Editor’s note: Each season, Hap Erstein heads to New York to see the new plays and musicals in advance of the Tony Awards, which are scheduled for this Sunday.
All things considered, it was a good Broadway season for new plays, which are generally thought of as unwelcome compared to musicals.
An epic play of the Irish Troubles, The Ferryman, has had a healthy eight-month run and an intriguing look back at the personalities involved in the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary and Clinton, continues to be popular. Curiously, neither of the hottest tickets — and best reviewed — plays (To Kill a Mockingbird and Network) managed to be nominated for the top play Tony Award.
Below is a look at four of this season’s most prominent works:
The Ferryman — Nine-time Tony nominee and likely best play winner, Jean Butterworth’s The Ferryman survives a replacement cast of Americans who, while perhaps not as authentic as the Brits who brought it to our shores seven months ago loaded down with accolades, still formed an impressive 21-member ensemble.
What got lost in the recasting will remain a gnawing doubt, but what remains is an epic tale of the Irish Troubles, circa 1981, at the end of the hunger strike, richly detailed with plenty of classical references. The history has been dramatized previously, but what sets The Ferryman apart is how Butterworth blends the personal with the political.
Following a violent prologue set in a Derry alley, the scene shifts to the stone farmhouse of Quinn Carney (Brian D’Arcy James), an overtaxed father at the mercy of his adolescent daughters and other extended family members. The prologue is a grabber, in which we learn that the body of Seamus Carney — Quinn’s brother — missing for the past decade, has been found buried in a bog, a bullet in his head.
The scene then shifts to the family farmhouse at harvest time, a time of singing and celebration. Yes, there is a comic tone, but this is Ireland after all, so there is underlying darkness and foreshadowing as well. It is not to diminish the play to observe that after three-and-a-quarter hours, The Ferryman arrives at the brutal conclusion we have come to expect.
It takes a while to differentiate the characters, but gradually they do come into focus, thanks to Butterworth’s writing skill and director Sam Mendes’ laser-sharp direction. James heads the cast with charm, empathy and brute force. Other standouts include Shuler Hensley in one of his signature hulking roles and the always welcome Fionnula Flanagan in a role based on Butterworth’s grandmother.
Like the weather in Ireland, if you wait long enough, the tone of The Ferryman changes — from romance to melodrama to a morality tale of long-held hatred. And that is what makes the play such a full, satisfying meal.
THE FERRYMAN, Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. Through Sunday, July 7. $49 – $169. 212-239-6200.
Ink — Direct from London to the Manhattan Theater Club is Ink, the garish tabloid tale of Aussie Rupert Murdoch and his takeover of the U.K.’s Daily Sun, the paper that reshaped British journalism, and by extension American electronic journalism — and not for the better.
In a cast headed by two-time Olivier Award winner Bertie Carvel as Murdoch (unrecognizable from his previous Broadway appearance as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, the Musical), he brings remarkable charisma as this most unlikely of anti-heroes.
He arrives in Britain and is quickly shunned by the Fleet Street establishment, so he buys the failing Sun and remakes it as “a popular paper to reach the forgotten people.” That is to say he has his editorial staff pack it with tawdry headlines, features with near-nude models, gossip about the royals, circulation-raising giveaways and items of pure titillation.
Murdoch taps a talented but rudderless Mirror editor, Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller, also Olivier-nominated for Ink), whose lack of a class pedigree prevents him from landing a more desirable position. Lamb, understanding the talent that has been similarly snubbed, hires them for a rough-and-tumble slide down the journalistic rabbit hole, but up the commercial ladder.
Other standout cast members include Michael Siberry as the all-too-easily duped owner of The Mirror and Colin McPhillamy — a frequent fixture at Palm Beach Dramaworks — in a couple of vivid supporting roles. Credit remarkable scenic designer Bunny Christie (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) with an eye-popping visualization of the news-producing process.
True, this tale of Murdoch’s rise has few surprises, but playwright James Graham and director Rupert Goold sure know how to make it entertaining.
INK, Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Through Sunday, July 7. $79 – $189. 212-239-6200.
Hillary and Clinton — Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow star as the eponymous power couple in the blatantly fictional yarn by that master of the what-if, Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2).
Set during the 2007 primary campaign and perhaps in an alternate universe, it is fly-on-the-wall theater with crisp, often combative dialogue that is awfully persuasive, even as we are aware we are out in highly subjective territory.
As much as it is set anywhere concrete, Hillary and Clinton takes place in a New Hampshire hotel room, where Hillary is locked in a protracted battle against upstart Barack Obama (no points for knowing the nearly irrelevant spoiler of who prevailed in that matchup). And like Al Gore before her, Hillary has to grapple with the strategic dilemma of whether to enlist the aid of Bill Clinton — the whole package of upstaging charm, overbearing personality and a dollop of Southern scalawag.
Of course the answer is obvious to anyone who can read the marquee at the Golden Theatre. Before long, Clinton arrives to inject his political acumen into the proceedings.
At Hnath’s request, director Joe Mantello has discouraged his cast from attempting an impersonation of their so-vividly-known characters. Still, Metcalf and Lithgow are such accomplished actors that they know how to convey the essence of Hillary and Clinton without reaching for mere mimicry.
Hnath veteran Metcalf (she won her second Tony for creating his Nora in A Doll’s House Part 2 and us nominated again for a surprisingly dimensional Hillary) bring a road-weary verisimilitude to the role, while Lithgow necessarily plays second fiddle while still oozing the character’s trademark charisma. Peter Francis James struggles a bit with the underwritten Obama role and Zac Orth fills out the cast in a pivotal assignment as Hillary’s put-upon campaign manager.
Chances are you will feel about this play the same way you did about A Doll’s House, Part 2. The text is hardly profound, but Heath knows how to write bravura acting opportunities.
HILLARY AND CLINTON, Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. $39-$159. 212-239-6200.
King Lear — Unconventional and star casting is what has made director Sam Gold’s eccentric take on Shakespeare’s tale of a paranoid, aging royal and sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth daughters the curiosity of this Broadway season.
Eighty-two year-old Glenda Jackson takes on the role of Lear — again — having first played the mad monarch in London in 2016, marking her return to the stage following a distinguished career in British politics.
Seeing Jackson flex her steely dramatic muscles over the course of a three-and-a-half hour, frequently head-scratching, staunchly contemporary production is the reason to see this Lear, as long as you can appreciate a performance largely in isolation. There is, of course, so much more to the complex tragedy than the title role, but much of it gets lost in bizarre directorial touches.
The fact that this production is closing this Sunday, about a month before the end of its scheduled limited run, is either a comment on the size of the Broadway audience with the stamina and/or interest in the experience, or a reflection of the likely negative word-of-mouth for Gold and company’s loopy excesses.
The most trivial and blatant of these is scenic designer Miriam Buether’s gold-leafed box set, so unmistakably echoing Trump Tower. The visual has a way of diminishing the play into the tale of a petty, easily slighted ruler who demands empty flattery.
Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell grows in the role of Earl of Gloucester, even as she is blinded in a particularly graphic representation of the deed. Ruth Wilson, who received the production’s only Tony nomination, is compelling in a dual assignment as Lear’s most loyal, but stubborn daughter Cordelia and as the baggy-pantsed Fool.
In the corner of the stage is a string quartet playing an original score by Philip Glass. It is a touch of class, until the second act rainstorm, where they are blown hither and yon by the ill winds. The audience too is likely to feel battered by the production, but Jackson’s performance makes it worthwhile. Just barely.
KING LEAR, Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St., Through Sunday, June 9. $35-$159, 212-239-6200.