First Nighter: Barbra Streisand, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Jack and Madeline Lee Gilford Get Theater Treatments

When the red-baiting scourge was intensifying in the 1950s, rising comic Jack Gilford and his chorine girlfriend-then-wife Madeline Lee Gilford were caught up in it. Madeline, more than Jack, was ferociously busy in various groups the House Un-American Activities Committee and Red Channels were scrutinizing as Communist hotbeds. As a predictable result, the Gilfords were pursued.

At that time their son Joe Gilford was born. As he was growing up with both parents black-list-implicated, the shameful times were what he heard regularly and heatedly discussed. The talk had to have been about the scarcity of work for anyone with a Red Channels listing or fellow traveler designation. He knew about family friends called in for HUAC grilling where some excoriated the committee to their eventual detriment, some took shelter under the Fifth Amendment and some named names.

So perhaps it's no surprise that when writing a play about what he knows, Gilford has come up with the impassioned, autobiographical Finks at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and first produced in 2008 by the New York Stage and Film Company. In it, his parents are Mickey Dobbs (Aaron Serotsky) and Natalie (Miriam Silverman). Mickey is doing so well in his gigs at Barney Josephson's Café Society that he lands a television series suddenly thrown into doubt over his supposed political affiliations. Natalie doesn't quite understand why the husband she loves is more reticent than she about publicly proclaiming their beliefs in artistic freedom -- and in all threatened freedoms -- no matter the consequences.

Constructing his play intricately, such that the Dobbs home and Café Society scenes are intertwined with HUAC interviews conducted by Representative Walters (Michael Cullen), Gilford also prominently includes close friends Fred Lang (Ned Eisenberg), who's modeled at least in part on Philip Loeb, and Bobby (Leo Ash Evens), who's clearly modeled after Jerome Robbins and who does a hot Lindy with Miriam (choreographed by Greg Graham). (Bobby is also glimpsed rehearsing other signature Robbins moves.) Among names-namers depicted whose identities aren't veiled is Elia Kazan.

It's hard to think that the fervor with which Gilford writes -- as well as the humor innate to both Mickey and Miriam that's frequently expressed -- hasn't been blended into his DNA. The work -- directed with concomitant fervor by Giovanna Sardelli and dressed with period accuracy by Sydney Maresca -- is a testament to the parents who managed to maintain their indomitable spirit throughout the ordeal.

*****

At the opposite end of a spectrum of enterprises conjuring public figures is Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar at the Rattlestick, which is, in its coy and campy way, about Barbra Streisand.

A one-man intermissionless 90-minuter showcasing an extremely adroit Michael Urie, the comedy could easily be dismissed as a merely silly time-killer for La Streisand fans. Yet. In a larger sense, it inadvertently implies a reality about the American obsession with fame and the famous. It's an example of the embarrassing need too many people have to create idols through whose successes they can live vicariously -- and then the eventual petty need to knock the famous off the pedestals recently erected. The practice is a from of nation-wide schadenfreude.

Specifically, Buyer & Cellar is Tolins' fantasy spun on the pages in Streisand's best-selling coffee-table book My Passion for Design that describe the row of shops she's had built in the basement of the main house on her three-acre estate where she houses various collections.

It's Tolins' notion that once she completed it, she wanted a salesperson to tend to customers -- that is, to the one customer who'd patronize the premises: herself. New employee and sometime actor Alex recounts his experiences in the odd situ -- under Stephen Brackett's empathetic direction and on Andrew Boyce's set depicting a hallway in which sits the kind of table with tea things on it Streisand is known to favor.

Although Streisand apparently encourages guests to visit the outre mall and often picks items from it for gifts, that's not how Tolins presents her. That would dilute his satire. Instead, the gossipy Alex scoffs at Streisand, while simultaneously longing for her to recognize his charms. (This is a recognizable conflicted attitude that die-hard fans often manifest.) So Alex gabs about his gradual acceptance by Barbra as a friend (at least temporarily) and even as acting coach while she prepares her film adaptation of Gypsy.

Alex courts her, despite joking about her being in Gypsy as a 70-year-old with a five-year-old daughter. When not dissing or glorifying her, he's running into trouble with nattering boyfriend Barry, who's jealous of the time his paramour spends with the diva of many moods.

Oh, well, for people who need Streisand both to idolize and kick around, Buyer & Cellar fills the bill. People who need people who don't need to get their kicks knocking Streisand can look elsewhere.

*****

Julius Caesar and much younger seductress Cleopatra are the celebrities composer George Frideric Handel and librettist Nicola Francesco Haym goad and glamorize in the 1724 Giulio Cesare, which David McVicar is giving a remarkable, even reputation-changing, twist at the Metropolitan Opera House under conductor Harry Bicket.

It appears that McVicar is taking severe objection to Handel's opera -- any Handel opera -- habitually being categorized as immutably static. The director has made it his mission to prove the four-hour-plus opus is anything but static.

To get his wide-ranging point unequivocally across, he's enlisted David Daniels (voice troubled early, stronger later, as Caesar), Natalie Dessay (manifesting superb vocal control as Cleopatra), Alice Coote (especially strong in the pants-suit role, Sextus), Patricia Bardon (vocally persuasive as Cornelia), Christophe Dumaux (making the most of conniving Ptolemy), Guido Loconsolo (a robust Achillas), choreographer Andrew George (doing yeoman work throughout), set designer Robert Jones, costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting designer Paule Constable.

The strategy takes. Moving the period from ancient Rome and Egypt to the 20th century, McVicar guesses that were Handel and Haym writing then, they might very well have made Cleopatra a flapper. The very word implies movement, and that conceit prevails throughout this colorful and elegant new production.