By Robert Heide
Just before the fear of the spread of the coronavirus shut down all 41 of the Broadway theatres in New York on March 12, I attended a preview performance of Girl From the North Country, written and directed by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson, which incorporated the music and lyrics of many of the songs of Bob Dylan. I saw this stunning and profound production on the night of February 29 at the Belasco Theatre, in one of the grandest and most historic houses on the Great White Way. It opened on March 5 and received a rave review from Ben Brantley in the Times, who also had nothing but praise for it at its New York premiere off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 2018 where I originally saw it. (The play was produced initially at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2017.) Right next door to the Belasco on West 44th Street at the Hudson Theatre, a revival of Neil Simon’s play The Plaza Suite was also in previews starring Sara Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, two love-birds who are married and live with their children in a classic historic brownstone on the very same Greenwich Village street where George Capsis, publisher and editor-in-chief of WestView News, lives. The famous couple have been supporters of this West Village paper for many years and I had planned to see the revival, which is a two character comedy romp consisting of three one-act plays.
Advance publicity totally dominated the New York Times on Sunday March 8, which featured a super large photo-layout of Broderick and Parker lovingly embracing in bed, itself almost the entirety of the front page of the Arts section. Matthew never looked more boyish and Sarah Jessica was glamorous as ever. Inside were more photos in color and black and white, one showing Miss Parker with her semi-nude co-star Justin Theroux in her long running, immensely popular TV series Sex and the City. Another photo featured a very young Broderick, the playwright Neil Simon and Mayor Koch under the marquee of the Neil Simon Theatre where Simon’s play Brighton Beach Memoirs was playing in 1983 and yet another of Parker and Broderick together on stage in 1996 in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which apparently is where they met. The terrific article on the duo, entitled ‘They Got a Room’, was penned by Amanda Hess. Alas, this play was among the closed productions which will inevitably cost investors tens of million of dollars, and they include, as well as Girl from the North Country, the stalwart standbys Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen, Moulin Rouge, Hamilton, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Also in March, I was set to write about the new production that was in previews and scheduled to open April 9, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—his masterwork. The playwright, who passed away in 2016, had originally invited me to every first night of this play since it first opened in 1962 which followed a trail of his earlier one-acts like The Zoo Story, The American Dream,The Death of Bessie Smith and many others that were off-Broadway hits. Edward and I were close friends over the decades and I was a member of the Albee/Richard Barr (his producer) Playwrights Unit at the Van Dam Theatre in the Village.
And so, as it turned out, Girl from the North Country was the last play I saw before the shutdown. It was a packed house and the applause at plays-end was almost riotous. It was set during the Great Depression in the year of 1934 and featured 18 talented actors, singers, drummers, pianists, and other musicians living in a big boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (Bob Dylan was born in Duluth in 1941). The owner of the boarding house, who has welcomed the broken, unemployed and homeless people living there, is facing eviction and he knows the gig is up. Oddly, the play’s disparate (and desperate) characters lift the spirit particularly when the actors break away from their roles to play, sing, and dance to Dylan’s music which acts as a parallel to the despair; the songs include Just Like a Rolling Stone, I Want You (from Blonde on Blonde, 1966), Girl from the North Country (from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963), and 16 others. I hope by some miracle it makes it back to Broadway one day. The CD album of the Old Vic production can be purchased online from Sony Music Entertainment, UK Limited Masterworks.
Robert Heide’s collected plays, including two Caffe Cino classics, Moon and The Bed, entitled Robert Heide 25 Plays, was recently published by Fast Books; and can be ordered from Amazon.
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