Center Stage: This Spring's Must-See Theater
Lazar and Jasper Newell prepare for Samara.
Playwright-director Richard Maxwell has long tested the limits of language and empathy, and probed the role of new digital technologies in shaping our everyday lives. Sometimes — most aptly — Maxwell takes his audiences to literal frontiers, weaving stories of cowboys, beasts, and vast, unfamiliar landscapes in his characteristically spare, poetic language. Such is the case with Samara (April 4–May 7, 502 West 53rd Street, sohorep.org), Maxwell's upcoming world premiere, commissioned by Soho Rep and running this season at A.R.T./New York's shiny new Hell's Kitchen theater. Set at a remote wilderness outpost, the play depicts a messenger desperate to collect on a debt from a man he doesn't even know; as with many of Maxwell's works, it's existentially serious and wryly funny.
With Samara, though, Maxwell's collaborators are half the draw. The playwright often directs his own work, but here, Soho Rep's stellar artistic director, Sarah Benson, takes the reins. (Benson's history of unforgettable shows includes Sarah Kane's Blasted, from 2008, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon, from 2014.) Then there's the multigenerational cast, ranging in age from 14 to 92. Steve Earle, a towering figure in the country-folk scene, makes his off-Broadway acting debut in Samara, and also contributes an original score. Downtown favorites like Becca Blackwell (recently seen in their solo piece They, Themself, and Schmerm) and Paul Lazar, of Big Dance Theater, complete the ensemble. For a journey into unknown terrain, you couldn't ask for better guides. — Miriam Felton-Dansky
Illustration by Hannah Barczyk
In previews; opens April 20
When a tidal wave is coming, you can't really fight it. And when Bette Midler comes to Broadway in the role Carol Channing made legendary, just get your tickets — it'll be easier in the end. The 1964 Jerry Herman–Michael Stewart adaptation of Thornton Wilder's farce The Matchmaker involves the eponymous widow, a lot of comic business in a hat shop, and a big-as-the-Ritz number (hint, it's the title song) that can almost always stop the show. It should be old-fashioned Rialto glamour — particularly as directed by veteran showman Jerry Zaks. And best of all, it'll have a sparkling gem of High Diva right at the center, always a sight for sore Broadway eyes. Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, Manhattan, telecharge.com — Helen Shaw
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
In previews; opens April 23
Roald Dahl wrote the original novel; David Greig has written the book; composer Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) have co-written the lyrics. And since the "golden ticket" jokes write themselves, we're going to get serious and focus on what's important: Christian Borle is gonna be on Broadway with a license to be silly. Cue a little somersault of joy! The brilliantly goofy Borle (of Something Rotten! fame) will no doubt be bonkers as Wonka, and signs look good for the zaniness of his habitat, too. Director Jack O'Brien has assembled major experimentalist talent — like puppet designer Basil Twist and projection designer Jeff Sugg — to outfit Willy's world of pure imagination. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, charlieonbroadway.com — H.S.
They're civil now, but wait until The Little Foxes hits Broadway.
The Little Foxes
March 29–June 18
Lillian Hellman's barn burner roars back to Broadway, laying waste to American capitalist pieties and the myth of white Southern gentility along the way. Daniel J. Sullivan directs Hellman's juicy 1939 family drama — it's only two degrees shy of being a soap — in which a turn-of-the-century Alabama virago tries to snatch a business deal away from her brothers and a bitterly alcoholic sister-in-law. The two leading women's roles are so sublime that they'll be alternately played by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon; the fellas aren't bad either (Michael McKean and Richard Thomas will be slugging it out), but most of us will be there to watch the queens slay. Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan, manhattantheatreclub.com — H.S.
April 4–May 21
Our best modern neorealist playwright is the Pulitzer Prize–winning Annie Baker, who returns for another of her Signature commissions with this mysterious new play. After the provocations of The Flick (in which the pauses themselves should have gotten a program credit) and the eerie masterpiece John, Baker turns her eyes to the action of storytelling itself. Want to know more? You'll have to go see it, since Baker never divulges her plots in advance. But she and director Lila Neugebauer could only have snagged their starry cast — which includes Josh Charles (The Good Wife), Josh Hamilton, and Danny Mastrogiorgio — if the script shone like diamonds. Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, signaturetheatre.org — H.S.
April 6–May 27
Beloved Star Trek actor George Takei continues his late-career move into the theater (he was last seen on Broadway in Allegiance) in a John Doyle revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's thorny 1976 musical. A rarity in the Sondheim canon, Pacific Overtures attempts to tell the complex story of the "opening" of Japan in the nineteenth century, a bit of gunboat diplomacy that made goddamn sure the Japanese economy didn't remain self-sufficient. Revivals have been difficult despite (or because of) this musical's ambition and beauty; Doyle, whose Broadway Sweeney Todd was superb, may be the one to crack it. Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, Manhattan, classicstage.org — H.S.
Our Trojan War
The Iliad opens with the command — or maybe the plea — "Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles!" And since these days the Muses have gone silent, the classical company Aquila Theatre and the veterans' performance initiative the Warrior Chorus have decided to take up the slack. Juxtaposing scenes from Homer with discussions about modern warmaking, this hybrid work tries to keep the souls of our military's heroes out of "Hades' dark" and move the rest of us into the light. Homer's the one who taught us that simply coming home from a war can take a lifetime — 2,800 years later, there may be no more modern insight than that. BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, bam.org — H.S.
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau
April 22–June 4
Too frequently in our tricky theatrical climate, playwrights limit their scope to a meek ninety minutes — not so Mfoniso Udofia, who has boldly embarked on "The Ufot Cycle," a nine-play saga that is already six works in. Sojourners begins the epic, introducing us to Abasiama, a young Nigerian woman in an arranged marriage who emigrates to Houston; Her Portmanteau shows us Abasiama's later struggle to maintain bonds across generations. New York Theater Workshop has Ed Sylvanus Iskandar (These Seven Sicknesses) direct the rotating pair of plays with casts that include Chinasa Ogbuagu, Jenny Jules, and the always delightful Herbert Point-du-Jour. New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, Manhattan, nytw.org — H.S.
Begins April 25
The storm of Suzan-Lori Parks plays continues with this rarely performed tragicomedy, another from her pre-Pulitzer, postmodern, carnivalesque repertoire. Your ears should still be ringing from last year's thunderclap: the revival of her The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which is 25 years old but felt new as fresh paint. In the 1997 Venus, Parks turns her cool and furious eye to the currency of the black female body, dramatizing the story of Saartjie Baartman — known to nineteenth-century freakshow audiences as the Hottentot Venus — who traveled from the African Cape to London to be displayed to thrill-seeking Victorian crowds. Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, signaturetheatre.org — H.S.
Target Margin’s Eunice Wong has no interest in realistic performance.
Mourning Becomes Electra
April 26–May 20
The avant-garde Target Margin Theater, under its director, David Herskovits, tackles Eugene O'Neill's entire 1931 trilogy — an epic tragedy that converts Aeschylus' Oresteia into a quasi-gothic, Civil War–era tale of a family clawed apart by jealousy. It's rare to get to see the whole thing (a 2004 New Group production was not well received), but it's a particular gift to see it with downtown stalwarts like Stephanie Weeks, Eunice Wong, and Mary Neufeld, experts in a nonrealistic performance style. A six-hour marathon show will require sustenance, so tasty pupu platters will be served — though, if you know your gory House of Atreus myths, even the idea of such things should make you feel a little weird. Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan, abronsartscenter.org — H.S.
Cost of Living
May 16–July 16
In last season's blistering Ironbound, Martyna Majok gave us a funny, bitter, doggedly romantic play that enlarged the theatrical landscape. Majok has a gift for writing lyrically and photorealistically about the laboring class — which, bizarrely, has become a rarity among modern playwrights. Now Manhattan Theatre Club presents her latest drama (directed by the great, Obie-winning Jo Bonney), about an out-of-work truck driver, his ex-wife, a doctoral student, and a health aide. You won't get theater more topical than this: a play that dares to ask what happens when the working body breaks down and — there can be no worse disaster in modern America — needs care. New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, manhattantheatreclub.com — H.S.
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