Good as Goldblum
There are star turns in The Pillowman and On Golden Pond, but there's no show like The Audience.
This tightly-wound drama centers on a modern-day writer (Crudup) who pens macabre fairy tales that make the Brothers Grimm look like Walt Disney. Characters in his stories get their toes cut off, or they are crucified, or they are buried alive. He's under investigation by the police as the play begins because someone is re-enacting the murders in his stories. And the police think it's him.
The Pillowman doesn't concern itself overmuch with whodunit. McDonagh gives us that information less than halfway through the play. Nor does the playwright concern himself with whether or not the writer is going to outsmart the police; no one, after all, is particularly clever in this play. We are meant to root for the writer because he is, finally, the most morally responsible person in the piece despite his propensity to write about all things twisted. The problem is, Crudup's earnest performance can't match Goldblum's flashy black comic turn. The result is a blunted finale. Yet until it reaches the end, the play, itself, is probably far more arresting for Goldblum's being in it.
James Earl Jones: A Golden Performance
There is only one reason to see the revival of Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, and that's the performance of James Earl Jones as Norman Thayer, Jr.
The fact that this is an all-black cast in what was originally and all-white show doesn't rate a ticket sale, nor does the casting of Leslie Uggams as Ethel Thayer, Norman's wife; she is disconcertingly actorish in the role. The play is solid and reliable, but it's greatest virtue is that it offers a wonderful opportunity for great actors like Henry Fonda, who won an Oscar playing the part in the movie version, and James Earl Jones, for whom it will surely secure a Tony Award nomination.
The role of Norman gives any actor who tackles it a full palette of emotions to play. The character ranges from arrogant and pompous to tender and even frightened; in a word, he's real. We are lucky that Jones is playing the part, because he's a fearless performer, and one has to be fearless to be so real on stage. Is his work alone a good enough reason to see On Golden Pond? It is, if you want to see one of the best performances of the year.
The Audience is Amazing!
One of this season's best musicals does not have consistently outstanding music or lyrics. It hardly has any choreography, and its characters are barely fleshed out. Nonetheless, the concept is so breathtaking and the acting, direction, and lighting so sublime that, regardless of its flaws, The Audience is sure to be one of the most talked about shows of the year. In fact, it's the sort of landmark production that people remember for decades.
The idea is so high concept that it's in the stratosphere, yet it's so obvious that it's amazing it hasn't been done before. Of course, someone not only had to think of it, they had to pull it off -- and that's what director Jack Cummings III has done. Facing the audience of paying customers, he has created an "audience" of actors.
As the show begins, we see an usher greet a man who is revealed to be the writer of the musical that "the audience" is about to see. The show has been badly reviewed and will soon be closing. Slowly, the patrons come in. We hear little snippets of their stories, just enough to establish them in our minds. There are the elderly Jews who have been going to the theater all their lives, the gay couple, the tourist family, the estranged husband and wife, an older woman/younger man couple, the vociferous fans who are seeing the show for the seventh time (one of them with a video camera), and so on. There are more than 40 people in the cast!
Here is the plot of the piece: We watch the audience coming into the theater and taking their seats, we watch them watch the first act, we follow them through the intermission (we don't get one), we see them through the second act and the eventual emptying of the theater. It's amazing! From the brilliant opening number sung by the entire audience, "Why Do I Go to the Theatre?" (music by Steve Marzullo, lyrics by Mark Campbell) to the joyful "I Like What I See" (music by Tom Kochen, lyrics by Cheryl Stern), sung by a young boy discovering the magic of theater, there show has several moments of ineffable perfection.
At the heart of it is the creator of the musical, elegantly played by Jack Donahue. As he sits in the midst of the public, he is outraged by their lack of focus on his creation; he angrily sings to them that there's "A Show Going On" (music by Jenny Giering, lyrics by Mark Campbell). But, in the end, the audience has its own powerful response: We hear everyone sing "Two Joins Three" (by Michael John LaChiusa), which beautifully captures the experience of theatergoers bonding with a show.
About 30 different people have written the music, lyrics, and book for this daring project. Not all of it works, but when you see that mirror image on the stage, it is at once humbling and exhilarating. We're just glad that there were no critics in The Audience!