Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What I saw in New York

Patti Lupone takes her turn at "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy.

What's a weekend in New York without a few shows? I'm embarrassed to say, however, that this time I didn't seek out anything edgy - no, I went straight for the gay comfort food: the revival of Gypsy with Patti Lupone, and the debut of Harry Potter's magic wand in the revival of Equus.

Both shows only reminded me how misguided Broadway worship truly is -
because neither production, frankly, measured up to the best I saw in Boston last spring (or this summer at Stratford and Williamstown). There are plenty of reasons why this should be so, despite the fact that New York has the largest, deepest pool of theatrical talent (and, of course, money) in the country: shows tend to grow stale during their long Broadway runs, or end up openly catering to the tourist crowd, or are simply under-rehearsed or uninspired, just like everywhere else.

Gypsy, for instance, has probably declined somewhat over the course of its run: it's certainly still a strong production, but it's hard to understand the raves plastered across its marquee. Patti Lupone seemed a bit weary at the performance I caught, and only really let rip at the finale, "Rose's Turn," (which she did invest with both psychological and vocal power). And her Tony-winning co-stars, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti, were likewise solid, but ever-so-slightly miscast: Gaines was a shade too elegant (and intelligent) to believably cast his lost with Mama Rose, and Benanti was too cool and calculating as young Louise to ever pull off a tearjerker like "Little Lamb" (especially against a stuffed lamb). Other roles (such as Tulsa) also lacked punch (indeed, up at Stoneham last fall, Louise and Tulsa were far stronger than their Broadway counterparts), and the reconstruction of Jerome Robbins's choreography only revealed that sometimes Robbins could be a pretty conventional choreographer. Diverting the show is; gripping it is not.

Equus, predictably, was even weaker - indeed, the largest drama of the preview I saw revolved around whether or not any of Daviel Radcliffe's young fans would be able to score some photos off their cell phones during the notorious nude scene (for a mere $160, you could sit above the stage in arena seating, to be closer to the reveal). It's true that as the disturbed young lad who blinds horses, Radcliffe does give his all as well as show his all (at left), and at times his damaged, scampering energy was actually compelling. But he hardly dispelled memories of Peter Firth's haunting turn in the role; his presence is simply not mysterious enough. And alas, as Dysart, his whiny psychiatrist, Richard Griffiths was even further from the famous standards of ruined, sonorous masculinity set by Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton; Griffiths decorates the proceedings with a mournful wittiness, but conjures little pity or terror.

And the play desperately needs a major actor to whip up said atmosphere, because it really can't manage it on its own. Playwright Peter Shaffer has one solid idea - our civilized envy of the boy's dionysiac experience with his horse-god; but he doesn't really know how to develop this insight dramatically - instead he merely has Dysart piss and moan about his emasculation for two acts while the boy's story slowly plays out in flashback. The horses - here expertly mimed by male dancers in eerily-gleaming headgear - do provide a thrilling distraction, but that's precisely what they are: a distraction (although some might find it interesting that this time around their homo-erotic context was hardly subliminal). Then once we're done with the naughty bits, the play abruptly ends - because, obviously, it's really just a vehicle. The actors hit their marks, we look into the pit, and then it's so long, Equus, son of Schmequus, and back to the suburbs as soon as possible. Bostonians might be glad to hear local heroine Sandra Shipley acquits herself well in the supporting role of a hearty nurse; likewise Trekkies might be intrigued to discover that Kate Mulgrew beams down for some highly "dramatic" confrontations with Dysart. Other than that, I'm not sure it's worth a trip - except for those who are wild about Harry. Or his wand.

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