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Men and Girl(s) and Guys and Dolls

Terrorism has rocked London but the theater carries on with star-studded productions. logo
Sienna Miller and Helen McCrory in As You Like It
(Photo © Manuel Harlan)
"I'm happy to be in London. I'm happy to represent America in London. I'm bringing my family over to live here, to go to school here." So said Rob Lowe as he prepared to make his West End debut later this month at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in the belated British premiere of A Few Good Men (written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of the acclaimed TV series The West Wing, in which Lowe starred). The statement serves as a kind of endorsement of Britain's capital city at a time when tourists might be tempted to stay away.

This nervousness is the result of the recent terrorist attacks on London. It happens that the theater, which can frequently be faster than other art forms in processing day-to-day events and giving them a context beyond the 24-hour news coverage that we are saturated with nowadays, was in this case ahead of the news in ways that could not have been anticipated. Take for example two documentary plays by Robin Soans, both created from interviews of people directly involved with and/or affected by terrorism. In The Arab-Israeli Cookbook at the Tricycle Theatre, a Jerusalem bus driver aboard the Number 25 route describes in vivid detail how a suicide bomber aboard the bus in front of him destroys the vehicle. Built around stories from the frontline of the Israeli-Palestinian intifida but told during the preparation and consumption of food, the play provided food for thought in more ways than one.

Soans' Talking to Terrorists, at the Royal Court, also took on an uncomfortable topicality. At a time when terrorists are understandably being demonized, Soans contends that it's more important than ever to try to understand them; as Britain's former Minister for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam says in the opening scene of the play, "[doing so] is the only way to beat them." (Of course, that's easier said than done when the enemy is either dead or unknowable. Perhaps we can talk to the second wave of suicide bombers, whose plot failed when their bombs proved faulty.) In this bracing exploration of terrorism, we find out about the causes as well as the effects of such activity in places as far afield as Ireland, Iraq, Lebanon, and Uzbekistan. Director Max Stafford-Clark has folded the stories of various perpetrators and victims into a theatrical whole that is, by turns, reflective and shattering.

Another show with a discomfiting title is tick, tick...BOOM! at the The Menier Chocolate Factory, a newish venue in south London. But Jonathan Larson's posthumously produced Off-Broadway show is actually an autobiographical story of a composer facing up to his lack of professional success as his 30th birthday approaches. (The bitter irony is that Larson didn't live to enjoy his greatest success; he died on the eve of the Off-Broadway premiere of Rent.) This very personal and intimate three-hander, now starring Christian Campbell (who replaced Neil Patrick Harris), speaks yearningly and powerfully of youthful ambition and the ways in which adults do or don't compromise.

Just opened in the West End is another musical three-hander. Behind the Iron Mask isn't likely to run as long as The Phantom of the Opera -- indeed, it will be lucky to last two weeks -- but the plot is similar, telling as it does the story of a masked man and the woman who's drawn into his lair and his heart. Script writers Colin Scott and Melinda Walker have feebly adapted Alexandre Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask and composer John Robinson has provided a set of synthetic, heavily synthesized, pastiche tunes. It's the kind of show that gives musicals a bad name. The set looks like it's been put together from a few bits of cardboard, and there are performances to match. When the imprisoned title character (wearing an iron mask that makes him looks like a cross between a gray Halloween pumpkin, Hannibal Lecter, and Shrek) sings "Why am I here? / I can't move / There's no escape / I'm here forever," you know exactly how he feels. (Actually, many audience members took the easy way out and fled at the interval.) All this for a rip-off price of £43.50! [Ed. Note: The show just announced that it will close on August 20.]

There's far better news elsewhere. Take the current As You Like It, in which Sienna Miller is a beautiful Celia to Helen McCrory's Rosalind. Amazingly, it is going to be possible to see this Shakespeare play in three different London productions here in the space of one year: We've already had Sir Peter Hall's staging, starring his daughter Rebecca, at the new Rose of Kingston; and, in time for Christmas, an imminent RSC production will transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon as part of a new London residency for the company at the recently renamed Novello Theatre (formerly the Strand).

The revival of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre offers a new, elegantly stripped-back staging by director Michael Grandage that puts the emphasis on character and atmosphere rather than spectacle. There is also thrillingly kinetic choreography by Rob Ashford; it is by turns steamy and sultry, performed by a brilliant cast of actor-singer-dancers. Ewan McGregor isn't known for his abilities in the last two named disciplines, but he acquits himself admirably as gambler Sky Masterson, who suddenly falls for "mission doll" Sister Sarah (the appealingly vulnerable Jenna Russell). McGregor has a light but effortless tenor voice, a suave, sexy, elegant demeanor, and great charm. Growing in confidence as the evening progresses, he performs his big second-act number "Luck Be a Lady" with energy enough to raise the roof. Meanwhile, the parallel romance between Nathan Detroit (Douglas Hodge) and nightclub 'hostess' Miss Adelaide (Jane Krakowski) charts a longer course -- they've been engaged for 14 years -- and provides the comic heart of this irresistible show. There may have been funnier Miss Adelaides than Krakowski, but none can have been quite so sexy; in "Take Back Your Mink", she virtually strips naked. (Krakowski did something similar in the recent Broadway revival of Nine. Is this getting to be a habit?)

Londoners got a double dose of Neil LaBute this summer: the local premiere of This Is How It Goes at the Donmar Warehouse, with Ben Chaplin in the lead; and the playwright's latest, Some Girl(s), starring former Friends star David Schwimmer as a man seeking closure with four old flames. Making his West End debut, Schwimmer hasn't taken an easy route into English hearts. He plays a desperately unsympathetic character -- the kind of person who, as one of his wounded former lovers says, "leaves a bunch of hurt in [his] boyish wake, all the time." While there is a morbid fascination in watching the patterns of his bad behavior emerge, LaBute's 100-minute play feels strangely repetitive. But, in David Grindley's elegantly poised production, there is one stand-out scene of blistering intensity as Lesley Manville's ferocious Lindsay settles some old scores.

Joe Alessi and Val Kilmer in
The Postman Always Rings Twice
(Photo © Eric Richmond)
It turns out that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (set to close here on September 4) isn't the only show to give an automobile a major role. There's an impressive onstage car crash in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but the car isn't the only thing that's driven off the road here. The play needs a better actor than Val Kilmer as the drifter who romances a lonely wife. Kilmer may be full of menace and danger on (and sometimes off) screen, but his now-bulky frame is all puffed up with nowhere to go. He's so laid-back that he's virtually horizontal, and not just when required to be so. In this queasy blend of sex, murder, and courtroom drama, actress Charlotte Emmerson is on her own in more ways than one when it comes to the destructive relationship that her character forms with Kilmer's.
Finally, London theatergoers have two opportunities to see the work of veteran playwright Brian Friel, who has long been thought of as an Irish Chekhov. His latest is The Home Place, at the Comedy Theatre. With its vista of doomed trees waiting to be cut down and characters poised in unfulfilled romantic despair, it's sort of a cross between The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. A period drama set in 1870s Ireland, The Home Place revisits the tensions between English landowners and their Irish tenants, but there is insufficient dramatic momentum here and rather too much symbolism. Adrian Noble's compassionate, atmospheric production is a transfer from Dublin's Gate Theatre. It stars Tom Courtenay, who offers a touching if sometimes mannered performance as a landowner who's wrestling with change and his own growing sense of dislocation. Meanwhile, Friel's 1979 play Aristocrats -- which covers some of the same territory -- has been revived at the National's Lyttelton.

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