BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
Reading Aristophanes today, one doesn’t instantly think “rollicking comedy,” yet that’s what it was in ancient Greece where the putative father of comedy left his audiences helpless with mirth, or so we think. Stephen Sondheim turned to Aristophanes for “The Frogs,” an insightful and intelligent modernization of that text.
That’s not the tack that Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Finn have taken in turning Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” into the musical “Lysistrata Jones” now at the Walter Kerr. They have gone full out for structural tropes, over-the-top comedy, zaniness, and the spirit of satire that’s at the heart of Aristophanes.
However, while the ancient Greek fully exploited the inherent comedy of iambic hexameter, Beane, who wrote the consistently funny and clever book, and Finn, who wrote the equally engaging music and lyrics, have created a mash-up of music and dance styles that is hilarious in its conception and breathtaking in its execution. Under the fiercely precise and equally comic direction and choreography of Dan Knechtges, “Lysistrata Jones” is a joyfully exuberant musical that is completely irresistible.
The original Lysistrata got the women of Athens to withhold sex from their men until the Greek army made some progress in the Peloponnesian War, while Lysistrata Jones gets her fellow cheerleaders to stop putting out until the Athens University basketball team wins a game. The plot twists and turns delightfully, as Lyssie J, as she is known, first enrolls the women and then comes up against the heavy price of sexual politics while the boys they’re trying to inspire through enforced abstinence go their own ways. The happy ending is not quite what Lyssie J was planning, but consistent with the original form, the world gets shaken up and finds a new and arguably better balance.
The young cast explodes with energy and proves they can handle anything from rap to R&B and street moves to classic Broadway with equal skill. You’ll very likely be worn out from smiling and laughing so much. Patti Murin is dynamic in the title role, with a rare ability to simultaneously inhabit and satirize a ditzy stereotype. Josh Segarra is Mick, the basketball star Lyssie J thinks she’s going to change. He’s a triple threat — singer, dancer, and comedian — who has charisma to spare.
Jason Tam is Xander, the nerdy computer guy who helps Lyssie J and is the catalyst for her catharsis (in the term of Greek theater). He is outstanding and appealing throughout. Lindsay Nicole Chambers does a great job as Robin, the once-mousy librarian who sets the plot in motion and has her own awakening. Liz Mikel is Hetaria, the muse, conscience and narrator of the piece. With a big voice and a wonderful presence, Broadway has found a new comic diva in Mikel, and she is welcome indeed.
You certainly don’t need to know Aristophanes to have a great time at this show; its inspired silliness is just the ticket for winter blues. Still, it’s fun to think that so much of comedy remains as appealing today as it was in 411 B.C. That’s classic.
Outside of David Hyde Pierce’s performance, there is sadly not much fun to be had at the new play “Close Up Space” now at Manhattan Theater Club. This organization seems set on specializing in insipid, ill-formed dysfunctional family drama, following up the tedious “We Live Here” by Zoe Kazan with this new play by Mollie Smith Metzler. The latest entry, however, offers one advantage. While Kazan bored one to distraction in just over two hours, Metzler achieves the same end in about 90 minutes.
Yet Metzler is the lesser playwright, never rising above undeveloped characters and twists on stock situations. It’s rendered all the more disappointing because the opening monologue, delivered by Hyde Pierce, is so full of promise. He plays Paul Barrow, an editor at a small publishing house, and his speech is a diatribe on editing and writing that is truly engaging.
The story all begins to crumble as the plot thickens. Paul’s estranged daughter Harper has been ejected from school after engaging in criminal behavior. He also has to deal with his major author, a romance writer named Vanessa Finn Adams, his office manager, Steve, who is camping out in the office because he doesn’t get along with his dog, and Bailey, an intern. When Harper shows up at the office, all hell breaks lose and Paul’s world is shattered.
The problem is that there is nothing in the plot that makes any kind of sense or doesn’t feel contrived by the playwright. The result is an amateurish slog as largely repellant characters repel off one another. We’re soon rooting that we’ll be spared another moment with them.
Director Leigh Silverman has given the play very little focus and so it rambles between set pieces among the characters. When Harper cleans out her father’s office and destroys his career, we want to see her arrested, not coddled. Metzler tries to wrap this all in the despair that erupted after the suicide of Harper’s mother and Paul’s wife, but it feels, at best, inauthentic.
Hyde Pierce comes off the best in this, infusing Paul with a level of complexity and restrained grief that’s not in the script. He’s always interesting to watch, but here he’s the only thing. Rosie Perez is forced into a stereotypical role that is beneath her. Colby Minifie as Harper is as shallow and selfish as the character she plays, giving her fellow cast members nothing to work with. Michael Chernus, who once had such promise, is now doing the standard issue affectless slacker part he seems unable to escape.
Unfortunately, this is a play that is way past the point where even the best editor can save it; it should have been scrapped long ago.
Walter Kerr Theater
218 W. 48th St.
Mon.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.
CLOSE UP SPACE
Manhattan Theater Club
At City Center-Stage 1
131 W. 55th St.
Tue., Sun. at 7 p.m.;
Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.