BY CORDELIA MESEROW
It has been more than four centuries since The Bard declared in Hamlet, “the play’s the thing,” and, in New York, that adage has never rung more true. The New York theater scene is more alive and diverse than ever before, with both new content and illuminating revivals, alike. Recent productions have starred many of the reigning theater queens and kings such as the inimitable Glenda Jackson in the upcoming King Lear and last summer’s Three Tall Women, and Nathan Lane, whose turn as Roy Cohn in the recent Angels in America revival earned him his third Tony award. Hollywood and television stars, many tired of long-running series and action films, have also come to the great white way to stretch their creative muscles. Andrew Garfield, our former Spiderman, played Prior Walter in the Angels in America revival alongside Nathan Lane, and, like Lane, also won a Tony for his singularly affecting performance. Many more familiar names have also been gracing Broadway this year including: Bryan Cranston, Kerry Washington, Adam Driver, Ruth Wilson, Jeff Daniels, and even legendary “boss,” Bruce Springsteen.
As a Chicago transplant living in New York, I have seized upon New York’s cultural opportunities and become a fairly avid theatergoer. Because in New York, both “the play” and the musical are “the thing,” the first issue of this Broadway report will focus solely on plays; musicals will follow in the next edition.
Andrew Garfield accepts his Tony award in June 2018 for his role in Angels in America. Image courtesy of BBC.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
After a very long, very public battle with Harper Lee’s estate regarding the book’s rights, renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird premiered on Broadway at the Shubert Theater this past December. While some staunch defenders of both the novel and the beloved 1962 film starring Gregory Peck were skeptical, previous apprehensions regarding Sorkin’s play have been quieted. “Mockingbird” has received rave reviews, and tickets are selling at the pace of Hamilton when it first premiered. Seats are now so difficult to procure, that I snuck away to see the play by myself on a weekend afternoon rather than go with a friend, as I usually do. The box office told me I would have to wait nearly three months to purchase two seats together for a weekend performance, and I was eager to see the show as soon as I could.
Promotional material for To Kill a Mockingbird. Image Courtesy of Broadway.com.
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film. Image courtesy of Amazon.com.
Sorkin’s new play is directed by Bartlett Sher, a Broadway veteran with a knack for creative re-imaginings of familiar stories. (He similarly demonstrates this skill in his direction of the My Fair Lady revival currently playing at Lincoln Center, which I will cover in my follow-up article). Once Sorkin and Sher had joined forces, they knew that there was no one else to play the starring role of Atticus Finch but actor, Jeff Daniels. They did not even audition anyone else for the part, as Sorkin details in a recent interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Daniels and Sorkin are frequent collaborators, starting with the HBO series, “The Newsroom,” the film Steve Jobs, among other projects. Atticus Finch is the role that Daniels was born to play. He has the small-town charm in spades, a result of raising his family in Michigan where he is from and never moving out to Hollywood. He shines as the benevolent widower and lawyer with a strict moral compass and do-gooder nature.
Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in the new Aaron Sorkin play. Image courtesy of People Magazine.
Sorkin’s play makes a few tweaks to the novel’s familiar plot. The focus is on the trial itself, more so than the Boo Radley mystery, and the drama of the courtroom enhances the story on stage. The role of Calpurnia has also been expanded, and she serves as a vocal foil to Atticus and as a strong influence on the Finch children. With regards to the children, Scout, Gem, and their friend Dill are played by adult rather than child actors, and given their multitude of lines and mature subject matter, Sorkin made the right decision on the casting.
The 21st century Sorkin “Mockingbird” is a triumph in writing, acting, and message. Lee’s uniquely beloved story has never been more artfully rendered. It is a sin “to kill a mockingbird,” as Atticus Finch says, and it’s just as much of a sin not to see Aaron Sorkin’s “Mockingbird” as soon as possible!
Based on the 1976 film of the same name, Network stars Bryan Cranston in the role of the unhinged television anchor Howard Beale that Peter Finch made famous. Cranston originated the role in the West-End production a couple of years ago and continues his run as Beale in the Broadway version.
Peter Finch in the original 1976 film. Image courtesy of Esquire.
Similar to To Kill a Mockingbird, Network is also bursting with themes that bear a great deal of relevance to the current polemical state of affairs. The show takes place in New York in the 1970s and focuses on a network news show on the fictional station, UBS, and the relationships of the show’s stars and behind-the-scenes employees. Following the station’s acquisition by a larger media conglomerate, CCA, the nightly news anchor, Howard Beale, is fired, and, as a result, quickly loses his grip on reality, which he boldly displays on air to millions of viewers. The network’s head of programming, Diana Christensen, convinces UBS to capitalize on Beale’s madness and keep him in their employ. Christensen wants to enhance ratings and Beale’s mental state creates content that is more entertainment by way of news, rather than just a straight news show.
Bryan Cranston calling viewers to action as Howard Beale on stage. Image courtesy of Variety.
The role of Diana, the young, cold, director of programming originally played by Faye Dunaway, is played by Tatiana Maslany, who is, sadly, miscast. Her looks are inconsistent with the cool, ambitious beauty that the role calls for, and Maslany’s interpretation of Diana’s desire for professional success is shrill and obvious, as opposed to Dunaway’s authentic fervor. Rounding out the cast is Tony Goldwyn, of Scandal fame (his co-star Kerry Washington also had a turn on Broadway at the end of 2018). Goldwyn plays Beale’s best friend, Max Schumacher, who is also the news division president at UBS. Goldwyn is delightful as Max, and he brings the show the Hollywood star power that justifies those high Broadway ticket prices.
Network’s focus on entertainment within the context of a news show alarmingly predicts the cable news battles that go on among the pundits on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. Further, the station’s acquisition by a larger media outlet brilliantly foreshadows the consolidation of today’s media companies – think Fox merging with Disney, AT&T and Time-Warner, Comcast and NBC – all multiple decades before they occurred. CCA’s subsequent acquisition by a shady Saudi Arabian conglomerate is akin to those same Saudis buying up commercial property and luxury real estate in droves with untraceable LLCs and complex legal entities in the United States.
Dunaway dazzles as Diana Christensen. Image courtesy of BBC.
Cranston approaches the role of Beale with all the fervor and comedy it requires. His famous nearly 20-minute monologue is delivered in his pajamas. While initially shaky and unsure, he gradually builds to a rousing call to action, ending with audience and cast members declaring that they are “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore!” While the message is blatant, it is hard to deny its power. Despite the miscasting of Diana, this production shines. And, most importantly, Network is a story that translates well from cinema to stage. So if you’re “mad as hell” about today’s media circus and political climate, then Network is the show for you.
IN SHORT: THREE TALL WOMEN & ANGELS IN AMERICA
Both Angels in America and Three Tall Women were on limited runs last year and brought star-studded casts and content to the New York stage. While they are no longer running, I will briefly recap each.
Three Tall Women, written by Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) charts the story of one woman at three different stages of life. The woman has no name and is known by a simple letter of A, B, and C (ranging from oldest to youngest). Playing A, B, and C, respectively, are Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Allison Pill. Jackson had not performed on Broadway in decades, after having left behind acting to become an MP in the British Parliament. She brings sardonic and sharp humor to the role of “A” and won a Tony award for her performance. Laurie Metcalf, a veteran of our own Steppenwolf Theater, shines as “B,” a woman in her middle-age with an early 20s daughter. Metcalf plays “B” with deep emotional insight and also brought home a Tony for her role. Rounding out the cast is Allison Pill, who many remember from Aaron Sorkin’s the Newsroom and small roles in several Woody Allen films. Pill, while admittedly in interviews was intimidated by her veteran co-stars, was perfectly cast as the young, naïve “C.” She should have many more theater roles coming her way.
From left: Allison Pill, Glenda Jackson, and Laurie Metcalf in Three Tall Women. Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.
Behind the scenes, Joe Mantello directed this dynamite trifecta. Coincidentally, Mantello was actually one of the original cast members of Angels in America and is now one of Broadway’s most commercially successful theater directors (ever heard of a little show called, Wicked?). Mantello brought out the best in each of the actresses in “Women” and a return to serious content was a welcome change for this actor/director. Overall, Three Tall Women was a short (90 minutes, no intermission) but thought-provoking show about the lifespan of a woman and was one I am pleased to have seen.
Joe Mantello with the cast during rehearsal. Image courtesy of American Theatre.
Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s early 90s epic play, was the most incredible piece of theater I have ever seen. “Angels” is a commitment. It is a two-part play that spans nearly 8 hours. During its run, you could see both parts on a weekend in one day, or go during the week on different evenings to see part one, Millennium Approaches, and part two, Perestroika, separately. My friend and I chose to see the entire play on one Saturday last summer.
Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in promotional materials for the play. Image courtesy of Broadway.com.
The brilliant production was brought to life by way of Marianne Eliot, an imaginative director who also did the play version of the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, several years ago. I was blown away by “Curious” when I saw it and was even more so with Eliot’s rendition of “Angels.” The staging of the angel itself, the characters’ dream sequences, the acting – all of it was rendered with such precision and care, one could tell no stone was left unturned. Eliot also had the crème de la crème of casts in this most recent production. Andrew Garfield plays the lead role of Prior Walter, a young man from a posh upbringing who, despite being diagnosed with AIDS, has a distinctly moral and positive bent on life. Alongside Garfield is Nathan Lane, whose turn as the disgraced and AIDS-afflicted lawyer Roy Cohn, puts Lane in an uncharacteristically dramatic role, but one that he was born to play.
Neon angels’ wings at the Neil Simon Theater were a popular photo prop with audiences during the play’s intermissions.
“Angels” is a show that speaks to virtually every occurrence in the human condition: politics, history, love, family, illness – with a dash of fantasy thrown in for good measure. To discuss it in short, is to almost do the work a disservice. But what one learns from Kushner’s utter brilliance is to seize each day as it comes. “More life,” Prior Walter proclaims at the close of the play. Yes, Prior, more life, more life, and, most importantly, more theater! Stay tuned for Act II, which will cover the latest Broadway musicals.
Prior Walter is visited by the Angel. Image courtesy of the New York Times.
Coming soon: My Fair Lady, The Band’s Visit, Dear Evan, Hansen, and more!