PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 9-15: Critics Respond to the New Plays by Christopher Durang, Annie Baker, Craig Lucas

By Robert Simonson
March 15, 2013

Christopher Durang enjoyed his first Broadway production in 17 years this week. (In the spirit of charity, we won't count the text he contributed to the 2010 Dame Edna outing All About Me.) It was Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which had a critically embraced Off-Broadway run earlier this season. His previous Broadway bout was the famous flop Sex and Longing in 1996. The two shows have a thing or two in common. They were both produced by Lincoln Center Theater and both starred Durang's old college pal Sigourney Weaver.



Also in the new play, which spoofs Chekhovian themes in an American setting, are Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce, Genevieve Angelson, Shalita Grant and Billy Magnussen.

As with the Off-Broadway run, the reviews were good, but not great. "In Durang Land, of course, heartache is generally fodder for belly laughs," wrote the Times. "There are enough sprinkled throughout his latest play to keep the temperature in the theatre from cooling for long, although this romp through an Americanized version of Russian anomie is more a series of loosely connected set pieces than a cogently put-together play." Said AP, simply, "It's all a bit silly, a tad daffy and very, very sweet."

New York Magazine, like a few other reviewers, found the piece a bit of a patchwork: "Like its Chekhovian characters, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is assembled from mismatched parts and is desperate for affection, which it miraculously earns."

Entertainment Weekly thought the script was amply assisted by its cast, saying "The play may be — okay, is, definitely — overstuffed. Fortunately, the performances are first-rate. Durang's old Yale Drama pal Weaver and Nielsen, his favorite character actress of late, know his brand of eccentric comedy better than anyone. Nielsen, especially, is at her bug-eyed, bobble-headed best — really, this is a good thing, particularly when she's impersonating Maggie Smith."

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Louisa Krause in The Flick.
photo by Joan Marcus


Off-Broadway, Alex Hanna, Louisa Krause, Matthew Maher and Aaron Clifton Moten opened in The Flick, the latest play from Annie Baker, who's been basking in the critical sunshine for a couple years now. (She was even the subject of a fawning New Yorker profile.) The play, at Playwrights Horizons, reunites her with her frequent director Sam Gold.

The play is set in a run-down movie theatre in central Massachusetts, where three underpaid employees (Krause, Maher and Moten) mop the floors and attend to one of the last 35-millimeter film projectors in the state.

The Times, in a largely positive review, said, "For all the delicacy and insight of the writing, the epiphanies certainly take their sweet time coming in The Flick, which at three hours (with one intermission) runs about as long as your average Shakespeare production. The emotional impact of the events that gradually leave one of the characters feeling alienated from the others is somewhat vitiated by the play's inordinate length… And yet if you have any feeling for ordinary people in furtive search of those extraordinary things — requited love, true friendship, a sustaining belief in mans humanity to man — that can ennoble any life (or blight it, should they be lost), this lovingly observed play will sink deep into your consciousness, and probably stay there for a while."

New York magazine clothed its praise in a criticism. "No one does anything generally regarded as theatrical," it said. "So what does happen in The Flick? A lot of sweeping and mopping of the floor of a grotty old movie house near Worcester, Massachusetts. Also the tenderest drama — funny, heartbreaking, sly, and unblinking — now playing at a theatre near you."

Carol Kane
photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Carol Kane made a rare stage appearance — and an even rarer starring stage appearance — in the world premiere of Craig Lucas' comic thriller The Lying Lesson, about a fictional encounter between late-career movie star Bette Davis and a stranger, which opened this week at Atlantic Theater Company.

Some reviewers had a tough time figuring out what Lucas was after. "Instead of a pitch-black satire about the comfy but poisonous cocoon of fame," wrote the Times, "Mr. Lucas offers a more realistic, low-key and ultimately slight drama about two lonely women of vastly different ages and life experiences."

Entertainment Weekly wrote "The Lying Lesson is actually a curious hybrid of thriller — cue the lightning, power failure, and haphazard wielding of a kitchen knife — and buddy comedy." Said The Daily News, "The Lying Game is an odd duck of a play — and an inedible one at that… a cat-and-mouse puzzler with a touch of celebrity."

Most critics considered the play a lighter work from Lucas, who lately has tended to traffic in heavy waters — a "divertissement" as Backstage put it — and they didn't necessarily consider that a bad thing.

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"The Office" star Jenna Fischer will join Josh Hamilton, Leslie Bibb and Fred Weller in the world premiere of Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Happy Off-Broadway this spring for MCC Theater.

As you might guess, the new play is a companion piece to his award-winning Reasons to Be Pretty, which was first produced at MCC Theater in 2008 before moving to Broadway, where it was nominated for three 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Play. Given the plot, the potential for any of the characters in Reasons to Be Happy to actually be happy seems slim. Steph and Greg, who broke up three years ago, are wondering if they can make a fresh go of it. There are a few problems though: she's married to someone else and he's just embarked on a relationship with Steph's best friend, Carly, a single mom whose jealous ex-husband, Kent. Uh oh.

Reasons to Be Happy will begin previews May 16 toward a June 11 opening at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It is scheduled to run through June 23.

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Looks like the second life of the cult musical Carrie is going to last a big longer.

When the musical by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, based on the horror-thriller by Stephen King, opened on Broadway in 1988 to scathing/hilarious reviews, it sunk like a stone and wasn't heard from for nearly a quarter century.

But its revival, and "revisal," Off-Broadway in 2012, was better received, and was heavily covered by the press. That version of the show will receive its Los Angeles debut in a new immersive production by the Transfer Theatre Group this fall.

Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, who produced the Broadway productions of Clybourne Park, Nice Work If You Can Get It and the upcoming revival of Pippin, present the Los Angeles run along with the Transfer Theatre Group. Performances will begin Sept. 6 towards a Sept. 13 official opening night.