“The River” is
no “Side Show.”
It’s “The Real Thing.”
by TONY VELLELA
Count me among the millions of folks who love a good mystery. I’ve even penned a mystery play ["What We Don't Confess"] and a mystery novel ["By Book or By Crook"]. So discovering a ‘mystery’ element in the new play “The River,” by Jez Butterworth ["Jerusalem"] was a bonus, added to the prospect of seeing Hugh Jackman on stage again. To my mind, he’s a true acting Renaissance man – he does it all, and exceedingly well. The in-the-round playing space at Circle in the Square offered director Ian Rickson real challenges, and his has been well-served by the designs of the set and costumes [Ultz] and lighting [Charles Balfour], which all combined to give Jackman an environment as real as any actor could hope for.
Where are we? It’s an isolated cabin on the edge of a lake in rural England [I assume, judging from everyone's accents]. The central character, only referred to as the Man, has been visiting since he was a boy. He has always made these trips to enjoy the thrills of trout fishing – physical, epicurial and spiritual. When we meet him, he’s in the company of a comely young woman [called The Woman], and they appear to be in mid-sojourn, enjoying the aforementioned thrills, as well as others, particularly sexual and even romantic. Jackman’s Man is perfectly comfortable here, right down to not worrying about that hole in his sock. He seems eager to please her, and treads most carefully on the right side of the line that separates being respectfully engaged emotionally, a romancer, rather than being overtly aggressive, a seducer. Until he doesn’t.
There’s been a surfeit of hedge-betting in much of the written commentary about this play. It’s elliptical structure, in which we seem to be re-visiting moments we’ve seen before, as well as Butterworth’s bone-marrow simplicity in the setting-up of it, easily lend themselves to generating head-scratching among even the most attentive audience members. Is this man dangerous? Delusional? Prone to fantasized re-enactments of some past traumatic event? Fact is, we’re not meant to know the answers to these questions, as Butterworth exercises his considerable talents to generate a world as unknowable as the whereabouts of Godot. And what about that Other Woman?
What’s there to recommend? Jackman, of course. Few working actors can create as much realism inside the characters they are contracted to portray, and I think it has something to do with an actor’s willingness to being seen unadorned, however acting-classy that may sound. The same vulnerability that gave us his Curly ["Oklahoma!"], who never crossed over into overly-boastful arrogance is also present here. Whatever the truth is, past and future, again and again, in that remote cabin, I’m willing to give that Man some latitude by assuming he’s got a pretty good reason. Butterworth’s reason for writing such an unsatisfying puzzler? Like the story itself – no clue.
In stark contrast to the exemplary design work that gives “The River” its aura of place authenticity, director Sam Gold has permitted [or been party to] real missteps in the production of the revival of “The Real Thing” at the American Airlines Theatre. At rise, we see what appears to be an expansive contemporary [for the late '80s] living room. There’s the sofa. There’s the sideboard. There’s the armchair. There’s the bookshelves. There’s the area rug. David Zinn’s stage-wide set does double [or is it triple?] duty as the homes of two separate couples in London, and with a few modifications that aren’t related to what they are to represent, a recording studio, and a train coach.
Why quibble about this? Because Tom Stoppard’s [melo]drama about the coupling and uncoupling of one playwright [male], and three actors [two female, one male] wants us to be interested in their lives, their choices, their disorientations. A new play by Henry [an endearing Ewan McGregor], meant to star Annie [Maggie Gyllenhaal, as charismatic in her Broadway debut as she has been on film], goes off the rails as his marriage comes apart, when Henry and Annie fall in love, as he also discovers his wife Charlotte’s infidelities. His wife [the always-reliable Cynthia Nixon] becomes enamored with a young anti-nuke militant she has met on a train ride back from appearing on stage in Glasgow. Her first husband, Max [a likeable Josh Hamilton] manages to figure in the mix as well.
This is Tom Stoppard, circa 1984, already a force to be reckoned with in the English-speaking theatre, his swoon-worthy dexterity with the spoken and the written word emerging more fully here. When viewing the original production thirty years ago, I was absolutely gob-smacked hearing a gentle diatribe [if that's not a contradiction] delivered by Henry, relating his core philosophy about the value of how a carefully constructed sequence of words can deliver truths, and how a badly assembled sequence of words can pervert even the simplest of intentions. The metaphor? How a cricket bat is constructed – the choice of the wood, how it is shaped and assembled, to do its job very very well. All of Stoppard’s splendid semantics is here in the service of what one might call an examination of what constitutes genuine love for someone else, despite any new revelations that surface about that person. Here, it’s not simply the predictable discovery of sexual infidelity, but also the utter disbelief in how someone views the subject, and practice of opportunism. The particulars here center around a willingness to bestow virtuous motives on someone who, to others, may seem short on integrity and long on self-aggrandizement. Do you, as an actor, play a role for the sake of your or your playwright’s career, or reject the opportunity when that role challenges your basic principles?
While all this may sound very High-Minded, [and my recollection after seeing the original production is that it seemed so], the play has been short-changed in this revival. It now merely serves as a platform for a handful of very engaging mid-career actors to ‘play’ in the land of Stoppard. Surprisingly, very little believable, deep warmth, or emotional fervor passes among them in any combination. And after a while, it becomes distractingly tedious to try to decipher where we are, both in the scrambled interrelationships and in the free-form set design where they take place.
The tawdry world of Depression-era vaudeville is where we are, in the dazzling revival of “Side Show.” The original book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Kreiger have been supplemented with additional book material by Bill Condon, who also directed the production, at the St. James.
Of the batch of revivals from twenty-five/thirty years ago that populate this season’s list of offerings, this one has done the best job so far of justifying the decision to bring it back. In its original incarnation, the story of the lives of the British conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, followed them from being treated as property, sold to a ‘manager,’ who exhibited them as side-show oddities, through their discovery by a vaudeville impresario, their popular success as singers and the turmoil they suffered when private feelings were never able to be realized. The same storyline unfolds here, but this time, the girls seem to have become the fully-actualized, three-dimensional people they longed to be. This transformation may be due, in part, to the simple casting choices this time. Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, both first-rate talents by any standard, portrayed the girls in the original cast, and from the first moment we see them, they had, in my recollection, a muted allure about them. All it needed was nurturing.
Here, the equally talented Erin Davie [Violet] and Emily Padgett [Daisy] look as weary, as haggard, as beaten-down as their existence would have caused them to become. This is not meant to suggest any lack of, how-to-say, attraction these women have. What it does is give them, the characters, so much more room to grow, so much more history to overcome. Their rescuers, played convincingly by Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik, arrange a slow ascent from side show to vaudeville to popular theatre events and even briefly into film. This time, legendary film-maker Tod Browning ["Freaks"] appears as the pivotal character he was in their real lives, including them in that iconic classic about the shadowy world of the lives of those circus curiosities whose physical oddities defined them as permanent outsiders, near-defenseless against exploitation and ridicule.
“Side Show” owes its revitalized new life in large measure to director Bill Condon’s application of the masterful story-telling he so expertly exhibited when helming the screen version of Krieger’s dynamic show-business opus “Dreamgirls.” And his sensitivity to the particularities of human diversities, so vividly on display when he wrote and directed the films “Kinsey” and “Gods and Monsters,” are so well-utilized again, bringing us inside the lives of two young women whose outward identities are forever linked, while their inner personalities and desires could not be more different. This time, we discover that distinction, and enjoy seeing the journey of discovery as they experience it.
Is the noise of city life getting to you? Have you felt that true creativity no longer exists? Take heart! The world-renowned theatrical troupe Mummenschanz has taken up temporary Big Apple residence for a short time only.
They’re displaying their wordless, silent magical imagination-creations at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, at the south end of Washington Square Park. If you’ve seen them before, renew your memories, and if not, make new ones, and share them with your children, or treat someone else’s to this wondrous event. Visit www.Mummenschanz.com for details . . . another holiday treat is available for families, as the longest-running musical in the world, “The Fantasticks,” offers a discounted package . . . and there’s a different special on display at the Merchant’s House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, as the Summoners Ensemble Theatre returns to re-tell Charles Dickens’ timeless classic “A Christmas Carol,” set in the museum’s authentic period dwelling, built in 1832, still featuring original family possessions. Limited seating – details at www.merchantshouse.org.
Two engrossing new volumes help us trace the fascinating history of America’s most widely-revered popular art form – the musical theatre. John Kendrick has reached way, way back, showing us how theatre in the mid-1800s sowed the earliest seeds of what we love to indulge in – a great big musical show. In “Musical Theatre – A History,” Kendrick makes visits with Gilbert and Sullivan, the great Al Jolson, Richard Rodgers and both of his talented partners, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, the genius of Sondheim, the emergence of the Disney musicals, and much much more, from Continuum Press . . . In “Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre,” the journalist Ethan Mordden, writing for Oxford University Press, takes us from the dawn of the last century up to the early 2000’s, with great detail, insight and a healthy dose of sheer adoration for America’s musical theatre world . . . and who are the people responsible for what we see on the Broadway boards? In “Great Producers,” Iris Dorbian introduces us to a dazzling display of the talented behind-the-scenes makers and shakers who have shaped all that theatrical history, and more. From Allworth Press, this comprehensive volume explores the work and worry of more than a dozen luminaries, from David Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld, through David Merrick and Joseph Papp, to today’s moguls, including Michael David, Andre Bishop and the Weisslers. It’s a real eye-opener.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.” “Admissions,” his Best Play Award-winner [N.Y. International Fringe Festival] is published by Playscripts. ArtAge Press published his play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.” His articles about the performing arts have appeared in dozens of publications, including Parade, the Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Dramatics, Reader’s Digest and the Robb Report. He has taught at several institutions, including Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studios and the New School. He is currently conducting theatre-topic classes and sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details], as well as small-group sessions and individual coaching from his home in Manhattan.