On the Culture Front: Henry IV, El Vy, The Civilians' War on Christmas, and more

The immersion into Phyllida Lloyd's meticulously crafted reimagination of "Henry IV" begins before the audience steps foot into the new home of St. Ann's Warehouse. I was cutting it close on a recent evening and walking briskly to the theater as I noticed a chain gang of prisoners being led down the street by stern-faced guards. I slipped in the main entrance a few minutes before their arrival and subsequent parade through the lobby, which was prefaced by a thundering announcement of their arrival.

Seating is organized in "blocks" to heighten the mood and guards are positioned through the theater as a reminder that the kingdom being fought over exists within the fragile boundaries of the inmates' imagination. This eerie feeling pulsates throughout the play though there are only a handful of moments that exist outside of Shakespeare's text. Clare Dunne is a particular standout in the all-female cast as next-in-line-for-the-throne Hal. When she stands on a makeshift podium, the driving desire to rule can be seen seared into her eyes.

Charles' enthusiasm gets the better of him when it's his long-overdue time to rule in Mike Bartlett's "King Charles III." Written in blank verse, the scenes flow into each other like a modern Shakespearean tragedy and farce fused together. Rupert Goold's staging blew me away when I first saw the West End production last year and am happy to say that it's made the transfer overseas without loosing any of its vigor. Tim Pigott-Smith walks a fine line between playing Charles as a man of conviction and an eccentric fool - somewhere between King Lear and Basil Fawlty. Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson channel Macbeth and his Lady in their rise to power, while Harry (Richard Goulding) is the quintessential lost soul. I've loved Bartlett's writing in the past, but this brilliant future history play is his best yet.

I could say just about the opposite for David Mamet's inconsequential "China Doll," which is little more than rambling monologue for its star, Al Pacino. Christopher Denham has the thankless task of playing his assistant, a near zero-dimensional springboard for Pacino's character's thoughts. Pam Mackinnon who's directed the transcendent revivals of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Dinner with Friends" among many others can't resuscitate this corpse, but it's hardly her fault. The writing is so inert that it allows for little more than pacing through Derek McLane's eye-popping set, which looks like a page ripped out of "Architectural Digest." I never thought I'd write this as Mamet is a master of dialogue and has crafted far too many plays of note. His sparse and biting style is one of the most definitive in the last century but sadly none of it is on display in this toothless disappointment.

Musical theater is the language of "Steve," Mark Gerrard's heartfelt comedy that confronts the existential dread of its characters' mortality with gallows humor, and of course, show tunes. It begins well before curtain as the actors stand around the stage piano singing all manner of standards, but it feels less like they're performing for us than singing to each other. This is one of Cynthia Nixon's subtle directorial touches that bring us into the world of a group of friends whose lives never reached that full boil. The music plays in contrast to or even in defiance of the malaise that hangs over their world, foreshadowing an impending storm. The result is a deeply moving and rich portrait reminiscent of Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

A.R. Gurney uses language to delight in the charming, "Sylvia." The title character and object of desire is a dog, played wholeheartedly by the boundlessly talented Annaleigh Ashford. When she barks ("Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey") you can hear the optimistic anticipation in her voice. She flits about on stage in ways that are both canine and carnal, heightening Gurney's sly sub textual comments on long-term relationships and the many forms companionship takes. What's irresistible about Daniel Sullivan's production though is its celebration of whimsy. This is truly a play where you can smile from ear to ear throughout, easily digesting the wit along with your pre-theater dinner. There should be more plays on Broadway that are truly smart fun.

On the music front, Matt Berninger's new side project, El Vy, is hitting all the right notes of sophisticated 80s-tinged pop: danceable with solid grooves and thoughtful lyrics. His baritone voice has a weight that never feels forced. When he took the stage at Bowery a couple weeks ago with partner Brent Knopf of Menomena, there was a palpable energy pulsing through the sold out crowd that had just been warmed up by the talented Wye Oak. They played just about every song on their debut album "Return to the Moon," an album that only grows more complex upon repeat listens I've heard it about a dozen times, and it's nowhere near feeling worn. Midway through they played the only cover of the night, "She Drives Me," by Fine Young Cannibals - a perfect choice as El Vy feels like the heir apparent to the new wave trio. My favorite song, "No Time to Crank the Sun," has the plodding melodic structure of a National song with a pop sheen while addressing a bit of life's existential dilemmas.

The Civilians are one of the most exciting theater companies currently working and often make the case that musicals are far more than museum pieces. The last show of theirs I saw was "Pretty Filthy," a nuanced and illuminating portrait of the porn industry. Like all their shows, characters are created out of interviews that company members conduct with real people and parts of the actual interviews are often interspersed onstage. This show like many others began as an evening of their regular cabaret series, "Let Me Ascertain You," on the elegant and intimate stage of Joe's Pub. I dropped in for their latest show this week, intriguingly titled "War on Christmas." Perhaps because I was so eagerly anticipating it, the show fell below my expectations - more a half-baked revue then an exciting spark for a new musical. I think though it's because Michael Friedman (composer and lyricist of Pretty Filthy along with just about every other Civilians musical) was largely absent. The one song he contributed, a whimsical explanation of Japan's obsession with KFC during Christmastime, was easily the highlight of the evening.