Theater archives

Next to Normal and Joe Turner: Visions on Broadway; Yeats Project: Near Myth


It’s the end of the spring season, normally a time when producers trot out their dressiest trivialities, while visions of tourist dollars dance in their heads. But in these times, iffy for both tourists and dollars, the theater seems to have taken the hint and sobered up: The Broadway season’s closing roster is full of seriousness; the tiny, star-enabled plays with their little frissons and their little laughs have temporarily given way to heavier hitters. Of the nine Broadway shows still to open before the Tony nominators slam their notebooks shut, only one is a musical based on a movie.

And with the new serious tone comes an expanded horizon of a kind unusual for Broadway: Instead of lavish arrays of conspicuous waste to show the ticket buyers where their dollars went, we get dreams, visions, delusions, myths, ghosts. And even, heaven help us, ideas. It’s as if, after sleeping through years of the right wing’s unremitting efforts to reduce religion to issue-based materialism, our theater suddenly woke up and remembered that philosophy, spirituality, and an acceptance of the invisible as an integral part of our lives have always belonged to the theatrical essence.

Next to Normal (Booth Theatre), an ambitious, challenging, and often moving small-scale musical, toys with delusion and vision through a device that makes it tricky to summarize; I’ll just say that author Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt use the device honorably and meaningfully, and that director Michael Greif draws graceful effects from it. The story deals with a suburban couple (J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley) who’ve brought two kids (Aaron Tveit and Jennifer Damiano) into the world, but whose family life is a shaky illusion, kept one bare step from tragedy only by the pills mom gets from her psychopharmacologist.

N2N maps the road from this queasy drugged stability through crackup to a cautiously hopeful final picking up of the pieces. Unusual for a musical, this narrative has affinities to TV drama and to recent nonmusicals like Lisa Loomer’s Distracted. But N2N, which has gone through some astute reworking since its debut at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage in 2008, cannily employs musical-theater tactics to push its quirkily specific story up toward general meaning. It doesn’t totally succeed at this, but does achieve several very big moments when the performer, the song, and the larger intent combine, forging the empathetic bond between audience and show that gives musicals a spark of transcendence.

This is especially true when Ripley or Damiano is singing. Both, under Greif’s direction, give performances that seem at once rooted in reality and fiercely, abstractly big. Apart from Tveit, whose sinewy physical command rivets you, Greif gets less fire from his male contingent: Spencer fills the all-important role of dad pleasantly, but without the grief-furrowed gravitas that Brian d’Arcy James brought to the Second Stage version. Greif is more fortunate with the production elements, particularly Kevin Adams’s lighting and the music (orchestrators, musical director, and sound designer all deserve credit here), both of which are handled without the crassness that Broadway always seems to urge on musicals in this pop-rock idiom.

August Wilson built music out of words, and plenty of them. Sometimes his plays remind me of baroque operas: The succession of arias, each cherished for its thematic richness, seems to burgeon till it engulfs the dramatic structure. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Belasco), which occupies the second slot in Wilson’s 10-play cycle on African-American life in 20th-century Pittsburgh, deals with the influx of Southern blacks to the industrial North. Set in a boarding house, its disconnected waves of event echo the constant drift of people in such a place. Written before most of the other cycle plays, Joe Turner has a dreamlike quality as it reels from bawdry and seduction up to the visionary metaphysics of its main story, most of which is packed into its elaborate, explosive final scene, in which prophecies and the expectations of psychological melodrama are fulfilled simultaneously.

The prophetic goes hand in hand with the everyday here. Originally titled Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket after a Romare Bearden painting, Joe Turner is full of homey, ordinary realities: biscuits, laundry, pots and pans. It’s full, too, of the daily injustices endured by black Americans, circa 1910, when the advent of Jim Crow provoked what amounted to a second African diaspora. Searching and finding, on the fleshly as on the spiritual level, are the play’s major motifs. The principal focus is Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), whose life has been shattered by “Joe Turner”—a legendary white Southern bigwig notorious for railroading black men into penal servitude on his plantation. The variant spelling of Herald’s name is intentional: Searching not only for his missing wife but for a life free of racist victimhood to replace his seven lost years, he is a “shining” prophet, heralding the new black consciousness, though his newfound stature is bound up with bitter ironies and lingering entanglements.

Bartlett Sher’s production, its scenic elements constantly gliding on- and offstage, catches the dreamlike quality, but oddly combines it with a presentational acting style that pushes Wilson’s innocently straightforward characters into irritatingly showbizzy postures: They’re selling you the dream, not living it. Coleman, smoldering like a volcano about to blow, and Marsha Stephanie Blake, as a meekly lovelorn young woman, seem to have wisely ignored the incessant eyes-front directing; Roger Robinson, as a canny old mystic, cunningly turns the stagy flamboyance to the character’s purpose, creating the show’s best-sustained performance.

W.B. Yeats loved words, too, though with less fierce theatricality. Mystic, mythical, and ritual-based, his dramas lived in some stylized faraway locale; they beg for directorial magic. The Irish Rep’s Yeats Project—two multiple bills in full production, plus a host of readings—is a bold undertaking, but Charlotte Moore, who staged Program A’s one-acts (The Countess Cathleen, The Cat and the Moon, On Baile’s Strand), sticks pretty much to verbal clarity. Yeats’s words provide such magic as there is; occasionally, a cast member—most often Patrick Fitzgerald—gives a line an extra fillip. One wishes for a little more.