Sunday, April 30, 2006

April remainders

April is traditionally a movie dumping ground, a clearing-of-the-decks before Hollywood's big guns (and more audience-friendly indies) move in for summer. And so it is this summer, with a rare and welcome twist: Some of the films are quite good, and at least two are contenders for year-end honors, so don't count these remainders out.

The dynamic duo, Cristi Piui's THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU and the overdue U.S. premiere of Jean-Pierre Melville's ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969, Rialto Pictures) have opened at New York's Film Forum. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say upfront that I took second prize at the trivia contest held at last Sunday's memmbers brunch (a Criterion DVD box set of Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doniel pictures was my catch), but even without this little boost it goes without saying that Film Forum is unbeatable for providing outstanding cinema in difficult times for foreign film distribution, whether the title is new or, in the case of the Melville, as old as my younger sister. After the usual not-bad but somehow ceasless winter, the local climate has improved significantly, but if you find yourself with several hours to spend--maybe after an enriching visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where the cherry blossoms, lilacs, and tulips and are in full and glorious bloom--a double feature is well-advised.

ARMY OF SHADOWS filled in a significant gap in my education on this fascinating filmmaker, not that there aren't any number of holes left to fill--almost all his early work is unavailable in this country, and Rialto, which last retrieved his LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970) from cinema's lost and found, is to be commended for this latest rescue. I reviewed the Criterion DVD of his famed LE SAMOURAI for the summer issue of Cineaste and referenced CERCLE and his last, rather woebegone effort, 1972's UN FLIC, but ARMY was very much a missing link--not one I was all that thrilled about rediscovering. Perhaps it had some sort of influence (bad) on the more casual plotting and careless craftsmanship of those two latter movies, which broaden the ice-cool aesthetic of LE SAMOURAI into almost comic-bookish extremes?

But, no; just the opposite--if SAMOURAI is cool, than ARMY, based on a novel of the early, loosely organized days of the French Resistance by Joseph Kessel (BELLE DU JOUR) and threaded with Melville's own reminscences of that dangerous period, is cold. And bleak. Stark in color and morality. It's 145 minutes at subzero temperature, with plenty of "action" material--hairbreadth escapes, clandestine plane and submarine meetings, etc.--but little catharsis. Its protagonists, negotiating a perilous situation, do so with ruthlesss dispatch, and with great consequence for their own number. I was entirely absorbed in their arabesques and charades, which reveal themselves with great skill and, at the very close, shock. The bulldog-built Lino Ventura and the great Simone Signoret, as a woman of many faces (and one soft spot) star; the Film Forum website won't let me upload a photo, but all I can say is, actors--they had faces then.

Released by Tartan Films, and pictured at right, the witty, patiently detailed, scrupulously observant and extraordinarily dense THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU tops out a little longer in length, at 154 minutes, but again there is no waste. [It is, however, made in a woozier, handheld style, fitting for its subject but perhaps a bit wearing on the eye.] An extreme black comedy, the film charts the slow decline of the title character, a 62-year-old alcoholic, hastened as much by institutional neglect as whatever is ailing him. Lazarescu, whose last earthly companions are his cats, finds a single ally in his quest for adequate health care in a determined female paramedic, who accompanies him from hospital to hospital. It's a devastating indictment of a system that is itself in a state of chronic disrepair, in Romania and maybe right down the road from your living room. Ion Fiscuteanu and an actress with the lovely (and appropriate) name of Luminita Gheorghui star, as the crusty Lazarescu and his helper.

Beyond Film Forum (and its heavenly popcorn, which I often buy on the way out of the theater) there are two new worthwhile documentaries. Jane Fonda finds better use for her time than last year's MONSTER IN LAW by recounting some of her Vietnam War stories in David Zeiger's documentary SIR! NO SIR! (Displaced Films/Balcony Releasing), which opened at New York City's IFC Center on April 19. Looking ravishing, and unbowed since taking more heat for her wartime activities upon the recent publication of her autobiography, Fonda discusses her and KLUTE co-star Donald Sutherland's 1970 "tour of duty" with the FTA Show, the anti-Bob Hope revue that toured near military bases during the conflict, presenting alternative skits and music to make Uncle Sam blush (FTA stood for "F*** the Army"). "Here was a way that I could combine my profession, my acting, with my desire to end the war," says Fonda (pictured, with Michael Alaimo). "It just seemed like a perfect fit."

Fonda fits right into SIR! NO SIR! but never dominates the material, which centers on the front lines of veterans who turned against the war in the 1960s. It was not isolated resistance: Between 1966-1971, almost 504,000 "incidents of desertion" had been tabulated, numerous officers had been "fragged," and a number of units simply refused to fight in an unpopular engagement completely sullied by the infamous My Lai massacre of 1968. Soldiers published 200 underground newspapers in protest, demonstrated against the war at every major base, including encampments in Vietnam itself, and went to jail for their opposition. But, as war drags on in Iraq, much of this has faded ftom view.

SIR! NO SIR! returns to the public record some of the men who fought this battle, whose number includes Zeiger himself, an antiwar activist who was dismayed to see history rewritten "under the myth of loyal veterans returning home to an antiwar movement that spat on them and called them baby killers. The irony of that charge never fails to strike me, since whenever atrocities are exposed that are a direct outgrowth of U.S> government policy--from My Lai to Abu Ghraib--it is the government, not those opposed to these wars, that lays the blame on the soldiers who carried out their orders." Zieger's short, to-the-point film gives the soldiers an opportunity to reclaim the public record.

A more "artful" piece, Rebecca Dreyfus' STOLEN (Precision Films) recounts an infamous case of art thievery, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Thirteen priceless works, including Vermeer's "The Concert," were boosted. They are still missing, despite the indefatigable sleuthing of one Harold Smith--who, encumbered though he is by advanced age and the ravages of skin cancer, pursues every loopy lead, to the occasional exasperation of his gumshoe son, who wishes dad wouldn't phone him at 3am with another "aha!" moment. Smith's appointments with the Irish underworld and other shadowy figures are intercut with colorful art history lectures that touch on the way art touches us and readings from the journals kept by Gardner (voiced by Blythe Danner) and her advisor, Bernard Berenson (Campbell Scott); the lady was not above a little larceny herself in building her formidable collection. Gardner's museum is the only one in the world completely planned and executed by a woman, and I would like to see it someday, perhaps with the missing spaces filled in once more with the recovered art.

LADY VENGEANCE (Tartan Films, pictured at top) is the other film I wrote about for the summer Cineaste. The final and I think the best of Korean director Park Chanwook's "revenge trilogy," it taps into the same vein of black comedy that its predecessors SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (weakened by a shaggy dog ending) and OLDBOY (which I absolutely despised) do, but beyond the surface flash comes up with a richer character study. More to come in the pages of the magazine.

Nicole Holofcener's FRIENDS WITH MONEY (Sony Pictures Classics) has been kicking around since early this month. I don't have much to say: as much as I liked her earlier films WALKING AND TALKING and LOVELY & AMAZING this one pretty much stays on the level of a decent off-Broadway show, a sketch rather than a portrait of passive-aggressive LA types with more money than sense. But there was one standout moment, when Jason Isaacs, playing the rather too-blunt husband of Catherine Keener (in full, tiresome brittle mode; I prefer the shadings she brings to something like THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN or CAPOTE) admonishes her for between-meals snacking; "it shows on your ass," he says. At which point the mostly female audience I saw the film with exploded with rage. It was immediately clear that Isaacs was toast, which was too bad, as the other men in the film are rather on the hobbit side of appeal--but no man can get away with a fat ass comment and expect to live.


Best wishes to NY Press/NJ Star Ledger critic Matt Zoller Seitz, author of the superior "House Next Door" blog. [As it happens, he is, in fact, the "house next door" to me, just three or four blocks over from where we live.] Deepest sympathies to his family in this extraordinarily difficult time.

RIP Jennifer Dawson, 1970-2006

Friday, April 28, 2006

Grains of Rice

Most of Anne Rice's bio, in the Playbill and on the website for the new Broadway musical, LESTAT:

"The bio of an artist such as Anne Rice (b. 1941) can only be truly understood in the context of the author's personal testimony--her vast body of work. Each beloved character iridescently animated and virtually manifested before our eyes witnesses their creator's experience in triumph and in sorrow and in searching for some semblance of Happy Peace. From the pangs of Louis' utter solitude to Claudia's untimely demise to Lestat's wickedly bedazzling smile, the author's life permeates each page with such ardor one could only blush at being so exposed. But Anne Rice gives herself--her life in full--as a gift to the world in every spellbinding chapter, every carefully turned page, every meaningful word. Mere footprints of a life lived in art. Rice’s latest novel, "Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt," is the beginning of her literary contribution to Christian Art."

Christianity may never be the same.

The website bio continues with this tacked-on bit: "Anne is grateful that these Broadway Giants have adapted her creative endeavor in such a mesmerizing and captivating musical. This adaptation stands alone as a genuine masterpiece!"

A far cry from her early, much-publicized disdain for the 1994 film INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE--"a genuine masterpiece" compared to what's onstage at the Palace. Has she really seen it? Did she really lower her sainted pen to write such a cheap endorsement?

Or, at the end of another day of hot and heavy self-exposure by way of vampires, mummies, and Christ the Lord, was she just grateful that the damn check arrived?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

And the nominees are...

Leapin' lizards! Drama Desk nominations were announced this morning, and the humans and non-humans of set nominee SEASCAPE (pictured) are happy. Less pleased, no doubt, are the starry casts of the weak, Joe Mantello-directed revivals of THE ODD COUPLE and THREE DAYS OF RAIN--better luck next time, Julia--not to mention everyone who went down the RABBIT HOLE, the cast and crew of the dreadful but popular THE COLOR PURPLE, and two particular favorites of mine, RED LIGHT WINTER and [title of show], all of which were shut out. But that disappointment is mitigated by multiple noms for a few other faves, like ABIGAIL'S PARTY and SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE.

A few other thoughts from this voting member of the organization: Jason Lyons deserved a lighting nod for his spectacular illumination of the otherwise negligible THREEPENNY OPERA; I guess I have to make space in my schedule to check out THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL (perhaps in keeping with the 50's era that the show is set in, the publicist has neither a website or e-mail to facilitate attendance); and will Alec Baldwin, whose tantrums caused ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN co-star and nominee Jan Maxwell to bolt the show early in a messy scandal that just surfaced in the papers, cause further trouble for the actress?

I'm not seeing THE DROWSY CHAPERONE till May 10, but I find its 14 nominations intriguing, given that I've heard it described as a "nice, pleasant, short" show--not exactly toes-tingling raves. It's a meta-musical, a musical about musicals, so maybe that went over big. There's a bit of debate over this, and a whole lot more over THE COLOR PURPLE snub, at the All That Chat site, the ever-argumentative section of Talkin' Broadway.

The Drama Desk's fearless (courageous? hapless?) nominators, who fan out to see everything on, off, and off-off Broadway, have as usual come up with a few shows I just can't put my finger on: GOLDEN DRAGON ACROBATS? CANDY & DOROTHY? Lest you think I've failed my brethren, however, note that smaller companies really don't want an influx of voters hogging their seats with freebie tickets, and that it's up to the tender mercies of publicists to favor us with comps. [Which is why, no doubt, the actual winners seem to favor Broadway shows, which are more widely seen by the membership in total--not that there aren't stunning upsets in this most surprising, and egalitarian, of competitions.]

In any event, on with the show:

Nominations for the 51st Annual Drama Desk Awards were announced today at The New York Friars Club by theater notables Marvin Hamlisch and Donna McKechnie, who revealed the nominees for the 2005/2006 theater season in front of a crowd of theater professionals at the press conference this morning. They were joined for the announcement by Drama Desk President William Wolf; Robert R. Blume, Executive Producer of the Drama Desk Awards and Randie Levine-Miller, Director of Special Events for the Drama Desk and a member of the New York Friars Club Board of Governors.

The 2005/2006 Drama Desk Nominating Committee deliberated monthly throughout the year, culminating in a marathon weekend session at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, which ended Monday afternoon, April 24. The nominating committee included: Chairperson Barbara Siegel, and; Drama Desk President William Wolf,; Michael Buckley, Playbill On-Line; Christopher Byrne, Gay City News; Matthew Murray, and Stage Directions magazine; Andrew Propst, American Theater Web and XM Satellite Radio; and Richard Ridge, Broadway Beat TV.

The annual awards honor excellence in theater for Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway during the season. Leading the slate of distinguished nominees is The Drowsy Chaperone, which received 14 nominations. Grey Gardens followed with 12 nominations, and two shows received 9 nominations each--See What I Wanna See and Sweeney Todd. The Wedding Singer andJersey Boys each received 8 nominations.(Complete lists follow.)

During the nomination announcement ceremony, the Drama Desk revealed that the casts of two shows would receive special ensemble awards for acting--Stuff Happens and Awake and Sing! Because of the ensemble awards, individual cast members for these shows were not eligible for acting awards in the competitive categories.

The Drama Desk maintained its tradition of acknowledging excellence in the theater and announced that it will also present special awards to: The BMI—Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, The York Theatre Company, and to Sh-K-Boom and its label Ghostlight Records. The York Theatre Company produced this year's Thrill Me, nominated for Outstanding Music. Sh-K-Boom produced recordings of this year's nominated shows, The Drowsy Chaperone, Songs from an Unmade Bed, and George M. Cohan Tonight!

Finally, the Drama Desk announced a special, lifetime achievement award to playwright Horton Foote. Foote’s two plays produced in this season--The Trip to Bountiful and The Traveling Lady--both received nominations for Outstanding Revival of a Play.


The 51st Annual Drama Desk Awards will be presented on Sunday, May 21, 2006 at 9pm, at the LaGuardia Concert Hall at Lincoln Center, 100 Amsterdam Avenue.

For the third consecutive year, Harvey Fierstein will host the ceremony, and for the fourth year in a row, the awards ceremony will be webcast by

The Drama Desk Awards will be taped for television and subsequently broadcast nationwide as a two-hour special on PBS stations. In New York, the program will be shown on Thirteen/WNET on Monday, May 29 at 3pm and on NYC-25 TV on Tuesday May 30 and Thursday, June 1 at 10pm.

A limited number of tickets for the Drama Desk Awards are available to the public by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting the website at


The following awards were voted by the nominating committee and will be presented by the Drama Desk at its awards ceremony:

Outstanding Ensemble Performances:

The cast of Stuff Happens

*The cast of Awake and Sing! (pictured)

Special Awards :

Each year, the Drama Desk votes special awards to recognize excellence and significant contributions to the theater. For 2005/2006, these awards are presented:

To the BMI—Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop for nurturing, developing and promoting new talent for the musical theater;

To The York Theatre Company for its vital contributions to theater by developing and presenting new musicals;

To Sh-K-Boom and its label Ghostlight Records for dedication to the preservation of musical theater through cast recordings.

The Drama Desk will also present the following special award:

A lifetime achievement award to Horton Foote for his bountiful body of work that sensitively explores the human condition.

Following are the nominations for the competitive categories. Winners will be selected by the voting membership of the Drama Desk:

Outstanding Play:

Alan Bennett, The History Boys
David Hare, Stuff Happens
Warren Leight, No Foreigners Beyond this Point
Martin McDonagh, The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Terrence McNally, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams
Craig Wright, The Pavilion

Outstanding Musical:

The Drowsy Chaperone
Grey Gardens
Jersey Boys
See What I Wanna See
Thrill Me
The Wedding Singer

Outstanding Revival of a Play :

Awake and Sing!
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Soldier's Wife
The Traveling Lady
The Trip to Bountiful

Outstanding Revival of a Musical :

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
The Pajama Game
Sweeney Todd

Outstanding Actor in a Play :

Vince Gatton, Candy & Dorothy
John Glover, The Paris Letter
Richard Griffiths, The History Boys
Zeljko Ivanek, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
Nathan Lane, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams
Brían F. O'Byrne, Shining City

Outstanding Actress in a Play:

Margaret Colin, Defiance
Cherry Jones, Faith Healer
*Jennifer Jason Leigh, Abigail's Party (pictured, middle, with fellow nominee Lisa Emery, left, and Elizabeth Jasicki)
Jan Maxwell, Entertaining Mr. Sloane
Lois Smith, The Trip to Bountiful
Julie White, The Little Dog Laughed

Outstanding Actor in a Musical:

Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd
Harry Connick, Jr., The Pajama Game
Marc Kudisch, See What I Wanna See
Stephen Lynch, The Wedding Singer
Bob Martin, The Drowsy Chaperone
John Lloyd Young, Jersey Boys

Outstanding Actress in a Musical:

Nancy Anderson, Fanny Hill
Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens
Sutton Foster, The Drowsy Chaperone
Patti LuPone, Sweeney Todd
Idina Menzel, See What I Wanna See
Kelli O’Hara, The Pajama Game

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play:

Devon Abner, The Trip to Bountiful
Samuel Barnett, The History Boys
Dominic Cooper, The History Boys
Jason Butler Harner, The Paris Letter
Stephen Campbell Moore, The History Boys
David Pittu, Celebration/The Room

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play:

Frances de la Tour, The History Boys
Lisa Emery, Abigail's Party
Judith Hawking, Soldier's Wife
Michele Pawk, The Paris Letter
*Lynn Redgrave, The Constant Wife (pictured, right, with Kate Burton and John Dossett)
Marian Seldes, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical:

Jim Dale, The Threepenny Opera
Alexander Gemignani, Sweeney Todd
Christian Hoff, Jersey Boys
Eddie Korbich, The Drowsy Chaperone
John McMartin, Grey Gardens
Daniel Reichard, Jersey Boys

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical:

Carolee Carmello, Lestat
Leslie Kritzer, The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Beth Leavel, The Drowsy Chaperone
Mary Louise Wilson, Grey Gardens
Amy Spanger, The Wedding Singer
Mary Testa, See What I Wanna See

Outstanding Director of a Play:

Alan Ayckbourn, Private Fears in Public Places
Gisela Cardenas, Agamemnon
Nicholas Hytner, The History Boys
Daniel Sullivan, Stuff Happens
Robert Wilson, Peer Gynt
Jerry Zaks, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Outstanding Director of a Musical:

John Doyle, Sweeney Todd
Michael Greif, Grey Gardens
Kathleen Marshall, The Pajama Game
Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys
Casey Nicholaw, The Drowsy Chaperone
Daniele Finzi Pasca, Rain

Outstanding Choreography:

Rob Ashford, The Wedding Singer
Angela Chang, Golden Dragon Acrobats
Graciela Daniele, Bernarda Alba
Kathleen Marshall, The Pajama Game
Casey Nicholaw, The Drowsy Chaperone
Sergio Trujillo, Jersey Boys

Outstanding Music:

Stephen Dolginoff, Thrill Me
Scott Frankel, Grey Gardens
*Michael John LaChiusa, See What I Wanna See (pictured)
Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, The Drowsy Chaperone
Peter Mills, The Pursuit of Persephone
Matthew Sklar, The Wedding Singer

Outstanding Lyrics:

Chad Beguelin, The Wedding Singer
Mark Campbell, Songs from an Unmade Bed
Ryan Cunningham, I Love You Because
Michael Korie, Grey Gardens
Michael John LaChiusa, See What I Wanna See
Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, The Drowsy Chaperone

Outstanding Book of a Musical:

Rick Elice & Marshall Brickman, Jersey Boys
Bob Martin & Don McKellar, The Drowsy Chaperone
Doug Wright, Grey Gardens

Outstanding Orchestrations:

Larry Blank, The Drowsy Chaperone
Bruce Coughlin, Grey Gardens
Bruce Coughlin, See What I Wanna See
Peter Mills, The Pursuit of Persephone
Sarah Travis, Sweeney Todd
Danny Troob & Dick Lieb, The Pajama Game

Outstanding Set Design of a Play :

Roger Hanna, Walking Down Broadway
Eugene Lee, The Ruby Sunrise
Derek McLane, Abigail's Party
Robert Wilson, Peer Gynt
Michael Yeargan, Awake and Sing!
Michael Yeargan, Seascape

Outstanding Set Design of a Musical:

Michael Bottari & Roland Case, Fanny Hill
John Doyle, Sweeney Todd
David Gallo, The Drowsy Chaperone
Thomas Lynch, See What I Wanna See
Allen Moyer, Grey Gardens
Scott Pask, The Wedding Singer

Outstanding Costume Design:

Gregg Barnes, The Drowsy Chaperone
Eric Becker, Abigail's Party
Gale Gregory, The Wedding Singer
William Ivey Long, Grey Gardens
Jacques Reynaud, Peer Gynt
Anita Yavich, The Wooden Breeks

Outstanding Lighting Design:

Christopher Akerlind, Awake and Sing!
Richard G. Jones, Sweeney Todd
Traci Klainer, The Asphalt Kiss
Martin Labrecque, Rain
John McKernon, The Trip to Bountiful
Robert Wilson, Peer Gynt

Outstanding Sound Design:

Acme Sound Partners, The Drowsy Chaperone
Acme Sound Partners, See What I Wanna See
Steve Canyon Kennedy, Jersey Boys
Daniel Moses Schreier, Sweeney Todd
Brian Ronan, Grey Gardens
Brian Ronan, The Pajama Game

Outstanding Solo Performance:

Judy Gold, 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother
Marga Gomez, Los Big Names
Jon Peterson, George M. Cohan Tonight!
Antony Sher, Primo
Janis Stevens, Vivien
Michael Winther, Songs from an Unmade Bed

Unique Theatrical Experience:

Christine Jorgensen Reveals
The Frog Bride
Golden Dragon Acrobats
Peer Gynt
The Stones


The Drowsy Chaperone 14

Grey Gardens 12

See What I Wanna See 9

Sweeney Todd 9

Jersey Boys 8

The Wedding Singer 8

The History Boys 7

The Pajama Game 7

Peer Gynt 5

Abigail's Party 4

The Trip to Bountiful 4

Awake and Sing! 3

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial 3

Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams 3

The Paris Letter 3

Rain 3

The Trip to Bountiful 3

Fanny Hill 2

Golden Dragon Acrobats 2

The Pursuit of Persephone 2

Soldier's Wife 2

Songs from an Unmade Bed 2

Stuff Happens 2

Thrill Me 2


Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows that opened in the Drama Desk 2005/2006 year, and which the nominating committee was able to see by the cutoff deadline of April 23, 2006, were eligible for awards. The Drama Desk nominating committee considered more than 500 shows in determining this year's slate of nominees.

Disney's TARZAN, officially opening May 10, 2006, did not invite Drama Desk nominators to see it at a preview before the April 23 deadline. Therefore, the Drama Desk will consider TARZAN in the 2006/2007 season. WELL and BRIDGE AND TUNNEL were considered in previous seasons, though some design elements of their Broadway transfers were deemed eligible. THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE, which opened first Off Broadway in this season, was considered for its Off Broadway production.

The Drama Desk Board of Directors oversees the nomination process and is composed of: William Wolf, President; Leslie (Hoban) Blake, Vice President; Charles Wright, Treasurer and Second Vice President; Joyce Hauser, Secretary; and Members-at-Large: Michael Bracken, David Kaufman, Ellis Nassour, Sam Norkin, Barbara Siegel and Elyse Sommer.

Drama Desk nominees will receive their official nomination certificates at a cocktail reception on Tuesday, May 2, 4-7pm, at Arte Cafe, 106 West 73rd Street, between Broadway and Columbus Avenue.

[SEASCAPE and THE CONSTANT WIFE photos courtesy Joan Marcus; AWAKE AND SING!, courtesy Paul Kolnik; SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE, courtesy Michal Daniel]

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Product plug

Editor Mark Young was kind enough to send me a copy of "The World Alamanc Book of Records," which is now available in stores and on I researched and wrote nine of its spread-length entries, on some of my favorite things: Broadway musicals, Hollywood boxoffice, and dinosaurs (I'm an eternal youngster on the latter subject). I suppose I broke new ground in tabulating stats on music videos and reality TV, which I can only assume will get crazier in the coming years. The 504-page hardcover volume is amply illustrated with black-and-white photos and reads like potato chips get eaten once you dig in. Work on a second edition has begun. Move over, Guinness--you've got company.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Off the Aisle: Current theater reviews

Back again, with more critiques. Tonight, incidentally, marks the stage debut of Julia Roberts in THREE DAYS OF RAIN, at the Jacobs. I've seen the show, and I'm not supposed to comment about it till later tonight, but let's just say that America's sweetheart might want to hang onto her day the meantime, two worthier entries to the season.

Well (at the Longacre)

Well has a deceptively simple design to match a deceptively complicated subject. At first glance, the estimable Tony Walton seems to have fallen down on the job, as only stage left has any significant set element. Stage right, which is pretty much barren, acts as a kind of soapbox, for performance artist Lisa Kron to begin her "solo show with other people," a "theatrical exploration" of issues of health and wellness that, she stresses, is not autobiographical. That said, her material draws from own college-age recovery from debilitating allergies--a recovery in stark contrast to her mother, Ann, a one-time community activist who has spent years confined largely to her La-Z-Boy recliner, due to her own mysterious, chronic fatigue-like illness. Ann (played by actress Jayne Houdyshell), her La-Z-Boy, and her sitting room are all recreated on the side of the Longacre stage, as Lisa tries to tell her story--but the polite, yet flinty, Ann, keeps interrupting with her own conflicting accounts. This throws Lisa’s abstract theorizing into hopeless chaos, and complicates the motivation and blocking of the four supporting players, who, cast as doctors, nurses, and childhood playmates, fall into a muddle.

Confused? Rest assured that WELL, a hit at the Public two years ago, sorts itself out to become a genuinely moving story. Lisa's side of the stage, where she natters on pretentiously (and, strenuously, works the backdrops and the furniture that rolls on and off, trying to maintain order), is in time reduced to rubble, exposing the theater's back wall, by all the comical hijacking. This breakdown of the invisible wall that exists between mother and daughter sets the stage for Ann to express her long pent-up feelings about her condition, in a quietly shattering monologue, brilliantly acted by Houdyshell, that clears the air between the two women. The universal themes of the piece are intact, but the artifice that interferes with the specific situation that the play grows from--Ann at one point demands that the spotlight that Lisa inhabits be turned off--is gone. Critics who have complained that the show's "un-Broadway" design is too small have missed the point. Its divide contains universes.

If I were director Leigh Silverman, I might have gone a little farther with the games-playing from which the show takes off and replaced Kron with a genuine actress--severely dressed in basic performance artist black she's a little too arch for the concept, and I found her lacking in empathy. But it is her concept, and she has done exceptionally well by her mother. Walton's living space, which Ann has subdivided for her little collections (like stamps, sorted by denomination, and mementos of her daughter’s previous shows), is neat but somewhat distressed, like Ann herself, who can barely climb the adjoining stairs and pretty much lives in her bedclothes and housedress. The show is having a hard time finding an audience, but, to coin a phrase, a visit is "well" worth it.

GREY GARDENS (off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons; closes April 30)

Mothers-and-daughters week continues with GREY GARDENS, but even if it were still running next month it would not be a suitable choice for Mother's Day entertainment unless your mother has a very, very warped worldview. A reality program long before the cavalcade of losers and hangers-on started on TV, the riveting 1975 documentary on which this new musical is based pulled back the curtain on a forgotten wing of the Kennedy family, mother Edith and daughter Edie Bouvier, who lived eccentric, hand-to-mouth, mad-hatter lives in the dilapidated Hamptons mansion of the title. The promotional materials for the show make extravagant claims for the individuality and influence of the Bouviers--I dare anyone to actually wear the dresses "inspired" by Edie Bouvier’s bizarre thrown-together outfits. The appeal of the movie, which fascinated me when I first saw it a decade ago, is watching these two borderline-insane ladies going about their business as cheerfully as possible, trying as best they can to block out the private hell they live in day to day.

Documentary isn't drama, so the musical, which begins with a 1973 prologue, opens up into Grey Gardens' gilded past in the 1940s, when Edie, trying to live down what was in those days a free-living lifestyle, was expecting a proposal from Joseph Kennedy, Jr., and Edith was trying to keep her passive-aggressive tendency to meddle in check for the engagement to happen. The show is cleverly cast, with many of the actors playing dual roles: Christine Ebersole, terrific as Edith in Act I, is positively astonishing as Edie in Act II, when the delightful Mary Louise Wilson assumes the part of Edith. [And here you were still trying to sort out Lisa and Ann Kron from the previous entry.] Act I is like a cracked version of HIGH SOCIETY, with a little SOUVENIR thrown in regarding the warm, wise-cracking relationship between Edith, who gives wretched recitals at inopportune moments, and her gay accompanies. The design team is on their best behavior--Allen Moyer's set is sumptuous, William Ivey Long's costume design and Paul Huntley's wig and hair design, divine. The direction, by Michael Greif, is assured, the book (from I AM MY OWN WIFE author Doug Wright) acceptable in trying to suss out some rationale for the subsequent storyline, and the music, by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, fine. But what everyone has come to see (or, rather, to gawk at) is in Act II, where the show really delivers--though anyone who hasn't seen the film is bound to be mystified, and maybe feel a little short-changed, as the Bouviers descend into their absurdism.

After a long intermission to demolish the set, the second act begins with Edie, in song, modeling her "Revolutionary Costume for Today," a drop-dead hilarious number, then moves on to other highlights, notably "Jerry Likes My Corn," where the two fall out over the mansion’s monosyllabic handyman, played by Matt Cavenaugh, the dapper Kennedy in Act I. Edie pulls herself together long enough to deliver the show’s most wrenching song, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," a sure standard--and good enough to make you forget the uninspired, FOLLIES-like staging of much of the act, given over to ghostly visitations from the past. Still, qualms aside, if there really had to be a GREY GARDENS musical, I'm not unhappy that this is it, and any opportunity to see Ebersole and Wilson is action is to be savored. So, too, the designers, who relish the chance to undo everything in Act I--I hadn't mentioned how Peter Kaczorowski's handsome lighting plummets into the near-permanent twilight caused by infrequent payment of the electric bills, or the creepy, Bernard Herrmann-esque underscore provided by sound designer Brian Ronan. A word, too, about Wendall K. Harrington's funny-ghastly projections, of the cats and raccoons who prowl what's left of Grey Gardens. It's haunted-house chic to accompany the forlorn fantasists lurking within its doors.

[Photos courtesy Joan Marcus]

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

First thoughts: This week's releases


Gretchen Mol puts the va-va voom back into her stalled career with THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (an HBO Films/Picturehouse release), a likeable biopic about the one-time pin-up sensation, who treated her bondage photos as a laugh and a giggle as the government and society-at-large fretted and fulminated. Mol, a Next Big Thing who never happened in the late 90's, clearly relishes her second shot at the limelight, and is a dead ringer for Page, a vivacious brunette who came to her curious underground celebrity at a time when Marilyn Monroe was the cultural ideal.

But Page (still with us, a Christian who has moved on from her past and is said to abhor this film) is an enigma, and Mol captures some of her peekaboo, what-do-you-think-I'm-hiding quality, which as much as her beauty and willingness to be photographed in questionable poses surely helped make her pictures hot items. No stranger to sexual abuse, Page nevertheless maintains a basic innocence (as a mask, or as something ingrained in her character, the movie does not say) and for me Mol's performance recalled Daryl Hannah's mermaid in SPLASH, another guileless creature, with a whip and fish-net stockings rather than a tail and scales.

Artfully photographed, by Mott Hupfel, in noir-ish black and white, with vignettes that replicate a creamy, bygone Technicolor, BETTIE PAGE is framed around the subject's impending testimony before the government's Kefauver Commission, which was intended to sniff out the nation's burgeoning porn market. [David Straithairn, last seen on the side of the angels in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK., puts on the black hat of the puritans this time as the disapproving Estes Kefauver, senator of Page's home state, Tennessee.] In an irony, Page's career as a model, once she leaves the disappointments of her early, confined life in Nashville behind for New York, is shaped by a police officer, Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll), a part-time photographer who spots her on Coney Island, and shows her how to pose and arrange her hairstyle. [Tibbs is also black, an interesting detail that the script, by Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron, lets hang in the air.] She makes the rounds at private photography clubs, where the male shutterbugs are instantly ejected if they dare to touch the models--the movie is at its best in capturing this unfamiliar, dawn-of- Playboy subculture, with its own codes and dictates.

In time, she catches the eye of photographers Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his half-sister, Paula (Lili Taylor), who put her in boots and bondage gear and elevate her to clandestine super-stardom, which reverberates today (Jennifer Connelly played the Page-inspired heroine of 1991's THE ROCKETEER, based on a popular graphic novel). But Page herself left modeling, which included higher-profile work with photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), in 1957, and renewed her Christian faith. Living in virtual obscurity, she has never shared in the bounty accrued from the avid resale, appropriation, and collection of her photographic past.

Harron's film concentrates on Page's quirky glory years and provides no answers as to her mysterious after-life away from the cameras. From Page's constant bemusement at the latest outrage the Klaws ask of her it was, I assume, fun while it lasted (not that it didn't upset her off-camera relationships), and I was surprised that Harron, who made the unappealingly killjoy I SHOT ANDY WARHOL and AMERICAN PSYCHO, found some fun in it. It's not a deep film (and, at 91 minutes, not a drawn-out one, either) but I think having her, Turner, and several female producers behind the camera made a distinct difference.

There's nothing lascivious about its treatment of Page, nor any jeering condescending toward her admirers--I'm not sure how many male filmmakers could have been trusted to extend equal empathy to subject and onlooker in quite the same, matter-of-fact way. [They're surprisingly neutral, too, about Page's conversion--the square, unhip government comes in for the greatest mockery.] Its most uncomfortable scene, beautifully acted by Mol, is its highlight, as Page accedes to a photographer's nervous request to pose completely nude--she can't quite believe she's doing it, and, feeling protective, we can't quite believe she's doing it, either. THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE puts us in the odd position of not wanting to get something more than we bargained for, the titillatingly dressed Bettie in her guises. But the clothes come off. And everyone--Page, photographer, the filmmakers, and the audience--handles the naked truth with unexpected, and perhaps uncommon, maturity.

[Photo credits: Abbott Genser, 2005 Picturehouse]


Whatever problems I had with SISTERS IN LAW (a Women Make Movies release), a sharply observed documentary now playing at Manhattan's Film Forum, largely evaporated in the wake of one of its closing sequences. The film follows the trials (literally) and tribulations of state prosecutor Vera Ngassa (left, photo) and court president Beatrice Ntuba (right), who chafe at the centuries-old patriarchal attitudes that hold sway in the Muslim village of Kumba in Cameroon, West Africa. We see them dispense justice in three cases, one involving an abused six-year-old girl, at first nearly comatose from pain and shame; a woman who accuses a man of rape, leading to breathtakingly chauvinistic grandstanding by the defendant's dapper lawyer, who could have stepped out of an episode of BOSTON LEGAL; and another plaintiff trying to divorce her casually cruel, much-older husband, to the amazement of her friends.

The filmmaker, British documentarian Kim Longinotto (who specializes in this sort of women-under-duress examination; her prior work includes DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE), adopts Frederick Wiseman's aesthetic--outside of a title card or two, there is no narration, and we're simply thrust into the situation, in essence discovering it much like the two women. This presents a problem. While I have no idea where Wiseman is taking me in an exploration like PUBLIC HOUSING or his DOMESTIC VIOLENCE pictures (which the more optimistic SISTERS IN LAW is in some ways kin to), I have some nodding, second-hand familiarity with the institutions and culture, and that's often (not always) map enough. I have less of a guidebook for SISTERS IN LAW, however; its portrait of Muslim life and culture is respectful and non-judgmental, but without some prior background I felt at a remove from it, however ingratiating, world-wise, and funny Ngassa and Ntuba are in their element. [Unaccustomed to women as determined and self-reliant as these two, the males in their orbit are often shown lapsed into stunned silence when with a sharp word or phrase they slap back the upper hand the men have, or think they have.]

And then there is that great scene. Justice done, the child abuser is sent off to jail. Incarcerated, she lacks medicine, which Ngassa brings her. "You hate me," she sobs, a pitiable figure. "No," says Ngassa, who promises to continue her helping hand. With this one small gesture, captured by Longinotto's camera, I felt that here was a chance for a cycle of abuse and neglect to be broken, and was grateful for the film for bringing this modest, invaluable crusade to light. The world is a better place for their efforts.

[Photo credit: Women Make Movies]

Monday, April 10, 2006

Season highlights: Off Broadway 05-06

I title this piece a little conveniently. The Broadway season is clearly demarcated by the first show to open after the prior season's Tony nominations are announced, and the last show is the final one to open before the last day of the current season's Tony eligibility season--in this case, Disney's TARZAN, which premieres right under the wire on May 10, the very last day for Tony award eligibility. [The first show of 05-06 was the dimly recalled AFTER THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, a typical nothing of a summer production.] Er, right--got that?

Off Broadway, however, it's a perpetual season, punctuated by the Drama Desk, Obie, Lucille Lortel, and maybe a few other awards shows. Stick around long enough (the hard part in a depressed market for so-called "downtown" theater) and maybe you'll be nominated for one. In any event, here are revamped versions of my Live Design reviews of a few shows that are still currently running.

[Oh, yes, a postscript to my Drama Desk luncheon post of some time ago. It turned out to be a very pleasant afternoon, with nice chat and shop talk from the announced stars and some dry-witted, hilarious kibbitzing from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS star Jonathan Pryce, who showed up, too. He repeatedly broke up the crowd with stories about learning "interpretive" dance for MISS SAIGON and a fan's circumspect reaction to his Fagin in OLIVER!: "Good...almost, not quite there, as good as Ron Moody." It was also my first meal at Sardi's, which had gone downhill over time but seems to be on an upswing, and has those unbeatable caricatures of theater folk on its storied walls.]


Drunken excess, British-style, is the subject of ABIGAIL'S PARTY, a 1977 play by Mike Leigh that is making its very belated New York debut at the Acorn Theater, after a number of successful productions elsewhere. It's easy to see what keeps audiences coming back for more--it's wickedly, deliciously funny, in some respects a foreign-born cousin to HURLYBURLY, which The New Group and director Scott Elliott put on last season. The new production hits another bulls-eye, right in the solar plexus of propriety, with a climax guaranteed to leave you reeling. The unseen Abigail, a teenager, is having a party, and the grownups are stuck at a soiree thrown by gin-swilling Bev (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose way with a bottle is matched only by her addiction to the era's garish pop culture artifacts--Derek McLane's set, brimming with lava lamps, is like someone's nightmare of consumer trends 30 years ago. Bev's husband, Laurence (Max Baker, in a marvelous spleen-venting performance), throws fits of disapproval at her uncouth behavior, which peaks with the attempted seduction of a monosyllabic neighbor, Tony (Darren Goldstein), right under the nose of his giggly, air-headed wife, Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki). Helplessly looking on, trying to keep the proverbial stiff upper lip, is Abigail's sad-faced mother, Susan (a classic deadpan performance by Lisa Emery), who maintains as much control as possible as Bev’s incessant vulgarity cascades her way.

I can see why Leigh, whose recent films (like VERA DRAKE) are more somberly humanistic, left the likes of Bev behind in his studies of middle-class attitudes and behavior, but it was a thrill to get acquainted with her. Leigh's funnier movies, and later plays that I've seen, aren't anything like this, and Elliott, the cast, and the designers really let it all hang out. Eric Becker's feather-dripping costume for Bev, contrasted particularly with Susan's more sensibly conservative style, is as tacky as can be without going over the top. The lighting design, by Jason Lyons, has a morning-after quality soiled further by constant cigarette smoke, while sound designer Ken Travis (repeating a touch from HURLYBURLY) cranks up the volume on the punk rock emanating from Abigail's party; Jose Feliciano is more Bev's speed. I don't know who gets credit for Bev's pineapple-and-cheese treats, skewered on toothpicks, but they looked perfectly awful. "Perfectly awful"--that about sums up ABIGAIL'S PARTY, except that the production of this corrosively comic play is just plain perfect.


If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But what happens when you do succeed--should you just keep working the same vein, or tackle new horizons? Following the triumph of DOUBT, playwright John Patrick Shanley announced a trilogy of plays, all based on some facet of his life experience, and all having a one-word title beginning with the letter "D." The third play is as yet an unknown quantity, but the second, DEFIANCE, has landed at the Manhattan Theatre Club with a dull thud, enough to suggest that the closer should be titled DESIST and left unproduced till he figures out what he might want to say. It's not a terrible play by any means; stiffly acted, perhaps, but there are some good ideas, just too many of them to fit in Shanley's elected 90-minute time frame. DOUBT was a perfect miniature; DEFIANCE heaps themes onto its plate, disappoints by taking tiny bites, then walks away from the table abruptly with a weakly contrived ending.

Set in spring 1971 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., DEFIANCE centers on Lt. Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang), whose do-gooding is compromised by his lust for glory—and, as we see in his somewhat Clinton-esque figure, other lusts as well. While the new play ups the number of characters to six, as in its predecessor three others are of major consequence. They are Littlefield's elected executive officer, Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk), a disenchanted black man, who plays everything by the book but resents his superior's playing of the race card; the camp's new chaplain, White (Chris Bauer), whose genial attitude masks a zealous conservative streak; and Littlefield's politely discontented wife, Margaret (Margaret Colin), who irritates her husband by siding, morally, with the couple’s draft-dodging son. There's a lot going on here--in fact, some of the same timeless themes as DOUBT, aligned differently--but the detonation into drama doesn't happen until late in the story, and the threads are left hanging as the show sprints toward the finish line.

Doug Hughes again directs energetically, but maybe the wrong kind of energy; Lang and Chalk mostly shout and snarl, and the contradictions of the wife and the chaplain are unsatisfyingly scripted, giving the actors little foundation to build convincing characters upon. A pall hangs over the whole show, caused by the expectation that lightning would strike twice for the creative team, and the disappointment that set it when it failed to materialize.


Standards in depravity have gone up--or down, depending on how you look at it. In 1965, Joe Orton's ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN lasted a total of 17 performances on Broadway before being run out of town by a lynch mob of appalled critics; 40 years later, after a couple of Off Broadway revivals and an obscure film version, it's back, with a marquee name in the cast and a typically polished Roundabout production, at the Laura Pels Theatre. Maybe too polished--set designer Allen Moyer has fit the show, snugly, into a box onstage, and early 60s tunes from the Beatles and other charter members of the British invasion play before and after curtain and during the intermission via John Gromada's Top of the Pops sound design. In his brief, meteoric career, Orton sought to blast through the kitchen-sink clichés of his era, but the new production, played as lightly as possible by an expert cast, is an almost quaint period piece, no matter if LD Kenneth Posner has framed the stage with a template of rubbish. Note, though, the "almost"--while more kid-gloves than was necessary this time out, Orton's farce retains its sting. The play suggests that the best way for the haves and have-nots to get along is not by practicing peace, love, and understanding, but by pooling ruthless self-interests into a mutually exploitative little collective and to hell with polite society.

And, if Scott Ellis has directed the cast a bit too forcefully to find the laughs, it must be said that the four-member cast gets them. The arrival of the amoral, larcenous, and possibly homicidal Mr. Sloane (Chris Carmack, a bad boy on TV's THE O.C.) into crumbling lodgings outside of London triggers a chain reaction in the sleepy household—dotty middle-aged landlady Kath (Jan Maxwell) fancies him a substitute for the child she gave up for adoption 20 years ago, then just plain fancies him in a weirdly funny-disturbing incestuous scenario, while her father, Kemp (Richard Easton, reliable as always), standard-bearer for an empire-in-eclipse, suspects the worst. Kath's well-to-do brother, Ed (Alec Baldwin), is also startled; one gander at Mr. Sloane's buffed young chest (between this and THE PAJAMA GAME, Roundabout subscribers are getting an eyeful this season) reduces him to quivering lust, a sack of Jello in a suit immaculately tailored by Michael Krass. Seeming to me to ape the voice and mannerisms of Michael Redgrave, Baldwin is a riot, as he connives to get the lad out of the house and into black leather as his live-in chauffeur, but Kath (woozily and wittily played by Maxwell, in a frumpy Paul Huntley wig and dentures, and Krass’ faded housewear) mounts an offense, as Mr. Sloane ever more brazenly offends.

I'm not sure what Orton, who was murdered in 1967, would have made of the Beatles music and the well-scrubbed dirtiness of this staging. But an entertaining ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN isn't the worst thing to have off Broadway.

[All photos courtesy Joan Marcus]

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

First thoughts: April 7 releases

Aghast at its pornography and political broadsides, the Russian censor reportedly wanted to slash Ilya Khrzanovsky's 4 (Leisure Time Features) from 126 minutes to 40. Viewers abroad, subjected to its frequently nightmarish assault on the senses, may wish that the cutter got it down to about 20 minutes. Not a film that operates with any set vocabulary, the movie bespeaks a terrible foreboding about the sorry state of the former Soviet Union, but not without a certain bitter comedy--and some spectacular matings of sound and image, as at the beginning, when heavy machinery scarily interrupts the lazy meanderings of four dogs (seen repeatedly in the course of the story), and in a later sequence where military conscripts are forced onto planes and flown to an unknown destination, a scene that rivals CATCH-22 at a fraction of its cost (picture).

Story is subordinate to impact, its meaning open to interpretation. [Outside of some fleshy, unappetizing nudity, the porn is largely in the censor's mind, however.]Three strangers--a piano tuner, a prostitute, and a meat wholesaler--meet at a bar, and talk and boast. The piano tuner runs afoul of the police; the meat seller, a few rungs up the economic ladder, contends with his elderly father and confronts a strange rash of piglets born fully rounded. In arguably the strangest thread, the young hooker attends her sister's funeral at a primitive outpost, where toothless, laughing old crones, high on rotgut liquor, mash bread with their teeth and turn the masticated chaw into dolls. The likelihood of the film grossing $200 million Stateside is low.

Written by the noted post-modernist Vladimir Sorokin, 4 (a debut feature for its brash 30-year-old director) is clearly for specialized tastes, and I can't imagine a second visit, much less four, anytime soon. But it does have the integrity of its despair, a cry--half-angry, half-laughter--at the abyss surrounding its characters.

An actor of firm and honorable conviction, Peter Mullan lifts ON A CLEAR DAY (Focus Features) from the rut of FULL MONTY knockoffs. You know the drill: Downtrodden Brits, facing further misery heaped upon their undistinguished lives, begin a cycle of self-improvement (to the consternation and, eventually, amazement of their friends and family) and come out swinging. It's a template that's been keeping the country's film industry alive since MONTY, with all-actress versions (CALENDAR GIRLS), biopic adaptations (MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS), and transvestite overhauls (the forthcoming KINKY BOOTS).

Gaby Dellal's new film (if the word "new" can accurately be applied to such a familiar formula) casts Mullan as Frank, a suddenly unemployed Glaswegian who, at age 55, decides to swim the English Channel--an ambition he keeps from his wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), and estranged son, Rob (Jamie Sives). There will, as you might imagine, be a "sea change" in his attitude (I swiped that witticism from the press kit) but not before a few fart, fat, and willy jokes from his mates (including Billy Boyd from the LORD OF THE RINGS cycle) and a lot of mild, kitchen-sink uplift as Joan realizes her own private dream and Frank dips his toes into the water in preparation for the 20-mile swim.

Mullan certainly looks the part of a would-be channel swimmer, just as he disappeared into the dissipation of the alcoholic he played in Ken Loach's MY NAME IS JOE, which won him the best actor award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. More importantly, he lives it; in his performance, you feel how all of Frank's resentments and anxieties have been welling up within him, and how difficult it is for him to, umm, "channel" them into something more positive. Less mannered than usual, Blethyn responds with a matched set of conflicting emotions; they convince as a long-married couple who intuit everything but have forgotten simpler ways to communicate. "When you aspire to something extraordinary, you can find the hero within," the promotional materials preen, but the real achievement in their performances is to find something believably ordinary and commonplace in their portrayals.

Among the other actors, I enjoyed, however briefly, the appearances of the luminous Jodhi May, from A WORLD APART and LAST OF THE MOHICANS, as Frank's daughter-in-law, Angela. It's Mullan, though, who gives this overworked scenario its spine, and its heart. There's very little fluff on his resume as an actor or director (THE MAGDALENE SISTERS); even his genre credits, like the spooky SESSION 9, are focused on credibly human stresses. ON A CLEAR DAY is a movie that on some level wants to sell out, but its star stands resolutely in the way.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Crabbing with Corman

Tim Lucas, publisher and proprietor of Video Watchdog magazine (and its attendant blog, Video WatchBlog, has decreed April 5 Roger Corman Appreciation Day, in honor of the filmmaker's 80th birthday (maybe next year for you, Peter Greenaway and Michael Moriarty). The idea sounded good, but I must confess it took me a while to get into the proper celebratory spirit.

I haven't really thought about Corman for some time, maybe not since beautiful double-disc laserdiscs of his timeless Poe adaptations from the early 60s arrived in my mailbox in the early 1990s. [I still have them, no matter that some have been superseded by DVDs; the packaging cannot be surpassed.] I'd read his autobiography (which the Wachowski Brothers, of THE MATRIX and V FOR VENDETTA fame, took as gospel and applied to their film careers) but it's been years since his star-making apparatus/cinematic indentured servitude threw up a big fish to rival the storied likes of Jack Nicholson or Martin Scorsese (collaborating for the first time with this year's THE DEPARTED)and no one's taken anything seriously that he's had a hand in since his last directorial effort, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND (I do hope he gets a vignette for Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR omnibus off the ground). Talk of an honorary Oscar has amounted to nothing more than that. [It's still not too late.]

It didn't take too long, however, for memories of his best creature feature, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957), to bubble up from my kid-dom. Talk about Highlights for Children; how many hours did I spend with that one? [Not to mention all the rest; IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, etc.] It's just so creepy; the weird clackety noises that accompany the mutated crabs as they suck the consciousness from their victims, and their ghastly humanoid faces, were almost too much for my delighted/affrighted younger self. As if to defend against the occasional inadequacies of the monster suits once they were revealed, Corman's films often make superior use of sound to build suspense, but no apologies were necessary for CRAB MONSTERS. A little silly today, perhaps...yet I can still recall images from this near 50-year-old movie, while having trouble retaining much from, say, SAW II, which I watched three weeks ago.

And no one who sees CRAB MONSTERS can forget the memory-munching monsters when they call out for their next victim: "Jules...Jules!" Priceless. I used to go crabbing in Barnegat Bay, N.J., and remember feeling a twinge of anxiety whenever I felt a particularly strong tug on the line...

So here's to you, Roger Corman. Your fishing-for-change cameo in THE HOWLING always makes me laugh. May I suggest a bottle of Cheapskate wine, superior for the price, to accompany your 80th?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Selected highlights: Broadway 05-06

In a flurry of film- and video-related postings I've been negligent about posting more on the theater season. So far, so good on the Broadway front; there have been the usual hits (like the spartan revival of Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD, now on CD) and misses (the dreadful Johnny Cash jukebox musical RING OF FIRE, with its endlessly smiling stars and Lite Brite-level LED screen projections, not to mention the long-gone LENNON) as the end-of-season blitz heats up (which, for me, means three shows, one after the other, the last week in April, which sounds fun but can be completely exhausting, like an endless prizefight, if the productions are only so-so). But the overall quality has been reasonably consistent, with a few breakouts (the delightful solo show BRIDGE & TUNNEL), a few duds (for me, the tacky, Oprah-fueled musicalization of THE COLOR PURPLE) and a few regrets, notably the failure of SOUVENIR, with Judy Kaye's delightful performance as would-be diva Florence Foster Jenkins, to find more of an audience (the thrust of the show, the relationship between star and accompanist, seems to have been repurposed for Act I of the off-Broadway musical GREY GARDENS).

Live Design magazine has obliged me with a soapbox to air my views on current theater offerings, in its weekly Seen and Heard feature (which, I should add, I devised five years ago when LD was two separate publications, which recently merged). The web being what it is, they tend to vanish pretty quickly off the site, but I've decided to resurrect and reedit a few entries for alternate consumption here as a kind of seasonal snapshot. I'll do the same with off-Broadway shows in an upcoming post. "Another op'nin, another show," as they sing in KISS ME KATE.


JERSEY BOYS, at the August Wilson, revives the jukebox musical, a form many hoped the abject failures of GOOD VIBRATIONS and LENNON, and the more appealing ALL SHOOK UP, would have bankrupted for good. The new show, though, has two things going for it: A bunch of familiar songs ("Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "My Eyes Adored You," etc.) and an unfamiliar group history, which co-writers Marshall Brickman (an Oscar winner for AANIE HALL) and Rick Elice bring to life with more street smarts and sharp-edged, foul-mouthed humor than I'm used to hearing on a Broadway stage from this kind of VH-1 level show. Imported to New York from San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, the show, directed by Des McAnuff, now has a home court advantage, and I admit, without shame, to clapping along myself. This Jersey Boy has spent a lot of time in Belleville, NJ, where Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were hatched, and there's a basic, offhand, unforced accuracy to the show; my parents probably have some of Jess Goldstein's costumes in our house somewhere.

The foibles of the group as they make their mobbed-up way up and down the ladder of success, with each member having his say about the gangsters, gambling, and girls, are fun (and a little sad, too) to hear related--when group leader Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff), stuck for a name, learns that a guy named Vivaldi already has a Four Seasons, he wants him "taken care of." It's practically a musical GOODFELLAS, complete with a hilarious impersonation of future Oscar-winner Joe Pesci, in his misspent youth the Four Seasons' gofer, by Michael Longoria.

Klara Zieglerova's set is the standard mix of catwalks and modest, humorous set elements, like car grilles, neon lounge signs, and a slipcovered couch that fly on and off to indicate a scene change. These are enlivened by Michael Clark's pop art projections, straight from the Roy Lichtenstein scrapbook, and Howell Binkley's expressive but reasonably subdued lighting, careful not to break period by allowing too much 80's-era movement to intrude on the 60's and 70's period. The socko contribution is of course from sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy, whose powerhouse audio really puts the faux Four Seasons (headlined by the uncanny falsetto performance of John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli) across. A word, too, about Zieglerova's scenic drops, adapted from George Tice photographs: Their outlines of water tanks, electric pylons, and refineries, in blue and orange hues, made me nostalgic for the New Jersey Turnpike, which is no little accomplishment.

The first-ever Broadway revival of Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE is ideal--that is, if you like your Odd Couples with two Felixes in it. Make that one-and-a-half. Unwisely reusing remnants of his Leo Bloom whine from THE PRODUCERS, Matthew Broderick gives a strangely becalmed performance in the actual part, and is more effective in the show's serious moments than in the quintessential neat freak vs. top slob sparring. As Oscar, Nathan Lane is far too fastidious and immaculate a performer to convince as a walking pigpen, and would look a lot more at home in Felix's ready-for-work period attire than in the rumpled sportswriter sweatshirts that Ann Roth has fashioned for him (and she knows from 60's styles, given that she designed the costumes for the original 1965 production, which starred a more aptly cast Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix).

As a play, THE ODD COUPLE is worth its weight in gold; the timeless comedy is neatly balanced by a strong undercurrent of middle-age regret, and director Joe Mantello has cast the supporting parts to a T (co-stars Rob Bartlett, as Speed, and Brad Garrett, as Murray, might make an ideal, Mutt-and-Jeff Oscar and Felix somewhere down the line). Audiences contributing to its record-setting $21 million advance, however, may feel a little snookered, given that Tony Randall and Jack Klugman do much the same thing, and better (and for free) every night wherever the undying TV show is rerun.

Taking a bit of a break from his own finicky set designs, John Lee Beatty has no end of fun in the first act, where the horror show that is Oscar's Upper West Side apartment is unveiled in all its gruesomeness. I particularly loved the wilted Christmas tree, which had long since given up the ghost in the summer sun, and Beatty doesn't make the mistake of having Oscar's pad be a complete disaster (there's a little something there under all that benign neglect for Felix to uncover as Act II gets underway). And I liked how Kenneth Posner's lighting brightened, subtly, to accommodate the new roommate as his emergency home care program went into effect. In fact, there's nothing at the Brooks Atkinson that a truly odd couple, rather than a matched set, couldn't fix.

My sympathies to the estimable costume designer Martin Pakledinaz. Right up until the last minutes of the enjoyable Roundabout revival of THE PAJAMA GAME, one of its primary visual pleasures is his 50's duds, an assortment that concludes with a veritable pajama party onstage. Then its star, Harry Connick Jr., pops his top, baring a freshly buffed chest--and an audience that has found its equivalent to Hugh Jackman in THE BOY FROM OZ goes nuts, as if they had never seen a shirtless performer before. Why even bother with clothes? I can only wonder how much the boxoffice for this, the company's cornerstone 40th anniversary production, would improve if Connick could be enticed to remove the bottom. There'd be lines around the block at the American Airlines Theatre, I bet.

But I digress. (And you will come out humming the costumes, I promise.) While not much of an actor, and no threat to Fred Astaire where dancing is concerned, Connick has a voice to match his physique. It's not a "Broadway" sound, but, rather, his silky, Sinatra-style crooning, which puts an appealing new spin on some classic Richard Adler and Jerry Ross tunes, like "Hey There." With it, his Sid Sorokin, the new manager of a Cedar Rapids pajama factory, is quite literally a babe magnet, exerting an ultimately irresistible pull on union representative Babe Williams (Kelli O'Hara, with a wholly different attitude, and I think a Paul Huntley wig or curls, from THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, which is among my very favorite musicals) as the company faces a strike--one of the unlikelier plots for a hit musical. Its eccentricity may be why the show scurries away from it so much; its two most noted numbers, "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway," have little to do with labor relations, and everything to do with giving its cast to strut their stuff, with the multifaceted Connick provided an excuse to lay down some mean piano licks for the latter.

Truth is, the embellishment gets a trifle fatiguing over two and a half hours, and even with some revision for today's sensibilities there's not much chance of making a supporting character, Hines (Michael McKean), a lovelorn autocrat, less of a stalker in his pursuit of Gladys (Megan Lawrence). All things considered, I prefer the 1957 film, which streamlines the story, retains most of the original Broadway cast and the famous Bob Fosse choreography from 1954 (the revival's director/choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, hasn't come up with anything special to replace it with), and adds Doris Day. Still, this is as bright and energetic a production as one could hope for, and there are those dynamite songs to savor.

The design, unsurprisingly, is cheerful; a dark "probing" of the material, a la the failed OKLAHOMA! revival of a season or two back, this is not. The Sleep-Tite factory is under new ownership on Broadway, but its half-century's tradition of quality has been respected and maintained.

The sky has fallen: I've actually liked a play by David Lindsay-Abaire. Liked, mind you, not loved, which is still a lot better than our track record to date. I missed his acclaimed debut, 1999's FUDDY MEARS, but 2001's WONDER OF THE WORLD was so off-putting the audience I saw it with was actively booing the stage, to the dismay of the actors (including Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Sedaris), and I can't think about 2003's KIMBERLY AKIMBO without my stomach turning flip-flops; it's a serious candidate for the worst play I've ever seen, with its ghastly, unendurable whimsy, which is (or, I hope, was) Lindsay-Abaire's stock-in-trade. Undaunted, the Manhattan Theatre Club (which seems to pay more attention to local reviewers, who have made him their pet playwright, than its own subscribers) is debuting his latest, RABBIT HOLE, at its Broadway venue, the Biltmore.

Surprise: The fake sentiment and coy, contrived situations are largely absent, replaced by a slightly sitcom-ish naturalism that, backed by a good cast and direction, manages a warm appeal. Truth is, the play, about a couple coping with the accidental death of their four-year-son, could use a little more pizzazz, but I was grateful that the playwright kept his "inventiveness" to himself and told us a straightforward story for once. And his efforts are beautifully served by set designer John Lee Beatty, who manages, once again, to outdo himself.

Beatty's last design, for THE COLOR PURPLE, was undone by too much vertigo-inducing movement, but it's that kind of show. RABBIT HOLE takes place entirely within a Westchester home, upstairs and downstairs, and the set is placed on two turntables, which move, and interlock, gracefully, thanks to seamless automation provided by Hudson Scenic Studio. Much of it takes place in the kitchen, where Becca (Cynthia Nixon) and husband Howie (John Slattery) do their best to keep up appearances, for all the agitation Becca's carefree (and pregnant) sister Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison) and mother Nat (Tyne Daly), a talkative busybody, bring into their home. In the course of the play, Becca and Nat will reach an understanding about the nature of loss in the dead son's upstairs room, which is slowly being emptied of his possessions as Becca and Howie mull a possible sale of the home. Downstairs, in the living room, Becca will have an awkward meeting with teenage Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), who was driving the car that killed the boy. The sets, which themselves seem slightly shrunken from grief, reposition themselves for each scene and are flawlessly appointed.

Daniel Sullivan directs with his customary sure hand--not sure enough to find something deeper and more resonant in the drama (the "rabbit holes," the planes of existence that sci-fi fan Jason expounds about, don't quite come off as a metaphor) but altogether steady as the characters gain new insight into the predicament of having to move on. Speaking of moving on, I'm thoroughly relieved Lindsay-Abaire has, and--a pleasant shock this--I'm curious to find out where he goes from here.

[Photos courtesy Joan Marcus. THE ODD COUPLE, Carol Rosegg.]