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Enchanted April

Is it humanly possible to see 13 shows in just one week? As a matter of fact, it is! Filichia tells you how. logo

Larry Pine and Judith Ivey in The Women of Lockerbie
(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
How well I remember when, as a teen in 1962, I traveled with my parents from Boston to New York, where I saw A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on August 1, No Strings on August 2, and Camelot on August 3. Then it was back home, where, on August 8, I caught The Unsinkable Molly Brown on its national tour. As I left the theater that day, I thought: "Wow! I've seen four shows in a week!"

My life has changed to the point where seeing four shows in a seven-day span now represents a relatively slow week for me. It's usually six-a-week, though when April arrives, I'm substantially busier. Which is why last week I was grateful for unlimited use MetroCards and the almost unlimited use of my buddy Justin Plowman's car. Both helped me to get to 13 shows in seven days.

That included three on Saturday. First, at 2pm, was The Women of Lockerbie. Last year, when I interviewed playwright Deborah Brevoort, she told me that after Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by terrorists in 1988, the women of Lockerbie wanted to wash the 11,000 pieces of clothing they'd found scattered about. That didn't seem like much of a plot to me, but the play does brilliantly demonstrate exactly why this was of paramount importance to the women. Judith Ivey is magnificent as an American mother who, seven years after the tragedy, is desperate to find something, anything that belonged to her murdered son. Larry Pine is just as wonderful as her husband, who feels it's long past time to move on.

It was good for me that the play is only 90 minutes long, for that gave me time to find a playhouse where I'd never been: Manhattan Ensemble Theater at Mercer and Broome. (Finding New York streets with names instead of numbers can be a challenge.) I discovered it in time for the 5pm matinee of William Gibson's Golda's Balcony. As faithful readers may remember, I apply the Catholic tradition of a churchgoer's being allowed three wishes whenever he enters a new church to my entering a new theater. My three are: That everyone see Tovah Feldshuh as a riveting and triumphant Golda Meir; that more playwrights re-think their flops -- Gibson's 1977 Golda had 71 characters and 25 actors -- as one-person shows; and that a play about war in the Middle East doesn't keep theatergoers who may have OD'd on the real war from attending.

This play, too, is 90 minutes long. That gave me ample time to find the Flea (at the equally inscrutable White Street, near Church) for the evening performance of O Jerusalem, about a state official who's caught in a Middle East political morass around September 11, 2001. What fascinated me was that its author is A.R. Gurney, the spokesperson for the middle-aged WASP generation, who wrote the rollicking Sylvia and the bittersweet Love Letters. Here Gurney, is expanding his canvas to deal with more substantial issues. Lord knows, he's no kid; in fact, he's 72, and his playwriting career really didn't begin until his mid-40s. (There's a lesson for us all.) But he's showing us that some artists can still stretch and grow in their later years.

Sunday at 3pm brought Talking Heads (Program A). A slip in the program usually means that a performer is out, but here it happily meant that someone was in: Frances Sternhagen, trying out the monologue she's scheduled to do after Kathleen Chalfant leaves the show. Chalfant is wonderful, Brenda Wehle even more so, and Christine Ebersole is startling, but Sternhagen's monologue -- in which she plays a woman who's expecting to die but isn't waiting for it -- is the most moving of all. (Hey, given that three's the usual number of plays in Talking Heads, may I say that I saw 13.25 plays in one week?)

Johnathan McClain and Peter Smith
in The Last Sunday in June
(Photo: © Robert Carey)
That night, I saw The Last Sunday in June. There haven't been this many funny lines in a gay play since The Boys in the Band in 1968. How smart of playwright Jonathan Tolins to reference Mart Crowley's ground-breaker, wherein the tragic hero says, "If only we could stop hating ourselves so much"; Tolins underlines how times have fortunately changed when he has one of his characters melodramatically croon, "If only we could stop liking ourselves so much." What wonderful progress has been made in 35 years -- especially when you consider that the production's extraordinary Johnathan F. McClain wasn't even born then. Glad to have this oh-so-natural actor on the scene!

Monday night was Yakov Smirnoff in As Long as We Both Shall Laugh -- but we didn't. Oh, he and much of the audience did, but he and I didn't. Aren't his stories of growing up in Communist Russia awfully cold now that the Cold War is over? Smirnoff may be Russian, but I was the one rushin' out after the intermission. (Make that 12.75 shows in one week.)

I did not leave at half-time of Nine on Tuesday night. How wonderful to see Antonio Banderas right at home in a musical. How astonishing to see that Chita Rivera can still tear down a house and, better still, stand on a table that's at a raked angle. (How many pins are in that leg from her 1986 accident?) I smiled at the end of the show, when director David Leveaux has each of his women come and kiss little Guido, to see that Rivera kissed each of his cheeks twice. Leave it to Chita to always give a little more.

Wednesday at 2, I had a third-row, dead-center seat for The Play What I Wrote. I'm sorry I did, because I didn't laugh once. I hate it when I'm that close and unresponsive, for I suspect that the actors notice, but the show just didn't appeal to my sense of humor. Wednesday at 8 was Tea at Five, my second visit to Kate Mulgrew as Kate Hepburn after catching the show last year at Hartford Stage, a huge, three-quarter-thrust house that worked against any sense of intimacy. The moment I walked into the comparatively chummy Promenade, I felt much more at home. I often had to remind myself that it wasn't actually Hepburn of 1938 (in Act I) or 1983 (in Act II) up there; that has to be the ultimate compliment for any celebrity impersonation.

On Thursday, I drove down to see Princeton students do The Fix. When I heard the cast album of this musical, I thought the score ugly; but Lord knows that this show has a cult following, with Sir Cameron Mackintosh leading the cult. Alas, seeing it didn't make me like it. It's about a manipulating mother who wants her son to ascend to the presidency her husband would have achieved if he hadn't suffered a heart attack while having sex with another woman. But Cal (the son) doesn't want to be president any more than Nathan Lane wanted to be king when Chita Rivera wanted him to in Merlin. Still, he lets himself be convinced. After that, it's the same ol' stuff about a politician's need to say as little as possible in order to get elected, before Cal finally says to hell with it all. Nevertheless, junior Rachael Timinsky, who (according to her program bio) "assaulted MTI for about a year just to get the rights" to the show, mounted it with love and showed that she really knows how to stage a musical. Credit, too, to Amanda Czerniawski, who made the mother a musical version of Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate.

Helen Hunt and John Turturro in Life (x) 3
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Friday night was Life (x) 3. I loved watching John Turturro and Helen Hunt as a couple having a difficult time getting their kid to stay in bed: He wants a cookie, then a slice of apple, then the entire apple, then a hug, then a story. Every parent will roar in recognition. As you may have heard, the play then shows us the same scene two other times, with only the slightest of variations, to demonstrate how one line or even one word can push a conversation in a whole different direction. While that's interesting, the second and third scenes don't trump the ace of the first, so what promised to be a great evening of theater turns into "just" a very good one.

Saturday at 2pm was The Smell of the Kill. Wait, you say, the one about the three women who don't release their husbands from a meat locker? Didn't that close last April? Yes, but Barbara Krajkowski (Jane's mother, though they spell their names differently) decided to stage it at her Women's Company of Morris Township, New Jersey. Once again, I learned that a change of venue can make a big difference. Paying Broadway prices for this trifle was obscene, but in the hinterlands, Kill was a nice way to kill an afternoon.

I was glad that Smell is such a short whiff of a play because then I drove to Philadelphia for a Saturday night performance of Rosemary, Jim O'Connor's play about the allegedly mentally deficient Kennedy. Michelle Courvais played a Rosemary who marched to a slightly different drummer rather than the frightfully unbalanced lady who's been whispered about all these years, but the playwright shrewdly gives us a Joe Kennedy (the terrific Dan Kern) who expected perfection from all his kids, so when he couldn't get it from Rosemary, he had her lobotomized. That may sound melodramatic, but it sure wasn't in O'Connor's hands and under Roger Danforth's perfect direction. Both men were lucky to have Cecelia Riddett walk into auditions, for -- take it from a native Bostonian -- this woman looked and sounded exactly like Rose Kennedy.

As I drove back on Sunday morning, I thought: What a slow Saturday, with only two shows. Some Saturdays, I've seen four, what with the option of late-nite cabaret. But I'm not complaining. When I once told about a similar week on News 12 New Jersey -- the TV station for which I review plays each Thursday -- the anchorman sympathetically said, "You've really been working hard." To which I replied, "Frank, my father was a plumber. Now, that was work!"


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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