Agenda Bending

There are, in fact, a lot of wonderful people and half a dozen pretty great musical moments scattered through the unfocused haze of this raucous orgy. Toni Collette, making her New York debut as beleaguered Queenie, is a real treasure: a beauty, with a vibrant stage presence, who can act and sing. Her results, in this context, are inevitably scattershot, but every moment is good in itself. Tonya Pinkins, as her jealous rival, and Norm Lewis, as the plastered prizefighter Eddie, do strong, sustained work with unrewarding material; Marc Kudisch, used in previous shows merely as a handsome, hulking object, turns out to have wonderful comic energy and inventiveness as the manic Jackie, whose character LaChiusa has captured in song with appalling accuracy.

A vaudeville show that conveys nothing about vaudeville, set by Robin Wagner in a vast gloomy space that suggests these two performers live in the Vanderbilt mansion, The Wild Party is saddening and frustrating: It neither gets the story down flat nor rises high enough above it to become something else. Shifting between the two levels, preoccupied with its own ideas about what it's supposed to be, it keeps forgetting to let us know. Lippa's version, with fewer peaks and fewer standout performers, had the big advantage of terseness, telling the book's brute story and leaving it at that; like it or not, it felt complete. This one, in contrast, feels unwieldy and overlong (an hour and 55 minutes with no intermission), yet somehow unfinished. I can't remember feeling less entertained at a show with so many good points.

Judith Ivey and Hayley Mills in "Shadows of the Evening": Suite while it lasted
photo: Joan Marcus
Judith Ivey and Hayley Mills in "Shadows of the Evening": Suite while it lasted


Suite in Two Keys
By NoŽl Coward
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street (Closed)

By Martin Sherman
Lyceum Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street 212-239-6200

The Wild Party
By Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-239-6200

The Real Thing
By Tom Stoppard
Barrymore Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street 212-239-6200

The Real Thing, in David Leveaux's newly imported Donmar Warehouse rendition, also has its good points—a double surprise to me. In Mike Nichols's hands, decades ago, the play seemed a lopsided bad joke, while Leveaux's previous New York productions—two ghastly O'Neill stagings and last year's hideous Elektra—have been acts of criminal incompetence. With this play he's on home ground and proves that he knows his business. The tone is dry, the lighting harsh, and the sets stark, but, hey, that's England; the music—'50s doo-wop and rock standards from the hero's collection—is cunningly chosen to comment on the action. And the cast is on target at every moment, especially Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane in the leads.

These virtues add up to a substantive evening, but not, unfortunately, to a play. With its cuts restored, and liberated from Nichols's canny audience-pleasing jocosities, The Real Thing is revealed as a coherent but badly bifurcated and undramatic work. Onto an old-style West End study of marital jealousy, Stoppard imposes a satire on welfare-state gentility that equates liberalism with bad faith. His hero, a playwright (always a danger sign), is both the source of the infidelity and the lone voice crying out against it, a paradox that the audience barely notices, since it's far too busy keeping up with the hero's endless rat-tat-tat monologues. Giving your writer-hero all the good lines while making him his own worst enemy is a recipe for a slapstick act, but not for a play. Thankfully, Stoppard learned better after he grew up; Arcadia is one of the best first plays ever written. From that vantage point, we can smile at The Real Thing's hopeless unreality.

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