There is nothing inherently wrong with movie and TV stars being big draws on Broadway, necessitating current top ticket prices of 140 bucks or so, along with seats in the mezzanine that are so narrow they make you feel morbidly obese.
This is nothing necessarily improper with any of this, because, in the case of, say Yazmina Reza's Tony Award winning drama God of Carnage, a powerful Albee-esque drama starring the brilliant Tony-winning Marcia Gay Harden, along with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels, the $81.50 you spend for a Tuesday night in the nosebleed seats becomes a transcendent theatrical experience at the Bernard Jacobs, with director Matthew Warchus expertly guiding two sets of parents into upper class warfare after one of their children has knocked out the teeth of the other.
But as satisfying as God of Carnage is, there are other, considerably lesser known theatrical ventures in Manhattan that deserve kudos as well. Take for instance the new theatre company Human Animals, alumni of NYU who've just created the fantastically inventive middlemen by David Jenkins, a darkly humorous allegory that might have been written by Samuel Beckett if he worked for Enron. Staged at Soho Rep's intimate Walkerspace, with four desks and two long rows of seats for audience members facing each other and the players, middlemen steeps us in the surreal landscape of corporate drone Michael (Michael Patrick Crane) who tells the only other person in the building, middle manager Stan (Christopher Burns), "I may have bankrupted Bolivia."
Despite the emptiness of their environs, both men learn they are being surveilled and Stan's desperate attempt to recalibrate a new ethical path for their company turns into a late-night, free associative, hilarious exploration of topics. Stan, while dealing with a wife he avoids and a child who smears feces on the wall, encourages the utterly lost Michael to dare to live: "Date a black girl! Grow a moustache!" Josie Whittlesey's pitch perfect direction, which includes airtight light and sound transitions and Crane and Burns, in terrific turns, give us the impression of having spent years together in soulless corporate freefall.
Over at off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, Thornton Wilder's old chestnut Our Town has been reinterpreted by director David Cromer with a surprisingly elegant, stripped down staging. With no props or detailed set, the cast moves about the audience, showing the hard-working ethos of Grover's Corners, NH and its citizenry, from 1901-13. As the stage manager, Jason Butler Harner tells the audience what to expect and yet, we are taken aback that the laconic, no-nonsense performances move us as much as they do. A teenage boy crying when his father chides him for not helping his mother, or a young woman who has died in childbirth and time-travels back to her 12th birthday, only to despair she cannot live any longer, these are moments that can be manipulative and callow in the wrong hands. While some of Cromer's actors play their New England taciturn behavior a little too subtly, in the end, we find the power of Wilder's work coheres precisely because less becomes more.
At off-Broadway's Abingdon Theatre, a new comedy by Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman sends up the world of New York theatre and its attendant egos, in the exceedingly clever Inventing Avi (and other theatrical maneuvers). Wannabe playwright David Smith (Stanley Bahorek) works for producer Judy Siff (Alix Korey). Aspiring actor Amy (Havilah Brewster) may be able to get David money to produce his latest play, if overly theatrical star Mimi (Emily Zacharias) uses a Jewish foundation to fund his Holocaust-themed work. Problems? You bet. Mimi and Judy are warring sisters and David has to pretend that his work is written by Avi Aviv (Juri Henley-Cohn), an actor who pretends to be the Israeli author and eventually thinks he is the author. Director Mark Waldrop has a field day with all the delicious jokes set inside the theatre world, as in the case of Zacharias complaining at one point, "I had more lines when I played the lead in Children of a Lesser God." Bahorek plays a wonderful, put-upon nerd, Henley-Cohn nails his many dialects and the pomposity of his false identity and above all, Zacharias is hysterically watchable, the comedic core of the play, whether fuming, dripping in false modesty or finally smothering in love a son she never thought she'd see again.
Getting high marks for concept but not for execution, My First Time, at New World Stages uses the actual responses of visitors to a website to talk about initial sexual encounters. The cast of four tries its best to take those replies and material by Ken Davenport and turn it into the theatrical event that The Vagina Monologues became. But Davenport has less to work with and poorly utilizes a screen to project statistics. We can chuckle when one of the performers, in the guise of a respondent, declares, "I want to lose my virginity but I don't want to be treated roughly. And you are the two nicest guys I know." But most of the replies used are rather mundane, become repetitious and Davenport lets his actors become childish and smarmy about sex. The lack of truly powerful stories is evidenced by the one that sticks with you, the girl who fears her brother, dying of leukemia, will never experience sex and she masturbates him under a blanket in the back seat of a moving car while her parents, unaware, are in front. Perhaps it is that old American mix of the puritanical and goofily lascivious that dooms this venture.
Follow Brad Schreiber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bradschreiber