By Karen Isaacs
Of the 40 or so shows I saw in NYC in 2017, which were my favorites
Come from Away
In 2017, I needed a show that reminded me of people’s goodness and caring. Come from Away did just that without being manipulative nor saccharine. The show combined extraordinary direction by Christopher Ashley, fine cast with Jenn Colella as a standout and a enjoyable score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. I was delighted it was a hit.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
I had missed the various off-Broadway incarnations of this show, but the one at the Imperial Theater was amazing. I loved how the theater was totally transformed into a Russian café and the cast was all around me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of musical genres and was delighted with Josh Groban’s performance as the depressed and lonely Pierre. I only regretted the limited awards it won and the producers’ missteps that led to its early departure.
The Band’s Visit
David Yazbek’s score and this sweet, gentle story—though occasionally slow – again reminds us of people’s innate kindness. Plus it featured an astounding performance by Katrina Lenk.
I won’t say this is a definitive production of this classic musical, and Bette Midler may not be the perfect Dolly, but what a show it was. She is an amazing performer and the rest of the cast was able to hold own against her star power. Brava!
My runner-up Musicals
Of, the Broadway musicals that opened or were revived, I enjoyed War Paint the best. To see Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole together was wonderful. Plus I found the score delightful.
Off-Broadway, John Kander (with new partner Greg Pierce) tackled a tough subject in Kid Victory. The return of a teen boy who was abducted and held captive by a predator before being returned to his conservative, religious family. Karen Ziemba as the mother and Jeffrey Denham as the predator were terrific.
My Top Plays
The back story of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accords signed in 1993 might not seem made for theater, but playwright J. R. Rogers, director Barlett Sher and a top notch cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle turned this into a fascinating and suspenseful drama.
I saw this play at Yale Rep and was entranced; the magic continued on Broadway with this spectacular ensemble cast and a fascinating look at a piece of forgotten American theater history.
Lynn Nottage play about blue collar workers losing their economic footing in 21st century America made me want to cry. It was real, it touched the economic issues and the personal ones. It featured another terrific ensemble cast.
A strong ensemble cast led by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden plus superb direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and a great set by David Gallo brought out all the strengths in this August Wilson play.
This revival of William Nicholson’s play about the unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. It also featured a fine cast and set – that easily would have garnered praise on Broadway.
The Little Foxes
I saw Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie and wished I had also seen them in the opposite roles. They were terrific as were the entire cast including Richard Thomas as Horace. The production was both chilling in its depiction of greed and spell binding.
In the runner-up category, I’d include
Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht were all terrific in this revival of Arthur Miller’s play, directed by Terry Kinney. I found that Danny DeVito was over-the-top as the antique dealer, detracting from the piece.
Kevin Kline made this revival a must see. He WAS the perfect actor to play Gary Essendine. Of course, the fabulous set and the strong performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel added to the fun.
The Home Place
It isn’t Brian Friel’s best play, but this production at the Irish Rep was so good and focused on such interesting topics that any failings of the play were easily overlooked.
The Man from Nebraska
Pitch perfect performances by Reed Birney and Annett O’Toole as a conventional man who loses his faith and his wife, made this Tracy Lett’s play at Second Stage riveting. Lett shows us what happens when those who always follow the rules, stop doing so, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. Birney and O’Toole also did not take the easy road in their performances.
By Karen Isaacs
Two outstanding actresses are alternating roles in the current revival of The Little Foxes now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are each playing Regina and Birdie in this excellent production directed by Daniel Sullivan.
I only saw one performance, so this review will focus on Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie. Regina is the larger and showy part; but Birdie has an exceptional scene in the third act that any actress would want to perform.
Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes gives us a tale of greed and duplicity as two brothers and a sister try to build their fortune in the post-Civil War south. The Hubbards are striving upward mainly by stepping all over people. Ben and his brother, Oscar, have built wealth by overcharging, cheating and general unethical business behavior.
Their sister, Regina, has married a banker but she wants more. She wants to move to Chicago and be part of society there. These are people who have “made it” and have no compassion. Whatever they want they will take, by any means necessary.
The play opens at Regina’s home. Her husband has been at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for five months with a heart condition, but it seems that only their teenage daughter, Alexandra, and the two loyal black servants, care. Regina certainly doesn’t except that she needs her husband to provide $75,000 so that she can be an equal partner with her two brothers in a deal with a northern business man. They plan is to build a cotton mill in the town; it will make then rich.
But Horace, Regina’s husband, has not responded to her letters and has said nothing about agreeing to invest. She and the brothers are nervous; the deal must be completed soon. So among the family squabbling and negotiations she decided to send her daughter to Baltimore to bring Horace home. This is after she has forced her brothers to give her more than one-third of the ownership; she knows they don’t want outsiders involved.
While the brothers are antsy for the deal, they are also suspicious that Horace doesn’t want to participate. Plus Oscar is unhappy that Regina’s larger share is coming from his portion. But he has another plan in mind; in fact, he has two. His ne’er-do-well son, Leo works at the bank and through snooping knows that Horace has more than enough bonds in a safe deposit box that could be used to consummate the deal. Neither of the two older men are averse to “borrowing” those bonds. Yet Oscar has another plan up sleeve: he wants Regina to agree to Alexandra marring Leo.
Once the ill Horace arrives home, exhausted, Regina badgers him to get him to agree. He’s angry when he learns that Ben and Oscar have promised the factory owner low wages and no strikes.
Two weeks later, Horace is still not doing well (he has a serious heart condition) and he still has not agreed to provide the money. But he has discovered the bonds are missing from his safe box and he knows that Leo took them. He tells Regina that while he won’t force the brothers to give her a share, he will leave her the bonds in his will: she can then collect the $80,000 from her brothers. This is nowhere near the riches she has her heart set on. After an act of unmitigated cruelty the play ends with Regina being subtly threatened by both her brothers and Alexandra.
Regina is the central role in this play; she can be charming when she wants to be, but she also has an iron will and a cold heart. She will not be thwarted. As Linney plays her, there is not a spark of human kindness in her veins. Her very erect posture shows us she will not bend to anyone – her husband, her brothers, or her daughter. She will get what she wants. If there is a criticism of Linney’s performance, it would be that it is almost too cold; the charm seems so obviously fake, that you don’t see why Horace fell for it long ago or why the Chicago industrialist falls for it in the first scene.
Birdie is a sympathetic character and can be symbolic of the Southern gentry that have seen their wealth and status diminished to those who have no ethics. She is bullied and abused by her husband, ignored by the rest of the family and often shrinks into the background simply observing the machinations of the Hubbard siblings.
But Cynthia Nixon gives us such a multi-layered performance, that even when she off to the side, you can barely keep your eyes off of her. She may be defeated, but there is a spark of life and determination in her. Nixon mines this for the scene in act three where she tells of how she has survived and counsels Alexandra to avoid her fate. Rather than just pity her, you want to cheer her.
Richard Thomas is outstanding as Regina’s husband, Horace. He doesn’t appear until act two (this is a three act play), but he absolutely convinces you both of nearing death and of his realizations about Regina. He is a man who knows he will die soon and want to make right what he can; this includes thwarting Regina. Thomas doesn’t overplay the illness, and thankfully director Sullivan has staged his final moments out of sight of the audience; diminishing what can be a melodramatic moment.
In fact this entire cast is very good. Michael McKean gives us a steely Ben who will bide his time to get back at Regina; Darren Goldstein is Oscar, the brother that both Ben and Regina out-maneuver; you see that he has less of the polish than the others and thus his bully nature is clearer.
In addition Michael Benz gives us the pampered Leo as the youthful cad-in-the-making that he is. His opposite is Francesca Carpanni as Alexandra. She seems to have missed her mother’s manipulativeness, except with her ominous curtain line. The two servants, who often seem the most aware are given fine performances by Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner.
The production values are excellent from the impressive mansion by Scott Pask complete with a curving staircase that allows for wonderful entrances, to the costumes by Jane Greenwood, the lighting by Justin Townsend, and the sound by Fitz Patton.
What is most impressive is the way director Daniel Sullivan has kept the play from becoming an over-wrought melodrama. Everything is held in check and balanced.
I can only imagine how the production with Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie might be. I suspect it would be equally good.
The Little Foxes is at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. It will run through July 2. Tickets are available through Telecharge.