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Shows Worth Seeing:




Break of Noon
By Neil LaBute
Lucille Lortel Theatre
Box office: (212) 279-4200





Neil LaBute is not a delver. He made that clear long ago, so anyone who goes to his plays seeking exploration of psychological depths or social etiologies has not been paying attention. LaBute is a describer, and a good one at that. He is fascinated by surfaces, particularly the surface appearance of bad, obnoxious behavior, and his best work makes that behavior into a sort of Rorschach test that measures others’ relationships to superficiality. By this standard, Break of Noon is a very good LaBute play—sleek and punchy in its dance of appalling facades but also bound to frustrate and irritate all who crave dramas of in-depth exploration.

David Duchovny—whose flat TV affect is perfect for this assignment—plays the sole survivor of a mass-killing incident in which a disgruntled employee guns down people at his workplace. Afterward the Duchovny character claims that God spoke to him in the midst of the horror, singling him out for survival so he could spread the word that people should “you know, be good.” He has no particular insight into goodness and no talent for making people believe anything he says. In fact, he seems to have treated everyone around him awfully in the past. On top of that, he managed to snap a smart-phone-photo of the killer during the crime that he sold for a million bucks. The drama consists of scenes in which various characters who think this guy is full of baloney explain what they do believe by revealing their different expectations of him. His lawyer, for instance, only wants to provide savvy management for his newfound celebrity, his ex-wife only wants him to show real remorse for the past, and a detective only wants him to come clean about why the killer really let him live.

What no one is willing to embrace is the idea that this superficial, inarticulate, utterly unremarkable man may have had a real religious experience. By definition, that can’t be “proven” to others, and its unprovability impinges on all their cynical or secular assumptions about the world. Everyone in the play is bent on resolving the guy’s experience into some category they are already familiar and comfortable with, but LaBute won't validate their claims, or even judge them. In his snappy and efficient way, he just presents the surface facts of claim and reaction, showing us a world of people who really are happy to react to surfaces, for the most part, rather than probing beneath them or confronting anything outside their ken. It’s up to us to judge them if we want, as representatives of a remarkably ugly world that he describes chillingly well.


Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

By Tony Kushner
Signature Theatre
555 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 244-PLAY

Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking seven-hour epic about American identity viewed through the eyes of gays in the grip of the early AIDS crisis, took Broadway by storm in 1993, riding an intense wave of leftist relief following Bill Clinton’s election. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of this first New York revival since then is discovering that the work can still hold an audience rapt for an entire afternoon and evening despite the fact that that wave (and another one like it) has long since crested and broken. How well I remember smiling, outwardly and inwardly, at the daring impudence and devastating perceptiveness of Angels when it premiered, flush with admiration at the way it employed the self-conscious hilarity of gay camp to identify the moral slippages that had allowed the Reagan revolution to occur. In 2010, however, I wasn’t sure how the work’s cleverness would hold up in theatrical terms, and I worried that its earnest hunger for ecstatic millenarian experience would mean little to audiences weaned on Bushie cynicism and 9/11-era moral cowardice.

Michael Greif’s production has assuaged most of my doubts. It is smaller and humbler than George C.Wolfe’s was 17 years ago, and its resizing for an Off-Broadway house has forced some interesting re-evaluation of the play’s fantastical elements (e.g. the angels, ghosts, hallucinations, and flaming Hebrew letters). These now come off as much more self-consciously artificial than they did on Broadway, and in this form they’re more thought-provoking than purely amazing. The audience listens more closely in the smaller space, and the actors concentrate more on clarity than on playing big. Angels becomes more of a think-piece, and its thought doesn’t at all feel time-bound. I admit that some aspects of the diminished size are disappointing. Frank Wood’s quotidian portrayal of Roy Cohn, for instance, made me miss the monstrous enormity of Ron Leibman on Broadway, and Al Pacino in Mike Nichols’s film. Moreover, the role of Harper (played here by Zoe Kazan) is still a glaring blemish on the work, incompletely conceived and singularly unconvincing.

The main point, though, is that Greif’s production proves Angels’s bona fides as an echt theatrical warhorse, and as such its occasional blemishes seem moot in performance (a good performance, that is). Any warhorse of this kind is powered by a miraculous mechanism at its core: for Kushner this has to do with his earnest faith in dialectical thought and righteous campy anger. Fueled in this utterly reliable way, the work clicks and hums along so efficiently and entertainingly that you just sit back to enjoy the ride, whatever you might think. You know within a half hour that your time will not be wasted, since all the play’s dramatic gambits clearly have strong theatrical pith from the get-go. Contributing to that feeling are marvelous performances by Robin Bartlett as Hannah Pitt, Christian Borle as Prior, and Billy Porter as Belize.

Remarkably, no one in the audience left during the entire seven hours at the performance I attended, which is more than could be said about Wolfe’s production, or indeed about any of the other dozen or so marathon plays that have (curiously) appeared in New York this year.



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