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Culture Theater

© Carol Rosegg

Juliana Francis-Kelly, Steven Skybell, Abigail Killeen and Michelle Hurst
© Carol Rosegg

Theater

‘Babette’ off-Broadway

Babette’s Feast brings refreshing subject matter to New York’s theater district, but the play’s ingredients need a tweak

Readers may know Babette’s Feast from the original short story by Isak Dinesen or the acclaimed 1987 film adaptation. Now that story is playing in an open-ended run off-Broadway, in a gorgeous old church in New York’s theater district.

The play, which follows the short story more closely than the film, takes place within an ascetic Protestant sect in a remote Norwegian village. Two sisters take in Babette, a refugee of war in France, without knowing anything else about her. The taciturn Babette—secretly one of the world’s greatest chefs—ends up blessing and transforming the town in a radical act of generosity.

It’s a meaty story about a gift of unmerited grace that is rare for an off-Broadway show. Characters quote Scripture throughout, and the play never takes a derogatory view of the sectarians. Whatever their particular Christian tradition is, it has a mystical vibe. The sectarians regularly repeat their founder’s creed: “God’s paths run across the sea and the snowy mountains, where man’s eye sees no track.”

Michelle Hurst (Orange Is the New Black) brings wonderful weight and dignity to Babette. The play’s simple design is beautiful too (despite the absence of any real food or drink). 

It seems to me the play would be truly compelling if each actor stayed within his or her role. Instead, an ensemble of six narrates the story, and the actors whirl very theatrically in and out of different characters. Babette is a story of intimate community, and that intimacy is lost when an actor is switching from playing a pompous Italian opera star to a fishmonger to a pious townsperson. The audience doesn’t have a chance to bond with the characters. 

Babette’s Feast isn’t badly done. I just wish it were a knockout—like the five-star excellence Babette delivers in her act of grace.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

 The cast of "Oslo," at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

Theater

Dramatic diplomacy

"Oslo," up for seven Tonys, offers the right antidote to both cynicism and idolatry of politics

At a time when political discord seems to find its way into every dinnertime conversation, a new Broadway play explores the world’s most intractable political divide: that between Israelis and Palestinians. Oslo recounts the top-secret back-channel talks in Norway that led to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, a story drawn from the playwright’s relationship with some of the negotiators.

The original play by J.T. Rogers is a financial hit—always tough for shows without musical numbers or a built-in audience—and it has garnered seven Tony nominations (the Tony Awards are on June 11). It has an open-ended run on Broadway and will open in London’s West End in the fall.

The 1993 peace accords didn’t lead to lasting change, but Rogers’ play is a warm and well-executed endorsement of the idea of building relationships with your enemies. The setting is a Norwegian hotel where Israeli and Palestinian representatives secretly met for months. Between arguments over Jerusalem and terrorism, the hotel cook interrupts with waffles that break the tension. 

A play about diplomacy sounds bone-dry but Oslo has the feel of a political thriller, with fast-cutting scenes and furniture whirling on and off the stage. Some curse words, too, are a feature of these backroom talks, but that is a real-life attribute of political staffers I’ve met. A dinner table continuously rises and falls from center stage, and here comes coffee, and there go more waffles, and here comes whiskey. 

All the elements are here for that Tony award for best play, with cast leads Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays undergirding the staging and script. The second half of the play is long, but it is survivable due to the entrance to the negotiations of the lightning bolt Israeli diplomat Uri Savir, played with verve by Michael Aronov, who is also up for a Tony award.

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Joan Marcus for Fellowship for Performing Arts

Martin Luther on Trial
Joan Marcus for Fellowship for Performing Arts

Theater

Luther and his legacy

Max McLean’s theater company puts the great reformer in the dock on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

Max McLean’s Fellowship for Performing Arts has its latest production playing off-Broadway in New York—Martin Luther on Trial. The story, which McLean wrote along with playwright and King’s College professor Chris Cragin-Day, imagines Lucifer putting Luther on trial to see whether the father of the Protestant Reformation belongs in hell rather than heaven. In this show, McLean is essentially a producer—he does not act in the play itself. A national tour is in the works after the play’s New York run ends Jan. 29.

On the 500th anniversary of Luther writing his 95 Theses, this play is a creative approach to Luther’s reputation in history—implicitly acknowledging that many contemporary minds disdain the Reformer. The trial allows witnesses to appear both to tear apart his deep flaws (such as his anti-Semitic writings later in life) and to defend his work of rooting out corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly becomes clear the ultimate goal is to defend Luther’s legacy as a sinful man who still accomplished great feats for Christianity. Pope Francis appears at one point as a witness defending Luther.

The play has some fun with the courtroom concept, providing welcome lightness as characters debate topics like justification by faith and the unforgivable sin. The courtroom banter has some of the cheekiness of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (McLean starred in a theatrical adaptation of the book, one of his favorite productions). Lucifer in particular is witty and captivating, though being the baddest character in the universe, he does use some profanity.  

The witness list includes Adolf Hitler, who discusses Luther’s role in creating a German nation by establishing a common language for the people through his mass printing of a vernacular Bible. Other witnesses attest to Luther’s influence on their lives, including Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Hitchens, the Brothers Grimm, and Friedrich Nietzsche (who complains that people really misunderstood his philosophy).

The light banter weaves in with conversations about history and theology. Martin Luther King Jr., on the witness stand, must define what is the unforgivable sin and whether Luther has committed it: “It means God reached out to you personally … and you rejected him,” King says, and looks pointedly at Lucifer.

As witnesses are called, the play flashes back to scenes from Luther’s life: His “Here I stand” speech at the Diet of Worms, his engagement to Katie von Bora, his meeting with a Jewish rabbi, and his struggle with kidney stones (offered as a partial explanation for some of his angrier writings later on).

Those extensive historical scenes make the play a bit overly ambitious: It runs 130 minutes. McLean’s other projects, like The Screwtape Letters and most recently C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert, run between 70 and 80 minutes. Martin Luther is a major figure in history, a “Shakespeare-sized personality,” as McLean told me, but this play just needs a bit of a haircut.

Still, the concept is a fresh approach to reviewing Luther’s life and legacy that will likely appeal to Christian audiences—and the conclusion has a very C.S. Lewis–style theological twist.

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