PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 12-18: Picnic, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and Can-Can

By Robert Simonson
January 18, 2013

"That's a lot of thwarted sexuality for one day."

So tweeted one New York theatre critic after seeing, in one day, Picnic and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the two big Broadway openings this week. For critics in general, meanwhile, the two productions represented a lot of thwarted satisfaction.

A lot was expected of Cat, mainly due the presence of Scarlett Johansson, whose Broadway debut in A View From the Bridge had been a surprise critical success. Maggie the Cat seemed like perfect casting for the smart, sexy and talented film star. As the opening approached, however, the staging became the subject of gossip, as reports in the New York Post revealed that director Rob Ashford had taken the unusual step of making Brick's deceased pal Skipper — often spoken of, but never seen — an actual ghostly presence in the play. Spector Skipper was axed before opening.

The Times, who had liked Johansson in View, said her performance contained "a few miscalculations," but that, ultimately, she "confirms her promise as a stage actress of imposing presence and adventurous intelligence. Her Maggie is, as she must be, an undeniable life force and — as far as this production, directed by Rob Ashford, is concerned — a lifeline...Ms. Johansson is also the only major player in Cat who appears to have a fully thought-through idea of the character she's portraying."

The AP found her "less overtly sexy than other actresses who have played the ironic role, making her Maggie more cerebral, angry and proud," but thought the production "unnecessarily noisy," adding, "Ashford should just have let Tennessee Williams handle the fireworks." The Daily News also commented on the distracting fireworks, saying, "That's it for the sparks, unfortunately." The production, it said, was misguided and "a dim and soggy affair." Newsday, meanwhile, called Johansson "sedate" and the revival "timid."

Bloomberg news flatly stated that the producers hired the wrong man to direct: "Unsurprisingly for Ashford, a musical comedy specialist, the show unfolds like a jagged waltz gone haywire."

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It was a bad week for 1950s dramatic staples. For the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of William Inge's Picnic — which is not ranked on Cat's level, but still retains the aura of a quasi-classic — was also termed a disappointment by the critical corps.

The Times said director Sam Gold's production lacked depth. "More than any version of Picnic I've seen, this one…highlights the role of prettiness as both a burden and an aspiration…. Which means that, lacking an electric current to invisibly connect its characters, [it] remains little more than a billboard for prettiness."

New York magazine criticized the mix of acting styles, saying, "this Picnic is an ad hoc smorgasbord, where not all dishes are guaranteed to palate in perfect harmony. Not everything goes down smoothly, and one wonders if a bit more salt might've tied the whole thing together." The New York Post was one of several that complained that the leads, Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan, did not connect as lovers: "They share youth and good looks, but no sizzle — there's more sexual chemistry among the cast of Old Jews Telling Jokes."

The Hollywood Reporter was more charitable, both to Inge (a writer critics seem to like to denigrate for not having ended up as durable as his fellow postwar scribes, Miller and Williams) and Gold, saying "as a snapshot of a time and place that shows the solitude of small-town life for so many people, women especially, Picnic yields gentle rewards. And if Gold's staging muffles some of them, it nonetheless finds resonance in the play's bruised cynicism about love."

A Broadway revival of the seldom-seen Cole Porter classic Can-Can will arrive on Broadway in spring 2014, it was announced. It will be presented by none other than Jonathan Burrows, nephew of the musical's original book writer, Abe Burrows. Burrows is little-remembered today, but he was a theatre giant in his day, directing and scripting Broadway hits with abandon. On Can-Can, he did both, and the show ran for two years.

Ironically, given that a Burrows is producing, the revival will feature a revised book by David Lee and Joel Fields

Lee will also direct the production, with choreography by Patti Colombo. Prior to the Broadway production, a workshop will take place in New York in October. Casting has yet to be confirmed. The original show famously made an overnight star out of Gwen Verdon, who was cast as the second lead, but won all the attention. The show was revived by Encores! a few years ago; Patti LuPone starred. 

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In more Broadway news, the new musical Big Fish, which is based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 Columbia Pictures film written by John August, has a Broadway theatre. It will open at the Neil Simon Theatre Oct. 6.

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book August, the production will begin previews on Sept. 5. Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert star.

 

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The new production of Shaw's Pygmalion at The Old Globe in San Diego has a sweet creative team.

Director Nicholas Martin has drafted Robert Sean Leonard as Prof. Henry Higgins and Charlotte Parry as Eliza. Backing them up is the Paxton Whitehead as Col. Pickering. The show opened Jan. 17. Martin was also named an associate artist of The Old Globe this week.

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In London, that unlikely hitmaker, playwright Alan Bennett, has another success on his hands.

Bennett's Untold Stories is currently running at the National Theatre with Alex Jennings playing the author. It will transfer to the West End's Duchess Theatre, beginning performances March 22 for a 12-week run through June 15.

This double bill of Bennett's autobiographical recollections comprises Hymn and Cocktail Sticks

This isn't the first time Bennett has put himself in one of his own plays. He was a character (actually, two characters, an ego and an alter ego) in The Lady in the Van.

Apparently, Bennett finds himself as fascinating as audiences seem to.