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Livin’ on a Prayer: The Break of Noon and The Red Shoes

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Livin’ on a Prayer: <em>The Break of Noon</em> and <em>The Red Shoes</em>

David Duchovny is one of those actors where you can never really tell if he’s flagrantly bad or awesomely great—and his diabolical, Cheshire-cat act has been one of the great mysteries of celebrity acting for years now. From his Mulder days on The X-Files, where Duchovny’s flat, knowing line readings were deliriously inventive, to his Californication rascal of late, you just can’t figure the dude out. And something tells me that in that Ivy League-educated/Celebrity Jeopardy!-champ head of his, he knows how to play you like a violin.

So herein lies one of the most wizardly examples of celeb casting ever. Playing an office massacre’s sole survivor (named John Smith, natch) who tries to convince the world he has been touched by God while furtively eyeballing possible fame from the wreckage, Duchovny orchestrates Neil LaBute’s new play The Break of Noon like a virtuoso, simply in that you never can tell what is sincere and what is, as described in one of David Lynch’s most prized films, horsepucky. Trying to change his whoring, gambling ways, John is right in line with LaBute’s stage men: searching, intense, befuddled by women. But eschewing his 11th-hour twisteroos, the LaBute of recent years unleashes surprising challenges to himself, even nakedly addressing his own past criticism in one key scene when John appears on a talk show with a caustic, pointed hostess (Tracee Chimo, arch but fully committed) that results in the latter exclaiming, “Us women can be awfully touchy when it comes to gender.” But this self-reflexive nature hasn’t dulled the big boy one bit. Say what you will, the man writes killer two-person scenes (not to mention this production has two boffo monologues), and in this current climate of let’s-talk-about-our-feelings plays clogging our institutional theaters, his dramatic bravado is worthy of bravos.

The Break of Noon could use some more honing (it’s the rare play that feels too short), and though very well-played by Chimo, John Earl Jelks, and a commanding Amanda Peet in a dual role as John’s ex-wife and ex-mistress (a sly Vertigo-ish gamble that pays off), the supporting roles are more stock than in some of LaBute’s other plays. But under Jo Bonney’s superb direction, Duchovny might have created LaBute’s ultimate antihero: His stoned, surfer-guy swagger has never been more arresting, and the fact that he seems all wrong to play such a persuasive Man of God bizarrely and cosmically seems oh so right. And what other current show has Depeche Mode playing at its curtain call?

God’s house is also a temple for the decidedly unlucky heroine at the center of Kneehigh Theatre’s high-concept staging of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, which is now playing off of a tidal wave of hype left behind by their now Broadway-housed Brief Encounter. Bathed in religious imagery (it even opens with the cast washing their feet in basins), retelling the utterly twisted tale of a girl (Patrycja Kujawska) with the ultimate in nightmare footwear as she goes from owner’s elation to a “silly old pair of chopped-off feet,” director Emma Rice’s production, while fully coherent with bravura touches, is mostly a case of two left feet. Its motif of disheveled, pale, underclothed cast members seemingly inhabiting an asylum is just too close to John Doyle’s searing revival of Sweeney Todd five years back (though this production was born five years previous to that according to the program), with sprinkles of Cabaret’s MC (though this one looks more like Grace Zabriskie) and a little Les Freres Corbusier thrown in, but the result ends up overspiced and surprisingly monotonous (the imagery and choreography start to occur in an almost loop-like frequency), before recovering for a splendid final stretch, full of the writhing theatricality and brash choices you wish had shown up the hour before that. Kneehigh is clearly a keeper of a company, but this one is more ankle-deep.

The Break of Noon is now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.) in New York City and continues until December 22. Schedule: Tue & Wed at 7pm, Thu-Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2pm, Sun at 7pm. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission. The Red Shoes is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St. in DUMBO) in Brooklyn and continues through Dec 12. Schedule: Tue–Sat at 8pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 2pm and 7pm. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission.