Theater News

Box-Office Viagra?

Macaulay Culkin rises, Napoleon falls, and Darryl Hannah pouts as the season in London pushes on.

Daryl Hannahin The Seven Year Itch
Daryl Hannah
in The Seven Year Itch

Celebrity Sightings

The celebrity rat race that has been turning the West End into a sewer of duff drama continues unabated, alas, with The Seven Year Itch. This latest entry has pitched its opportunistic stand at the Queen’s Theatre, side by side with The Graduate (which started the current rush) and just as The Blue Room has found its way back into town, sure to arouse certain male critics all over again.

Unlike Kathleen Turner and her successor Jerry Hall in the pointless stage adaptation of The Graduate or Nicole Kidman’s now notorious undressing in the original Donmar Warehouse staging of The Blue Room two years ago, the novelty of Daryl Hannah’s appearance in The Seven Year Itch is that she doesn’t take her clothes off. And unlike other screen-to-stage
shows, both good (The Lion King, The Witches of Eastwick) and bad (Fame, Singin’ in the Rain, Brief Encounter), that have lately overrun the West End, this production actually returns George Axelrod’s painfully dated 1952 Broadway comedy to its stage origins, even if it is best known in the form of the Marilyn Monroe film it subsequently became.

This archaic and formulaic play, which portrays the effect of a voluptuous 22-year-old model and aspiring actress on a 39-year-old publishing executive who has been left home alone by his wife and child in the Big City for the summer, is a Broadway comedy of the old school. But in a clumsy, inert production by film director turned legit stager Michael Radford (Il Postino), it never catches fire. As for Hannah, there’s nothing wrong with her that a better part in a better play, with a better director and a better co-star (Rolf Saxon fatally lacks both charm and charisma here) couldn’t fix. Her every sentence ending in a breathy, pouty, inhaled gurgle, Hannah gives not so much a performance as a wan impersonation of Monroe. The actress reportedly needed hypnosis to overcome stage fright to do the show, but the audience will need hypnotizing to stay awake.

Hot on the heels of this 1950s Broadway sex comedy, an equally tiresome and flaccid 1911 Hungarian comedy of the sexes called The Guardsman arrived in town and just as promptly departed, this despite the presence of
sometime movie star Greta Scaachi in the cast. So Theatrical Viagra is in dismally short supply right now. It’s not even possible to get a rise out of the two completely naked guys in Puppetry of the Penis, though they play with themselves in full view of the audience for over an hour.

As that example indicates, the theater is very different from what it once was, not to mention the society it reflects. So it’s difficult to get worked up over the grinding machinations of the plot of The Guardsman, in which a man seeks to test the fidelity of the woman he has recently married by coming on to her in the disguise of a handsome guardsman. As staged here by actress-turned-director Janet Suzman with much artifice but too little artistry, the play is misdirected and miscast. Scaachi manages to look gorgeous, knowing, and vacuous at the same time as the wife, and Michael Pennington piles on more ham than you’ll find in a New York deli sandwich as the husband.

Culkin and Jacobin Madame Melville
Culkin and Jacob
in Madame Melville

The hero of The Seven Year Itch isn’t the only person to be left home alone and prey to the temptations of a beautiful woman this fall: The screen’s original Home Alone victim, Macaulay Culkin, may be found at the Vaudeville Theatre in Madame Melville, falling for the teacher who gives him a crash course in French cinema and, eventually, the Kama Sutra. The news that Culkin–now 20, and not having worked as an actor for six long years–was to star in such a salacious sounding play on the London stage created tremendous anticipation. But, despite one London critic having labeled him a “bleached chimpanzee,” Culkin is no performing monkey. Instead, he has a captivating, urchin-like charm; he is part boy, part man, at once tentative and cocky. This is absolutely perfect casting for the role of a 15-year-old American in Paris who is on the cusp of losing his virginity to his beautiful but lonely 30-year-old teacher, played by the stunning French actress Irene Jacob.

Richard Nelson, an American playwright who is best known here as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s other house dramatist (the first, of course, being the company’s namesake), also makes his West End debut with this production. Beneath its deceptively slight, boulevard-comedy surface, there are the richer resonances of a disturbing memory play at work. Though Madame Melville is not entirely satisfactorily resolved, it’s good to be able to welcome a worthy star vehicle to the West End, rather than another blatant example of opportunistic marketing like The Graduate or The Seven Year Itch.

Visiting The Blue Room again, this time in a production without stars, we discover that just about the only thing that the play actually has in common with Viagra is the color of its title. This is the play, however, that the man from the Daily Telegraph infamously dubbed “pure theatrical Viagra” in response to Nicole Kidman’s brief nude appearance therein. Now that it has returned in a production that does not star Mrs. Tom Cruise, we are better able to consider playwright David Hare’s work without being distracted by the hype that originally surrounded it. An updated version of Arthur Schnitzer’s Austrian classic La Ronde, The Blue Room follows the same format in showing us a series of overlapping sexual trysts. Given our timeless fascination with what our fellow men and women get up to in bed–hence, the popularity of the tabloids and the National Enquirer–the play provides a discreetly prurient night out for those of a voyeuristic disposition.

Loveday Ingram’s production, first seen in the studio space at the regional Chichester Festival Theatre this summer, certainly rises to the occasion of the much larger Haymarket. That’s signally more than the student manages to
do in his liaison with the married woman. (Each scene is punctuated by a projection that tells us the duration of the sexual session depicted therein; these vary from zero seconds to two hours and 28 minutes).

Ingram is much aided by her versatile, essentially unknown cast, Camilla Power and Michael Higgs. For the record, she takes her clothes off more frequently than Kidman did, he less often than Iain Glen. Neither shows signs of arousal.


National Theatre in Crisis Again

The National Theatre currently has two near disasters on its hands. One of them, at least, is hilariously and happily intentional: Nothing On, the dire theatrical farce that is played out inside Michael Frayn’s irresistibly funny backstage comedy Noises Off, now in revival at the Lyttelton. However, the other disaster is for real: an extremely patchy new production of Romeo and Juliet, a great piece of classical theater and the kind of thing at which the National should excel. The company’s simultaneous success with the revival of a commercial comedy that really belongs in the West End, where it was first seen 20 years ago, only serves to amplify a South Bank paradox.

Noises Off is full of its own marvelous paradoxes. Apparently chaotic, yet actually a piece of clock-work precision, the play is superbly realized in Jeremy Sams’ comically inventive production. Frayn’s genius is to ground the onstage dramas of a tacky provincial touring comedy in offstage dramas involving the terrible actors starring in it; and Sams’ genius is to provide the kind of knockabout physical comedy that looks as if it is being made up on the spot, but is in fact very precise. The whole ensemble–led by Susie Blake, Patricia Hodge, and Peter Egan–performs
with terrific panache and high energy.

Ejiofor and Randle as Romeo and Juliet
Ejiofor and Randle
as Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, is fatally flawed due to the efforts of a director who seems determined to jazz up the play by giving it a completely
contemporary spin. It’s all eerily reminiscent of the National’s disastrous The Villains’ Opera, which isn’t too surprising given that it’s the work of the same director, Tim Supple. Having allowed Supple to produce one catastrophe on the Olivier stage, Trevor Nunn has now allowed him to produce another–and, worse, to utterly repeat himself in the process. With its overemphatic use of a dismal musical soundtrack, and with racially divided groups of gangland Londoners once again at war, it’s the same show. There are a couple of redeeming features, namely the young actors in the title roles: Chiwetel Ejiofor (who was so good in Blue/Orange at the National) and Charlotte Randle both manage to overcome a glaringly inconsistent production.

It was widely reported here that Nunn himself took over the direction of this Romeo and Juliet in the final run-up to a postponed opening night, but this was obviously a case of trying to catch the horse after the stable door had not been bolted. As when Nunn inherited Michael Bennett’s London production of the musical Chess many years ago, he was again lumbered with an inappropriate physical production and concept that put the show beyond repair. A greater crisis is the lack of artistic direction on the South Bank as signaled by many commentators, who are loudly wondering now whether Nunn’s contract to run the National Theatre ought to be extended beyond its current expiration date.

No one disputes that Nunn is himself a great director, but many wonder if he is a good producer. His own recent directorial work here–including such stunning work as The Merchant of Venice, Summerfolk, Albert Speer, and Oklahoma!–have been among the best things in town. But few other shows in the South Bank repertoire have made a similar impression over the same period. The truly exciting talents that Nunn’s predecessor, Richard Eyre, brought to the National–directors like Stephen Daldry, Deborah Warner, Declan Donnellan, Matthew Warchus, Sam Mendes, and even Nunn himself–haven’t been invited, or haven’t accepted, the chance to work here since. Some of those names might have been in the running to have taken over from Eyre if Nunn hadn’t done so; but who will now be in place succeed Nunn? It’s a critical question that needs to be answered before anyone rushes to judgment.


Musical Flop City

Lovers of flop musicals rarely have their appetites sated on Broadway anymore; even Jekyll & Hyde has run for more than three years. But London, where production costs are less ghoulish, still offers the occasional, glorious spectacle of musical monoliths marching shamelessly and unabashed towards disaster–as often as not at the Shaftesbury Theatre, which now follows the dismal Lautrec with another bio-musical about a Frenchman, Napoleon. This show about Bonaparte was duly blown apart by the critics, and so looks likely to join the list of costly calamities that this venue specializes in. (Enthusiasts of the genre will forever relish the memory of a musical at the Shaftesbury about the Hiroshima bombing, Out of the Blue, which itself bombed so quickly that it was redubbed “A Flash in Japan.”)

Musicals with one word titles, whether based on fictional or real lives, are invariably a dodgy prospect; in addition to Napoleon and Lautrec, other notorious London failures have included Leonardo, Bernadette, Ziegfeld, Blockheads (a Laurel and Hardy musical), and Tess. How on earth did Napoleon get this far? I saw an earlier version in Toronto in 1994 and, though evidently much rewritten since then, it’s as unmemorable and unengaging now as it was then. Numbingly replaying the ill-fated romance of Napoleon and Josephine, whom the Emperor only belatedly realizes was his life’s great love after he meets
his Waterloo and she has met her end, it is full of bathos rather than pathos. The faux-operatic score of Timothy Williams, to lyrics by Andrew Sabiston, is all troughs with no peaks.

Opera producer Francesca Zambello had a budget to spare and let her designer Michael Yeargan blow it on a production that routinely takes the eye. Sadly, all this money and effort was expended on a musical that fails to engage the heart, the mind, the ear, or any other vital organs.

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The Caretaker

Closed: February 3, 2001