THE BLOG
06/15/2013 05:47 am ET | Updated Aug 15, 2013

First Nighter: London Consumer Report on "Sweet Bird," "Merrily," Worthwhile Others

By 1959 when Tennessee Williams got around to presenting Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway, as directed by Elia Kazan and starring Geraldine Page and Paul Newman, he'd undoubtedly seen parodies of his works for close on to 15 years.
So when you look at the high-strung play today, as directed at the Old Vic by Marianne Elliott and starring Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich (whom Elliott guided through the Lincoln Center Warhorse), it can strike you that Williams might have said to himself, "So they think they can come up with spoofs of my work. Way-ull, I'll show them what a Tennessee Williams send-up should really look like."
Okay, that's not really how the piece came into being. (Is it?) But given a pressure-cooker production with everyone in it chewing Rae Smith's cumbersome scenery, Williams mockery is the result. In Cattrall's case, the histrionics are right for Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, who believes she's been sent out to pasture and so exiles herself there with boytoy Chance Wayne.
The action takes place in Chance's Gulf Coast hometown of St. Cloud, where he's considered no saint and is under a cloud for having allegedly ruined the life of local boss's daughter, Heavenly Finley (Louise Dylan, the only other cast member resembling an actual person).
James Graham, whose enthralling This House just shuttered at the National, is credited with shaping Williams's many iterations into a playable two acts--except he's done anything but. The real shock is that Elliott, than whom there may be no better director in England currently (aside from Nicholas Hytner and Howard Davies), has fared so poorly this time.
*************************************************************************************************
Speaking of Davies, several year's ago he mounted a superlative National Theatre production of Maxim Gorky's Philistines. Apparently, the experience was so pleasurable to him that he has now put up Children of the Sun, Gorky's prescient 1905 play about Russia building up to the 1917 revolution.
In a new version by Andrew Upton--whose program introduction indicates he's taken liberties with the text (but I'm not equipped to say how free he's been)--Davies has matched his previous achievement. He handily keeps a new group of agitated characters hanging around the rooms--one of them a laboratory (Bunny Christie's stunning set)--where Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is so busy mixing chemicals in his search for the origins of life that he fails to see he's alienating his wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell) and also shutting out larger gathering calamities.
Chummy with Anton Chekhov, Gorky uses some of his friend's theatrical devices, but his characters aren't the weakening gentry. They're the younger and more active members of a damned society. Gorky's views are more explosive than Chekhov's, and that's said both metaphorically and literally.
Indeed, at the Moscow Arts Theater opening, a late plot development startled the audience to such an extent they believed the stage had been invaded by actual outraged demonstrators and so fled. It's a mark of Davies's and the actors' skills that although the modern audience doesn't rise as one and flee, the effect is close enough.
*********************************************************************
A handful of nasty twentysomethings inhabit Hard Feelings, Doug Lucie's 1982 drama at the Finborough, where the fare is rarely less than extremely good. No exception this time. Viv (Isabella Laughland) is sharing a Brixton home for which her unseen parents foot the bill. Her spoiled housemates are ice-goddess Annie (Margaret Clunie), effete and womanizing Rusty (Jesse Fox), well-meaning but malleable Baz (Nick Blakeley), along with sincere Jane (Zora Bishop) and Jane's activist reporter swain Tone (Callum Turner).
While riots roil outside the window of the living room/kitchen that set designer Stephanie Williams has afforded them, they air their resentments inside. During the first act, Lucie merely presents over-privileged kids clashing plenty but going nowhere. In the second act, however, when Annie sells Viv a collage she's created featuring Hitler in a thoughtless homage to Nazi Germany, Jane, who's Jewish, vociferously objects. Viv won't accept it, and corrals the other three into giving Jane the silent treatment.
Under James Hillier's direction, the six cast members, working in a small space with patrons practically underfoot, do a bang-up job of impersonating a self-involved generation whose kind hasn't necessarily disappeared with the 20th century.
*************************************************************************************************
Stephen Sondheim has a friend in David Babani at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and David Babani has a friend in Stephen Sondheim. Once again, an MCF production of an SS musical has transferred to the West End. It's Merrily We Roll Along, which could be called "the show they never got quite right."
Here it's the 1992 Haymarket Leicester version, now directed by Maria Friedman, who played best-selling novelist and falling-down-drunk Mary during that earlier go. It's fair enough to say this script may be the closest Sondheim and librettist George Furth--and whoever else has been involved in tweaking it--have gotten to reaching elusive perfection.
Again pals Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell), Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers) and Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley, who's terrific in a Nathan Lane way) wonder how their youthful dreams went astray, whereupon time rewinds in order to demonstrate the melancholy process.
One of the show's abiding knots is that the Sondheim-Furth-original director Hal Prince show-biz cynicism is old hat. The repetitive party scenes sink from déjà vu. Also, Friedman was unwise to talk Sondheim into allowing a second-act opener meant to be a number from the musical-within-a-musical that puts eventually estranged composer Franklin and lyricist Charley on the Broadway map. Unfortunately, the "Musical Husbands" excerpt (included to show off Josefina Gabrielle as a leading lady?) doesn't nearly look as if it came from a genuine hit.
One thing Merrily We Roll Along does have is Sondheim's score. A true musical comedy fan can forgive just about anything for "Old Friends," "Good Thing Going," "Bobbie and Jackie and Jack" and for "Not a Day Goes By" (with its devastating sets of before and after lyrics), but not for the sadly now cut "The Hills of Tomorrow."
*********************************************************************
The closest Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation of Harper Lee's 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird has gotten to Manhattan may be the 1991 Paper Mill Playhouse premiere. That's too bad, because it's a beautifully rendered transfer from page and screen.
As presented at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (the production closes this weekend), directed by Timothy Sheader and with Robert Sean Leonard as the wise and upstanding Atticus Finch, it looks to be just as much a classic when performed live as the 1962 Gregory Peck-as-Atticus-Finch movie.
The winning notion here is the take on storybook theater. Members of the troupe--but not Atticus or the children Scout, Jem and Dill (who's modeled after Truman Capote)--read sections of the novel. (They carry worn copies of various editions.) Their readings introduce vivid scenes unfold of the 1930s Maycomb, Alabama years during which the obviously innocent black man Tom Robinson is tried for an alleged rape.
This realization proves that theater-goers and Harper Lee fans everywhere should be agitating for their own productions of something so moving, funny and troubling about childhood and the ways justice is undone by prejudice.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.