April 21, 2011

BROADWAY JOURNAL: “War Horse” and “Jerusalem”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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For a new play, WAR HORSE has strong movie connections.  The play is adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford from the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, and that novel is also the basis of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film, which will be in theatres for Christmas (the script for which is by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis).  Further, it’s pretty clear that the inspirations for the story had to include Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard, Balthazar, which tells the story of a donkey and its owners over the years, and in so doing makes a statement about humanity and grace; as well as Carroll Ballard’s 1979 film of The Black Stallion.  In this story, the setting is early 20th Century rural England.  Albert (Seth Numrich) acquires the foal Joey through the fecklessness of his father (Boris McGiver), and boy and horse bond, overcoming obstacles together until World War I begins.  When Joey ends up more or less drafted to the war effort, Albert goes to France to find and rescue him; both experience the horrors of combat.  As a play, War Horse is rather thin, wearing its influences on its sleeve, but the National Theatre of Great Britain production currently at Lincoln Center is prodigiously exciting.   Conceived in association with Handspring Puppet Company and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, it features horses that are marvels of puppetry, housing and operated by several engineers who create not a realistic facsimile of a horse but a wondrous theatrical essence of one.  Even when it isn’t gripping drama, War Horse is impressive, original spectacle.  (Vivian Beaumont Theatre)
Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM provides theatrical spectacle of a different sort:  over 3 hours of the great Mark Rylance roaring his way through a giant role.  Like War Horse, Jerusalem is concerned with the idea

of England, the very soul of the country, but in a much less sentimental way.  Rylance plays Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a former Evel Knievel-like daredevil who now lives in a dilapidated RV in the Wiltshire woods, where he uses the money he makes painting houses and selling blood to casually provide drugs and a party location for the local teens.  Rooster is a rebel who’s running out of territory and friends:  a housing development is about to have him evicted, and he finds out that most of the people he loves don’t love him back.  He’s a symbol of an individualistic England that’s vanishing, but in his case, he’s not fading away quietly.  Rylance rages, jokes, sings, prances, and pretty much keeps the play going all by himself, even though there are more than a dozen other actors on stage with him.  The story, which traces the final day before the bulldozers are due to turn Rooster out, didn’t really need to be 3 acts and as many hours, and Ian Rickson’s direction can’t always hide the fact that more than half the time, we’re watching small talk.  Rylance, though, seizes the outsized role of Rooster and shakes every drop out of him, and Jerusalem is worth seeing just for his artistry.  (Music Box Theatre)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."