Whoever wins on Sunday, in these columns there are no losers. Red, of course, is the overwhelming best bet. And with good reason: its two heroic performers, who have had a year to burnish every tiny detail of their pas de deux, play out a visceral and substantive evening. The arguments presented by Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, and Oliver award-winner Eddie Redmayne as his assistant (mostly about morality, but from different perspectives) still resonate, and their priming of a huge canvas will go down as one of the great set pieces in theater history. Writer John Logan knows just how to construct a seesaw of the prickly relationship between artist and assistant so it keeps working like a clock.
Plaintive afterthought: is Molina consigned to play refuseniks whose masterpieces end up on life’s cutting room floor? His Diego Rivera (in Julia Taymor’s film Frida) was commissioned in 1932 by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural at the entrance to the RCA Building in Radio City. When he declined to remove Lenin’s portrait within it, the mural was painted over and chopped out. And Red ends with Rothko recalling the canvases he’s been hired to do for the Four Seasons restaurant, unwilling to have them hang in a “capital of consumption.” Molina makes a strong case for both artists, but who could blame him for feeling depressed? And although you can view the RCA mural only in old photos, you can see nine of the Four Seasons canvases in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern in London.
Other highlights: Claudia Shear’s newest play at the New York Theatre Workshop: Restoration. Once again, Shear has conjured up a quirky, interesting character based on her own, using her plump body, curly hair, and imperfect features to advantage. In this play, centering on the restoration of Michaelangelo’s David, they, and she, bounce off the perfection of both the artist’s masterpiece, and Jonathan Cake as her foil. It seems a natural progression from her foray into Mae West (Dirty Blonde) and her original autobiographical account of serial unemployment (Blown Sideways Through Life). She’s won a bouquet of big awards for writing and acting, and there’s really no one like her. Let’s see what happens next…
Another one-woman turn, by Anna Deavere Smith, was interesting for a whole different set of reasons: in Let Me Down Easy it was harder to see where she was going with her material at first, but soon, as it picked up speed and depth, it developed in surprising ways. Portraying characters as diverse as Lance Armstrong, Joel Siegel, Eve Ensler, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, the director of an orphanage in Johannesburg, and a Buddhist monk, the evolution of attitudes towards mortality and its acceptance gathered enormous power. As in her earlier works, the entire play was based on interviews with the real people Deavere was impersonating.
And, on a slightly different note: The Bilbao Effect, a comedy about architecture, by an architect-writer (Oren Safdie), son of architect Moshe Safdie (famous for the beautiful blocky lines and functionality of Montreal’s Habitat 67). It’s witty all right, starring a vain and villainous architect (Joris Stuyck) as Erhardt Shlaminger—a thinly-disguised sendup of Frank Gehry. Admittedly, the jokes are inside-y, and there are probably backstage scores to settle that the audience may never know, but Safdie fils has real talent, Brendan Hughes’ direction is superb, and the entire cast gets it right. The funniest moment in the play (and there are many) comes with the solemn presentation of a model of Shlamingers’s newest project. What a glorious mess! The play, at the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place, closes Sunday. Perhaps a clueless developer who misses the point will underwrite its extension at another venue? Wouldn’t that be fun!
Last Minute Entry: Sondheim on Sondheim
Life isn’t always fair! Sondheim on Sondheim has won only two nominations – for Barbara Cook (Best Performance By a Featured Actress) and for Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design) – both richly deserved. But why not for direction (James Lapine)? For set design (Beowolf Borritt) and video and projection design (Peter Flaherty)?
It’s not just the words and the music, but Sondheim himself, leading you – laughing and crying – through the second half of the 20th century. And it all comes back: seeing Company (bitter) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (sweet) the week they opened; A Little Night Music at its last preview; Follies at its Boston tryout, (when it was still only one act and wildly cutting edge); the first Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures. And the emotional impact of the Act One finale of Sundays in the Park with George, to name only a few.
Once you settle into the nostalgia trip, you realize all over again just how extraordinary Sondheim’s work is, and how well it’s served by the once-in-a-lifetime cast assembled for the limited run at Studio 54 (extended again for positively the last time until June 27). You really won’t see them all on one stage at the same time ever again. Then there’s Lapine’s conception and direction, and the visuals of Borritt and Flaherty to connect the biggest of exclamation points and subtlest of dots of Sondheim’s very complicated life. Brilliantly, from beginning to end. It’s a paradigm for how it’s done. And you can actually get virtually every syllable (certainly important for getting Sondheim) because the eight singing actors stand, sit, dance, and never forget to deliver all the way.
Ben Brantley was caustic about this show, but he was wrong. There’s no reason to be caustic when content, conception, and performance are at such a stratospheric level. No, life isn’t always fair. Just be sure you go to Studio 54 before the lights and the music disappear.