Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, La Bete, and A Life in the Theatre--Second Helpings on 45th Street
Broadway, these days, is all last year's news and old scripts recycled with stars. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Jacobs Theatre), the show that thinks it's cute to shoot history in the neck, has moved uptown from its noisily acclaimed Public Theater run last spring. This traditional path for bringing new blood into the mainstream no longer works so well because, in the theater as in our society at large, the mainstream has crumbled, while most new impulses are played out. Until the next great movement in musical theater comes along, the public, increasingly uncultivated and unnurtured, has no clue as to what it will want to see.
The clueless public is relevant here, since Bloody/Jackson is, or at least wants to be, political in substance. It presents its title character (Benjamin Walker) as a schmuck-hero, leading a populist movement to "take this country back," with guns if necessary, from the "elite," who think about things but never get anything done. As presented in Alex Timbers's script and Michael Friedman's songs, Jackson's populism looks a lot like the Tea Party: angry, greedy ignoramuses, petty and vicious toward anyone different, who view any attempt to deal with democracy's complex realities as an elitist conspiracy against the ordinary folk for whom they mistake themselves.
That satirical stance would be fine if the show were built on it. Unhappily, Timbers has zero sense of satire. Faced with dramatic conflict, politics, or history, he retreats into infantility. So a tantrummy, teen-idol Jackson becomes the show's hero as well as its villain, and all ideas drown in its welter of rock-show attitudinizing and comedy-sketch triviality. We're stuck at an evening hosted by an obnoxious, self-justifying adolescent, never knowing why we should bother about him.
This is almost as unfair to us as it is to Walker, an extremely gifted and appealing young actor who has to work really, really hard all evening long, trying simultaneously to market the attitude in which the authors have trapped Jackson, and to deepen it into something resembling a role. A great score would help, but Friedman, whose resourcefully tailored incidental music has graced many shows, here provides only a string of pleasantly varied pastiche-sounding songs—pretty much what a resourceful composer of incidental music might cobble together.
Timbers's direction has tidied up some of the show's scruffiness for Broadway, and clarified some of its tonal confusions. This, plus the need to fill a larger performance space, has made some of the show's bright spots downtown seem paler here. The slapstick caricatures are less funny, the gross-out moments of pain both less painful and less gross. Replacing the eerily earnest Colleen Werthmann with the knowingly comic Kristine Nielsen, as the historian who gets it in the neck, completes the taming process. Only Donyale Werle's whorehouse-red extravaganza of a set profits from the increased space.
The many intellectual provocations crammed in the dense wordage of David Hirson's 1991 play La Bête (Music Box Theatre) include a warning of the danger of revivals: A play seen for a second time may seem less good. La Bête itself, luckily, defies the notion. Its problems, mainly structural, remain just what they were when it first turned up, for a too-brief Broadway run, in Richard Jones's unforgettable, dazzlingly eccentric production. Matthew Warchus's slightly squarer but decidedly funnier new rendering cannily mines Hirson's evening-long cascade of rhymed couplets for ambiguities, enriching the characters and playing to the script's strength, its verbal wit.
Warchus has another advantage: a real star, Mark Rylance, with a star's power over audiences abetting his immense comic technique. Tom McGowan, the understudy who back in '91 stepped into the taxing role at the last minute, brought tremendous skill and energy, but nothing like Rylance's magnetism or finesse. The latter word may seem misplaced: Valere (Rylance) is an egomaniacal nonstop babbler, a street entertainer whom a princess (Joanna Lumley) has discovered and pitted against Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the brilliant but cerebral leader of the theater troupe she subsidizes. The anagram for "Molière" in the latter's name, like the rhymed couplets and the 17th-century trappings, is only a mask (the play's first flaw) for a peculiarly modern division of the theater into artistic versus vulgar. The real-life Molière, who wrote himself many roles like Valere, made no such distinction.
Hirson's artistic argument gets lost (second flaw) because he overloads it, however brilliant his couplets, by displaying Valere's personal loathsomeness in an entrance monologue so lengthy that it outweighs the entire rest of the play. Even Rylance's charm and Warchus's inventiveness can't stop diminishing returns from setting in. Clearly no artist could collaborate with this crass, oblivious idiot. Yet Valere, despite Elomire's disdain, is clearly an idiot savant, whose talk, though not his playwriting, constantly reveals an astute mind at work.
Even the sample we get of his scripts, in Warchus's version, seems more a harmless misfire than the hideous offense for which Elomire takes it. (Jones's production gave it a jaw-dropping moronic coarseness.) Because Valere, although unbearable, embodies both high and low sensibilities, a production, like this one, with a truly charismatic Valere leaves Elomire no leg to stand on. It's extremely high praise for Hyde Pierce's performance that he can hold his own, and even steal a few laughs, when his opponent has all the lines. Less gaudily surreal than the original, Warchus's staging makes a strong case for Hirson's writing, but can't hide his dramaturgic flaws.
Spoof plays and verbal ping-pong also fill David Mamet's 1976 comedy, A Life in the Theatre (Schoenfeld Theatre), but Mamet has built something deeper underneath this chronicle of an older actor (Patrick Stewart) heading downhill and his young colleague (T.R. Knight) on the rise: a dryly abstract yet compassionate parable of bonding and competitiveness, of youth learning from and inevitably supplanting age. Regrettably, Neil Pepe's production fuses no such feelings into the backstage fun. His actors, both accomplished individually, make no emotional connection; Santo Loquasto's settings make the rep theater they work in seem as vast and anonymous as the Met.
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