It doesn’t seem long ago that announcements around Manhattan were urging playgoers to see a Broadway show “for the fun of it”. Such exhortations have disappeared with the changing times, amid a New York theatre scene that, if my holiday-season trawl through a dozen or more productions is any gauge, isn’t these days exactly high on fun.
That’s not to suggest in any way a lack of theatrical bounty, not least at a time when two new American plays – Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Linda Gross theatre), and The Sound Inside (Studio 54) – were as remarkable as anything I’ve seen over the past year or more. Both merit a London outing that seems more than likely given the increasing preponderance in the capital of American titles from every corner of the repertoire. Halfway Bitches…, now closed, but set among the death throes of a New York City women’s shelter, featured a cast of 18 (plus a goat), and would seem a natural for, say, the Young Vic, while Adam Rapp’s bleak yet beautiful two-hander The Sound Inside signals the overdue Broadway debut from the author of Red Light Winter, a Pulitzer finalist in 2006, and could surely be done almost anywhere, even if its Broadway cast of Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman has set the bar tremendously high. A never-better Parker plays an ailing Yale creative writing professor at home with her own solitude, with Hochman as the precocious and nervy student who all but upends her life.
Scott Ellis’s bustling Tootsie has closed early – too breezy for our issues-led climate?
But the prevailing themes of the plays I saw spoke of a fractious landscape inhabited by a citizenry at racial, sexual and social odds with one another – a divide that can only be improved if people take the time to lend an ear.
“I got it wrong, I’m going to start listening,” says MJ (excellent Elizabeth Stanley), the heavily medicated mother at the bruised heart of Jagged Little Pill (Broadhurst theatre), the aggressively morose new musical scored to the back catalogue of Alanis Morissette and her 1995 album of the same name. The contribution of the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells, is crucial: his moves lend the show a contemporary dance vibe that is more authentically woke than Diablo Cody’s relentlessly earnest book.
Trafficking in one psychic calamity or meltdown after another, Diane Paulus’s powerfully sung production is set across two Christmases, seasonal cheer set in starkly ironic contrast to this tale of a marriage in crisis, and of two children, one white, the other black (she’s adopted). References along the way include teenage rape, opioid addiction, climate emergency and school violence. In context, I would imagine the interval bar is doing brisk business: do they sell tranquillisers?
Even Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations (Imperial theatre) immerses the rousing music one expects from the title into an attenuated tale of woe as we hear of one or another band member succumbing to all manner of misfortune: in context, Tony winner Sergio Trujillo’s roof-raising choreography gives respite to a wearying spirit.
Prospects aren’t much brighter just one street away at the far more audacious Slave Play (Golden theatre, until 19 Jan). Performed without an interval, this unabashedly confrontational work set (or perhaps not) in the antebellum south, marks the Broadway debut of Jeremy O Harris, the African American dramatist whose play “Daddy” will open at London’s Almeida theatre in April. Suffice to say that Harris and his director, Robert O’Hara, have already pushed the Broadway envelope pretty far even before a black dildo gets waved about on stage.
Harris’s conceit starts out as one kind of play, only for something altogether different and more feral to be unveiled midway through. Clint Ramos’s sets are deceptively beautiful, and the impassioned cast includes James Cusati-Moyer as a deliciously preening actor and Joaquina Kalukango as a putative mistress who won’t allow herself in any way to be subjugated. And if it does happen, well, there will be blood.
Scarcely more cheerful, if a lot more pedestrian in dramatic terms, is the Lincoln Center theatre premiere of Greater Clements (Mitzi E Newhouse theatre, until 19 Jan). This is a surprisingly clunky new three-act play from Samuel D Hunter (whose terrific The Whale was seen in 2018 at the Ustinov Studio in Bath), chronicling a mother-son showdown in an Idaho town that knows a thing or two about tragedy: 81 people died in a mining fire there some years before.
It doesn’t take a seer to guess that death will rear its head unbidden once again in a production from Davis McCallum notable both for an unwieldy set besieged by laboured mechanics, and for yet another stonking performance from the redoubtable Judith Ivey, who is just one of the many actors – The Sound Inside’s Mary-Louise Parker is another – whose regular returns to the New York stage give cause to cheer.
Parental dynamics come shaded with more sentimental hues in Harry Townsend’s Last Stand (City Center Stage II, until 15 March), an old-fashioned weepie from the writer George Eastman in which Craig Bierko must deal with putting his ageing father (Len Cariou, Broadway’s original Sweeney Todd) in a care home. Cariou, now 80, is the big event here as a randy old man who takes more pills, even, than the mum in Jagged Little Pill but has no intention of calling life quits anytime soon.
Not every New York show is by necessity domestic. Arguably the most unnerving play on offer just now is the Vineyard theatre’s Is This a Room (until 19 Jan), Tina Satter’s verbatim recreation of the arrest in June 2017 of the astonishingly named Reality Winner. Visited at her Georgia home by the FBI, the onetime US air force linguist and whistleblower was found guilty of espionage in the sort of David v Goliath drama that illustrates all too clearly the gap between most ordinary people and the governing bodies whose malefactors continue to walk free.
Politics, present and past (Hitler gets a name-check), keeps invading the skilfully conjured spookhouse of The Thin Place (Playwrights Horizons, until 26 January), Lucas Hnath’s slyly unsettling one-act play that nods towards both The Weir and Aunt Dan and Lemon, all the while allowing Emily Cass McDonnell transfixing pride of place as a woman possessed of powers she can’t entirely comprehend.
I did laugh, you may be relieved to hear, at a below-the-radar off-Broadway staging, now concluded, of Absurd Person Singular (Theatre One), Alan Ayckbourn’s classic 1972 comedy, handled with affection and respect by the Huddersfield-based company Dick & Lottie (named after two unseen characters from this very play), which will bring the show to Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley theatre for three performances later this month. Its director, John Cotgrave, honours Ayckbourn’s authorial dazzle while illuminating the bleaker aspects of a script steeped in fairly serious domestic disarray. The mere presence of this play was a welcome surprise in a theatre capital whose British fare these days tends towards behemoths such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or, opening on Broadway in March, the only marginally less epic The Lehman Trilogy.
And joy, albeit of contrasting kinds, was on exuberant view in three musicals – one finished, two still going strong. Tootsie closed earlier than expected at the Marquis theatre, which is doubly bizarre given the Tony awards won (deservedly) by its tireless star, Santino Fontana, and by Robert Horn’s genuinely funny book – a treasurable throwback to a Broadway era when musicals meant musical comedy, a now all-but-vanished genre.
Could Scott Ellis’s bustling production simply have been too breezy for an issues-led musicals climate populated by the likes of Hamilton, Hadestown and, yes, Jagged Little Pill? It would seem so: The Cher Show and The Prom are two other none-too-demanding Broadway entries that bit the dust prematurely last year. And on the evidence of the crowd response one recent evening, there’s life aplenty in the director Michael Mayer’s hugely endearing revival of Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theatre Upstairs, until 15 March), which returns the 1982 musical to its off-Broadway roots, free from the overkill that knowingly afflicts its gloriously devouring plant, otherwise known as Audrey II.
The David Byrne concert turned theatre piece that is American Utopia (Hudson theatre, until 16 February) may be counterintuitively titled in the context of so much dystopian theatre elsewhere. But for all its embrace of present-day realpolitik – audiences are urged to register to vote, and Byrne’s set includes the Janelle Monáe protest song Hell You Talmbout – the show comes naturally by the high spirits it locates in these disheartening times. “We dance like this because it feels so damn good,” we’re told from the stage, and it isn’t long before a grateful audience is joining in.
Coming soon: Broadway’s 2020 big-hitters
West Side Story
Broadway theatre, previewing now
What happens when two exemplars of the European avant garde tackle this most American of musicals? We shall find out when a new version of the iconic 1957 title opens on 20 February, directed by the ubiquitous Ivo van Hove and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Cort theatre, from 25 Feb
Tracy Letts’s Linda Vista was a highlight of the autumn season just gone, and here he is opening a second new play within a Broadway minute. The accomplished actor and author has given himself a role in this one, alongside none other than Call Me By Your Name’s Armie Hammer.
Golden theatre, from 28 Feb
It’s taken more than four years for Martin McDonagh’s Olivier award-winner to get from the Royal Court, where it premiered, to Broadway, where Americans may find the northern English accents something of a challenge. The excellence of the play speaks for itself.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Booth theatre, from 3 March
Edward Albee’s 1962 classic is rarely long-absent from Broadway, and Tracy Letts won a 2013 Tony award for playing the stealthily combative male lead, George, last time round. That same role is soon to be taken by a more surprising choice in Rupert Everett, who appears opposite Broadway regular Laurie Metcalf as Martha.
Stephen Sondheim theatre, from 9 March
The premature closing of Tootsie has left theatre folk wondering whether cross-dressing stories work commercially in today’s hyper-aware, gender-complex climate. This musical adaptation of the 1993 Robin Williams film represents test case No 2.