Thursday, May 22, 2014

New York, Day Eight - "Act One" and "Bullets Over Broadway"

Though unintended, an accident of scheduling conspired to have today's two shows be the most closely-related of any I've seen this trip.  Both "Act One" and "Bullets Over Broadway" have as their main story line the bringing of a new play to Broadway, focusing primarily on the writing (and rewriting) process.  Perfect subject matter for me.  Unfortunately, I had serious problems with them both.

"Act One"

The first thing that might cross your mind as you enter the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center is "my god - what can't they do in here?"  For your initial vision will be the massive (yet airy) set design by Beowulf Boritt.  And you'll likely think that more than once, as the structure turns and transforms over and over - from a modest Brooklyn house to a series of theaters to a posh Manhattan apartment.  It's staggering in its scale and complexity.

Unfortunately, the action - especially in the first act - moves about as slowly as the giant turntable upon which the set rotates.  For the first hour, very little happens as we are introduced to the young Moss Hart, a Brooklyn boy with a gift for storytelling.  (Ironic that the story of a storyteller should be told so clumsily.)  Hart falls into a job as an office boy for a theatrical producer, Augustus Pitou.  He writes a play under a pseudonym that Pitou likes and produces, but which fails.  

But once Hart meets - and begins to collaborate with - famed writer George S. Kaufman, and to be drawn into his world, the pace picks up and the story suddenly becomes much more compelling.  Tony Shaloub is terrific as Kaufman (and several other roles), exercising the OCD/germphobic persona he perfected on "Monk."

Through many rewrites, Hart's and Kaufman's initial collaboration (the play "Once in a Lifetime") finally works through all its problems and a hit is born - not to mention a highly-successful partnership.  But it's too bad the story of the storytellers couldn't find any real drama.  The scenes of family strife lack the bite that's needed to present them honestly.

The play is based on reality, but it never really feels true.  

"Bullets Over Broadway"

Here's what's good about this new musical, currently playing at the St. James Theater:

- The integration of songs from the 20s and 30s, making it a jukebox musical from a time close to the birth of jukeboxes.
- The tap dance in "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" at the end of the first act.  Nine guys in pinstripes and fedoras (not all of them slender dancers) stomp out a rhythm that stopped the show and very nearly got a standing ovation.
- The story.  It's still a great setup for a comedy - a writer with artistic pretensions will finally get his play produced, but only if he compromises his standards by casting a ditzy, talent-free gangster's moll in a key role.
- The sets by Santo Loquasto.
- The costumes by William Ivey Long, especially the silver and black number worn by Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair to the first day of rehearsals of the play within the play.
- The line, "Marriage is a very serious decision.  Like suicide."

Here's what's not good:

- Vincent Pastore's (Big Pussy from "The Sopranos") singing.  Well, talking in tune.  Fortunately, Pastore brings a more authentic comic touch to his role than...
- ...Zach Braff brings to his.  Braff is a better singer than Pastore, but not by much.  His comic skills just don't compensate for his relatively weak tenor.  I'd have loved to see someone like Bryce Pinkham in this role - someone with a real Broadway voice and comic chops.
- Woody Allen's rewrite of his original film script.  The movie ends on a touching, genuine, humble note.  Here Allen decided to leave us with a lead character who realizes he's mediocre - but doesn't have enough ethical spine to realize he shouldn't ride on someone else's coattails.
- The comic timing.  It's just wrong.  Maybe without a film editor to keep an eye on pace and point of view, Woody's best lines don't hit with the impact they ought to have.

The rest of it?  Professional, workmanlike, unfulfilling.

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