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Shows Worth Seeing:


By David Mamet
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Once in a while, an actor—invariably male—locates the music within David Mamet’s bullying staccato language with such deep and intense sympathy that he ends up suffusing the play with magnificent light, even though everything he says is disgusting. This happened several times with Joe Mantegna in the 1980s (in Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow), and it’s happening now in Neil Pepe’s superb revival of Speed-the-Plow. I refer not to the HBO headliner Jeremy Piven who is fine as Hollywood producer Bobby Gould (the role originated by Mantegna) but rather to the amazing stage actor opposite him, Raul Esparza. Esparza pumps up the role of Charlie Fox, Gould’s less powerful associate, with such absurdly supercharged aggression that his cynical quips drop like philosophical pearls, and his manic movements become the stuff of a sort of amazing and hilarious dance. He leaves you breathless, not only because of his energy but because there isn’t a false note in the whole manic race he runs for 85minutes. Pepe was also shrewd to cast Elisabeth Moss (from Mad Men) as Karen, the office temp who almost ruins the boys’ blockbuster movie deal by injecting a dose of sincerity along with the sex requested of her. Because Moss is a bit older and less bimboesque than the typical Karen, the audience can take her somewhat more seriously than they otherwise would, and that makes her threat more substantial. Speed-the-Plow is not a think piece. It’s more like the dramatic equivalent of one of those G-force simulators they use to train astronauts, and if you enjoy that sort of exhilarating flattening, this is the show for you.



Billy Elliot: the Musical
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John
Imperial Theatre

249 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Curiously enough, this eagerly awaited musical adaptation of the movie Billy Elliot is almost as good as its hype. The story about a boy from a gritty northern English coal-mining town who discovers a passion for ballet was always irresistibly charming—just the sort of triumph-against-the-odds, home-town-boy fairytale Hollywood got rich on. The British adaptors of this show have been unusually clever, though, in giving the tale strong theatrical legs. Elton John’s rousing anthems and ballads pull all the right heartstrings to make the audience cheer for both the boy’s success and the victory of the union in the 1980s miners’ strike that forms the play’s social background. But since that strike ultimately failed—the Thatcher government famously broke the union—the play’s impassioned cries of “solidarity” have decidedly funereal overtones, and the story of the boy’s individual triumph has particular poignancy against the bitter failure of his loved ones’ collective action. This incongruity gives the work a modest political complexity that other Cinderella stories lack. The show is also wonderfully inventive. Director Stephen Daldry (who also directed the movie) has inserted bizarrely fluid choruses of cops and miners, for instance, who spread their good and bad energy willy-nilly while sweeping through windows, gyms and kitchens. At one point, Billy dances a strangely anomalous pas de deux with his imagined older self, who seems to provide the only viable adult role model he can muster. There are half a dozen inspired creations of this kind, as well as superb performances by (among others): Haydn Gwynne, who finds just the right mixture of stoniness and congealed syrup for Billy’s dance teacher; Carole Shelley as his wacked out grandmother; and the three child-actors who play Billy (I saw Kiril Kulish). It feels decidedly odd to endorse a blockbuster London import in this way, but, well, this show deserves to be seen.




By David Rabe
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St.
Box office: (212) 719-1300

What a happy surprise this Roundabout revival of Streamers is. I vaguely remember liking David Rabe’s play when it first appeared more than three decades ago, but I haven’t seen or read it since and who trusts memories that old? Turns out, it does tell a crackling good story, as I remembered. More than that, though, I now see that it’s one of those rare American plays that transcends its strict realism due to the author’s sheer power of concentration, his ability to follow through unflinchingly while tracing out the consequences of his shrewdly drawn, volatile given circumstances. Rabe never blinks in depicting this awful collision between soldiers of different classes, races and sexual orientations, who are thrown together in a Virginia army barracks while awaiting probable orders to Vietnam. The outlines of the play’s scenario, thus described, may easily sound like a yawn, since countless plays and movies have exploited it for tendentious or sentimental ends. No easy bromides or message-billboards for Rabe, though. His people are dauntingly complex and multi-colored, and their terrible showdown has broad allegorical resonance, even an air of tragic inevitability. Scott Ellis’s production is smart, swift and unexpectedly potent given that he keeps it rather cool until the climactic violence. The actors are clear and penetrating, though some are definitely stronger than others: J.D. Williams is dead-on as diplomatic Roger, as is Ato Essandoh as menacing Carlyle, but Brad Fleischer never quite finds the blustery uncertainty that sets Billy up as a sacrificial goat. In any case, the strength of the ensemble makes up for spotty deficiencies, and the people seated around me were visibly shaken by the ending.


The cast of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," directed by Simon McBurney, 2008. Photo: Joan Marcus.

All My Sons

By Arthur Miller
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th St.
Box office: 212-439-6200

For obscure reasons, we seem to need the British to show us how to breathe life into America’s most heroic dramatist from the last century. This time it’s the director Simon McBurney who has taken an Arthur Miller play more than 60 years old and made it seem as fresh as a new Tony Kushner work. I’ve seen All My Sons several times before, and it has always seemed to me a rather straightforward nugget of 1930s leftist moralism: the protagonist, Joe Keller, is a heel because he knowingly sold defective airplane parts to the Army Air Force during wartime and blamed his partner for the crime, all (he says) so he could leave his sons a successful business—an extremely moving but also rather tidy and obvious fable demonstrating the necessity to look beyond callous capitalist imperatives to our larger social responsibilities. Refreshingly, McBurney’s production reveals a more complex tale where motives are deeper and more contradictory than the characters’ self-justifying bluster implies. Patrick Wilson’s Chris, for instance, the dutiful war-veteran son whose uncompromising idealism drives Joe to suicide in the end, comes across here not as a hapless naïf but rather as another type of killer, ruthless in moral rigidity where Joe was ruthless in profit-seeking. Diane Wiest as Joe’s wife Kate and Katie Holmes as Ann, the girl Chris wants to marry, are just as multifarious in their nuances. The production is also a visual feast, with sumptuous animated projections against a clapboard back wall and a Midwestern yard sketched with just the right iconic objects (design by Tom Pye). In an interview in the 1990s, Miller said that All My Sons was being produced more than many of his other plays, and he guessed it was because of the high number of public investigations going on into official malfeasance in business and government. Had he lived a little longer, he would have understood another reason: the arrival of apparently endless war, which has made the genre of returning-soldier drama heart-breakingly apt. All My Sons is more than a returning-soldier drama, but that aspect of it is hard to forget as the climax arrives and drives home the pointed question of how basic our civilized values are, and what it really means for a nation to say, reflexively and habitually, that we must win at all costs.



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