LIZ SMITH: Broadway’s Best
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
Broadway’s Best, and Most Entertaining — “Oslo” and “War Paint.”
“THERE ARE dark shadows on earth, but its lights are stronger in contrast,” said Charles Dickens.
I came across this quote quite by accident a while ago, possibly in The Week magazine. I put it aside.
It came back to me last Thursday, and Friday, out two nights running, at the theater. On Thursday I saw J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” and on Friday, “War Paint,” the musical (Doug Wright/Scott Frankel/Michael Korie.)
To say I experienced darkness and light would be an understatement. “Oslo” is playwright J.T. Rogers’ somewhat fictionalized account of the life and death struggles of the Oslo Peace Accords on 1993. “War Paint” is a mostly lighthearted look at the careers and rivalry of cosmetic queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
My head should have been spinning, but I found I was comforted — not to mention extraordinarily entertained — by the contrasts, the dark and light of both shows. There was lightness and humor (quite a bit!) in “Oslo” and more substance than one might expect from “War Paint.” There really is nothing like the theater!
Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays in “Oslo.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
It is beyond my capacities to accurately convey the brilliance and power of “Oslo.” That its opening night occurred during Passover lent the evening an added emotional undercurrent, that was overpowering. It is the story of two apparently unprepossessing but determined Norwegian diplomats who endeavor to negotiate peace talks between Israel and the PLO in a most unusual manner. It really happened, although as the playwright admits, it is his imagining of the events — is dialogue, his dramatic license with facts, characters and motivations. It matters not at all. Brilliantly performed by every actor, “Oslo” conveys the passion, tragedy, eternal hope, and the tragic crushing pessimism of the battle between Israel and Palestine, between heart and head, pride and prejudice. It is dense frustrating politics, leavened with great humor — the piece is studded with hilarious one-liners.
Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, Joseph Siravo (foreground), Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays (background). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
When I say every actor is brilliant, I mean it. There is no wasted space on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont. You feel the soul and commitment of every character, large and small. And you are reminded, as you are almost everyday on the news—of the centuries-old, perhaps insoluble issues of the Middle East.
Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi (foreground), and Jefferson Mays (background). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
But, I have to make mention of Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays as the calm but inwardly sizzling Norwegian hosts and protagonists, somehow managing the volatility that engulfs them. Also, Anthony Azizi as PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie and Michael Aronov as Israeli foreign ministry director Uri Savir. Aronov’s performance is one of the most electric of the season—he is all sex, bravado, and in the end—like all the characters—willing to make soul-searing compromises for some hope, however tissue-thin, of peace. “Oslo” I will see again. I don’t “recommend” this show. Too trite. It’s a vital, living thing. Just go.
Jennifer Ehle, T. Ryder Smith, Jefferson Mays and Henny Russell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
AS FOR “War Paint” it is exactly what I expected. No, wrong — more than I expected. It’s delicious. It’s exquisitely costumed. It sticks pretty close to facts of the lives of Rubinstein and Arden, both of whom revolutionized the beauty industry. For a show about two women who never actually met or spoke to each other (of course, here they do, at last) working in the superficial world of lipsticks and face creams, “War Paint” seems a lot meatier than it should be. This is due to the dazzlingly swift and clever direction and staging by Michael Greif. There are no lulls, no longueurs; no time to analyze.
Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone in “War Paint.” Photo by Joan Marcus.
The music is fine — often witty, sometimes poignant — although most of the songs relate to the book — “Best Face Forward”…”Inside the Jar”…”Fire and Ice”…”Behind the Red Door.” There will be no stand-alone breakouts. Except, perhaps “If I’d Been a Man.” Throughout “War Paint” we not only hear of each woman’s personal internal struggle, but also their battle to compete and strive and triumph in a man’s world. Feminism via a rejuvenating mask! (In a way it’s a more benign version of TV’s “Feud” with tunes.)
Chrstine Ebersole is prettty in pink as Elizabeth.
There are men (John Dossett and Douglas Sills) who give Helena and Elizabeth trouble, but as attractive and well-played as they are, we really don’t care. This show is about the women, the stars. And what stars! Yes, everything that you hoped for, between Patti LuPone as Helena, and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth, happens. These Broadway icons catch fire (and ice!) instantly, and never let down for an instant. The women’s contrasting styles, looks, sound, meld magnificently. Their most famous works aside — “Evita,” “Anything Goes,” Gypsy” for Lupone. “Grey Gardens,” “42nd Street” for Ebersole — one feels, still, that in “War Paint” they are somehow playing the roles they were born to.
The show is structured to offer LuPone and Ebersole wonderful solos toward the end, “Pink” and “Forever Beautiful,” expressing their triumphs and dissatisfactions. It’s delectable, sumptuous, easily digested, hugely enjoyable theater. And after the hysterical standing ovation, one does feels the need to pull out a compact and fix up.
Patti LuPone sings “Forever Beautiful.”
P.S. “War Paint” is playing at the Nederlander Theater on 41st Street. As I approached the theater with a friend, I turned to him and said, “You know, nothing against James Nederlander, but I’ve always felt this should be known as the …” My pal finished the sentence with me “… the Lena Horne Theater!” We laughed at our syncronicity. (Lena played the Nederlander back in 1981 — her legendary “The Lady and Her Music” show.)
Of course, it could always be renamed the “James Needleheimer Theater” which is the way Elizabeth Taylor famously mispronounced the producer’s name at the 1981 Tony Awards. (La Liz was on Broadway, and Tony nominated for “The Little Foxes.”)