Stuffed Happens

A post-strike round-up: four Broadway openings, plus a little Off-Broadway Darwinism

But Farnsworth never explores any aspect of the story deeply. From the sources of the stirrings that made a rural potato-farmer's kid an electronics whiz by high-school age to the seismic shift in social patterns caused by the mass success of radio and then TV, everything is brushed in, snappily, with a factoid or two, encased in a wisecrack whenever possible, as on those TV docudramas that leave you wishing you'd been told the real story instead. (You can get some of it through a scene-by-scene takedown of the play at thefarnsworth invention.com.) The quick once-over is amusing and effective; Azaria and Simpson make appealingly contrasted heroes; a fleet of strong character actors, notably Michael Mulheren and Jim Ortlieb, supplies variety. But a variety show—sleekly organized, with effective sentimental touches—is all it amounts to. In real life, RCA paid Farnsworth a million bucks in 1939; his company thrived on military contracts during the war, and afterward was sold to ITT. So don't shed any tears for poor bilked Farnsworth.

The male rivalry in Shakespeare's Cymbeline ( Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200) is personal rather than commercial: The exiled Posthumous (Michael Cerveris) loves his wife Imogen (Martha Plimpton) so much that he's willing to bet that Iachimo (Jonathan Cake) can't tempt her into adultery. Iachimo loses the bet but lies to collect, sending Posthumous into a jealous frenzy in which he lies, too, secretly plotting Imogen's murder while assuring her that everything's swell. Everybody in Cymbeline except Imogen lies like crazy, making its plot notoriously tough to follow, and nothing in this fantasticated Roman Britain is actually swell: Relations with Rome are in turmoil; King Cymbeline (John Cullum) has to prep for war while his queen (Phylicia Rashad) connives to marry her nitwit son, Cloten (Adam Dannheisser), to Imogen, Cymbeline's daughter by his first wife. Add two kidnapped children, a few seemingly subornable servants, and a prophetic dream that leaves three-dimensional artifacts behind, and you have a recipe for anything but dramatic coherence. No wonder Cymbeline was rarely revived until the deconstructionists fell in love with its fractured narrative.

Mark Lamos's production, the fifth Cymbeline that New York has seen in the past decade, fights, with mixed success, to impose some order on this chaotic tale. Much of it, under Brian McDevitt's sharply sculpted lighting, looks beautiful. Like most directors who've tackled the play, Lamos can't quite do what only Andrei Serban's 1998 Delacorte staging, in my experience, has succeeded at: building a magic realm where this persnickety play's preposterous events are allowable and its characters still forgivably human. Lamos's solution, which leans toward operatic grandeur, never gets all the way into the magical; his greatest victory is with Cerveris, whose pain-racked threnodies reach the stature of a great singer's classic arias. Plimpton, achieving the winsome muscularity of an empowered Cinderella, is nearly as good; Cullum is suitably commanding, while John Pankow (Pisanio) and Herb Foster (Cornelius) lend distinction to their subordinate roles. On the debit side, Rashad's Queen is hollowly rhetorical, Dannheisser's Cloten neither scary nor funny, and the biggest letdown is Cake's Iachimo, a capering Cockney lout who probably couldn't get to first base with Eliza Doolittle. Cake looks great in a towel (Lamos sets the wager scene in a Roman bathhouse), but memories of Liev Schreiber's hypnotically seductive Delacorte Iachimo wipe him out of the fully clad scenes that follow.


High rhetoric, down-home style, is the comfort food—maybe I mean "discomfort food" —heaped high on your plate in Tracy Letts's August: Osage County (Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200), a production from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company that's roused wild enthusiasm, perhaps just because of its sheer bulk. Americans love overeating, and Letts's three-hour-and-20-minute banquet of emotional recriminations, set when an Oklahoma poet's embittered clan gathers after his unexplained disappearance, seems perfect theater for a culture of obesity. Everybody's problems, everybody's secrets, everybody's resentments, vices, addictions, and failures come crashing out, as if the family had been locked for decades in Fibber McGee's closet. Much of the material's familiar, and the distended structure only dimly approaches anything you could call dramatic shape, but the excessive length allows Letts to give all his characters multiple facets, and the crackle of his dialogue gives a batch of good actors plenty to chew on, though the loud chomping noises that Anna D. Shapiro's heavily italicized directing allows some of them to make may seem too excessive even for this picnic.

Still, as William Blake said, "You never know what is enough until you know what is too much." Broadway's few serious exhibits in recent years have mostly been dramatically anorexic little events; a play that shoves a dozen major characters onstage, all busily digging up globs of buried backstory to splatter on each other, supplies understandable relief. Lacking a large-scale classical theater, New York's practically forgotten what great drama is. (Shakespeare, being sui generis, doesn't count.) A big heap of melodramatic hokum, fresh-sounding and played with spirit, takes at least a baby step on the road back to greatness. And with performances as good as those by Sally Murphy, Rondi Reed, Frances Guinan, Brian Kerwin, and Jeff Perry, what's the harm in a little overindulgence? Even at current Broadway prices, you can't say August: Osage County isn't giving you your money's worth.

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