THE BLOG
11/12/2012 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

First Nighter: Four Clicks and a Clunk Around Town

Charlie (Shuler Hensley) weighs in at somewhere between 550 and 600 pounds and conducts his online course in literary criticism and composition lying on his besieged sofa like an Idaho-Mormon-country beached behemoth. That's why Samuel D. Hunter calls his hard-hitting, extremely imposing -- in more ways than one -- 110-minute play The Whale.

There's actually another reason which has to do with a written analysis of Herman Melville's Moby Dick that's Charlie insists on being read to him repeatedly and undoubtedly explains why Mimi Lien includes a portal on the hull-shaped left of her otherwise evocatively messy evocation of Charlie's digs and why Fitz Patton keeps piping in agitated ocean sounds.

The reason The Whale, directed with urgency by Davis McCallum at Playwrights Horizons, instantly becomes one of the most commanding and demanding plays currently on local view is that it stunningly portrays a man pointedly eating himself to death after his male lover's wasting-away demise. (Jessica Pabst provides the alarming fat suit.) Congestive heart failure is the physical diagnosis, which is ostensibly behind the ministrations of four characters wishing to reverse Charlie's decline over the five days the action covers and who are each played expertly.

There's Liz (Cassie Beck), a nurse and sister of Charlie's deceased partner Alan. There's estranged and estranging daughter Ellie (Reyna de Courcy) and estranged wife Mary (Tasha Lawrence). There's also 10-year-old Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) who's decided bringing Charlie to God is the entire point of his Church of Latter Day Saints mission.

Part of the play's intrigue is Charlie's obsession with the Moby Dick essay and its writer, but what distinguishes the script as the forever spouting "I'm sorry" Charlie edges closer to the demise Liz has predicted is the manner in which it illustrates a remark Charlie makes about the inability of people not to care for each other. It's Hunter's nugget of redemptive wisdom in an otherwise sad, sad situation.

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How Pat Nixon acquired her often-noted fixed smile is elucidated in Douglas McGrath's Checkers, a thoroughly involving drama at the Vineyard. It's the tale of the decision Richard Nixon (Anthony LaPaglia in an effectively mild impersonation) reached to run for President in 1968 after having earlier promised his politics-disapproving wife Pat (commanding Kathryn Erbe) he'd never seek office again.

It may be questionable whether historical accuracy is presented as the Nixons quarrel unobserved in their Fifth Avenue, Manhattan apartment and then appear in a lengthy flashback to the 1952 campaign when Nixon's place on the Eisenhower ballot was in dispute over a supposedly secret fund of his. To remain on the ticket -- this ordeal is well documented, of course -- Nixon had to give the (in)famous, obsequious televised speech about Pat's cloth coat and their dog Checkers.

Surely, the unwitnessed squabble between the at-odds Nixons has to be in some part imagined by playwright McGrath, who otherwise had to do much research for his undertaking. Very convincing, however, is Mrs. Nixon's steely concession to her husband that she would be "beside" him on the hustings but not "with" him -- made after she confesses to recoiling from the smiles she must adopt as a politician's loyal spouse.

Terry Kinney directs the intermissionless 90-minute script with perceptive dispatch, and a cast including Lewis J. Stadlen as Nixon's plain-spoken adviser Murray Chotiner, Robert Stanton and Kevin O'Rourke as equally outspoken Eisenhower go-betweens and John Ottavino as the cards-to-chest Presidential candidate -- give a good account of themselves in this commendable look at the compromised winners and psychologically wounded victims of the never pristine political process.

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The Pearl Theatre Company has taken up residence in a new home, formerly the Signature Theatre outpost but now boasting a shiny changed marquee. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that their Champagne-bottle-on-ship's-bow production is Figaro, Charles Morey's "freely adapted" go at Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais's Le Mariage de Figaro. But The christening Champagne turns out to be flat.

The problem is that the actors -- some company stalwarts, some not -- are unequipped to play farce. As stylish as they look in Barbara A. Bell's costumes, they seem to think that mugging constitutes comic performance. When, however, everyone on stage misses the mark so widely, the director is the one at whom blame must be lobbed. Here, it's Hal Brooks.

That "freely adapted" reworking isn't a barrel of laughs, either, bloated as it is with meta-jokes. One example will do: When one of the characters repeats the name "Figaro" several times, the Figaro figure (Sean McNall, off his usual top form), chimes in with "You could sing it if you had a tune." Wolfgang Amadeus Le Nozze di Figaro Mozart wouldn't chuckle.

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When audiences boo any kind of new production, it's always due to one of two reasons: Either it's unconscionably bad or it's so advanced -- say, The Rite of Spring -- that the witnesses aren't ready for it. Yet, I submit that the explanation for so many attendees booing the opening night of David Alden's treatment of Giuseppe Verdi's gorgeous 1859 opera -- pegged to the 1792 assassination of Sweden's King Gustave III), Un Ballo in Maschera -- is that they thought they were carrying on according to the first explanation. I contend, however, that -- representative of the Metropolitan Opera's tradition-bound consumers -- they were actually reacting in line with the second explanation.

Here -- set in what looks like early 19th century Sweden amid abstract Paul Steinberg sets dominated by a Tiepolo-like ceiling-mural recollection of Icarus's symbolic plunge -- Alden goes about following the relentlessly cavalier monarch (Marcelo Alvarez) as he falls for Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky), the wife of best friend Renato (Dmitri Hvorostovsky), with the kind invention that should elicit cheers.

Everything about the integrated undertaking -- and that means Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes, Adam Silverman's lighting and Maxine Braham's choreography -- is first-rate. So's Fabio Luisi's conducting and the principals' singing (Kathryn Kim is in pants as the messenger Oscar).

All right, so it isn't exactly The Rite of Spring. Nevertheless, a hearty bravo from this corner.

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A word to the wise: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey have kicked off their annual month-long Café Carlyle stay with "This Must Be the Place?" about coming home, leaving home, trying to figure out what "home" means. See it. They're at the top of the cabaret food chain. Also, guitarist-singer Pizzarelli has just published a memoir, World on a String (Wiley $26.95, 282 pp., illustrations), which ought to be worth a strumming -- -- er -- thumbing.

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