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A CurtainUp Review
Oh, it's still one of the great metaphysical amusements. People dying for a concept. . . a rumor of a chick pretty much everyone despised, including the husband who was trying to get her back, including the guy who took her in the first place. Even the gods would hate you if we could be bothered to make the effort. But really, what's the point? I mean there's not much to you, is there? . 
Donna Murphy & Marian Seldes
Donna Murphy & Marian Seldes
(Photo: Michael Daniel)
Ellen McLaughlin is not alone in her opinion that "the Greek plays and myths are so rock-solid that you are not going to nick them or do them any harm by playing with them". This season alone we've had Charles Mee's trilogy of re-imagined Greek plays staged in three different venues around New York. Mary Zimmerman's splashy (literally so) take on Ovid's myths, had strong enough legs to carry Metamorphoses from Los Angeles to Off-Broadway and its current home, the Circle In the Square on Broadway. Now, Helen, McLaughlin's spin on Euripides play (also called Helen) on the legendary beauty has opened for a limited run at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater. It marks the directorial debut of Tony Kushner in whose Angels In America McLaughlin so memorably played the part of the Angel and also the welcome return of Donna Murphy to the stage.

Like two other plays that can currently be seen in other spaces of the Public Theater, Talk and 36 Views , Helen is a visually drop-dead but flawed production. With Murphy as its centerpiece, it takes a while for the flaws to become apparent. With a profusion of flowing blonde curls she is as gorgeous a Helen as you could want. Unlike the Helen of the play, who finds herself to be superfluous, Murphy is more than a mere ornamental presence. She is funny, as in her comic opening monologue which fills us in on why she is where she has been for the last seventeen years, (spirited by the gods into lonely exile in an Egyptian luxury hotel, while the face that famously caused a war was that of a copy "made out of a cloud -- or something"). She is also poignant in her realization that she can never return home and that her long exile has accomplished nothing except to make her an indecisive, purposeless shell.

Unlike Charles Mee's True Love which piggybacks on Euripides and Plato from a completely present day setting, McLaughlin has stayed within the time frame of the Trojan War, but has merged past and present via her language and the accouterments of the settings -- notably a television set (its back towards the audience) on which Helen impatiently channel surfs for news of the war she has been sitting out for so many lonely and uneventful years. When not complaining about television's inadequacies she kills flies (symbolizing her own insignificance and fragility), with a swatter picked from a whole bouquet of these gizmos arranged in a vase next to her gigantic red satin covered bed.

Helen's only human contact is an Egyptian servant (Marian Seldes) who when not helping her bored and indecisive mistress dress and undress, entertains her with Cassandra-like prophetic stories. The actress is her usual remarkable and somewhat over-the-top self and Mr. Kushner has smartly opted to let her do her own thing. Her exits, hands posed as if she were a figure on a piece of Egyptian pottery, are pure Seldes.

Another modern convenience that dominates the stage is a great looking wrought iron elevator that actually moves up and down. It provides a grand entrance for the three additional commentators on McLaughlin's tragicomic rumination on the futility of war: IO (a wisecracking Johanna Day), a shepherdess who, except for her ear flaps, has metamorphosed back into human form after being transformed into a cow by Zeus and spending the war wandering the globe with other miserable refugees. . . . Athena (a riotously funny Phylicia Rashad), brings news that the war is over and that noone, including Paris or Meneleus, were able to tell that a copy of Helen wasn't the real article (beauty without substance, being easily duplicated!)  . . and finally the long-awaited Meneleus (Denis O'Hare convincingly war weary ), who it turns out can neither make love to her or take her home. As each visitor advances the indictment of war that underlies all this overly quirky funny business, it is also clear that the elevator is also symbolic of Helen's inability to make a move on her own.

Mr. Kushner keeps the visitors moving along, bringing in Marian Seldes whenever things slow down -- which is all too often since what we get is basically a series of monologues and conversations without action. With the play running almost two hours his decision to add an intermission makes sense. However, the patches when the jokey dialogue becomes more precious than amusing could have been minimized if he had persuaded the playwright to pare the script to 90 intermissionless minutes. Of course, when compared with his own recent epic-sized Homebody/Kabul, Helen is a breezy romp.

Ellen McLaughlin's previous play, Tongue of a Bird
Other recent plays reconstructing Greek Myths
Charles Mee's trilogy: True Love , First Love and Big Love
Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses

Written by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Tony Kushner
Cast: Johanna Day, Donna Murphy, Denis O'Hare, Phylicia Rashad, Marian Seldes.
Set Design: Michael Yeargan
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Scott Zieleinski
Sound Design: Gina Leishman
Hair and Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Public Theaer, Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette St. 212-239-6200 or

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 7th press preview.
3/19/02-4/21/02; opening 4/08/02.
Tues-Sat at 8pm, Sat and Sun at 2pm and Sun. at 7pm -- $45. Quik Tix, discounted rush tickets, if available, one-half hour before curtain time
Metaphors Dictionary Cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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