The latest edition of Forbidden Broadway may be its last. Gerard Alessandrini, creator and longtime chief perpetrator of the theater-spoofing revue, announced, just as the new Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab was opening, that the series would pause for an unspecified interval; the show’s closing date, January 15, is embedded in its finale lyric. Even parodists, apparently, can develop the jokester’s equivalent of artistic-director burnout.
But one can perceive Alessandrini’s situation as more than a matter of the exhausting effort to come up with new theater spoofs annually. Taking potshots at big, lavish, overpriced musicals, in the depressing economic climate we’re about to enter, seems an ever more peripheral activity: These days, even big, lavish, overpriced musicals are cutting back. Alessandrini was, and remains, one of Broadway’s innocent children, brought up to love the big musical nearly to the exclusion of all else. He could parody it perfectly because he understood it so intimately. The ferocious glee with which he pointed out its excesses and disasters came from the innocent’s natural outrage at watching his best hopes get trashed by the venality of the anything-for-a-buck hucksters who actually run the theater he believed in. Under the circumstances, it was a delight—but no surprise—that innocence could develop such a malicious sense of humor.
Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab displays Alessandrini’s malice in full flower, as expected, but also with surprisingly compassionate, at times even philosophic, overtones. Its closing number mines bitter, genuinely Sondheim-like ironies from the seemingly endless stream of Sondheim revivals, with a parody lyric (“Putting Up Revivals,” to the tune of Sunday in the Park‘s “Putting It Together”) that wittily mirrors Sondheim’s sardonic tone even while mocking it: The ridicule of Broadway’s new corporate mode might have come from Sondheim himself. A similar rue pervades the inevitable Little Mermaid spoof, which shows its heroine lamenting that she’ll never get a true stage star’s opportunities, since Broadway’s now “part DisneyWorld.”
Alessandrini’s snipes at individual star performers, which I often used to find uncomfortably mean-spirited, similarly seem to have taken on added depth. Or maybe it’s just that the new edition features an exceptionally fine cast, especially strong in the vocal department. The men, Jared Bradshaw and Michael West, are both first-rate comedians with fine voices: West’s manic Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bradshaw’s desperately narcissistic Paulo Szot are both masterpieces. But their female colleagues, Christina Bianco and Gina Kreiezmar, really scoop up the all-round performance honors: Petite, demented-eyed Bianco, with her perfectly placed and tinted coloratura, supplies a hilarious, dead-on version of Kristen Chenoweth, while gangly, droll Kreiezmar’s befogged Liza Minnelli seems almost more convincing than the original.
It’s the conviction Alessandrini’s cast carries that grants Forbidden Broadway pride of place in this article: Compared to it, the two serious plays on my roster look—well, they look rather like Forbidden Broadway‘s spoofs of serious plays, only way longer. Ian Rickson’s Royal Court production of The Seagull, imported from London to the accompaniment of great critical fanfares, left me completely stupefied: I can’t remember ever seeing a duller or more pointlessly misguided rendition of this frequently staged play.
When first performed in 1896, with actors who employed the stage conventions then standard in Russia, Chekhov’s work notoriously flopped, only getting the response it deserved when the fledgling Moscow Art Theatre tackled it two years later. Rickson’s cast, working in a weird blend of pre- and post-Stanislavskyite modes, seems out to convince you that the 1896 audience’s response was right.
Compared to the three great masterpieces with which Chekhov followed it, The Seagull, notoriously, wears its high-pitched emotions too nakedly on its sleeve. Rickson solves this problem by removing virtually all emotional sense from the play, making the characters look like either lecturers or feckless idiots, and the drama like a cardboard copy of the kind of 19th-century melodramatics from which Chekhov was making a decisive break. All the male characters, including the vacillating Trigorin (Peter Sarsgaard) and the hyper-vulnerable, suicidal Treplev (Mackenzie Crook), are played stolidly. Except for Zoe Kazan’s Masha, who squeaks, all the female characters alternate shrieking and whining, including both Arkadina (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Nina (Carey Mulligan)—both of whom have lines indicating that, as professional actresses, they should know better.
The emotional life Chekhov paints is so thickly layered that any character, played with clarity and conviction, can become moving; much of the director’s function rests in bringing everyone up to emotional pitch and orchestrating the result. Rickson, emphasizing every character’s selfishness and solipsism, leaves the pieces of Chekhov’s puzzle randomly scattered: You’d hardly know these people lived in the same world, let alone in the same house.
Feelings in The Seagull rise so high that even Rickson’s flattening approach can’t keep his actors from seizing a moment or two. Both Scott Thomas and Mulligan snatch occasional instants of feeling; each, in the play’s difficult third act, even manages to rouse Sarsgaard, for a few minutes, from what otherwise seems his permanent state of abstracted disaffection. But so few glints don’t make an evening. Chekhov’s world has rarely seemed more remote, his dramaturgy more stilted. Stanislavsky, come back—all is forgiven. Anton Pavlovich needs you.
And the two great actors currently trapped together in Michael Weller’s 50 Words need a play. Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz work in seemingly opposite ways—her lines cascading upward from an endless whirlpool of inner angst, his sputtering with comic sparks off a loose wire in some unhinged cerebral circuit—but their dueling approaches make this aesthetic sparring match far more riveting than the one in Weller’s chronicle of one worst-case night in a failed marriage. Though, as usual, some of the scenic detours in his dialogue are intriguing, Weller’s script is basically just another spousal-recrimination fiesta; you might describe it as the all-biped remake of Albee’s The Goat—a work in which Marvel and Butz might get juicier results.