LONDON — Those famously stiff upper lips are turning to jelly at London’s National Theater these days, quivering with mirth in the packed auditorium of the Lyttelton Theater. The cause is not any of the traditional British flavors of comedy, either — not the suave Mr. Coward or the inventive Mr. Ayckbourn. This time it’s none other than Jerry Springer, the American trash-TV host, who has become the most unlikely opera hero since … well, make that the most unlikely opera hero ever.
“Jerry Springer the Opera” may not have been the most enriching evening of theater encountered in this critic’s recent weeklong sprint through a busy summer season in London, but it is certainly the most talked-about production of the year in London, and the one that provoked the most rapturous audience response. It’s the gaudy jewel in the crown of the strikingly successful first season from the National Theater’s new artistic director, Nicholas Hytner.
Jerry, in fictional form, may be the man of the moment, but Hytner appears to be the man of the hour. He took the reins officially this spring, and has scarcely put a foot wrong yet. Almost all of the shows produced under his still-green tenure have met with positive notices. The four productions this critic took in — “Jerry Springer,” a revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers,” a new stage transcription of the movie “His Girl Friday” and Hytner’s own staging of “Henry V” (curiously, the first at the National) — received almost universal acclaim from the London critics, inspiring a veritable stampede from Broadway to the South Bank: Prominent New York industryites and critics were in attendance at almost every performance, it seemed.
“Jerry Springer,” for starters, is inevitably Gotham-bound, although it is hard to imagine this exercise in cheery, vulgar cheek going down on Broadway quite as explosively as it has here. Brits do, after all, take inordinate pleasure in the kind of gut-grabbing, grossout humor that is the flip side of their reserve. (The man next to me was literally slapping his knee throughout — who knew?)
Americans, more accustomed to a steady diet of everyday vulgarity from a variety of sources, may find that the show’s primary joke — setting a truly mind-boggling array of scatological, sexual and just generally disgusting language to a variety of pop and faux-operatic music — palls well before the show has reached its daffy conclusion. For what’s most surprising about this admirably staged and cleverly executed show is how very surprising it isn’t: It delivers just what it promises — a musicalized facsimile of the raucous TV show — without quite amplifying or expanding on this notion in ways you might hope for, despite a fantastical second act that finds Jerry conducting an impromptu chatshow in Hell.
The snarling chorus of audience members singing their imprecations (“Bring on the losers!”), the array of guests joyously detailing their sexual predilections and preening over their philandering, Jerry’s wry, self-deprecating ringmaster voice (Michael Brandon adds a strong dash of Woody Allen) — all are taken and presented at face value, with an exuberance that magically manages to avoid condescension. (Fears that the show would be merely an exercise in cheap Yank-bashing are not fulfilled, except perhaps in the interstitial “commercial breaks.”)
But the few attempts to inject some humanity into the proceedings or explore the impulses behind the need to bare all on national TV are brief and perfunctory (“I want to learn how to dream again, to feel again,” sings one humiliated participant, vaguely). Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, who collaborated on the book and lyrics, are far more engaged by the circus-like aspects of the proceedings. The show is most delightful when coming up with some surreal variants on this particular flavor of reality TV: “Dip me in chocolate and feed me to the lesbians!” might look particularly good on a T-shirt. But those looking for a revelatory commentary on the trash-TV dynamic and its place in contemporary culture will go home disappointed.
Stoppard, on the other hand, isn’t one to sidestep the large question. So if “Jerry” isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps “Jumpers,” with which it currently shares the Lyttelton stage, will be. David Leveaux’s glittering production of this 1972 play doesn’t just serve up the play’s intricately layered bedazzlements; it improves upon them, binding the play’s eccentricities together with a powerful undercurrent of emotion.
The play might almost have been conceived on a some kind of drunken dare: “Hey Tom, try writing a play containing these elements: a gymnastics team, space travel, moral philosophy, murder, a tortoise and a hare and a depressed chanteuse…” But to its linguistic pleasures and farcical delights has been added a strong dose of feeling, courtesy of the production’s stars, Simon Russell Beale, who plays the defeated, hilariously tortoise-like professor of moral philosophy, and Essie Davis, as his disturbed wife, who may or may not have accidentally shot one of the members of that gymnastics team.
In the National’s largest theater, the Olivier, Hytner has inaugurated a remarkable plan to widen the theater’s audience base by selling most of the tickets for just £10 — less than $20, even with the dollar dragging. Auds at the National have always been refreshingly mixed, but at a recent matinee of Hytner’s own staging of “Henry V” the theater was notably, encouragingly youthful; by contrast, Broadway matinees tend to look like AARP outings.
For the price of a movie ticket, the audience was treated to a cleanly updated, clearly staged production featuring a thoughtful, hard-to-pin-down performance from Adrian Lester as the reckless youth turned forceful leader of a country heading into battle. (Sound familiar?) Hytner’s contemporary “Henry V” takes pointed note of the means by which political moves are packaged and sold to a populace now glued to TV screens — Henry’s rousing speeches often are presented as glib soundbites. But it doesn’t distort the text in search of heavy-handed point-scoring.
For this critic, the most disappointing production at the National was the one with American fingerprints: John Guare’s hard-working but heavy-treading stage version of “His Girl Friday,” the practically peerless movie comedy that was itself adapted from the gold-plated American stage play “The Front Page.” Under the direction of Jack O’Brien, fresh from his Tony win for “Hairspray,” the comedy fails resolutely to crackle as it should in this oddly laborious new version.
The fault may lie partially with Guare’s adaptation, which is set on the eve of World War II and thus comes with a glutinous layer of social significance slathered on top. (Was the word “terrorist” really current at the time?) And O’Brien’s self-conscious evoking of the cinematic original — the black-and-white sets, the visible soundstage lights, the script girl idling somewhat aimlessly to the side of the stage — puts the action in unnecessary quotation marks. The evening’s leading players — Zoe Wanamaker as a bustling Hildy Johnson, Alex Jennings as her irascible ex Walter Burns — are both skilled, smart actors in roles that may require something extra: the high-wattage personalities of stars. Or it may simply be that Americans actors better understand the brisk rhythms and brittle charms of these ferocious newsroom bottom-feeders than their British counterparts do.