New York: Love, Loss and What I Wore; Hamlet; Superior Donuts

Now that we’ve established that I missed A Steady Rain, what did I see and, more importantly, of what I saw, what should you see?

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Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Unless you see or read everything Nora Ephron produces or are an Eileen-Fisher-wearing, lunch-date-having, Upper-West-Side-living woman over 55, you can probably miss Love, Loss, and What I Wore.

I’m in the former group, mostly because of her non-fiction – her early essays, to be more precise – and some because of When Harry Met Sally and My Blue Heaven. In the last several years, Ephron’s writing has become more specialized to her demographic group (I Feel Bad About My Neck), which is unfortunate for me since I’m 30 years younger than she is, and she’s been doing a lot more collaborating with her sister Delia, which usually spells disaster (Bewitched, Hanging Up). This play – more of a reading, really – is a combo My Demographic / Delia project.

Briefly, a woman wrote a little book for her daughter and granddaughter about defining moments in her life and illustrated it with drawings of what she was wearing at the time. It got picked up by a publisher. Nora and Delia got their hands on it, did a bunch of additional interviews with women and turned it into a five-woman show. The actresses sit on-stage and read/perform from the script.

A couple of the stories – not from the book – are touching or have some unexpected twists (breast cancer, same-sex marriage), and the cast (which switches out monthly) is high-quality enough to keep the audience’s attention, but I doubt it would have been produced without the Ephron name attached. It’s the kind of thing you go to with your aunt after you’ve had an overpriced lunch uptown. I was the youngest person – woman, actually: I think I saw two men – in the theater by, I’d bet, fifteen years.

At the West Side Theater Downstairs. Tickets. Through October 18th with Tyne Daly, Rosie O’Donnell, Samantha Bee, Natasha Lyonne, Katie Finneran. If you’re going to go, I’d go between October 21st and November 15th to catch Jane Lynch in the group.

Hamlet

I made a half-hearted effort see Michael Grandage’s (Frost/Nixon) production of Hamlet, starring Jude Law (co-interview here), in London over the summer but, predictably, it was sold out, presumably to nannies and models.

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I’ve seen a lot of Hamlet, film and theater, but what’s one more? I was curious about how Jude Law’s charm would translate to a.) a Dane, and b.) a gloomy one, at that. His public shenanigans and the characters he picks (Alfie, Sky Captain, Dickie Greenleaf, Errol Flynn) share a self-absorption and good fortune that might make for an interesting Hamlet. That view was backed up by a quote he gave a reviewer about connecting with Hamlet because both he and Elsinore’s heir “know what it’s like to be misunderstood” or words to that effect, which betray both a lack of sophistication in managing the press and an adolescent sense of self, both of which Hamlet shares.

The production moved to Broadway last month (US interview and overview here), so off I went.

The word I’d use is “accessible.” Heavy on the crazy, light on the darkness, this is a good intro Hamlet. Not too much brooding, a lot of jumping around and an excellent reading of the text. Too often, even in practiced hands, antique language can slip by, passage after passage, with only the gist of the speech understood by half the audience. I’ve done the play: I’ve dug about with directors and dramaturges locating the original meanings of colloquialisms and out-of-use words, distinguishing them from the intentional enigmas of Hamlet’s madness. That comprehension can help an actor immeasurably, but it often stops there. The audience, unschooled, smiles and nods and misses out. Not so here. Well, not so for Hamlet’s part, anyway.

Law, flexible and agile, illustrates his words to very good effect, but something of Hamlet’s agony is lost with all the physicality. Who hasn’t read an article in Self or Men’s Fitness about how exercise improves the mood? Law’s Hamlet should, by rights, be surfing an endorphin high by the middle of Act I. Aside from that, time to think is at a minimum when Hamlet is manic, reducing the tragedy to the frame of, say, a runaway train rather than the more agonizing progress through layers of guilt, filial love, maternal betrayal, aimless youth, fate vs. intentionality, political position, and all the other issues more cerebral Hamlets contend with.

I can’t say I’ve seen the definitive Hamlet – is there one? – or even one I felt did all the angles justice. I dare say most people would agree, which is why the play is so obsessively produced. There’s no getting it all in. (If pressed, I’d say Kenneth Branagh’s uncut film comes closest to including all the angles, possibly because the text remained intact. Maybe because he had the best Horatio. Wish I’d seen Simon Russel Beale.)

So yes, it’s worth a viewing, although I’m not sure it’s worth $125. Take your teenagers or novice friends, if you have them.

Gertrude and Ophelia are unfortunately forgettable, as are Laertes and Horatio, and Peter Eyre as the Ghost/Player King delivers a truly awful performance in the worst tradition of classical theater – mumbling, rushing, overblown delivery in false stentorian tones – that grates disruptively against the accessibility of the rest of the production. Ron Cook as Polonius/the Gravedigger however is quite good, chipper and precise.

Donmar Warehouse production at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, until December 6.

Superior Donuts

Tracy Letts’ new play, Superior Donuts, was never going to be August: Osage County, so it’s just as well he got it out of the way early.

For the record, August: Osage County is the best new play I’ve seen in my lifetime. I used to prevaricate on that point because it sounds like the kind of overstatement only idiots make, but, after further reflection, it is the fact of it so I’m going public with it. I went to Superior Donuts, then, as a general vote of support for Mr. Letts and knowing the play would be flawed. It’s just statistically unlikely you’d get two in a row and, as a working writer, I know it takes courage to plow ahead anyway. Write it, get it out there, move on.

Also, I have an irrational love of donuts.

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The reason to see it is Jon Michael Hill. He plays France Wicks, the young, fast-talking black kid bringing new ideas to the aging donut shop run by Arthur Przybyszewski, played by Michael McKean. He’s the only reason to see it. He has the best lines, the best arc and delivers a performance that provides the play’s only heartbeat.

I was disappointed in McKean, but I’m pretty sure that’s a result of his limited options playing the tired, been there done that role of the aging hippie and his blah blah blah principles. I’m pretty well sick to death of the sixties and the self-righteous baby boomer ideals that all went to hell in the Reagan years anyway. Thank Oliver Stone, Tom Brokaw and the sheer volume – in numbers and noise – of that generation for talking so long and loud that there’s nothing interesting left to say about themselves and their awakening. I’m not clear what Letts was after in returning to that infertile ground.

What I can say for McKean is that he has almost teleportation level abilities to move around Manhattan. R and I ran into him on 73rd and Amsterdam not half an hour after the curtain came down. Of course, that’s not a reason to go see the play, but still impressive.

In sum, the play’s eminently missable, but I’m looking forward to the next one now that “The One After Osage” is sorted.

Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street through, unbelievably and optimistically, March 28. Tickets here. Make sure you get the $49.50 deal.

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