"Playing With Grown Ups"
When you walk into the theater at 59E59 for "Playing With Grown Ups," part of Brits Off Broadway, a festival of 12 plays from the United Kingdom, the first thing that catches your eye is the unfinished nature of the set. Yes, there is a real sofa and end table, a real rug and a trio of actual posters hanging on the wall, but pretty much everything else is only indicated by outlines of their shapes on the floor or walls, along with words to identify them: cupboard, window, fireplace, etc.
Does it symbolize a life coming together? Plans for the future? That would seem to be the case, since the story centers on Robert (Mark Rice-Oxley) and Joanna (Trudi Jackson), a pair of intellectuals (he a professor of British cinema studies, she an editor at a publishing house) who are in the very early weeks of being new parents. But once the show gets going, and we discover just how uninterested Joanna is in being a mother, how little she seems to care for infant, perhaps the unfinished nature of the set is symbolic of life falling apart and a space that is ready to be inhabited by another family.
God knows Joanna has already moved on. She seems to think of nothing but her lot in life that, as she describes it, consists of little more than "piss and shit and tears and endless fucking need."
Into this vortex of of postpartum depression and existential regret come Jake (Alan Cox) and Stella (Daisy Hughes). Jake is Robert's boss at the university and Stella his very young date, a clever (and wise beyond her years) teenager who may not know exactly what she wants, but, unlike Joanna, knows what she doesn't want: an ordinary life lived on other people's terms.
This is not a happy play - though there are several good laughs in it, brought to us in part by the excellent performances from the British cast.
Through 90 minutes of talk - interrupted regularly by the baby's cries from the nursery monitor - these four natter on about small things in life that they have brought to enormity by focusing all their attention on them: the use of space in Italian cinema to communicate emotion, or the jammyness (or oakyness) of a bottle of Chilean pinot noir. That is, until the big things in life - the new life you've just created for example - refuse to be quiet any longer and you are forced to face up to their impact.
I'll be brief, since much has been written about this brilliant production of a terrific musical, and it ran for almost six years beginning back in 1998, and has been re-revived. Go.
Because it's back, with Alan Cumming reprising his divinely decadent portrayal of the MC, and with movie star Michelle Williams ("Brokeback Mountain" "Blue Valentine" and "My Week With Marilyn") making her Broadway debut.
This is a very adult "Cabaret," befitting both the spirit of the cabaret genre, the original text by Christopher Isherwood and the libertine life of Berlin between the wars. It is not for children.
What it is is a brilliant commentary on chaos and dread. Nothing is as neat or as clean as the National Socialists (who are just about to seize power in Germany under Hitler's leadership) want. Gender is fluid, sex is almost always for sale, and there is a defeatist, apathetic strain that infects most of the characters. (Summed up most aptly by Fraulein Schneider's first number, "So What.")
Cumming is spectacular: louche and lascivious, with a sly grin and a knowing wink in all the right spots. Williams' voice is surprisingly strong. Don't expect Liza-level vocals, but then again, Sally Bowles was never meant to be a great singer, so Williams' portrayal of her actually feels more genuine and organic than Minelli's iconic incarnation of the character.
There are many great songs, and they drive a story with real drama and import: who (and what) will live or die when the Nazis take control?
The theater (which is in the infamous Studio 54, where so much of the decadence of the 70s took place) is set up like a night club, with scantily-clad waiters and waitresses serving drinks. You might want to have something prior to arriving though, since the cocktails are $19. But as the song says, "money makes the world go 'round," right?