The Threepenny Opera (John Heilpern, NY Observer)

(Photo by Andrew Ku,

I read this review last night , and quoted it incessantly to my sister when we went to see this today:

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much that an opportunistic, star-driven Broadway show like Three Days of Rain gets produced and succeeds at the box office. It’s normal. What matters—and hurts terribly—is the fiasco the Roundabout Theatre Company has made of Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. It’s nothing that I, for one, can remain cool about. The sheer mindlessness of it all left me staggered and in despair. They’ve dropped a cluster-bomb on a masterpiece.

I was accompanied to the performance by Eric Bentley, the man who was most responsible for bringing Brecht’s great plays to America, and whose fine books and essays about the playwright are considered seminal. Let us assume that Mr. Bentley, who translated the lyrics of Kurt Weill’s enduring songs for a production of The Threepenny Opera in the 30’s, has no ax to grind. At 90, alert and still passionate about the theater, he’s done all the ax-grinding he cares to. The sensible Mr. Bentley threw in the towel at the end of the first act.

“No tragedy ever made me suffer so much,” he explained, and headed home.


The Brecht-Weill songs must be sung dispassionately, laid back and unself-consciously, ironically refined. There is, in a sense, no “performance” in Brecht’s plays. For all outward, showbizzy display is to be avoided in the cause of direct, primary, almost naïve truth. But nothing here is allowed to speak for itself. “Mac the Knife” is delivered like a smug group dirge. “The Jealousy Duet” is reduced to a crude catfight and shouting match. A brothel scene dissolves into a predictable Day-Glo orgy. “The Army Song” is accompanied by a gang rape (à la Abu Ghraib).