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Entertainment & Arts

In Broadway’s post-'Hamilton’ era, some shows aim big by going small

“Chris Gethard: Career Suicide”
Chris Gethard mines the tragedy -- and the dry comedy -- of depression in his one-man show, off-Broadway, “Chris Gethard: Career Suicide.”
(Clay Anderson)

Broadway last year yielded one show everyone talked about, “Hamilton,” and a lot of other shows people saw when they were sold out of “Hamilton.”

This year has no Lin-Manuel Miranda musical guzzling up all that attention on Broadway. But with the founding-father phenom now solidly in middle life, other productions have a better chance of drawing attention.

A busy fall season is peppered with productions at once crowd-pleasing and critically liked (three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien’s revival of “The Front Page”), crowd-pleasing and critically dissed (the Irving Berlin-based throwback musical “Holiday Inn”) and crowd-challenging and critically dissed (Stephen Karam’s new translation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”).

And that’s all before some anticipated openings before the end of the year, musicals like “Dear Evan Hansen” (the social-media phenomenon with orchestrations by “Hamilton’s” Alex Lacamoire) and “In Transit” (done a cappella and written by “Frozen’s” Kristen Anderson-Lopez).

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As with many recent seasons, a larger number of the shows come with celebrity names: John Goodman (“Front Page”), Diane Lane (“Cherry Orchard”), Cate Blanchett (soon to make her Broadway debut in another Chekhov work, “The Present”) and Josh Groban in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (if you’re making a Broadway debut, best to make the title count).

Plenty of familiar names are in show titles too: Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and William Finn-James Lapine’s wacky-relationship musical “Falsettos” are also among the revivals. Few, though, may hold a candle to the new work “Quietly,” recently closed at the Irish Repertory Theatre, a sizzling story about two men connected by a tragic event in Troubles-era Northern Ireland

Yet not all that glitters is gold--sometimes it’s just a painted-on set.  With the fall theater season at its midpoint, here are four pieces — three on Broadway and one off-Broadway— breaking out of the pack. Trends are always hard to detect, but one denominator stands out: None features more than two people. At a time of great visual extravaganza on screen and occasionally on stage, these shows go bold by going small.

Denis Arndt, left, and Mary-Louis Parker in “Heisenberg.”
Denis Arndt, left, and Mary-Louis Parker in "Heisenberg."
(Joan Marcus / Boneau/Bryan-Brown / AP )

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“Heisenberg.” The two-hander, that venerable stage form, has been enjoying a small resurgence in recent years with work like Nick Payne’s “Constellations.” That kind of combustibility continues with Simon Stephens’ new play.

Mary-Louise Parker is in full chatty mode — sometimes charming, sometimes unhinged — as an American abroad in London. After she meets an older man (Denis Arndt) on a London subway platform, they engage in a dance that, though it conforms to the May-December romance script sometimes and the grifter archetype another, is in fact neither. Instead it’s a show about two people neither overtly lost nor found, finding each other.

In addition to two actors at the top of their game, the work from Stephens (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) offers a chance to see the kind of meditation on love and loneliness too rarely done on modern Broadway. “We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing, don’t we?” are among Stephens’ morsels. As audiences leave the Samuel Friedman Theatre fiercely debating motivations and morals, the line couldn’t be more on-point.

“Chris Gethard: Career Suicide.” A five-minute standup act? Maybe. A therapy session? Sure. But turning a lifetime of depression into a full-blown theater piece? Seems like a tough format for most comedians.

Most comedians, though, aren’t Gethard. Movie fans may have come to the performer as the angsty member of the improv ensemble at the center of the indie hit “Don’t Think Twice.” But with numerous podcasts, a deliberately low-budget public-access show and his Upright Citizens Brigade work, Gethard, 36, has been at it a long time. He offers a kind of life opus in this off-Broadway piece at the Lynn Redgrave Theater presented by Judd Apatow.

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Much of “Career Suicide” focuses on either the tragic or the dryly comic side of Gethard’s depression — or, frequently, both at the same time: laughing-through-the-pain bits about an automotive-based suicide attempt, an alcohol-fueled college bender, his chronically inept if well-meaning therapist Barb. Oh, and he does Morrissey impressions.

Gethard provides hints he’s in a better place these days, but depression is hardly something he’s overcome, nor does he give a sense it ever will. As he notes, no one ever asks when people will “go off” chemotherapy the way they do antidepressant drugs.

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Like Gethard, “Career Suicide” is many things: a serious monologue with comedic bits, a life story with an improv artist’s soul. Spalding Gray may be the best comparison, but the performer is also, simply and uniquely, himself.

Simon McBurney in “The Encounter.”
Simon McBurney in "The Encounter."
(Joan Marcus )

“The Encounter.” You could describe this one-man show and London transfer to the John Golden Theatre on a page. But to borrow one of creator-star Simon McBurney’s go-to concepts, that only tells part of the story.  

The British writer’s look at the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in the Amazon circa the 1960s is, on its surface, a story of colliding worlds — modern and developing, new and old. But as it develops, it turns into much more. McBurney, who constructs the show with little more than himself and a lot of props and sound cues, is interested in narrative and how it plays into human endeavors like memory and history. How he’s writing the tale is as important as what he puts in it.

“Your past is also a story. And we use that story to try to predict the future,” he says, one of many lines that’s deep but not pedantic, leavened by McBurney’s sense of humor — and sound effects.

Indeed, what’s most novel about “The Encounter” is the technical: McBurney conveys his words not via stage microphones but headphones hardwired into each seat, creating a kind of audio virtual reality. McBurney wants to tell us a bedtime story. There’s no way to feel more tucked in than with his voice swirling around and whispering into our ears.

Nick Kroll, left, and John Mulaney perform “Oh Hello” in Los Angeles in March, before taking the show to New York.
Nick Kroll, left, and John Mulaney perform "Oh Hello" in Los Angeles in March, before taking the show to New York.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )

“Oh, Hello.” Sure, it seems like it was custom-made for YouTube. But John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s sketch-comedy-inspired show as the entertainingly clueless geriatric New Yorkers George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon has proved surprisingly durable on Broadway.

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Under the direction of Alex Timbers, the pair culminate their off-Broadway run and national tour at the Lyceum Theatre. The piece goes from one-liners to physical shtick to surrealist comedy as the duo make trenchant observations about the elderly and gentrification and even entertainment, like their deconstruction of hokey Broadway conventions such as the one-way phone call.

The show’s anchor is a fictional public-access piece called “Too Much Tuna.” The piece within a piece has a different guest — sometimes celebrity, sometimes not — coming on stage from the audience every night. (At the press performance I saw, Seth Meyers gamely made an appearance.) Then, just as quickly, the pair go back to their satire of matters global and artistic.

“Theater is the hot thing right now. There’s ‘Hamilton’ and … no other examples,” Faizon notes at one point. He may be wrong about that, at least.

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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