Two movie stars have been generating some heat on Broadway during these gray days of early winter. Nicole Kidman ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Portrait of a Lady") is playing all the female roles at the Cort Theatre in The Blue Room, David Hare's X-rated adaptation of Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler's early 20th-century drama "La Ronde." British stage actor Iain Glen is cast as the various men her characters encounter.
In a vastly different kind of theatrical evening, Christian Slater ("Young Guns II," "Pump Up the Volume," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), who was a child actor on Broadway, appears in Side Man at the Golden Theatre. Warren Leight's play is about the world of the traveling musicians of the 1940s swing-band era who segued into the jazz combos of the next decade before Elvis Presley and the rise of rock 'n' roll transformed America's taste in popular music. Slater takes on the role of the neglected son of a horn player who comes to life only in his music.
In "La Ronde," Schnitzler described the dark underside of love affairs in Vienna in the 1890s, when society knew how to keep its secrets. His play, a kaleidoscope of couples coming together briefly then parting, begins and ends with the same woman on stage, as if to suggest that the pursuit of love never varies, no matter how the faces change.
Other themes that Schnitzler explores include the gulf between the classes of society - to be crossed only behind closed doors - and the disparity between the sexes. As Schnitzler observes, the men are generally in control.
Fast forward to the 1990s, where privacy is no longer protected and reports on celebrity trysts make the morning headlines.
"The Blue Room" takes the same encounters, dressing them up in modern clothes and vernacular language to reach similar conclusions about the differences between passion and love. As Hare observes, the men still are generally in control.
With few exceptions, the feelings in "The Blue Room" range from a me-first competitive glee to boredom induced by a been-there, done-that attitude. While the neon lights glowing over the electric blue walls of the set, designed by Mark Thompson, sizzle, the relationships do not.
Kidman manages to bring a twist to each of the women she plays, but seems only to enjoy the role of the actress. Glen is a superb technical actor, making a viewer long to watch him develop one character instead of showing the quick changes of personality demanded by the gimmicky casting.
The audience becomes engaged by the actors' adroitness - their ability to button themselves quickly in and out of a series of costumes - rather than the fate of the people they portray.
Under the direction of Sam Mendes, an underlying cynicism flattens any other issues. "The Blue Room," which attracted sold-out houses in London and has few tickets left for its limited American run, is not for the faint-of-heart in sexual matters or those offended by onstage nudity.
'Side Man" belongs to the genre of memory plays that examine an American childhood as it resonates in the adult, like "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams or any of the several plays about growing up in Brooklyn by Neil Simon. Slater's character narrates the story gently, without rancor, watching from the sidelines but stepping into the action during family scenes.
For his father, Gene (Frank Wood), a horn player, and his buddies, Al, Ziggy, and Jonesy, all that mattered was their music, with family responsibilities - emotional and otherwise - reverberating less than the sounds of their instruments or their reminiscing about the gigs gone by.
The production, directed by Michael Mayer, features beautifully modulated ensemble acting, led by Wood as a vacant-eyed stumbler by day who jolts into vibrancy with his music at night, and Angelica Torn as Terry, the wife he leaves in psychological pain.
"Side Man" include a frank treatment of the drug problem in the music industry. Overall, it is an affecting look at America at midcentury, especially one segment of society.