No “Crucible” Stopped
“Cagney” From Becoming
Hollywood’s “Bright Star”
During a conversation we were having about honoring a playwright’s intentions, he told me about how he once had a no-compromise disagreement with a set designer, hired by a regional theatre, over the size and placement of a tree stump. The stump in question is referenced in the stage directions for “All My Sons.” Its size and placement dealt with making sure it was located in full view of the audience. And the ‘he’ was Arthur Miller.
After seeing the current revival of Miller’s masterwork “The Crucible,” the thought crossed my mind – what would Arthur’s response be, to the Act Two pyrotechnics that are currently sending shivers down spines eight times a week at the Walter Kerr Theatre. My best guess? He would not allow it.
His remarkable play, set in Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1692, reflects a series of real-life events – “witch hunts” in the vernacular – that engulfed areas of New England, where the pursuit of ‘witches’ overtook the lives and times of entire communities, often resulting in gruesome death sentences. The line between those whose activities governed the realm of the church and the realm of the state [the keepers of religious purity vs. the defenders of civil order] blended, tending to disappear, as fearful citizens willingly gave over their personal rights and privileges, lest they be branded instruments of the Devil. Sanctity gave way to sanctimony.
Teen-aged Abigail, employed by the Proctors to look after their little daughter, and who lived with her host family in their remote, isolated farmhouse , successfully enticed stolid John into indulging in forbidden sexual trysts. When he decides to end the affair, and he attempts to mend the rents in his marriage, it is Abigail’s heartless jealousy that launches her accusations that John’s wife Elizabeth is a witch. Abigail skillfully entreats other young women of the village to join her in employing the wiles and rituals of Tituba, a West Indies native, whose midnight naked dancing in the forest is glimpsed by Abigail’s uncle, the Rev. Samuel Parris [ Jason Butler Harner]. Convinced that his niece has been possessed by Satan, Parris sets off the chain reaction of recriminations and accusations, backed only by the girl’s wild rantings, swearing she can ‘see’ all manner of creatures and ‘natural’ phenomena – the work, she swears, of shape-shiftings. Abigail [a chillingly intense Saoirse Ronan, whose Oscar-nominated turn in “Brooklyn” is still fresh in many memories] keeps upping the ante, and stops at nothing in her determination to damn Elizabeth, convinced that John will turn to her and she can lay claim to his affection and attention.
The appeal of Ben Whishaw’s John is not that he embodies the traditional features and physical allure of actors who have played John, such as Daniel Day-Lewis or Liam Neeson or Yves Montand. Whishaw’s John possesses a different kind of appeal – the vulnerable man-boy who provides an easy home for the girl/woman eager to control a seemingly weaker-willed mate, whose sex appeal is based on an almost puppy-dog charm – from Montgomery Clift to James Franco. Director Ivo van Hove selected much of his cast cunningly, and included among that accolade is young Tavi Gevinson as Mary, Abigail’s most malleable accomplice. Gevinson creates Mary’s initial attempts at breaking the hold Abigail has over the gaggle of teen-aged girls with such pathos that one almost believes she may succeed in exposing the lies and fabrications that Abigail keeps manufacturing. In the end, though, she succumbs to the other girl’s mind control. And while Sophie Okonedo plays through all the expected behaviors and postures usually associated with Elizabeth, she doesn’t give us the kind of hollow shell of a woman who we can imagine as once having the moral rectitude that a man like John would sacrifice his life for. Joan Allen’s version, opposite Day-Lewis, better depicted the layers of emotion, conviction and repression that triggered John’s downfall.
But what about that tree stump reference? The key to this play’s power, to its ability to mesmerize its audiences the same way that Abigail was able to mesmerize the children, then the adults and then the officials who kept the rules – that key is the fact that Abigail has invented her visions, whole cloth, describing what is not there, pulling the other girls into her wild-eyed ranting, who are always half a step behind in how they mimic the vengeful vixen. We shudder to think how easily virtually every person, regardless of age or gender or depth of their religious convictions – how almost everyone swears that they ‘see’ what Abigail has described – and there’s nothing there.
Yet in this production, director van Hove, with his long-time collaborator, scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, do ‘show’ us. Great and powerful gusts of gale-force wind slice through the stage, tossing people and things. Flocks of pinpoint lights flutter and swoop over, under, around and through the proceedings. When Abigail implores her Devil-hatched ‘yellow bird’ not to land on her head, a laser beam follows her command.
What are we to make of this? Did the playwright want us to doubt whether there actually was a real satanic presence? To ‘show’ us what is not there completely undercuts the power of this play. When van Hove stripped away every set piece, every window and door, every hand prop and even the actors’ shoes, in his justifiably acclaimed production of “View From the Bridge” last year, the jointly arrived-at decision between director and designer served to focus on that play’s core, its essence, which exists in the playwright’s words. Here, as shown in the photographs of Sara Krulwich, every scene takes place in the same warehouse-type industrial space, with only some benches and chairs, a door to an anteroom area, and slant-open windows to make do as stand-ins for, among other locations, the Proctors’ isolated farmhouse, the courtroom where the offenders are tried and convicted, Rev. Parris’s daughter’s bedroom, a jail cell and the woods.
This is the ‘fingerprint syndrome’ at work, wherein a director, with the assistance of a designer, feels the need to make some stark alterations that depart from the original script, to prove he/she was there. And as often as not, the results tend to deviate from the playwright’s intentions, which were, certainly in the case of a writer of Miller’s caliber, very carefully set forth. The ‘feel’ of an isolated farmhouse, which separates the Proctors from the majority of the townspeople and therefore from the hysteria that has taken hold, carries as much weight as the presence and participation of any character. And the absence of any visual depiction of Abigail’s twisted, bitter imagination can freeze one’s blood.
A few seasons back, John Doyle gave each character in his revival production of “Sweeney Todd” an instrument to play, along with whatever lines, lyrics and movement they were required to deliver. It created a sensation – innovative! Creative! Revealing! The glowing notices just kept coming. The following year, Doyle was tapped to direct a revival of “Company.” If it worked then, the thinking must have been, let’s repeat it. The result? Bobby and Joann and the rest of the Manhattan sophisticates had to tote around a variety of musical instruments, with no justification for their presence. I happened to be sitting in front of Elaine Stritch, of that musical’s original cast, and when I stopped to say hello when the performance ended, I asked what she thought. Through clenched teeth and forced smile, came that unmistakable throaty voice. “Well,” she managed to force out between her tight lips, “it’s different.” So too this adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Better? No. Clearer? No. Just different, for the sake of being different. Arthur may have chosen other words to describe the sorry loss of the play’s power. It can be intense, a la “The Exorcist,” like any really scary flick can be. But that’s not what he wrote.
What Steve Martin and Edie Brickell wrote is an unapologetically tender, and bluegrass-tuneful new musical called “Bright Star.” Gently moving back and forth between the 1920s and the 1940s in North Carolina, the bluegrass-inspired love story finds young Alice yearning to make her mark in the big wide world of literature. And making her mark in the rough’n’tumble world of Broadway as Alice, is Carmen Cusack, a true discovery that will hit you with the same glorious sense of discovery that welcomed Jessie Mueller, when her numbers helped to rescue the ill-fated revival of “On a Clear Day.” Here, Cusack’s in the central role, and she lights it up just like any bright shiny star should. Her performance echoes the wide-eyed, high-spirited spunk that a young Mary Martin must have had when she was washing that man right outa her hair. While the particulars of the story manage to juggle a handful of endearing secondary characters, it is Alice, along with her eventual intended, the disaffected mayor’s son Jimmy Ray [Paul Alexander Nolan], and the just-returned-from-WWII Billy [A.J.Shively], making a beeline for Asheville to get his short stories into print, plus the stay-at-home girl next door, Margo [Hannah Elless]. As the inevitable couplings take place, bust apart and then head for the altar, [TWO weddings!], our grown-up Alice becomes the editor of The Asheville Southern Journal, where the boy writer Billy submits piece after piece, until she buys one for $10.
The necessary standard dance breaks make sure we don’t get stuck in the dirt, with especially inventive choreography, compliments of Josh Rhodes. One really memorable dance number makes grand use of lanterns to illuminate the meadowlands at dusk. Radiant sunsets provide plenty of romantic moments, giving us the picture of how we would have liked North Carolina to be, rather than how it actually was [or is?]. Director Walter Bobbie chose wisely when scenic designer Eugene Lee was taken on board – his single unit, open, no walls wooden structure glides across the stage from place to place, housing the rousing melody makers who keep things moving along at a brisk pace.
Like last season’s “Finding Neverland,” this new tuner really fits the bill for any parent wanting to introduce their teens to the pleasures of a shiny new Broadway musical, not afraid to honor sincerity as a virtue. And while the lead roles may be filled by names not yet familiar to the general audience, that may not be true for much longer. There are bright stars aplenty here.
And no Hollywood star shone more brightly than that of James Cagney, the scrappy Irish lad who went from pick-up boxer, to vaudeville female impersonator, then attention-grabbing roles on the New York stage of the 1920s. His career skyrocketed, via an explosion of tough-guy movie performances all through the Depression-era ’30s. Jack Warner, one of the Brothers, decided to get ahead of the entertainment-hungry curve after seeing Cagney, with Joan Blondell, in Broadway’s “Penny Serenade.” Warner, portrayed with an infectious jocularity by Bruce Sabath, built the screen persona image that gave Cagney steady work for most of that decade, milking every possible gangster story line, and pairing Cagney with some of the screen’s most bankable female stars, such as Ann Sheridan and Sylvia Sidney. Cagney basked in his new-found fame, and in his ability to pull his family out of its financial straits. No fool he, Cagney insisted that he always be cast opposite guys taller than he was – he wanted to be seen ‘punching up.’
And the sprightly new bio-musical “Cagney,” at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs, recreates some of his career and personal highlights. While the structure of the piece feels more like a collection of vignettes, there’s no denying that the production struck gold with its leading man, Robert Creighton, who bears much more than a passing resemblance to the title character. Already a Broadway veteran, with half a dozen shows on his resume, including “Anything Goes,” “The Lion King” and “Chicago,” Creighton delivers bigtime on the other feature that gave Cagney his unique place in Hollywood history – he was equally at home as a two-fisted rowdy, pounding the daylights out of anybody who gives him the double-cross, as he was pounding out staccato rhythms with his tap shoes.
An aside about the theatre: producers and scenic designer James Morgan have tricked out the interior of the Westside Theatre to resemble those opulent movie palaces that gave work-weary men and women the chance to feel like they had escaped into a fantasy world for two or three hours, lost in the loves and battles of those larger-than-life silver screen legends. They’ve even papered its walls with movie posters that used to grace lobbies, where we come face-to-face with titles such as “Hard to Handle,” and “Blonde Crazy,” and “The Mayor of Hell.”
Creighton also collaborated with Christopher McGovern, on music and lyrics. Peter Colley’s episodic book does its best to connect Cagney’s touchstones, even as he sparred with Warner over the direction of his career. The writers chose the familiar framing device of showing a central character and his nemesis at the start of proceedings, and then revisiting them throughout the show – in this instance, we see Cagney and Warner settling for an uneasy truce at a SAG Awards event. And contrary to Warner’s advice, Cagney was savvy enough to take on the role of a lifetime – impersonating the legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” At the other end of the spectrum from his usual fists-flying toughs, the Cohan role won him the 1942 Oscar as Best Actor.
The very-hard-working, six-member cast depicts dozens of men and women who threaded through Cagney’s life, from his family growing up, to the screen starlet Mae Clarke, who will forever be remembered as the dame who got that grapefruit in the face, in “Public Enemy,” to screen colleagues such as Bob Hope, who saw real potential in the newcomer. While all six deserve kudos, Danette Holden pins down a vivid variety of roles, including Ma Cagney. Ms. Holden could easily be passed off as a younger version of comedy great Jane Curtain.
Along with belting out the musical numbers, and giving the gangster types what-for, “Cagney” reveals the personal side of this star’s trials, when he stood up to studio bosses in support of labor union causes. He defied Warner, when Warner warned him about the dangers of his political activism. “I own you,” the mogul boasts. Cagney calls his bluff, quits the studio, and launches his own production company.
If you have spent any time taking in great Cagney screen classics on TCM, such as “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “White Heat,” “The Roaring Twenties,” and dozens more, the references will resonate, but even if you don’t count yourself among the initiated, “Cagney” tells a truly unique rags-to-riches, American dream life story, the little guy who could, and did.
The venerable Drilling Company returns for another warm-weather season of their series “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot,” which will feature its third at Bryant Park, 42nd Street at 6th Avenue. The free productions include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “As You Like It” and “Measure for Measure,” beginning May 19. They will also honor the Bard’s 452nd birthday with a special program on April 22. In addition, they perform in the parking lot behind The Clemente, 114 Norfolk Street. Visit shakespeareintheparkinglot.com for details . . . the new play “Harper Regan,” from English playwright Simon Stephens, will be presented at the T. Schreiber Theatre, 151 west 26th street from May 4 through June 4. Stephens is the Tony Award-winning writer of the astonishing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Visit www.tschreiber.org to learn more.
If you’d like a more comprehensive overview of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” here are a few sources to check out: the Penguin Books paperback edition of the play, which includes a thorough, enlightening Introduction by Christopher Bigsby . . . Miller’s exhastive autobiography “Timebends” relates how he came to write the play . . . and Elia Kazan’s “A Life” relates how the famed director brought the original production to the stage . . . and to put the life and career of George M. Cohan in perspective, the beautifully appointed “Broadway: The American Musical” chronicles his legendary performances on the Great White Way.
Last week, one of the American theatre’s true treasures passed away. Anne Jackson died at age 90, having worked for more than six decades on and off Broadway, including a remarkable thirteen times with her late husband, Eli Wallach. The Wallachs were a favorite pair of playwright Murray Schisgal – they appeared in four of his plays. She met her husband when both were cast in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “This Property is Condemned,” in 1946, and they were married two years later. They remained close to Williams, and together or separately, appeared in several of his plays, such as “The Glass Menagerie,” and “Summer and Smoke.” I had the great privilege, ten years ago, of writing and producing “A Life in the Theatre: Onstage and Off – A Tribute to Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach,” celebrating the couple’s half century together. As noted that night, one of the most memorable things about Anne was her spontaneous, joyful laugh. The laugh is gone now, but her place in the hearts of those who worked with her, knew her, or saw her work remains strong.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play “Admissions” was a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts. His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. He has written nine other plays and musicals, along with countless articles about the performing arts, for dozens of publications, including Parade, Dramatics Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone and USA Today. His play “Labor Days” is in pre-production. Mr. Vellela has also taught theatre-related classes at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the New School, among others.
CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk. Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666 – 6666.