Friday, January 25, 2008

Did Critics Deem Little Sheba Worthy Of Come Back?

Did Critics Deem Little Sheba Worthy Of Come Back?

Last evening, the very first revival of William Inge's 1950s play Come Back, Little Sheba -- opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Biltmore Theatre on Broadway. Directed by Michael Pressman, the revival stars S. Epatha Merkerson, Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan.

In a confounding display of deeply felt assessments that were scattered all across the board, critics' reviews ranged from high praise to major pans. You almost wonder if everyone saw the same show.

Raving that Merkerson offers a performance "that stops the heart," The New York Times' Ben Brantley lauds: "Ms. Merkerson allows a kind of intimate access traditionally afforded by cinematic close-ups, when the camera finds shades of meaning in impassive faces. She rarely signals what Lola’s feeling; she just seems to feel, and we get it, instantly and acutely. Such emotional sincerity is the hallmark of this revival from the Manhattan Theater Club, directed with gentle compassion by Michael Pressman and featuring first-rate performances from Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan....But the performances here are so convincingly present tense that you come to accept scene-shaping contrivances -- those too conveniently timed entrances, exits and phone calls -- as if life were really that structured....Like Ms. Merkerson’s anchoring performance, this production resounds precisely because it keeps its voice down."

Hailing this as "one of the finest American plays of the 20th century, a masterpiece of theatrical realism," The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout praises: "Come Back, Little Sheba is close to flawless. I'd never seen it on stage prior to this revival, and I had no idea what a wallop it packed....Ms. Merkerson is a stage actress of the first rank. She brings Lola's melancholy and yearning to life with such soft-spoken understatement that you feel as though you'd wandered through the back door of her house and sat down at her kitchen table for a chat. Ms. Kazan, who is making her Broadway debut after a pair of buzzworthy performances Off Broadway in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and Things We Want, is no less impressive..."

Finding it "gently stirring," The New York Sun's Eric Grode delivers a mixed review: "It doesn't help that Mr. Pressman lets the Freudian cross-currents among Lola, Doc, and their college-age boarder, Marie (Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of frequent Inge collaborator Elia Kazan), unfold at a stately, almost lethargic pace early on. But as the collision course between Doc and his sweet, sad Lola draws near, precipitated by the flighty Marie and her two suitors, the director and his largely fine cast tighten the reins and do justice to Inge's strains of Midwestern melancholia."

Calling the production "old-fashioned but still-engaging," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News falls into the same camp as Grode: "Inge's story pours on melodramatic moments, as when Doc pulls a liquor bottle from the kitchen cupboard, considers it and puts it away -- for now. The symbolism is not subtle -- Lola's beloved missing dog mirrors her long-gone happiness. But despite such creaks, the story's shattering climactic confrontation still brings gasps.
Anderson's nuanced work shows Doc's desires, disgust and deep sorrow. Merkerson ("Law & Order") is a poignant Lola."

"Fatally imbalanced," is how Bloomberg's John Simon describes the show: "Come Back, Little Sheba' owes not a little to Tennessee Williams and comes across as a moderately effective Williams knock-off, by now rather dated. A period piece needs impeccable writing and flawless production to make the death-defying leap across the decades. What we have instead in this Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Biltmore Theatre is a measure of likableness and pathos yet nothing truly compelling. Even the business with the little dog Sheba, vanished long ago but regularly and pathetically beckoned by Lola from the front porch, is a rather heavy-handed symbol for trying to recapture the past."

Criticizing that Little Sheba "registers as one of the writer's most heavy-handed, painfully obvious works," Frank Scheck offers thumbs down in the Hollywood Reporter: "Not only is the playwright's brand of naturalism out of style, but even more so is his bludgeoning use of symbolism. From the titular runaway pooch that represents Lola's faded youth and beauty to the phallic javelin that Marie's boyfriend constantly describes wielding, Sheba is not exactly subtle in its implications. With the constant references to Doc's former drinking, it's not hard to figure out that by play's end he'll have fallen off the wagon.... Merkerson...underplays with a sad dignity that doesn't quite convey Lola's ridiculousness."

Deeming it as a "creakingly dated play," New York Post's Clive Barnes offers one and a half stars: "Michael Pressman's pedestrian staging is as adequate as the play deserves, and a miscast Merkerson makes an adorable Lola - sincere, compassionate and, well . . . miscast. The best performance comes from Anderson as the dark, sexually twisted, wild and crazy Doc, who runs the dubious gamut of the role like a champion hurdler. He, at least, manages to glitter dangerously amid the play's thick thickets of mediocrity."

As you may have seen from my own SOB Review, I (unfortunately) have to say I agree with the last three reviews. Will MTC revoke my subscription? Hope not!

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Come Back, Little Sheba (The SOB Review) (January 25, 2008)
Little Sheba Comes Back To Broadway Opening Night (January 24, 2008)
Little Sheba To Come Back To Broadway (August 16, 2007)

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At 25 January, 2008, Anonymous BroadwayBaby said...

I saw the same production in LA and thought it was okay. I wouldn't call it a catastrophe but the play and the production are easily forgettable.

At 27 January, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Broadway Baby, I was just amazed that every critic was passionate about his/her point of view. I thought it was very inert.


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