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Entertainment & Arts

Commentary: Everyone wants a piece of Broadway, but what is Broadway these days?

‘America Utopia’ starring David Byrne on Broadway
David Byrne centerstage in “American Utopia” at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre with Chris Giarmo, center left, and Tendayi Kuumba, center right.
(Matthew Murphy
)

The Broadway fall season is in full swing, and Times Square, the “crossroads of the world,” is virtually impassable. At peak performance times on weekends — meaning all day and all night — the congestion makes the 5 Freeway on a Friday evening seem like a joy ride.

While returning to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre after the dinner break during my marathon day at a press preview for Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” I found myself trapped in a thronging nightmare. Weaving around the stocky steel barriers set up to prevent the next car attack, I navigated an obstacle course of selfie-taking tourists, bullying SUVs, police officers scanning for trouble and an army of pedestrians resembling extras in a dystopian thriller. A mere three blocks felt like 30. P.S. I was born in Brooklyn.

A good many brave souls were scrambling like me to make a curtain for a play or musical. But countless others were plunging into the whirlwind to catch a movie at one of the multiplexes or purchase a pair of sneakers before leaving town for those places that apparently don’t sell any.

The Times Square area was never the exclusive preserve of theatergoers, but Broadway culture elevated the neighborhood’s rough and raffish character. Today, not even all Broadway theaters have Broadway theater happening inside them.

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Martin Scorsese “The Irishman” has taken over the Belasco Theatre for November. Some call this sacrilege, but theater purists have already had to come to terms with Broadway houses being turned over to rock stars, magicians, stand-up comics and fashion designers.

Everyone out to make a creative buck wants a piece of Broadway’s billion-dollar action. But it’s not all about greed. “Springsteen on Broadway,” taxonomy aside, was among the best shows I saw in 2017. One of the most coveted tickets this fall is David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” an artfully staged concert that doesn’t need to palm itself off as a musical to win over theatergoers.

The production, shimmering with monochromatic style, has a topnotch creative team that includes production consultant Alex Timbers, the in-demand director whose Broadway productions of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Beetlejuice” are still open for business, and choreographer Annie-B Parson, who knows how to maximize minimalist electricity. Enough praise can’t be heaped on the music-making ensemble, which seems to have sprung directly from Byrne’s ageless genius — an effect heightened by the barefoot company’s matching gray suits.

The 90-minute production flows with music from the Talking Heads to Byrne’s recent solo recording that gives the show its title. This is a hybrid work, loosely constructed around a theme: the lost and found of America’s promise.

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Does it need to be on Broadway? When “American Utopia” was in L.A. last year, it played at the Shrine Auditorium, where it was apparently right at home. Yet this show was the one my fellow theater critics kept urging me to check out as we bobbed past one another in the churning sea of the theater district. I second their recommendation.

A Saturday 5:30 p.m. curtain allowed me to sandwich “American Utopia” between two choice dramas, the sensational Tom Hiddleston-led revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and the equally gripping production of Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” at Studio 54.

“Betrayal” on Broadway with Tom Hiddleston
Charlie Cox, left, Zawe Ashton and Tom Hiddleston in “Betrayal,” now on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
(Marc Brenner)

I confess that when it was announced that Broadway was importing Pinter’s sinewy drama of marital infidelity, I let out a groan. It wasn’t that long ago that Mike Nichols’ production of “Betrayal” with Daniel Craig, Rafe Spall and Rachel Weisz was failing to live up to all its Broadway buzz. Before that, there was the misfire of many accents with Juliette Binoche, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery. Pinter’s pauses haven’t lost their menacing luster, but these two previous Broadway revivals, smacking as they did of prestige showcases for restless screen stars, didn’t shore up the standing of this 1978 play as a modern classic. Another “Betrayal” seemed to me a failure of producing imagination.

But the new production, directed by Jamie Lloyd with a fashionable sleekness containing genuine depth, may be the best I’ve seen. Hiddleston, an actor of uncommon intelligence and Pre-Raphaelite beauty (if the Pre-Raphaelites had access to the best Pilates trainers), is ably joined by Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox in a glamorous production that resonantly draws out the geometric configurations of the drama.

“Betrayal,” the story of an adulterous affair between Emma (Ashton) and Jerry (Cox), a literary agent who’s the best friend of her book publisher husband, Robert (Hiddleston), unfolds in clipped remarks and swallowed sentiments as the play travels back in time from the end of the extramarital romance to its besotted beginnings. Pinter burns away exposition to reveal the alarming mystery of human relations and the way communication is used to conceal the truth from those with the power to inflict the most pain.

The London hit “The Inheritance,” inspired by E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” and directed by Stephen Daldry, is playwright Matthew Lopez’s magnum opus.

A sign of the success of this “Betrayal” is the attentiveness with which the audience tracked the tense love triangle. I can’t remember ever hearing a Broadway audience listen so loudly. This energetic silence was an enthralling sound, affirming that language in the hands of a master playwright is still all that’s needed to seize the imagination of theatergoers.

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An elegant cast certainly doesn’t hurt. Posh English actors in a lauded London import are a familiar sight on Broadway, and they don’t get much posher than Hiddleston, whose distinguished stage resume (he was the best Coriolanus I’ve seen) exists on a parallel track with his Marvel Studios film credits.

But one of the fascinations with this “Betrayal” was taking in the changing aspect of British acting, the subtle variations in self-presentation that reveal not only character but changing mores. The ensemble lets slip more emotion in the cracks of the characters’ reserve than is customary for Pinter.

Tears glisten from time to time in the eyes of Cox’s Jerry and Ashton’s Emma, but you’ll have to pay close attention because almost as soon as they appear, they disappear. Hiddleston’s Robert, a wall of cool masculinity in the well-cut suit of a literary businessman, doesn’t weep. But he does provide a glimpse into what Robert’s implacable façade costs him.

The precision of the actors, sharpened no doubt by their film training, is mesmerizing as their characters zigzag back in time. The reverse chronology of the plot can induce a detachment in the audience, but the movement into the past is shattering here. This “Betrayal” honors Pinter by making his style seem both of his own era and of ours.

Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” on at Studio 54 on Broadway starring Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman
Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” at Studio 54 on Broadway with Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman
(Jeremy Daniel )

“The Sound Inside,” a play by Adam Rapp, asks audiences to tune in to words arranged and rearranged with scrupulous care. Like “Betrayal,” which was shaped by the verbal posturing of two men in various ends of the book business, “The Sound Inside” unspools in sentences choreographed by Bella (Mary-Louise Parker), a creative writing professor at Yale who has recently learned she has cancer, and Christopher (Will Hochman), a freshman in her fiction writing workshop who is as troubled as he is precocious.

So much of what is spoken in “The Sound Inside” is the prose ceaselessly being composed by characters who are more alive when communing with the voice inside them than when forced to converse with the workaday world. Such literate language could come off as stilted, but this two-hander is performed with unerring suppleness by Parker (in her best stage performance since her Tony-winning turn in “Proof”) and Hochman, a scene partner of invigorating freshness. Their naturalness never wavers even as the play becomes a hall of narrative mirrors, stories revealing stories revealing stories, so that the “real” and the “represented” become increasingly difficult to distinguish.

Rapp, a prolific “downtown” playwright making his Broadway debut, hasn’t a commercial bone in his body. “The Sound Inside” may be his most emotionally accessible work, yet the storytelling (much of it conducted in direct address) isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

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The production, directed with shadowy grace by David Cromer, is one of the sneakier Broadway successes this fall. The staging at Studio 54, never the most intimate of legit venues, works remarkably well. That said, “The Sound Inside” strikes me as a winning off-Broadway drama, one of those works I used to stumble upon long ago as a subscriber at Manhattan Theatre Club or Circle Rep.

The official designation of a theater shouldn’t matter, but I found myself wishing I was seeing this satisfying drama not with a Broadway audience conscious of a critically acclaimed hit but among a community of adventurous theatergoers whose dedication to off-Broadway had yielded this rare treasure.

My longing for off-Broadway culture was satisfied by a night at Playwrights Horizons, where I caught the tail end of its acclaimed run “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a new play by Will Arbery that exposes sophisticated liberal New Yorkers to a group of youngish conservatives airing out their ideological conflicts during their Catholic college reunion in Wyoming. An oratorio of voices, the play unfurls in breathless monologues gripping more for their ideological content than for the dramatic arrangement of the arguments. The personal relationships are less fully developed than the political points of view. Still, I felt grateful to be eavesdropping with an audience that hung on to every syllable as though it might shed light on the forces hijacking America’s soul.

The savviest producers have been recognizing, however belatedly, that playwrights today aren’t writing for conventional Broadway audiences. If the line between off-Broadway and Broadway seems to be blurring, it has as much to do with the richness of the nonprofit pipeline as it does with the Great White Way’s lure of media attention and money. But it’s not enough to simply relocate the work: The theatrical environment must change.

“Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris on Broadway

The cast of “Slave Play,” from left: Ato Blankson-Wood, Chalia La Tour, Joaquina Kalukango (kneeling), Irene Sofia Lucio, Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan and James Cusati-Moyer.
(Matthew Murphy)

No play is better demonstrating how this can be pulled off than Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” which made the leap uptown from New York Theatre Workshop not simply to provide a higher-profile showcase for this fiendishly inventive piece but to create a pathway for innovative African American drama in the commercial marketplace. On the stage of the Golden Theatre is a wall of mirrors compelling the audience to look at its own reflection, to take in the collective image composed of tightly packed individuals — playgoers hungry for real confrontation, who can also appreciate a few high-voltage injections of Rihanna’s “Work.”

This certainly isn’t the first time such a mirror tactic has been deployed. (Jean Genet, a writer with whom Harris shares a formal fearlessness, made valuable metatheatrical use of a looking glass in “The Balcony.”) But what’s different is revealed in what is seen: an audience that doesn’t look like a traditional Broadway audience, an audience conspicuously more diverse in age and race and social background.

As Harris’ play holds the mirror up to interracial America, the production (boldly directed by Robert O’Hara) demands that the Great White Way reexamine itself to see what it’s capable of becoming. In a bustling Broadway fall season wrestling with the future of the art form, “Slave Play” offers evidence that tomorrow has already arrived.


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