While they are surrounded by estimable talent, it is fair to describe each of them — Derek Jacobi in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “King Lear,” Joe Mantello in Broadway’s “The Normal Heart” and Sutton Foster in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Anything Goes” — as irreplaceable. Not that the shows couldn’t go on without them; it’s just that these particular worlds of artifice wouldn’t spin forcefully without them.
Put another way: Your heart goes out to anyone hired as their understudies.
For high-profile productions both in New York and elsewhere, an inordinate amount of energy is expended on signing stars, especially if the production revives a previously mounted work. The Broadway revival of John Guare’s 1987 comedy of noisy grotesques, “The House of Blue Leaves,” demonstrates the pitfalls. Although director David Cromer deserves the bulk of the blame for this muted, dramatically tin-eared interpretation, his leading man — Ben Stiller — is too vigorously clean-cut to portray Artie Shaughnessy, the outer-borough climber seeking to shed his basket case of a wife, played by Edie Falco (who is dynamic here, as always).
The lack of an abiding stage connection manifests itself in Stiller’s inability to fully immerse himself in Artie’s ferocious desperation, a deficit that proves fatal to the play’s harsh denouement. (Actors who spend most of their time in movies often run into trouble on Broadway, as they find it hard to aim the largeness of a character at a target broader than a camera lens.)
That’s why nine times out of ten a more satisfying result is achieved with an actor who’s playhouse-broken. And in Foster, Jacobi and Mantello, audiences are being treated to captivating tutorials in how time-tested theater pros galvanize a crowd. Both Foster and Mantello are Tony-nominated; Jacobi’s performance is ineligible because it does not occur in a Broadway house.
Foster’s work in “Anything Goes,” a scrumptious revival of the wiseacre 1934 Cole Porter musical, is the surest confirmation yet that this highly disciplined triple threat — singer, dancer, comic actress — is a true Broadway baby. Infused with toe-tapping pizazz by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall (who staged “The Pajama Game” with Harry Connick Jr.), this incarnation of the silly cruise-ship musical boasts some inspired antics. The best of the clowns are Adam Godley, as a limey blue blood affianced to the fetching ingenue (Laura Osnes), and John McMartin, playing a befuddled old souse with a yen for the girl’s mother (Jessica Walter).