NEW YORK — “History is a verb,” a mayor asserts during a very fraught city council meeting in Tracy Letts’s “The Minutes.”
If so, it’s a transitive verb, to judge by the way the past is asserting itself on Broadway. Performers and playwrights are competing with the ghosts of illustrious predecessors — who, in some cases, include their former selves.
In “Funny Girl,” it’s Beanie Feldstein vs. Barbra Streisand. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” it’s Rob McClure vs. Robin Williams. In “American Buffalo,” it’s David Mamet vs. … David Mamet. In “Mr. Saturday Night,” it’s septuagenarian Billy Crystal vs. fortysomething Billy Crystal.
For theatergoers, it can make for a kind of split-screen experience, as memories of past performances vie for space in the brain with the here-and-now portrayals taking shape onstage.
Not to mention the offstage questions of then-and-now that arise. Revivals of major plays or musicals often inspire a reckoning with the cultural assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality that held sway when those works were created. We examine what has and hasn’t changed since then, how far we have or haven’t come.
Take the excellent revival of “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s drama about a star baseball player (portrayed by Jesse Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy”) who comes out as gay. How sure are we that a similar revelation today by a household name from the world of pro sports would not trigger the homophobic reactions it does in “Take Me Out”?
Or consider “The Minutes,” which shoves audiences right into that uncomfortable space between lofty, rose-colored views of this nation’s origins and the bloody truth of what actually happened, between who we say we are and what our actions reveal us to be. That matter seems grimly topical this week.
It’s been 14 years since the last revival of “American Buffalo,” while 19 years have passed since the premiere of “Take Me Out.” In the new Broadway production of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse are returning to roles they originated off Broadway a full 25 years ago.
To all of which “Funny Girl” can justly say: “Hold my beer.”
When “Funny Girl” premiered in March 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was still two months away from delivering his “Great Society” speech — and Barbra Streisand was still one month away from her 22nd birthday. The musical proceeded to run for three years. And in the 55 years since then, “Funny Girl” has not been revived on Broadway — until now.
That means the current production must grapple with a history that’s even more daunting than usual. Which brings us to:
Beanie Feldstein vs. Barbra Streisand
Never have performer and part been more perfectly matched than Streisand and vaudeville legend Fanny Brice. Streisand’s portrayal on Broadway made her a star, and then the 1968 movie version of “Funny Girl” vaulted her into superstardom, while further cementing her hold on the role.
Alas for Beanie Feldstein, that hold remains unshakeable.
It’s not just that Feldstein’s voice lacks the power, color, range, and agility of Streisand’s. After all, that would be true of nearly anybody.
But whereas Streisand was Brice to the marrow, inhabiting the character from the inside out, Feldstein never comes across as much more than a capable actress playing a role … capably.
The young Streisand was a force of nature, with star quality to burn and a magnetic force that pulled all the energy in a scene toward her. Feldstein conveys likability and an undeniable ability to meet the role’s comic demands, but she lacks Streisand’s brand of performance magic.
Watch the movie to get a sense of that ineffable ingredient, and the sometimes-subtle ways that Streisand deploys it. Even on film, Streisand radiates the sense that both she and Fanny are creatures of the stage. Even onstage, Feldstein radiates the sense — and the reality — that she is primarily a creature of the movies and television. When Feldstein’s Fanny says “That’s where I live: Onstage,” we are not persuaded.
This “Funny Girl” was much ballyhooed before it opened, but when Tony Award nominations were announced earlier this month, it received only a single nod (for supporting actor Jared Grimes). It’s doubtful that another 55 years will pass before someone attempts another Broadway revival of it, but you have to wonder if true success will depend on finding another Streisand. And that’s just a contradiction in terms.
Billy Crystal vs. Billy Crystal
Whereas Feldstein has to contend with the legend of Streisand, Billy Crystal is competing with himself in “Mr. Saturday Night.”
A consummate pro, he fares splendidly in that temporal showdown.
The new stage musical version of his 1992 movie had a developmental production last October at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield. In his mid-40s when the movie was released, Crystal is 74 now, the right age for the role of Buddy Young Jr., an embittered, self-centered stand-up comic who is angling for a second chance at the career he did plenty to torpedo.
Buddy’s catchphrase is “Don’t get me started!” But his aggressive attitude toward his craft (and his audience) is summed up in two words he privately says to himself before each performance: “Hurt them.”
In more than one sense, the musical “Mr. Saturday Night” is a case of looking-back-at-looking-back. Set in New York City in 1994, it contains flashbacks to when Buddy was starting out in the late 1940s, and then when he was riding high in the 1950s, with his own TV show on CBS on Saturday nights. (Crystal and his costars play their younger selves as well as their septuagenarian selves, something you can get away with onstage if not in the movies.) We see the self-destructive behavior that reduced Buddy to has-been status.
Crystal has always had a fascination with the Borscht Belt tradition; like Martin Short, he carries a lot of it in his bones. His comic timing remains faultless, and Crystal’s wry self-awareness works as well onstage as it does onscreen. It acts as a subtle gesture of solidarity with the live audience inside the Nederlander Theatre.
Hurt them? More like charm them. Still.
David Mamet vs. David Mamet
Watching the current revival of “American Buffalo” is both exhilarating and depressing.
Exhilarating, because to see and, especially, to hear this explosive 1975 drama about three small-time criminals fumbling their way through a robbery scheme is to be reminded of what a bracingly original voice Mamet brought to the American theater.
Depressing, because that leads you to consider the inferior work Mamet is producing today (not to mention his noxious offstage commentary).
The revival stars Laurence Fishburne as Donny, the owner of a junk shop in Chicago; Sam Rockwell as Teach, a volatile hustler; and Darren Criss as Bobby, Donny’s drug-addicted protégé. “I’m a businessman,” Teach proclaims. “I’m here to do business.” Indeed, hapless though this trio proves to be, Mamet captures something here (and with his later “Glengarry Glen Ross”) of the dog-eat-dog essence of capitalism, American-style.
The dialogue in “American Buffalo” is not just a dark pleasure to listen to; it serves as a means to the playwright’s end. The distinctive idiom of Mamet’s pungently stylized tough-guy talk fits adroitly into the play’s larger machinery, as was generally the case with his early works.
But over time, Mamet’s trademark style calcified into mannerism. Increasingly, the dialogue wasn’t about much more than itself. And his cynicism about human nature seemed to curdle into contempt for human beings.
The ugliness of that free-floating contempt was on display last month when Mamet told a Fox News host that teachers “are inclined” toward pedophilia. The playwright tossed off that calumny matter-of-factly, with an assured, it-is-a-truth-universally-acknowledged air that was more obscene than any of the F-bombs flying around in “American Buffalo.”
Rob McClure vs. Robin Williams
Let’s stipulate that there was only one Robin Williams. He was a once-in-a-generation comedy genius.
The man made a lot of movies, but perhaps his most beloved is “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993). Not coincidentally, the role of a divorced actor who masquerades as a British nanny in order to spend time with his three children offered a more expansive showcase for Williams’s singular skill set than he was usually afforded onscreen.
Which makes what Rob McClure does in the Broadway adaptation of “Mrs. Doubtfire” even more remarkable, namely: You think about Williams at the start of the show, inevitably, and then you don’t think about him again for the next two-plus hours. You’re too busy marveling at McClure.
Frankly, I wasn’t expecting to have as good a time at “Mrs. Doubtfire” as I did. A certain skepticism and even resistance is baked in when you’re presented with yet another film-turned-stage-musical. It’s not healthy that Broadway turns so often to the movies for material.
Those preconceptions simply stand no chance, however, in the face of the human cyclone that is McClure. This is an actor both inexhaustible and inspired, with a seemingly limitless bag of tricks, vocally and physically. His portrayal has abundant heart, as it must, while steering clear of the maudlin territory that Williams sometimes could not stop himself from venturing into.
What a pity that “Mrs. Doubtfire” has announced it will close on Sunday, having been unable to break through in a spring unusually crowded with openings on Broadway. But that doesn’t diminish McClure’s achievement. I never would have imagined that not one but two Mrs. Doubtfires would have a secure place in my memory.
But that’s the thing about history: It’s always in the making.
FUNNY GIRL August Wilson Theatre, funnygirlonbroadway.com
AMERICAN BUFFALO Circle in the Square Theatre, americanbuffalonyc.com
MR. SATURDAY NIGHT Nederlander Theater, mrsaturdaynightonbroadway.com
MRS. DOUBTFIRE Stephen Sondheim Theatre, mrsdoubtfirebroadway.com
TAKE ME OUT Hayes Theatre, 2st.com/shows/take-me-out
THE MINUTES Studio 54, theminutesbroadway.com
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, manhattantheatreclub.com/shows