Letter from New York: Sunday in the Park with George and The Price
Seeing Sunday in the Park with George at this point in history is less a theatergoing experience than an act of worship. If the well-to-do Broadway set or bourgeois theater maniacs, immortalized in another Stephen Sondheim piece, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” had their own version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sunday would probably be it. In other words, the thrill of getting to see the Georges Seurat fantasia in person puts people either of a certain age or certain mold in such a transported state that it’s practically irrelevant who stars in or who directed any particular production. Give us those gorgeous melodic experiments and flawless lyrics (by the aforementioned Sondheim) and tightly plotted, experimental book (by James Lapine), this time at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway through April 23rd, and you’ll get no complaints from us.
That’s why it’s especially thrilling that this revival, the show’s third iteration on Broadway, is practically perfect in every way. Sarna Lapine, the librettist’s daughter, has staged a minimalist version of this emotionally massive musical that, thanks to smart design elements, never feels small. The sets, appropriately, are composed entirely of variants of color and light, designed by Tal Yarden and Ken Billington. The ensemble cast is ridiculously talented – Tony nominee Brooks Ashmanskas and Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles grace the production in shockingly small roles, proving even Broadway stars go gaga for George.
But of course, no production of this show, fundamentally, works without its two tentpole stars, and, thank God, Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford are inhumanly good in the roles originated by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Gyllenhaal, miraculously, is just as good a singer as he is an actor. He is, in many ways, a second coming of Patinkin – so bursting with manic energy and talent, that, when finally given room to go nuts in the number “The Day Off,” he threatens to tear the theater apart. Given Patinkin’s iconic status, the similarities in their performances are sometimes a weakness for Gyllenhaal, but the force of the latter’s charisma soon overwhelms any flaws. His personality is so fiery you can sense the degree to which he’s almost encumbered by anyone else onstage – perfect for his dual roles as artists no one understands. Ashford’s magnificent stage presence, given her stellar work in Kinky Boots and You Can’t Take it With You, should come as no surprise. She is better on all counts – singing, bravado, absentminded sexuality – than Peters ever was.
The dramatic brilliance of Sunday — and this becomes clearer with this revival than it ever was before – is that its style, exactly as Seurat’s was, is pointillist. Lapine’s disparate and seemingly unrelated dramatic installments and Sondheim’s jumpy, wild, thrilling music combine to tell a seemingly conventional story of artists coming to terms with their tradition and their humanity (or lack thereof). It’s only when you step back that the colors wash together and the perfection of the piece is revealed. So perhaps it’s fitting that, with a distance of three decades between Sunday’s original production and now, the show’s vitality should be clearer than ever.
While Sunday’s reduced set design from its original 1985 production serves to emphasize a new directorial approach, some design elements are more utilitarian than others. Terry Kinney’s revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price, at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre through May 14th is set in an attic with the top of a staircase conveniently located downstage left, the better to conduce staging and, perhaps more relevantly, entrance applause. Over the course of the show’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, Mark Ruffalo, Jessica Hecht, Danny DeVito, and Tony Shahloub come tromping up the staircase, and it pays to show off the merchandise.
The Price is an inordinately depressing, violently funny play dealing, unusually for midcentury drama, with the human side of capital, rather than the capitalistic side of humanity. Ruffalo’s Victor Franz, a cop near retirement, spends much of the second act with seven hundred dollars wadded tightly in his fist. All that green is courtesy of DeVito’s Gregory Solomon, a furniture dealer looking to buy what amounts to the entire estate of Victor’s deceased father for a measly twelve hundred bucks. Most of Shahloub’s Walter Franz’s time on stage is spent arguing with Victor, his younger brother, about how much cash their dad actually had on hand when he passed over, sixteen years before. In short, The Price has its mind on its money and its money on its mind, which doesn’t make it any easier to forget how much you paid for your ticket.
The writing, naturally, is lyrical and magnificent, and the acting is near-uniformly great. Hecht, the weakest element of last season’s Fiddler revival, pulls the same trick here – she’s eternally and needlessly running back and forth across the stage despite the three-inch heels with which she’s saddled – and Ruffalo plays Victor as such a mouth-breathing sad-sack that he lets Shahloub and DeVito (the latter making his Broadway debut at 72) run away with the show a bit. (Actually the breakout star is Derek McLane’s gorgeous set, which looks like a Cornell box crossed with a Hopper painting). But who’s complaining? This is a show about pride and money, and nothing hits that combo right on the nose like star casting on Broadway, a practice in which both proliferate. It doesn’t really matter if the production is great (which, incidentally, it is); you know that standing ovation is coming at the end anyway. As Miller once wrote elsewhere, “Attention must be paid.” Check and double check.