rambling reporter

New Broadway bedfellows: mermaid, Hitchcock, D.C.

The new year is off to a ripe start: Disney's "The Little Mermaid" opens Thursday at the Lunt-Fontanne, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater and direction by Francesca Zambello. … Next week brings "The 39 Steps" (or, officially, "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps"), a spoof of the 1935 Hitchcock film and the John Buchan book that inspired it, with a cast of four playing 150 roles. A gift from England, where it is in its second year at London's Criterion theater in the West End, it opens Jan. 15 at the American Airlines Theatre. … Two days later, David Mamet's new comedy about politics in Washington, "November," has its world premiere at the Ethel Barrymore, starring Nathan Lane, with Laurie Metcalf and Dylan Baker and directed by Joe Mantello. … Meanwhile, Elaine Stritch is tearing up the East Side with a no-frills version of her Tony-winning play "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," this time doing it in her usual cabaret stomping grounds known as the Cafe Carlyle. (Easy traveling for Elaine; to get home after the show, she simply rides an elevator a few floors to her permanent residence in the Carlyle Hotel.) The Stritch show's limited three-week engagement ends Jan. 19. … Also, great news: There are more sensationally good plays to be seen now on Broadway than at any time in recent memory — and with more impeccable actors inhabiting them than Broadway has hosted in a decade. Most notable among them: Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" at the Cort; the National Theatre of London's "The Seafarer" at the Booth; Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" at the Jacobs; and what might be the most engrossing of them all, Tracy Lett's "August: Osage County," a transfer from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company that is holding forth at the Imperial, where Hugh Jackman made theatergoing a major event in 2003-04's "The Boy From Oz." "August" also is one of those "this-you've-really-got-to-see" events. It's akin to a Greek tragedy, set during a hot August in a country house in Oklahoma, involving the most dysfunctional family this side of the Lesters of "Tobacco Road" or the Mannons of "Mourning Becomes Electra." Emotions are raw and intense in "August" as the Weston family deals with suicide, cancer, pedophilia, infidelity, incest, divorce, Alzheimer's, alcoholism, drug dependency and raw rage in ways that sting the senses while also at times seem as hilarious as a Marx Brothers romp. Unfortunately, there aren't enough Tony slots to adequately reward everyone in "August" who deserves a pat on the back and a prize, but surely among the front-runners will be the play's chief protagonists: a frenzied mother (Deanna Dunagan), her harridan sister (Mattie Fae Aiken) and a maniacal daughter (Amy Morton). Many in the cast are Steppenwolf vets; one who isn't is Brian Kerwin, who's excellent as a good ol' boy on the surface who has more than a little menace running through his veins. … Speaking of the Carlyle, it's where Oscar's East Coast Academy party will be held this year for the first time. Academy members who attend will start with a cocktail party in the recently relaunched Cafe Carlyle, after which the guests will move to the hotel's Trianon Suite for a multicourse dinner and viewing of the Oscar telecast. The evening's menu will be created by the hotel's executive chef, James Sakatos.