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Theatre in Review: The Ferryman (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)/The Prom (Longacre Theatre)

Top: Ralph Brown, Brian d'Arcy James. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Beth Leavel, Michael Potts. Photo Deen van Meer.

I recently had the chance to revisit two of the past season's most notable Broadway shows, and am happy to report that both are in excellent shape. The Ferryman has undergone a near-total change of cast -- the original company, most of them from London's Royal Court Theatre by way of the West End, have returned to the UK -- without losing any of its uncanny power. A family drama, informed by the politics of Ireland's Troubles, with thriller undertones, it focuses on the members of the Carney clan, of rural Northern Ireland, as they assemble for the annual harvest, followed by a feast. This year, however, the normally joyous occasion has shadows cast over it: It is 1981 and the hunger strikes of IRA prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, are roiling the country. Closer to home, the body of Seamus Carney, an IRA soldier who disappeared ten years earlier, has surfaced in a bog, raising ugly questions about his death. The IRA wants assurance from Quinn, Seamus' brother and the head of the family, that no troubling inquiries will be made. Quinn declines to agree and, over the next twenty-four hours, it becomes brutally clear that the past cannot be left buried.

The Ferryman rewards repeat viewings; at a second -- or, in my case, third -- glance, it becomes evident that many seemingly off-topic (if beguiling) passages are, in fact, key elements in the steel-trap plotting of playwright Jez Butterworth. It's also fascinating to see how the new cast invests certain characters with different values, in the process reframing the drama without diminishing its power. As Quinn, Brian d'Arcy James is less the master of the family revels and more of a patriarch, visibly hollowed out by the memory of his own IRA past; it's a quality that lends an extra bit of poignancy to his sublimated yearning for Seamus' widow, Caitlin (Holly Fain, remarkably like Laura Donnelly, who created the role). Emily Bergl gives the role of Mary, Quinn's wife and something of a professional invalid, a more pointed agenda; it's clearer than ever that she wants Caitlin out of the house, at the earliest possible opportunity. (The scene in which Quinn and Mary confront their sham of a marriage is electric with anger and hurt.) Here the tension caused by Caitlin's presence -- she functions as mother and housekeeper while Mary lies abed, felled by mysterious "viruses" -- is even more clearly a principal underpinning to the drama, especially in the third act, when Muldoon, an IRA fixer, shows up with definite plans for Caitlin's future.

In addition, Fred Applegate adds a new touch of gravitas to the role of bloviating, poetry-quoting Uncle Patrick, whose boozy humanity stands in direct opposition to those who believe that, when it comes to fighting the British, the ends justify the means. He spars to often riotous effect with Ann McDonough as Aunt Pat, his temperamental and political opposite number. McDonough lends a new vigor to Aunt Pat's malice, whether taunting Caitlin, calling down doom on Margaret Thatcher, or savaging anyone who seems even remotely affiliated with the British. Shuler Hensley all but vanishes into the role of Tom Kettle, the mentally not-quite-right Englishman who watches over the Carneys. Fionnula Flanagan, a holdover, continues to cast a spell as Aunt Maggie Faraway, the seemingly demented elder who emerges from her mental fog to make mordant pronouncements on the past and present a baleful vision of the future.

As Shane Corcoran, the young cousin who knows more than he should about the IRA's brutal tactics, Jack DiFalco is tougher and, if anything, more menacing than his predecessor, Tom Glynn-Carney. But DiFalco could work on his diction; as of now, one strains to understand him, a pity since the passage in which he dominates is central to the plot. In general, the cast's younger generation could use a diction touch-up, as they lack the clarity of their elders in navigating their Irish brogues.

Nevertheless, Sam Mendes' production is a marvel of slow-building suspense, compounded by raucous family comedy, furious confrontations, and a light overlay of Irish mythology, all leading to a twisty climax that sends gasps ricocheting through the audience. The Ferryman closes July 7; it would be a mistake to miss it.

The first time I saw The Prom, in December, leading lady Beth Leavel was out. It's a pleasure to report that she is ideally cast as Dee Dee Allen, a relentlessly self-aggrandizing Broadway star who unhappily finds herself stranded in an Indiana backwater, embroiled in a local scandal involving gay teens and prom night. In her long career, Leavel has surely had many opportunities to observe the Dee Dee Allens of this world, resulting in a characterization that is hair-raisingly hilarious, whether she is struggling to grasp the details of the electoral college, blithely dismissing Dee Dee Myers' pride of place on Google's search engine, or, apoplectic at the thought of losing her Hamptons house to her loathed ex-husband, having to be physically carried out of the room.

Of course, with her clarion voice, Leavel nails Dee Dee's big numbers, including the supremely disingenuous "It's Not About Me," in which, displaying her best Eva Peron manner, she tries to take over a PTA meeting, and "The Lady's Improving," in which she woos a disaffected admirer with the eleven o'clock number from her first Broadway show. No need for this lady to improve; she has everything nailed down perfectly, thank you.

The rest of The Prom -- book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, lyrics by Beguelin, and music by Matthew Sklar -- continues on its merry way. A farce about a cadre of fading Broadway types who try to earn a little media love by inserting themselves into a small-town dispute, it pulls off the trick, exemplified by the musical Hairspray, of wrapping its laughs around a serious issue without trivializing anything. As bonuses, the score is unfailingly catchy, and the rest of the cast is excellent company.

Brooks Ashmanskas continues to slay as Dee Dee's most recent leading man, whose swishy, self-adoring ways really stand out in the Hoosier State. Christopher Sieber lands plenty of laughs as a cater-waiter with a Juilliard degree he can't stop talking about and a long-gone hit sitcom that he can't live down. (He scores with "Love Thy Neighbor," in which he schools the local teens in the flaws in the Biblical case against gays.) Angie Schworer displays fine Fosse technique, as well as a way with a wisecrack, as an aging chorine who is the real brains of the organization. As the young lesbian who is mortified to find herself at the center of the controversy, the big-voiced Caitlin Kinnunen gives the show a warm and winsome heart. ("Zazz," in which Schworer instructs Kinnunen's awkward character in the language of jazz hands, earned a mid-number ovation at the performance I attended.)

There are also lovely contributions from Isabelle McCalla as a closeted teen who plans to come out on prom night; Michael Potts as the harried high school principal who falls for Dee Dee against his better judgment; Courtenay Collins as the leader of the local anti-gay forces, awkwardly thrust into the spotlight; and Josh Lamon as a press agent well-versed in the perils of the show-business jungle. Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography remain buoyant, especially the electrifying prom-night finale. A family-friendly show that expands the meaning of family, The Prom is, in the tradition of the best Broadway musicals, a fizzy entertainment with something to say. Both The Ferryman and The Prom won the top awards at last night's Drama Desk ceremony, and both are richly deserved. --David Barbour

(3 June 2019)

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