Broadway Weathermen Know Which Way the Wind Blows

It is not just the Wisconsin schoolteachers sparking a revival of the Democratic left; Broadway is doing its bit. Rather then outrage, humor –– often ribald –– is the chosen method.

Could it be that smart people want to influence the Democrats as they begin to mobilize for the presidential election next year and choose the vast slates of down-ticket candidates?

This season’s biggest surprise is the revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Ostensibly fluff about climbing the corporate ladder, the book and costumes make clear how this play was originally conceived to cast a gimlet eye on President John F. Kennedy.

The creators –– humorist Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser (best known for “Guys and Dolls”) –– were Roosevelt Democrats and immune to the charm of JFK’s looks and his promises of a New Frontier. Underneath it all, they saw connivers being shrewd and underhanded.

“I believe in you,” the show’s hit song, returns the favor with its own shrewd irony. Daniel Radcliffe plays the ambitious hero with a “butter-could-melt-in-his-mouth” charm. In a moment of adversity, he stares into the mirror and, meaning “I” and “me” when he says “you,” sings, “You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth; Oh, I believe in you.”

Amidst the unfolding chicanery, the true feelings of the FDR crowd explode into a triumphant production number. They challenge the obsession with getting ahead at the expense of working for the good of humanity. The cast sings with unfeigned enthusiasm of “The Brotherhood of Man, A Benevolent Brotherhood of Man, A noble tie that binds all human hearts and minds.” The audience cheered.

JFK was enormously popular in New York and direct criticism aimed at the young president would have created a disastrous backlash here, so the 1962 musical takes place in the corporate world, at the World Wide Widget Company. It’s hard to beat back the suspicion, however, that the show was revived now because Kennedy’s brand of charisma lingers in Barack Obama, who is well loved but, like the first Catholic president, more a realist than an idealist.

Just how far the nation has strayed from the fraternal feelings at the core of the FDR revolution is the underlying context for Tony Kushner’s new play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures.” The nation’s rightward drift causes a spiritual crisis for the very left-wing father, a communist union leader. Played splendidly by Michael Cristofer, he is taking a serious look at suicide.

Rather than macabre, the show is seriously funny. If you like the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee, Kushner gives the genre a fresh face. Those with long memories (or teeth) will enjoy the recapitulation of three generations of New York City political quarrels. Others may be disappointed.

Kushner, the most famous gay playwright in the US, is writing about death with dignity, but that the highly regarded Lab Theater in Chicago should make monogamy its focus is a bit more of a surprise.

“The Motherfucker with the Hat” has a strong cast. Nobody dominates; instead, its actors stimulate each other to perform at their peak. Their mastery of New York City accents is a pleasure, and the accompanying profanity will make most in the Manhattan crowd smile. Directed by Anna Shapiro, who won a “Tony” for directing “August: Osage County,” also an import from Chicago, the play is a complicated look at the world of AA and recovery, one in which drugs and booze are everywhere and sobriety doesn’t change character.

The audience roots for the Bobby Cannavale character, who is trying to make a successful transition from prison life. His tragic flaw is his faith in monogamy and his paranoia about whether he was cheated on while in the slammer. Self-serving yet thoughtful, Chris Rock’s character articulates the case for open relationships.

Of course, the biggest show of the new season, “The Book of Mormon,” illustrates the flip side of the religious right in its unabashedly secular, forthright rejection of religion. Attendance is up at evangelical churches, to be sure, but the number of atheists who are out and proud is at record levels. Put simply, the musical comedy says if you think “Star Wars” is real, then you can believe in religion, another fantastical tale.

Building on their natural talent for making skepticism risible, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creative partners as well on “South Park,” are not shy about making it clear that religion has not helped AIDS prevention –– doing so amidst much laughter and some remarkable jabs at political correctness.

War makes for great tales of political art and this season has two remarkable shows proving that point. “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” offers a bravura performance by Robin Williams illustrating that war turns people into animals. That lesson is turned on its head in “War Horse,” in which a heart-warming story emerges from the carnage of World War I. The show’s mastery of the theater and its puppets make it a once-in-a lifetime experience. There are laugh lines in “Bengal Tiger” and “War Horse,” but the shows are not comedies.

I’ve not had the chance to see “The Normal Heart,” “Jerusalem,” “The Pitmen Painters,” and “Good People” –– plays that also draw heavily on political themes –– but it’s inarguable this has been an exceptional season for thought-provoking theater on Broadway.

It’s also one that makes clear that the left is getting over its disappointment with the first three years of the Obama age and is going back into the fray.

 

More from Around NYC