Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Great Play

There's a terrific, powerful play and it's actually playing on Broadway. What, you ask? Have we returned to the days when Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and others, graced the New York Theater District? 

The Ferryman is a full three-acter that premiered last year in London and is the product of playwright Jez Butterworth, who's English but with strong roots in Ulster, where the play is set.  It tackles what was happening in Northern Ireland to a farm family in Armagh in the time of the Troubles. A man disappeared in 1971, his body turned up ten years later, and his large family with what it means, as well as some IRA men.

The plot thickens and develops with superb performances by a large cast, many of whom were in the original production and draw on Irish backgrounds. Butterworth, joined by renowned director Sam Mendes, who ran London's Donmar Warehouse, manages the many actors on the stage together well and as one critic concluded, in a rave notice, brings it all to an explosive finale. 

He compared it to Jacobean tragedy, such as those by Thomas Middleton. If you've ever seen Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, you'll realize that things never get as gruesome as in that drama, but the ending is truly powerful, but the steady buildup to what happens then is well conceived.

A few years ago, I happened to see Butterworth's play, Jerusalem, when passing through London. It was a well-drawn picture of British counterculture which worked largely due to the casting of Mark Rylance in the leading role. Rylance is likely the finest actor working today and he's always worth seeing. I didn't think the play would make it in the States, even in New York, because it was very British, but it did come to Broadway and got good notices. However, it did not attract strong audiences and played only a limited run.

Later in the day, we stuck around and enjoyed a musical comedy, The Prom, which also received some good reviews. It's light but the writing is often clever, the songs are pleasant, and the players enjoyable, especially Beth Leaval as a leading lady of the theatre trying to save her reputation after getting disastrous notices by "doing good deeds" as the Wizard of Oz put it.

It's Broadway musical comedy wrestling with social issues--here it's gay high school students coming out in the Midwest--and the blend works better than does the injection of social concerns in the somewhat dated British postwar mystery, An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley, which we saw in D.C. recently. This musical is good spirited and enjoyable, even getting me to ignore the current Broadway reliance on excessive amplification for once.

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