Jake’s Leap In The Park

A movie star’s Broadway outing in Stephen Sondheim’s musical revival attains pointillist perfection

Theatre
United by art, divided by class: Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in “Sunday in the Park with George” (©STEPHENIE BERGER)

Jake Gyllenhaal has long inhabited a cool space in the upper echelons of indie film-making from Donnie Darko to Brokeback Mountain and more recently as an oddball crime photographer in Nightcrawler.

Gyllenhaal’s stage excursions have been limited — a role in Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth 15 years ago at the Garrick and with Ruth Wilson on Broadway in Nick Payne’s brilliant Constellations.

Nothing in his filmography would lead us to expect him to leap so ably into musical theatre, let alone the artful meanderings of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most ambitious works. But inhabiting the dual roles of Georges Seurat and his artist descendant in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George at the Hudson Theatre in New York, Gyllenhaal has both flair and seriousness.

At its heart, Sunday is about “the art of making art”, down to the absurd focus on detail that has Georges fretting in “Finishing the Hat”, “They have never understood / And no reason they should / How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat.” There’s definitely a homage to Mandy Patinkin (the gold standard of the role for Broadway connoisseurs) in his intense diction, but Gyllenhaal’s voice, lighter and mellifluous, is still rich enough to convey the introversions and passions of his subject.

The balance of characters — the painter and his sitter united by art, divided by class (she is illiterate, he gently mocks that) is crucial as wry, despairing Dot (Annaleigh Ashford) sweats on a hot day in the park at the sharp of pointillism. She wonders if he notices that that there “is someone inside this dress”. Not while working, is the answer.

The second act leaps a century and from Paris to bohemian Chicago, where a modern George, a conceptual artistic descendant of Seurat, finds himself like a character from Merrily We Roll Along, distrusting critical adulation and striving to unite old and new art forms.

All this is best kept simple on stage to avoid the piece creaking under the weight of its more abstract ideas. But Sarna Lapine (niece of the original scriptwriter) obliges with a direction that allows the concert nature of the piece to thrive, and Clint Ramos’s jewel-coloured costumes keep us gazing at the well-upholstered chorus girls, matriachs and gossips of the Seine. What’s the catch? This is a short run by New York standards — to mid-April, which is a huge shame. I guess Jake has to get back to trendier work. But as a leap from screen to one of the hardest forms of stagecraft, this vaulting ambition was a treat.

London will have to wait until November for Hamilton and (at least some) appearances in the run by its Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Andrew Lloyd Webber told me that the success of a musical at Hamilton’s level (see the £4,000 ticket toutage for confirmation) has about the same odds as Leicester City winning the Premier League — a black-swan event hard to replicate. Perhaps few of those signing up for balloted tickets (at far more human prices, thankfully) will be familiar with the ins and outs of the founding fathers. Yet it can engage the initiated and the newcomer equally with the sweep of American history, as the hero starts out an orphan in the Caribbean and emerges into the labyrinthine politics of the Revolution. Will it take London by storm? I’d be surprised if it doesn’t, and any new show that treats the history of ideas and politics seriously is a good thing.

On the London stage, it would stretch credibility to say the early part of 2017 has been exciting. Things will perk up with Hamlet (Andrew Scott, talking a break from villainy as Moriarty in Sherlock) at the Almeida. Rory Kinnear moves from Mack the Knife at the National to direct Ryan Wigglesworth’s new version of A Winter’s Tale at ENO — an example of greater fluidity between opera and theatre, which should be worth a look. Daniel Radcliffe (for it is he, young people) stars in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic. Its year-end production of Yasmina Reza’s Art didn’t catch fire, not least because Rufus Sewell as the artful poseur Serge seemed so woefully unrehearsed. Here’s wishing Radcliffe a better outing.

It has however been a decent start to the year in TV drama with the BBC’s nice-nasty Westminster adultery and murder-fest Apple Tree Yard. But I encourage you to stay in with Channel 4’s No Offence (free to catch up on More4 or via Sky). If, like me, you have tired of Sherlock’s descent from clever twists to juvenile shocker, turn instead to Joanna Scanlan as Viv Deering, a chief inspector policing the grittier streets of Manchester. Shameless writer Paul Abbott has created a female cop who is fat, foul-mouthed and utterly engaging in the second series stand-off with a black gang matriarch, Nora (Rakie Ayola). The subject matter is topical — abortion protests, corrupted child protection and people-trafficking — but Abbott adds verbal dexterity and irreverence to his cast’s often ill-fated attempts to nail the wrong ’uns. Scanlan sails through the action, a grande dame in leather jackets, as a team-leader who is both a joy and a penance to work with. No Offence cocks a snook at political correctness, unmasking a wife-murderer’s claims to be driven by Islamic fervour and supplying villains of every skin hue. True, it might not quite be the look the North-West tourist board is after. “There are twenty dead Mancs in there,” raps Viv after a particularly gruesome interlude. “One of them’s bound to have a record.” For a sofa night in with cops, robbers and far worse, I leave you in her enjoyable custody.