Lily Rabe, Christine Ebersole, and Frances Sternhagenin Steel Magnolias(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lily Rabe, Christine Ebersole, and Frances Sternhagen
in Steel Magnolias
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Let's set some ground rules. Rule 1: Just because a play is sentimental doesn't automatically make it a lesser work. Rule 2: Just because a TV star is headlining a Broadway show doesn't automatically mean he or she is a lesser actress. Rule 3: Go see anything that has Frances Sternhagen in the cast.

Now we can begin discussing the revival of Steel Magnolias at the Lyceum Theatre. The short answer to whether you should see this show or not is answered in Rule #3 above. Sternhagen has most of the play's funny lines, and she delivers them with such impish glee that she almost has you laughing in anticipation of her spot-on delivery. But Robert Harling's play itself is also worthy of your time and money (see Rule #1). Its sentimental nature is fundamentally honest even if this particular production undercuts some of its credibility.

All-star productions often are more concerned with getting an audience into the theater than with what that audience sees once they are in their seats. That's the principal problem with this production, but the casting mistakes in Steel Magnolias are not what you might expect (see Rule #2). Delta Burke is very well cast as Truvy, the down-home owner of the beauty parlor where all the characters in the play meet. Burke might be playing to type, but it's exactly the right type. Wisely, she doesn't push for comedy, which makes her character seem more grounded in reality.

Where the casting falters is in the mother/daughter roles played by Christine Ebersole and Rebecca Gayheart. Ebersole appears as M'Lynn, but though she puts on a Southern accent, her speech pattern is still rat-a-tat-tat New York. As a Southerner whom we know commented to us that evening, "no one in the South talks that fast," and certainly not a well-to-do Southern Lady. Even more problematic is Gayheart's performance as Ebersole's good-hearted daughter, Shelby; she fails to play the subtext of this young woman's pain and suffering beneath her sweet spirit.

Marsha Mason is Ouiser, the crusty older woman who is the butt of so many of Sternhagen's jokes. She gives a game performance. Finally, Lily Rabe is sweet if actorish as Annelle, the Born Again assistant at the beauty parlor. The ensemble isn't perfect, but there is a warmth and affection among the six actresses in the play that does translate into a sense of community among these women. This is a genuine plus because we have to believe that these people really like and ultimately need each other; that definitely comes across.

There is an almost Neil Simon-like, gag-a-minute jokiness to the script -- a lot of it is very funny indeed -- but what's finally most impressive about this play is that it's about women who are there for each other. There are no feminist flags flying, no statements about sisterhood, no winks or nods to the audience to tell us "the theme." There is just the title: Steel Magnolias. These women may be the flowers of the South, but they are much stronger than you think -- and the play is stronger than this production might lead you to believe.

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Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet in This Is How It Goes(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet in This Is How It Goes
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Racism Gets LaBute

Neil LaBute is fast-becoming this generation's darker version of Arthur Miller. Like Miller, he takes on big moral issues, but LaBute burrows into them in far more disturbing ways. Or perhaps the moral landscape of America is simply a darker place now.

For those so inclined, it was easy to dismiss the playwright's earlier works as "tricky" because they were a writer's equivalent of three-card monte, fooling the audience with sleight-of-hand plotting. But this view of the plays overlooks LaBute's ability to read our moral barometers. Earlier this season, he examined the way we value physical beauty over inner beauty in Fat Pig. His latest play, This Is How it Goes, may be his most audacious creation to date and is arguably his most disturbing. He goes right for the American jugular as he uses "sleight of character" to delve into the subject of contemporary racism.

We'll avoid describing the play in detail, since we don't want to give away the shifts in the way we view the three characters in this fascinating piece. We will say that Riccardo Hernández's triangular set design creates the perfect visual metaphor for the play, and we will add that George C. Wolfe has directed This Is How it Goes with masterful understatement. The three actors are exceptionally well cast. Ben Stiller uses his everyman persona to exquisite effect, Amanda Peet's combination of beauty and innocence works perfectly for the piece, and Jeffrey Wright's chameleon-like acting chops are on full display. At the heart of it all is LaBute's script, which forces us to figure out things for ourselves because our charming narrator (Stiller) forthrightly tells us that he's unreliable. In this play, LaBute not only breaks the fourth wall, he breaks down our assumptions. The result is provocative theater.

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Tony Danza(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Tony Danza
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Danza Is Primo and Prima

Someday, there will be a TV movie about Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The Keely Smith part is up for grabs but Tony Danza is the one and only choice to play Prima. When he launches into a tribute to the late singer in his club act at Feinstein's, Danza fully gives himself over to the material, and shtick turns into a committed performance.

Mind you, the shtick before and after the Prima tribute segment is no small achievement. Danza has, in Noël Coward's words, "a talent to amuse." Of course, there's nothing Coward-like in that talent; this act contains not a jot of sophistication. But Danza puts smiles on our faces and keeps them there through the sheer force of his ebullient personality.

He'll be the first to admit that his various performing skills are modest, but no one makes more of what he's got than this guy. He plays the coronet badly but gamely, and gets laughs out of it; he's a perfectly adequate crooner and a sweet doo-wop singer; he's getting better at playing the piano; and he's a surprisingly decent tap dancer. (Fred Astaire he's not, but he's improving every year). Mostly, he just sells his winning personality -- and we're buying. Danza continues at Feinstein's at the Regency through April 16th.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]