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Shows Worth Seeing:

Based on Primo Levi's If This is a Man
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Anyone with a scrap of sensitivity is bound to be apprehensive about a theatrical adaptation of Primo Levi’s masterpiece If This is a Man (1947), the memoir published in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz. As many have observed, there’s something slightly obscene about artistic representation of the Holocaust, no matter how sensitively done, because representation is necessarily comparative and comparison necessarily cheapens such incommensurable suffering. If you’re absolutely bent on representation, however, the least obscene choice is to work from direct testimony, as Peter Weiss did in The Investigation, and as the British actor Anthony Sher does in this solo show Primo. Dressed in a plain, professorial vest, tie and slacks, Sher speaks an abridged, 90-minute version of If This is a Man (cuts were the only adaptation the Levi estate would allow) on a grim, barren set of plain concrete walls with a single wooden chair. He animates Levi’s precise scientist’s prose with a coolly understated yet vulnerable air of puzzlement and bemusement, evidently understanding that more demonstrative expressions of emotion would have disgusted rather than moved. Awful as it may sound, the result is tasteful. The show comes off as a sort of diabolical bedtime story that no one really wants to hear but everyone acknowledges as necessary and strangely eloquent in its clinical exactitude. The most important thing, after all, is to hand this story down, and tasteful solo recitation is as good a means as any in an age of dwindling reading. I do wish that the audience were younger than it perforce is at Broadway ticket prices. The most protective move the Levi estate could've made for his legacy would’ve been to insist (as, say, John Leguizamo has done with his Broadway solo shows) that cheap tickets be made available for every performance.



Her Long Black Hair
By Janet Cardiff
Starting point at 6th Ave. and Central Park South
Runs Thurs.-Sun., 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., Free

In case you found the $90 tickets to Deborah Warner’s Angel Project a bit steep last summer, another, equally haunting theater experience involving a guided outdoor walking tour has returned to New York until Sept. 11, and it’s COMPLETELY FREE. Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s Her Long Black Hair is an audio walk through Central Park inspired by a set of old snapshots she found at a flea market. Speaking seductively to the spectator through headphones, Cardiff blends personal reminiscence with penetrating observation and free association, constructing a possible history for the photos while leading the spectator on a beautiful, physically involving adventure. The artist’s quiet apercus about the Park environment, and life in general, are much more likely to prompt new insights into those matters than a million orange gates are. One caution: this piece is not to be attended with chatty friends. It’s best savored as a mesmerizing solitary experience to be surrendered to and mulled over later.


Orson's Shadow
By Austin Pendleton
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Given the occupational hazards of its backstage-drama genre—mawkish thespian nostalgia, smug insider humor, dead celebrity fawning—it’s all the more gratifying to see how sharp, engaging and ambitious Orson’s Shadow is. Set in 1960, the play centers on the London premiere of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which Austin Pendleton imagines as a fortuitous occasion in which Lawrence Olivier, Orson Welles and Kenneth Tynan are thrust together in exceedingly unlikely collaboration. The fictional conceit is that each of these monomaniacs was looking at the time for a path out of a personal impasse and, for different reasons, saw opportunity in this absurdist drama that none of them particularly liked. Pendleton cleverly interweaves their public career dilemmas with their private angsts (notably the messy end of Olivier’s marriage to Vivien Leigh while he’d already taken up with Joan Plowright), and the result is a poignant rumination on self-obstruction among the brilliantly gifted. Among the greatest pleasures in the evening is the acting: Jeff Still’s pompously self-pitying portrayal of Welles, Tracy Letts’s eloquently stuttering Tynan, and John Judd’s dead-on portrait of Olivier’s self-conscious vanity. Susan Bennett as plump, steely Plowright and Lee Roy Rogers as the aging, manic-depressive Leigh add just the right bookends of control and desperation. Hats off to director David Cromer for keeping so many difficult balls in the air the whole time.



By Eric Idle and John Du Prez
Shubert Theatre
225 W. 44th St.
Box office: (212)239-6200

The great surprise of this musical recycling of the classic movie comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the amount of pleasure that can evidently be had at a Broadway show almost completely devoid of surprises. The play is not so much written as cobbled together from gags and vignettes so familiar to the audience that laughs often occur before a joke is told. The very appearance of certain beloved faux-medieval costumes, props and set pieces is enough to create giggling spasms at some points. There are scraps of novelty: the addition of silly songs and Vegas razzle-dazzle, as well as the transformation of self-consciousness about film into self-consciousness about theater (the toothsome Sara Ramirez, as the Lady of the Lake, has some wonderfully gratuitous numbers). The show is basically a masterful spectacle of repackaging, though. And what’s interesting about that is that the audience is laughing at the old gags for new reasons. People seem to savor the experience of enjoying the jokes in the particular circumstance of the theater, perhaps because that communal context recalls the original post-screening group-guffaws that extended their first enjoyment of the movie for months and years afterward. Quasi-private ribbing is reinvented and validated as a public event. In any case, the palpable thrill of rediscovery has a college-reunion flavor that is undeniably infectious.



By John Patrick Shanley
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W. 48th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


This splendidly acted, 90-minute clenched fist of a play may be the most penetrating and tautly written work of Shanley’s long career. It’s certainly the most urgent. Cherry Jones plays a tight-lipped, straight-laced, rule-mongering nun who, as principal of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, suspects the young parish priest of misbehaving with an 8th-grade boy. She has no hard evidence but nevertheless feels certain and is determined to bring the priest down. Father Flynn is clever, earnest, liberal and likeable, though, and the actor Brian F. O’Byrne gives him a fascinatingly ambiguous edge of intellectual ambitiousness. By the time he finishes defending himself the audience doesn’t know whom to believe. Jones’s severity as Sister Aloysius is frightening and her authoritarian harangues about self-effacement in teaching to Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), the boy’s teacher, make her hateful, but as she presses the question of the kid’s immediate safety--in the context of a rigid, top-down institutional structure that won't protect him--the plot starts to work as a powerful parable of justice and pseudo-justice in a time of supposed emergency. Director Doug Hughes has found just the right pace for the action, keeping it tightly coiled until about two-thirds through when open confrontation replaces speculation and insinuation. It’s thrilling to watch these formidable actors run with the ball after that point, particularly when you can really see their faces. Anyone who can afford it should spring for the front seats in the big Broadway theater where the show has now moved; the nature of the stalemate between this nun and priest can't be fully appreciated without seeing the subtlety of O'Byrne's reactions during the penultimate scene.




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