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American talent floods the West End even as bunches of Brits continue to hit Broadway. logo
John Ellison Conlee, Jason Danieley, and
Jarrod Emmick in The Full Monty
Welcome to Broadway-on-Thames...while the Thames is currently flowing to Broadway. There's long been a healthy exchange of plays and personnel, the respective Actors' Equity Associations permitting, between the two world centers of English-speaking theater. The West End has frequently given Broadway its plays, and Broadway has traditionally repaid the compliment with its musicals.

But in the '80s, this world order was shattered when the British musical invaded Broadway. Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner--now, respectively, the current and future artistic directors of the National Theatre--found themselves anointed as leading directors of musicals thanks to Cats and Miss Saigon. Both went on to reclaim landmark American musicals at the National Theatre and export them to Broadway, Hytner with Carousel (subsequently seen at Lincoln Center) and Nunn with Oklahoma! (now at the Gershwin). In turn, Hytner has this season gone on to direct an original Broadway musical, Sweet Smell of Success. But the traffic hasn't stopped there: as Britain found its musical feet, its performers, too, have crossed the Atlantic. Current examples are the Broadway appearances of UK stars Denise van Outen (Chicago), Josefina Gabrielle (Oklahoma!) and Henry Goodman (The Producers).

Meanwhile, London is seeing an unprecedented influx of legitimate American drama, dramatists, directors, and actors between now and June. These range from Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Hayden Christensen onstage to Off-Broadway's Mark Brokow and Joe Mantello directing, and British premieres of plays by Neil LaBute, Kenneth Lonergan, and Tony Kushner, amongst others. The tone is set at the top, with two of London's most fashionable theaters, the Donmar Warehouse and the Almeida, both showcasing American work in their current programs. At the Donmar, a five-month season entitled "American Imports" continues the venue's frequent forays across the Atlantic; departing artistic director Sam Mendes began his regime here in 1992 with the London premiere of Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins and has regularly featured U.S. work since then.

The Donmar season began in March with two one-act dramas that led Guardian critic Michael Billington to quote Scott Fitzgerald's comment that "There are no second acts in American lives," to which he ruefully added, "and now there are no second acts in American plays, either." The two productions demonstrated something else striking, however: the respective power and peril of different ways of showing American work. Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train was imported to the Donmar with its original Off-Broadway cast under the direction of hotshot movie actor-turned-director Philip Seymour Hoffman. While the play is little more than a routine prison drama, it gives audiences a jolting display of the kind of galvanizing performance energy that is simply second nature to American actors. In contrast, the local cast brought together for the theater's simultaneous production of an American world premiere, Frame 312 by Keith Reddin, didn't assist the cause of an unconvincing conspiracy drama about the JFK assassination. Performances of sedate restraint rather than urgency failed to spark a play which had a low-voltage dramatic charge to begin with.

Offstage, the wattage is already running high at the box office for Proof, receiving its British premiere at the Donmar in June. This is not so much a case of high expectations for David Auburn's Pulitzer and Tony-winning play as it is for its star: Not since Nicole Kidman blazed across the Donmar stage in The Blue Room (which subsequently transferred to Broadway) has a performance been as anticipated here as much as that of Gwyneth Paltrow in the role originally taken on Broadway by Mary-Louise Parker. The director is John Madden, who directed Paltrow's Oscar-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love and is now set to direct a film version of Proof with Paltrow, too.

That will be followed by the world premiere of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out in a co-production with New York's Public Theater, to which it will transfer in August. Joe Mantello is set to direct an all-American cast that includes Frederick Weller (seen here last year in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, which subsequently transferred to Off-Broadway's Promenade), Denis O'Hare, and Dominic Fumusa.

Before either of those, this month sees the U.K. premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero under the direction of Mark Brokaw, who also directed the Off-Broadway premiere last year at Playwrights' Horizons and subsequently at the John Houseman. Lonergan is currently generating a lot of heat in London with the nearly simultaneous recent arrival of his first play, This Is Our Youth, receiving its U.K. premiere at the West End's Garrick Theatre. A terrific trio of rising young Hollywood actors--Hayden Christensen (soon to be seen as Anakin Sykwalker in the new Star Wars movie), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), and former child star (and Oscar-winner for The Piano) Anna Paquin--shine in this bracing and brilliant play. Lonergan's alternately fierce and funny portrait of the rage and resentments of youth finds its lacerating rhythms minutely observed in Laurence Boswell's meticulous production. Boswell will next direct another iconic American, Madonna, in Up for Grabs, a new play by David Williamson of Australia, at the West End's Wyndham's in May. That, too, has entirely sold out already--another testament to star power, of course, but those of us who caught Madonna's Broadway appearance in Speed-the-Plow can only hope that her stage acting technique has grown since.

Also on the dramatic horizon: In May, Declan Donnellan re-stages his New York Theatre Workshop production of Tony Kushner's latest, Homebody/Kabul, at the Young Vic with a local cast. The Almeida follows the success of last year's The Shape of Things with another LaBute premiere, The Distance from Here (with yet another all-American cast). And Marc Salem returns to London with his amazing display of Mind Games, seen at Hampstead Theatre last year and now opening at the West End's New Ambassadors at the end of April.

When plays haven't been American lately, they've frequently been South African. One of them, by way of Off-Broadway, is Pamela Gien's extraordinary one-woman play The Syringa Tree, which she has brought to the National's Cottesloe. Informed by the author's own experiences of growing up as a privileged white girl in 1960s Johannesburg, this beautifully observed and observant piece looks at the early days of apartheid through the innocent eyes of childhood to evoke the multiple contradictions and conflicts of being brought up under that policy. As Gien draws on a rich tapestry of other characters to weave her compelling theatrical spell, the piece also proves to be a superb actor's vehicle, and Gien excels in this respect as well.

The multi-racial South African cast of The Mysteries (at the Queen's Theatre) casts an altogether different spell. This vibrant and vivid African version of the English medieval 'mystery plays' cross-culturally pollinates these ancient religious tales with a unique energy and passion. It's a joy to see these familiar stories--from Adam and Eve to the Crucifixion--so beautifully distilled through the eyes (and voices) of a different culture.

Meanwhile, Britain has seen a bit of its own cinematic culture reflected back to it by way of America: Terrence McNally's book for The Full Monty, which has opened at the Prince of Wales, famously relocates the action from Sheffield in Yorkshire to Buffalo, N.Y. But critics and audiences alike have wholeheartedly embraced the show over here, both for the warm-hearted generosity of its spirit as well as the delightful performances of its steelworkers-turned-strippers. Following the recent lead of the import of Kiss Me, Kate from Broadway to London's Victoria Palace, the producers have brought an all-American lineup to top the bill here. This means that Monty's dependable Jason Danieley is getting the chance to appear on a London stage at the same time as his talented wife, Marin Mazzie, is playing Kate in Kate. More importantly, it means that London gets to see the touching vulnerability of John Ellison Conlee and the invaluable André de Shields, too. Another Broadway veteran, Jarrod Emick, replaces Patrick Wilson from the original cast; the latter of whom is now in the Broadway import of the National's Oklahoma! The world does indeed get smaller by the day. While these actors couldn't sell many tickets over here on the strength of their names, their authenticity is never in question and it's a real pleasure to welcome them here.

Unfortunately, the traffic in talent isn't always permitted so freely between our two nations. Because Trevor Nunn was denied permission to export his London company for Oklahoma! as a whole, it has taken four years for the show to cross the Atlantic and (according to Ben Brantley's New York Times notice) the level of excitement that the show originally engendered here has lowered. Ditto, in the other direction, My One and Only, the 1983 Broadway recycling of a 1920s Gershwin musical that is only now being seen in the West End. This was arguably always a flimsy show, but the exhilarating effervescence of the original (with Tommy Tune and Twiggy) has been replaced by a lackluster production that is merely enervating. Tim Flavin (an American performer long resident here, ever since he made his debut in the '80s import of On Your Toes from Broadway) projects smug assurance rather than insouciant delight in the Tune role. Meanwhile Janie Dee--the charming comic actress from the West End and Manhattan Theatre Club stagings of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential--is saddled with a role that has no comedy in it. 'S Wonderful? Sadly, 'S Not.

In fact, excitement has been generally lacking in London lately. Jude Law--his luscious cheekbones hidden under a scraggly beard--may have sold out the Young Vic for a new staging of Marlowe's Dr Faustus, but boy, was it hard work! A few gems elsewhere, though. The quietest entry of the year--The York Realist, Peter Gill's touching and domestic drama about two men in love in rural England in the early '60s--deservedly transferred from the Royal Court to the Strand. Meanwhile, the National has offered three transfers of hits from last year to join three productions from the South Bank that are already there. John Caird's superb staging of Humble Boy moved from the Cottesloe (where it was the toughest ticket to obtain last year, bar none) to the Gielgud. With Simon Russell Beale reprising his remarkable performance as an emotionally stunted academic returning to his dominating mother's clutches when his father dies, Charlotte Jones's play now has the magnificent Diana Rigg replaced by popular local stage actress Felicity Kendal as the mother. Gregory Burke's violent hostage drama Gagarin Way, first seen at Edinburgh's Traverse last August and subsequently at the National's Cottesloe, continues now at the Arts and heralds the arrival of a galvanizing debutant writer. Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House moved from the Lyttelton to the Aldwych, though it never caught on with West End audiences in Nicholas Hytner's production.

In King's Cross, King Lear in Jonathan Kent's valedictory production for the Almeida, which he has jointly run with Ian McDiarmid for the last decade, is another of the intimate epics for which he has become rightly celebrated. As designed by Paul Brown with his customary audacity, this is a production that literally shakes the very walls of the theatre, thanks also in large degree to Oliver Ford-Davies' charged performance in the title role.

A scene from the Boy George musical Taboo
At the Venue, a new nightclub-turned-theater off Leicester Square, a different kind of wall-shaking emotionalism was on offer in the Boy George-penned, autobiographical rock musical Taboo. But, despite its '80s setting and the inclusion of Culture Club songs like "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" and "Karma Chameleon" jostling with new songs by Boy George, this was a surprisingly safe and conventional entertainment. (There'll be more rocking around the clock when Robert De Niro co-produces a new musical, We Will Rock You, at the Dominion in May, based on the music of Queen; Matthew Warchus will direct another, Our House, featuring the music of Madness).

Elsewhere, there was a dramatic famine at The Feast of Snails, an overcooked but undernourished Icelandic play that briefly ran at the Lyric Theatre. Feast did mark the return to the London stage of 1960s RSC star David Warner for the first time in 30 years, and it's good to see that he's finally recovered from the stage fright that has kept him away for so long. (Broadway got him back first last year, when he did Shaw's Major Barbara for the Roundabout). Still, the play was poor enough to fill West End audiences with a fear of ever again going to see an untried work. It coincided with a rare flop for director Michael Blakemore and producer Michael Codron: their production of a new Australian play, Hannie Rayson's Life After George, at the Duchess. Tony-winner Stephen Dillane played a posthumous academic whose three wives gather together for his funeral in this uneven time-and-memory play.

Finally, at the Haymarket, Peter Hall follows his stodgy starry revival of The Royal Family with a creakily miscalculated rendition of Oscar Wilde's 1892 melodrama of morals, Lady Windermere's Fan. Notable for having Vanessa Redgrave and her real-life offspring Joely Richardson playing mother and daughter (though the latter doesn't know the identify of the former, suspecting her instead of being a scarlet woman who is cuckolding her), the play emerges merely as a quaint period piece. It also finds Redgrave in her lately-typical eccentric mode, her acting ranging from awesome to awful, sometimes within the same sentence.

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