Peter Marks reviews ‘War Horse,’ ‘Catch Me if You Can’ and more on Broadway

Correction: An earlier version of this review included a capsule description of “Catch Me if You Can” that misidentified one of the orchestrators. He is Larry Blank, not Larry Smith. This version has been corrected.

One looks spectacular, the other speechifies hilariously. Two new plays opened on Broadway this week, each establishing a season benchmark for extraordinary imagery or virtuosic development of character.

The looker is “War Horse,” the British import at Lincoln Center Theater that stages in three mesmerizing dimensions the story of the heart-wrenching hell a boy undergoes for the sake of the animal he’s raised. The ear-pleaser is a new American comedy about addictive personalities whose complete title can’t even be printed in a family newspaper: “The [Expletive] With the Hat.”

With the unveiling of the two plays — as tonally different from each other as “Bambi” is from “Pulp Fiction” — Broadway gives itself a series of vitamin injections nearly as potent as the recent shot it got from the powerhouse new musical “The Book of Mormon.” Only the disappointing impression left by another new work, a musical adaptation of the 2002 Steven Spielberg flick “Catch Me If You Can,” has reduced by some degree the potential vivacity of spring in the theater district.

The unlikeliest reception for all these projects is the one enjoyed by “Hat,” the Broadway playwriting debut of off-Broadway’s Stephen Adly Guirgis (“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”). Featuring a captivating Bobby Cannavale as an alcoholic ex-con struggling to do the right thing, and in an endearingly legitimate turn, Chris Rock as his therapy-group sponsor, “Hat” is the surprise of the spring, a risibly foul-mouthed takedown of all the sanctimony surrounding the various processes of recovery.

The early publicity for Guirgis’s play — staged with style and acute intuition by Anna Shapiro — suggested that the tills in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre have not exactly been ringing. Whether it was the profanity in the title or the competition from the surfeit of April openings on Broadway, no one knows for sure; Rock’s raucous appeal, apparently, isn’t so easily marketable in the arena of conventional dramatics.

One can only hope the strong notices that have been published in the wake of Monday night’s opening will help perk up the box office. Because the production clearly deserves to find an audience, among those not offended by an expletive or two . . . thousand. Its pleasures derive from the manner in which Cannavale’s pretty dim, trigger-tempered Jackie — fresh out of a New York prison where he’d done time for drugs — has his head spun every which way by the plot’s other addicts and ex-addicts: Rock’s Ralph, his wife, Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), and Jackie’s spitfire girlfriend, Veronica, portrayed by the superb Elizabeth Rodriguez. (Yul Vazquez also contributes a smashing performance as Jackie’s easily offended cousin, Julio.)

Guirgis provides each of the actors bravura moments: The explosive opening scene in Veronica’s apartment, during which Jackie fails to get Veronica to reveal who owns the man’s hat he finds on a table, sets a high comic standard that is sustained for the ensuing 90 minutes; Rodriguez and Cannavale brawl with a gusto that rivals Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio.

Rock has a formidable assignment in this accomplished ensemble, portraying a reptile with a smooth-talker spiel, and at times you can tell that he’s not entirely comfortable taking on a chameleon’s responsibilities. But Ralph is close enough to Rock in temperament and cynical outlook to make the transformation credible. And so in this case the star casting, these days far too much with us on Broadway, actually pays off.

The star of “War Horse,” on the other hand, doesn’t even need a dressing room. This drama of a boy (Seth Numrich) who enlists in the British army after his callous drunk of a father sells his horse Joey into military service during World War I, achieves propulsive emotionality through puppetry. It takes three actors (Joby Earle, Ariel Heller and Enrico D. Wey) to manipulate the astonishing multitude of working parts that animate the life-size Joey. And though “War Horse” offers too much exposition—at 21 / 2 hours, it could drop a subplot or two — the scenes depicting Joey and the other horses never wear out their welcome.

As staged by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, “War Horse” ingeniously blends set pieces, graphic design, animation and animal puppetry to bolster Nick Stafford’s script, adapted from a novel by Michael Morpurgo. You and your children will be amazed by the wizardry — as effective as anything imagineered in Hollywood.

Understanding that this piece relies on our bonding with Joey — he experiences as macabre and terrifying a war in France as any doughboy — “War Horse” permits us to meet him as a foal in the care of Numrich’s sensitively assayed Albert. A remarkable dumb show unfolds in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, during which we, in essence, watch as the elaborate mechanisms assembled to create the illusion of a live animal seem to become one.

The story is so programmed to elicit tears that the theater should consider issuing waterproof Playbills. (The intermittent, ancient-sounding melodies, sung by Kate Pfaffl, Liam Robinson and the rest of the ensemble, resonate with the horses’ soulful bearings.) As family-pleasing entertainment goes, “War Horse” is as surefire as Broadway gets.

“Catch Me if You Can,” at the Neil Simon Theatre, has as promising a pedigree as either of these productions: a score by resourceful Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of “Hairspray” fame; a proven director and choreographer in Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell, who worked with them on “Hairspray”; and a story taken from a Spielberg movie about a wildly successful impersonator and forger pursued by a wily FBI agent. That’s not to mention the talents of Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit, as song-and-dance versions of the characters created on-screen by Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.

So how come “Catch Me” the musical turns out to be such a bummer? The problem seems to reside chiefly in the storytelling framework that’s been devised by the creative team, which also includes book writer Terrence McNally. A decision to turn Tveit’s prodigal character into a narrator who imagines his misadventures as fodder for a cheesy ’60s TV variety show takes “Catch Me” in sour and smarmy directions. The conceit at times feels as if it is borrowing directly from such superior life-as-show-biz efforts as Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago.”

Butz uses a unique brand of couch-potato charisma to invigorate his idea of Agent Hanratty, but aside from a vibrant first-act number, “Don’t Break the Rules,” the material does not give him much of a chance to replicate the earthy charm Hanks brought to the movie. Tveit, late of the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal,” is suave and personable as the cagey Frank Abagnale Jr. But the part itself lacks a compelling core, and so the musical, like the young flimflam man, remains an empty shell.

The [Expletive] With the Hat

by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Anna Shapiro. Sets, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Mimi O’Donnell; lighting, Donald Holder; composer, Terence Blanchard; sound, Acme Sound Partners. About 95 minutes. At Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

War Horse

adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company. Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Sets, costumes and drawings, Rae Smith; puppetry, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones; lighting, Paule Constable; director of movement, Toby Sedgwick. About 21 / 2 hours. At Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Visit www.lct.org or call 800-432-7250.

Catch Me if You Can

book by Terrence McNally, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Choreography, Jerry Mitchell; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; orchestrations, Larry Blank and Shaiman. With Tom Wopat, Nick Wyman, Linda Hart. About 21 / 2 hours. At Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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