World and family politics on Broadway

A new play by David Hare heads the list of provocative theater in New York.

Those hardy souls standing in line for discount tickets at the TKTS booth are sporting wool jackets, a sure sign that the December theater season in New York is in full swing. From Broadway productions to church concerts, the city vibrates with sound and light.

Bringing more light than heat to the topic of differing American and British views on the Iraq war is The Vertical Hour. David Hare's new play sets up a confrontation between an American Yale professor and her fiancé's father, who despises what he sees as a feckless American public supporting Bush administration policy. Film actress Julianne Moore portrays Nadia, formerly a TV news correspondent, and British actor Bill Nighy is her adversarial future father-in-law.

Hare's plays often involve current political themes; his earlier "Stuff Happens" went behind the scenes at the White House and No. 10 Downing Street as both governments struggled with personality clashes and high-profile decisions on the Iraq crisis.

Moore, in a credible Broadway debut, plays a woman settling into her new second career, attempting to readjust the balance in her life after harrowing tours of duty covering Bosnia and Iraq. Marriage to an affable massage therapist named Philip will complete her transition from truth-seeking crusader to dispassionately analytical observer.

On a visit to the Welsh countryside, Nadia meets Philip's estranged father. Nadia is forced to go on the defensive when he learns about her role in advising the American president early in the Iraq conflict.

When she reaches the point where she can't even decide between jam or honey on her breakfast toast, her unsettled mental state becomes clear. The play's title refers to the brief window of time on a battlefield when a critically wounded soldier is saved or lost.

Hare's aim is to use the pending domestic alliance to raise questions about larger US-British relations, but his play, here directed by Sam Mendes, offers few new insights. It will come as little surprise that many Brits dislike what they see as an American tendency to carelessly cry patriotism to justify Iraq.

Were it not for Nighy's fine acting and precisely tuned physical mannerisms – a shoulder tick one minute, a moment later the eyebrows almost leave the forehead – the play, like the toast, would need to be consumed dry, with no sweetener at all.

Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, in revival by the Roundabout Theatre, still holds the potential to jolt your senses and take your breath away. The tortured tale begins in the 1930s tropical garden of Violet and Sebastian Venable, mother and son. It ends with his brutal murder at the hands of youths he has sexually exploited, which was witnessed by his beautiful young cousin, Catharine.

Carla Gugino, who portrays Catharine, successfully delivers on the role's intensity, but Blythe Danner, as Violet, struggles unconvincingly between faded enchantress and stricken matron, relying too heavily on the physical symptoms of her illness.

As the surgeon brought in by Violet to lobotomize Catharine to keep her quiet, actor Gale Harold seems a victim of his own mind-numbing experiments. He is all shiny surface, rather than serving as the critical fulcrum between truth and self-deception in the play.

Despite the high stakes in these characters' lives, the actors' radically different acting choices deaden some potentially riveting moments.

Production quirks hamper Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company in its current revival directed by John Doyle. Last season, his production of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" was hailed as wildly innovative for having the actors play their own musical accompaniment.

Doyle, who's used this style many times in England, applied the same technique to "Company." It's used here at a price: the musical's originality.

Bobby, the play's central character (performed by Raul Esparza), is a single Upper East Side Manhattanite approaching the Big 3-0. He's facing pressure from various girlfriends and well-meaning married friends to tie the knot. What scored so brilliantly when it burst onto the stage in 1970 – the push-pull between the mates in each couple, the one-dimensionality of Bobby's current girlfriends, the inherent vacuity of this world – have been smothered by various types of design decisions.

On a set that features a black grand piano, a white Greek column, a black brick back wall and several plexiglass cubes topped with black swivel chairs, 13 people move through their songs and stories, all sheathed in sleek costumes of silver, white, and black. They're sophisticated. It's a sophisticated jungle out there – we get it.

In this staging, with everyone but Bobby toting instruments around, it's easy to lose track of who is married to whom. On the music side, the Sondheim score that no superlative can do justice to, loses some of its power, the cost of turning a class act into a vaudeville act. It ends with Bobby playing the piano – "joining the band." We get it.

For unqualified pleasure, consider two offerings way off Broadway, and one transported Tony Award-winner. The Lion King, now at its new home in the cavernous Minskoff Theatre, has lost none of its eye-popping appeal.

The annual Winter Solstice celebrations at the splendid Cathedral of St. John the Divine, from the Grammy-honored Paul Winter Consort, expands its repertoire this year, including Brazilian melodies in its inspiring and multicultural performances.

And filling the tiny, bohemian Zipper Theatre, a new incarnation of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris bursts with energy. The Belgian icon's original songs have been seasoned with wry humor by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, a gift to lovers of musical storytelling. Director Gordon Greenberg shepherds a tireless cast through a seamless evening of joy.

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