Arty-farty

Broadway - New Yorkers are using outrageous comedy to demonstrate their political colours

Without doubt, Ruprecht has crawled out of the murkier end of the gene pool. One of the least attractive characters in the hit New York musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he is a gurning fool who indulges in such unhealthy practices as having sex with samovars and bottling his own farts. The problem, his sophisticated aristocratic brother explains, is that such embarrassing specimens of humanity are all too common among the ruling classes. In a suave Coward-style song, he cites Rich-ard III's hump, Caligula's temper and a certain president's puny IQ.

It is far from original, but the roars of laughter from the audience show that while America re-elected George W Bush only six months ago, his popularity in New York is as low as the Chrysler Building is high. Hard-hitting political theatre may not be the order of the day on Broadway, yet signs of anti-Bush sentiment are everywhere in the cavalcade of light-hearted musicals. Even in Avenue Q - a comic, Sesame Street-inspired show in which puppets have rampant sex - there is room for caustic political gibes. A forlorn puppet who suspects he is gay is comforted by a psychotherapist that there are many great gay artists. When the puppet replies that he is an investment banker and a Republican, the advice is to "stay in the closet then - [you're] good for nothing".

It is striking, therefore, that theatrical debates about the war in Iraq are confined to the produc-tion of Julius Caesar starring Denzel Washington. In most of the new works, the appetite for escapism is rampant. Following the huge success of The Producers, it seems that the hunt is on for the next sublimely silly musical. While much attention has been focused on the Monty Pythonesque Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - based on the 1988 film about two conmen, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin - is providing significant box-office competition.

It lacks the headline-grabbing politi- cal incorrectness of The Producers, but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is fiercely clever and inventive, blending the urbane and the scurrilous to create an intoxicating theatrical cocktail. John Lithgow stars as Lawrence, a debonair fraudster who has conned enough wealthy women to buy himself a grand pile on the Riviera. His existence comes under threat, however, with the arrival of Freddy, a conman with the conscience of a ferret and the social aptitude of a chimpanzee. Played by Norbert Leo Butz - an actor who could rival Lee Evans for sheer comedic chutzpah - Freddy fakes being disabled in order to win a competition in which both men vie for the heart of a simpering heiress.

Jeffrey Lane's book and David (Full Monty) Yazbek's music and lyrics con-jure up a theatrical world that thrives on the contradictions between the fraud-sters' superficial glitter and their moral grime. The musical references range from the elegant melodies of Noel Coward to the headbanging oomph of Seventies rock'n'roll. Luckily, the supposedly all-powerful Christian right does not seem to have been alerted either to the production's saucy depiction of a bare-bottomed saint or to jokes that, for instance, link taxidermy with K-Y Jelly. The standing ovation is routine on Broadway, but on this occasion it seemed fitting.

While it can only be hoped that Dirty Rotten Scound-rels will transfer to London, it was reported last month that Cameron Mackintosh would like to introduce West End audiences to puppet sex by importing Avenue Q. Transferring from off-Broadway to Broadway, this show was a surprise hit in New York last year with songs such as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is for Porn". Like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it derives much of its humour from a clash of tones - juxtaposing the apple-pie innocence of Sesame Street with jokes about gonorrhea, repressed homosexuality and potentially fatal accidents. So it is something of a surprise that, in the flesh - if one can say that about a puppet show - this production proves sunnily entertaining. It will need more darkness and bite if it is to survive British audiences.

Ardent theatre hounds visiting New York will no doubt be eager to compare Broadway's Julius Caesar, starring Denzel Washington, with Deborah Warner's version at the Barbican in London. The New York critics have not been kind to Daniel Sullivan's production, but that has not stopped it being extremely successful at the box office. True, it lacks the conceptual weight of Warner's production - and Washington himself, as Brutus, fails to ensnare the philosophical depth of the character described by many as the precursor to Hamlet. However, there are enough good performances from the supporting cast to allow the production to spark into life. Certainly, the audience - which I suspect contained more fans of Washington than of Shakespeare - was actively engaged from start to finish.

Against the looming neoclassical set, the highlights are Jack Willis's caustically camp Casca, complete with designer dagger concealed within his walking stick, and Colm Feore's leanly lethal Cassius. Unfortunately, Eamonn Walker's Mark Antony fails to evoke any emotional range, and William Sadler's Caesar provokes most reaction when he drops his towel during a massage scene. As for Washington, all he has to do is walk on to the stage to inspire whoops from the audience. Luckily for the producers, this may be just enough.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is at the Imperial Theatre; Avenue Q is at the Golden Theatre (both open run); Julius Caesar is at the Belasco Theatre until 12 June. For tickets, phone 00 1 212 239 6200