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Three new plays likely to be winners at box office

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To wander through Times Square in search of a new theatrical attraction is to stroll back in time because the marquees still blaze with familiar titles. Midtown is such risky territory for theatrical investments that mostly it's the megahits of previous seasons that survive and thrive here.

It's only a play that comes with box-office guarantees or a musical with proven lineage that can light up a commercial theater these days.

Three shows that opened recently fit the bill. "Proof," which premiered to rave reviews last spring at the Manhattan Theatre Club, has been moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre, a Broadway house. Yasmina Reza's "The Unexpected Man" is playing at the Promenade Theatre off-Broadway. Reza received the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play for "Art." In addition, a musical version of "The Full Monty," based on the popular British film of the same name, is sure to have a long, hearty life on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

The Full Monty merges the good, old American tradition of true grit overcoming adversity in the face of difficult odds with the appeal of male bonding. Playwright Terrence McNally and newcomer David Yazbek, composer and lyricist, have airmailed the setting from England to the steel-workers' union hall in Buffalo, N.Y., bringing the material, the characters - and their accents - closer to home.

The story unfolds with a group of disparate no-talents who decide to put on a male strippershow a la Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies, albeit with a testosterone-charged twist. While there are plenty of jokes about the male anatomy, the humor is so broad and boyish that it's hard to take offense. McNally's book is skillful in building interest in the characters, helped enormously by the actors - Patrick Wilson as Jerry Lukowski, a divorced dad who is desperate to raise cash to pay the child-support bills for his 12-year-old son, Nathan (Nicholas Cutro).

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