Thursday, April 28, 2011

Broadway Postcard No. 4: Astonishing Rylance, lame 'Picture'

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.‭
(‬Photo by Simon Annand‭)

By Hap Erstein

Mark Rylance may just be the best actor working in the theater today.‭

You might agree if you saw Jez Butterworth’s‭ ‬Jerusalem,‭ ‬a powerful,‭ ‬but somewhat overwritten three-hour marathon drama about an iconoclastic former daredevil stunt rider and occasional drug dealer who rails against the world.‭

Rylance originated the role of Johnny‭ “‬Rooster‭” ‬Byron at the Royal Court Theatre in London,‭ ‬where he won every award in sight for his performance and there is reason to think he will do the same over here.

He,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬won a Tony Award already a few years ago for elevating the farce‭ ‬Boeing-Boeing‭ ‬--‭ ‬no small feat‭ ‬--‭ ‬and again sent critics to their thesauruses earlier this season to find ways to praise his supporting work in the modern verse satire,‭ ‬La Bete.‭

I did not see either of those productions,‭ ‬but I first encountered Rylance about eight years ago playing the role of Viola in Shakespeare’s‭ ‬Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre in London,‭ ‬where he served as artistic director for‭ ‬10‭ ‬years from‭ ‬1996‭ ‬to‭ ‬2006.‭ ‬The production was cast as The Bard would have‭ ‬--‭ ‬all roles played by men‭ ‬--‭ ‬and Rylance’s performance as the young shipwrecked heroine had not an ounce of camp or irony,‭ ‬but was virtually‭ ‬kabuki in its feminine delicacy and authenticity.

Which is to say it had absolutely nothing in common with his‭ “‬Rooster‭” ‬Byron.‭ ‬The two roles are simply the most astonishing display of performance versatility I have ever seen.‭ ‬If there is time this week,‭ ‬I’m going to try to see his‭ ‬Boeing-Boeing performance at the Lincoln Center Library’s performing arts video collection and am determined to see whatever he does onstage in the future.

‭ * * *

Alexander Gemignani,‭ ‬Chip Zien,‭ ‬Donna Murphy,
‭ ‬Joyce Van Patten and Lewis J.‭ ‬Stadlen in The People in the Picture.‭
(‬Photo by Joan Marcus‭)

Stars can often elevate the material they are in,‭ ‬but even the terrific Donna Murphy can do little to help the new musical,‭ ‬The People in the Picture,‭ ‬a mawkish little show that so wants to leave us in puddles of tears,‭ ‬but never bothers to earn the emotional responses it seeks.‭

I saw the show Wednesday afternoon at one of its final previews,‭ ‬where there were certainly some audience sniffles evoked,‭ ‬but not from yours truly,‭ ‬and I am an easy crier.

Murphy plays a Jewish stage actress in Warsaw,‭ ‬Poland,‭ ‬just before and during World War II,‭ ‬and then as a grandmother in the United States,‭ ‬where she is frail and starting to drift into dementia.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬with the switch of a wig and a change of posture and dialect,‭ ‬she keeps bouncing back and forth in time.

The problem is the show wants to be about Holocaust remembrance,‭ ‬Jewish identity and survival instinct,‭ ‬but it conveys those complex subjects with button-pushing shorthand that grates.‭ ‬Nor does it help that the lyrics‭ (‬and book‭) ‬by Iris Rainer Dart‭ (‬who wrote the novel‭ ‬Beaches‭) ‬are painfully predictable when they are not merely clunky.

Murphy acquits herself well enough,‭ ‬but other talented performers like Chip Zien,‭ ‬Lewis J.‭ ‬Stadlen and Joyce Van Patten are distressingly underutilized.‭ ‬When‭ ‬The People in the Picture opens‭ ‬this evening,‭ ‬it will be the official last show of the season,‭ ‬an unfortunate end to a year with numerous high points.

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