Three Revivals

In the '50s, the influential British director Tyrone Guthrie observed that the greatest experimental theater in the world was Broadway. Unlike the West End of London, where revivals were frequent, on Broadway they were few.

Half a century has changed that. Revivals are now a major part of every Broadway season. This year there have been some especially good ones. (I must note that illness has prevented me from seeing some of them -- so the following report has to be considered incomplete.) In a culture like ours, which is so oriented toward the new, revivals remind us not just of the tastes and standards of the past but also of the style of theater of another time, which tells us something about our own.

A few months ago I wrote about the dazzling revival of Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a reminder of the extraordinary standards our musical theater had in its Golden Age. A few weeks later I was dismayed to see a critic declaring that the thoroughly adolescent Book of Mormon was to our age what Gypsy and South Pacific were to theirs. I could only read it as a condemnation of our time, but I think that was not his intent.

Doug Hughes' spot-on direction of Born Yesterday brings out the solidity of construction of Garson Kanin's 1946 play about a man who has made millions in junk trying to buy influence in Washington. What could be more contemporary? He is brought down by his mistress. He has made the mistake of hiring someone to educate her, which reinforces her own better instincts. Having practiced theater criticism during a period in which playwrights attempted to create Ill Made Plays, it was refreshing to see something so exceptionally well made.

The heart of the revival is the brilliant performance of Nina Arianda as the mistress. Comparisons with Judy Holliday, who originated the role (though it was written for Jean Arthur) and starred in the movie, are inevitable. Her Billie Dawn was coarser than Holliday's, but never caricaturish, and the coarseness only heightened our pleasure in seeing Billie become more sensitive, truly educated. Some of her choices were truly wild but she was always believable and, however hilarious, deeply believable.

Broadway's last Harry Brock was Ed Asner, who overdid the junk dealer's swinishness. Jim Belushi has plenty of swagger but he also gives Harry a kind of naive charm. Robert Sean Leonard is appealing as the reporter who educates Billie, and Frank Wood has a wonderfully forlorn quality as the corrupted lawyer. John Lee Beatty's opulent set in the manner of Dorothy Draper conveyed the period splendidly,as did Catherine Zuber's superb, never exaggerated costumes.

Only by chance did I see the revival of That Championship Season. I had not seen the original production. In those days I was still a civilian and had to pay for tickets. Nothing I read about it made me want to see it. Alas, I did see the 1999 revival, which signaled all its weaknesses. A few days before it closed I received a call from my friend John Simon, one of the critics who liked it even 40 years ago. He was going to see it again and invited me to join him. Happily, I did.

Director Gregory Mosher found understated eloquence in Jason Miller's play about the toll life has taken on the members of a trophy-winning basketball team. He had a spectacular cast in Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland. They were a true ensemble. A play that must have seemed strident in the Vietnam years now seemed a statement about the grim and sad effects of time.

Michael Yeargan's turn-of-the-20th-century living room, a reminder of a more gracious America, was perfect, as were Jane Greenwood's simple but subtle costumes.

The most revelatory of the revivals I saw was that of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, his semi-autobiographical account of the early AIDS years and his own growing activism. I first met him in 1978 when I interviewed him about his novel, Faggots, which many of my gay friends found offensive -- they thought it reinforced the worst stereotypes about homosexual men. His transformation from pariah to hero, as he fought to bring AIDS awareness to an indifferent world , would make a great play or memoir in itself.

My memory of the original production, in 1985, and a revival a few years back, both excellent, is that the play was largely polemical. But in this version, for which directorial credit is given to both Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, the political is beautifully balanced with the personal. The love story that accompanies the Kramer character's activism deepens the play's emotional power. The effect is shattering.

Here too the actors are a true ensemble, but Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks, the Kramer character, and John Benjamin Hickey, as his AIDS-stricken lover, give towering performances. Ellen Barkin plays a doctor who often seems Weeks' only ally. Her anger is radiant.

The play evokes that early, bewildering period where no one really understood what was happening, bringing with it the memory of "precious friends hid in death's dateless night."

The Normal Heart has a visceral power you seldom experience in the theater these days. A play that seemed fiercely topical when it was new has only gained resonance and depth with the passage of 25 years.