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 December 14, 2012

Solid Gold Theater

What a golden time it is for theater!

The Golden Land, the excellent Zalmen Mlotek musical about immigrants finding their way in America, has met with such approval that it’s now been extended. Get thee to the Baruch Performing Arts Center and honor your immigrant forebears who made possible your better life in America.

All right, there was no gold rush for the David Mamet play at the Golden. And you’d need a sack of gold to buy tickets for his other play -- Glengarry Glen Ross – in order to pay Al Pacino the gold he demands to deign to play Broadway.

We’d all heard for weeks that Pacino was having trouble learning his lines. Not at the performance I attended. Yes, he was halting in his first scene, but that’s the (great) way that Mamet writes dialogue. Is it possible that preview audiences mistook those stop-and-start lines for Pacino’s not knowing them? Still, Pacino is giving a 14-karat gold performance among actors who are in the 22-karat range.

Terrence McNally’s The Golden Age is set backstage in the olive-drab greenroom at the Paris theater where Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani is premiering in 1835. All right, McNally recycled a joke from his The Lisbon Traviata: “I’ve never been flat. Sharp, maybe, but flat, no.” But for a man who’s been professionally produced in New York for 48 years now, we can allow him that much latitude.

Although McNally is dealing with opera, he rarely allows his characters a stereotypical moment – even with two dueling divas and a few divos on hand. It’s a play I’d call interesting if McNally hadn’t written that “‘Interesting’ is the most insulting word when describing a work.” Actually, The Golden Age is more than that: it’s Act Two of Noises Off gone verbal in the 19th century world of opera.

In Dead Accounts, Jack (Norbert Leo Butz) would be willing to part with gold for Graeter’s Ice Cream and Skyline Chili; as any Cincinnati native can tell you, each is more precious far than gold. But how did Jack come into all this jack? Was it through a golden fleece of some financial institution? Theresa Rebeck’s play makes strong arguments for and against victimizing banks.

Butz’s droning way of drawing out a line still remains at the top of his bag of tricks. Katie Holmes must be applauded for wanting a Broadway career when she doesn’t need even a sliver of gold to survive, but she gives a rather leaden performance that reeks of high school. Broadway shouldn’t be a place for on-the-job training. Having the sterling Jayne Houdyshell sharing the same stage with Holmes further exposes the young actress’ weaknesses.

The gold in Melissa Jane Gibson’s What Rhymes with America can be found on the costumes that the divine Da’Vine Joy Randolph wears. She plays a supernumerary at the opera, so she’s bedecked as a Valkyrie in one scene and one of Aida’s handmaidens in another. But the story really concerns her fellow supernumerary – Hank (the effective Chris Bauer), who’s going through a painful divorce.

(Is there any other kind?)

We see that Hank’s teenage daughter (the astonishing Aimee Carrero) isn’t having an easy time of it, proving two of Sondheim’s lyrics: “Children will listen” to their mothers and fathers fighting en route to becoming “the children you destroy together.”

Hank decides to move on, mostly because he’s attracted to Lydia, an encyclopedia of neuroses (as Seana Koefoed accurately plays her). He manages to get her into bed, and the scene that follows is at once hilarious, heartbreaking and honest. Hank proves that getting over a ruined relationship isn’t easy, and that many a man would pull out the gold from his tooth-fillings to make matters right with his wife.

Volpone quickly shows the title character (a delightful Stephen Spinella) holding a nice chunk of gold. It shines as brightly as the superb cast in the Red Bull Theater production at the Lortel.

The story, you’ll recall, has Volpone pretending to be at death’s threshold so that his “friends” will give him their gold – or more. Corvino is willing to lend out Celia – his wife. How funny Michael Mastro is at showing that if gold is involved, fidelity is not even for your mate.

Volpone’s servant Mosca pits each fortune hunter against the other. “I’ll have your tongue tipped with gold,” he tells one, but Cameron Folmar, who plays Mosca, is the one with the golden tongue. What a compelling performance!

Tovah Feldshuh – who struck gold in Golda’s Balcony some years ago – returns to comedy and is just as hilarious as she was as the jealous wife in Lend Me a Tenor. Those performances got her two of her four Tony nominations. Of course she won’t get one for this off-Broadway show, but she is entitled to at least a gold star.

The season closer for the Golden Anniversary season for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is one worthy of its 50 years: Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 hit Trelawny of the “Wells.” Rose (the extraordinary Nisi Sturgis) is a West End star who’s haunted by her actress-mother’s advice: “Rose, if you can get out of it, do it.” Of course, that was said by a performer who was far less successful than Rose, and at a time when middle age was forthcoming and the parts were not. So when highborn Arthur Gower (the endearing Jordan Coughtry) gives Rose the golden opportunity of marrying into a world of pleasure and privilege, she grabs it.

That thrusts Rose into a dull family, with a grandfather who looks down on “troubadors” and a maiden great-aunt who, when she approaches the dinner table, demands that “Everybody rise!” in a way that would make Elaine Stritch quake. And if you think that’s something, how about this rebuke to Rose: “Young ladies do not sneeze continuously!” Moral of the story: where life in the theater is concerned, still, you shouldn’t trade it for a sack of gold.

That’s what this production is worth, too, under always-efficient Bonnie J. Monte’s direction. And, oh, don’t miss the part about a show being canceled because the main backer died just before rehearsals were to begin. Sound familiar?

Also celebrating a golden anniversary in New York theater is Penny Fuller. On Dec. 5, 1962, she opened -- and closed – in an immediately forgotten one-performance Broadway flop The Moon Besieged, in which she originated the role of “Wedding Guest.” On Dec. 5, 2012, Fuller was performing in 13 Things about Ed Carpolotti, the one-woman musical that Barry Kleinbort wrote and directed for her.

Fuller played Mrs. Ed Carpolotti before – in 1995, when she had one of the three monologues in Jeffrey Hatcher’s Three Viewings, mourning the loss of her husband (and mourning the mess he left her in, too).

Kleinbort has expertly musicalized moments that were once said in passing. Hatcher’s quick reference to the Martin-and-Lewis film My Friend Irma has become a show-stopping tour-de-force song. The one that Fuller has at show’s end may well be the most beautiful song we’ve heard all season long. Catch Golden Child at the Signature before it closes on the 16th. David Henry Hwang takes us to 1918 China, when a person in trouble looked to heaven and asked her dead parents “What terrible things did you do to make my life go so wrong?”

That happens during a flashback. The play starts with an old woman being taped by her grandson. When she hears her voice played back, she insists “That doesn’t sound like me” – as we all did the first time we heard our recorded voices. What a clever way for Hwang to establish universality among people.

Taping people’s voices is certainly better than binding their feet, which is certainly discussed in this script. So is marriage. Here Eng Tieng Bin follows the Chinese tradition of having multiple wives. The imperious First Wife (a riveting Julyana Soelistyo) loves her station, but, oh, does she compromise her own principles to maintain it. “In secret is where all the important things of the world happen,” she says, utterly inured to what that means.

The evil Second Wife (the ever-fascinating Jennifer Lim) enjoys criticizing the others – even if the best shot she can take at Third Wife is “Her modesty is absolutely shameless.”

But Third Wife (the lovely Leslie Hu) isn’t bringing up the rear. She’s Eng Tieng Bin’s favorite. Hence, the present he brings home from a business trip is the best one: a phonograph and some (gold?) records.

Three women competing for the ineffectual and ordinary Eng Tieng Bin! As Ira Levin’s Joanna said of one of the Stepford husbands, “He’s nothing!” But in this culture, even the wimpiest of men reigns. Or so he thinks. Poor Eng Tieng Bin learns that trying to please three women is six times harder than pleasing one (which isn’t easy, either). See which wife comes out golden in this engaging revival.

Finally, Golden Boy. Alas, I missed the press date, and will not attend until next month. But most everyone I’ve spoken to has essentially agreed with what Marilyn Cooper sang in I Can Get It for You Wholesale: “Odets is really great.”

That musical, incidentally, marked the golden anniversary of its closing last Saturday. How about of revival of that – or Golden Rainbow or, (much) better still, The Golden Apple? Then we’d really be rolling in gold.

         — Peter Filichia


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