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Star Turns: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy and Jan Maxwell in Wings

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Star Turns: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in <em>Driving Miss Daisy</em> and Jan Maxwell in <em>Wings</em>

Star wattage seems to be the new energy source powering Broadway (and going green seems to apply to patrons’ wallets rather than illumination), and despite the carping of many in the community about its unfairness, there seems to be no sign of a slowdown (we can expect Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Daniel Radcliffe, and Brendan Fraser in the coming months, and that’s just for starters). Sometimes it works out just right (Denzel Washington in Fences, Scarlett Johansson in A View from the Bridge), and other times, not at all. Let’s proceed with the latter.

To be fair, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are bona fide theater titans, not slumming film actors looking for cred. Their presences are never to be argued with, and they deserve their legend status. That stated, it’s a dispiriting experience to see them sleepwalking through Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, listlessly directed by David Esbjornson as if all he needed were the stars in question to create a spark. Mounted too simply, which in this case is to say cheaply, with little evocation of surroundings, the story of elderly Jewish Daisy Werthen and her strained yet eventually heartfelt push-pull friendship with black driver Hoke may be a regional theater staple, but that’s no reason this production playing in a major Broadway house had to follow suit. Actually, I rescind that statement immediately, as it belittles what regional theaters achieve so well: an intimate rapport between performers and audience that allows the storytelling to take the reins. No such luck here.

Redgrave, the most radiant, spry senior citizen on Earth, barely attempts to make Daisy any type of withering creature (and attempts a credible Southern accent even less), and Jones, already too aged for Hoke in any event, bellows far too often when he should be calm and collected; Uhry’s sometimes naive but gentle handling of both characters becomes blunted in this too-literal production. (Even the redoubtable Boyd Gaines, playing Daisy’s wealthy businessman son Boolie, seems adrift—and when even he lacks fire, you’ve got a big problem.) The scenes tick away as you fondly recall Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman (no matter what you think of the divisive film), which is the last thing you want to be doing. And when Redgrave finally registers old age by tucking her teeth under lips and gumming lines out in a manner not unlike when little children mock old people, you practically want to stick your head between your knees and banish the display from memory. Tandy would have never had to do such a thing to suggest a woman near the end of her life. And she didn’t.

Jan Maxwell, it’s unlikely, will ever get a giant photo of herself underneath a Broadway marquee like the folks above do, but she absolutely should. Classical and refined, yet warm and utterly real, she ignites John Doyle’s visceral, stark revival of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 one-act about a female wingwalker’s debilitating journey through stroke recovery. Told in the director’s signature chilly, black-and-white minimalist tones, it is an uneven trip, but at least there’s a trip of some kind; directorially, every choice might not resonate but you have commend him for at least attempting some, a factor which seems to be escaping theater creators almost daily nowadays. Doyle-haters (and there are plenty) will be readying tomatoes, but Maxwell is so dexterous, she could easily dodge every single one of them.

Driving Miss Daisy is now playing at the Golden Theater (252 West 45th St.) in New York City and continues until January 29. Schedule: Mon, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Tue at 7pm, Wed & Sat at 2pm. Running time: 1 hours and 25 minutes, no intermission; Wingsis now playing at the Second Stage Theatre (305 West 43rd St.) in New York City and continues to November 21. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed & Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm. Running time: 1 hour and 5 minutes, no intermission.