Broadway’s Spring Rush: Hillary, Hades and Histrionics

As the Tony deadline nears, the Broadway openings are coming fast and furious. Here’s my fast take on three of them:

Burn This. The new revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1986 play (my first encounter with the play) is a disappointment. The slight plot revolves around the death of a gay dancer, who has left behind two grieving roommates and a macho, manic older brother, Pale, who bursts in on the pair in the midst of their grieving. Adam Driver sinks his teeth into the flashy, histrionic role, but Pale seems more of a construct than a character (was Wilson channeling Sam Shepard at the time?), and the relationship that develops between him and the mourning Anna (an unsteady Keri Russell) is never very plausible. Other elements of the play — like the brittle, wisecracking gay roommate (Brandon Uranowitz) — seem dated, and I couldn’t help imagining how much better it must have played with John Malkovich and Joan Allen as the leads in the original Broadway production.

Hillary and Clinton isn’t disappointing, because I didn’t expect much to begin with. But it’s even less than that. The setting is the 2008 New Hampshire primary, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination seems to be floundering and she has summoned her husband to her motel room for advice. The sketchy, 85-minute play is little more than a vehicle for Laurie Metcalf to prove that she can act a credible Hillary Clinton without resorting to outright impersonation. (John Lithgow does the same, a little less convincingly, as Bill.)  But they simply embody the conventional clichés about the pair — Hillary is steely and overly guarded, Bill is insecure, a little goofy, but a more instinctive politician — and the scene between Hillary and her rival, Barack Obama (Peter Francis James), plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch without the laughs. Hnath, a sometimes good playwright (Red Speedo), has done a thoroughly pedestrian job of turning all-too-familiar public figures into dramatic characters, adding some windy ruminations about the randomness of the universe to give it a tendentious overlay.  A waste of time.

Hadestown is a lot more fun. The musical has a well-chronicled history: 2010 concept album, acclaimed 2016 debut at the New York Theater Workshop off-Broadway, a successful run in London, and now a Broadway opening.  Based on the myth of Orpheus, the lute-playing poet who traveled to the underworld to bring back his beloved Eurydice, the show has been given a striking environmental staging by Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) and boasts an exuberant, wholly original score by Anais Mitchell — a mix of pop-rock and Dixieland jazz (in how many Broadway shows does a trombonist get to take center stage?). Without being too heavy-handed, the mythic story has been given some Trump-era updating: the underworld (overseen by the commanding, bass-voiced Patrick Page), with its enslaved workers trudging in circles, looks like a cross between steel foundry and coal mine — Hell as the last refuge of the fossil fuel industry. And there’s an eerily prescient number (written, amazingly, before Donald Trump was a gleam in the Republican Party’s eye) called “Why We Build the Wall.” The show isn’t perfect: it feels a bit padded, and the central love story (Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Eurydice) is too bland and perfunctory. But in a weak season for musicals, Hadestown feels almost heaven-sent.

3 thoughts on “Broadway’s Spring Rush: Hillary, Hades and Histrionics

  1. “I couldn’t help imagining how much better it must have played with John Malkovich and Joan Allen as the leads in the original Broadway production.” Believe me–it didn’t. It mostly came alive when Malkovich was onstage, storming around. Everything The New York Times review said, and you say, about this production could apply to the original. It is one of those sit-drams where people talk, talk, talk, but nothing much happens. Some snappy exchanges and lovely soliloquies, but no real story.

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