For the Birds
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Whatever kind of academic exercise playwright Sharr White is up to in the new play “The Snow Geese,” now being staged by MTC, the result is dull, even tedious, saved from disaster only by the talents of Broadway stalwarts Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Burstein, and Victoria Clark.
During the seemingly interminable exposition that is the first act, the references to Ibsen and Chekhov accumulate, even to the point of introducing a gun that — you will be relieved to know — is later fired. The muddled story mashes together elements of “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya,” and “The Wild Duck.” It is as if White decided to play a game by taking tropes of the late 19th century, shaking them up, and piecing together a play from the mix.
What he came up with is the story of a family in denial as their world collapses around them at the outset of World War I. A widow is mourning for her romantic but ever so impractical husband. The fortune is gone; the beloved son, lost in his own romantic daydreams, is going off to war; and the practical younger son is made a pariah for injecting a cold dose of reality into the fantasy world around him. As the family leaves the country house they’re about to lose, all that’s missing is the sound of the axes cutting down the orchard.
Knocking off cheesy movies is ridiculous fun; doing the same to Chekhov, not so much
“The Snow Geese” is especially disappointing in that White’s last play, “The Other Place,” was a brilliant examination of the effects of creeping dementia. It was as sharp and contemporary as the current effort is lugubrious and derivative.
What spare pleasures there are to be had come from the performances of the stars. Even playing the largely one-note part of widow Elizabeth Gaesling, Parker is always interesting to watch as an actress. Clark, as Elizabeth’s sister Clarissa, brings her usual ability to command the stage to a character who is tough but sympathetic. Burstein gives the most Chekhovian performance of the piece as a doctor who has lost his reputation and is trying to get his practice back.
As the older son Duncan, however, Evan Jonigkeit is miscast, playing the role in far too contemporary a fashion to be believable as a young enlistee in 1917. Brian Cross, the younger brother, is far more convincing, and he has several of the piece’s rare compelling moments as he tries to make his family understand their altered fortunes.
Wonderful sets from John Lee Beatty and costumes by Jane Greenwood can’t cover up the shortcomings of a piece that seems like the product of a playwriting class where the assignment was to write “in the style of” one of the greats. Interesting in academia, perhaps, but just this side of torment as would-be contemporary theater.
If you have a taste for the idiotic — and face it, who doesn’t from time to time? — then hurry over to St. Luke’s to catch “Disaster! A 70’s Disaster Movie Musical.” Created by inveterate musical theater fan and Sirius radio personality Seth Rudetsky and director Jack Plotnick, this is a deliciously cheesy send-up of all those disaster movies that Hollywood cranked out in the 1970s. The flimsy plot concerns a floating casino in the Hudson that suffers all manner of mayhem, from earthquakes to sharks to you name it. And, just as in the movies, it has a cast of stereotypical characters brought together under the most preposterous conditions.
As moronic as those movies were, Rudetsky and Plotnick push the envelope even further, and the silliness just keeps coming. All of this is set to renditions of songs like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “I Am Woman,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “Feelings,” and many more. Think of a ‘70s song in a K-Tel compilation from late night television ads and you’ll probably find it crammed into this show. Indeed, half the pleasure of “Disaster” is guessing which song is coming next in the obvious wind-up to a song cue.
What is most inspired about this romp, however, is the casting. Just as Irwin Allen would collect the most unexpected stars, Rudetsky and Plotnick have cast — shanghaied? — such wonderful Broadway stars as John Treacy Eagan (replaced in the show now by Plotnick), Tom Riis Farrell, and two of my personal favorites — Mary Testa and Jennifer Simard — to do outrageous and ludicrous things. Simard is especially good as a nun who’s gambling addiction is triggered by a “Hawaii Five-O” slot machine.
As I said, idiotic. But I’ll take it over faux Chekhov any day.
THE SNOW GEESE | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m. | Thu.-Sat at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $67-$125 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
DISASTER! A 70′s DISASTER MOVIE MUSICAL | St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St. | Mon.-Tue. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed. at 2:30 p.m.; Fri. at 8 p.m. | $49.50-$99 at telecharge.com