Getting Gilbert Unmarried

The famous librettist, sans Sullivan, is most engaging with a play that's so old it's new again

For many, the most anticipated treat on this spring's roster of theater events is a totally homegrown rendering of a foreign import, a play so old that it's new, and so quaint that its attitude may seem totally up-to-date. Even more surprising, it's a solo performance by an artist who's normally viewed as chained for life to his partner. Just say "Gilbert," and if you're referring to William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911), the automatic reply will always be "and Sullivan." After all, even movie fans know, thanks to Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, that these two guys wrote The Mikado, not to mention H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and nearly a dozen other pieces of light music-theater that for more than a century have cropped up everywhere from community sings to major opera houses, and show no signs of disappearing, even if the clutch of websites devoted to them doesn't exactly outnumber those fixated on same-sex marriage.

But what even some of the dedicated posters at savoy.org and its ilk don't realize is that Gilbert had a career, in the theater and out, that went well beyond the 14 comic operas he wrote with Sullivan. Trained as a lawyer, he began by writing light verse (still read today), graduated to scripts for Christmas "pantos" and the spoofs of grand opera that Victorian England called "burlesques," and from that popular base launched, over the next four decades, a cascade of plays and libretti that ranged from music-hall satirical sketches to blank-verse tragedy, in a style induplicable by anyone else. A meld of thick, mock-pompous prose, slyly sniping wit, and airy lunacy, Gilbert's writing is as delicious to quote as it is easy to recognize, which is why he's bred generations of die-hard fans.

And which is also, presumably, why Off-Broadway's enterprising Theater for a New Audience (TFANA) is presenting, as its spring show, this millennium's first major revival of the one non-Sullivan work by Gilbert that ranks as a perennial: Engaged. Written and produced in 1877, not long after Gilbert turned 40, it's a mordant vision of young love and marriage in a money-centered society, distinctly by a man entering middle life without an ounce of compassion to spare for the plush life around him. (Ironically, Gilbert himself was about to enter that life through the giant worldwide success of his collaborations with Sullivan.) Scholars often rank Engaged as Gilbert's masterpiece—a major stepping-stone on the glorious path of English social comedy from The Rivals to The Importance of Being Earnest. (Bernard Shaw, another practitioner, was the first of many critics to accuse Wilde's masterpiece of borrowing its inspiration from Gilbert.)

Like midlife crisis, TFANA's production is touched by a somber shadow: The director originally engaged to reawaken Gilbert's opus, Gerald Gutierrez, died suddenly in December. His successor, Douglas Hughes—fresh from the bumptious horseplay of last fall's The Beard of Avon—has retained Gutierrez's stellar design team (sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Catherine Zuber), and TFANA will dedicate the resulting production to the memory of double Tony winner Gutierrez (whose forays into high comedy included Lincoln Center's A Delicate Balance and Ring Round the Moon). Hughes, best known for darker works like his Obie-winning The Grey Zone, may turn out a production that matches Gilbert for bite. With a cast of accomplished drolls that includes Danielle Ferland, John Horton, Maggie Lacey, and Sloane Shelton, he may even be able to free Gilbert from the mental chain in which his name always brings up "and Sullivan." Footnote: Most tickets are reasonably priced, but the press rep tells us there's a special rate for divorce lawyers: $375 per billable act. Those who want to follow Gilbert in ditching the legal profession can save a bundle.

Engaged, by W.S. Gilbert, previews begin April 20, opens April 29, through May 16, Theater for a New Audience at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, 212.229.2819


Comments by Charles McNulty


MATCH
Previews begin March 12, opens April 8
Plymouth Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, 212.239.6200

Nicholas Martin directs Stephen Belber's new play about a Juilliard dance teacher and a police officer intent on unearthing his dangerous secret. If the premise sounds pedestrian, the male leads, Frank Langella and Ray Liotta, reassure that there'll be dangerous theatrical leaps.


WAVE
March 12-April 11
Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street, 212.971.4873

The Obie-winning Ma-Yi Theater Company presents a new play by Sung Rno, inspired by the Medea myth—though in contemporary ways (think publicity-whoring and gun-toting kids) undreamt of by Euripides.


EMBEDDED
Opens March 14
Public Theater's Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 212.239.6200

Tim Robbins (yes, that Tim Robbins) directs members of his company, the Actors' Gang, in the satire he penned on the Pentagon's Persian Gulf War II media coup, which continues to provoke Orwellian shudders in those who care about such endangered things as a free press.


WELL
Previews begin March 16, opens March 28
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 212.239.6200

Lisa Kron's Obie-winning solo play 2.5 Minute Ride focused on Kron's relationship with her father, who survived the Holocaust by way of the kindertransport. Her new piece revolves around her mother, whose "extraordinary ability to heal a changing neighborhood" wasn't enough to save her from her own illness.


A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
March 16-28
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718.636.4100

Treading dangerously on his father's ground, Edward Hall, son of Peter, directs an all-male version of Shakespeare's puckish romantic comedy. If the casting conceit is any gauge, he's inherited an even bolder set of theatrical genes.


INTIMATE APPAREL
March 17-June 6
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, 212.719.1300

The dependably haunting Viola Davis stars in Lynn Nottage's play about an African American seamstress whose provocative lingerie designs offer her financial independence, but can they spark romance in her life? The production, directed by the reliable Daniel Sullivan, inaugurates the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, which serves as the Roundabout's new Off-Broadway venue.


THE SLUG BEARERS OF KAYROL ISLAND, OR THE FRIENDS OF DR. RUSHOWER
March 19-27
The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, 212.255.5793

This musical-theater collaboration between cartoonist Ben Katchor and rock composer Mark Mulcahy blends drawings, animation, and a sung-through pop score to tell of an "absurdist romance" involving a philanthropist and an aficionado of instructional pamphlets, who embark together on a campaign to rescue exploited workers.


HANNAH & MARTIN
March 20-April 25
Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank Street, 212.279.4200

David Strathairn and Melissa Friedman star in this play about Martin Heidegger (brilliant philosopher, Nazi) and his relationship with his star pupil, young lover, and lifelong moral challenger, Hannah Arendt.


ROAR
March 22-May 8
Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, 212.239.6200

Palestinian American playwright Betty Shamieh's new play explores the tumult of the first Persian Gulf war on a Palestinian American family living in Detroit. Marion McClinton, the reigning king of realistic ensemble acting, directs.


ASSASSINS
Opens March 26
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, 212.719.1300

Violent upheaval has an unfunny way of interfering with Sondheim's musical about the history of presidential assassinations in America. But the Roundabout's on-again, off-again revival is finally set to take over the infamous disco and former cabaret haunt, with a cast of ballistic wits (Denis O'Hare, Becky Ann Baker, and Mario Cantone) directed by Joe Mantello.


BIRO
Previews begin April 6, opens April 18
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 212.239.6200

This solo piece about the African AIDS crisis runs concurrently at the Public with the Worth Theater's revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. Written and performed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Biro tells the story of a Ugandan boy who finds himself on the front lines of the global war against AIDS.


GUINEA PIG SOLO
April 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 212.239.6200

The LAByrinth's new production stars John Ortiz in a new play by Brett C. Leonard about "an Iraq war veteran trapped in post 9-11 New York." Apparently inspired by Buchner's Woyczek, the piece sounds like ideal fodder for the company's explosive theatricality.


WHERE DO WE LIVE
April 14-May 23
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, 212.353.0303

Set in a Lower East Side apartment building, Christopher Shinn's new play (receiving its American premiere after debuting in 2002 at London's Royal Court) examines the lives of two male characters who, though living next door to each other, inhabit distant universes.


LIGHT RAISE THE ROOF
Previews begin April 30, opens May 20
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 212.239.6200

A playwright with a fiery social conscience, Kia Corthron tackles the subject of street people in her latest dramatic exposé. Michael John Garces directs this investigation into the brutal reality of New York City homelessness.


CHINESE FRIENDS
April 30-June 6
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, 212.279.4200

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz (A Fair Country, Substance of Fire) pursues a father-son psychological quagmire from a political angle, peeling away the truth behind the old man's exile from his homeland.


BOY
Previews begin May 5, opens May 18
Primary Stages, 354 West 45th Street, 212.333.4052

The Julia Jordan marathon (Boy marks her fourth play produced in the 2003-04 New York season) continues with her tale "of two young men struggling to find their place in the modern world." Vague though the premise sounds, the play was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award.


HOMEBODY/KABUL
May 11-May 30
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718.636.4100

Tony Kushner's drama, which centers on the unexpected aftermath of a British woman's fascination with Afghanistan, won an Obie in 2001. The playwright, however, still wasn't satisfied. He's retooled the script for this revival, directed by Frank Galati, which features the luminous Linda Emond in a reprise of her homebody role.


ANTIGONE
May 20-June 13
La MaMa E.T.C., 74A East 4th Street, 212.475.7710

It's definitely a ripe time for the Greeks, given the world's escalating violence. So it's only fitting that we close our season's highlights with Ellen Stewart's staging of Sophocles' tragedy, which runs in repertory with revivals of several other Greek plays, including stirring work by director Andrei Serban and composer Elisabeth Swados.

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