Earlier this Broadway season, Jim Parsons starred as an incarnation of the supreme being in the funny if somewhat hollow An Act of God, sardonically trotting out one-liners with heavenly timing honed on his hit sitcom. (The play is being brought back next month, with the original Jim Parsons--the divine Sean Hayes--as the star.) And now, yet another gay sitcom actor has descended onto the stage in the guise of an all-powerful figure who everyone prays to (while cursing and making outrageous demands of him). In the revival of Becky Mode's 2000 comedy Fully Committed, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (five time Emmy nominee for playing Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family) is a NYC restaurant reservation clerk named Sam, and unlike Parsons, he does not have two male angels helping him with his tasks. In fact, Ferguson does all the characters--almost 40 of them--by himself, whether they're begging for reservations or telling them to buzz off!
The set has a mass of dining chairs hanging from the ceiling in a cluster, making this look like an Ionesco-flavored adaptation of the current, scaled down Color Purple revival. But it's actually about a flustered gay actor--who's landed a Pippin tour and a Neosporin commercial, but not much else--manically carrying out his daytime duties in the basement office, where he juggles calls from VIPs, wannabes, and losers, all vying for seats and success. In the intermissionless 75-minute play--which has been updated with references to Yelp, Open Table, and Chopped--Ferguson uses the full space and his complete physicality, delving into an array of characters with impressive precision and focus. There's Gwyneth Paltrow's chirpy assistant, making sure Gwynnie isn't served legumes, "and also, no female wait staff at the table." There's the egotistical chef, rhapsodizing about his monkfish livers and frozen polenta, while wondering how much higher his cookbook is than Bobby Flay's on the sales chart. And there's Sam's brother, urging him to come home and spend the first Christmas together without mama, rather than stay in that basement hellhole one more day.
Today, when phones ring less frequently than Liza Minnelli's bells, it's weird to see a play centered on a nonstop array of dial tones. But what the calls represent is the endless striving of people seeking validation on the social scene, using food as another route to status, much like the menu-obsessed characters in American Psycho. (Yes, they're that insistent and crazy.)
The problem is that the characters are all just that--characters, with over the top accents and big mannerisms. As performed by Ferguson and directed by Jason Moore, they're caricatures who don't always convince as human beings--even these human beings. The well rehearsed and endlessly game Ferguson does keep things full of gusto--he's fully committed, all right. Alas, the result feels a little underbaked. Maybe this show should be on a double bill with Waitress?
JESSICA LANGE SCORES IN THE ORIGINAL AMERICAN HORROR STORY
A sublime actress on screen, Jessica Lange showed shaky stage chops in 1992 as fading belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire; she was barely audible and her character seemed to already have had a complete breakdown when the play started. Flash forward to her Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's family psychodrama Long Day's Journey Into Night, and she's way more textured and effective. The 1942 autobiographical classic--in a Jonathan Kent directed production full of autumnal colors--is drenched in foghorns, alcohol, illness, and morphine as family members lacerate each other with recriminations and fears, all in one summery Connecticut day. Mary, fresh off treatment for being a "dope addict," seems giddy and confident, until her sons start noticing that her addictive behavior has returned. They're no prizes either. Excitable actor dad (Gabriel Byrne) cuts down his failed son James Jr. (Michael Shannon, using his quirks as a deeply pained character) for being a drunk and a wastrel, and Edmund (John Gallagher Jr.) keeps trying to convince his denial-prone mom that he's dying of consumption like her dad did, as she yelps and turns away. The parents go at it, too--screaming exposition at each other, while realizing that we are all the sum of what the past has made us. ("The past is the present," says Mary in a rare moment of lucidity. "It's the future too.") One suspects that the characters have hashed these topics out over and over again--including in their minds--but the repetitiveness is haunting as they keep grappling to make amends with the horrors that have taken residence in their psyches.
The three hour and 45-minute production is the past, present, and the future--it's a long sit, not for the ADD or Bright Star crowds. But the actors are committed (if occasionally too actorly) and Jessica effectively captures the woman's isolation, loneliness, and regret. The second half amps up the booze, emoting, incriminations, and dark humor. Mary disappears for a long time, then comes back, dementedly, as a little girl (her old self) desperate to be a nun. She's Blanche DuBois again, after the breakdown.
IT'S "HONEYSUCKLE TIME" FOR AUDRA MCDONALD
A backstage musical about the creation and impact of a groundbreaking 1921 African American musical leads to the season's most unwieldy title, Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 andAll That Followed. The result, like the title, is dazzling but a little unfocused; eye popping but somewhat exasperating, while providing a "wow" of theatrical juice.
The show takes you through Shuffle Along's inception, auditions, rehearsals, and performances, right through the dalliances, money woes, dramatic rifts, and washups. With chapter titles spelled out above the stage, the show moves chronologically forward, buoyed by the fluid direction of George C. Wolfe (who wrote the new book) and rousing choreography courtesy of Savion Glover's, making for some startlingly good numbers, gussied up in fine tech elements.
"When would we finally be invited inside?" wonders one character, anxious to break into the big-time biz. "A hit Broadway show changed all that," responds another creator. As if out of one of those old Hollywood biopics about songwriting partners, the original show's writers, F. E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter), align with composers Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) for creative sparks and personal drama. One of the major plot points is that Blake is married, but has a long running affair with the show's leading lady, a no-nonsense soprano named Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald in a having-fun mode). Another is the racism that has to be endured--as in the weird phenomenon of black actors wearing blackface (to put on another face, as it were) and also the fact that Shuffle Along brazenly broke the unspoken rule that you weren't supposed to portray black people in love; blacks had to be shown as "beastly or buffoonish".
Everything keeps moving and entertaining--with the help of narration--but it doesn't really mount, so you savor the fine moments, like Audra letting loose on a number where she purrs, "Oh, daddy. Oh, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa" and later scoring when coaching a younger singer, Florence Mills (an appealing Adrienne Warren), who ends up being an international superstar, as Lottie broods.
The show develops more gravitas in Act Two, but, some of the characters' freakouts don't seem properly motivated. (Billy Porter does a tear-down-the-house 11 o'clock number that feels unearned by the script. Also, his prissy character's sardonic comment, "Yes, I did have a wife" doesn't feel like it's in character.) But the show is lifted by its aspirations, theatrical flair, and talented ensemble, making it one of the season's must-sees. As a luscious entertainment, it truly shuffles along.
TUCK FOR THE TIME BEING
Photo Courtesy of Alliance Theater
The third heartwarming, small town musical in a row (after Bright Star and Waitress) is Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babitt's novel. No, it's not about an old drag queen who's been tucking forever. It's about a frisky girl named Winnie who wants to have more fun, so she runs away from home, where she meets a 102-year-old guy who looks 17--sort of like Joan Rivers. His family worries that she's caught on to their secret--the rejuvenating powers of spring water--so they kidnap her, paving the way for a shady carnival barker in a yellow suit ("an evil banana") to try to manipulate things even more diabolically.
I wanted to hate the show because at first it seemed theme-park ready, had Renaissance Fair-like choreography, and was a bit like a Holly Hobby version of a Hallmark movie. But I slowly conceded that there's a rousing number called "Partners in Crime," Fred Applegate is fun as the deadpan Constable, and the ballet finale tacking Winnie's future is sure to get people talking. (By the way, Tim Federle, who did the teen theater queen novel Better Nate Than Ever, cowrote the script.) But will this thing run forever? Probably not. "Cute" doesn't age well, and this show seems geared strictly for kids (and the parents they drag along on a leash). Meanwhile, Jesse Tyler Ferguson needs to get his hand on that spring water. Imagine what Gwynnie would pay for a bottle?
MY TONY NOMINATION PREDICTIONS! LEARN IT!
And that's the end of the season, folks. Honoring the best of the bunch, the Tony noms will be announced Tuesday morning in one of my big gay events of the year. Here's my best educated guess as to what they might be. (And yes, I saw everything.)