2008's Ten Memorable Theatre Moments You May Have Missed
Ah, it's that time of year again when, while most theatergoers are assembling their lists of the top (and sometimes bottom) plays and musicals of the year, I prefer to focus on ten memorable moments that perhaps relatively few got to see. These moments don't necessarily come from the ten best productions, but in a city with the abundance of high quality theatre that Gotham enjoys, you never know when a great dramatic moment will come your way.
On the seventh day of that leisurely ten-day rehearsal period allotted for the Encores! concert production of Applause, Christine Ebersole, readying herself to star as Margo Channing, was stricken with a bad case of the flu. With no understudy, her absence would have meant cancelling the show, so after three days in bed she forced herself on stage for the Wednesday night dress rehearsal performance with doctor's orders not to touch anybody. At the Friday night performance I attended you could see and hear the obvious signs of the star's bad health; the notes that weren't held, the energy sagging at times, her voice petering out. There were a couple of times I seriously thought she was going to stumble and fall on stage. But the craft of a skilled actress and the heart of a passionate performer were out there in as full a force as Ebersole could muster. As she stood alone, center stage, after a soft, simple vocalizing of the first act closer, "Welcome To The Theatre," the star was showered with a long, appreciative ovation from an audience that knew she could do better, but adored her for coming out and giving them the best she had.
Sound designer Darron L. West supplied a memorable moment in Dead Man's Cell Phone, doing a remarkable job of making it seem like different cell phones were ringing in very specific spots in the audience while Kathleen Chalfant was delivering a eulogy. So pin-point was the location of each sound that, even though common sense told me it must have been part of the show, another part of me believed that some among us may have actually forgotten to silence their ringers.
Most memorable title of a play: Ore, or Or by Duncan Pflaster.
Pre-show announcement at American Buffalo: "... and on behalf of David Mamet and the company, we ask that you turn your fuckin' cell phones off!"
Despite earning some of the year's best reviews Adding Machine still couldn't find an audience large enough to keep it running at the Minetta Lane, but Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith's haunting chamber musical based on Elmer Rice's 1923 Expressionist drama was a fascinating piece with a score that had its leading players sing with heavy blue-collar accents and voices that gave the impression that their characters were reaching for notes just beyond their capabilities, giving the music a beautiful unattractiveness. This was immensely memorable when Joel Hatch, as an underappreciated worker about to be executed for killing his boss, is handed his favorite food for his last meal and, upon seeing the plateful, bellows out a rapturous, vibrato-less, "Ham and Eggs!"
Irwin Shaw's Bury The Dead, an abstract piece about six soldiers killed in battle that refuse to be buried and insist on going back to their homes, employed 32 actors when it premiered on Broadway back in '36. This year Transport Group employed 7, with Donna Lynne Champlin playing all of the female roles. The play's final scenes had her seamlessly shifting into a series of contrasting and skillfully committed portrayals as an important woman in each dead soldier's life; going from a bewildered rural housewife to a hard-nosed city dame to a tender-hearted mother to three other characters, quickly and completely transforming herself with exacting detail.
My most memorable theatre-related quote of the year came from political analyst David Brooks who, shortly after the final presidential debate, observed, "I've seen Harold Pinter plays with more warmth."
Toward the end of the sadly short-lived A Catered Affair, Tom Wopat, just superb as the gruff-exteriored, hard-working cab driver who would rather put his life savings into a business opportunity than spend it on a big wedding for his daughter, lets his character's bottled-up anger loose with "I Stayed," a wounded man's reminder to his wife that he has always been there for his family. Instead of ending the song with a big note, the devastating finish comes with a spoken line: "You say you're stuck in a loveless marriage? I'm sorry you feel that way but don't put words in my mouth." Exceptional writing, composition and acting add up to a chilling and heartbreaking moment.
My favorite new show of the year was Jim and Ruth Bauer's The Blue Flower, produced Off-Broadway by the consistently interesting Prospect Theatre Company; a musical that tackled the tricky business of mixing the art of musical theatre with the anti-art movement of Dada. The most memorable moment was when the ethereally-voiced Nancy Anderson delicately sang "Eiffel Tower," a poetic ballad about accepting the changes that come from tragedy. I hope New York theatergoers will soon get another chance to see this unique, intelligent and wondrously creative evening.
There's my list. Now it's your turn. Please leave a comment with some of your most memorable theatre moments of 2008.