Taking on the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Caldwell's February production of The Lion in Winter couldn't have been an easy choice for Pat Nesbit, competing against a Katharine Hepburn incarnation that had won the movie star an Academy Award in 1968. Still, Nesbit took and held the stage with a grace and confidence that made her seem like the first person to ever inhabit the role. She was the very picture of poise, all of her emotions sublimated beneath the smooth politesse that's both royalty's reward and curse. You could call her dignity under duress and her deadpan delivery of devastatingly barbed wit virtuosic, riveting, or any of the superlatives you might ordinarily toss at a great performance. But the most fitting appellation is, simply, queenly.
Ken Clement is a superb actor who can endow big, overwrought roles with surprising subtlety and grace. He does this constantly, but it's rare to see him in a part that flatly demands that subtlety and grace from the get-go. Recently, he's had two. In The Faith Healer, he played Teddy, the titular healer's long-suffering manager after the two had parted ways. Dispensing showbiz wisdom in a bright cockney accent and struggling to hold himself together when suddenly stumbling into the minefield of his own memories, you felt as though you'd known Teddy forever, and it seemed that Clement never existed at all. In last winter's Rabbit Hole, he played a father reeling from the accidental death of his young son. This time, Clement was wild and mercurially unpredictable, swinging from one emotional extreme to another in a way that seemed entirely organic. When his wife — who, of course, was also a grieving mother — accidentally taped over one of the couple's home movies of their lost son, Clement howled in such a way that it was entirely unclear who was doing the howling, the audience or he. Usually, it was both.
Straddling a fine line between Cyndi Lauper and Johnny Rotten, gleefully decrying the evils of the world like Hannah Arendt screaming on an amphetamine skillet, Rebecca Simon's portrayal of Zillah Katz distilled all the heavy politics of Tony Kushner's anti-fascist dialectic into a punk sneer and a girlish laugh. When she sang a love song to a picture of Adolf Hitler, she communicated the seductions of totalitarianism more completely than Arendt ever did, and the full-bodied lust she put into the number would have made even Kushner nervous. Simon's only a grad student now, but this year, she made most pros look like they were phoning it in. Expect big things.
Theater is fun, but theaters usually aren't. Too often, they're viewed as life-support systems for stages — places for an audience to hunker down and passively observe beloved artists at work. Not so at Sol. There's a definite vibe happening, a vaguely grimy DIY aesthetic that spices up the theatergoing experience from the moment you set (trembling) foot to (cracked) asphalt and begin walking (quickly) to Sol's front door (which looks more like the entrance to a pawn shop, a storefront church, a strip joint, or a biker bar than an outpost of high art). On the way, you'll pass chairs and big antebellum iron ashtrays, glowing dully in the neon wash from Sol's garish signs. In the lobby, things are cramped as people get in line to guzzle free shiraz from plastic cups. Stepping into the theater, you pass a big poster of the Mona Lisa sucking on a spliff. Then you get comfy on a big, soft couch next to a friendly stranger or two. Even the worst seats in the house are less than 20 feet from the stage — close enough to feel a part of the action instead of simply a spectator.
Hatchetman was a very silly play about a golfing magazine called Putts. The script was fine, but it wasn't the sort of thing people would remember two or three years (or weeks) afterward. The production was another story altogether: inspired acting that treated the script with a lot more respect than it treated itself and a breathtaking set from Mark Pirolo that was a gift of grace, love, and humor. Creating Putts' editorial office must have been a profound pain in the ass, editorial offices being the incredibly busy, hectic, disorganized, and stuff-filled places that they are. But Pirolo rose to the challenge with a verve that made it seem as though he'd waited all his life to build a golf-mag's digs. The office's two rooms were clearly visible at all times, thanks to a cut-away wall and some tricky angle calculations. The walls were lined with dozens (hundreds?) of old Putts covers that had obviously been designed especially for the show, each of which appeared utterly authentic (and often hilarious, if you had your binoculars and you could catch some of the risque double-entendres happening in the headlines and the cover shots). Each office extended into a very business-looking corridor behind semifrosted glass, suggesting a vast warren of offices just out of sight, and everything was connected by a mysterious closet, out of which spewed golf bags, clubs, strange costumes, and people. Pirolo's set for Hatchetman was maybe not the prettiest of the season — offices are seldom pretty — but it was certainly the most evocative.
As a play, David Mamet's Glengarry doesn't hit a lot of notes: There's venal greed, mortal greed, lying, anger, and recrimination, and that's about it. Somehow, Mosaic's actors made that small clutch of emotions stand in for — and count for as much as — the whole varied spectrum of human experience. As an audience, you felt intense pity for the landlocked, self-loathing Ken Clement and a sad strain of love for the doomed and desperate Cary Leiter. You felt deep loathing for Barry Tarralo and utter contempt for Heath Kelts. And the whole came together at a hyperreal pace that should've been jarring — but it was executed with such style and poise, it seemed like a candid glimpse into an alternate universe that was every bit as corrupt and bewildering as our own but where the talking was faster, the minds more nimble, and everybody's teeth sharper.

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