You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Up for Grabs

Can the Material Girl act? A far more immediate question is what prompted Madonna to opt for as dispiritingly crude and shallow a showcase as David Williamson's "Up for Grabs." This satire looks poised to be this season's second Aussie import to the West End to fail to replicate its hometown acclaim overseas.

Loren - Madonna Gerry - Tom Irwin Mindy - Megan Dodds Kel - Daniel Pino Dawn - Sian Thomas Manny - Michael Lerner Phyllis - Debora Weston

Can the Material Girl act? The question will be immaterial to the crowds filling Wyndham’s Theater through July 13, when Madonna’s British theater debut and first stage play in 14 years finishes its limited run. A far more immediate question is what prompted a celebrity who presumably can have her pick of projects to opt for as dispiritingly crude and shallow a showcase as David Williamson’s “Up for Grabs.” A hit last year in the author’s native Sydney (sans, natch, its current lead), this putative satire looks poised to be this season’s second Aussie import to the West End — following Hannie Rayson’s “Life After George” — to fail to replicate its hometown acclaim overseas. But whereas “George” quickly tanked, “Up for Grabs” will grab a star-thirsty public that would most likely pay simply to watch Madonna stand there — which, in the circumstances, might have been a better option than undertaking this play.

In Madonna’s last theater venture, the 1988 Broadway preem of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” the evening was already under way when Karen, the temporary secretary she played, made her entrance. Not here: As if to acknowledge the particular intensity of interest in its leading lady in the capital where shenow lives, Laurence Boswell’s production begins with Madonna’s Manhattan art dealer, Loren, alone center-stage announcing her intention to be rich — to join, says Loren, “the only congregation that matters” (and one, the aud surely notes, inhabited by Madonna herself).

The plot concerns Loren’s increasingly desperate attempt to unload a Jackson Pollock painting, an endeavor that will pit three sets of buyers against one another amid an ever kinkier and more debased sexual milieu.

If successful, the $20 million sale will also rescue Loren and husband Gerry (Tom Irwin), a therapist, from crippling debt, allowing them to remain in designer Jeremy Herbert’s sleek, smart apartment, blessed with views to engender immediate homesickness in any expatriate New Yorker. (Herbert’s sliding set, itself a piece of installation art with a gift for line that Mondrian would have admired, is the evening’s one unalloyed triumph.)

But nothing in the writing of “Up for Grabs” is as interesting, per se, as the juxtaposition between the aspiring, avaricious Loren and the woman playing her; long after mere theater critics have dispensed with the play, cultural theorists may be left pondering Madonna’s attraction to a role that, in many ways, runs so counter to herself.

It’s not only that Loren wants what Madonna clearly has, only to learn — in Loren’s case, that is — that the pursuit of lucre is a liability in life. Elsewhere, the sexual squeamishness driving the dildo-happy (yes, I’m afraid so) first act exists at hilarious odds with a performer who, quite literally, wrote the book on sex. (As Loren recoils from the staging’s much-vaunted lesbian kiss, you find yourself thinking, “Well, Madonna wouldn’t do that!”).

If “Up for Grabs” as often as not cuts against its leading lady’s persona, at other times it plays right into it. Lithe and toned and ready to rock, Madonna offers teasing snatches of song and dance and even a mock-British accent as if to remind us that the personality whom the audience has come to see won’t be bothered with such petty theatrical demands as having to play a character.

A better script might have truly embarrassed a star whose speaking voice betrays a timidity and inexperience further exposed by the predominantly American supporting cast (though on the first night, at least, Madonna sounded far stronger after the intermission). As it is, her undeniable presence sustains interest even when the stale art world jibes — the Pollock barb comes the very week that the Ed Harris film opened in London — and self-analyses wear thin. While the cracks at the expense of Damien Hirst seem dated beyond belief, one can’t help but be intrigued by the post-modern felicity of casting a cultural commodity in a play that takes supposed aim at the commodification of culture.

Where, then, does this leave the rest of a not untalented ensemble? Wide-eyed in the case of Sian Thomas’s inebriated Brit (is there any other kind?), and humiliated and on the outs in the case of the randy and druggy dot-com millionaires played by Daniel Pino and Megan Dodds.

But not even a lachrymose Michael Lerner, a terrific actor trapped in an awful role, ends the play as weepy and abject as Loren, who is forced to confront the fact that “the woman I thought I wanted to be came slamming into the woman I was.” At such moments, one is inclined less to feel for Loren than to ponder Madonna’s decision to lend her superstar status to the part of a go-getter cut down to size whose closing assertion, “I’ll start again,” does not leave one keen to see the sequel.

Up for Grabs

Up for Grabs

Wyndham's Theater; 759 seats; £37.50 $55 top

Production: Sonia Friedman Prods. and Theater Royal Bath present a play in two acts by David Williamson. Directed by Laurence Boswell.

Creative: Sets, Jeremy Herbert; costumes, Arianne Phillips; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Fergus O'Hare; music, Simon Bass; projection, Jon Driscoll and Richard Overall. Opened, reviewed May 23, 2002. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Loren - Madonna Gerry - Tom Irwin Mindy - Megan Dodds Kel - Daniel Pino Dawn - Sian Thomas Manny - Michael Lerner Phyllis - Debora Weston

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content