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Power Plays

Three Broadway shows examine lust for power and its bloody consequences

Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen in Taylor Mac’s “Gary: “A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” directed by George W. Woolfe at the Booth through August 4.
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There is no compelling need to brush up your Shakespeare before seeing “Gary,” the new Taylor Mac comedy at the Booth. It’s subtitled “A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” but all you need to know about the Bard’s first epic tragedy is that it’s set in ancient Rome, rife with political intrigue, where everyone is excessively rotten to everyone else, and virtually all of them meet blood-drenched, violent ends.

And so, the curtain rises on “Gary,” where the bodies, abstract dummies created by set designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Ann Roth, are stacked to the rafters and there’s blood everywhere. To clean up this mess we have Gary — a clown who aspires to becoming a fool, the difference being that clowns are merely ridiculous while fools speak truth to power — and Janice, a maid adept at cleaning up this kind of mess. Over the course of the 90-minute show, the two discourse on the state of the world, mixing high-brow philosophy with low-brow comedy as they prepare the bodies for disposal. At one point, a survivor, Carol, emerges from the heaps of bodies and vainly tries to save what she can of the order that was wiped out in the waves of gore. Not much else happens. This is not a plot-driven piece, but an artful meditation on the state of mankind framed in a graphic, Grand Guignol puppet show, of sorts.

The piece is fast-paced and chaotic, yet under the pointed direction of George C. Wolfe, it’s exciting and theatrical. Ideas and thoughts fly about with the same abandon as blood and body parts in a kind of philosophical steeplechase. Mac’s play and the production jump between the absurdity of Ionesco, the existentialism of Genet, the Dadaism of Tristan Tzara, and the mordant political commentary of Shaw. The melding of these styles and the constant changes make this remarkably funny and intellectually riveting, animated by over-the-top production.

The cast is perfect. Nathan Lane is Gary, and his inherent genius as a comic actor is often tempered with monologues about the nature of life and power as well as Gary’s striving to find meaning in life, after having escaped the noose. (The minor character that Gary is based on in Shakespeare’s play is hung.) Kristine Nielsen as Janice is a similarly gifted comedienne, and as with Lane, she elevates her penchant for broad comedy with a dark exploration of what it means to be the workaday person “dressed in a little brief authority” (as Shakespeare writes in “Measure for Measure”) tasked with cleaning up the messes of others. Julie White as Carol, based on a midwife who appears briefly in “Titus,” is frantic to save the baby who appears to be the last living member of the old order. Or is she just trying to save herself from the consequences of letting her charge die, which begs the question of who we are when social structures are wiped away?

Mac’s allegory is simplistic and bleak, but juxtaposed against the daring theatricality, it’s consistently exciting. Mac takes aim at almost every aspect of civilization and points out both our foolishness and the inevitable fact that, literally and metaphorically, everyone ends in mincemeat. As the song goes, that’s entertainment.

While ostensibly chronicling the final night before and day of the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary, Lucas Hnath’s play, “Hillary and Clinton” is, like “Gary,” allegorical rather than literal. Good thing, too. It’s not without abiding affection for the actual Hillary Clinton and daily chagrin that she’s not president that I say the Clintonian narrative has been done to death in all media and is not crying out to be dramatized — at least at this moment.

Instead, playwright Hnath has used these characters — Hillary, Bill, Barack, and Mark, Hillary’s campaign manager — in what amounts to an exploration of women and power and the inescapable role gender plays in how that is perceived, managed, and expressed.

Political marriage as metaphor is an interesting concept, but the shifting power in a marriage is territory Hnath explored more successfully in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Hillary and Bill could be any couple in crisis, trying to figure out how to move ahead with their lives and how to renegotiate a relationship when the dynamics change. (One partner running for president will do that, evidently.) At the same time, they remain inextricably tied to — and dependent upon — one another, as they bruise one another in battle and yet care deeply for one another, which to an outside observer might border on the perverse. The inclusion of Barack and Mark is essentially and expository tool and steal focus from the relationship of Bill and Hillary without adding much.

If the depiction of an intimate, internecine battle seems familiar, it should. This is the marital minefield Edward Albee charted in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Hnath, though, lacks the sophistication of Albee either in character development or language and is assuming the presumed biases of the Broadway audience to be sympathetic toward Hillary from the outset, rather than truly earning it by virtue of what is presented on stage. As a result, for all its good intentions, the play ends up being thin and facile, only skating on the surface of the timely issues raised

John Lithgow plays Bill Clinton with an easy charm balanced by a competitive streak and considerable concern that his wife may ultimately outshine him. Laurie Metcalf is Hillary and is, as always, a force on stage, but she doesn’t seem to be used to her full capacity here. Her performance seems ungrounded as she complains about not being acknowledged for her achievements or she chafes at the issue of her “likeability.” This is where the issue of gender might have been more effectively explored rather than simply stated. Since Hnath is not trying to create a literal portrayal of Hillary, a bit more dramatic license might have delivered a more developed character. Metcalf, reportedly, will be playing Martha in “…Virginia Woof” next season with Eddie Izzard. Based on that material alone, that should deliver the excitement and substance missing from “Hillary and Clinton.”

Rupert Murdoch is another public figure who has been relentlessly anatomized in recent years. His willingness to jettison journalistic standards and ethics in search of financial gain is well documented. He is the individual most associated with the degradation of the news and pandering to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism, scantily clad women, compromised ethical standards, and indifference to the truth. Do we really need to know how this all came about?

In the case of the play “Ink,” which chronicles the rise of the Sun from nearly forgotten newspaper to tabloid sensation in Britain in 1969, the answer is a resounding no. The play tells how Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb pulled out all the stops, abandoned all traditions, and tried every trick in the book to drive readership. What we see is little more than a documentary-style procedural with no character development and no real dramatic tension. Even when one is dealing with a supposed villain like Murdoch, the audience needs to make a connection to the character, his motivations, and what drives him. He says he wants to be “loud,” but other than some run-of-the-mill childhood trauma that’s barely indicated, we don’t know what makes him tick. Similarly, we don’t understand what motivates Lamb to try to make something of the paper. Is it because he’s been snubbed by Fleet Street and needs to prove himself? It’s all unclear, so there’s no reason to care.

Playwright James Graham can’t build tension when dealing with a grisly murder or the shock of putting a nearly naked girl on page 3. The triumph of cynicism is not a compelling theatrical conceit, so it all feels completely mechanical. If, however, you are interested in knowing how a paper was produced in the days prior to computers, there’s a whole section of the first act devoted to that.

Director Rupert Goold does what he can to enliven the proceedings, but as with “Enron,” which he also directed on Broadway, theater tricks, dazzling projections by Jon Driscoll, and a very creative set by Bunny Christie can’t enliven a moribund play. (Goold did so much better with “American Psycho,” which shows that when he’s got a good story, his style can work.) Bertie Carvel as Murdoch and Jonny Lee Miller as Lamb hit their marks but are hampered by the script. The same goes for the rest of the company.

Like “Enron,” “Ink” was a huge hit in London, which is why it’s made the transfer to Broadway. And like “Enron,” there is something lost in translation — and it’s clearly a question of different tastes in storytelling. It’s not enough to feel smugly superior to the people who have so damaged the news business. Since we all know how this story ends, or rather refuses to end, there’s no pleasure in rehashing yesterday’s news.

GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS | Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. | Through Aug. 4: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. | $39-$275 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety mins, no intermission

HILLARY AND CLINTON | Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. | Through Jul. 21: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | Sun. at 3 p.m. | $39-$159 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | One hrs., 25 mins., no intermission

INK | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. | Through Jul. 7: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.- Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.| $79-$189 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 45 mins, with intermission

Updated 2:26 pm, May 23, 2019
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