KPBS AIRDATE: June 25, 1999
It was an incredible season on Broadway. Not that there were any musicals to write home about, but this was a banner year for straight plays. In my recent trip back to my hometown, I had one heckuva time trying to choose what to see. First, there were all the men to contend with: Iceman, Salesman, SideMan. There were new plays and revivals. And movie stars galore… it was like the East Coast extension of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With great difficulty, I narrowed my choices down to the following five: two incredible revivals — “Death of a Salesman” and “The Iceman Cometh” — and three provocative new plays — two London imports: “Amy’s View” and “Closer” — and one American debut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit,” a drama so intense that it couldn’t find a home on Broadway, and therefore, wasn’t even eligible for a Tony award. All of the others were nominated, though not all were victorious. The two big Tony winners were “Death of a Salesman,” which walked away with four top honors, and Dame Judi Dench, who’s having a mighty good year, having won the Best Performance Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love,” and the equivalent Tony for “Amy’s View.”
Hers is a wonderful performance, just as apparently effortless as her dramatic character, an aging actress, says all great art should be. Curling up on the sofa holding forth on theater – especially as it contrasts with television, the domain of her arrogant son-in-law, she makes us feel like we’re casual visitors in her once-elegant home. The play, by David Hare, is flawed, but the dialogue and some of its contents are really quite fine. Samantha Bond does an excellent turn as the daughter, a woman torn between the personalities and pursuits of her husband and her mother. In the end, watching Dench apply her makeup for her last-scene stage comeback is the essence of theater magic.
In “Closer,” the magic is sexual attraction. Patrick Marber’s sharp, often witty play is a fine example of really good writing in a rather trivial context. The title of “Closer” is irony itself; this cynical relationship play is about nothing if not distance and isolation. It’s a sort of ‘90s “La Ronde,” where you need a scorecard to keep track of who’s sleeping with whom. The two women here are both wonderful and gorgeous: Natasha Richardson as a heartless photographer and Anna Friel as a confused stripper. They fall in and out of love and bed with an obituary writer-turned-novelist and a pornography-loving dermatologist. The guys even have a go at it in an obscene online chat. Unfortunately, after a fabulously titillating first act, the play is ultimately as unfulfilling as all those erotic encounters.
Now, a play that gives you far more than you bargained for is “Wit,” Margaret Edson’s brutally frank examination of the poetry of John Donne, the rigors of academia, ovarian cancer, life and death. As blunt and unblinking as its central character, achingly portrayed by Kathleen Chalfant, the play is relentlessly intense, teaching you more about doctors, hospitals, cancer, dying and a 17th century poet, than you might ever have wanted to know. Incredibly, it’s a first effort by a 37 year-old Atlanta kindergarten teacher, who professes no plans to write another play. This one, filled with the promised wit – both Donne’s and Margaret Edson’s– is tough to forget.
The heavily-lauded “Wit” may sear itself into your brain, but it remains to be seen if it will still be around in half a century, like the two incomparably American revivals that have stolen Broadway’s heart this season. Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” hasn’t lost any of its luster. It may be a Great American Tragedy, capturing our obsession with competition, capitalism and the elusive American Dream. But this is really, timelessly, a story about fathers and sons. Willy Loman, the broken salesman, has big shoes to fill, and Big Boy Brian Dennehy is the man for the job. Though he seems to be grandstanding at times, his is a very powerful performance. But it is Elizabeth Franz’s definitive Linda Loman that really takes your breath away. No subservient in Willy’s shadow, this Linda is clearly the spine of the family, and when her heart is broken, so is ours.
Theodore Hickman is another salesman who goes through life on “a shoeshine and a smile.” In his play and its central character, Eugene O’Neill created something of a monster. A dark, wordy, 4 ½-hour treatise on giving up your pipe dreams, “The Iceman Cometh” is set in a shabby bar full of alcoholic losers, has-beens and whores, who wait breathlessly for Hickey’s arrival, some 45 minutes into the play. And then, there he is, and you can’t take your eyes off him for the rest of the evening.
Kevin Spacey’s Hickey could sell phones to Ma Bell. This brash, swaggering, larger-than-life performance is brilliant, irresistible and thoroughly mesmerizing. It was the thrilling moment of theater I’d been waiting for all week. It would be hard to top the sheer electricity of this production, from the spectacularly seedy set, to the flawless direction of a stellar 19-member cast. This one will be hard to forget. The Iceman Cometh, indeed. If New York is in your travel plans this summer, you’ve got some tough choices ahead. Stick with the dramas and you can hardly go wrong. And, oh yeah, give my regards to Broadway.
MUSIC: Out with “Give My Regards…”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.