Broadway's flair for the dramatic

The Great White Way is still dominated by musicals, but serious works are pulling their own weight

While Mel Brooks's new musical comedy "The Producers" is grabbing headlines over stories by delirious critics and setting records for ticket sales, serious Broadway dramas are back on the Great White Way, too, attracting impressive audiences.

Six dramas and one comedy-drama - nearly double the number in recent seasons - are currently on Broadway stages. And make that eight dramas, if you count Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party," which is advertised as a comedy but is more serious than a typical Simon play.

Broadway theater continues to be dominated by some two-dozen splashy musicals, ranging from "The Producers" and "The Full Monty," both new this season, to long-running revivals such as "Kiss Me Kate" and "The Music Man." Many have earned record or near-record box-office receipts: "The Producers" is the first musical in history to charge a top price of $100 on regular Friday and Saturday evenings.

Musicals have dominated Broadway for several decades as producers cater to out-of-town tourists, many from foreign countries, for whom musicals more easily cut through language barriers.

Two plays, the revival of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," starring Gary Sinise, and the Irish import "Stones in His Pockets" have enjoyed big upticks in sales recently.

For the first time in eight years, a drama playing on Broadway, David Auburn's "Proof," has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The last Broadway drama to win the coveted award was Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" in 1993.

In the intervening years, Off-Broadway and regional plays won Pulitzers for drama, including Off-Broadway productions of Margaret Edson's "Wit" in 1999 and Donald Margulies' "Dinner With Friends" last year.

August Wilson's "King Hedley II" and Arje Shaw's "The Gathering" have also made it to Broadway this year. Both used successful runs Off-Broadway as a showcase before transferring theaters.

The new Broadway dramas include:

The Gathering. Largely a vehicle for its star, Hal Linden, this Holocaust drama derives much of its power from Linden's stellar performance.

Perhaps best known for his starring role in the "Barney Miller" TV series, Linden does the most chillingly brilliant acting of his lengthy stage career. He is hamstrung to some extent by playwright Shaw's overly ambitious attempt to make Linden's character, Jake, funny as well as poignant and haunting. Yet one can only applaud Linden's wrenching combination of rage and forgiveness, which has a Tony Award written all over it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This generally powerful revival of Dale Wasserman's acclaimed antiestablishment play based on a Ken Kesey novel (and made into a 1975 film that earned Jack Nicholson an Academy Award) is diluted by Gary Sinise's energetic and engaging, but relatively unmoving, star turn.

Sinise plays Randle P. McMurphy, a quixotic nonconformist who rallies other patients in a mental ward against the stern and authoritarian rule of Nurse Ratched. But compared with Nicholson's edgy, unnerving, and complex characterization in the same role, there's too much of a cheerleader sameness to Sinise's handling of the part. The play's second act is more melodrama than dramatic tragedy.

Stones in His Pockets. Conleth Hill and Sean Campion give remarkable performances as two film extras on location in Ireland who in turn play 15 different characters ranging from an American film diva to her highly belligerent bodyguard. The play, by Marie Jones, takes on a magical life, thanks to these two extraordinary actors.

First produced in Belfast in 1999, "Stones in His Pockets" received rapturous reviews on London's West End and several top prizes before moving to Broadway this spring. Its major flaw, however, is that it tries too hard to be serious even though it is essentially a comedy.

Judgment at Nuremberg. Abby Mann's forceful and faithful adaptation of his 1950s "Playhouse 90" teleplay and his 1961 film of the same name starring Spencer Tracy is one of the best "courtroom" dramas Broadway has seen in years. (It is, however, not for the squeamish, as there are unnecessary filmed sequences of the Nazi death-camp horrors.)

Maximilian Schell won an Oscar in the movie (in which Spencer Tracy played an American judge) as a young German defense lawyer. He now plays Ernst Janning, a once highly moral Nazi judge corrupted and co-opted by the Third Reich.

Schell, as the once decent and honorable Janning, is most moving when, after being sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, he still questions whether he did anything wrong.

George Grizzard as a US judge and Joseph Wiseman as a doctor testifying against Janning are equally wonderful.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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