Eye on Theatre: Actors in Command By JOHN SIMON

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MandB1 Virginia Kull as Carol Penn, Frank Langella as Gregor Antonescu and Adam Driver as Basil Anthony in Man and Boy. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.>>>

The gifted British dramatist Terence Rattigan, author of several memorable plays, thought that “Man and Boy” (1963) would be his magnum opus, to be remembered even fifty years later. He was partly right. The current revival comes 48 years later, but the play was forgotten for 47 since its poor showing in London and outright flop in New York. This despite the lead, the shady Romanian magnate Gregor Antonescu, being played by one of the great stage and screen charmers, Charles Boyer.

MandB2 <<<Frank Langella as Gregor Antonescu in Man and Boy. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

So what do we have now, with Frank Langella playing that bravura role? The character, loosely modeled on the notorious Swedish millionaire swindler Ivar Kreuger, was imagined by Rattigan as the very “Devil.” Now the devil, or diabolic characters, can work handily onstage—think Iago or Goethe’s and Gounod’s Mephistopheles, among others.

MandB3 Frank Langella as Gregor Antonescu and Adam Driver as Basil Anthony in Man and Boy. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.>>>

Gregor, though, does not quite make it in a play whose main plot elements do not smoothly mesh. One is the love-hate for his father by Basil (Adam Driver), who escaped home five years ago and was given out for dead by his parent. Another is Gregor’s desperately needing a merger with a homosexual American tycoon, Mark Herries (Zach Grenier), toward which he endeavors to palm off his heterosexual son as a young gay lover, whom he is willing to share with Herries. A third is Gregor’s peculiar relationship with his current wife, Florence (Francesca Faridany), whom he has lovelessly turned into a fake countess. Fourth are Gregor’s relations with his chief henchman, Sven Johnson (Michael Siberry), a tough enforcer, loyal almost, though not quite, to the end.

MandB4 <<<Adam Driver as Basil Anthony, Frank Langella as Gregor Antonescu, Michael Siberry as Sven Johnson, and Zach Grenier as Mark Herries in Man and Boy. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

It may also be problematic that none of these characters, not even Basil, reluctantly willing to collude in his father’s rotten scheme, is ultimately sympathetic. The chief burden for empathy falls on Gregor, whom Langella makes interesting, but not quite lovable even in villainy, as he should be.

MandB5 Frank Langella as Gregor Antonescu and Adam Driver as Basil Anthony in Man and Boy. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.>>>

Langella is a fascinating actor as long as he plays Langella, which he generally does. This was just fine when he was playing, say, Richard Nixon, but somewhat less so when he was St. Thomas More. He comes across much the same as More and Antonescu: we get the same grander than life gestures, the same orotund rhetoric, and the same mid-Atlantic accent, hardly Romanian—all of which function well enough other things being equal. Here they do not: we get a magnificent ham, but a ham still.

Maria Aitken has decently directed a highly competent cast, all of them, however, suffering from not enough to work with. What comes off best is Derek McLane’s brilliant design of a Greenwich Village basement pad in 1934. But this not being a musical, you can’t exit humming the scenery.

Mountaintop1 <<<Kenny Leon, Samuel L. Jackson, and Katori Hall listen intently as leading lady Angela Bassett discusses her illustrious career. Photo credit: Bruce Glikas.

“The Mountaintop,” by Katori Hall, a black woman playwright, is her imagining of Martin Luther King’s last night of life at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Samuel L. JaJackson as King, and pretty Angela Bassett as a motel maid who brings him his last supper and stays on for chitchat, give their usual polished performances, but have even less to sustain them than the cast of “Man and Boy.”

The producers and press agent urgently request reviewers not to give away the final twists. They are pretty shoddy, preposterous twists, too costly even gratis. So instead of discussing the ending, which, phony as it is, is still the only thing of interest here (other than, perhaps, the revelation that God is female), let me focus on the beginning.

It consists of King coming into his motel room on a blustery night, and yelling from the threshold to the invisible Abernathy to bring him some Pall Malls. That regrettably never happens, even though it would have constituted the dramatic climax. King now paces about the room, twice reading out loud the opening of his next oration: “Why America is going to hell.” After the second time, he ducks into the invisible bathroom, where, as the text stipulates and the production delivers, “We hear him urinate.”

Now I ask you: How good can a play be that begins with a loud and clear urination? Such, I would say, that we wouldn’t even need to bother with those allegedly amazing final twists.

I have scant space left for “Motherhood Out Loud,” consisting of 19 sketches about sundry aspects of maternity by 13 playwrights. Some of these are very well known, like Beth Henley and Theresa Rebeck; none of them are tyros. There is even a good skit about two male homosexuals adopting a baby by a surrogate mother. 

Preponderantly well written by all 13, and tidily directed by Lisa Peterson, this makes for 90 minutes of solid and diverse entertainment. Three of the actors—Mary Bacon, Saidah Arrika Ekulona and James Lecesne—are very fine indeed; the fourth, Randy Graff, is sublime.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a   PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.

To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

 

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Actors in Command By JOHN SIMON

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