You’d think things would calm down on New York stages after the Tony Awards. You would be wrong. Let’s get down to business:
If you’re in the city this weekend and have only one show to see, it must be A New Brain, the season’s first entry in City Center’s summer Encores! Off-Center series. If William Finn’s landmark musical Falsettos begins with the song “Four Jews In A Room Bitching,” A New Brain, his roman a clef about surviving brain surgery, starts with what might be called “One Jew In A Room Whining.” The whiner is Gordon Michael Schwinn (the terrific Jonathan Groff, in a warm up for his role as King George III in the upcoming Broadway transfer of Hamilton). Condemned to writing inane tunes for a less-than-Sesame Street kiddie show, he’s got writer-composer’s block. Except that what he really has is a tumor lunching on his brain.
What Finn has, on the other hand — in this moving re-think of the 1998 original this time staged with, pardon the pun, surgical deftness by his book-writer James Lapine — is a significant improvement on the original. Pared down and relieved of some, but not all, of its sentimental overkill, this remains an ingratiating paean to survival, both literal and artistic. Superbly cast and offering standout performances by Anna Gasteyer as Gordon’s mother and Josh Lamon as a plus-size nurse, the production sails on energy. The songs have verve and charm, if not the irreverent wit that defines most of Finn’s work. Cut him some slack. You only have until Sunday to catch it.
Sentiment is in the air, I suppose. At the Roundabout’s off-Broadway Laura Pels, Significant Other is Joshua Harmon’s followup to Bad Jews, a nasty black comedy, which the new play decidedly is not. Call it “Three Weddings And ….” The ellipsis being Jordan, a young gay man (Gideon Glick, another standout performance of the season) whose three women friends sequentially find love and marriage, leaving him alone, angry and and uncertain of his prospects. Especially after Laura, the most intimate and unconventional of those friends (wonderfully played by Lindsay Mendez) gives in to the same sadly conventional urges of the other two.
Jordan’s Act II diatribe in response to Laura’s betrayal is scorching and well-worth the slog through some of the play’s sappier moments. And you’ll certainly savor, as I did, the wonderful Barbara Barrie as Jordan’s grandmother, who delivers wisdom only as she digs down and finds it within herself, making her real, and true.
Another hotter-than-hot playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon) has taken on the business of selling magazines, in Gloria. That’s wildly reductive, I know. The play, at the invaluable Vineyard Theatre, is set in the Manhattan offices of a magazine that has mostly been taken over by vapid, clueless, on-the-make youngsters. They know the business has all but waved a white flag before the Internet and that the idea of serious journalism is so 70s. An unexpectedly violent act sets off a series of events that reveal a crasser side of the business of selling magazines, as well as the seemingly bottomless depths people will go to for a paycheck at least and validation at best.
Having been on both sides of the “tragedy sells” equation as an assigning editor and long-form writer, I concede that much of Gloria cut close to the bone. But Jacobs-Jenkins begs the question of who owns a narrative by raising the issue without addressing it in any meaningful way, as if we do not have an instinctive craving for stories that examine and reveal the human condition. Like his characters, the playwright seems more bent on provocation than the harder work of revelation. And so Gloria is about as satisfying as any day’s edition of the New York Post: Hard to resist, even though you know you’ll feel a little creepy after you’ve finally tossed it in the trash.
Chris Noth, well-transitioned from Sex And The City to The Good Wife, regularly returns to the stage. Now he’s at the intimate CSC, starring with Good Wife castmate Zach Grenier in Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, directed by André Belgrader. The staging is in the nearly extinct style of ’70s avant-garde European theater, which is to say it mixes in elements of commedia dell’arte and absurdism and never takes the text too seriously.
The result is a mish-mosh that might have worked if Noth had the weight required for the title character, who dabbles in various professions in search of supreme dominance before cutting a deal with Satan through his emissary Mephistopheles (Grenier) to pawn his soul for a few years of omnipotent debauchery. Lacking that weight, the play never coheres, though Grenier — reliably in command of the stage — brings a seen-it-all alacrity to the gamesmanship with his charge that’s blessedly amusing.