Broadway Reviews: RELATIVELY SPEAKING (Brooks Atkinson) and THE MOUNTAINTOP (Bernard B. Jacobs)

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by Harvey Perr on November 12, 2011

in Theater-New York

THE ACTING’S THE THING

You may go to see Relatively Speaking in the hope of seeing three bright comedies by some of our funniest comic writers – Ethan Coen, Elaine May, Woody Allen – but what you will remember, after you’ve left the theater, is the actors: Danny Hoch in the Coen play, Marlo Thomas in the May play, and you will particularly take delight in the way Julie Kavner and Richard Libertini squeeze every ounce of juice out of the Borscht Belt routines Allen has written for them.

Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey Perr

Since Coen and Allen are responsible for some of the best films of our generation, their rather cavalier attitude towards writing for the theater smacks of condescension or worse. Coen’s play, “Talking Cure,” is, in fact, utterly dismissible. It is little more than an extended sketch about a dialogue between a mental patient and his doctor that is funny at first, but which goes nowhere and ends improbably with the cause of the patient’s problems: those wild and crazy and totally heartless Jewish parents, who are pictured here in the most stereotypical manner imaginable. They are so broadly played that it can feed the theory (one that I do not personally ascribe to) that the Coen brother’s A Serious Man is, at heart, vaguely but intentionally anti-Semitic. Hoch’s deliciously wry matter-of-factness as the patient is the only thing that keeps this playlet afloat. But he unfortunately sits in the shadows during the last scene when the whole damned thing goes completely off the rails.

Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey Perr

Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel” is a trifle (albeit a highly amusing one) which reveals its secret within the first five minutes but which here will remain a secret so that the first few minutes can be thoroughly enjoyed as it was meant to be enjoyed: in the moment. But, essentially, this little farce has the members of a wedding party showing up at a tacky motel, one at a time, to create some comic havoc, very little of which will strike anyone as highly original. But, with a terrific cast – although I’m not at all sure what it is that Steve Guttenberg, as the father of the groom, is trying to do, unless he thinks desperation in and of itself is automatically funny – that includes such stalwart talents as Caroline Aaron, Mark-Linn Baker, and the wonderful Mr. Hoch, the play gets its share of earned laughter.

Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey Perr

But it really revs up the familiar jokes when Ms. Kavner, as the mother of the bride, and Libertini, as a rabbi with a cause, take center stage, and, in their unique styles, turn their characters into two of the most hilarious gargoyles Allen has written. Just hearing Kavner stretch out a line in those gorgeously nasal tones, which is her own private and special quality, is sheer bliss. And, just when you think that Libertini couldn’t possibly be any funnier than he already is, he finds brand new ways to go over the top without losing his essential reality. The writing may be familiar, but you don’t reach this kind of laugh-inducing brilliance without a little help from the writer. On the other hand, with good New York actors simply doing what they normally do, it’s just possible that you can.

Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey Perr

The best play of the trio is May’s “George Is Dead.” May’s writing is not merely funny; it is dementedly, almost tragically, resonant with truth. One laughs, but one almost feels that laughter getting stuck in one’s throat, at her harrowing portrait of a West Side matron who, once her husband is dead and no longer in control of her life, falls apart and reverts to a kind of infantilism. The play ends a bit sloppily, but the terrifying beauty of Marlo Thomas’s spot-on hysteria holds the play together; this may be comic exaggeration, but the woman is as recognizable as someone you not only know but who may even be a member of your family. It is the one play and the one performance that has meat on its bones.

The director of the three plays is John Turturro, who, because he is also an actor,  knows exactly how to get his actors to pull out all the stops, when the writing allows them to, and even when it doesn’t.

Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey PerrIt is probably impossible to write a play in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the central character – especially one that takes place in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the night before his tragic assassination, and in the nondescript lifelessness of David Gallo’s grimly detailed recreation of Room 306 of that motel – without feeling that it is bound to be less than what we would hope such a play to be. We all have our own Martin Luther King play in our heads. What play could possibly live up to that one? But Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, the passion and imagination and comic audacity of which I am an unashamed admirer, has been savaged by New York critics for reasons I feel are Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey Perrsomewhat misguided.

The play, which I feel deservedly won the 2010 Olivier Award as Best Play when it played in London’s West End, starts in the most humbly human way. Here is Dr. King, out of cigarettes and in desperate need of having one, taking off his shoes and recoiling from the smell emanating from them. And so the first glimpse of King is as a man, not as a myth. And the marvelous Samuel L. Jackson underplays the part with quiet grace and a slight air of dishevelment and weariness. The incessant falling rain would depress anyone; Jackson’s ability to stand taller than depression might normally allow him to tells us something about the man we might never have thought about before. In his gait, in his posture, we sense his nobility, but what we see is a kind of defeat, a kind of impatience, a kind of fatigue. And each time we hear a thunder clap, it shakes up King and the room, almost as if it precedes the shaking up which will take, in less than twenty-four hours, the life of a great man and, in the process, will alter forever American history.

Relatively Speaking - The Mountaintop – Broadway Theater Reviews by Harvey PerrAnd then what happens? Room service, in the shape of a sassy, brassy working stiff named Caramae, walks in the door, and removes us completely from the sense of doom that pervades the atmosphere, bringing, with her, such a compendium of clichés and stereotypical behavior, all delivered by Angela Bassett in grand fluorescent style, that we may even cringe a little at the boldness of her attack on the part. And what, we might even ask, is Ms. Hall up to? Is this just going to be a comedy that exploits Dr. King’s womanizing, served up as a sexy stew of seduction?

Well, it seems clear that the writer has something else up her sleeve, and the shifts that take place, once they start to take place, keep us wondering what will happen next. But, without giving anything away, Bassett gets tougher and sharper as the play progresses for reasons it would be unfair to go into, and, finally, she stirs us up in exactly the way a play about Dr. King should stir us up.  The contrast between Bassett’s larger-than-life creation and Jackson’s life-size impersonation is, under Kenny Leon’s astute direction, nothing less than what is often referred to as theatrical magic, but which, in truth, is nothing more than two fine actors working at the top of their game, in harmony with each other. On Broadway, stars are not merely stars: they are actors, too. And The Mountaintop is worthy of just that kind of meticulous – and, by the way, entertaining – attention.

photos by Joan Marcus

Relatively Speaking
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
ends on January 12, 2012
for info, visit Relative Speaking on Playbill

The Mountaintop
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
ends on January 22, 2012
for tickets, visit The Mountaintop

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