Wednesday, September 11, 2019

THEATER: "Betrayal" And The (Permanent?) Success of Plays On Broadway

BETRAYAL *** 1/2 out of ****

Two things I believe. One, plays are arriving on Broadway like nothing we've seen in generations. They come in all shapes and sizes: open-ended runs, limited engagement starry productions, revivals, new works, you name it. And this isn't a one-off, fluke of a thing. It's been building for years and hopefully remains true for years to come. Two, you can thank the star-studded limited engagement for helping to make this happen.

You can track the rise of plays (both revivals and originals) over the past decade, ranging from "sure-fire" classics to new works like Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2. The Tony winner for Best Play during the past decade is especially revealing. Ten shows, ten hits both with critics and audiences. Red, War Horse, Clybourne Park, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, All The Way, The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, The Humans, Oslo, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Ferryman. With the caveat that Red may not have been a commercial hit, the rest are unquestionably good to great shows reaching a wide audience all over the world.

Look at this fall alone. Two revivals are on tap: Marisa Tomei in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo. And Campbell Scott stars in a new mounting of the holiday perennial A Christmas Carol, which worked like gangbusters in London. I'm especially interested in the latter, despite the threat of audience participation via the singing of carols. And I've just seen the sterling revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

Broadway is a huge gamble financially but new plays outnumber revivals by a mile. Jake Gyllenhall made Sea Wall/ A Life possible. Playwright Florian Zeller is practically a "name above the title" selling point in his own right. But his latest drama The Height Of The Storm packs the star power of  Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce. Part two of the LBJ bio-play, The Great Society stars Brian Cox instead of the presumably exhausted Bryan Cranston (who just finished in Network). Beyond Cox (enjoying his own TV moment thanks to Succession on HBO), The Great Society has a cast big enough for an opera at the Met. Am I ready? I just finished all four volumes of Robert A. Caro's biography of the troubled President, so yes, I am. Slave Play marks the Broadway debut of Jeremy O. Harris, one of the most hyped new talents around. The Sound Inside marks the overdue Broadway debut of Adam Rapp, one of Off Broadway's most dependable talents for years. (It stars Mary-Louise Parker, which is reason enough to show up.) And then there's The Inheritance, an epic drama that received raves in London and is getting the biggest build-up for an original play in many, many years. And that's just the fall!

Look at Broadway's weekly grosses. You'll find To Kill A Mockingbird and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child right up there with the mega-musicals, pulling in huge crowds and settling in for runs that hope to challenge Life With Father and Tobacco Road for longevity.

None of this is a weird accident, the way some seasons have a lot of new musicals and others have mostly musical revivals. Nope, it's been building for a while and you can thank those limited-engagement productions bursting with stars. They're not bullet-proof. This season began with the quick collapse of Frankie and Johnny In The Clair de Lune, despite the presence of Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. Some sneer at them, as if producers are cheating by trying to ensure they don't lose money. Whether it's a revival or a new play, big stars and a short run allow these shows to be seen. If they limit the potential losses a little, they also (usually) limit the upside since hey, that star has a movie or tv show to film in five months so that limited engagement really is limited. They keep classics alive (we see Shakespeare plays constantly so why not Albee and Wilson and so many others as well?), they give new playwrights an unbeatable platform and they keep the Broadway heart beating.

(Here's a Playbill interview with the three stars of Betrayal.)

Case in point? Betrayal. What more is there to say about a production that played in London to rapturous reviews, moved to Broadway with its cast intact and then raked in more hosannas? Heck, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said it's "one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever." All I can say is: they're right.

Tom Hiddleston has a Marvel-ous fan base but he's not box office gold at the theater, yet. So the good news -- unlike many shows that are this entertaining and this well-reviewed -- is you can still snag good seats before it ends. And you should. Pinter's play tackles the oft-told story of infidelity, in this case the wife sleeping with her husband's best friend. Betrayals are a constant here, from a husband insisting he's been cheating on his wife for the seven years of their marriage to a parent betraying a child (by not ensuring a stable home life) to a man feeling betrayed that sleeping with his best friend's wife hasn't pissed his pal off more. Why aren't you angrier, he seems to say? And you didn't tell me you knew? How dare you! It's funny, probing, absorbing and all told in reverse.

Well, it's Pinter, isn't it? While audiences in 1978 were hardly rubes, I do believe thanks to Memento and a thousand tv shows and novels and movies with splintered narratives like it that we're simply far more comfortable with this gambit of reverse chronology. But why is it told at the end and working its way back to the beginning? For me, it's enough to know this keeps us enjoyably off balance. We're constantly re-calibrating who knows what, where the story is headed and where it's been. Every question, every sentence is fraught with meaning. When you're cheating on your husband or best friend, you can't help poring over every comment for its hidden meaning. Does he know? Does he suspect? This makes the drama so much more fun. It's not "challenging;" it's more like a puzzle you enjoy taking apart and putting back together again scene after scene.

And the impeccable cast makes the very human stakes crystal clear throughout. Hiddleston is a formidable presence, Zawe Ashton is enticingly hard to read and Charlie Cox of Daredevil and Boardwalk Empire was for me a revelation of sexy guilt and confusion. (Must be his Catholic upbringing.) Every element of director Jamie Lloyd's production is steel-sharp, from the elegantly simple staging (via Soutra Gimour) to the cover of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" that proves an ideal palate cleanser.

Perhaps, I thought, the turntable at the center which revolved characters around each other was a little too spot-on. But it was used modestly and I forgot about it...and then it was used so effectively at one key moment towards the end, I realized they needed that earlier movement to set up this terrific pay-off. Indeed, every element is so well-judged in this spare staging I became mildly obsessed wondering why Emma doesn't wear any shoes. What does this mean?  It's a show worth obsessing over. And thank goodness star-packed limited engagements allow us to do so. Don't miss it.


Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
Socrates **
The Pain Of My Belligerence *
Burn This **
Hadestown *** 1/2
All My Sons * 1/2
Tootsie ** 1/2
Ink ***
Beetlejuice **
Estado Vegetal ***
Hans Christian Andersen * 1/2
Cirque du Soleil: Luzia ***
BLKS ** 1/2
Moulin Rouge ** 1/2
Bat Out Of Hell **
Unchilding **
Sea Wall/ A Life ** 1/2
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ***
Betrayal *** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

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