Broadway's spotlight shifts to men

By PETER MARKS Washington Post
Published May 10, 2007

NEW YORK - Kevin Spacey is acting up two, three, even five storms a night in the Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten. David Hyde Pierce is offering a sly comic turn as a stage-struck policeman in the otherwise regrettable new musical Curtains. Liev Schreiber, enveloped in a galvanizing haze of nicotine, whiskey and venom, is playing a vile shock jock in Talk Radio.

And perhaps most incisively, Jeff Daniels is delivering a finely shaded portrait of a man running from his troubled past with an underage girl in off-Broadway's gripping Blackbird.

Suddenly, it's the season for greasepaint and testosterone on the stages of New York. Rarely in recent years has there been such a convergence of prominent male stars who not only possess familiar names but authentic theater credentials. The high-profile parade continues with Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy in Inherit the Wind, and Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (Tony Blair opposite Helen Mirren's Queen) in Frost/Nixon.

Movies are traditionally the medium in which male stars tend to dominate; the stage is where women have staked the more certain claim. Maybe it's happenstance, but in the current crop of new shows, many choice roles go to the boys.

Letdowns onstage

Not that every vehicle is ideal. The quality of theater ranges from the overly broad comedy of Curtains - a low-rent musical masquerading as something giddy and high-style - to the wrenching starkness of Blackbird, in which a young woman (Alison Pill) confronts the man (Daniels) who bedded her when she was 12.

And not every casting choice proves seamless, either. The actor representing the biggest letdown is, surprisingly, the one who might seem best suited to his role: Spacey.

Moon is Eugene O'Neill's elegiac account of the attraction of a big woman from the wrong side of the tracks to the alcoholic scion of a land-owning family. The Brooks Atkinson Theatre production, directed by Howard Davies, is imported from London's Old Vic, the theater company Spacey runs. He's paired with British actor Eve Best, who, like Spacey, is an O'Neill veteran.

The play itself is middling O'Neill, hindered by the playwright's indulgent inclination to accompany every impulse and action with a long explanation. The piece ends up closer to something vintage than classic.

The biggest hindrance, though, is Spacey's indulgent performance as Jim Tyrone. It seems designed to milk sentiment rather than embody it. Forget for a moment his fine, early work in film; if you got to see his Hickey in Broadway's Iceman Cometh in 1999, you know he's capable of spareness and subtlety. But his work here is too histrionic. Spacey doesn't cry; he heaves. He doesn't fume; he rages.

Hyde Pierce fares much better in much weaker fare. He seems to be in a different musical from everyone else in Curtains - and his is the musical you wish you were seeing. With a forgettable score and a cloyingly overcooked book, Curtains, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is a banal backstage-murder-mystery parody with all the fizz of seltzer left too long on the counter.

The actor, late of Frasier, cocoons himself in the aura of a bewildered guest from another planet: He seems a little "elsewhere." This ethereal comic attribute is a gift to Curtains, set in 1959 and steeped in showbiz cliches: venal moneymen and closeted chorus boys in bad show-within-a-show numbers from a knockoff of Annie Get Your Gun.

Hyde Pierce plays a detective called to the theater after the star of (cringe) Robbin' Hood is murdered. He glides through the proceedings as if Fred Astaire were his spiritual guide.

Success stories

Schreiber, meanwhile - an alpha male of the thespian species if there ever was one - injects a similar degree of authority over Talk Radio at the Longacre Theatre.

Set at a Cleveland radio station, the play is an examination of the psyche of one who spews insults for a living and the psychology of the masses irresistibly drawn to him. Much of the play concerns Schreiber's Barry Champlain call-in colloquy with the sad sacks who want his ear. And while Barry utters no epithet on the offensive level of Don Imus', his contemptuous patter reveals him as no better - and no worse - than the coarse and callous audience that revels in his excess.

Schreiber, who won a Tony last year for his slithery Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, is so in his element that even his sultry baritone manages to sound perfect for the AM dial.

By virtue of his ability to make accessible a man of even baser and more horrifying urges, Daniels' contribution to Blackbird at Manhattan Theatre Club is even a more remarkable achievement. David Harrower's play entwines in both fascinating and uncomfortable ways the question of where abuse ends and love begins.

In the cold confines of a lunchroom that could be in any corporate office, (Alison) Pill's Una corners Daniels' Ray. Fifteen years earlier, while a guest of her parents, Ray seduced 12-year-old Una. The repercussions were severe for both of them, and the experience remains alive for her. On this day, she has sought him out to ensure that nothing is finished for him, either.

As directed by Joe Mantello, Blackbird insinuates itself eerily in the shadows of indelible traumas, and excavates feeling at depths you don't anticipate. Pill's anxious, vengeful, needy Una comes across as pitiably, blankly authentic, but Daniels' panicked, embittered Ray is the more surprising creation.

Playing an older version of the philandering family man in Terms of Endearment, Daniels is once again a harmless-looking guy with a penchant for bequeathing pain. The inextinguishable anguish is there to behold in Blackbird's harsh fluorescent light.