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Starry nights
Literacy lives on Broadway

Take Me Out
By Richard Greenberg. Directed by Joe Mantello. Set by Scott Pask. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Kevin Adams. Sound by Janet Kalas. With Daniel Sunjata, Denis O’Hare, Neal Huff, Frederick Weller, Kevin Carroll, David Eigenberg, Gene Gabriel, Robert M. Jiménez, Joe Lisi, Kohl Sudduth, and James Yaegashi. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street.
Life (x) 3
By Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Design by Mark Thompson. Lighting by Hugh Vanstone. Music by Gary Yershon. Sound by Christopher Cronin. With Helen Hunt, John Turturro, Linda Emond, and Brent Spiner. At Circle in the Square, 1633 West 50th Street.
Vincent in Brixton
By Nicholas Wright. Directed by Richard Eyre. Set and costumes by Tim Hatley. Lighting by Peter Mumford. Music by Dominic Muldowney. Sound by Neil Alexander. Projections by Wendall K. Harrington. With Clare Higgins, Jochum ten Haaf, Sarah Drew, Pete Starrett, and Liesel Matthews. At the Golden Thea

NEW YORK — Stars figure prominently in some literate plays currently wedged on Broadway between the bonhomie and banana peels of Mamma Mia! and The Producers. The best of them, Richard Greenberg’s Pulitzer finalist Take Me Out, is a meditation on, among other things, the false feeling of invincibility that can come with stardom, in this case in the all-American world of baseball. Life (x) 3, the latest from Yasmina Reza, the French author of Art and The Unexpected Man, is a clever if trivial comedy with a Run Lola Run gimmick that’s set in the social milieu of astrophysicists. (It also boasts Hollywood stars in Oscar winner Helen Hunt and Quiz Show’s John Turturro.) British playwright Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton imagines what might have happened to a wet-behind-the-ears Van Gogh while living in South London to inspire the blackness and brightness of his 1889 masterpiece Starry Night. And though these three works currently twinkle amid the neon galaxy of Times Square, all of them, even the one written by an American about the secular religion of his native land, originated across the pond.

Until now, Greenberg was best known for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist Three Days of Rain, a cleverly crafted demonstration of the impenetrability of the past, even when you think you have the map. Take Me Out, which debuted last June at London’s Donmar Warehouse with the same superb American cast that performs it here, is an old-fashioned morality play as well as a contemplation of maleness, friendship, hubris, prejudice, and baseball as "the perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society." Narrated by that arguable oxymoron, an articulate athlete, it offers a chain of catalytic events that, though hardly predictable, come to seem as inevitable as Greek tragedy. The play also happens to be rivetingly, pithily entertaining: a jock drama as concocted by Oscar Wilde.

Take Me Out (the name of which has several implications) is narrated by ironist and shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom, who plays for a Yankees-like world-champion team called the Empires. According to him, it all started when privileged and godlike African-American hitter Darren Lemming, the intellectual Kippy’s best friend on a team that is otherwise not made up of brain surgeons, announced at a press conference that he was gay. "If he hadn’t done the thing, the next thing wouldn’t have happened, or all the stuff after," opines Kippy.

That rarity even in the rarefied world of professional sport, "a black man who had never suffered," Darren came out because he could — or so, being a man possessed of an easygoing conviction of his own infallibility, he thought. But the bombshell causes strain among the teammates, who like locker-room Adams and Eves are suddenly conscious of their nakedness (and yes, there’s a strip of working showers, and eight of 11 of the all-male cast do time under the jets). They get tight and start to lose, whereupon an intensely ignorant redneck relief pitcher is brought up from the minors. His Neanderthal bon mot that, whereas he doesn’t mind the "gooks, spics, and coons" on the team, it’s tough showering nightly with a "faggot" both earns him a suspension and ratchets tension up to the next level, with tragic results.

But don’t tell any of that to the increasingly isolated Darren’s goofy new business manager, the more stereotypically gay Mason Marzac. Having previously not known a bat from a belfry, Mason (the playwright’s comic mouthpiece) embraces the holy grail of baseball with all the giddy zealotry of a true convert, offering philosophic explanations along the way of why the sport is as American as beefcake and as transporting as religion. Indeed, it is through the irresistible Mason, who’s deliciously portrayed by Denis O’Hare as a sort of David Sedaris on athletic Ecstasy, that we come to understand that the play is not so much about the national pastime as it is about the exuberant, roiling pot that is the nation.

Joe Mantello has been at the helm of Take Me Out since its out-of-the-country tryout at the Donmar, from which it moved first Off Broadway and then to Broadway. And he orchestrates the play skillfully, so that its suggestions of the game itself — at one point whirling like a galaxy around the hapless, smitten Mason — crackle while the locker-room scenes have both ease and edge. Greenberg sometimes contradicts the malapropping knuckleheadedness he’s built into his characters by exercising his own wit. But the actors, even in the smaller parts, are terrific: swaggering yet earnest. Neal Huff is a droll Kippy, with an underlay of sadness. The handsome Daniel Sunjata, as sports icon Darren, integrates the character’s confident honesty with such discomforting qualities as preferring envy to compassion. And as Shane Mungitt, the clueless, bigoted pitcher with the mangy haircut and the killer throw, Frederick Weller exudes a smoldering perversity that borders on innocence.

As is said of baseball in Take Me Out, Life (x) 3 is "a game of 3’s." Not outs, in the case of Reza’s 2000 comedy, but outings for one potentially disastrous social scenario, which is played in triplicate over 90 minutes. Parisians Sonia (Hunt) and Henry (Turturro) are lolling among contemporary furnishings and kiddie detritus on Mark Thompson’s revolving set at Circle in the Square and negotiating with their off-stage six-year-old about bedtime when they’re surprised by a couple they thought they’d invited to dinner the following evening.

Quicker than you can say The Norman Conquests (or some similarly geometrical Alan Ayckbourn construct), the supercilious Hubert (Star Trek vet Brent Spiner) and his patronized wife Inez (Linda Emond) are on the scene, she flummoxed by a run in her stocking, he exuding eau de smugness. Hubert, a power in the scientific community in which Henry gasps for breath, knows that Henry is preparing to publish a treatise on the shape of galaxy halos, and he casually announces that a similar paper has already been submitted. The doomed evening then unfolds in three diminishingly frantic but increasingly darker permutations, its scent moving from farce to melancholy. Given the relative elegance of Reza’s writing and/or Christopher Hampton’s English translation, three is also about the number of minutes required to puzzle before concluding that the French playwright does little more here than put an intellectual gloss on a sit-com.

Possibly Life (x) 3 is intended as a deceptively domestic riff on order and chaos. Amid talk of science and religion and the twinkly void that is the universe, and among comic scenarios reeling out of control as the wheels and the characters are increasingly greased, there are desperate attempts to hold onto routine. If, Inez asserts, a child is allowed an apple in bed after brushing his teeth, "the whole system collapses." What disasters, then, might be assumed to ensue when career suns are eclipsed, marital borders crossed, a "wind of madness" whirls about a bourgeois living room, and self-destructing people start admitting what they think of one another? In this case, pretty thin ones.

Brevity, of course, is not the reason for the insubstantiality of Life (x) 3. Reza ably captures the competitive nature of male friendship in the equally succinct Molière-, Olivier-, and Tony-winning Art. And the spare, exquisite The Unexpected Man taps into the seldom-acknowledged intimacy that exists between author and reader. But Life (x) 3, despite its alcohol-bathed surface similarity to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is sophisticated slapstick: Colette taking a turn with Jerry Lewis. For all the betrayal and humiliation and Sancerre-fueled nastiness sloshing between and among the play’s two couples (and there is even a suggestion of physical violence), Life (x) 3 seems closer in weight to the Cheesits and chocolate fingers that are all there is in the larder than to Albee. Director Matthew Warchus, who has helmed all of Reza’s plays in their English incarnations, hails her talent for "splitting the atom" of desperate behavior, but there’s little fission here, just style.

There is, of course, that. The evening is not only fleeting but also well turned out, with Thompson’s set rotating regularly to flashing lights and tense, bright blasts of amplified guitar (turned reflective toward the end). And the performances are adequate if not better. Turturro, though he occasionally masks his character’s desperation behind a great glassy-eyed grin, is too consistently overwrought as Henry. Hunt’s Sonia, though reminiscent of her Mad About You persona, is more sophisticated, not to mention determinedly provocative (even in her bathrobe). Emond, best known for the dowdy if transcendent title character of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, brings a hundred touchingly comic shadings to meddlesome, bereft Inez. And Spiner, amusingly popping Cheesits as if they’d been contrived from the finest French fromage, is a lovely stew of ardent virility and risible pomp.

A very different darkling domesticity is probed in Vincent in Brixton, a fascinating if workmanlike elaboration on the known "bits and pieces of evidence" of the young Vincent van Gogh’s sojourn boarding in the South London suburb of the title in the 1870s. Most notable among the "evidence" that inspired British playwright Nicholas Wright is an 1874 letter to younger brother Theo that waxes enthusiastic about an unnamed tome by the French historian Jules Michelet. "To me," writes the young Vincent, "that book has been both a revelation and a Gospel at the same time: ‘No woman is old.’ (That does not mean that there are no old women, but that a woman is not old as long as she loves and is loved.)"

Hence Wright, best-known for the 1988 Mrs. Klein, imagines a brief, formative love affair between the 20-year-old Vincent and his widowed Brixton landlady, Ursula Loyer, in which the two are fraught depressives serving each other as mirrors. For her part, Mrs. Loyer, as she explains in act two, is also fulfilling an ordinary person’s yearning to influence "something remarkable." It is fine for the sad-eyed, zaftig character to get her wish, of course. But the play’s final image — of a straggly Vincent sketching his wet shoes (the brown ones, not the black ones) as Mrs. Loyer holds the lamp — may be laying it on thicker than a later, crazier Van Gogh did his paints.

This production, which is directed by the prodigiously awarded Richard Eyre, opened at Britain’s Royal National Theatre in 2002, transferred to the West End, where it was nominated for an Olivier Award, and is being presented on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater. It is less notable for the play itself, though Wright deftly meshes the symptoms of greatness and allusions to actual art works into his May-December Masterpiece Theatre, than for the compelling performances. The handsome Clare Higgins won an Olivier Award for her nuanced turn as the depressed yet knowing, painfully sexually reawakened Mrs. Loyer. A red- and spiky-haired young Dutch actor named Jochum ten Haaf captures both the brash, stiff-shouldered awkwardness that makes his character comical and the underlying instability and intensity that mark a genius on the cooker.

And the cooker is never absent in Vincent in Brixton. The play is set in the roomy old kitchen of the Loyer home, where Mrs. Loyer and her daughter, Eugenie (not to mention Vincent himself in an unschooled attempt to peel potatoes), are often found bustling about producing tea, cake, and, in the opening scene, a complete Sunday dinner. It is Eugenie who first attracts the apprentice art dealer to the boardinghouse; having attended church close by, the formally clad, vociferously religious young man sees the pretty young woman, abruptly falls in love, and seeks a room in order to be near her. He also blurts this out to her mother on their first meeting. Why, then, does Mrs. Loyer allow the gawky, "plain, outspoken Dutchman" to take up residence? She later admits that she had "never seen anyone quite so raw and suffering, but ruthless. I couldn’t resist it."

Eyre’s production revolves around a long, heavy table that both dwarfs and plays up the distance between the characters, all of whom battle attractions in this English-Victorian house dripping middle-class disappointment and sexual secrets. And there are fine supporting performances by Sarah Drew, a Winona Ryder–esque beauty who’s quickly pinched by Eugenie’s voyage into wife and motherhood; Pete Starrett, as the lodger who gives up art for domesticity; and Liesel Matthews as barreling sister Anna van Gogh, who yanks Vincent from the Loyers. But the play is most worthwhile as a thespian pas de deux between Higgins and Haaf. She is wonderful, blowing air from her cheeks and rolling her eyes, then self-consciously blossoming in response to Vincent’s sudden storm of adoration. And he is both little boy lost and bull in a china shop, destined to grow up and flame out, but not before creating art of infinitely greater value than the china, both actual and emotional, that he breaks here.


Issue Date: April 10 - 17, 2003
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