Monday, April 2, 2018

Lobby Perspectives: Grand Hotel and Lobby Hero

 Irina Dvorovenko and James Snyder in the Encores! production of Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Vicki Baum’s vivid page-turner Grand Hotel, a chronicle of intersecting lives at an expensive Berlin hotel, came out in 1929. (New York Review Books Classics reissued it two years ago after it had been out of print for many years; it’s well worth a look.) The celebrated Oscar-winning movie M-G-M culled from it was released three years later: a high comedy crossed with a melodrama, it featured a glittering line-up of stars in roles with which they were associated for years – Greta Garbo as the neurotic, fading ballerina; John Barrymore as the bankrupt baron, reduced to a life of thievery, who becomes, briefly, her last great love; Joan Crawford as the flapper stenographer; Lionel Barrymore as the dying bookkeeper who wants a glimpse of the high life before he expires; Wallace Beery as the industrialist who commits fraud in a frantic last-ditch bid to save his company; Lewis Stone as the doctor, a casualty of the Great War, who observes the others from a cynical distance. The movie is a resounding entertainment, a luxurious soap opera that provided the blueprint for many subsequent star-studded pictures about strangers whose lives cross momentarily but unforgettably over a few days in an extravagant setting.

The musical play came much later, and its tone is vastly different – closer to the mordant tone of Baum’s novel. Robert Wright and George Forrest, who were famous for adapting classical themes to the Broadway musical stage and their sometime collaborator Luther Davis wrote a version in 1958 called At the Grand, but it never got past the California tryouts because its star, Paul Muni – cast in a variation on the Lionel Barrymore role, Otto Kringelein – fell ill. It took just over three decades for them to resurrect the idea of a musical adaptation of Baum’s bestseller, which they entrusted to director-choreographer Tommy Tune. Tune envisioned Grand Hotel as a two-hour show without an intermission that gave the six major characters, as well as the ballerina Grushinskaya’s devoted assistant Raffaela (who is clearly in love with her), equal focus while hinting continuously at the unstable economy of Germany in the Weimar era as well as its escalating anti-Semitism – Kringelein is a Jew. (The show isn’t Cabaret, but Cabaret was surely an influence.) When I saw the musical during its Boston tryout in late 1989, its ambition outdistanced its achievement by a considerable degree. But Tune brought in Maury Yeston to write half a dozen new songs and Peter Stone to doctor the script, and by the time it opened on Broadway it was quite a different show, and it ran just over 1,000 performances. I saw it again in 1991 when it revisited Boston on tour and was knocked out by it.

And I was knocked out again when Encores! revived it the weekend before last, in an iridescent production staged and choreographed by Josh Rhodes that may be the most elaborate in the twenty-five-year history of the beloved City Center series. You knew by the end of the opening number, “The Grande Parade,” led by William Ryall as the morphine-addicted Colonel Doctor Otternschlag, that Rhodes had mastered the challenging, multi-faceted material. The song introduces all of the characters and sets the narrative premise for each one; perhaps the only other opening of a musical that attempts – and pulls off – the same storytelling feat is the one Stephen Sondheim wrote for Into the Woods. From that point the musical moves with astonishing fluency from one plot to another, keeping the pumping heart of the lavish hotel, designed to provide a relentless exhibition of sensory pleasures, ever in the background and occasionally in the foreground (the tea dances, the bar, the dancing vaudevillians). Rhodes maintained the breathless pace that is meant to emulate that of the Grand Hotel, which doesn’t stop even when the guests’ lives collapse, yet his precise staging delineated each of the cross-hatched settings and embedded relationships. And the dancing was superlative, especially in the ensemble numbers, the stunningly theatrical pas de deux choreographed and performed by Guadlupe Garcia and Junior Cervila (as the Countess and the Gigolo) and, on a lighter note, the “Maybe My Baby” duet by the vaudevillians, The Two Jimmys (James T. Lane and Daniel Yearwood).

There wasn’t a lame duck in the cast. John Dossett (most recently seen on stage in War Paint) humanized the industrialist Hermann Preysing’s desperation without softening the character, whose sexual conquest of the stenographer Flaemmchen (an affectingly gallant HelĂ©ne Yorke) was a particularly unsettling moment. Irina Dvorovenko brought a touch of high-comedy elegance to the downbeat role of Grushinskaya, and her scenes with James Snyder as Baron Felix Von Gaigern had the requisite doomed romanticism. (Snyder did the most impressive singing of the night.) Natascia Diaz went for broke with the masochistic role of Raffaela, which is, I think, the only way to play it. The standouts in smaller roles were Nehal Joshi as Zinnowitz, Preysing’s lawyer, who urges him in “Everybody’s Doing It” – one of Yeston’s contributions to the score – to toss away his ethical scruples and Robert Montano as the sneering, threatening Chauffeur who is the Baron’s link to the underworld. Best of all was Brandon Uranowitz (from An American in Paris) as Kringelein. My fondest memory of the original Broadway production is of Michael Jeter performing “We’ll Take a Glass Together” in the hotel bar; Uranowitz rose to the same heights.

The dense, accomplished score was rendered with its usual panache by The Encores! Orchestra under Rob Berman’s direction. Generally the playbill for an Encores! show lists scenic and costume consultants; this one indicated scenic and costume designers, Allen Moyer and Linda Cho respectively, as well as a lighting designer, Ken Billington, and all three did yeoman service. The centerpiece of the set was a long, red-carpeted staircase with a mirror at the top – an homage, no doubt, to Cabaret. It was deluxe, like the entire production.

Chris Evans and Michael Cera in Second Stage's production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, which is currently receiving its first Broadway production under the auspices of Second Stage, was originally mounted by Playwrights Horizons in 2001 – the year after Lonergan released his first film, You Can Count on Me. (There are a couple of stills in the playbill; you might recognize Tate Donovan behind his mustache.) It’s a small-scale play but its offbeat focus holds you, and so does the main character, a night-shift security guard at a Manhattan apartment house named Jeff, played in the current version by Michael Cera. Jeff is twenty-seven and living with his older brother and his family while he works to erase his debts so he can move into his own place, and he’s getting close. He chatters constantly, partly out of nervousness, partly out of genuine friendliness, and partly out of loneliness – a state that, it’s clear, he could alleviate if he found a girlfriend. He has his eye on Dawn (Bel Powley, the talented young English actress who garnered attention three years ago in the film The Diary of a Teenage Girl), a novice cop who comes by most days with her more experienced partner, Bill (Chris Evans, best known for the Captain America pictures). Bill is married but he’s been sleeping with Dawn – and also with a tenant in the building, though he’s told Dawn he’s merely popping in on a friend upstairs while she cools her heels in the lobby. It’s Jeff who sets her straight. He also gets involved when his supervisor, William (Brian Tyree Henry, from the FX series Atlanta), is asked by his ne’er-do-well brother to provide him with an alibi for a robbery-murder he claims he had no part of, and William, troubled by the request, confides in Jeff.

Jeff doesn’t come across as heroic; he sleeps on the job (he’s worked out a way to get away with it) and his motives aren’t pure. But he’s bound by a moral code that defines him; he’s a hero, you might say, for an imperfect time. His apparent inability to keep his nose out of other people’s business infuriates William, an ordinary guy who makes a natural mistake, and Bill, a macho, self-interested asshole, and it alternately annoys Dawn, who is feeling embarrassed at the ease with which Bill has manipulated her, and charms her. Lonergan does a fine job of drawing all four of the characters, which shouldn’t be a surprise to theatregoers who have seen his movies, especially Margaret and Manchester by the Sea, or the play that put him on the map, This Is Our Youth, in which Cera gave a breakout performance on Broadway in 2014.

The problem with this revival of Lobby Hero is that the director, Trip Cullman (who helmed last season’s unfortunate retread of Six Degrees of Separation with Allison Janney), doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing. He doesn’t shape the scenes, and he doesn’t even bother staging the actors most of the time, so they’re stuck hanging out, usually in the same positions for long minutes at a time. David Rockwell’s striking set, which keeps shifting perspective, provides most of the stage movement. Henry, who has chalked up a lot of stage work, and Evans, who has excellent stage instincts, look at home and have the physical confidence to inhabit the space in ways that comment on their characters; both men give splendid performances. Powley is delightful, but she and Cera both look awkward much of the time – especially Cera, who knows what to do with Lonergan’s lines but needs a strong director (like Anna D. Shapiro, who worked with him in This Is Our Youth) to ground him physically. Cullman really hangs the poor bastard out to dry here. Couldn’t he have given him a note to stop shoving his hands into his pockets and hiking up his pants? Or is he so woefully lacking in imagination that he thought those bad habits would read as character tells? Or didn’t he even notice?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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