PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 31-June 6: Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth Wickedly Good and Itís Tony Time

By Robert Simonson
June 6, 2014

Terrence McNally has reached the Edward Albee phase of his long career — that is, the time where, while he occasionally sees a new play of his staged on Broadway, most his productions on that Street are of revivals of past works. The last decade has seen new Broadway renditions of McNally's The Ritz, Ragtime and Master Class. And now we are getting a Broadway revival of the 1986 comedy It's Only a Play.



We already had word that this production would reunite the team of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick some weeks ago. Now producers are filling in the blanks about the production. Also in the show will be heavy-hitters Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham and Megan Mullally, as well as Micah Stock. That's some cast.

Jack O'Brien will direct the production, which will play a limited 17-week engagement at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Performances will begin in the fall with an opening night set for Oct. 9.

It's Only a Play takes place on the opening night of Peter Austin's (Broderick) new play as he anxiously awaits to see if his show is a hit. Alongside him are his best friend, a television star (Lane), his fledgling producer (Mullally), his erratic leading lady (Channing), his wunderkind director, an infamous drama critic and a wide-eyed coat check attendant (that was a real job, once) on his first night in Manhattan.

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The Broadway revival of The Elephant Man, starring movie star Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola, has a opening date and a theatre. It will begin previews Oct. 18 at the Booth Theatre, producer James L. Nederlander announced June 3.

Cooper previously appeared as John Merrick (the titular Elephant Man) in the Bernard Pomerance drama at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012. Scott Ellis, who directed the Williamstown production, will also stage the Broadway return of the 1979 play that will officially open Nov. 13.

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Like It's Only a Play, the show will be a limited run. The production will play a 13-week engagement through Jan. 18, 2015.

The cast also includes Anthony Heald, a ubiquitous New York stage presence in the 1980s and early '90s, who here makes his first Broadway appearance in 18 years, Scott Lowell, Kathryn Meisle and Henry Stram.

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Which tragic Shakespearean character has most haunted New York stages over the past 18 months, King Lear or Macbeth? It's a tough call. There have been so many sightings of witches and fools on Broadway, Off-Broadway and elsewhere.

Adding to tally of Macbeths this week was the Park Avenue Armory's immersive production of Kenneth Branagh's rendition, which officially opened June 5 following previews that began May 31 in the Armory's expansive Wade Thompson Drill Hall. The staging is directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford.

Happy critics hailed the production as a triumph of energy and excitement, handing over what must be some of the best reviews Branagh has received in his career. "Gather round, sisters of dank darkness and midnight marsh, ye wasting wraiths who have tramped through many a peaty bog to see the Scottish Play," wrote Time Out New York, neatly encapsulating the play's checkered history in Gotham in recent years. "We who cackled on the aisle as Ethan Hawke and Jack O’Brien made Shakespeare’s dire tragedy even more appalling. We who gnashed our teeth as Alan Cumming supped on the scenery solo. We who cursed our fate in Brooklyn at a tediously spare import from Cheek by Jowl. We who wake screaming in the small hours, still haunted by Kelsey Grammer’s bloody butchery. Happy tidings, sisters: Kenneth Branagh has marched on the Park Avenue Armory and banishèd the curse!"

The New York Times was just as enthused: "Hearts beat fast in the thrilling new Macbeth that has transformed the Park Avenue Armory into a war zone, and every breath starts to feel like a gasp… This is the summer blockbuster that we wait for every year and too seldom find at the multiplexes, one of those action-packed, spectacle-drenched shows that sweep you right into their fraught, churning worlds and refuse to release you until the lights come up — and maybe not even then."

Jefferson Mays in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Photo by Joan Marcus

Variety opined, "There’s something magnificently depraved about the vision of Macbeth," on display, but "the best bits in this visceral production are the rousing battle scenes, the gory murders, and the nasty synergy between sex and violence.  And let’s admit it: Branagh’s Macbeth is a bloody beast."

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The 59th Annual Drama Desk Awards, honoring shows that opened on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway during the 2013-14 New York theatre season, were presented June 1 at The Town Hall in Manhattan.

The new musical comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder earned seven awards, the most of any production of the season, including Outstanding Musical — perhaps a harbinger of good fortune for the show, which is up for many Tony Awards this weekend.

Robert Schenkkan's All The Way was named Outstanding Play and stage and screen star Bryan Cranston was named Outstanding Actor in a Play for his performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson in that historical drama.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical picked up three Drama Desk Awards, including one for its leading lady, Jessie Mueller. 

There were ties in two, count 'em, two of the acting categories: Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Jefferson Mays (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) were both named Outstanding Actor in a Musical, while Anika Larsen (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) each picked up Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical.

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Finally, speaking of All The Way, whatever its fate on Tony night, the production can leave New York in the assurance that it was, at least, a financial success. The play recouped its $3.9 million investment in under four months, producers announced June 5.