Long live the war horse — and I am not referring strictly to the astounding equine mechanics occurring nightly at Lincoln Center. (In, er, the moving British import “War Horse.”) Three benchmark performances by actors with varied and richly fortified stage pedigrees are giving theatergoers fresh fodder for future reverie.
They are the leads in productions as tonally different as weddings are from wakes. And yet, the spells they cast are all in a similarly thrilling vein, the sort of portrayals that reveal how enthrallingly a play or musical revival can be transformed by one startling act — or actor — of imagination.
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).
But the shenanigans fall meaningfully into place only because of Foster’s Reno Sweeney, a combustible bundle of fun, sex and fancy footwork. Foster has proved her mettle before, in such lesser Broadway efforts as “Young Frankenstein” and “Shrek the Musical.” The sly Reno (a chanteuse doing her own bit of cruising) is way more her speed. Her knockout work with the Porter standards — “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” “Friendship,” the last a duet with Joel Grey — culminates in a roof-raising rendition of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” with the whole cast as her charismatic chorus.
In “King Lear,” visiting BAM from London’s Donmar Warehouse, Jacobi’s supple emotional gymnastics do as much for his production as Foster’s splits do for hers. The majestic Jacobi here inhabits the vain old monarch as wretchedly spoiled, a man so childishly prone to tantrums he gives no thought to the fact that he appears infantile. It’s a grand, roiling star turn: In that all-important first scene, leading up to Lear’s demand of his daughter, Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), some public account of devotion, Jacobi plays the king as if he were an overindulged 10-year-old, waiting for his parade of Christmas gifts.
The bigness of the portrayal works superbly. Under Michael Grandage’s direction, some other actors are operating at Jacobi’s level, most notably Justine Mitchell as a tautly wound Regan and Gina McKee, conveying a Goneril of serene connivance. Your eyes, though, are riveted to Jacobi, for his establishment of Lear’s volatility makes the segue to the king’s madness all that more convincing. (The scene on the heath is rendered here terrifically as a storm inside Lear’s mind.)
The story’s climax, too, crackles with the wailing fallout of the old man’s belated comprehension of his errors. Let’s hear it for a Lear with lungs!
Mantello is better known as a director of plays (“Other Desert Cities”) and musicals (“Wicked”) but is nonetheless a fine actor; he created the role of Louis Ironson, the gay Jewish word processor in love with Prior Walter in the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” In the blisteringly revelatory revival at the Golden Theatre of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” he has the pivotal role of Ned Weeks, an early-days AIDS activist so outspoken over the government’s lackadaisical response to gay men dying that he becomes a political liability to the cause.
It’s no small accomplishment, finding the correct pitch for this abrasive Cassandra, but Mantello does it. You’re aware of what an irritant Ned can be to the small cadre of gay men around him (played with effective passion by Jim Parsons, Patrick Breen, John Benjamin Hickey and Lee Pace). And yet, perhaps partly because so much came true of what Ned prophesied back in the mid-1980s, an audience experiences a sense of release hearing Mantello’s Ned out.
There’s intelligence and, yes, even charm in this version of Ned, steered to the stage by directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. An inferior portrayal might have posited him as a shrill heckler. Mantello — egged on, by the way, by Ellen Barkin, in a powerhouse turn as a doctor enmeshed in the bureaucracy of the plague — keeps it real. His Ned is an urbane nuisance but also a man of bedrock optimism — a believer that things can be better. It requires an interpreter of Mantello's explosive caliber to allow us fully to feel the heat of Kramer’s drama.
music and lyrics by Cole Porter, new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. About 2½ hours. At Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., New York.
by Larry Kramer. Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through July 10 at Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York.
by John Guare. Directed by David Cromer. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. For this show, “Anything Goes” and “The Normal Heart,” visit www.telecharge.com or call 800-432-7250.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Grandage. About 3 hours. Through June 5 at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Visit www.bam.org or call 718-636-4100.