I went to New York City at the beginning of February for a weekend and got to see 4 different shows. All four are briefly written about here, in ascending order of quality:
Dear Evan Hansen is the new Broadway musical that has the whole town buzzing, appearing as the frontrunner for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2017 with not a ton of strong musical competition appearing this season to snatch its prospects of glory away. I hate to go against the grain on this kind of show, which, much like Waitress and Next to Normal, seem to have tapped into a far younger audience than Broadway is used to, but Dear Evan Hansen is maudlin and sentimental, and no amount of good intentions can take away from the fact that this is one of the most ideologically backwards shows I’ve ever seen, specifically in that it seems to equate mental illness and genuine social anxiety with being a loner with no friends. I never thought that in 2017 I would see a stage show in which a character’s medically diagnosed anxiety disorder is magically cured when people stop ignoring him. Combine that with the fact that the show tacitly endorses the morally reprehensible actions of the main character (who, after a character who he barely knew kills himself, starts writing letters as if they were to himself from the deceased in order for others to sympathize and connect with him) and that all of the writers of the show seem totally fine with a character who committed suicide being completely and totally dismissed because he wasn’t particularly nice in life, and you’ve got a show that makes my flesh crawl with how ultimately harmfully it treats mental illness. However, at the center of this disaster is Ben Platt, who gives one of the most astonishingly good performances I’ve ever seen at the center of a musical. His performance is so extraordinary that the show not only becomes bearable, but actually required viewing for anyone visiting New York City until he leaves the role. Steven Levenson’s book is slick and jokey enough and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s lightweight pop score is bland and catchy to the point that you won’t mind having your head filled with ideological garbage while doing your duty and witnessing the miracle of the central performance. If only someone had written a show worthy of his talents. Ultimately, it proves that Next to Normal really was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke in terms of genuinely socially conscious musical theatre with an intensely strong emotional undercurrent.
I saw Yen for only one reason: Lucas Hedges. Yes, the young actor who started out in Wes Anderson projects (Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel) recently gave one of my favorite film performances ever in Kenneth Lonergan’s emotional masterpiece Manchester by the Sea, giving a performance within a performance within a performance that reflected and refracted so many elements of the character of Patrick that I honestly couldn’t believe that a child actor could be that sophisticated, especially given that Lonergan himself is perhaps the single best director of actors alive today, getting absolutely perfect performances out of every actor he works wth. Hedges performance worked so well because it was the kind of performance that relied on a surface level artificiality that masked a serious inner-turmoil, but a brilliant director like Lonergan could get that kind of a performance out of a not particularly good actor if he really knew what he was doing, and I was curious to see which category Hedges fell into. Much to my delight, Yen proves that Hedges is in fact an actor of the highest order, albeit a very young one who is still developing his skill set. His performance in this unnecessarily violent play about disaffected lower-class British youth is not good enough to make Yen a must-see, but he fits in perfectly with his more stage-experienced cast. Anna Jordan’s work plays like a British Adam Rapp play, although it doesn’t engage in that author’s disgusting glee at the misery of his characters, but tries too hard to be edgy and comes off as rather glib. It’s also quite a bit too long at two hours and forty minutes, but there is at least something interesting to be witnessed in the central mother-son relationship, and is worth seeing if you have an opportunity to get cheap tickets.
I’ve seen a few celebrities onstage before, from Michelle Williams to Idina Menzel, and, while some give great performances and some give mediocre ones (I never saw Bruce Willis in Misery so I can’t say I’ve ever seen an A-list embarrassment), but by-and-large I tend to feel that they don’t seem so glamorous or far away once you see them in the flesh. That is absolutely not true for Cate Blanchett. The famously regal actress is onstage from the moment the curtain comes up in The Present, and I soon as I saw her, I couldn’t help but spontaneously applaud. She carries so much force with her onstage, both in presence and in the focus and quality of her acting that I doubt that my reaction even had that much to do with my admiration for her performances in such films as Carol or Blue Jasmine. She is lit from within, and carries an extraordinary life force about her with ever step that she takes onstage. Of course, she’s not the only reason to see The Present, which is adapted from Chekhov’s first untitled play, and is somehow both totally un-Chekhovian and yet could not have been written by another other person. The first scene presents a web of relations so confusing as to make the War of the Roses look simple, but the entire thing goes up in flames (literally) in the second scene, and from them on, you the audience member just have to take the ride into crazy town with the whole case. Reject it, and I imagine you will find yourself irritated by The Present‘s haphazardness. Embrace it, and you’ll have the time of your life. I for one, laughed myself almost silly and got to see Cate Blanchett throw the dinner party of the century. What more could you possibly want from a night of theatre?
Even better than that was The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which originated at the Druid Theatre in Ireland before going to BAM in Brooklyn, where it is now closed, but will be presented in Boston, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, and Hong Kong on an international tour (dates available here). The script is by Irish author Martin McDonagh, who wrote the screenplay for the wonderful In Bruges (as well as the highly amusing but indulgent Seven Psychopaths and about a half dozen other fantastic stage plays) and who has a sense of humor as dark as coal, and who uses it to create a damn fine portrait of toxic co-dependency as he does in Leenane. The play is often downright hysterical, but also a master class in how to write a stage potboiler that is both effective in horrifying your audience and in creating a relationship of infinite complexity, not to mention a brilliant example of dramatic structuring. The action in Leenane is of a kind that would make a wonderful film, but don’t waste your chance to see this material surrounded by others who will laugh as hard and gasp as hard as yourself. The cast is Irish to the bone and if they’re perhaps over-acting slightly, they counter that with such a deep knowledge of the culture from which the play comes that you could never imagine an American cast replicating their work.
And that’s what’s playing in New York. If you’re headed up there soon, I’ve also heard excellent things about Significant Other, The Liar, and the new off-Broadway Sweeney Todd. Happy travels, everyone.