On the Broadway stages: In advance of the June 7 Tony Awards telecast, Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson takes at look at some of the musicals and plays getting the most buzz, including "God of Carnage" and "Next to Normal."

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NEW YORK CITY — Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters had a lot on their minds during the 2008-09 season.

Though the ’80s-themed jukebox musical “Rock of Ages” and the Seattle-premiered reel-to-real show “Shrek the Musical” could fall into the “escapist entertainment” slot, the preponderance of offerings have not.

The serious tone of the season may not be purposely designed to reflect the national mood. But in this period of political change and personal hardship, it sure befits it.

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Exhibit A: The two new Broadway musicals receiving the most award nominations and buzz are the British import “Billy Elliot” and “Next to Normal,” which was developed at Issaquah’s Village Theatre.

“Billy Elliot” (reviewed here last fall) depicts a British kid overcoming macho stereotypes and poverty to study ballet during a grueling miner’s strike. “Next to Normal” confronts the impact of severe mental illness on a stressed-out American family.

A bonanza of “legit” (nonmusical) plays of substance by the revered late dramatists August Wilson (“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”) and Arthur Miller (“All My Sons”) were welcomed on Broadway stages. And contemporary dramatists Moises Kaufman, Yasmina Reza, Neil LaBute and Horton Foote (who died in March, at 92) addressed serious concerns, too — with some comic nuances.

Their subject matter ranged from musicology and Lou Gehrig’s disease (Kaufman’s “33 Variations”), to the final gasps of the antebellum South (Foote’s “Dividing the Estate”), to the conventions of physical beauty in our society (LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty”).

And major houses Off Broadway took up current political debates over torture (in Christopher Durang’s “Why Torture Is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them”); and the horrific abuse of women in the war-torn Congo (Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Ruined”).

All this is reflected in the highly competitive drama categories in the 2008-09 Tony Awards race, which culminates with an awards ceremony telecast from Radio City Music Hall on June 7.

Meaty plays helped bait the hook for some Hollywood stars to venture onto Broadway stages. Some were fairly new to live theater (e.g., Katie Holmes in “All My Sons”), or back after a lengthy hiatus from it (“The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini in “God of Carnage,” Jane Fonda in “33 Variations”).

Why should anyone who doesn’t live in or plan to visit New York care what is lighting up marquees there? Because the hit musicals and plays causing excitement in the Big Apple are sure to arrive in Seattle on tour — or may well be staged by local theater companies. Also, high-impact theater is an essential part of our national cultural conversation.

And it’s a two-way chat: Numerous artists and works with close ties to Seattle’s scene are represented on Broadway, and up for coveted Tony Awards.

From a recent trip to Manhattan, here are short takes on some of the hottest productions.

“Next to Normal”

Booth Theatre, Broadway (open-ended run)

This offbeat pop-musical written by Issaquah native Brian Yorkey, with music by Tom Kitt, boldly challenges the Hallmark TV movie brand of “problem drama.” It considers, unflinchingly, the plight of a likably sardonic middle-class woman, Diana (Alice Ripley), long afflicted with bipolar disease.

Diana’s depressive downs are wretched. Her hyper “ups” are scary. But try as he might, devoted husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) cannot restore her to mental health. Nor can Diana’s resentful teen daughter, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano).

And Diana’s latest two shrinks (both adeptly portrayed by Seattle’s own Louis Hobson, in his Broadway debut) can only offer a promising but worrisome next treatment: electroshock therapy.

Blending medical case history with a big twist on the film “Ghost,” this Village Theatre-developed show smartly employs Kitt’s Phillip Glass-meets-Bon Jovi score (lyrics by Yorkey), and an ingenious staging by Michael Greif on a metallic dollhouse set. The piece never cops out on its subject — which may make it a hard Broadway sell, despite 11 Tony nominations.

“God of Carnage”

Jacobs Theatre on Broadway (open-ended)

Like other successful plays by France’s Yasmina Reza, this comedy shreds the veneer of civility off two urban sophisticate couples and exposes the raging beasts therein.

In the sharp Matthew Warchus staging, the agile, perfectly balanced cast of TV and film stars Gandolfini, Hope Clark, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels play two sets of parents, each with a son, who meet to calmly discuss a schoolyard dust-up between their boys.

Daniels is an arrogant lawyer attached to his cellphone, Davis is a queasy woman in “wealth management,” Gandolfini is an earthy self-made entrepreneur and Harden a smug art historian — all inches from stereotype. And harboring a toxic load of pettiness and prejudices, which gradually whip up a tsunami of slapstick and hysteria.

By the end of this deftly compressed battle (adapted into English by Christopher Hampton) a chic living room is trashed, many tulips are destroyed and there’s a pail of upchuck that needs emptying.

Sounds sort of gross and infantile, right? In the hands of these actors, it’s also hilarious — and in all the “carnage” lies some valid (if obvious) social critique.

“West Side Story

Palace Theatre, Broadway (open-ended)

The big difference between this revival of the monumental 1957 musical, and the last one (in 1980)?

Director-author Arthur Laurents deepens the storyline and had some of the lyrics and dialogue performed by the Puerto Rican characters translated into Spanish.

In some instances, that move peppers the cross-racial, gang-warfare story with added authenticity. And it’s hard for non-Spanish speakers to follow the dialogue in a rooftop scene in which sexy Sharks gang leader Bernardo (George Akram) swaps flirtatious repartee with his feisty amor, Anita (standout Karen Olivo).

But the essentials to this powerhouse musical are the performances of the matchless Bernstein-Sondheim score and the dazzling Robbins choreography.

The revival is very well served in the dance department. The music? Olivo and Argentine soprano Josefina Scaglione, a sweet and crystal-voiced Maria, sing it beautifully. Matt Cavenaugh isn’t always up to the high-wire vocal demands of Maria’s Tony, but persuasively acts the love-struck swain.

If the pacing of the songs versus the speaking scenes goes askew at times, “West Side Story” still works its invincible magic. And at a recent matinee, a balcony filled with middle-school kids roared their approval.

“Reasons to Be Pretty”

Lyceum Theater, Broadway (open-ended)

Neil LaBute gets a heart!

That’s been the word on the latest play by a writer known for his pitiless film and stage portraits of people behaving miserably (“In the Company of Men,” “The Shape of Things”).

But the ferocity of “Reasons to Be Pretty,” staged with pinpoint intensity by Terry Kinney and a rigorous cast, is in service of a young man’s startling, compelling moral education.

Thomas Sadoski’s go-along-to-get-along Greg makes a casual remark about his girlfriend Steph’s appearance to his sexist pal and box store co-worker Kent (Steven Pasquale). When the seemingly innocuous comment gets back to Steph (Marin Ireland), her nuclear explosion of rage and hurt force Greg to question everything — his dead-end work, his loyalty to the bullying Kent, his friendship with Kent’s pregnant wife, Carly (Piper Perabo).

The climactic throwdown on a softball field is rather pat, but otherwise “Reasons to Be Pretty” tunes into and transmits a high-fidelity frequency of day-to-day working life and love. It’s a big step for LaBute — not just because he’s written a protagonist you can empathize with, but in how he tracks the slow, painful process of a guy becoming a mensch.


Manhattan Theatre Club, Off Broadway (extended through June 28)

The world evoked in Lynn Nottage’s tragicomic play, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize honoree for drama, is unfamiliar and disorienting for most Americans.

Set in the recent past, in a Democratic Republic of Congo embroiled in civil war, the story invites us into the mining village bordello run by madam Mama Nadi (fabulous Saidah Arrika Ekulona), — a tough-minded pragmatist, like Brecht’s Mother Courage, who both exploits and protects the women under her charge.

The play’s title, however, refers to those who’ve been raped and sexually mutilated, including Sophie (Condola Rashad, the entrancing daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad), an abused youth Mama Nadi hires as a singer, to help an old friend — Sophie’s salesman uncle, Christian (Russell G. Jones).

Even when it strays into melodrama, “Ruined” is an absorbing, vital work that plunges you into a nightmarish heart of darkness — yet not a humorless one.

Nottage knows people need to drink, laugh, forget, scam in a society where war is butchery, you can’t tell allies from enemies and violated women are ostracized by their own families.

Informed by Nottage’s interviews with Congolese women, “Ruined” demands a lot from viewers — and repays you with an unsanitized, gripping saga and new awareness.

“Why Torture Is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them

The Public Theatre, Off Broadway (closed)

The Bush regime has barely cleared out of the White House, but Christopher Durang is helping write their theatrical epitaph with this antic satire.

Durang uses the old amnesia gambit to explain how pretty Felicity (Laura Benanti) wakes up one day in bed with a seeming stranger, Zamir (Amir Arison), and worries that she has just married a Muslim terrorist.

So is he or isn’t he? From that premise, Durang reflects on the blurring of fantasy and reality in U.S. foreign and domestic policies. And imagines how a hard-liner like Felicity’s right-wing paranoid dad Leonard (Richard Poe) could run his own private torture chamber — while dazed wife Luella (the grand clown Kristine Nielsen) ruminates on Broadway theater trivia.

The quips in “Why Torture Is Wrong” are scattershot, and the jests can get laborious. But Durang is one of the first major playwrights to stake out the excesses of the “war on terror” as satirical territory, and he should not be the last.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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