As it happens, we've caught some pretty good plays lately -- and we've seen some stunning performances in those plays. When all is said and done, it's the acting that we'll remember most. For instance, Michael Rispoli gives one of the most natural, engaging, fundamentally moving performances of the year in Magic Hands Freddy, now playing at the Soho Playhouse. Arje Shaw wrote some sensational dialogue for Rispoli to toss off but otherwise constructed a somewhat predictable plot. The play has its surprises and its flaws -- the end of the first act is particularly confusing -- but Rispoli towers over the production and is the main reason to see it. Ironically, some folks may be buying tickets for the play because film star Ralph Macchio is in it (and he's perfectly fine), but Rispoli carries Magic Hands Freddy on his back and hauls it home.
Howard Korder's Sea of Tranquility, at the Atlantic Theatre Company, is an ambitious and fully realized play about redemption -- not to mention hope. And, believe us, you could not hope for a better performance than the one that Dylan Baker is giving in the play's central role of a down-on-his-luck psychologist. Here is a character who so manfully attempts to do right by everyone he meets that he nearly implodes. But the role is far more complicated than that, and so is Baker's performance. Ultimately, what makes the character so interesting is the fact that his motives are suspect, his need to help so intense that moral ambiguities cloud easy answers to his growing list of calamities. Baker gives his character dimension and vulnerability -- which is to say, humanity.
Richard Thomas conducts himself beautifully (with the help of director Leonard Foglia) as the maestro in The Stendahl Syndrome, the second of two Terrence McNally one-acts being presented under that umbrella title by Primary Stages in its new home at 59 East 59th Street. In a genuine tour de force, Thomas performs a virtual monologue set to music, and the passion he exudes is layered with appetite, ego, truth, and beauty. This is what you call a fully textured performance. It's a showy role and Thomas is entirely up to the challenge. The play is worthy of the performance; give us a play about art and artists, especially one by Terrence McNally, and we're there. This piece and the other one-act that precedes it aren't McNally's greatest works but -- Bad Habits excepted -- the playwright is almost incapable of writing a bad play.
Lord of Hosts
Bill Boggs is a longtime TV personality who, on stage, manages the remarkable feat of being engagingly honest about his failures and winsomely unabashed about his successes. The important point is that he's quite likeable in person.
His cabaret act, Talk Show Confidential, plays at the Triad Theater every Monday night. It's far from flawless. Among the annoying choices Boggs makes is having an offstage voice, meant to simulate a TV announcer, bring on subject changes. The device is cloyingly artificial and, besides that, it's employed in lieu of good writing. Boggs also slogs through a lot of short takes early in his show, telling us little tidbits about famous people he's interviewed, and most of these moments don't work.
It's only when Boggs, a good storyteller, settles into longer anecdotes that the show really takes hold. Happily, that's how much of the second half of Talk Show Confidential is constructed, so it gets better as it goes along. How many shows can say that?
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