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Shows Worth Seeing:


The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
The Jew of Malta
by Christopher Marlowe
The Duke on 42nd St.
229 W. 42nd St.
Box office: 212-239-6200

This Theatre for a New Audience pairing of Shakespeare’s infamous “Jew play” with the downright disturbing Christopher Marlowe play that inspired it is one of the most interesting repertory scheduling ideas New York has seen in years. More important, the productions are both extremely strong, with F. Murray Abraham playing the villainous Jewish protagonist in both. Tickets have become scarce for the remaining performances, but a strenuous effort is worth the trouble. David Herskovits’ production of the rarely performed Jew of Malta is admirably lucid, raising all the right questions about exactly what this cagey author was trying to say about Jews in particular or religion in general. And Darko Tresnjak’s production of The Merchant of Venice is superb, a tonic for anyone whose faith in the art of directing may have been flagging. The use of anachronisms (such as electronic devices) is, for once, actively and fruitfully integrated into the action, and Abraham is positively frightening, particularly in the culminating trial scene. The final scenes are also of particular interest, casting an air of disharmony over all the supposedly happy couples. Tresnjak’s decision to leave Portia (Kate Forbes) in her male clothing for the ending was quietly brilliant, implying that she has wholly understood the nature of her competition for Bassanio's affections. Go and watch how her behavior wipes the smug grin off Antonio's face (Tom Nelis).





The Fever
Written and Performed by Wallace Shawn
The Acorn Theater
410 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 279-4200






Most of the complaints you may have heard about Wallace Shawn’s The Fever are probably true. They’re also probably not the whole truth. Yes, this meandering 90-minute monologue is an uncomfortable, confrontational, even annoying portrait of liberal guilt that is neither analytically rigorous nor especially moving as a portrait-study. The speaker, called “the traveler,” is a fairly ordinary, comfortable American who starts asking inconvenient questions about how his privileged existence—and by extension the whole unjust distribution of wealth in the world—can be morally justified. Trying to work this out, he travels to a poor country mired in a messy revolution and becomes ill. His loosely connected and possibly delusional memories and musings about how the “haves” of the world do and ought to behave are bookended by descriptions of him collapsed at the toilet in his hotel room. What makes the work fascinating is the sheer chutzpa of Shawn presuming to lecture savvy and generally liberal New Yorkers like a parent haranguing a teenager. Seated in a leather armchair and speaking steadily in his signature matter-of-fact, nasal manner—after a half hour of hobnobbing with audience members over champagne before the show—he is less like a nagging voice of conscience than a sort of moral woodpecker tapping away at the thick carapaces people build around their self-justifications. In that sense, the show is a fascinating spectacle of raw provocation, dressed up as a pleasant little chat in a friend’s living room.


By Brian Friel
Biltmore Theatre
261 W. 47th St.
Box office: 212-239-6200


On the face of it, Brian Friel’s Translations is a fairly straightforward and predictable play about forbidden love that ends tragically under historically prescient circumstances. A young British lieutenant, sent to County Donegal in 1833 to help make a new map of the area, falls for a local beauty named Maire whose people won’t tolerate the union. The mapping project has obvious military importance, but the officers carrying it out seem cultivated and harmless enough—until they’re provoked, that is. What gives the play its sharp emotional edge, though, is the way Friel mixes language differences into the political and romantic soup. The action takes place in an old barn used as a school for adults—a common institution known as a hedge school—where Greek and Latin are taught, but not English. Lieutenant Yolland speaks no Gaelic and Maire speaks no English, and since one of his jobs is to give the county’s places new English names, he is drawn into loving the woman’s language along with her, which amounts to betrayal of his employers. That betrayal, in turn, raises uncomfortable questions about just what each side was actually protecting in the long and violent Irish-English struggle to come: resistance to the English being also resistance to modernity, and repression of the Irish being also obliviousness to all the lofty principles of Empire. This is a play that would lie dead as a lump of peat without a director who knows its Irish milieu down to the smells and the particularities of the shabby clothes, and without actors equipped to communicate the trickery behind language. (There's a fascinating convention, for instance, whereby the Irish characters speak English but are understood to be speaking Gaelic). The Manhattan Theatre Club is lucky to have Garry Hynes in the driver’s seat, and to have such a superb cast and design team (the set and costumes are by Francis O’Connor). Translations won’t be done this well in New York for a long time to come, and it should be seen while its here.




The Scene
By Theresa Rebeck
Second Stage Theatre
307 W. 43rd St.
Box office: (212) 246-4422

Theresa Rebeck is one of the strongest storytellers currently writing for the American theater. Her plays have a shotgun efficiency, honed during years of TV-writing, and she has carved out an arena of topical specialization with her biting observations about the power dynamics of male-female relations. One reason her new play, The Scene, packs such a big punch is that it draws energy from both of the sources just mentioned. The tale of a 19-year marriage and still older friendship destroyed by the transparent opportunism of a 20-something blonde bimbo is classic Rebeck: intelligent men rendered idiotic by sexual attraction, life-destroying betrayals tucked into innocuous turns of speech, careerism as social pathology. There’s deeper than usual revulsion here, however, at the vacuity of the television world that Rebeck’s actor-character Charlie (played by Tony Shalhoub) painfully tries to negotiate, and this depth of disgust could only come from Rebeck’s personal experience in Hollywood. Shalhoub’s 5-minute tirade about the inanity of a pilot-script is a fabulous tour-de-force, reason enough to see the show, and Anna Camp’s portrayal of the possibly not-so-dumb airhead is also spot-on. Directing this work well was a tough balancing act, requiring equal sensitivity to both the horrors and the attractions of Rebeck’s circumstances, and Rebecca Taichman did a splendid job with it. The Scene comes off as the best new play staged in New York so far this season.




Spring Awakening
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 W. 49th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


In some ways, Steven Slater and Duncan Sheik’s musical version of Wedekind’s 1891 classic Spring Awakening is more comfortable on Broadway than it was downtown at the Atlantic Theater. Transfer to the commercial context completes and validates the process of neutralizing the play’s provocativeness, which more than a century of changing sexual mores had all but accomplished in any case. Part of what makes this buoyant and superbly executed show work so well is its shrewdness about anachronism. The costumes, characters and spoken lines—say, 30 percent of the action—are all firmly rooted in the 19th century, but the music and song lyrics are just as unabashedly contemporary. Thus, it never seems to matter that the major plot calamities come down to lack of information about sex that is unimaginable in present-day Germany or America. The music tells a pulsing, wholly up-to-date story about burgeoning sexuality that may not be avant-garde but nevertheless feels timeless and authentic. The score by Duncan Sheik holds up impressively on a second hearing: a mix of pop and alternative rock (think Kelly Clarkson morphing into Husker Du and Yo La Tango), with three or four songs sticking in mind long after the final curtain. The marvelous young cast still performs with infectious fervor, and the focus of Michael Mayer’s direction and Bill T. Jones’s choreography is even more apparent on the bigger stage. Spring Awakening isn’t really Wedekind, but it’s an evening of surprising emotional power that sparkles in the end on a simple plane of wonder.



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