manuscripts one by one, gradually discovering something to encourage, the four develop their own stories more fully. Along with their differing passions for writing -- or is it just to be known as a writer -- there are their passions for each other -- or is it just to be known carnally?
Leonard also gets on the erotic merry-go-round, and eventually he discovers (predictably, for where else could the play go?) a writer to mentor in his peculiarly abrasive way. Tough love, indeed.
One of the hardest things to do in art is dramatize art, which is what makes the success of "Red," the play about Mark Rothko now playing in Pittsburgh, so engaging. "Seminar" gives this a good go. We don't see them write, of course -- who wants to watch someone stare at the computer or crumple printouts? But we hear snippets of their work read aloud, and we come to believe in their different talents, sort of.
But mainly we have the crisp enjoyment of four moons in eccentric orbit around Leonard's glowering dark star. Finally, after much lunar revelation -- some of it including naked body parts -- some light shines into Leonard's self disgust. He's so bitter we know there must be a warm core. Perhaps that's a touch sentimental, but why shouldn't we be given some taste of hope?
Needless to say, Mr. Rickman glowers with palpable charisma -- he's delicious. Lilly Rabe has a wonderfully frantic comic energy as Kate, and Jerry O'Connell and Hettienne Park are fine as apparent comic relief who turn out (again, no real surprise) to have more substance than is first apparent.
Hamish Linklater plays the student who most resists the lure of the guest expert and reveals the most promise. It's the one role where Ms. Rebeck's writing doesn't quite fill the outlines of her concept.
Of course I love this play, with all its smart talk about writing, plus some real insight. The sexual hanky-panky is fun, too. But mainly it's a double portrait of ambitious youth and an aging lion still capable of a hearty roar and a kill or two -- sort of like Rothko or Rickman or any aging artist (or journalist) you might know.
At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.; tickets at 800-432-7250 or www.telecharge.com .
The title refers to English influenced by Chinese, such as recent immigrants or Chinese businessmen might speak, as opposed, I assume, to whatever is spoken by their American equivalents -- Engchin?
Actual Chinglish doesn't loom large in this comedy by David Henry Hwang ("M Butterfly," "Yellow Face," "Aida"), because the Chinese characters speak mainly Chinese, with translations on a reader board. But there's plenty of Chinglish-like behavior as an American businessman tries to resurrect his company by scoring a big deal in the city of Guiyang. The heart of the comedy is in translations we see of the too-literal translations by klutzy translators (usually someone's nephew or girlfriend), in which American idioms easily turn into silliness, insults or profanity.
So the play is indeed about the differences between cultures, but of course it also discovers similarities, sometimes in the greed and corruption, which government and commerce are equally heir to and sometimes in bed with.
In fact, the differences often turn into similarities, or the reverse, as when our hero, the businessman from Ohio (where else!), confirms that he had been an executive with Enron. This wins him huge points with the Chinese, because (a) he was part of something big and famous (no matter its catastrophic result), (b) he actually knew Skilling and Lay and the other headline figures in that scandal and (c) the Chinese take his shame about all this to be the modesty with which they advertise their greatest triumphs.
Our hero finds a collaborator in a woman executive who has aims of her own and isn't averse to meeting him in bed along the way. Within these circles within circles, he really is out of his depth.
Acting honors go to Jennifer Lim as that collaborator. Daniel Cavanaugh lacks nuance as the Ohioan, but maybe that's built into Hwang's text, part of the American's inscrutable innocence.
Ultimately, "Chinglish" is a slick comedy about cultural difference and similarity, with the added angle that the shell company from Ohio, desperate to rebuild, comes to stand for an America equally afraid of its future.
But what makes the play fun isn't the story so much as all the byplay with language as cultures collide with comic results.
At Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.; tickets at 800-432-7250 or www.telecharge.com
First Published December 7, 2011 12:00 am