With all due respect to Broadway’s fertile crop of plays (and we’ll get to two of them momentarily), they are not the most thrilling thing about this theatrical season. The most dramatic moment took place last month in a ballroom of the Pierre hotel, where Rosie O’Donnell was feted during a Drama League benefit. The evening began well enough: Katie Couric, Liz Smith, Diane Sawyer, and Mary Tyler Moore kicked off the show in trashy Cabaret chorus garb, garter belts and all. Before long, Audra McDonald, the 28-year-old three-time Tony winner, took the stage. After her song, she stood to take a bow and without warning fainted dead away. She plummeted off the stage, landing several feet below — thud! — at the feet of Rosie, who began crying.
After a few tense minutes, McDonald regained consciousness and the show went on. Performers from Barbara Walters to Julie Andrews provided progress reports on Audra, who was okay. But Rosie, quite shaken, kept crying throughout the evening, even when the male dancers from Fosse wiggled their butts for her benefit.
Other shows have gone on since that memorable night, but I must say, none of them pack the same suspense and emotional wallop. I’d like to think that this is why the powerful New York Times was lukewarm to writer-director Patrick Marber’s Closer, which won London’s 1998 Olivier Award for Best New Play. While it probably wouldn’t move Rosie to tears, it is a funny, intriguing, brutal dissection of human relationships. Closer begins with a young woman called Alice (Anna Friel) sitting in a cold emergency room. It takes a few seconds to notice her scar — the bloody gash — cutting the length of her shin. Alice seems rather indifferent to it, meaning that this is a chick who’s not only been around the block once or twice but who’s pretty much unfazed by getting run over en route.
Alice takes up with a sophomoric bloke played by Rupert Graves (Damage), who in turn embarks on an affair with Natasha Richardson as an unlikely Other Woman who ultimately breaks the heart of an Older Man, a pathetically smitten dermatologist played by Ciaran Hinds. With a first-rate cast at his disposal, Marber has stripped this shockingly honest four-character play to its bare bones; the dialogue is as stark as Vicki Mortimer’s mobile sets, which end up piled in heaps at the back of the stage, thereby creating a jumbled monument to the characters’ emotional baggage. Some of Marber’s ideas about male-female relationships are well-worn, but you’ll no doubt find yourself in any or all of these frustrated, frustrating characters, and the stylish staging transcends the script’s awkward moments (the memorial park wall used as a backdrop makes for constant and creepy foreshadowing, and Marber projects the dialogue of a cybersex scene above the actors’ heads). And oh, my goodness, Natasha Richardson! As the sad, past-her-prime Anna, this most worthy heir to the Redgrave bloodline (even better here than in her Tony-winning Cabaret performance) has created an indelible being — haunted, rather than redeemed, by the noble desire to love.
While Closer carries the whiff of a ghost story, another Olivier Award winner, The Weir, is overrun by ghosts and faeries and ghouls, all of which spring from the mouths of five Irish storytellers who congregate one dark night in a dusty pub in a windswept corner of rural Sligo. Four Irishmen attempt to charm a mysterious Dublin woman (Michelle Fairley) with their spooky stories, until she does them all one better with her own eerie tale. Playwright Conor McPherson’s stories adhere to a central theme of loss, but their connection remains tenuous, and the intimate play doesn’t sit well in a big Broadway house. Still, these fine actors spin their yarns with finesse. You’ll be spellbound at times, and you may even jump — as I did — if the fidgety woman behind you suddenly unwraps a lozenge. You’ll welcome the merry comic exchanges between tales, but if the proceedings get too scary, you can take comfort in knowing that Audra McDonald is doing just fine.
Closer (TC): A-
The Weir (TC): B