The Sorrow and the City

The joke parable shows us a drought-beleaguered city where one rich man, by rationing the water supply, controls the right to pee; violators are "sent to Urinetown," which we aren't supposed to know means they're shoved off a tall building. (The narrator, who's also the police force, lets this slip early on, so I'm not spoiling anything.) In this tense situation, the mogul's golden-hearted daughter, fresh from school, inspires a young "amenity" attendant to lead a pee-for-free revolt. The proletariat wins, with results as dire as if they'd lost, the moral being that our way of life is unsustainable. This glib statement seems, as truth, neither whole enough nor deep enough to justify a full evening, though Urinetown offers a fair number of witty diversions en route to it. Jeff McCarthy as the cop-cum-narrator, Hunter Foster as the rebel leader, and John Cullum, who gives the tycoon an enchanting mix of diffidence and monomania, are the standout performers, with Spencer Kayden and Kay Walbye, in lesser roles, ready to steal what's left of the show at any moment. If it reduces everything to a joke—apparently the current trend in musicals—at least Urinetown keeps its japery in one target area, avoiding Bat Boy's aimless meander across the whole shooting range. Now the challenge for Kotis and Hollmann is to make the joke richer and deeper, and maybe get it out of the latrine into the fresh air.


Stephen McKinley Henderson and Viola Davis in King Hedley II: omens of looming sorrow
photo: Joan Marcus
Stephen McKinley Henderson and Viola Davis in King Hedley II: omens of looming sorrow

Details

King Hedley II
By August Wilson
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street
212-239-6200
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Urinetown
By Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
American Theatre of Actors
314 West 54th Street
212-239-6200
Buy tickets

Madame Melville
By Richard Nelson
Promenade Theatre
Broadway and 76th Street
212-239-6200
Buy tickets

Richard Nelson's Madame Melville breathes the rarefied air of rich Americans in Paris just before the late-'60s upheavals, with its story of an inhibited teenage boy's seduction by a sympathetic schoolmistress over one traumatic weekend. Solider and more sympathetic than many recent Nelson plays, it seems at first like an amiable, somewhat trite, romance. As it morphs from sentiment to screwball comedy to melodrama, though, it gets increasingly more irritating. By the end, the scent of the Seine has vanished on the breeze, and you realize, to your dismay, that you're left with yet another of those Nelsonian plays in which life is a Pirandello quiz game in motivational research, with each player hiding yet another concealed desire behind the one the last scene unmasked, to the point where you simply give up, not wanting to spend your life exploring characters who had so little intrinsic interest in the first place. Macaulay Culkin is either an awkward and inadequately trained actor, or a first-rate one giving an excellent performance as an awkward, tentative 10th-grader; I can't tell which. Joely Richardson, as his erotic mentor, is smoothly convincing but on the arid side emotionally. Comic relief, in the person of Robin Weigert as the giddy American cellist next door, has rarely been so necessary, and Weigert's excellent performance—funny, poignant, and pointed—will probably be insanely overrated as a result.

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