Theater archives

‘Come From Away’ and ‘The Price’ Weigh the Pros and Cons of Basic Human Kindness


The airport at Gander, Newfoundland, used to appear on every international traveler’s itinerary: It was the primary spot where transatlantic jets from Europe had to stop to refuel before zooming on to New York or anywhere else in North America. When jet-engine technology improved, allowing for nonstop flights, the airport’s use dwindled, and Gander reverted to its essence — a pleasant, modest-sized rural town on a rocky, wooded island off Canada’s eastern shore.

Then came September 11, 2001. The FAA shut down all U.S. airspace. Thirty-eight incoming transatlantic flights were diverted to Gander, bringing almost seven thousand bewildered passengers, whom the townsfolk — like most of us, already traumatized by the news — had to accommodate until, five days later, the travelers-in-limbo began to be allowed to fly on to their destinations. In effect, for those five days, the population of Gander and the neighboring towns nearly doubled, suddenly including such anomalies as East Africans, Hindus, a clutch of world-class cardiologists, an Orthodox rabbi, an Egyptian master chef, nine dogs, seven cats (one epileptic), and a mated pair of bonobo chimps destined for the Cleveland Zoo.

The new Broadway musical Come From Away (Schoenfeld Theatre), a blend of pop oratorio and high-speed docudrama, tells the story of Gander’s interaction with this horde of unexpected guests. With a book and score by two newcomers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and directed with his customary whip-smart precision by Christopher Ashley, the show offers the exhilarating combination of a set of feel-good stories with the hectic pace of breaking-news coverage. It doesn’t dig deep: Its characters are rarely more than thumbnail sketches, and its lively music tickles the ear rather than catching the heart. But the overall shape of the event, told with smart skill and a generous spirit, has a sweet-tasting goodness to it that constitutes a healthful rebuke to the evil times we’re currently living through.

Shifting rapidly from story to story, while its actors, all playing multiple roles, shift from townsfolk to passengers, Come From Away makes a point of touching on as many potential sources of dramatic tension as possible: a gay couple (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) fearful of local homophobia; an African-American New Yorker (Rodney Hicks) mistrustful of local generosity; a New York firefighter’s mom (Q. Smith) trying desperately to reach her son; a pilot (Jenn Colella) panicked about the fate of her pilot husband’s plane. Inevitably, the stories that touch on the larger reality of 9-11 aspire to tragic stature — the pilot story almost reaches it, mainly thanks to Colella’s tightly focused emotional force — while those that pit urbanites’ caution against the locals’ innate generosity result in good-natured comedy.

Appealing as all the niceness is, its uniformity gets a little unnerving: Wasn’t any resident of Gander even a little selfish, resentful, suspicious, peremptory, or perhaps just a teeny bit bigoted? Canadians — at least the ones I know — are nice people, but definitely not devoid of all negative attitude. (In Canada at large, “Newfies” feature in the national equivalent of what would be “redneck” jokes down here.) As the horrific mosque attack in Québec City in January demonstrated, Canadians aren’t immune to the lunatic fear of foreigners that since 9-11 has escalated to fever pitch on this continent.

That you feel wildly remote from such dark matters while watching Come From Away suggests its major shortcoming, the converse of which is its major asset. We don’t, after all, need musical entertainments to remind us of what happened on 9-11 and its consequences, which march through our news headlines every day. But we do need to be reminded, often, that the world offers other possibilities, and that goodwill among human beings can still exist, despite the Republican Party’s constant efforts to disprove the fact.

One special delight of Come From Away is that Ashley’s cast, which mixes seasoned Broadway performers with artists from the original Canadian production, looks much more like a random assemblage of ordinary people than like a trimly turned-out Broadway ensemble. As they line up along the forestage in the opening number, you want to believe in them: a batch of just-plain-folks whose first reaction to trouble is “How can I help?” rather than “Get away from me.” I know — from 9-11 among other occasions — that New York is full of such people; why shouldn’t Newfoundland be? Welcome Canadian arrivals like Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, and Astrid Van Wieren, mingling easily with more familiar figures like Colella, Kimball, Hicks, and Joel Hatch, make the notion plausible. There’s no sense in believing that all human beings are good, but being aware of the possibility helps us go on.

Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, The Price, now getting its fourth Broadway revival at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, digs more complexly, if perhaps a little abstractly, into what’s good and bad about people. A stubbornly honest beat cop (Mark Ruffalo) and his long-estranged, super-rich surgeon brother (Tony Shalhoub) have inherited an attic full of furniture from their long-dead parents. The building’s being torn down, so it’s time to sell. The cop randomly calls in a used-furniture dealer (Danny DeVito), whose shrewdly flamboyant, Yiddish-inflected bargaining turns out to be a magic salve that soothes tensions between the cop and his unhappy wife (Jessica Hecht), while also stripping away the multilayered resentment between the brothers, bringing about a peaceful, though not facilely happy, resolution.

Terry Kinney’s new production manages to dodge, as some earlier revivals haven’t, the earnest, schematic streak that weighs the play down. Coaxing a vital, personalized eccentricity from each of his four equally strong actors, he’s come up with the best rendition of The Price since John Stix’s 1979 version, with the unforgettable Joseph Buloff as the furniture dealer. Buloff’s comedy was gigantic; DeVito’s feisty, energetic extravagance makes him loom nearly as large. As the play’s old, bitter arguments and counterarguments get unpacked, its moral begins to seem an intriguing sidelight on Come From Away‘s: A little more overt generosity at the start might have spared the characters all these deep-packed recriminations.

Come From Away
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street

The Price
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Through May 7