Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Hearts of Gold

January 02, 2008

Cast of The Seafarer
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

The weekend in New York was not all about opera and provided an excellent chance to catch up on some theater as well. On the plus side, I took in three of the year’s best plays (stay tuned for my theater top 10 later this week) - Stoppard’s Rock’ n’ Roll, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. All three are substantial and important works, and at least two disguise big hearts of gold.

Up on 45th Street at the Booth Theater, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is running in a production direct from the National Theater of Britain. McPherson plumbs the Faust story for a drunken Christmas Eve tale shared by two brothers, their hometown buddies, and an unexpected visitor. McPherson again dazzles with his gift for dialog, but the true wonder here is how a story laden with clichés can sneak up on you. This boozy holiday evening is rife with humor and dark secrets slowly revealed. But in the end, none of this is the point. Instead, McPherson delivers a sentimental sucker punch that is hard to avoid and unlikely to be presaged by the audience. To deliver something so touching in such a seemingly unrelated package is real mastery. Of course all of this would be impossible without perhaps some of the strongest ensemble acting this year from Jim Norton, David Morse, Ciarán Hinds, Conleth Hill, and Sean Mahon. These are flawless performances that are a sheer wonder to see.

Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

McPherson is not the only playwright trying to disguise a sentimental heart of gold on Broadway right now. Tom Stoppard achieves similar results via a different strategy at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater in Rock ’n’ Roll. Instead of witty dialog and supernatural twists, Stoppard wraps the tender heart of his story in intellectual discourse and debate. Fading idealism and the loss of political optimism fill a work that is really about waiting for love to come around and the healing power of rock and roll. Stoppard’s play involves much of the original cast from London’s Royal Court Production including great turns from Brian Cox, Rufus Sewell, and Sinead Cusack. The play is structured around songs, mostly from The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, that are used during scene changes while detailed reference information about them is projected onto the curtain. But this is not High Fidelity, and while there is a very romantic heart, there is plenty here to chew on and think about. I'm not so sure about whether or not rock 'n' roll can save the world, but Stoppard's play is rich and very much worth seeing.

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

With all these bleeding hearts, it becomes even easier to admire the bristling brilliant play that is running right across the street from them at the Imperial theater - Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Letts's very funny and very profound reflection on American family life is not at all sentimental. A transplant from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, August observes the slow whimpering dissolution of a family following the suicide of its patriarch. But all of the widely quoted insults and witty one-liners disguise a much deeper and thoughtful purpose. Letts repeatedly refers to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men implying that families rarely unravel in the bombastic ways they typically do in plays, bur rather disintegrate under their own weight in slower more fragmented ways. The performances are so strong and the writing so sharp that it's the kind of performance one watches with their mouth unknowingly agape in amazement. To be sure, August is not perfect — it relies somewhat on the old "magical other" trope in the form of the Native American house maid hired by the father to symbolically marshal the family through its final dissolution. But the play's strengths so outnumber its weaknesses the comparisons to master American playwrights heaped on him in the press seem entirely deserved.

Without a doubt, now is a good time for plays in New York. So get out there and take advantage of these gems while you can.

Labels: ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?



Opera Reviews '10-'11

Opera Reviews '09-'10

Opera Reviews '06-'09

L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


Follow Along


Los Angeles

Follow me on Twitter