Will the ‘Constellations’
Unite ‘The Elephant Man’
and ‘The Merry Widow’
for a ‘Honeymoon in Vegas?’
by TONY VELLELA
Playwright Nick Payne has titled his dazzling new drama “Constellations.” That’s constellationS – plural. He has given us two rather bright, slightly above-average attractive young Brits whose individual realms, or universes [or constellations] are intercepted by each other. She is Marianne, [an appropriately confident Rose Wilson] an academic careerist at Cambridge whose area of concentration is “theoretical early universe cosmology.” Truly. And he is Roland [a disarmingly fetching Jake Gyllenhaal] who makes his living as a bee-keeper. Payne instructs us to place our minds, and therefore the location of this story, in ‘the multiverse,’ set in the ‘Past, Present and Future,’ capital letters noted. He has selected a quote from Paul Davies that points out, in part, that ‘time is an illusion.’
Armed with these points of orientation, one should be prepared for an array of mini-scenes that kick in almost immediately. Under a buoyant firmament of pink-tinted helium-inflated balloons that form their own unique and personal pantheon, Marianne and Roland start off in a meet-cute dialogue at the backyard barbecue of a mutual friend, and in short order, we see their two-to-three minute encounter replayed, this time with a different emphasis, and then again, with a third and fourth. Getting past their ‘meet’ moment(s), they seem to stumble into a relationship, with several at-times humorous, at-times serious points of emphasis, depending on who is doing the recounting.
Payne has taken the tortured human exercise of ‘what if’ and given it a more engaging framework – starts and stops that will remind anyone who has taken an acting class of the kinds of improvisation games that are supposed to prepare actors to be at the same time spontaneous and reactive. And unlike the currently running musical ‘If/Then,” which attempts to show two possible life lines that could have happened in the life of one young woman, ‘Constellations” ups the ante. As we all [painfully] realize, our lives are built from mega-endless choices made or not. The collective result is the telling of several different stories that have happened, are now happening or may in future happen to this couple.
Payne’s writing looks deceptively simple, but in fact, it demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the role of the reaction in any relationship or encounter. You can’t resist trying to re-weave these threads as they are unspooled, however difficult that may be, because it requires an ability to record each variation in your mind just as the next one is coming at you. The general theme is delivered – the most pervasive illusion humans need to disavow themselves of, is that they have practically any control over the way their lives occur. Director Michael Longhurst should be very grateful for at least one occurrence connected with his production of “Constellations” – the casting of two supremely talented, sharp-as-tacks actors who can re-wind, re-play and react as quick as a flash. [And in that regard, lighting designer Lee Curran's use of blackout flashes creates the exact ambiance that surrounds the story/stories. It resembles the viewing of a collection of different takes of one scene during the filming of a movie.] Wilson and Gyllenhaal score career triumphs as they live and re-live these conflicted lives.
Life’s random blessings and curses made the life of Joseph [John] Merrick a study in personal triumph over unimaginable misfortune. Born in Leicester, England in 1862, Merrick suffered from a relentless amalgam of physical deformities and crippling diseases, damning him with a grotesque, misshapen appearance. As a young man, he was taken in by a sideshow manager and turned into a popular ‘attraction’ as The Elephant Man. Bernard Pomerance’s play “The Elephant Man,” now in revival at the Booth Theatre, starring screen star Bradley Cooper [currently in 'American Sniper'], follows Merrick’s tortured yet at times triumphant career, moving from circus freak to society darling, as his intellectual faculties trump the off-putting appearance that most people never see beyond.
At rise, a tawdry soiled red curtain frames a translucent screen. Behind it, the figure of an adult man stands, waiting to be revealed. When he comes into view, it is a muscular, well-defined body that looks so perfect that one wonders if this is indeed the title character. Then, with remarkable, slowly-evolving movements and twists, slowly and silently, the body assumes its contorted, gruesome form, depicting a human person who has been cursed with near sub-human features. Cooper manages this transition with such ease, such rhythm, that it’s difficult to picture the original shape once the transition has been completed – an actor’s physical triumph. Merrick’s true-life tale begins with him being set-upon by street thugs, and discovered by a carnival-type showman who sees Merrick as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, a novelty worth paying for, to ogle at. Merrick’s fate is forever altered when young Dr. Frederick Treves, an inquisitive surgeon, hears Merrick, tormented by his caged-animal type existence, crying out ‘Help me! Help me!” Treves invests time, money and personal reputation, bringing this outcast into the world of Victorian London society. As memorably presented by Alessandro Nivola, Treves struggles to balance his competing objectives, namely to be sympathetic, analytical and mercenary. Meetings with other professionals, clergy and even nurses hired to care for him always end badly, even harshly. But it is the friendship of Mrs. Kendal, a prominent stage actress of the day who at first finds the prospect of meeting him an adventure in personal discovery, that gives Merrick the cerebral companionship that, at least temporarily during their times together, overrides the superficial rejections that constantly define his existence. And as Lady Kendal, Patricia Clarkson shows how genuine compassion, matched with a disregard for the opinions of others, can trump even the most traumatic circumstances a person has been subject to.
As a famous stage personage, Mrs. Kendal knows too well the curse of having others pay unwanted or at least unsolicited attentions. This is a bond that permits each of them to look past appearances, and instead look into curious minds, and unfulfilled souls. Ms. Clarkson, in my experience seeing her work for twenty + years now, has the rare ability to pull out of her characters an aspect of their experience, or their private view of life, that makes them the unique persons their writer/creators hoped to present. I often refer to her breath-taking portrayal as Blanche in the Kennedy Center production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as the finest depiction of that complex character I’ve yet seen. Here, she has a self-aware understanding that as an actress, she is permitted to always be acting – that is, at the same time to speak or comment or move, whatever the situation requires, and to see herself doing it. It’s a very private awareness of oneself, a characteristic they each discover, that both know about themselves. It’s a non-expressed wink at the rest of the world.
As his endeavors to bring Merrick into the London circles of the rich and famous demand constant vigilance, Treves confronts every kind of obstacle. In his curiosity to understand Merrick the person – every aspect of what that means – Treves finds this part of his medical study grow into almost an obsession, and it overcomes him. At his end, the compulsion reduces him to a compromised man with his own set of crippling mental and emotional afflictions. We see him, at the end, plaintively crying out with the same plea he heard from his protege: “Help me! Help me!”
Both “Constellations” and “The Elephant Man,” though vastly different in their details and circumstances, rely most heavily on the subtle interplay between and among actors filling their roles. It’s fortunate indeed that both of these presentations have been blessed with such high-caliber stage actors, capable of the moment-to-moment behavioral and vocal nuances that keep us so engaged.
Opera, of course, is all about voices. While this is not a realm I have visited frequently, the opportunity of seeing/hearing Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara in a previously-unseen type of role was a great attraction. She’s currently on view at the Met as a flirtatious ambassador’s wife in turn-of-the-last-century Paris, the catalyst for some rollicking shenanigans in Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.” Paired with the splendid soprano Renee Fleming, in the title role, on her ‘home turf,’ Ms. O’Hara more than provides the hoped-for vocal displays that have made her a star twenty blocks south.
Also making her Met debut is five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, who has directed and choreographed this production, resplendent with all the design magic that transforms the Metropolitan Opera House into a fantasy world. Ms. Stroman applies her musical theatre expertise to give us a light-as-meringue operetta confection, where we get the eye-popping treat of grand waltz music [most famously 'The Merry Widow Waltz'] choreographed with stunning precision. And the riotous chorus girls spin their allure in true Stroman style, as if the historic Maxim’s has come to life after a century of repose. And it explodes with all the high-kicking and skirts-flouncing the stage can contain, and then some.
And where would you find contemporary versions of those flashy, splashy musical riots in Maxim’s ? That would be Las Vegas! When award-winning screenwriter Andrew Bergman penned, and directed his 1992 film farce “Honeymoon in Vegas,” he felt it could easily be the basis for a musical. Nearly a quarter century later, he’s done it – now easily filling the big big stage at the Nederlander Theatre, this adaptation has been tune-ified via the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown. And from the opening moments of its overture, “Honeymoon” conveys all the giddy glitz and razzmatazz of unapologetic Vegas lounge life. Just a guess, but it’s possible that orchestrator Larry Blank’s prior assignment on “Catch Me If You Can” provided that brass-blaring, percussion-pounding sound that so perfectly sets the mood.
The honeymooners are Jack Singer [the ebullient Rob McClure, of 'Chaplin' fame], and his perennial betrothed girlfriend Betsy [an ideal girl-next-door Brynn O'Malley]. What’s been holding up the vows-taking? Rob’s now-departed, but never forgotten mother Bea [made joyfully overbearing by the priceless, energy-bursting Nancy Opel, possessing all the charms of past comediennes such as Nancy Walker and Kaye Ballard]. Seems mom left this mortal coil with one last wish on her deathbed, that Jack never, ever get married. And to reinforce this dying demand, mom manages to materialize, for Jack’s eyes only, anytime or anywhere wedding bells seem imminent. [The son-smothering mother in "Bye, Bye Birdie" is a theatrical ancestor.] Ms. Opel’s jack-in-the-box pop-ups alone are worth the price of admission.
When Jack finally breaks loose and impulsively grabs up Betsy, they fly off to Vegas for a wedding honeymoon trip in one. With just a few hours to fill before they make their trip to a quickie wedding chapel that evening, Jack decides to grant himself one last round of poker, especially since casino owner Tommy Korman [a true beacon of light and smiles Tony Danza], invites him to join a special-guests game. What Jack doesn’t know is that Tommy has spotted Betsy during their check-in, and was stopped in his tracks. The young woman bears an uncanny resemblance to Tommy’s recently-departed wife Donna, a victim of too much sun-bathing that caused skin cancer. To Tommy, this is no coincidence – it’s his opportunity for a second chance with a Donna look-alike, and he will do anything to make that happen. What he does is rig the poker game, so that Jack loses multi-thousands of bucks that he has no way to cover. Tommy’s offer: let me spend a weekend with Betsy, and your debts will be wiped clean.
Well, the permutations are not that difficult to imagine. But they’re unspooled with so much old-fashioned musicals-type numbers and comic set pieces [including numerous reappearances of mom Bea, materializing in the most unlikely settings], that you just go with it.
McClure once again demonstrates his natural charm and boyish vigor, akin to the young Dick Van Dyke, that you forgive his dopey decisions. And Danza, already accorded icon status by a certain demographic of the audience for whom he will always be the boss, tops it when he breaks into a pretty decent tap routine. He seems just as surprised as the audience that he’s pulling it off so smoothly. He’s still got some rough spots in his overall delivery. However, the screwball premise and his mostly heartfelt pining for a lost love let you forgive.
The show? Could easily lose about twelve minutes. The book? Vintage [which is to say the work of a veteran] Bergman. The score? Some of Brown’s best [albeit hindered at times with kind of tortured lyrics.] There have been, during the last many or so decades, a phenomenon in television sitcom-land – those second-tier comedies that don’t merit Emmy Awards or nominations, but manage to be renewed year after year, because they are safe bets to offer up a pleasing storyline, a gaggle of very good performances and no bitter after-taste. Think “The King of Queens,” or the current “The Middle.” If there were a category of musical that holds the same place on Broadway, that’s where you’d find “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
The indomitable Woodie King, Jr. launches the 46th season of his distinguished New Federal Theatre with “The Amira Baraka Project.” His approach is to bookend the offerings, starting with a revival of the memorable “Dutchman,” from 1964, [performances begin on February 5th and continue through March 8th], and progress toan engagement of “The Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B.DuBois), scheduled for May. The productions will take place at the Castillo Theater [543 west 42nd street] . . . Currently in rehearsal for production at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theatre, is a production unfolding with a touch of poignant sadness. “Josephine and I” recounts the near-fantastical life story of Josephne Baker, who went from the slums of St. Louis to international stardom as an entertainer, and a separate, perilous life as a French Resistance spy and civil rights activist. The production comes as the Broadway world mourns the recent loss of Baker’s adopted son Jean-Claude, who for decades presided over his all-welcoming theatre district cafe, Chez Josephine. Previews begin 2/17 . . . Previews begin 2/10 for a production of the Clifford Odets’ classic “Rocket to the Moon,” at the Theatre at St. Clements. Starring the ever-impressive George Morfogen, this tale of a Depression-era loveless marriage, spirit-sapping career and the temptation to leave it all behind also features Lou Libertore, who first made a Broadway mark in the original cast of “Burn This,” opposite John Malkovich and Joan Allen . . . and coincidentally, the subject of the Depression is what I’ve chosen as the theme of my newest round of sessions at the 92nd St. Y. Check out the offerings by visiting 92Y.org — I’m exploring plays and musicals from and about that decade, including Rodgers & Hart’s “Babes in Arms,” Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Kaufman & Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” Arthur Miller’s “The Price” [featuring unseen video excerpts from my exclusive interview with the playwright], Lawrence & Lee’s “Auntie Mame” & and Jerry Herman’s musicalization of it, “Mame,” and two Odets classics “Awake & Sing!” and “Golden Boy.” Join me!
“Mame” is part of the new collection of Ethan Mordden’s essays and musings, “Open a New Window – The Broadway Musical in the 1960’s,” from Palgrave Macmillan . . . and for a thorough and thoroughly-engaging look at the landmark career of Mame’s musical mentor Jerry Herman, check out Stephen Citron’s ‘Jerry Herman – Poet of the Showtune” from Yale University Press . . . Moss Hart, though his life and career were tragically cut short at the age of fifty-seven, left an unparalleled legacy as writer and director for stage and screen. His autobiography “Act One” remains a loving testament to his early years, but it closed its coverage halfway through his life. Now, finally, a comprehensive chronicle of Hart’s life “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” is available from Back Stage Books, by Jared Brown. I remember his wife and widow Kitty Carlisle Hart once confiding how sorry she was that he was not alive to tell his own story. She always kept a copy of “Act One” on the grand piano in their sprawling, east sixties apartment. Here’s a chance to read it, beautifully told.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play “Admissions,” a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts. His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge. His performing arts articles have appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, the Robb Report, the Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other publications. He has written nine other produced plays and musicals, three books and will soon host a series of live interview evenings at the 92nd St. Y, beginning with his first guest, Michael Cerveris, on March 12.