The Gift of Theater
Wracking your brain to choose holiday presents that won't strike the wrong note? Here are some suggestions.
On the day this column appears, there will indeed be just 12 days to Christmas -- and while the chorus in She Loves Me says that there's "plenty of time to do your Christmas shopping," there really isn't. So why not get on the phone or on line (in either sense of that phrase) to buy theater tickets for your friends and relatives? And if you can only afford to buy one ticket for each person, do it. Yes, people like going to the theater with someone else, but my maxim is: "A true theatergoer doesn't mind going alone; the important thing is seeing the show." Here's a quick consumer guide to some recent openings.
Gem of the Ocean: A nice present for fans of Phylicia Rashad, though they might not recognize the person whom they admired on The Cosby Show. She wears short-cropped gray hair and has been heavily padded both in her body and (I'm guessing) her mouth, because she sounds as if she's wearing false teeth. Rashad plays a symbol of female slaves, saying that she's close to 300 years old, but she still has a great deal of power and charisma for someone "that age." Watch her left hand, for every second that she's on stage -- and that's a considerable amount of time -- she keeps her middle finger wiggling back and forth, back and forth. It's a nervous tic that just won't stop. The two fingers that surround the middle finger are going constantly, too, though at a slower rate of speed. How Rashad could keep this up without faltering and create a character who shows that she's long become accustomed to it is astonishing. Truth to tell, I chose Tovah Feldshuh in the "Best Actress in a Play" category on my Tony ballot this past May, for while I appreciated what Rashad did in A Raisin in the Sun, I thought that Feldshuh had to jump over higher hoops. But I fully expect that, this year, I'll check the box next to Rashad's name.
Doubt (playing only through January 30 at Manhattan Theatre Club): The best lines of dialogue in a play aren't snappy wisecracks but, rather, lines that come from character and manage to tell you a good deal about the person. The best line of Doubt, the new play in which a nun suspects a priest of molesting a student, is "This." That's it. One word: "This." But you -- and your friends and relatives -- must see and hear Cherry Jones deliver it in context. The single word shows us that this Mother Superior is a no-nonsense lady who won't be swayed from the subject at hand, no matter how much fancy footwork her adversary offers. I'm a (scarred) veteran of 12 years of Catholic education, so take it from me that John Patrick Shanley sure knows his nuns -- even though he had a hard time staying in Catholic school. Make sure you read his program bio, which doesn't list his many successes from Danny and the Deep Blue Sea to Moonstruck and beyond, but simply tells of his life and times. It's hilarious and -- not so incidentally -- inspirational. (By the way, if you're a little short of funds right now, why not make up I.O.U.-like gift certificates that say, "Good for Doubt when it moves to Broadway." We all know it's going to.)
Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance: This is another show for which you might be well-advised to give mezzanine seats, though for a very different reason. If you have friends or relatives who are on the shy side, you can tell them that you purposely put them out of harm's way, for Dame Edna does like to call upon those nearest the stage. By the way, I thought of Zorba while watching Dame Edna, and not just because each character has a zest for life. In the 1968 Kander-and-Ebb (and Stein) musical, Zorba sings that no matter how many times he returns to a certain experience, "each time is the first time" in the way he looks at it. No matter how many times Dame Edna calls on an audience member and asks him what color is the rug in his bathroom and what color are the walls, then grimaces at the person's lack of color coordination, I'm writhing on the floor in hysterical laughter.
700 Sundays: You'll really be a hero with friends and relatives if you get them seats to this smash hit. No question that it's both laugh- and tear-inducing, which is all anyone can ask of an evening, but the thought did cross my mind that the reason we're really interested in this show is that it's written and performed by a famous personality. If a journeyman actor-writer wrote and related the same story about a 15-year-old growing up fast after his daddy's death, I wonder if we'd be so quick to laugh and cry. No matter. Crystal gets a primal roar of approval from the audience the moment he makes his entrance, and an even louder roar at the end of the evening. He's earned it both for his body of work and for this specific show, though I have to take issue with Crystal's statement that "Jazz is America's only original art form." Umm, ever hear of the Broadway musical, Billy?
Wonderful Town: At one point, while I was watching Brooke Shields, do you know who I thought of? Julie Andrews. All right, calm down, all of you who believe that Andrews is the quintessential musical performer who can never be compared to anyone, let alone to a woman who is most famous for starring in Endless Love and Calvin Klein commercials. There was a moment when Shields gestured in an effortless but distinctive way that reminded me of a similar moment that Andrews had in the only Broadway musical I ever saw her do, Victor/Victoria. So I say that Shields, like Andrews, is a natural when it comes to performing in musicals. And while Shields reminded me of Eve Arden, too -- in the similar way that she delivers a wisecrack -- the lady emerges as her own special creation. When she's embarrassed, she shows a glassy smile worthy of a windshield or an I-can't-believe-I-said-that grimace. Her singing voice is strong and assured, and she can let out a good growl during the Conga. Many have remarked that she's too pretty to be the Plain Jane that Ruth Sherwood is supposed to be, but Shields manages to do what Warren Beatty did in Ishtar: Both characters are unaware that they're actually attractive people, and they're convincing in letting us see their insecurity.
Democracy: When my girlfriend Linda and I arrived at our seats, she was delighted to find that she'd be sitting next to one of her all-time musical theater heroes. She gushed and chatted with him before the curtain went up and, as the lights dimmed, she turned to me and whispered, "I can't believe I finally got to talk with him!" One act later, as she and I headed out to the lobby, she grabbed her coat, for she wasn't sure if she was going to return. "I mean, it's well-done," she said, using a kiss-of-death description, "but I'm just not that interested." Her biggest dilemma over leaving, though, was seeming like a parvenu to her hero if she didn't return to this Important Play. Nevertheless, she bolted -- and when I returned to our row just as the lights were dimming, I found that her big hero had walked out, too!