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Hanging, Hanging In, and Just Hanging On

Bernadette Peters in “Hello Dolly,” at the Shubert through July 15. | JULIETA CERVANTES

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | She’s back where she belongs. The magnificent Bernadette Peters has stepped into the role of Dolly Levi in the wonderful production of “Hello, Dolly!” still going strong and looking as fresh and sparkling as it has since it opened. I ponied up for a ticket last week because I couldn’t imagine not seeing Bernadette in the role. Not surprisingly, the role fits her like one of the elbow-length gloves she wears for her triumphant return to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant during the title song. She’s a comic genius, to be sure, and she brings real heart to the role. Like Bette Midler and Donna Murphy before her, she’s a generous performer and a bona fide star who nonetheless fits seamlessly into the ensemble when required. She’s pure magic.

Victor Garber has taken on the role of Horace Vandergelder and is charmingly curmudgeonly. Charlie Stemp has stepped into the role of Barnaby Tucker, and I mean that literally. He’s an amazing dancer taking on turns that were performed by the ensemble previously, and his comedy is completely endearing.

Bernadette Peters, Martin McDonagh don’t disappoint; “Pete Rex” does

I have loved Gavin Creel as Cornelius each of the other times I’ve seen this production, but at the performance I saw understudy Christian Dante White and he nailed it. (Santino Fontana takes on the role in March as Creel recovers from back surgery.) Kate Baldwin remains dazzling, no matter how many times I see this.

The ensemble continues to be the most exuberant on Broadway right now, and the whole production is delightful. If you love musical comedy, this is why. And with discounts and good availability most performances, it’s well worth the trip… even for the third time.

In his creepy-wonderful new play, “Hangmen,” Martin McDonagh returns to topics he knows only too well — venality and vengeance in small town life. McDonagh has an unerring ability to illuminate the ego-driven pettiness of his characters that takes hold in claustrophobic, remote environments.

Here, we’re in remote Oldham in Lancashire. As in “The Cripple of Inishmaan” or “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” these awful people are nonetheless appealing partly because of their comedic excesses but more because of the incisive way in which McDonagh explores the darker aspects of human nature.

Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn in Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen,” at the Atlantic through March 25 only. | AHRON R. FOSTER

When England ended hanging in 1964, the hangmen lost their jobs. One in particular, Harry Wade, who considered himself the “second best hangman in England,” can’t help but crow about his accomplishments when a newspaper reporter shows up at the pub he now owns. Yet, Harry’s perhaps inflated sense of himself is challenged when it’s suggested that his last hanging was of an innocent man. Still, Harry rules the roost where he holds court among the local inebriants who make the pub their home.

When a sexy, young, and definitely menacing stranger shows up, Harry’s dominance is threatened. Mooney, the stranger, flirts with Shirley, Harry’s mopey 15-year-old daughter… and danger. When Shirley goes missing for a day, Harry instantly blames Mooney and mayhem ensues.

Of course, Mooney has done nothing to allay Harry’s fears and like a character out of Joe Orton or “A Clockwork Orange” has been playing mind games with everyone in the town. That it’s not exactly clear why Mooney is doing this is part of the intrigue of the play.

Harry in time turns desperate and murderous. McDonagh surrounds the central conflict between Mooney and Harry with lots of colorful characters and details that give the world of the play depth and texture. No contemporary playwright does that better, nor does any playwright create such tension from the foibles of similarly quotidian people and circumstances.

Under the taut direction of Matthew Dunster, the cast is superlative. Mark Addy as Harry is the embodiment of aggressively defensive weakness and spiritual bankruptcy. Johnny Flynn is appealingly arrogant as Mooney. Some of the best writing in the play is shown off as Mooney, reveling in his bad boy affect that threatens the people of Oldham, tries to determine if he is “creepy” or “menacing.” In supporting roles, Reece Shearsmith as Syd, Harry’s assistant as a hangman who got fired for questionable behavior, is both sympathetic and hilarious. Sally Rogers as Alice, Harry’s wife, is touching as she falls under Mooney’s spell. So, too, is Gaby French as Shirley, who sees Mooney as a chance to escape from her suffocating parents. Maxwell Caulfield gives a wonderful turn in the second act as Albert, the best hangman, who shows up to call Harry out on the self-aggrandizing newspaper interview. The rest of the company is excellent at conveying the dreary sameness of life in Oldham. What ultimately motivates the characters and the play is McDonagh’s deliciously jaundiced view that with or without a fair trial or a rope, we are all too willing to hang one another.

Tickets for the run at the Atlantic are scarce, though there is a cancellation line at every performance. Rumor is that the show is moving to Broadway. Don’t miss it.

One of the challenges of New York theatergoing is that one is often witness to wonderful actors in less-than-wonderful plays. Such is the case with “Pete Rex,” a new play by Alexander V. Thompson. The play is a pallid rip-off of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” except that rather than being a shining pinnacle of existential theater, “Pete Rex” posits that guys should give up playing video games and be better boyfriends.

Pete and Bo are best friends devoted to playing the Madden NFL 07 video game, but oblivious to the fact that dinosaurs are running rampant in their suburban Pennsylvania town. That is until Julie, Pete’s ex, shows up to warn them. Pete sacrifices Bo to the dinosaurs, which is necessary because Bo comes back as Nero, the dinosaur who proceeds to school Pete on how to be a better person. And, surprise, surprise, the whole endeavor turns out to be a dream! In a proto-Jungian catharsis, Pete confronts the dinosaur as an archetype of childishness and learns that he must give up his childish ways and become an integrated adult — and not play video games when his girlfriend wants to talk.

Thompson’s writing is juvenile and obvious. However, what life this play has comes from the players who throw themselves into the piece with gusto and conviction. Rosie Sowa as Julie is earnest and believable. Greg Carere is sympathetic as Pete and gives the role a depth the script does not. Simon Winheld as Bo and Nero is terrific, and his Paleolithic antics establish him as an excellent comedian with an impressive range. The performances of these fine actors will live on even as the play they’re in becomes — wait for it — extinct.


HELLO, DOLLY! | Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St. | Through Jul. 15: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $39-$169 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission

HANGMEN | Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St. | Through Mar. 25: Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.- Sun. at 2 p.m. | $70-$129 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission

PETE REX | 59E59, 59 E. 59th St. | Mar. 1-3. at 7:30 p.m. | $25 at ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200 | One hr., 45 mins., with intermission

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