THE HARLEQUIN STUDIES The opening production of the Signature Theatre Company’s season, “The Harlequin Studies” is Irwin’ s tribute to the classical art form for which he is best known, the combination of comedy and mime. The short sketches in this brief evening of entertainment, only 75 minutes long, begin with a conversation between two academics who emerge from a large trunk to discuss the roots of the Commedia dell’ arte. We are introduced to the stock character Harlequin, rogue and servant; trickster of alchemy lore and Jungian archetype. From him, we can trace the lineage of later day clowns, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, both notably impersonated here by Mr. Irwin. What follow are a series of slapstick sketches, each presumably characteristic of the Commedia dell’ art. Irwin is cheeky about stealing from the classics. He takes what he wants while still maintaining his unique thrust. Yet his classical knowledge shines through. As for Bill Irwin, playwright, director, and actor, speechless suffices. Signature Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd St. Through October 26. 212 244 7529. (I. Goldberg).
OMNIUM GATHERUM A hit at this year’s Humana Festival, the show uses the familiar narrative device of a raucous and disagreeable dinner party to deliver an empty sermon on all the world’s ills since the destruction of the World Trade Center. The party is watched over by Suzie (Kristine Nielsen), a Martha Stewart-like hostess who pushes both food and conversation on her guests. Around the table sit thinly-veiled caricatures of noted intellectual A-listers, including a journalist (Dean “Christopher Hitchens” Nolen), author (Phillip “Tom Clancy” Clark) and Middle Eastern scholar (Edward A. “Edward Said” Hajj). A feminist vegan (Jenny Bacon), an African-American writer (Melanna Gray), a firefighter (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and, later, a terrorist with an ax to grind (Amir Arison), round out the guest list. For 90 minutes this ragtag group, under the tight watch of director Will Frears, wages verbal warfare on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to animal rights to globalization to government funding for the arts. The script leaves no side unrepresented, and offers fewer answers than questions, (chief among them the dinner party’s exact location). Frank Capra couldn’t have delivered a more obnoxious and hateful bunch of high-brow blowhards. Variety Arts Theatre 110 Third Ave. 212 239 6200 (E. Piepenburg)
Trumbo “Wise, funny, greedy, generous, van, biting, solicitous, ruthless, tender-hearted, devious, contentious, superbly rational, altruistic, prophetic, shortsighted, and indefatigable.” Those were some of the adjectives spoken by journalist and playwright Ring Lardner, Jr. to eulogize his friend and colleague Dalton Trumbo, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of men who refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Actor Nathan Lane, who just finished up his turn as Trumbo, also spoke those words in “Trumbo,” a history lesson of a play that’s grabbing sold out crowds at the Westside Theater. F. Murray Abraham and, later, Brian Dennehy are slated to replace Lane. The show, based on Trumbo’s correspondence and speeches, was organized by his son, Christopher Trumbo, and directed by Peter Askin. The Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd St., 212 315 2244. (E. Piepenberg).
The Thing About Men With a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and score by Jimmy Roberts, this play has all the required elements for a feather-light musical and given its inherent charm seems set for a healthy run in New York and a virtually limitless future in summer stock. It has a bit of social commentary, not too heavily applied, a mostly tuneful score, plot twists that while not necessarily believable are not too taxing on the intellect, a few genuine belly laughs and an adorable cast. The plot concerns Tom, an advertising executive who’s a classic hetero businessman complete with wife, Lucy, and a few affairs in his past, which his adoring wife seems to have taken in stride—more or less. You don’t want to look too closely at any of this from a logical standpoint or for whatever it might say about gender roles, but the combination of sitcom-deep character development, slapstick comedy and the quirky ancillary characters played by a two-person ensemble, somehow make it difficult not to enjoy this show. The score has some strong songs that are well integrated into the book and Mr. DiPietro is a witty clever lyricist. The direction by Mark Clements is perky, which works for some of the show but tends to keep believable emotion at arm’s length. Yet any qualms are overcome by the dynamic performances of the fine cast. So, all in all, though its roots are most definitely showing, and one can’t credit the creators of breaking new theatrical ground, The Thing About Men is, nonetheless, a diverting and entertaining evening. The Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th St. $45-$65. 212.239.6200. (C. Byrne).
Avenue Q The production, now on an extended run, is thoroughly engaging, touching and oddly moving. If Sesame Street was the main thoroughfare through South Park, it might look something like the cheerfully naughty Avenue Q, a charming new puppet musical. A group of twentysomethings, in both human and puppet form, sing about their sexual, financial, and emotional woes through a non-PC, hipster lens. Writer Jeff Whitty addresses sexual identity and experimentation too; gay and straight characters are affectionately drawn. It becomes a heartfelt and fairly serious examination of the ways in which we become ourselves and takes on an added poignancy in that today’s young adults largely grew up in a world of affluence and security, where it was really almost always a “Sunny day,” with everything “a-okay.” That is not what they find today, in a depressed economy and a nation at war. The entire score is extremely well done, balancing originality and sophistication with gentle satire. In addition, there is a kind of honesty that gives the show its irresistible edge. Avenue Q is easily the most original musical of the season and a sublime experience. Everyone who has come to New York with dreams of creating a life for themselves has lived there at some point, and this lovely, affectionate show captures it all with a freshness and an emotional integrity that is exhilarating. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45nd St. (7th and 8th). Call 212.239.6200 for more information. (C. Byrne)
Big River What the new production of Big River has going for it is an exuberant and talented cast that seems pleased as all get-out to be on Broadway. They’re singing and dancing their hearts out, and one can’t help but be affected by all that energy and enthusiasm. The fact that this production is being mounted by Roundabout with the Deaf West Theatre only adds to the experience because theater and Broadway in particular have been historically inhospitable to handicapped actors. Nonetheless, this vibrant company proves all that conventional wisdom wrong and by pairing a hearing and singing actor with each of the deaf or hard of hearing actors, the result is a very unconventional staging of this musical. It’s an intriguing concept, and one only wishes that they had chosen a better show to try it with. The 18 years since its Broadway appearance have done nothing to enhance the show, and in fact, the wonderful performers can not completely dispel the feeling that this is a clumsy, overlong, and dated piece of material. The sad part of this is that for all the talent and passion on display, this production falls flat and––particularly in the first act where so much information is condensed in Classic Comics style––is quite tedious. True, there are some wonderful dramatic moments, such as the duet “River in the Rain,” but it is finally not enough to sustain an entire evening. American Airlines Theatre; 227 W. 42nd St.; 212.719.1300. (C. J. Byrne).
HAIRSPRAY There are many reasons that the musical Hairspray will seem extremely familiar—and it’s not just because of the movie on which it is based. This is the kind of high-spirited, deliciously entertaining, and completely guilt-free evening of fun that characterized much of the musical theater in the 50s and early 60s. If you’re in the market for a superbly talented cast, a remarkably hummable score, and a book that’s overflowing in good humor and sweetness, then this is the show for you. Hairspray is an old-fashioned smash hit, a welcome addition to Broadway, and if you haven’t already bought tickets—or don’t soon—chances are you’ll be waiting a very long time. Hairspray has arrived on Broadway with the best advance buzz since The Producers, and even the news out of Seattle, where the show was in early previews, seems to have understated just how much fun Hairspray really is. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., Tues-Sat 8 p.m.; Wed, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m., $65-$100, 212.307.4100. (C. Byrne).
Love Letters Now a favorite at dinner theaters worldwide, Love Letters traces the 50-year relationship between childhood friends Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner through a series of letters and cards written between the two during the course of their lives. The script tackles alcoholism, authoritarian parenting, artistic obsessions, and, of course, heartbreak. The set is a spendthrift producer’s dream: nothing more than a table where the actors sit and read. Costume changes, sound effects, or scenery shifts? Forget it. The lovelorn letter readers are usually played by a rotating cast of actors, many of whom are actual lovers. In a brilliant casting decision, the August 11 performance showcases the talents of Charles Busch (in the role of Melissa) opposite Jim Dale. It’s the first time, according to Storefront artistic director Phil Geoffrey Bond, that the character has been played by a man in drag. Playing at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, 61 Christopher Street at Sheridan Square. $18 and 2 drink min. Call 212.255.5438. (E. Piepenburg)
MOVIN’ OUT For all its merits – and there are quite a few – something about this show doesn’t quite work. It is calculated, trading on the easy familiarity and huge market for Billy Joel’s music to create an evening that can only be called “an entertainment.” It is neither a musical in the traditional sense of the word, nor a dance piece. Mr. Joel’s music is pleasant enough in certain situations, but just doesn’t stand up to the demands and expectations of Broadway. That said, this is likely to run for years. It has all the earmarks of popular success—good but not great; emotional but not too messy; interesting but not really thought-provoking. It’s just okay, and that may be what the market will bear, but it could have had a whole lot more. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., Tues-Sat 8 p.m., Wed, Sat 2 p.m., Sun 3 p.m., $40-100, 212.307.4100. (C. Byrne).
Nine Loosely based on Frederico Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 1/2, Nine, the musical, has always been revered for its score and non-linear storytelling, a rarity on big-budget Broadway. For all its glitz and gorgeous women, there is a sense of darkness and tension surrounding the events and a real tension in both the staging and the performances that underscore the show’s emotional life. But the lyrics are rich, and Arthur Kopit’s book is well suited to the absurdist nature of the story. Nine is, and always has been, perhaps the quintessential musical for grown-ups. The Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th St. $51-$101. Call 212.239.6200. (C.Byrne)