Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

A Season of Epic Theater

Posted in Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Theater by bourdaghs on the June 20th, 2012

When I was a young man growing up in Minnesota, theater was a part of daily life. All through high school and college, I acted in plays and volunteered at local community theaters. I dated a few actresses along the way, too, which brought me to even more cast parties and opening nights. Even when I wasn’t directly or indirectly involved in the production, I attended local theaters on a regular basis.

Then came life, and grad school, and kids, and the weight of the world. You could probably count the total number of plays I attended in the 1990s and 2000s on the fingers of two hands, and you wouldn’t need to call on the thumbs.

But in the last six months, that’s all changed. Thank you, sabbatical.

In late December, as a Christmas present, I bundled off the whole family to see the Drury Lane Theatre’s acclaimed local production of “The Sound of Music.” It featured what one local critic declared a “star-making turn” and “a candid, delightfully impulsive, expertly sung performance” by Jennifer Blood as Maria. The children in the cast also acted and sung with remarkable poise. It helped remind me that I really do love a good musical.

Then in early April I was in New York City for meetings and managed to catch the celebrated (and subsequently Tony Award winning) production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Barrymore Theatre. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, the production recreated Jo Mielziner’s set design and Alex North’s audioscape from the original 1949 staging. I have real problems with Arthur Miller in general: the overweening earnestness of his scripts rubs me the wrong way. And it took a few minutes to adjust to the uncomfortable silences (deeply thoughtful? blankly thoughtless?) that Hoffman etched into his portrayal of Willy Loman. The rest of the cast wasn’t as strong as Hoffman, but as the evening wore on, I found myself wrapped up in the tragic, awful story. Yes: the bowels of my emotions were appropriately purged.

Later that same month, I was up in Minnesota and had the chance to catch Shadowplay Theatre‘s production of Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet,” featuring Peter Moore’s delightful take on the ghost of John Barrymore (Moore also directed). Then in May we caught both halves of Court Theatre’s production of “Angels in America,” a seven-hour day/night doubleheader that never felt long. Larry Yando stood out as the slimy-but-lovable Roy Cohn. As Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune,

Yando is giving one of the great performances of his long Chicago career ó the great performance, I’d say. He captures all the necessary sides of the nasty-but-compelling politico: his cynicism, malevolence, intelligence, sexuality, love of power, formidable insight into the baser aspects of human nature and his sense of humor. He is funnier than Al Pacino in this role and just as mercurial. He has a deeper sense of the man’s horror at his own mortality. And, above all, Yando’s Cohn is spectacularly present and alive.

We saved the best for last, it turned out. Last week we attended the Goodman Theatre’s production of “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane. I have to agree with the New York Times‘ Charles Isherwood: “Mr. Fallsís superbly cast production contains as many great performances as Iíve seen in a single show in years, certainly more than I saw in any Broadway show of the past, imperfect season.” It says something that Nathan Lane was the weakest link in the cast, and he in fact turned in a fine performance. The play itself is flawed (the last act, for example, includes an impossibly long monologue), yet I was willing to yield to O’Neill’s (and, for that matter, Tony Kushner’s) vision of the world in way that I just can’t for Arthur Miller.

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