Michael McGrath and Tim Curry in Spamalot
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Michael McGrath and Tim Curry in Spamalot
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
I got a call from my old Boston buddy Joe, who told me that he and his wife Joan are coming to New York. Then he asked the question that always strikes fear into my heart: "What's good?" Actually, critics should be faced with this question more often to remind them that there are consequences to blithely writing "Run, don't walk" to see something we loved. We're used to our message going out to readers whom we don't know and will probably never meet. But when a friend wants theatrical advice, we're not as quick to recommend, for if the pal hates the show we endorsed, we're going to hear about it -- possibly for a long time.

Still, I offered Joe the suggestion I've been making since last winter: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. (My in-town buddies Marc Miller and David Schmittou tell me that's the first show they endorse to their friends, too.) This should have settled the matter, but it didn't, and I might have guessed what was coming: "How's Spamalot?" Joe actually knew what he wanted to see but needed me to okay it. I told him that Spamalot wasn't for me but that most people love it and I was sure he would, too. Then he asked me, "Well, what have you liked?"

I thought for a second and said, "See What I Wanna See." Then, I'm not kidding, he Abbott-and-Costelloed me with "I know you see what you want to see, but I've only got the bucks and time for one show. What should it be?" I grinned at his confusion and explained that See What I Wanna See is Michael John LaChiusa's musical take on Rashomon, and that while the cast album should be impressive, this is really a show that should be savored in production because of the marvelous mood that director Ted Sperling has created -- not to mention the performances.

That prompted Joe to ask, "Who's in it?" and I silently mourned the fact that the names of such terrific talents as Marc Kudisch and Mary Testa would mean nothing to him. I did get some mileage out of Idina Menzel, once I established her as "the green witch from Wicked; she won the Tony." But then Joe asked, "This is on Broadway?" Even before I said no, I was suddenly sure that he wouldn't be seeing See What I Wanna See. I don't really blame him. First, there is some majesty about walking into a hallowed Broadway house. More importantly, when you don't know your way around town, getting down to Lafayette Street seems daunting -- far tougher than walking from your hotel on 44th to a theater on 45th.

Of course, there is another show on a numbered street that I could have recommended: Normal, on East 4th. But I know they don't want to go that far downtown and that they'd be disappointed to come to New York and sit in what was once a grammar school auditorium. These poor souls do that enough when they have to go see their three kids perform in plays and holiday pageants. Suddenly, I felt very lucky for living in New York, where the venue has become irrelevant to me. I'm so glad I got to see Normal, a musical that deals with an anorexic daughter, an apoplectic son, a busy mother, a busier father, and succeeds far more often than not.

I didn't even mention Normal to Joe, and I dropped the subject of See What I Wanna See. Maybe I could sell him Wendy Wasserstein's fascinating new play, Third. It's about the academic world, and Joe and Joan both teach, so they'd be inherently interested in this arresting story of a university professor who suspects that her privileged Roman-numeral-III student has plagiarized a paper. Let them find themselves slowly turning against her and believing more and more that the boy was indeed capable of writing it. In an age where there's a good deal of affirmative action in the handing out of grades, here's a story about negative action, mostly because the teacher automatically assumes that this rich white kid must be stupid. My pal dutifully listened, but not until I said "It stars Dianne Wiest" did I hear him hum in approval. (If he wants an Oscar-winner, maybe I should send him to A Mother, a Daughter, and a Gun, which stars Olympia Dukakis. But I'd like to keep Joe as a friend.)

Okay, Third isn't on Broadway; but it's ensconced at Lincoln Center, so he and Joan would feel they were in a handsome, New Yorky place. "Dianne Wiest," Joe said, and suddenly I imagined him and Joan filing out of the Newhouse, raving about Wiest (who's marvelous) but talking just as much about Jason Ritter, wonderfully noble as the student, and Amy Aquino, heartbreakingly realistic as a cancer-ridden teacher who still finds the stamina to cast an important vote in the academic trial that pits Wiest's character against Ritter's.

I thought I'd made a sale, but then Joe mournfully said, "We really had our heart set on seeing a musical." I have to admit that I understand that point of view, too. On my New York theatergoing visits before I moved here, I'd always endeavor to see a musical first. Besides, no fewer than three of Wasserstein's plasy have been adapted for TV, and Joe and Joan probably wanted to see something that couldn't possibly be recreated for the tube. So, in defeat, I said: "I guess you should just go to Spamalot." This, of course, led to another question that I knew was coming: "Umm, can you get us house seats?"

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]