Tuesday, June 30, 2015

33 (2015-2016): Review of OF GOOD STOCK (seen June 28, 2015)

"Another Weekend in the Country"
Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of OF GOOD STOCK, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


Other Viewpoints:

Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II
131 West 55th Street, NYC
Through July 26

Monday, June 29, 2015

32 (2015-2016): Review of HAPPY DAYS (seen June 25, 2015)

"Not Such Happy Days"
Stars range from 5-1.
Ever since its world premiere at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961, starring Ruth White, HAPPY DAYS, Samuel Beckett’s brilliant metaphoric depiction of man’s existential plight, has received countless productions. New York’s many revivals have starred a wide array of topflight character actresses as Winnie—the aging woman who lives out her days partly buried in a dirt mound—among them Jessica Tandy (1972), Irene Worth (1979), Ruth Malaczech (1998), Joyce Aarons (2002), and Fiona Shaw (2014). Some of these performances have been hailed as triumphs, others considered respectable, and yet others dismissed as failures.
Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The play’s current Winnie, at the Flea Theatre, is Brooke Adams, with her real-life husband, Tony Shalhoub (TV’s “Monk,” Lincoln Center’s Act One), as Willie, Winnie’s longtime husband, 60. For all his star power, it should be noted, Mr. Shalhoub’s mostly pantomimic role is largely performed with his presence partly concealed and his back to the audience. His entire role consists of only 47 words, while Winnie speaks almost nonstop for two hours in an exceedingly tough role that has been likened to a Hamlet for women.
Tony Shalhoub, Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The production, directed by Andrei Belgrader—whose DOCTOR FAUSTUS is currently at the Classic Stage Company—originated at Pasadena’s The Theatre@Boston Court and was seen also in Los Angeles and Boston. Its publicity materials suggest that the play is “newly relevant to a generation burdened by climate change and environmental doom,” which may be true, but there’s nothing on stage that specifically calls attention to this or that draws attention away from Beckett’s original intentions. Beckett, so fastidious about how his plays were presented that he provided scrupulous stage directions for every movement and even took to directing them himself (his 1979 staging of HAPPY DAYS with Billie Whitelaw can be viewed on YouTube), might have argued with some of Mr. Belgrader’s choices.  Essentially, though (unlike Mr. Belgrader’s problematic DOCTOR FAUSTUS), this is a straightforward, respectful mounting that follows most of Beckett’s requirements.
Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I suspect, of course, that Beckett would not have been happy with having the scene where the partly visible Willie, facing upstage, not only examines an erotic picture (as in the script) but vigorously masturbates while looking at it; where Winnie, having asked Willie for an encore after he sings a bit, breaks the fourth wall and encourages the audience to call for an encore as well; and an extended nose-blowing bit by Willie that goes on ad infinitum. But such moments are thankfully few and, in general, there’s an air of Beckettian authenticity to the proceedings.  

HAPPY DAYS, a landmark of the great Irish author's minimalism, is set in a desolate, uneven wasteland (designed by Takeshi Kata) dominated by a large mound of scorched grass in which Winnie, a woman of 50, is embedded up to her waist. The landscape is surrounded by a cyclorama on which blue skies, clouds, and distant mountains are painted. The lighting, by Tom Ontiveros, is, as per Beckett’s dictum, “blazing.” This barren world may be intended to evoke a world of environmental ruination, but it’s exactly what Beckett asks for; however he may have sympathized with them, issues of climate change don’t seem to have been one of his main concerns. Other productions have attempted to suggest environmental issues by incorporating reminders of modern man’s despoliation of the earth’s resources in the setting, but nothing like that is apparent here.

To Winnie’s left is a large leather bag in which all her daily necessities are kept, including a pistol, a worn toothbrush, a magnifying glass, eyeglasses, a bottle of patent medicine, a hand mirror, lipstick, a music box, and the like, each of which she makes deliberate use of as she rambles on. To her right is a parasol. At the rear, we can often see the back of Willie’s head and shoulders, or his raised hand, a ratty straw boater on his head worn rakishly directly over a carefully draped handkerchief. He lives in a cave, reached by a tunnel, behind the mound. Beckett makes no attempt to explain Winnie and Willie’s circumstances; they just are, and it’s the audience’s task to comprehend the meaning behind the play’s rather accessible concerns as Winnie natters away to the unlistening Willie. She carries out her daily rituals, cheerfully insisting—when inspired by a hint of positivity from Willie—that this will be a happy day, as human functions become increasingly circumscribed and life creeps stealthily to its conclusion.

Her hair bright yellow, her décolletage bulging (the playwright calls for “shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom”), Ms. Adams, best known for her film work (Days of Heaven), gives a fine rendition of Winnie; she brings her girlish, still pretty charm (she’s eligible for Social Security) to bear, finding multiple ways to take advantage of the limiting circumstances of performing while seen only from the waist up in act one, and for act two with only her head visible. In Beckett’s own production, Ms. Whitelaw had her neck exposed in the second act, but Ms. Adams’s mobility is even further constricted by having her neck covered and only her head seen, thus further increasing our focus on her face.

She handles all this quite well, is expressive enough to capture Winnie’s many subtextual transitions, has a lovely smile, and convincingly conveys the air of a personality whose eternal optimism and fondness for “the old style” refuses to let her deteriorating condition defeat her; on the other hand, she emits a rather low-beam intensity, partly because of her voice quality and partly because of the air of lassitude caused by occasionally draggy pacing. Of course, she can be harsh, joyous, ironic, scared, angry, hopeful, and despairing, and even hums “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but too often she comes off as someone who chats mindlessly because there’s nothing better to do than as someone who’s determined to get something off her chest. Beckett offers Winnie many funny lines, some rather earthy, but, while Ms. Adams's performance rolls on by more or less amusingly, there’s a dearth of laughs in it. There’s also not much of the pathos needed to move us.

While it’s important to convey the tedium of Winnie’s endless days in a world where the sun never sinks and sleep is incessantly interrupted by the raucous ringing of a bell, the audience itself shouldn’t feel the dullness; this, however, especially in act one, is what happens. Ms. Adam’s portrayal of this now iconic role, while far from a failure, misses being a triumph and falls into the category of  “respectable.”

Mr. Shalhoub is totally unrecognizable as Willie; he's scruffily bearded, wears a comical hairpiece suggesting baldness and stringy, unkempt, gray hair, and looks like a homeless man, unlike the more elegant look of shaved head and well-groomed handlebar mustache affected by Leonard Fenton in the Beckett-directed version. He grunts his few lines, spoken mainly while facing upstage and reading the newspaper, rather than sharply enunciating them, like Fenton. 

In the final scene, where Willie emerges in top hat and tails and crawls toward Winnie, seeking either the gun placed by her side or Winnie herself (Beckett is deliberately ambiguous), Mr. Shalhoub’s Willie goes through all sorts of physical exertions as he seeks to get traction on the mound, none of which Beckett calls for in his script, although others (like George Voskovic in the Irene Worth production) have done something similar. We can perhaps excuse this on the grounds that, after all, an actor of Mr. Shalhoub’s stature needed something notable to do in a play during which his character is largely invisible.

Other Viewpoints:
New York Times
The Guardian
Talkin' Broadway
New York Theater

Flea Theatre
White Street, NYC
Through July 18

31 (2015-2016): Review of THE QUALMS (seen June 27, 2015)

"Swinging the Polyamory Blues Away"
Stars range from 5-1.
The program cover for Bruce Norris’s* 90-minute one-act, THE QUALMS, at Playwrights Horizons, shows a cartoonish image of a pair of simians doing the nasty, although the animal sex mentioned at length in the script is mainly about creatures of the bovine persuasion. Not that Mr. Norris’s (whose CLYBOURNE PARK snared the Tony and the Pulitzer) entertaining if dramatically skimpy play—originally produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater—is preoccupied with animal copulation or bestiality, however; cows and bulls are only one of many subjects about which his eight chief characters spend their time talking instead of taking care of the business at hand (or elsewhere). Sex, mainly of the human variety—or, better yet, varieties—is the chief subject on their minds, but they fill their time wrapping their tongues around topics like the meaning of freedom, the difference between a republic and a democracy, the necessity of monogamous marriage, American materialism, pornography, same-sex experimentation, war, etc. Sort of like an expanded episode of Bill Maher’s HBO series.

From left: Chinasa Ogbuagu, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
What brings the play’s four couples together—they're members of a dues-paying group of swingers (to use the old nomenclature)—is a bed and barbecue party (pork loins are the pièce de résistance) at a generically attractive East Coast seaside condo apartment (nicely designed by Todd Rosenthal and lit by Russell H. Champs); at the rear, we can see through sliding glass doors a fancy patio grill and hanging party lights. Among the accessories is a bowl of colorfully packaged condoms; another bowl is reserved for the guests’ smartphones. An offstage “party room” has an air mattress on a white carpet, but no red wine in there, please. Even a sex party has its rules (including separate time limits in the party room for couples and threesomes). The place belongs to Gary (John Procaccino), a bloviating, superannuated hipster, and Teri (Kate Arrington), his pretty, dodo-ish partner with AC/DC tastes, who considers sex the panacea for all the world’s problems: “Like if all the Israelis and the Pakistanis had to have sex with each other?”
From left: Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos, Sarah Goldberg. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The regular guests—there’d be two more but they’re stuck in a storm in Toledo—include Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin), an energetic, sexually adventurous redhead in the body of Melissa McCarthy, and her good-looking, notably swishy, but sexually ambivalent black companion, Ken (Andy Lucien), formerly the reflexologist for Deb’s recently deceased husband; and Roger (Noah Emmerich), a former military guy with a brassy toilet mouth and Libertarian ideals, who bickers with Regine (Chinasa Obguagu), his dishy, French-accented, black girlfriend from Martinique, decked out in sexy, black silk stockings. The first to arrive, though, are newlyweds Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and the sleek blonde Kristy (Sarah Goldberg), newcomers to “the lifestyle,” who met their hosts during a Mexican vacation; they're here because Chris, having lost his cool, wants to test his jealousy limits after learning about a clandestine luncheon Kristy had with her former boyfriend. (Note: Chris and Kristy don't seem to have any connection to the governor of New Jersey.)  Chris’s eventual qualms (which Mr. Norris admits reflect his own) fuel the play’s only significant conflict. 
From left: Noah Emmerich, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, Donna Lynne Champlin, Andy Lucien, Kate Arrington. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mr. Norris has a gift for strikingly vivid chitchat spiced with language ranging from the merely bawdy to the outright vulgar, but this language is used in service to what’s essentially a conventional drawing room comedy about a bunch of articulate middle-class people who sit around a living room chattering eagerly about this or that (abetted by mojitos and a weed nebulizer). At long last, someone gets upset about something, sparking a confrontation and thereby leading to the denouement. In this case, Chris, desperate to see if the lifestyle can work for him and Kristy, gradually finds that for all his professed liberalism he’s really rather uneasy about it all, while Kristy, although initially jumpy, is ready to go with the flow, even if it means seeing what playing for the other side is like. Chris, already edgy from Deb's attentions, goes nuts when Regine tries to arouse him with a bout of (rather tame) rough stuff; he expounds in a climactic diatribe that takes every opportunity to trash the purpose of the gathering, unable to prevent the prejudices lurking beneath his liberal exterior from leaping out full blown. The always enjoyable Mr. Shamos makes histrionic hay out of his big scene, but it tends to be forced and stretched beyond the bounds of plausibility.
From left: Chinasa Ogbuagu, John Procaccino, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Under Pam McKinnon’s brightly paced direction, the ensemble's performances are terrific, although if anyone were to be singled out it would be Mr. Shamos for his uptight Chris and Ms. Champlin for her buoyant Deb, a buoyancy Chris manages to painfully deflate. Shortly before this mostly sexless sex comedy ends, Gary notes that when a number of strangers are gathered together, like the audience in a theatre, there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll somehow be sexually connected to others in the same place. At this point, Mr. Norris calls for a surprising bit of fourth-wall smashing of which the actors take full advantage. 

While its foreplay is strictly verbal, and the only climax comes when Chris blows his top, there’s still enough amusing titillation to make a visit to THE QUALMS a suitable way to get your theatergoing rocks off.  

*My playgoing companion, who thought THE QUALMS “bright, entertaining, funny, and provocative,” later e-mailed me that on her subway trip home she was reading a handout about the play she’d picked up at the theatre. “The young man standing opposite me asked whether I had been to see The Qualms. He must have recognized the handout, because it was folded in such a way that the title was not visible. Then he asked whether it was good. I said yes, and he responded 'I’ll have to get down there.' I googled Bruce Norris just now, and, based on the many photos of him that pop up, I believe the young man on the subway was Bruce himself. Hah!” Only Bruce Norris knows for sure.

Other Viewpoints:
North Jersey.com 
Talkin' Off Broadway
New York Times

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through July 12

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

30 (2015-2016): Review of 10 OUT OF 12 (seen June 23, 2015)

"4 Out of 5 (Stars)"
Stars range from 5-1.

With THE FLICK, Annie Baker demonstrated that watching three low-end employees of a tiny movie theatre fill three hours sweeping rows and scraping gum from seat bottoms could be mesmerizingly interesting. In 10 OUT OF 12, which runs close to two hours and 40 minutes at the Soho Rep, Anne Washburn has done much the same in exposing audiences to the crushing sense of stasis, interrupted by momentary crises, often experienced by theatre people during that period called technical rehearsals, when lighting, sound, and scenic elements are first brought into the process of preparing a production. Ms. Baker studied in Mac Wellman’s unusually successful MFA program in playwriting at Brooklyn College, and Ms. Washburn teaches in that program. One wonders if someone in Flatbush is presently conceiving a groundbreaking play about gardeners watching grass grow.
Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
I say this facetiously, of course, but the truth is that these new plays have added something noteworthy, though not revolutionary, to our understanding of theatre’s ability to grip an audience through close attention to how the moment by moment minutiae of people managing specific jobs gives us insight into human behavior. In its depiction of how the many specialized theatre workers—actors, directors, lighting and sound technicians, stage managers, costumers, etc.—conduct themselves during what can be grindingly boring procedures, 10 OUT OF 12 harks back to certain plays by David Storey, which, in seemingly plotless terms, slowly expose the individuals involved in playing (offstage) a game of English football or building a tent for a wedding ceremony.
Conrad Schott, Bruce McKenzie, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Although what we’re witnessing is a greatly conflated, episodic compression of the many hours spent during tech, mingling almost surrealistic interludes with straightforward ones, it doesn’t flinch—prospective audiences, take notice—from creating a sense of the same crushingly slow sense of progress experienced at the real thing. Ms. Washburn based her play on the notes she took during various tech rehearsals she attended over a five-year period, so the air of authenticity is thick. Having directed a couple of dozen plays myself, I know whereof I yawn. The miracle here is the extraordinary cohesiveness of the perfectly cast and technically impressive production, which Les Waters (artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville) has directed with an awesome precision that nevertheless inspires believability in every performance.
Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
On the one hand, 10 OUT OF 12 (which means that, according to Equity rules, 10 out of a given 12 hours will be devoted to the rehearsal) is the kind of play and production that will strike chords of recognition and appreciation in the hearts of any theatre person who’s been there and done that; on the other, it may all seem like much ado about nothing to civilians who couldn’t care less about how a play is put on stage, and want to see a story and characters they can relate to. While some of the characters do get to express themselves in personal terms, all we really know about them is how they deal with their professional obligations, or what silly things they do to prevent the ennui from driving them up the wall, not about their lives outside the theatre’s womblike embrace. Apart from those playing the actors, who get both an actor’s and a character’s name(s), most are identified merely by their functions, i.e., Stage Manager (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Technician 3 (Jeff Biehl), Costumes (Rebecca Hart), Director (Bruce McKenzie), Sound (Bray Poor), Technician 2 (Garrett Neergaard), Assistant Director (Conrad Schott), Lights (Wendy Rich Stetson), and Assistant Stage Manager (Leigh Wade).
Nina Hellman Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The audience sits in bleachers facing a low stage on which David Zinn has designed what seems an only partly completed set comprised of, at stage right, a long wall, with a door set in it, built of unfinished plywood. When necessary, the entire wall, sitting on casters, can be rolled across the stage to expose a forest glade depicted on its back. Action occurs behind the audience, in the aisles, on stage, and behind the set. While the non-actor characters are dressed in normal everyday wear, the actor characters, once they’ve put on their costumes (designed by Asta Bennie Hostetter), first appear in 19th-century clothes, the women (Nina Hellman, Sue Jean Kim) in large hoop skirts; later, when scenes set in contemporary times are performed, the costumes change accordingly. There are, by the way, substantial play-within-a-play chunks, which offer tantalizing glimpses of the spookily odd postmodern drama—which includes lots of ghostly, Nosferatu-inspired hands—the actors are working on.
Conrad Schott (shadow), Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Since much of what transpires during a tech is heard only by those wearing headsets, each member of the audience gets a listening device to loop over one ear so they can eavesdrop on the substantial amount of back and forth shared among the techies. Ms. Washburn’s notes have been extremely useful in capturing both the tech-speak used in cueing and setting levels, as well as in expressing the inanities spoken during moments when not much else is going on. When thus isolated for our listening pleasure some of these overheard sallies—consistently delivered in a dry, off-the-cuff, naturalistic tone—can be hilarious. One, for example, features a hungry techie, offered half of his colleague’s sandwich, seeking information on each component, and finally deciding that maybe he’s not really hungry enough to indulge in his friend’s generous offer.
Conrad Schott (shadow), Bruce McKenzie (shadow), Sue Jean Kim, Nina Hellman, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The play is divided into two acts by the fifteen-minute break announced by the stage manager for the company’s benefit. The second half turns out to be more conventionally dramatic than the first, largely because a sizable, uninterrupted scene comes screeching to a halt when the actor Paul (Thomas Jay Ryan) decides to interrogate the director about his dissatisfaction with how his character is written, while also subtly critiquing his fellow performer (Gibson Frazier). The scene is exceptionally well played by Mr. Ryan, whose Paul is tiresomely argumentative and rhetorically gifted, but completely impractical. Mr. McKenzie’s frazzled but generally low-key director, unwilling or, given his general air of quiet desperation, unable to engage in a long-winded discussion, somehow manages to fend him off, helped by the reaction of Mr. Frazier. Another dilemma ensues when someone has a bloody accident, but, as theatre tradition would have it, the show—or at least the rehearsal—manages to go on. Until it doesn’t, that is, and the next day’s call is announced.   
Leigh Wade, Sue Jean Kim, Bruce McKenzie (back to camera), Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
10 OUT OF 12 actually concludes by shifting to another mode in a charmingly sung and danced coda, choreographed by Barney O’Hanlan, exquisitely signifying a love letter to the theatre and the hardworking, mostly unsung artists and technicians who devote themselves to it regardless of the sacrifices (such as having to take temp work to survive) they must make. In a sense, it refutes a letter I happened to read on my subway trip home, written in 1884 by America’s leading star of the day, Edwin Booth, to someone seeking to become an actor and hoping for Booth’s encouragement. Hoping to deter the man’s aspirations, Booth says, in part: “It is a life of wearisome drudgery; and requires years of toil, and bitter disappointment, to achieve a position worth having. . . . Were I able to employ my thoughts and labor in any other field I would gladly turn my back on the theatre forever.” A far cry indeed from Ms. Washburn's uplifting message.
Sue Jean Kim, Leigh Wade, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
10 OUT OF 12 being about a tech rehearsal, the technical components are extensively showcased, both when they’re working properly and when they’re not, but a loud shout-out has to go to Justin Townsend for his exceptional lighting effects and to Bray Poor for his memorable sounds. The excellence of their work helps demonstrate once again why the Soho Rep, for its play choices, direction, acting, design, and technical contributions, continues to be about the best and smartest small nonprofit theatre in the Off Broadway arena. 
Nina Hellman. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Thomas Jay Ryan, Gibson Frazier, Sue Jean Kim, Nina Hellman.

From left: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Bruce McKenzie, Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman, Conrad Schott, David Ross, Sue Jean Kim, Garrett Neergaard, Leigh Wade. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

From left: Sue Jean Kim, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Garrett Neergaard (with headset), Nina Hellman, Bruce McKenzie, David Ross, Conrad Schott, Leigh Wade, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes. 
Other Viewpoints:

Soho Rep
46 Walker Street, NYC
Through July 18

Friday, June 19, 2015

29 (2015-2016): Review of DOCTOR FAUSTUS (seen June 13, 2015)

"Devilishly Dull"


 For my review of DOCTOR FAUSTUS, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Other Viewpoints:
New York Times
New York Post
The Guardian

Chris Noth. Phone: Joan Marcus.

Chris Noth, Zach Grenier. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

28 (2015-2016): Review of MY PERFECT MIND (seen June 17, 2015)

"The Windmills of His Mind"

 With his long, weathered, but still noble face, sad eyes, gentleness, lanky frame, wispy white hair, mustache, and goatee, Edward Petherbridge, the distinguished British actor, would make a perfect Don Quixote. One can easily see him tilting at windmills, but in the brilliantly conceived and executed MY PERFECT MIND, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, it’s King Lear he’s portraying; that is, when he’s not also playing other persons in Shakespeare’s play, not to mention himself. And, as in the Jacques Brel song, the windmills that he’s tilting at are the ones within his mind.

“I fear I am not in my perfect mind,” says the king in act four of LEAR. The theatre piece that takes its title from that phrase says much the same thing about Mr. Petherbridge’s condition following a stroke he suffered in 2007 shortly after beginning rehearsals to play Lear in Wellington, New Zealand, forcing him to abandon the show. His mind seems perfect now, however, at age 78, coming up soon, as he reminds us, on 79. He beautifully, and with great charm and humor, navigates the extremely tricky shoals of this nonlinear, narratively fractured, self-deprecating, metatheatrical reflection on his life, career, Lear, and, of course, the theatre. 
Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Originally produced for the Told by an Idiot theatrical company, the Young Vic Theatre, and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, MY PERFECT MIND was written (leaving room for improvisation) by Mr. Petherbridge in collaboration with the exceptional comic actor Paul Hunter, who hilariously supports the star in multiple comic roles, and the marvelous actress Kathryn Hunter, who directed. It takes place on an assemblage inventively designed by Michael Vale to signify and satirize theatrical conventions. A sharply raked white platform, a trap door at its heart, set sideways to the audience; at its top a thundersheet. A plain white panel for a backdrop. Traditional wind and rain machines. A couple of bentwood chairs, a table, and random props. Not much to look at, but as used during the performance, a cornucopia of theatrical, and often terrifically funny, theatrical possibilities.
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Mr. Hunter serves both as Lear’s Fool in scenes from KING LEAR, but also makes everyone else he plays part of a rogue’s gallery of people (not necessarily fools) in Mr. Petherbridge’s life.  A few odd costume pieces, a wig, hair net, or cap infuse a farcical energy into all the people he portrays, including Dr. Witznagel, a lab-coated, bushy-wigged neurologist with a comically phony German accent, whose scenes serve as a sort of frame to the action. He begins the play as if speaking to a class of future “doctors of the brain,” introducing a case study of a man suffering from a brain trauma that has given him EPS (Edward Petherbridge Syndrome), a condition wherein Mr. Petherbridge believes he’s King Lear. Later, this morphs into its opposite, KLS (figure it out). Each time he mimes writing notes on the thundersheet, it produces its expected sound effect, causing him to look up as if the skies were about to open. Mr. Hunter’s comic timing and sensibility make you chuckle no matter how old-hat his shtick is.
Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Over the course of the play he embodies characters in LEAR; himself when he costarred with Mr. Petherbridge in a flop 2010 West End revival of THE FANTASTICKS; Mr. Petherbridge’s pregnant mother, who had a stroke two days before her son was born; David Lawrence, director of Wellington’s Bacchanal Theatre Company; a cab driver imagined to have driven the star all the way from Wellington to Bradford, Yorkshire, where he was raised; a Japanese director casting Mr. Petherbridge in THE FANTASTICKS; Veronica, a Romanian housecleaner who rehearses LEAR with him; Sir Laurence Olivier, who at one point performs Othello by combining it with Richard III; Miss MacPride, his Bradford movement teacher who taught him the importance of “economy and selection”; the New Zealand doctor who treated his stroke, and others.

As the piece progresses it keeps shifting places and situations, going back and forth in time, satirizing actors’ affectations, taking us into rehearsals of Lear, informing us of major highlights in Mr. Petherbridge’s career (including his famous roles in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN, and his less famous one as an Incan priest in THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN*), showing Mr. Petherbridge reliving the acting exercises he performed for Miss MacPride (such as “A Day in the Life of a Gnat”), presenting Mr. Petherbridge as a child performing “Chickery Chick” in a talent contest at the Bridlington Pavilion, informing us of Mr. Petherbridge’s family background, and so on. Famous English theatre names drop frequently along the way, although not everyone will pick up every anecdotal reference to Coward, Wolfit, Finney, Branagh, and Holm. Ironically, we learn that, despite Mr. Petherbridge’s leaving LEAR, Wellington audiences soon after were privileged to see the world touring production of it starring Mr. Petherbridge’s friend, Ian McKellen.
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Mr. Petherbridge, wearing jeans and a blousy white shirt with various vests, jackets, and coats, shifts in manner from the convincingly off the cuff, seemingly improvisational, to the classically polished and powerful. He may sometimes give the illusion of searching for a word, but he never misses a beat, and even his most throwaway moments are clearly set and perfected. 
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Having gained fame mainly as a stage actor, especially during his tenure with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he’s not become a household name like those peers who’ve had important film careers. His best-known non-theatre work was as the debonair sleuth, Sir Peter Wimsey, in the 1987 BBC TV series based on the Dorothy Sayers novels. But it’s in the theatre that you want to see him, and now you’ve got your chance. Seize it.

[*Here’s a little anecdote of my own, stirred up when Mr. Petherbridge mentioned THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN. In 1963 I was a graduate student in Tokyo studying kabuki theatre. That November an international theatre conference brought many distinguished world theatre figures to Japan, including the director John Dexter. I got to know him a bit at the conference and, when the visitors were taken to see a kabuki production I sat next to him and explained the various conventions. In 1965 Dexter’s production of THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, which had starred Robert Stephens as the Inca king Atahualpa in England, came to New York with David Carradine in the role. I was excited to see that Dexter had infused a number of kabuki conventions into this highly theatrical work, and now to realize that, in my own tiny way, I'd had something to do with influencing a play in which the young Edward Petherbridge appeared.]

Other Viewpoints:

59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-ninth Street, NYC
Through June 28