One way to get bodies into the (increasingly expensive) seats on Broadway is to put big stars in old warhorses. And so this spring we've had Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar, Jessica Lange in The Glass Menagerie, Kathleen Turner in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond. But here's a refreshing surprise: this season's revivals have been outshone by an unusually rich supply of new plays and musicals.
THE PILLOWMAN BY MARTIN MCDONAGH
McDonagh has put grisly deeds onstage before, in plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane. But with The Pillowman, he almost seems to have invented a new genre of horror theater. In this macabre fable with echoes of Kafka and Pinter, a man (Billy Crudup) is interrogated for a string of child murders that mimic the gruesome short stories he has written. Somehow, in the transfer to Broadway from London's National Theatre, a lot of unwelcome laughs have been allowed to sneak in. They're only a distraction from a dark, intense and truly shocking meditation on cruelty in all its forms. You won't be able to breathe until you leave the theater, and even then only carefully.
DOUBT BY JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY
"Maybe we're not supposed to sleep so well," says a character in Doubt. To be sure, this off-Broadway hit that has just moved to Broadway (nabbing a Pulitzer Prize along the way) never lets us rest comfortably with our preconceptions. An imperious nun (Cherry Jones) hears suspicions that a popular priest (Brían F. O'Byrne) at her school has been abusing a young boy; in spite of his fierce denials, she hounds him to step down. A triumph of moral doggedness or a shameful injustice? In a tight 90 mins., Shanley's work packs more complexity, humanity--doubt--than plays twice its length.
SPAMALOT BY ERIC IDLE
Some gags work: a peasant crosses the stage with a bale of hay just as a rousing, Fiddler on the Roof-style chorus line points and shouts, "Hey!" Some gags--the choleric knight who gets his arms and legs cut off--worked better onscreen. But Idle's runaway hit musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail has a rowdy, anything-goes spirit as well as two memorable numbers: You Won't Succeed on Broadway ("if you don't have any Jews") and the infectious Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. You have to be a Python maniac to place this genial mishmash in the Broadway pantheon, but let's look on the bright side: it's fun.
THIS IS HOW IT GOES BY NEIL LABUTE
Man runs into a woman he had a crush on in high school. Now she's married to the former class hero, who is black. A triangle ensues. But all is not as it seems. LaBute usually shows the impossibility of men connecting with women; here he shows the implacability of racism that lurks in the heart of even nice guys. Ben Stiller, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Peet star in George C. Wolfe's crackling off-Broadway production of a daring playwright's best play. --By Richard Zoglin