Willy Holtzman calls his pocket-size play about Judy Holliday Smart Blonde. Not a bad title, considering Holliday’s reportedly high IQ and her early success, on stage and screen, as Billie Dawn, the seemingly dumb, actually discerning protagonist of Garson Kanin’s 1946 smash-hit comedy Born Yesterday.
Over the next few months, the estimable Mint Theater, committed to rediscovering lost theatrical treasures, is producing three works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker. The first is The Price of Thomas Scott, a 1913 comedy-drama that features a top-notch ensemble of New York actors in a handsomely designed staging directed by Jonathan Bank.
In the middle of the last century, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—producers, publicists, and prolific playwrights—were leading lights in the American entertainment industry. They are now remembered for writing Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history, and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their 1945 hit State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize and became a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That play is typical of the witty comedies with serious-minded underpinnings that Broadway audiences relished during World War II and after.
The challenging economics of New York theater makes two-actor plays a holy grail for Off-Broadway producers. Among the numerous two-handers of the past three or four theater seasons, none has had a more arresting first act than Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. Set in an Alpine aerie, with Cold War elegance courtesy of scenic designer James J. Fenton, Switzerland depicts a showdown between Patricia Highsmith (Patricia J. Scott), author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a man she has just met named Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold). Ridgeway is supposedly a representative of a New York publishing house, sent to Switzerland to convince the 73-year-old novelist to sign a book contract.
When actors address audiences directly, they’re said to breach the stage’s “fourth wall.” In The Mortality Machine, it’s the audience that does the breaching, penetrating all parts of the playing space and performing assigned roles side-by-side with the professionals. In this two-hour drama—site-specific, immersive, and improvisatory—part of the mystery for the playgoer is who else has bought a ticket and who’s being paid to act.
Bernard and Rory, the only characters in Erin Mallon’s The Net Will Appear, are next-door neighbors in Toledo, Ohio. Bernard is a curmudgeonly 75-year-old with a penchant for bird-watching. Rory, age 9, is a wiseacre whose chatter is laced with malapropisms and bawdy phrases she doesn’t understand fully.
Almost 15 years have passed since Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part premiered Off-Broadway. In 2004, stories of authority figures preying on children, though in the news, were not the media commonplace they’ve become. This solo drama about the author’s sexual relationship with an adult counselor from a Roman Catholic boys’ camp was an eye-opening tale of childhood trauma and its myriad aftereffects. Back then Moran’s accomplished performance of his own material, mixing pain and humor, registered as valiant self-exposure, affording audiences unprecedented insights about a stigmatized subject.
As our country’s partisan roistering continues its crescendo, the adventurous Ars Nova is presenting a space-travel yarn, set 300 years from now, that speaks to the autocratic tendencies of the current regime in Washington, D.C. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, subtitled A Science-Fiction Folk-Concert Musical, features 15 numbers in a variety of styles composed by Andrew R. Butler. The score includes clever references, melodic and chromatic, to such past masters as Guthrie, Dylan, Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash and, especially, Young, without undercutting the originality of Butler’s musical sound. The play’s subtitle, however—and, most notably, that word concert—is decidedly misleading.
Maitland White, the protagonist of Philip Barry’s unjustly forgotten comedy You and I, has a blissful marriage, children on the cusp of adulthood and a highly remunerative corporate job. To all appearances, he’s the world’s most contented man, sharing a luxe existence with his loving family in the roaring days before the stock market crash of 1929. What no one around him knows is that Matey retains the great ambition of his youth. And, in middle age, that secret urge—to be a professional painter—is becoming increasingly insistent.
The three principal characters of Jaki McCarrick’s drama The Naturalists are refugees from a society that, in their view, damages the earth and is toxic to the human heart. The time is 2010; the place, the Republic of Ireland’s Border Region. Brothers Francis and Billy Sloane (John Keating and Tim Ruddy) have settled into middle age as small-time farmers, accustomed to being alone with each other and the glorious landscape around them.
Lillian Hellman left the theater a couple of decades before she left this world. In her remaining years, she published memoirs depicting herself as a conscience-driven adversary of misogynists, Nazis, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When public intellectuals such as Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, and Diana Trilling took issue with what she wrote, Hellman let rip with insults and invective. By the time she died in 1984, Hellman’s name was associated more with public feuds than with the literate Broadway plays that had made her famous.
Three productions of Henry VI, William Shakespeare’s seldom staged trilogy, have cropped up Off-Off Broadway since January. The latest, by the ambitious National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), brings epic pageantry and violence to the intimate Mezzanine space at the A.R.T./New York complex on West 53rd Street.
The Mint Theater is reviving another thoroughly engaging play you’ve never heard of. This time it’s Miles Malleson’s Conflict, a 1925 political comedy, with fast-paced direction by Jenn Thompson and brightly polished performances from a noteworthy cast of seven.
Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the adventurous downtown troupe known for theatrical adaptations of iconic modernist works, is parodying Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams in a new play by Kate Scelsa that has the cleverest title in town—Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf. The production is directed at breakneck speed by the company’s founder, John Collins. It features visuals by Louisa Thompson (scenery), Amanda Villalobos (properties), and Kaye Voyce (costumes) that give the proceedings the kitsch-cluttered aesthetic that’s an ERS signature.
A.R. Gurney, who died in June 2017, was prolific to the end. Like Verdi, Henry James, and Philip Roth (a recently deceased contemporary of Gurney’s), this urbane playwright exercised robust creative powers far beyond customary retirement age. Judging by the number of high-profile revivals since his death (most notably last season’s superb Off-Broadway production of Later Life), Gurney’s wit and insight are still integral to American drama.
The Gentleman Caller combines kernels of fact with lots of fancy. In this two-character play, Chicago dramatist Philip Dawkins imagines the early friendship of Tennessee Williams (1911–83) and William Inge (1913–73). Beginning as a rowdy pastiche of sex comedies popular on Broadway when Inge and Williams were active there, the play turns darker in a handful of well-written monologues that are highly engaging but don’t add up to a convincing portrait of either character.
Classic Stage Company and Transport Group are taking a fresh look at Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Critical estimation of this lyrical drama—the playwright's fourth Broadway outing—has fluctuated since its 1948 premiere. After the original New York presentation, Summer and Smoke seemed destined for obscurity. But Jose Quintero’s 1952 production for Circle in the Square was a triumph and, according to many commentators, marked the birth of Off-Broadway. The current revival, under sure-handed direction by Jack Cummings III, discards the realistic trappings of mid-20th-century American theater and features a nearly ideal cast.
In 1956, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described a new play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” That Churchillian phrase captures the Godot-like inscrutability of No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tien quien le escriba), an early novella by Nobel laureate Gabriel Gárcia Márquez (1927–2014).
Is middle age too late for an earth-moving romance between a Bostonian with Brahmin reserve and a Midwesterner for whom grand passion is essential? In Later Life, the 1993 hit comedy revived by the Keen Company, playwright A.R. Gurney dramatizes this question with characteristic wit and capacious heart. Gurney, who grew up affluent in Buffalo, N.Y., carved a niche for himself Off-Broadway with a handful of urbane comedies—notably The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour—whose characters have origins similar to his own. When Gurney died last June at age 86, he left a legacy of 49 plays, plus operas, musicals, and novels.
Balls, an ambitious mashup of docudrama and satiric commentary, takes the Sept. 20, 1973, exhibition match between Wimbledon champs Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs as a starting point for assessing social upheavals of the past 45 years. When Riggs challenged King to the match eventually dubbed the “battle of the sexes,” she was 29 years old. Riggs had won at Wimbledon four years before she was born. They squared off in front of more than 30,000 spectators in Houston’s Astrodome as millions more watched on television. Riggs lost in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and King walked away with the “winner take all” purse.