Nica Burns gambles on 'Sides,' 'Collaboration'
One of the sweetest treats for the “Billy Elliot” production team at June 7’s Tony Awards was that it was a reunion. Fifteen years earlier, director Stephen Daldry, designer Ian MacNeil and lighting designer Rick Fisher took home the same awards for work on their radical re-imagining of “An Inspector Calls.”Any Brit theatergoers who might have missed it — which, given its initial National Theater engagement plus three (count ’em) West End runs, seems fairly unaccountable — can catch the J.B. Priestley revival when it plays an eight-week season at the Novello Theater starting Sept. 22, following its umpteenth U.K. tour. Interestingly, the title role is yet to be cast. The producers PW Prods., Kenneth H. Wax and Oliver Royds are hoping that the creative team’s post-Tony profile and Daldry’s promise to return to re-direct will encourage a star name. Cutting it ‘Close’ Meantime, following the sadly early demise of “Spring Awakening,” the Novello is dark. Can a show be found to fill the gap between now and September? Several blocks away, the Comedy too is temporarily empty, but readying for an arrival. Which leads to the question: If you’re holding just eight previews of the world premiere of a new tuner, and the first preview were July 16 — a little more than five weeks away — what would you be doing? The answer for the creatives behind “Too Close to the Sun” is: Auditioning. As of June 9, the only names released for this musical described as “a fictional account of what might have been Ernest Hemingway’s last challenge” were those of writing-composing team John Robinson andRoberto Trippini, and Conor Mitchell, who is handling orchestrations. In other words, the show is attempting to sell tickets despite no announced cast, designers or director. The other information left off the poster is that the composer wrote the score of “Behind the Iron Mask,” the 2005 musical that appeared out of the blue at the tiny Duchess Theater and received reviews politely described as hideous. “Live to extreme, love to excess,” announces the new show’s copyline. To which cynics might add: “And open to not much advance.” Harwood takes Reich turn With West End producers keeping box office figures secret, no one knows the advance for the Duchess’ current resident. It is, however, blindingly clear that theater owner and producer Nica Burns is taking a considerable gamble by bringing in twinned dramas first seen last year at Chichester Festival Theater to play at her venue simultaneously. “Taking Sides” and Collaboration” by Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) examine two great musicians both of whom had dubious Nazi connections, posing the still important question: what would you have done? For all the good intent behind its angry debate about whether art can or should be free of politics, “Taking Sides,” Harwood’s 1995 study of legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, is curiously undramatic. Neither Michael Pennington in that role nor David Horovitch as a completely bullish American anti-Nazi military investigator can stop this being little more than a debate for radio because Harwood himself takes sides and stacks the argument. “Collaboration,” his new play about Richard Strauss, is the more successful, because it eschews the did-he-or-didn’t-he courtroom approach. Instead, Strauss’ collaboration with and painful separation from Jewish writer Stefan Zweig is patiently acted out. The strongest performance is that of Martin Hutson as a zealous young Nazi officer. But when the Nazi feels like the most fully fleshed character, something is clearly wrong. This isn’t the fault of Pennington or Horovitch, cast in the second play as Strauss and Zweig, but rather that the writing is flat. The pathos of both men’s situation and the argument’s sincerity and gravity are never in doubt. That, ironically, is the problem.