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Anna and the Pulitzer Albatross

Reports on Anna in the Tropics, Jackie Mason's (new?) show, Carole Bayer Sager at Feinstein's, and the recent Stella by Starlight benefit. logo
Jimmy Smits in Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
If you're a regular visitor to, you've probably already seen Take Me Out and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?. Being well versed in all things theater, you probably also know that neither of these Tony-winning, much-admired plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year. Instead, it was given to Anna in the Tropics, which has only now made its way to Broadway, opening on November 17 at the Royale Theatre. You'll remember that the last time the Pulitzer committee gave a play an award, it went to the vastly overrated Topdog/Underdog. So, it stands to reason that many theatergoers will approach Nilo Cruz's new play with the double-barreled attitudes of suspicious New Yorkers and "show me" Missourians.

That's too bad. Consider what your attitude toward Anna might be if the play had not won the Pulitzer. Maybe you wouldn't be so quick to judge it. The truth is Cruz's play isn't as good as Take Me Out or The Goat -- but if the Pulitzer hadn't gone to Anna, nobody would even think of comparing this play to those masterpieces. Judging Cruz's work on its own merits, however, we find that it has much to offer.

The idea that art (books, plays, paintings) can have a profound effect on human beings is something that we who love the theater fervently believe. Here is a play in which a man is hired to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Cuban workers in a Florida tobacco factory in 1929; the story that he reads variously transforms, enriches, reveals, and mocks those who hear it. Anna in the Tropics is a sultry, sensuous work that uses language like foreplay; Cruz's text teases, tickles, and creates a mood. But when the play reaches its climax, it's sudden and convulsive. True, the language is a bit flowery, but this is not a naturalistic play. In its tone and its very style, it owes much to Tennessee Williams and even to Anton Chekhov. (Hey, at least Cruz is not borrowing from the guy who wrote Fame on 42nd Street!)

In this season during which Broadway productions of plays are falling like meteors, sometimes burning up before opening (Bobbi Boland) and sometimes smashing to pieces upon hitting the Great White Way (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), here is one that deserves to be in your orbit for its acting if nothing else. Jimmy Smits gives a dapper and dashing performance as the lector (i.e., reader) who's as smitten with literature as he is with the married Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega). That actress brings a tempestuous sexual honesty to this bold woman who yearns for understanding. Her sister, Marela, is the epitome of innocent awkwardness, and Vanessa Aspillaga plays her with humor and sympathy.

Priscilla Lopez has the role of their mother, the source of power in the family and in the factory. Lopez gives a performance of stunning dimension and does so with subtlety and economy. Whether swooning over Jimmy Smits, quarreling with her husband (Victor Argo in a strong performance), or holding her own when a relative tries to take over the factory, Lopez creates the play's most full-blooded character. John Ortiz, in a nicely shaded performance, plays a philandering husband who's genuinely surprised to find that his wife is also cheating on him. The only actor who seems miscast is David Zayas; we don't pretend to know exactly how Cubans in 1929 Florida spoke, but we assume that they didn't sound like contemporary folks from da Bronx.

If Cruz had merely written a piece that mirrored Tolstoy's novel, Anna in the Tropics would be a bore. Instead, the playwright gives his characters the chance to learn and grow from what they hear. Some take that chance...but others do not.


Ruth Gottschall, Jackie Mason, and Cheryl Stern in
Laughing Room Only(Photo © Paul Undersinger)
Jackie's Greatest Hits

It's the same old Jackie -- and we mean it. There isn't much that's new in Laughing Room Only, Mason's seventh show on Broadway. Presenting his act as a comedy musical revue is really nothing more than an excuse to give him the occasional off-stage breather and/or to lessen his burden of coming up with fresh jokes. The game group of players who sing, dance, and do shtick on his behalf deserve their Broadway paychecks but, all too often, you'll wish that their material wasn't so lame.

Of course, if you love Jackie Mason, the same old Jackie might be exactly what you want. The set pieces about Jews versus Gentiles are no less funny the second or seventh time you heard them. But it's hard to sell an audience on "topical" jokes about President Clinton, and even Mason's long bit about Starbucks -- funny as it is -- feels like cold coffee. Oh, and how old is that joke about Jackie visiting his hubcaps in Puerto Rico? Do cars even have hubcaps anymore?

On paper, a Jackie Mason musical is a cute idea. If the show had been titled "The Best of Jackie Mason," no one could complain about the age of the jokes. This is the least of Jackie's seven shows; his loyal fans will still find much to enjoy, but new fans he's not likely to make. It looks like the show will be closing on November 30, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, you'd better make tracks to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre soon.


Carole Bayer Sager
(Photo © Matthew Rolston)
Event Cabaret

It's been 25 years since songwriter Carole Bayer Sager performed live in New York City. Therefore, her one-week gig at Feinstein's at the Regency has become a mecca for celebrities paying homage to this hitmaker, who has worked with some of the greatest names in contemporary show business. The night we were there, no less a personage than Michael Eisner (head of the Walt Disney company) was sitting ringside. Also in attendance were Sager's old pal Neil Sedaka and Lucie Arnaz, who starred in They're Playing Our Song, which Sager co-wrote with Marvin Hamlisch and Neil Simon. Oh, Hamlisch was there, too -- as was Candice Bergen. And this wasn't even opening night!

As Sager herself said at one point in her carefully constructed act, "the greatest thrill a songwriter can have is hearing a song you wrote well sung." She made that statement by way of introducing Melanie Taylor and Adam Jackson, who performed "On My Own" (music by Burt Bachrach). It was Sager's way of conceding that she couldn't really do justice to her own work with her small, thin voice. Sager has three or four notes that she can hit with some power but, otherwise, no one would want to hear her sing if she hadn't actually written these songs.

What Sager does particularly well is tell anecdotes about the composition of songs like "A Groovy Kind of Love" (music by Toni White) and the writing styles of Melissa Manchester and Burt Bacharach, Sager's one-time husband. The centerpiece of her show is a long hit medley that includes such tunes as "Nobody Does it Better" (co-written by Hamlisch) and "Midnight Blue" (co-written by Manchester).

Sager's run ends this Saturday night, the 22nd, and rumor has it that Hugh Jackman is coming for the late show; some of Sager's biggest hits were written in collaboration with the original Boy from Oz, Peter Allen: "Everything Old is New Again," "You and Me (We Wanted it All)," and "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love," to name just a few. If Jackman does turn up, he'll undoubtedly spark a show that's more a celebration of a life's work than a blowout musical performance. Carol Bayer Sager at Feinstein's is yet another example of the sort of Cabaret Event for which this club is building a reputation.


John Travolta at the
"Stella By Starlight" event
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Over the Rainbow

Speaking of blow-out musical performances, try this one on for size: At the Stella by Starlight benefit earlier this week at Rainbow & Stars, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald got together to sing the famous Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand duet version of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days are Here Again." Need we say more? Somebody get these two into a studio and record this!

The number was the musical highlight of a stellar Stella night that included a generous speech by one of the evening's award winners, John Travolta, as well as a stirring bit of oratory by another honoree, the great Ossie Davis.

Designed to raise money for the Stella Adler Theater School, the Stella by Starlight event did itself proud in every respect, including the choice of its award recipients.

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