Sunday, May 14, 2017

Spring Roundup, Part II: Anastasia and A Doll's House Part 2

Time was when a middle-of-the-road, slightly overstuffed show like Anastasia would have sent me into paroxysms of self-righteous outrage, but I'm older, wiser, wearier, and maybe a titch less self-righteous these days. Plus, there's so much other stuff--more urgent, meaningful, relevant stuff--to get outraged about lately. Anyway, despite its vanilla predictability and its failed attempt to successfully emulate the very slickest of Disney's slick confections, I just couldn't muster the energy to get mad at--or even mildly irked by--Anastasia.

Joan Marcus
Sure, the musical doesn't quite nail the landing. But it zips along amiably enough, features sturdy and committed performances from its large and uniformly buff cast, has lots of fluid scene changes, and boasts some genuinely beautiful costumes. It's not really all that funny or deep, but it does a lot of what big splashy, classic Broadway musicals do well. Anastasia strikes me as a perfectly good show to see if you're coming in from (or hosting people from) out of town, have never seen a Broadway show before, have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and want to dip your toe in without thinking too hard or taking out a second mortgage on your house for top Hamilton tickets. It's shiny and pretty and consistently engaging, and the audience really seemed to have a great time watching it.

Count my daughter among the thrilled crowds. For some reason that I think relates to dim memories of one of the many films this musical was inspired by, she really wanted to see Anastasia when we found ourselves hanging out during spring break with nothing much to do. She wanted to see it so much, in fact, that she agreed to have lunch and attend the show with no one in tow but her boring, lame mom, which is a rare event these days (she's 14). Anastasia might not have been my cup of tea (she drinks a lot of tea, by the way; I much prefer coffee), but my starry-eyed, dreamily romantic girlie loved every goopy, attractive minute of it. She's even thinking she'd like to see it again.

Maybe that, in the end, is why I just couldn't muster much but fond if slightly bemused appreciation for Anastasia. Watching my daughter watch it--from front-row seats that allowed us both to watch the stage and the pit simultaneously!--was well worth the (reduced) price of admission. In sum: See it, if you have the time and the desire--ideally, with your favorite moony, uncomplicatedly romantic teen.

A Doll's House Part 2
Brigitte Lacombe
Lucas Hnath has had three major productions of his shows in New York in pretty rapid succession: The Christians and Red Speedo both ran off Broadway last year, and A Doll's House Part 2, which marks his Broadway debut, is currently wowing critics (if not, alas, packing houses) at the Golden. Hnath is a very good playwright, and while I remain fond of The Christians, I would argue that this is the best of the three.

It doesn't hurt that for his Broadway debut, the producers brought out the big guns in terms of both directorial and acting talent. Sam Gold directs, and the cast is a slam-dunk: Chris Cooper, Condola Rashad, Jayne Houdyshell, and Laurie fucking Metcalf, all of whom are typically exceptional at what they do.

And despite widespread concerns that writing a sequel to a classic--especially one as monumental as A Doll's House--is a ballsy, foolish move on anyone's part, Hnath does a fine job of making this piece very much his own. His writing is fluid and smart and often very funny. Much like a lot of mainstream postmodern shows to run in New York these days (Hamilton comes immediately to mind, as does the equally brilliant if far less hot Guards at the Taj), the four characters remain rooted to the past, but speak to one another like we talk at present. This trend doesn't always work, but here, it does quite well: in particular, it links social and cultural issues and mores past and present, and also helps level the playing field for spectators, many of whom presumably know the Ibsen play very well, and some who really, really don't.

My one quibble isn't entirely fair, and rests more with Hnath's entire ouevre than it does with this particular sample. It's beginning to occur to me that Hnath works with more or less the same blueprint for every play of his I've seen at this point: Take a large, thorny cultural or social issue (conflicting concepts of Hell in contemporary Christianity; the widespread prevalence of doping in the professional sports world; the strictures of marriage); introduce characters who will debate it for about 90 minutes; end firmly but not resolutely enough that there can't be room for strenuous debate over drinks after the curtain call.

This is, of course, by no means a bad blueprint for a play, and as one who has never written one--let alone one remotely as good as all three of Hnath's are--who the hell am I to judge? Further, to be fair, the characters in A Doll's House are richer and more three-dimensional than some of those in his earlier works, which makes me hopeful that he's growing and developing as he writes. Nevertheless, I hope Hnath moves well beyond this mold--if only because, selfishly, I'd like to see his future works without ever souring on them.

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