A RAISIN IN THE SUN 1960

In principle, I am against Broadway revivals. Theatre needs to encourage young playwrights, so why lavish all that money and attention on an old work?

However, reality can shatter principles like mine, and this season offered several vivid reminders of that fact. Exhibit A: Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”

It’s a testament to Hansberry’s talent that the 1959 play is still so timely; conversely, it’s troubling that too little has changed. The play centers on a small family inheritance; the play is about money, but it’s really about a struggle for identity. The characters talk about America’s double standards for whites and blacks, assimilation, appreciation of African heritage, and the pain/pride about ancestors’ past struggles. And a “friendly” Caucasian insists his attitude is practical, not racist. This play could have been written last week.

Broadway had an excellent production of “Raisin” 10 years ago, but at a recent performance at the Ethyl Barrymore Theater, it was clear many in the audience were seeing this for the first time. So the production, directed by Kenny Leon, fulfills a key function of revivals: to introduce new audiences to a classic work.

A good revival has a second key function: to present a great showcase for a star.

“Raisin” certainly fills that mandate. Every actor is terrific, but a special mention goes to Denzel Washington, who is a knockout. It’s a great, multilayered performance. Why didn’t he receive a Tony nomination? Without a chance to look at the ballots, it will remain a frustrating mystery.

Two other works among the four play-revival nominees are bringing new insights into old works. Many community theaters have staged effective productions of “The Glass Menagerie” and “Twelfth Night” — with material that good, you can’t go wrong. But both Broadway productions offered reminders of the power of revivals. I don’t know anyone who saw Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” who wasn’t swept away by John Tiffany’s direction and the four performances. And “Twelfth Night” made Shakespeare seem fresh and vital. It used “original practices,” i.e., all the costumes were hand-sewn and, crucially, all the roles were played by men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time.

It sounds like a gimmick, but it was a revelation. Under Tim Carroll’s direction, all the mistaken-identity jokes seemed funnier and the happy ending seemed even more magical, and you couldn’t imagine the 400-year-old play being performed any other way.

But when you’re talking about a great showcase, you will inevitably talk about “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

The rock-em/sock-em musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask debuted Off Broadway in 1998. The four musicians and Lena Hall, in the only other substantial role, do great work. But the production, directed by Michael Mayer, is basically a showcase for Neal Patrick Harris. We all knew he could act, sing and dance — but who knew he could act, sing and dance like this? His work immediately dissolves any reservations about the concept of revivals. It’s a great role and a great fit.

“Hedwig” is one of three shows in the musical-revival category. The other two are “Les Miserables,” the popular perennial that showcases impressive new talent, and “Violet.” The latter, written by Janine Tesori and Brian Crowley in 1997, offers another justification for revivals: This production raises awareness for a show that was little seen, even by hardcore theater buffs. That’s also true of Martin McDonagh’s play-revival contender “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” It opened in the U.K. in 1996, but is only now making its Broadway debut, starring Daniel Radcliffe.

It’s interesting that four of the biggest stars on Broadway this season — Radcliffe, Harris, Washington and James Franco — are all appearing in revivals. (Franco is in “Of Mice and Men.”) Interesting, but not surprising. As one producer told Variety, rehearsals for a new play take a lot of time, adding, “You don’t find the strengths and needs of a play until its in front of an audience.” So lengthy rehearsal schedules are usually not an option.

There are, of course, new works appearing on Broadway: Tony’s new-play race has four nominees, works by Harvey Fierstein, James Lapine, Terrence McNally and Robert Schenkkan. All those playwrights are veterans, so there aren’t any unknown voices here. But with current and/or recent works by Will Eno, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Craig Wright, for example, there is proof that Broadway can shine the spotlight on new writers.

I still like the idea of new plays by new writers bowing on Broadway. But after this season, I am happy to admit that I have seen the light, and am ready to go to a revival meeting.

 

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