Broadway measures the mood and pulls out dark revivals

Fall theater opens with classics such as Chekhov's 'The Seagull' and Miller's 'All My Sons,' plus a little light relief in 'Billy Elliot' and 'Shrek.'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    London calling: Daniel Radcliffe plays the lead in 'Equus' (top left), a huge hit in the West End last year.
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    Kristen Scott Thomas portrays Arkadina in Chekhov's 'The Seagull' (top).
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    Another successful London show, the more lighthearted 'Billy Elliot' (above), opens in November with native New Yorker Trent Kowalik as Billy.
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As the financial markets melt down and anger at Wall Street excesses rise, Broadway stages seem to mirror the mood. This fall, a collection of prescient and searing dramas examines the sins of men (and women) behaving badly and takes a closer look at their self-serving, scheming, damaged souls.

'The Seagull'

Self-absorbed egotists are at the heart of the breathlessly acclaimed production of Chekhov's "The Seagull," a drama about the disappointments and adversities of disaffected Russian theater artists in the late 19th century. The cast is led by Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina, the narcissistic yet caustically funny actress grappling with deep-seated fears about her aging beauty and fading sexual magnetism. Scott Thomas herself knows something about her character's predicament, having been forsaken by Hollywood in recent years after her career as a leading lady peaked with films like "The English Patient" and "The Horse Whisperer." (She has instead focused on the stage and a flourishing career in European cinema.) One London reviewer said that the production was worth seeing for Scott Thomas's performance alone. Joining her onstage for the stateside production is the indie film favorite, Peter Sarsgaard, who favors character parts in smaller dramas like "Boys Don't Cry," "Kinsey," and "Shattered Glass." Sarsgaard plays Arkadina's lover, Trigorin, whose callous ways drive one character to suicide and another to lovesick despondency. He's a famous middlebrow writer chained to a life he loathes yet desperately needs. The London production has been praised for perfectly balancing the paradoxes suffused throughout Chekhov's writing.

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'Equus'

Another London import that's washed ashore on this side of the pond is a revival of Peter Shaffer's "Equus," starring Daniel Radcliffe, best known for playing the bespectacled boy-wizard, Harry Potter. As he's pushed past his adolescence, the actor has been eager to establish his acting bona fides. What better way to do that than to strip down to your birthday suit for a provocative turn in a heart-wrenching work about a stable boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike? A humongous hit in London in 2007, the play is a touchstone of the 1970s-era preoccupation with the talking cure. It revolves around the deeply disturbed Alan Strang, whose mental state is fast unraveling due to religious and sexual guilt. To cope, Alan escapes into a horse-worshiping fantasy world – at night, sneaking into the stables, stripping naked, and lying astride a black stallion. As his obsession grows, the play races toward its terrible climax, grappling with questions about belief in God and madness versus genius. Richard Griffiths, who scored a Tony award in 2006 for his performance in "The History Boys," plays the despondent psychiatrist who's unsure if "curing" Alan is the moral thing to do. This was Radcliffe's chance to prove himself an actor of emotional depth and range, and according to most London critics, he knocked it out of the park.

'All My Sons'

While the two aforementioned London transfers are scoring a lot of ink, there's a brand-new revival of a landmark play that's originating right here on Broadway: Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," about the sins of a morally bankrupt father. A blistering critique of capitalism run amok, the play features a high-profile cast, including John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes, which has helped it bank more than $3.5 million in advance sales. But what should be most exciting for audiences is the presence of another British import, the inventive and envelope-pushing director, Simon McBurney. Best known for his transcendently theatrical visual magic with the British troupe Complicite, McBurney has said that audiences can expect a muscular, primal take on the story of a son whose faith in his father – and his entire belief system – is shattered when he learns dear old Dad's wrenching secret. Like Radcliffe, Holmes, a staple of the tabloids thanks to her marriage to couch-jumping mega-movie star Tom Cruise, will be seeking to prove her acting chops, move out from under the considerable shadow of her husband, and inject her career with some much-needed mojo.

'Speed-the-Plow'

While Broadway is chock-full of West End imports this season, there are also a few notable American productions of home-grown talent – namely, that quintessentially American writer, David Mamet. In fact, Broadway will be redolent with the acid-dipped, rapid-fire dialogue of Mamet this fall thanks to two revivals of his work, both exploring the dark corners of the rotting male psyche. First up is a revival of the 1988 play "Speed-the-Plow" (now in previews, opening Oct. 23). This brutal Hollywood satire centers on three solipsistic souls – a struggling producer (played by Broadway staple Raúl Esparza) peddling a surefire blockbuster project; his friend, a newly installed studio executive (Jeremy Piven, who knows a thing or two about playing a slime-bag Hollywood shark thanks to his careermaking role as the foul-mouthed Ari Gold on "Entourage"); and a temporary secretary pitching an arty project based on a novel about the end of the world (Elizabeth Moss from AMC's "Mad Men").

'American Buffalo'

The second Mamet offering of the fall is a Robert Falls-directed revival of the writer's landmark 1975 comedy "American Buffalo" (previews begin Oct. 23; it opens Nov. 17). The play stars John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer, and Haley Joel Osment, resurrected from his "I See Dead People" child-star past, as a trio of hapless, small-time con men who plot to steal a cache of rare coins. It's another in the line of Mamet's scabrous, probing examinations of the conflict between business and friendship, as conceived in our idealized American consciousness.

'Billy Elliot'

Not all the anticipated productions are of the straight play variety this season. The smash-hit London musical, "Billy Elliot" (opening Nov. 13), is based on the hit 2000 film about a working-class lad from England's coal mining north who'd rather learn ballet than kick a soccer ball – much to the dismay of his family, especially his macho father. Helmed by the film's director Stephen Daldry, the musical features music by Elton John, who's become a Broadway staple, and lyrics and book by Lee Hall.

'13'

The celebrated young composer Jason Robert Brown, whose résumé boasts a notorious Broadway bomb with "Parade" back in 1998 and a regional theater hit with "The Last Five Years," is back with a brand-new musical, "13." This time he's put aside weighty subjects like the disintegration of a marriage and the lynching of a Jewish man in the South to focus on something a little more accessible. His latest show, about a Jewish kid from New York who moves to the sticks after his parents divorce, centers on the thrilling, angst-ridden, and awkward years of adolescence and learning to accept yourself for who you are.

'Shrek The Musical'

In a crass attempt to cash in on recent name-brand hit films, it seems that producers are willing to adapt just about anything for the stage. The latest gambit? A Broadway musical based on that uncouth yet lovable green ogre, Shrek, made famous in the box-office-smashing 2001 film and subsequent sequels (previews begin Nov. 8; it opens Dec. 14). Although this may sound like a ridiculous proposition, the creative team for "Shrek The Musical" gives us hope that the show won't be a complete disaster – Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") penned the book and lyrics, the wonderful Jeanine Tesori (of "Caroline, or Change" fame) wrote the score, and Jason Moore (who guided "Avenue Q") is directing. Plus, it can't hurt to have the charismatic Brian d'Arcy James and Sutton Foster as your leads. Critics in Seattle, where the show had a pre-Broadway tryout, were charmed.

'Pal Joey'

While skepticism may be greeting "Shrek," one musical (revival) that seems to be generating buzz is "Pal Joey," the 1940 Rodgers and Hart gem that revolves around the cocksure title cad (played by Christian Hoff from "Jersey Boys") who never met a woman he didn't want to seduce. The show is considered overdue for a major revival thanks to its compelling story and indelible score (including such memorable tunes as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "I Could Write a Book"). Two of Broadway's best actresses, Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton, will provide the production with dramatic heft. Previews begin Nov. 14; it opens Dec. 11.

'Dividing the Estate'

In Horton Foote's comedy "Dividing the Estate," a fading, old-money Texas clan squabbles over its inheritance, with the nonagenarian playwright slyly shining a light on the excesses of American economic prosperity that we've long taken for granted. The play, which is transferring to the Main Stem after a successful run off-Broadway, stars Elizabeth Ashley, Arthur French, and Horton Foote's daughter, Hallie. Previews begin Oct. 23; it opens Nov. 20.

'A Man for All Seasons'

Finally, we have a man of great moral principle who sought to do the right thing, but was blocked by corrupt and jealous political adversaries. Broadway veteran Frank Langella returns as chancellor Sir Thomas More in the revival of Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons." Something of an odd choice for revival, the play concerns the political and moral face-off between Sir Thomas and Henry VIII over the king's wish to break with the Roman Catholic Church so he can divorce Catherine of Aragon, who's unable to bear him a son, and marry another, Anne Boleyn. Langella nabbed a Tony award in 2007 for playing another historical figure (albeit one of ill repute), Richard Nixon, and he's already generating Oscar buzz for his performance in the film adaptation of "Frost/Nixon," scheduled to hit the big screen in December.

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