Theater’s ‘J’ link

Legit with Jack, Joe, Jennifer and Judith

LONDON — As a peripatetic theatergoer recently returned from New York, imagine my surprise during 10 days or so spent trawling the scene on Broadway and Off to notice just how many of Manhattan’s most memorable theatrical encounters at the moment are being provided courtesy of people whose first names begin with J.

Call it a trend? Unlikely, even if journalists — oh no: the J word! — are forever looking for things to link up. What follows is a tribute to a quartet of J’s who impressed me mightily over that short span. Not to mention to that audience — were all of us Jewish? — whose wild enthusiasm at a preview matinee of “The Producers” constituted one helluva jamboree all by itself.

‘Love’ reinvented by Jack O’Brien

Who would have thought that an American director, and a mostly North American cast (Martin Rayner is the sole Brit), would transform Tom Stoppard’s fiercely British “The Invention of Love” into the most moving production of a play that I have seen on Broadway in years.

And it improves in virtually every respect on its London predecessor. Richard Easton, the elder Housman, misses some of John Wood’s lingering ache but compensates with a wonderfully spry, agile wit that keeps time with the textual arcana.

For that, credit O’Brien, whose grip here is even more impressive than it was on the 1994 Lincoln Center production of “Hapgood,” which in itself isn’t nearly so fine a play. In London, “Invention” had an underlying pathos that poked out at times only to get clouded over in a thicket of allusions and references that had the effect of crowding out feeling.

No longer. While Stoppard himself has argued that any play is more accessible on repeated viewings for the simple reason that one is seeing it again, that doesn’t begin to account for a production that seems to have taken its cue from the glistening miniaturist landscape of Bob Crowley’s sets.

When a minor player onstage for maybe 10 minutes — Mark Nelson’s Chamberlain, the poignantly knowing sidekick to Robert Sean Leonard’s infinitely affecting younger Housman — can make a major impression, you know something is right: This densest of London literary challenges has found a loving home in New York.

‘Living’ high with Joe Mantello and Jennifer Ehle

A homegrown American production of a problematic British play might itself sound like a recipe for disaster. But that’s to deny the bracing intelligence of a Noel Coward revival from Mantello, and starring Ehle, that is brave enough to face the obvious — the menage a trois in this supposed comedy don’t generate much mirth.

Instead, Mantello shifts the attention to a union of supposed sophisticates linked by dissatisfaction when the best they can hope for, or so reports Ehle’s Gilda, is to “cry just a little.”

“I paint their souls,” says Alan Cumming’s portraitist Otto, and so does a staging that peels back the banter to lay bare the anomie beneath. Playing the erotic pivot of the piece, a nervy Ehle has never been less ingratiating. Which may also be why she has never been better.

‘Follies’ with Judith Ivey

“Follies” is sure to be endlessly debated in any incarnation in which it arrives, and so it has proven once more at the Belasco. But you’d be a fool to skip out on Ivey’s performance, which turns the usually subordinate Sally Durant Plummer into a harrowing depiction of a woman at delusional extremes.

A veteran of countless “Follies” (though not the original), I have never seen this role played so close to the edge as befits a wife and mother described as inhabiting a house of tears who, for all her confessional tendencies, clearly thrives on conflict.

Notice the little shake that she gives her head during “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” when Ivey’s Sally realizes she is misremembering the name of Tony’s, the lovers’ former haunt. It’s as if she is attempting to reorder her brain while knowing full well that she is irreparably bruised.

“No, don’t look at me,” Sally tells Ben near the start, but when Ivey takes the stage, you simply can’t look anywhere else.

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