Seasons Come, Seasons Go, But Theater is Forever

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“Autumn in New York-it spells the thrill of first-nighting.”
–Vernon Duke

Mark Rylance
Yes, it’s Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night.

Just shy of 80 years ago Vernon Duke set those words to his “Autumn in New York” melody for the revue Thumbs Up. Of course, he meant the 1934 sentiment as a reference to the launch of a new theater season.

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Times have changed. Theater seasons are not what they used to be. Indeed, the very idea is obsolete. Despite awards given on a nod to the start and finish of seasons as defined in the quickly receding past, there is now really no beginning and no end to any theater season. While back in that theater day there was virtually no off-Broadway and certainly no off-off-Broadway (though there was out of town), the reality these days is that there’s just one long, never-ending New York City season.

Also back then, there was no air-conditioning, which meant that when summer rolled around, theaters shuttered. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne could leave for their Ten Chimneys, their Genesee Depot, Wisconsin home. Helen Hayes could relax in Nyack.

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Having said all this, I have to admit late-summer-early-fall September still spells the thrill of first-nighting for me. Hope for great nights on, off- and off-off-Broadway springs eternal in my breast. And it’s a good thing, since family and friends as well as people who’ve just learned I know something about theater regularly ask me what they should be buying tickets for.

I always make a few suggestions, while pointing out that if past miscalculations are any indication, my guess isn’t much better than theirs. Indeed, as will be itemized below, I’m psyched to appreciate just about everything coming along-even discounting discouraging advance word of any sort.

There are, though, instances when I’m completely confident about a recommendation, because I’ve viewed something due in Manhattan in London, Princeton, New Haven, Westport or elsewhere. That’s why my preeminent recommendation for the coming months is the Twelfth Night/Richard III that two-time Tony-winner Mark Rylance is bringing here and will play, as the ad for the event says redundantly, “in repertory on a rotating basis.”

Admittedly, I can’t comment on Rylance’s Richard, which I haven’t seen, but I can say his Olivia in Twelfth Night is as amazing a feat as his Rooster in Jerusalem. Theater-goers will see nothing like it anywhere else in the coming months. In the all-male casts for both Shakespeare works, there are two additional pluses: Stephen Fry making his B’way debut as Malvolio and Samuel “The History Boys” Barnett as Viola and Queen Elizabeth.

Anyone looking for trends in the up-coming roster will quickly notice that Shakespeare, as introed above, abounds much more than usual. Why? Who can say? We’re about to get two Romeo and Juliets. Uptown, Orlando Bloom is Romeo to Condola Rashad’s Juliet in that popular-with-high-school-English-teachers script. Downtown, Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi are the doomed young lovers. Ethan Hawke becomes Macbeth under Jack O’Brien’s direction and with National Theatre staple Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth. Much later this season (actually, next summer) Kenneth Branagh as well brings his battle-field-heavy Macbeth from Manchester. Frank Langella will get around to King Lear, and so will Michael Pennington. under Arin Arbus’s unfailingly expert guidance. How about an all-female-cast Bard? Yup. Harriet Walter and Frances Barber head a Julius Caesar troupe in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse.

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Anyone perusing the just-completed run-down will also have noticed the large number of English actors headed this way-hardly a Manhattan rarity in any year, but somehow seemingly more prominent than ever this frame-Rylance, Fry, Barnett, Bloom, Pennington, Walter, Duff, Branagh. Aside from those heavyweight players, note the presence of marrieds Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz-now evidently homesteading in Manhattan’s East Village-along with Rafe Spall. Collectively, they’re the adulterous triangle in Mike Nichols’s take on Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.

Reviving Pinter’s No Man’s Land are Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. They’re also going the repertory route-Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley at their side-with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (I can endorse this Sean Mathias version, too, from first-hand sighting.) Euan Morton will appear in a revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s early play, The Film Society.

Roger Rees, living here for some time now, is one of the players in Terence Rattigan’s great drama, The Winslow Boy. (Thank fortune and its wheel that Rattigan, dismissed when the Angry Young Brits crashed in, has been reclaimed.) Trudie Styler, usually identified as Sting’s wife, will be Arkadina in a Culture Project review of The Seagull. Rebecca Hall shows up on Sophie Treadwell’s death-defying Machinal.

And-get this!-Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins will reprise their roles in Trevor Nunn’s staging of All That Fall, the radio play that Beckett didn’t want staged. I’ve seen this one, too, and will only say that the final image of Gambon and Atkins in the 60-minute piece is absolutely unforgettable. In London, gaining entry was all but impossible, so fight for the right to see it.

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What about indigenous actors? Yes, there are some. Denzel Washington and Diahann Carroll shape up as the biggest ticket-sellers in Lorraine Hansberry’s outstanding A Raisin in the Sun. Don’t ask if they’re properly cast. It’ll make no difference where box office is concerned. Cherry Jones is Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s mesmerizingly disturbing Glass Menagerie. Mary Louis Parker, directed by Daniel Sullivan, returns to the neighborhood in The Snow Geese, which, incidentally and troublingly, is almost alone among new play entries on Broadway. Another on Broadway will be Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina about a resort where real men take the opportunity to dress as women. One likely off-Broadway click is Regular Singing, the fourth and final part of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays: Scenes From Life in the Country.)

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Michael Cumpsty is top-billed in The Winslow Boy with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. J. Smith-Cameron is Juno in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker take on Amanda Peet’s playwriting bow, The Commons of Pensacola. Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Glenne Headly and Bill Pullman team up for The Jacksonians, Beth Henley’s latest. Debra Messing will star in another Broadway newie, John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston is Lyndon Johnson in the Supreme Court-involved Arguendo. And star-on-the-rise Sebastian Arcelus does the lawyering in Great White Way-bowing John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.

Musicals? Sure thing, since they’re the big items that many-but let’s hope not all-theater-goers pant for. My early bid for gem of the year is A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, an adaptation of Kind Hearts and Coronets by relative newcomers Steven Lutvak and Robert L Freedman. It’s already grabbed gaudy adjectives on its out-of-town try-out. Jefferson Mays takes on the role(s) Alec Guinness played in the film.

Woody Allen’s first musical, Bullets Over Broadway, adapted from his movie of the same title, will be directed by Susan Stroman with songs from The Great American Songbook. Line up now. Stro, as associates know her, also earlier helms Big Fish with never-miss Leo Norbert Butz and always-clicks Bobby Steggert leading the cast.

Others vying for attention and sales? There’s Mary Bridget Davies torturing herself in A Night With Janis Joplin, while Jessie Mueller goes to the piano for Beautiful-The Carole King Musical. Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have prepared Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home. John Kander and Greg Pierce are concocting The Landing for Walter Bobbie to direct. Little Miss Sunshine is coming to the stage with tunes by the incomparable Bill Finn.

The prize-winning Next to Normal boys Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have If/Then ready to go for Idina Menzel. Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale will eye each other in The Bridges of Madison County. Ragtime tunesmiths Stephen Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens are bringing their tune-ized Rocky from its on-the-continent try-out.

And don’t think that’s the end of it. For one, Les Miserables is due back for those who still haven’t had enough. Also, it’s important to remember that as always, any new-season overview needs to emphasize one incontrovertible point: At some time, something possibly no more than a vague blip on the radar now will arrive and throw everything into a cocked hat.

This year, could it be Honeymoon in Vegas, which-as Newsies did-is trying out at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Tony Danza and Rob McClure and score by Robert Jason Brown? Maybe, maybe not.

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Therefore: As far as theater in September is concerned, I’m still nothing more than the thrill-seeker from Trenton, New Jersey. I always will be. It’s autumn in New York. I’m excited.