NEW YORK — To wander through Times Square in search of a new theatrical attraction is to stroll back in time because the marquees still blaze with familiar titles. Midtown is such risky territory for theatrical investments that mostly it's the megahits of previous seasons that survive and thrive here.
It's only a play that comes with box-office guarantees or a musical with proven lineage that can light up a commercial theater these days.
Three shows that opened recently fit the bill. "Proof," which premiered to rave reviews last spring at the Manhattan Theatre Club, has been moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre, a Broadway house. Yasmina Reza's "The Unexpected Man" is playing at the Promenade Theatre off-Broadway. Reza received the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play for "Art." In addition, a musical version of "The Full Monty," based on the popular British film of the same name, is sure to have a long, hearty life on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
The Full Monty merges the good, old American tradition of true grit overcoming adversity in the face of difficult odds with the appeal of male bonding. Playwright Terrence McNally and newcomer David Yazbek, composer and lyricist, have airmailed the setting from England to the steel-workers' union hall in Buffalo, N.Y., bringing the material, the characters - and their accents - closer to home.
The story unfolds with a group of disparate no-talents who decide to put on a male strippershow a la Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies, albeit with a testosterone-charged twist. While there are plenty of jokes about the male anatomy, the humor is so broad and boyish that it's hard to take offense. McNally's book is skillful in building interest in the characters, helped enormously by the actors - Patrick Wilson as Jerry Lukowski, a divorced dad who is desperate to raise cash to pay the child-support bills for his 12-year-old son, Nathan (Nicholas Cutro).
Yazbek delivers a likable, mostly rock score, enhanced by lyrics that express the men's feelings in simple but evocative language as they struggle to regain their self-esteem. Staged in straight-talk/singing fashion by Jack O'Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, the musical is refreshing in its portrayal of the aspirations of the working class, minus any condescension. Mitchell mounts a spirited Act 1 finale, as winning as Michael Jordan on a basketball court, employing similar runs and jumps set to Yazbek's hero-worshipping song.
In distinct contrast to the raucous aura of "The Full Monty" is Reza's intimate drama, The Unexpected Man, about a man and a woman who meet by chance on a train - hardly a revolutionary notion in the theater or in literature. That the play is written mostly in alternating monologues for the two characters and that they meet only at the end is no matter because the distinguished actors, Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins, make the audience hang on to every word.
The plot, if one exists, depends on the two characters noticing each other but fearing to speak. The monologues are spoken like stream of consciousness meanderings, with observations of each other injected among thoughts that range from philosophical to banal.
He is a famous author, consumed with loneliness and the bitterness of failed expectations in his life and his work. She recognizes him - she even has his latest novel in her bag - but is reluctant to intrude on his privacy, although she longs to meet him.
In a cogent translation by Christopher Hampton, helped by the exquisite emphasis the actors place on the nuances of the language, the tantalizing question of whether they will connect and what might come of it holds the viewers until the final, satisfying moments.
Proof comes as a surprise for its thematic content, although the dramatic outlines tread familiar territory. David Auburn has written a play about a mathematician and his daughter, who is courted by a former student of her dad's. The daughter, Catherine, has given up her studies as a budding mathematician to care for her father, who has had a mental breakdown. These relationships, and the obtuse older sister who comes in to help Catherine, are only the trimmings.
The fascination of the play, and some of its suspense, lies in finding a mathematical proof in a locked drawer and the discovery of its author, revealing the characters' prejudices, ambitions, and closed attitudes in equal measure. The production has been blessed with a star turn by Mary-Louise Parker as Catherine. From the moment she's introduced, asleep on the porch steps of her father's house, to her wild swings of emotion, she is mesmerizing in her believability.
"Proof" is a different take on the world of the scientist than last season's "Copenhagen." The latter was based on a historical incident and explored the characters' intertwined motives. It's a pleasure to have this new encounter with the pursuit of science as the subject matter. "Proof" brings to life a sense of the humanity behind the awards and headlines associated with scientific achievements and gives audiences something to ponder.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society