Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since the New York theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on shows you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo.
The Mint Theatre is streaming another production from its recent past, N.F. Simpson’s A Picture of Autumn, a charming if rather quaint play from 1951. Although Simpson was a rather successful West End playwright, this play was apparently never fully produced—just a one-night-only reading. It’s about 3 elderly members of a once grand family living in a once grand manor house, with 18 bedrooms and 60 acres of land. The garden is going to seed, the boats at the pond are rotting away and the house is falling apart. The plot basically consists of son Robert’s attempts to persuade the old goats that they have to give up the house. His chief antagonist is cranky old Uncle Harry, whose young wife died a half-century ago in the house.
Gus Kaikkonen has done a beautiful job directing this somewhat Chekhovian play, at least in style if not in substance; but the chief pleasure in watching it comes from the fine performances, most notably from veterans Jonathan Hogan, Barbara eda-Young and George Morfogen. The careers of these three have been almost exclusively on the stage. Hogan’s goes back to Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore in 1972, in which he played the young drifter Paul Granger III. He was a longtime member of Circle Rep’s acting company, appearing in such contemporary classics as Wilson’s Burn This and William Hoffman’s As Is, and Eda-Young’s career goes back to Leonard Melfi’s ‘60s one act classic, Birdbath. Morfogen’s was by far the longest-tenured career. He did 17 seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and I must have seen him 30 or 40 times over the course of my NYC theatre-going, often at the Mint. I use the past tense, because he died two years ago. Uncle Harry may have been his last role. He was wonderful as always.
While this production does not make the case for the play as an unjustly neglected classic, as many Mint Productions have over the years, it nevertheless is a pleasure to watch; particularly if, as I do, miss good old-fashioned realism, which is fast going to way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Stream it: www.minttheater.org/streaming-series/?tab=apictureofautumn
You can also stream a new production of the Jason Robert Brown two-character all-songs musical, The Last Five Years, produced by Out of the Box Theatrics and Holmdel Theatre Company, the poignant story of the failed marriage of Cathy and Jamie. It has a unique structure. Jamie's story is told in chronological order (starting just after the couple have first met) and Cathy's story is told in reverse chronological order (beginning when their marriage has ended). The characters do not directly interact except for a wedding song in the middle.
This time around, Cathy and Jamie are played by black actors. They are Nasia Thomas and Nicholas Edwards, wonderful, and they sing Brown’s songs beautifully. Stream it: www.ootbtheatrics.com/l5y
If you have HBO Max, you can also stream the film of In the Heights, the Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegría Hudes Broadway hit musical, directed by Jon Chu. It’s an exuberant feast, with a wonderful cast led by Anthony Ramos as Usnavy (originally played on stage by Miranda), who owns a bodega in Washington Heights but who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to reestablish his father’s business, a beach refreshment stand, destroyed by a hurricane, causing him to move his family to the U.S. when Usnavy was a young boy. Since the film is framed by Usnavy sitting at his stand in the D.R. telling his story to a rapt group of kids, we know he achieved his dream; the question is, how? Everyone in this film is delightful. My faves in addition to Ramos were Jimmy Smits, who plays a car service owner selling off parts of his business to pay for his daughter Nina’s tuition at Stanford; Leslie Grace as Nina, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Usnavy’s love interest, who dreams of a career as a fashion designer and Daphne Ruben Vega (the original Mimi in Rent) as a beauty salon owner forced to close her shop and relocate to the Bronx when she’s hit with a huge rent increase). Miranda himself even turns up from time to time as a neighborhood pushcart peddler.
There is quite a controversy going on over the film, which has been attacked for its casting. The attackers are upset that there are no dark-skinned Latinos in the major roles. Miranda has apologized for this (what else could he do?), but he and the rest of the creative team have added fuel to the fire by saying that they cast the best actors for their roles. Good God, they’re attacking Lin-Manuel Miranda, of all people.
I think this may be a precursor of what’s to come when the theatre finally reopens. God help theatres which don’t do a “sufficient” number of shows by of-color writers, or which don’t have a “sufficient” number of of-color actors in their casts. When audiences finally return, will they have to cross picket lines of screaming protesters? I’m all for diversity in the theatre, but this is getting ridiculous.
Broadway HD (www.broadwayhd.com) is offering for free a concert honoring the American Theatre Wing, with wonderful performances by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Osnes, Heather Hedley, Norm Lewis and Santino Fontana. Stokes starts it off with a soaring rendition of “Being Alive” from Company and I thought, “That’s a tough act to follow,” but it just keeps going and going. I was blessed to see all of these great performers many times on Broadway, and it was a joy to see them again, though I couldn’t help but wonder if the Broadway they so superbly embodied will be anything like what it was once it reopens.
"It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry."
— George F. Will
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt