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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs (Nederlander Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

It will be most unfortunate if the provisional closing notice posted for Neil Simon’s play about his Brooklyn childhood really does result in the show’s shuttering, for this is a very fine revival in all respects. And I have no doubt the companion piece, “Broadway Bound,” which was set to join this one in repertory on November 18, would be just as satisfying.

Why have tickets not been selling? Could the long-running 1983 original still be so fresh in people’s memories? Is it familiarity with the not-so-hot film? Does the title somehow fail to set the pulse racing? Are we too confident in thinking we know what a Neil Simon play is going to be?

Whatever the reason, what is strikingly clear from David Croner’s revisionist production is that this is a very fine play indeed – one that should be considered a modern classic -- and its mounting here is the impeccable sort one might find at London’s Royal National Theatre.

The setting is Brooklyn in the late 1930’s. War is imminent, and money is painfully tight, and the family has relatives in Poland whose safety is in jeopardy.

Nineteen-year-old Noah Robbins convincingly and most delightfully plays the show’s narrator (and Simon’s alter ego) 15-year-old Eugene Jerome. He lives with his parents -- hardworking Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris) and loving but domineering Kate (Laurie Metcalf) -- and big brother Stanley (Santino Fontana). They share their house with Kate’s asthmatic widowed sister Blanche (Jessica Hecht), and her two daughters, coddled Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence), who is thought to have a heart flutter, and Broadway hopeful Nora (Alexandra Socha), a high school student.

Eugene balances his passion for baseball with his growing interest in writing and obsession with cousin Nora’s breasts (or those of any naked woman, for that matter), providing non-stop sardonic commentary on the family’s foibles.

In the first act, Stanley stands up to his boss when he defends a black co-worker and nearly loses his job, and Nora has a chance to audition for the chorus of a Broadway musical, but it will mean quitting school. Only Jack can mediate these issues, but he’s weary after a long day at his two jobs, and the dinner scene where his advice is tentatively sought is a comic highpoint.

In the second act, we learn Jack’s hard work has indeed lead to a mild heart attack, Blanche plans for a date with the alcoholic Irish man across the street, against her sister’s wishes, Nora pushes her independence, and Stanley loses his paycheck in a poker game. There are laughs in all these plot developments, but poignancy dominates.

Under Cromer’s direction, the play has taken on genuine gravitas, but the humor is all the richer. The scenes between the brothers are particularly touching, as are the interactions of Kate and Blanche. In fact, all the performances are just about perfect, and make a well-tuned ensemble.

John Lee Beatty’s beautifully lived-in Depression era two-story house – and Brian MacDevitt’s subdued lighting -- adds immeasurably to the bittersweet mood. Jane Greenwood’s spot-on period costumes are as impeccable as the other production elements.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is one of the highlights of the season, and with any luck, will get an eleventh hour reprieve, but hurry to see it Sunday, in case not.

(Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41 Street, www.TicketMaster.com or 212-307-4100)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Michael Jackson’s This Is It (Columbia Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

I must confess I am one of the few who never followed Michael Jackson’s career with much interest, and the tabloid stories during his lifetime and after his death only convinced me that I was none the poorer for it.

But having seen the documentary culled from rehearsal footage shot from March through June of this year for what would have been Jackson’s live concert comeback, I came away awed at his talent, humility, and sheer professionalism.

And far from being a frail, washed out shadow of his former self, Jackson seems totally in command of his considerable gifts. Though he speaks of holding back vocally to conserve his voice for the actual performances, he certainly sounds fine to me.

Some critics have carped that the release of this footage is crass commercialism, and that Jackson wouldn’t have wanted it shown (as it was intended merely for his own archives), but I strongly disagree. There is nothing here of which Jackson would be ashamed, and his legacy would have been poorer had it been withheld.

There always, of course, a morbid fascination with the final footage of a popular idol. Marilyn Monroe’s scenes from her unfinished “Something’s Got to Give” were rushed out after her death in a documentary narrated by Rock Hudson. Jean Harlow’s extant scenes from “Saratoga” were used when the film was finished using a double where necessary. And Heath Ledger’s final work in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” will soon be released, his part finished by three actors. “Last” recordings and concerts of musical performers are similarly valued, from Elvis to Rosemary Clooney.

I found it quite thrilling to watch Jackson – or “MJ” as his director Kenny Ortega (also the director of the documentary) affectionately calls him – executing his choreographed moves with razor-sharp precision, and using (or not using, by choice) his voice.

His ear for music was obviously acute, and it’s interesting to see him tactfully tell a couple of the musicians what he wants. “I’m getting there,” says the musician. “Well, get there,” replies Michael quietly but firmly. Later he says of a musical intro, “You gotta let it simmer.” He knew just what he wanted. His musical director Michael Beardon praises Jackson for being “very hands on…he knew all his records.”

There’s very little in the way of temperament. At one point, he stops the rehearsal to tell director Kenny Ortega that he’s having trouble with his earpiece, but he’s extremely polite about it. When something needs to be done over, he assures everyone with calm logic, “That’s why we have rehearsal.”

The act itself, which would have taken place beginning this past summer in London’s O2 Arena would have included pyrotechnics, aerialists, pole dancers, and elaborately filmed backdrops. There was a fun private eye sequence which had Jackson interacting with the celluloid images of Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson, which would have segued into his live rendition of “Smooth Criminal.”

There’s an extended environmental sequence, quite stunningly done, which would have been the backdrop for “Earth Song.” And Jackson’s concern for the planet seems utterly sincere and impassioned.

The dancers, musicians, wardrobe designers, who were hired for this tour, speak of Jackson with great awe, some even in tears at their elation in working with him. One can only imagine how shocked and saddened they were at his sudden death, particularly as Jackson looks so well.

We see the press conference announcing the London shows as his last performances there (“This is it,” he said), and in which he signs off prophetically with “This is the final curtain call.”

Ortega has done a masterful job of pulling the extant footage together, and coming up with a handsomely shot and fascinating look at the creative process. Is it as Jackson’s pal, the actress Elizabeth Taylor, has so gushingly proclaimed on Twitter, “the single most brilliant piece of filmmaking I have ever seen.”? Well, no. But she was right in proclaiming his genius.

The film – filled as it is with such great anticipation of Jackson’s triumphant return and the upbeat attitude of all concerned – registers as a surprisingly joyful experience, even as you’re periodically caught up short by the tragedy that was to come.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for some suggestive choreography and scary images.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

After Miss Julie (American Airlines Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Patrick Marber’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” transposes the action from 19th Century Midsummer’s Eve Sweden to 1945 England on the eve of the Labor Party’s win. Despite the cosmetic changes that transposition requires – and allowing that the parallels between 19th century Sweden and post-World War II England are not, in all cases, apt -- his version, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, remains remarkably faithful to the original and, I think, rather more interesting for a modern audience.

Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller, best known for their film work here, give finely detailed performances as aristocratic Miss Julie and manservant John – her father’s chauffeur – whose combustible affair comes to a deadly end.

The class distinction at the heart of Strindberg’s 1888 original – a trendsetter in naturalistic drama with the action taking place in “real” time, its characters significantly molded by their environment – is accentuated by Marber’s tweaking. He’s also ramped up the sex and the violence, including a wince-inducing crotch-grabbing near the end.

In this version, Churchill’s political defeat serves as a plausible metaphor for the societal change which may soon blur class distinctions. Rather than the lovers talking of opening a hotel in Como, Italy, it’s now a bar in New York. But most of the other particulars are the same.

Allen Moyer’s atmospheric set is beautifully lit by Mark McCullough to suggest the time shifts intrinsic to Strindberg’s layout.

The character of Miss Julie can be a head-scratching paradox. Raised to despise men by her feminist mother, and just jilted by her fiancée after taking a riding whip to him, she genuinely falls for the manly servant.

But one minute she’s a sexy seductress, demanding that John dance with her among the revelers upstairs, regardless of what anyone thinks. She insists he kiss her shoe, and then teasingly pulling it away. She offers a kiss one moment, slaps him the next. First a kinky lady with sadomasochistic tendencies, she becomes a vulnerable romantic genuinely in love with the man who’s loved her from afar since he saw her in her pram when they were children. And then she flip-flops again.

Despite her tabloid notoriety, Sienna Miller has proven a fine actress on screen, so it’s not too much of a surprise to find her a confident stage actress who handles these mercurial changes in temperament so adroitly.

Jonny Lee Miller – who does have a solid stage background -- skillfully delineates the working-class man so entrenched in the class system in which he was raised, and a former soldier whose every movement reflects a precise military bearing. The mere ringing of a bell is enough to reduce him to instant subservience, furiously polishing his master’s shoes.

The quality of the star performances is matched by Marin Ireland who plays Christine, the cook and fiancé of John, especially when she discovers what has transpired between the furtive lovers, and registers more anger about the situation’s impropriety than her fiancé’s infidelity, suddenly taking control with bold assurance.

The play’s ever shifting motivations can be somewhat maddening. It’s probably not for nothing that revivals in New York have been so few.

But director Mark Brokaw’s taut direction and three superlative performances keep you riveted.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Superior Donuts (The Music Box)



By Harry Forbes

Both sharply humorous and warmly sentimental, “Superior Donuts” concerns an aging Polish-American 1960’s draft resister, Arthur Przybyszewski, played expertly by Michael McKean, who now runs a dilapidated Uptown Chicago doughnut shop. Starbucks is killing him, he complains. He's a loner who doesn’t want to be pulled into life.

Shortly after his store is vandalized one morning, a deed he accepts with little more than a shrug, he hires Franco (Jon Michael Hill), a sassy 21-year-old black college dropout who, we learn later, needs the money to pay off sports gambling debts to a loan shark Luther (Robert Maffia) and his henchman Kevin (Cliff Chamberlain). They expect their money or else.

It speaks to Letts’ compassionate worldview that even Luther has a backstory that helps us see him as something more than a generic thug.

Franco quickly kicks some life into both the recalcitrant Arthur and the store, spewing forth in quick succession ideas about the inventory, the nutritional value of the doughnuts, how the place should look, and the possibility of holding poetry readings there. He doesn’t hesitate to criticize Arthur’s clothes, pony tail, and sales acumen, telling him he must learn to engage the customers.

He would almost seem to have the upper hand on Arthur, though the tables turn when Franco challenges him to name ten black poets, and Arthur, rather incredibly, rises to the challenge.

The shop is frequented by two friendly cops: partners James (James Vincent Meredith), who’s a closet Trekkie, and Randy (Kate Buddeke), a warm-hearted Irish-American from a family of cops, who’s sweet on Arthur, a divorced widower. In an early scene, she tentatively invites him to a hockey game, but he shyly evades the offer. There’s also the wisecracking alcoholic Lady (Jane Alderman) who comes by for her daily doughnut showing more sensitivity than her crusty exterior would indicate.

Max (Yasen Peyankov), the Russian émigré DVD store owner next door, wants Max’s store to expand his business. He walks the line between likability and brute gruffness.

The play is anchored by McKean whose reserved manner – and inability to open up – is interspersed with monologues in which he reveals his inner feelings, his backstory including his Polish emigrant parents from whom he took over the shop.

Hill – fast-talking, confident, and thoroughly decent as Franco – lights up the stage at every turn. But all the performances are beautifully etched, even that of Michael Garvey as a nephew of Max who comes into the play late and barely speaks a word.

James Schuette’s set suggests an appropriately rundown establishment, and by the second act, he shows us how several of Franco’s suggestions have come to fruition. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes delineate the characters perfectly.

Tina Landau is making her Broadway straight play directing debut and a distinguished one it is; she keeps the action taut and the borderline sentimentalism in check.

Though there is some violence and discord, “Superior Donuts” – which had its world premiere last summer at Steppenwolf Theatre Company -- is far removed from the acrimonious doings of Letts’ “August, Osage County,” and even further from his earlier plays, “Bug” and “Killer Joe.” There’s considerable humor here, and just as young Franco believes in possibilities, the play has a poignant but hopeful edge.

(The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Memphis (Sam S. Shubert Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

“Memphis” is one of the biggest surprises of the new season: a genuinely winning musical about an illiterate white 1950’s DJ, with a passion for black rhythm and blues, who integrates a radio, then TV, station in the titular Tennessee city, and his interracial love affair with the singer in a Beale Street club, over the objections of her brother and his mother.

Huey, the DJ, is outstandingly played by Chad Kimball, and the singer Felicia by Montego Glover. Her part is somewhat less complex, but she proves a fine match dramatically, has knockout looks, and a powerful voice. These roles should make stars of both of them.

We’ve seen these themes before. Picture an amalgam of “Hairspray,” “Dreamgirls,” and the film, “Cadillac Records.” The opening scene – a lot of sexy, gyrating at the club – bodes ill for originality, but once the narrative kicks in, one is completely absorbed.

Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (the book-writer and composer respectively, with both collaborating on lyrics) have fashioned a solid piece of musical theater that is both exhilarating and very moving, despite some dramatic flaws. (George W. George is credited with the original concept.)

As Huey’s popularity grows, he keeps his word to Felicia, her brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), and sidekick Gator (Derrick Baskin), and brings everyone up the ladder with him, including Bobby (James Monroe Iglehart), the rotund worker at the radio station who brings down the house in the second act with a number called, appropriately, “Big Love.”

Though Huey has an unfortunate naïve habit of public shows of affection with Felicia, which invariably lead to big trouble in the segregated town, the book consistently keeps their relationship on a positive level, even after they’ve been viciously attacked by angry bigots on the street one night.

Their union is only truly jeopardized when Felicia and then Huey are offered a chance at the big time in New York, and Huey resists. Felicia sensibly argues that they’ll be able to live openly there, and this will mean success on a national level for both of them. But Huey, unaccountably, cannot pull away from Memphis where, he continues to insist, they will both make their fortune.

Both Delray and Huey’s Mama (Cass Morgan) oppose the interracial romance, but never to the point of clichéd aggression or interference. And both make turnarounds by the end of the show, Cass showing how much she’s changed in her showstopping “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

With the look of a Christian Slater, and a laconic delivery and loose-limbed presence suggesting something of the late Peter Allen, Kimball’s not afraid to play up the less admirable aspects of his character. He drinks and becomes more arrogant as the story progresses, yet he nearly always makes his actions comprehensible, and we rarely stop rooting for him.

The supporting cast is pretty fabulous. The hard-working ensemble gets quite a workout, and impress on every level.

Those sensational performances by Kimball and Glover keep you believing even when the book strains credulity. Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse is to be credited for making the evening so absorbing as drama as much as enjoyable from a musical standpoint.

On first hearing, the score by Bryan (Bon Jovi keyboardist) – under the leadership of music supervisor Christopher Jahnke -- sounds like a winner. Hard-driving rhythm and blues, soulful ballads, and pseudo-gospel numbers come one upon the other with hardly a clinker in the bunch.

Sergio Trujjillo’s choreography is genuinely exciting – perhaps the best currently on Broadway, and that includes the recreation of Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography in “West Side Story.” David Gallo’s scenic design, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting, and Ken Travis’ sound design are tops.

The show’s de rigueur standing ovation was, in this case, well deserved.

(Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, www.Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Amelia (Fox Searchlight Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

This is an absorbing, old-fashioned (in the best sense of the word) biopic about the pioneering aviator and feminist Amelia Earhart, and offers Hilary Swank (who also executive produced) one of her most congenial roles.

Though the emotional wattage is low, the filmmakers are to be credited with not trying to overly embellish the already fascinating facts of Earhart’s life, one which ended so intriguingly when, in 1937, her plane was lost during an around-the-world flight apparently unable to locate the tiny Pacific island at which she had to refuel.

Directed by Mira Nair with a sensitivity that avoids the cliché of much of glossy Hollywood product, and with a screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan – which uses Susan Butler’s “East to the Dawn” and Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sound of Wings” as its primary source material – the narrative charts the relationship between Earhart and George P. Putnam (Richard Gere), the publishing magnate and publicity hound who, in 1928, hired her to fly across the Atlantic (the first woman to do so, albeit not in the pilot’s seat), and later became her husband.

The film also explores her relationship with pilot and businessman Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), father of writer Gore Vidal who figures in the story as a child (Wiliam Cuddy) who looked to Earhart as a second mother.

As the facts of Earhart’s alleged romance with Vidal are sketchy, the film is admirably reticent in dramatizing what really went on between them. But suffice to say, there’s suggestion of a strong attraction, enough to raise the dander of Putnam when he finds a loving missive from his wife to Vidal.

Earhart’s subsequent solo flight across the Atlantic is nicely done, and her endorsements for various products provide a light interlude.

Swank – with short blond hair, generous teeth and a winning smile -- makes an appealing heroine, and uses an authentic sounding accent to boot. She makes Earhart’s passion for flying and enthusiasm for advancing women in male-dominated fields very plausible. Gere radiates his usual low-keyed charisma, and McGregor cuts a handsome figure as Vidal who would head the Bureau of Air Commerce during the Roosevelt administration.

The film is less action- than chick-flick, though there’s plenty of aerial activity but we mainly have Swank torn between her handsome leading men, even as her character asserts she needs her freedom as a “vagabond of the air.”

Still, the central love story of Earhart and Putnam is touchingly conveyed from their first romantic dance (to Ethel Waters’ version of “Moonglow,” a nice, unhackneyed choice) to their final long-distance conversation.

Stuart Dryburgh’s soft-grained cinematography captures the copious period trappings nicely, and helps give the film a more art hourse quality than other films of this genre.

Nair might not be the first choice for this sort of material, but her direction also gives the film a unique flavor, and she elicits good performances from all, including Christopher Eccleston as Earhart’s alcoholic navigator Fred Noonan who shares her final fateful flight on her beloved Lockheed L-10 Electra plane and Cherry Jones who delivers a sharp cameo as Eleanor Roosevelt who takes her first night flight with Earhart.

Earhart’s final flight is the most suspenseful part of the film, though our knowledge of the outcome can’t help but dilute some of the tension.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking.)

Bye Bye Birdie (Henry Miller’s Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

It’s perhaps an exaggeration to claim that the revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” – the first on Broadway since its original production 48 years ago -- is devoid of any entertainment value.

The basic property – Michael Stewart’s book, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ music and lyrics -- is solid (as schools and community groups have known for years), and the the cast and production team are not without interest. The touristy crowd at a recent Saturday night performance seemed to have a good time.

But there’s also no denying that much of the Roundabout’s production has come out curiously wrong.

The cast is a mixed bag. John Stamos – looking a cross between Treat Williams and Jerry Lewis -- is a perfectly valid Albert Peterson, the would-be English professor waylaid by a music business and now manager to an Elvis-like teen idol about to be drafted. Stamos sings pleasantly, moves well, and has the measure of role, but the effort (and the sweat, literally) sometimes show.

Gina Gershon – so hilarious in last season’s ‘Boeing Boeing” – is logical enough casting as Albert’s secretary and love interest Rose. Yet her singing is never quite incisive enough, and though the relatively little dancing allotted her is gracefully accomplished, the terpsichorean aspects of the role are short-changed.

Dee Hoty is good but wasted in the smallish part of Kim's mother, and though Jayne Houdyshell moves through the battleaxe part of Albert’s nagging and bigoted mother like a pro, she's saddled with a really distasteful part

The kids are cast younger than usual, but Alice Trimm’s Kim and Matt Doyle’s Hugo are bright spots here. Ditto Jake Evan Schwencke as Kim’s kid brother. I liked Nolan Gerard Funk’s Conrad, also more youthfully cast, but he’s less Elvis and more a generic teen idol.

The prize for wrong-headedness goes to Bill Irwin as Kim's father. His broad mugging and arch accent read as desperate attempts to break the inimitable mold formed by original Paul Lynde. Irwin’s clownish shenanigans as he hogs the camera on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is reasonably valid, but nothing else. Irwin should ditch all the shtick forthwith and play the part straight.

The awkwardly staged American history tableau on the Sullivan show is the nadir of director Robert Longbottom’s cartoony TV sitcom staging, something like the equally misguided production of “Bells are Ringing” several years ago. Adding to the cartoon atmosphere are Gregg Barnes’ garish costumes, which include color-coded outfits for the families in Sweet Apple.

Longbottom’s choreography enlivens the show’s best musical number, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” That, “Talk to Me,” and “Rosie” are the musical highpoints, and they’re all clustered in the second act.

On the whole, this feels like a pocket-sized “Birdie,” with everything smaller-scale than a full-out revival should be. That said, Andrew Jackness’ set is resourceful, including the train that brings Birdie into Sweet Apple, and the movable platform cleverly used throughout. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations – for a smaller band than the original – are, as one would expect from him, expertly done, but listen to the original cast CD and you remember what you're missing.

The show aside, high marks go to Henry Miller’s Theatre, an attractive and comfortable performance space that will make a welcome venue for future – happier – Roundabout productions. Apart from the restored neo-Georgian façade of the 1918 theater, all the rest is spanking new.

(Henry Miller’s Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through January 10)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oleanna (Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

David Mamet’s 1992 play about political correctness and sexual harassment (written in the wake of the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill brouhaha) gets its first Broadway mounting in a taut production first mounted at the Mark Taper Forum this summer.

Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles are first-rate as John, a university professor poised for tenure, and Carol, his failing student who shows up at his office to entreat him not to fail her. In the course of the meeting, during which he’s continually interrupted by calls from his anxious wife concerning purchase of a new house, John relents if she’ll agree to some private tutoring. During one of her emotional outbursts, he puts his hands on her shoulder to comfort her.

In the two scenes that follow, we learn that she has lodged a harassment suit against him, placing his tenure and even his job in serious jeopardy. Quiet, contained, and insecure in the first act, suddenly the tables are turned, and now with the backing of her unseen support “group,” she is in the driver’s seat.

As directed by Doug Hughes – whose concurrent work on “The Royal Family” demonstrates an impressive versatility – the tension over the 80-minute running time is well sustained, despite some longueurs, courtesy of the rambling dissertations Mamet has given John.

Egotistical, a tad patronizing, and occasionally insensitive, John mostly registers as Mr. Nice Guy, with Carol a generally hard-edged and unsympathetic adversary. Carol says she feels stupid in not understanding John’s lectures or his book. John tries to explain how, afflicted by many of the same insecurities, he worked through it. She claims he uses elitist language, and calls him on his use of “transpire” instead of “happen.”

A couple of times, just as Carol seems about to reveal something about her past that might inform her actions, John walks away to answer the phone. And yes, he yaks on too much about his own background. But is this really an abuse of power?

She, on the other hand, reads as mostly whiny and strident. When she presses charges, claiming he crossed the propriety line, it’s difficult to empathize with her. Thus, the sides don't seem equally balanced. And would Carol, especially after formally lodging her complaints, continue to return to John's office?

Still, if "Oleanna" is basically an academic exercise in the culture wars, it is not an uninteresting one. There are talk-backs after each performance to discuss the play’s sstill-relevant themes. Whether you stay or not, you’ll likely exit the theater in lively discussion.

Neil Patel has designed a perhaps too spaciously deluxe office for this as-yet-untenured professor, the warmth of the décor offset by the loudly grinding metal blinds which rise up and down between scenes, setting an appropriately ominous tone.


(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros. Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

This adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s classic has been given an artful and uncompromising mounting by Spike Jonze whose imaginative work on “Being John Malkovich” apparently convinced Sendak that the director would have just the right sensibility to expand his short-on-text tale.

Sendak, in fact, is one of the producers this version, but the screenplay itself – a faithful-in-spirit expansion -- was penned by novelist Dave Eggers.

The melancholy story concerns a rambunctious 9-year-old boy Max (Max Records) who is feeling increasingly abandoned by his big sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and single mother (Catherine Keener).

The sister is shifting her loyalty to her adolescent friends, who destroy his carefully constructed igloo, after which the sister heedlessly drives off with her pals. Max’s work-at-home mom is distracted by her freelance work, and has a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), though her love for the boy is never in doubt.

One night, dressed in his wolf suit, Max throws a spectacular temper tantrum while his mother (Catherine Keener) is preparing dinner for her boyfriend. Max jumps on the kitchen table in his wolf costume, and even bites his mother when she reprimands him.

In the book, he was sent to bed without supper, and the ensuing fantasy emerged from his bedroom. Here, he runs from the house down the suburban streets into a wooded area and onto a boat which takes him to the eponymous land.

When he disembarks, he encounters giant monsters voiced in a pointedly contemporary patois by an interesting cast. Among them, all finely characterized, are Carol (James Gandolfini), with whom Max especially bonds; Douglas (Chris Cooper), LW (Lauren Ambrose), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano).

These non-CGI creatures, the actor’s outsized costumes designed by the Creature Shop of The Jim Henson Company, are well executed. They avoid cuteness, but they’re also rather ugly in their monstrousness, though there’s never any real sense that they might eat him as, we are told, they are capable of doing. It must be said, too, that the landscape is none too appealing either.

The creatures are meant to mirror Max’s childlike imagination and untamed emotions, innermost Freudian thoughts and the people and experiences in his life, rather like Dorothy Gale’s friends on the Yellow Brick Road, but in a far more subtle – and rather less accessible way – than “The Wizard of Oz.”

Max becomes King of the Wild Things, and works out his issues along the way. His anger is manifested in a dirt fight sequence, for instance, and King or not, he learns that power is not all its cracked up to be, presumably learning what it’s like to be a parent. But all in all, not much happens, and after the liveliness of the movie’s opening domestic scenes -- Max chasing the family dog, throwing snowballs at his sister’s friends, wrecking her stuff, the alternately tender and ferocious exchanges with his mother – this section drags.

One admires the craftsmanship and reverence to Sendak’s sensibility, but a certain dreariness pervades. Despite the filmmakers’ remarks to the contrary, the film strikes me as rather dark, uneventful, and bewildering for children, but then again, for the book’s multitudinous fans, perhaps not.

(This film is rated PG by the MPAA for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wishful Drinking (Studio 54)


By Harry Forbes

“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true. And that would be unacceptable” Carrie Fisher announces with unsentimental logic at the top of her show.

Carrie Fisher’s life has had its share of recreational and prescription drugs, booze, bipolar disorder, and occasional scandal. How about a gay Republican lobbyist found dead in her bed for starters?

But what’s surprising is that despite any mental turmoil – “when you’re manic, every urge is like an edict from the Vatican” -- she has crafted such a beautifully disciplined, carefully wrought self-examination. Her one-woman, two-act performance piece – which, before this Roundabout Theatre Company production, started life in at the Geffen Playhouse in 2006, and has since played around the country – also succeeds in creating a rare intimacy between player and audience.

In her first act centerpiece -- a hilarious lesson she’s dubbed “Hollywood Inbreeding 101,” bulletin board, pointer, and all -- she recounts not only the once headline-dominating tale of how father Eddie Fisher consoled the widowed Elizabeth Taylor after the latter’s husband Mike Todd went down in a plane crash, bringing his seemingly lovey-dovey marriage to Debbie Reynolds to a disillusioning end. Think Brad, Jennifer, and Angelina, she reminds the younger folk in the audience.

Even for those old enough to remember the tabloid stories, this is quite an incredible saga, and the head-spinning litany of her parents’ ensuing marriages and divorces boggles the mind. So, she concludes impishly, if her daughter dates Mike Todd’s born-again Christian grandson, is it incest? (The question may give you pause.)

Drama school and her casting as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” – silly hairdo and all – round out the first act. It’s her off-again, on-again relationship (and marriage) to Paul Simon (immortalized in several of his songs), a second marriage to an agent who left her for another man (after fathering her daughter), and Fisher “invited” to enter a mental hospital are highlights of the second.

Under the sympathetic direction of Tony Taccone, Fisher – now attractively plump -- maintains a likable good humor and somehow avoids bitchiness even as she spins her incredible tales, because if this is a “tell-all” the number one target is herself, though yes, there are some juicy bits. Probably the most eyebrow-raising anecdote involves Reynolds’ apparently serious suggestion that her daughter might let herself be impregnated by Reynolds’ latest husband. (Fisher demurred.)

As Fisher’s maternal grandfather said, “A fly is as likely to land on a pile of shit, as on a pie.” She triumphantly proves it’s all how you look at it, her theme song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” bearing an only mildly ironic sting.

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through Jan. 3, 2010)

The Royal Family (The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

By the end of the first act with all its wildly frenetic hubbub and its stock maids and butlers dashing to and fro, I was beginning to think George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 send-up of the Barrymore acting clan had had its day. Does anyone remember or care about the Barrymores today, apart from Drew, that is? Is the over-the-top passionate dedication to Theater relevant today? Are the farcical shenanigans of the fictional Cavendish household really all that funny?

I was inclined to think not after watching the glossy 2001 London revival featuring Judi Dench as matriarch Fanny Cavendish and great-on-paper cast including Harriet Walter, Julia MacKenzie, Toby Stephens, and newcomer Emily Blunt. That glossy production had its moments, but it was no great shakes. And neither, as I recall, were the American accents.

By the second act of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new mounting, however, I was reminded that all it takes for this property to click is the right cast and a canny director.

Everyone fondly remembers the 1976 Ellis Rabb production with Rosemary Harris as middle generation Julia, the glamorous breadwinning star of the family. It’s easy enough to be reminded how good it was as the PBS broadcast of that production is still available on DVD.

Now Harris has graduated to Eva LeGallienne’s role of the aging (and ailing) Fanny, determined to hit the road once again. And she is, of course, superb. Jan Maxwell is now Julie, and she is masterful in every respect. When the action reaches fever pitch at the end of that second act and she is pushed beyond all endurance, Maxwell’s hysterical breakdown ending prostrate on the floor proves one of the all-time most enjoyably flamboyant displays of temper ever on the boards.

The show’s other comic standout is Reg Rogers as Julia’s hammy brother, Tony, modeled on John Barrymore. Having given up the stage for Hollywood, Tony, like Barrymore at the height of his silent movie fame, has fled back to New York, fleeing lawsuits for punching a director and breach of promise. He’s a whirlwind of swashbuckling affectation.

Tony Roberts was indisposed after a recent hospitalization but his part of manager Oscar Wolfe was expertly handled by Anthony Newfield. John Glover and Ana Gasteyer have the rather thankless roles of Fanny’s aging brother and talentless wife, but they fill the bill. Ditto Kelli Barrett as Gwen, Julia’s actress daughter, now poised to give up the stage for a blue-blooded non-actor (Freddy Arsenault). Julia herself finds herself in the same dilemma with the return of an old beau (Larry Pine) from South America.

John Lee Beatty has designed a gorgeously detailed town house, on which director Doug Hughes has done a nifty job of staging all the comic mayhem -- ringing buzzers and phones, package deliveries, dramatic entrances, hasty exits, heightened emotions – but also, ultimately, bringing out the text’s genuine poignancy. Unlike Peter Hall’s Judi Dench staging, this one makes persuasively clear what the theater means to this eccentric, endearing brood.

(Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hamlet (Broadhurst Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Jude Law gives a vibrant, passionate performance and speaks Shakespeare’s text with commendable clarity. This will come as no surprise to anyone who saw him in “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” at the Young Vic in London several years ago. He’s no slouch in classical roles.

On this occasion, though, it’s unfortunate that the production around him – via the Donmar Warehouse’s West End season (and a run at Elsinore in Denmark) -- seems so workmanlike, despite a solid British cast and a proven director.

For one thing, Law aside, the performances are a mixed bag. Kevin R. McNally as Claudius is rather lackluster until the prayer scene, his gruff affability breaking down with tears and ferocity. Ron Cook’s Polonius (and later the Gravedigger) was less a “foolish, prattling knave” in the former role, and more a tidy bureaucrat.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ophelia was well-spoken but bland. Peter Eyre was commanding as the ghost, but dull as the Player King. Geraldine James, replacing Penelope Wilton who played it in London, made an attractive Gertrude, but conveyed little inner conflict even after the closet scene.

There was decent work by Gwilym Lee as Laertes, Matt Ryan as Horatio, and Alan Turkington as Fortinbras. So, too, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were well contrasted, beyond the bi-racial casting of John MacMillan and Harry Atwell respectively: Guildenstern more crafty, Rosencrantz more humane.

For his part, Law made the familiar soliloquies sound fresh, if sometimes studied, and he often externalized his words with grand gestures. “To be or not to be” began upstage as snow fell against the towering concrete backdrop wall from set and costume designer Christopher Oram. (Logical enough as there’s a snow reference in the following scene with Ophelia.)

Donmar Artistic Director Michael Gandridge (who replaced the originally announced Kenneth Branagh) did give us several nice touches: Hamlet pushing apart the chairs for his mother and Claudius before the performance by the players. Hamlet’s swearing of Horatio and Marcellus to silence after the ghost, the final scene.

On the other hand, the closet scene was disappointing blocked. Hamlet and Gertrude were first seen behind a diaphanous curtain, with Polonius in front to show his perspective. Once he was skewered by Hamlet, the curtain was pulled down. But the mother-son confrontation – on the floor instead of the non-existent bed – was less Freudian than merely athletic.

It’s always a pleasure to hear the text so clearly delivered by good English actors after much substandard American Shakespeare, but there have been more compelling productions within recent memory, including last year’s Public Theatre production (by Oscar Eustis), with more interesting performances, accents aside. Recent British “Hamlets” with Simon Russell Beale, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephan Dillane also get higher marks overall.

The play runs three and a half hours, and though it doesn't exactly drag, the production only catches fire when Law is on stage. But he’s reason enough to catch this more than respectable and always comprehensible “Hamlet.”

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com; through Dec. 6)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

St. Trinian’s (NeoClassics Films)


By Harry Forbes

How, you might ask, could a remake of the 1954 British comedy classic, “The Belles of St. Trinian’s,” based on the characters created by artist Ronald Searle, possibly top that hilarious original with its lustrous cast including everyone’s favorite Scrooge, Alastair Sim (in a double role, one in drag), Joyce Grenfell, George Cole, Hermione Baddeley, and Beryl Reid?

Well, no surprise, it doesn’t. However, this updated and vulgarized version (a big hit in Britain, apparently) – chaotically directed by Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson – does feature a few game performances and, more or less, captures the original’s anarchic spirit.

The titular girl’s school is run by headmistress Camilla Fritton (Rupert Everett in Sims’ old role), with a curriculum unorthodox in the extreme. Black marketeering, betting, and shooting galleries with real ammo are the order of business. The older girls are sexually precocious beyond their years.

Along comes newcomer Annabelle (Talulah Riley), daughter of Carnaby Fritton (Everett again), Camilla’s shady brother. The poor girl is subjected to some horrific hazing, lead by “head girl” Kelly (Gemma Arterton). Annabelle’s videotaped in the shower, and must run naked back to her room, after which the video is posted on YouTube.

The institution comes under the humorless scrutiny of new Minister of Education Geoffrey Thwaites (Colin Firth whose image is lighted kidded throughout), who was once involved with Camilla. Bankruptcy and closure are threatened.

After a rambling first half, Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft’s screenplay kicks into gear with a heist involving Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from London’s National Gallery and a TV quiz show finale – shades of “Slumdog Millionaire ” -- all part of the girls’ efforts to save their school. The equivalent business in the original film involved an Arab sultan and a racehorse.

Russell Brand has some funny business as the girl’s shady black market dealer who fronts the girls’ shady wares.

The 2007 film was a big hit in Britain and a sequel – “St. Trinian’s: the Legend of Fritton’s Gold” -- is already in the works.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for thematic elements, drug and alcohol content, sexual material and language.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Education (Sony Pictures Classics)


By Harry Forbes

Jenny, the 16-year-old protagonist played by the excellent Carey Mulligan, gets an education all right, but not just the academic kind. This engrossing story, set in 1961 London, shows how a promising young teenager headed for Oxford University is thrown off track by the attentions of David, a charming older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard.

The screenplay, by Nick Hornby, was adapted from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber about her early life

Jenny comes from a resolutely middle-class background, living with her protective parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour). She’s a solid student, precociously dropping French phrases into her conversation, plays cello in the school orchestra, and it looks certain that she’ll live up to her father’s fretful aspirations.

When, returning from school cello in hand, waiting in the pouring rain for a bus that never comes, she accepts a lift home from David who expresses concern for her precious instrument.

In short order, he asks her to a concert. He wheedles permission from Jenny’s provincial parents with his disingenuous charm and subtle flattery of Jack overcoming the latter’s initially bigoted qualms over David’s Jewish heritage.

At the concert, Jenny meets his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper), who’s also his business partner, and Helen (Rosamund Pike), his flashy, warm-hearted but vapid girlfriend. Jenny’s schoolmate-admirer Graham (Matthew Beard) soon looks to her a dull rube by comparison.

Outings to a jazz club, an art auction, Oxford (on the pretext of meeting C.S. Lewis, of all people) follow in quick succession. Jenny’s parents even allow her to go to Paris, confident their daughter will be chaperoned by David’s putative aunt. But there are small signs that all is not right, as when Jenny observes David and Danny involved in some shady real estate dealings.

Throughout all this, you’re kept wondering if David is as sweetly respectful of Jenny’s youth and inexperience, as he seems.

In any case, after all the time she spends with David, Jenny’s studies inevitably suffer, and she begins to believe that what she’s experiencing with David and his fast crowd is far more important – not to mention enjoyable – than higher learning.

She scorns the stern admonition of the school’s headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, and by the prim and bespectacled English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who urges Jenny not to forego Oxford.

It is Mulligan’s performance that really holds the film together, believably mixing smarts with youthful naïveté while conveying underlying decency. She was 22 at the time of the shooting, but you wouldn’t guess it. Sarsgaard keeps his character appropriately enigmatic, though there’s never any doubt about the impropriety of the relationship. Mulligan and Sarsgaard shared the stage in “The Seagull” on Broadway last season, playing Nina and Trigorin respectively.

The performances are fine across the board, though, and Molina shines in a heartfelt speech to his daughter near the end of the film.

Besides guiding her cast to do such good work, Danish director Lone Scherfig creates an authentic sense of period.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Steady Rain (Schoenfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

First things first. Mega moviestars Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman – the former making his Broadway debut – are great as Chicago cops recounting the tumultuous events of several rain-soaked days. Both have solid theater backgrounds, so their assurance on the boards is not surprising, but their authentic Windy City accents and complete immersion in character are still mightily impressive.

When the curtain rises, the two men are seated and begin their respective narratives of those events face forward. But director John Crowley makes sure this is never static. Though the format is mostly alternating monologues, there’s plenty of interaction and more elaborate stage blocking when the script calls for it.

Craig is Joey, a lifelong Irish-American bachelor who’s had a drinking problem. Jackman is Denny, a resolute family Italian-American. They’ve been fast friends since childhood, but it’s clear that for all their camaraderie, Denny can be a bully, not only to Joey, and also to his wife and kids, much as he genuinely loves them. He’s also a racist, not above taking bribes, and he has a powder keg temper.

Denny tries to hook up his friend romantically with a prostitute (of all people) whom he invites to his house for dinner. (Joey’s an almost nightly guest at Denny’s table.) But reserved Joey doesn’t take the bait.

When Denny gallantly offers to drive the hooker home, he falls for her himself. Denny’s wife suspects the affair, and Joey offers consolation, leading to subliminal tension between the pals. Then, when Denny runs afoul of the prostitute’s pimp, matters take a violent turn, propelling the play to its gripping climax.

The narrative – allegedly based on a true event in Milwaukee -- is fairly gripping in itself, and Chicago playwright Keith Huff’s writing is strong and authentic to the milieu – but without strong leads, this would count for little. You have no trouble forgetting that you’re watching 007 and Wolverine, or that Jackman is such an adept song and dance man.

Some of what happens is reminiscent of TV procedural and other dramas about bad cops we've seen before, but Huff has a distinct voice, and his portrayal of a complex co-dependent relationship rings true. Above all, he’s constructed a solid theater piece.

Though the eyes focus on the actors and the two chairs against mostly a sea of darkness, Scott Pask’s set – a backdrop of Chicago tenements -- is strikingly illuminated at key moments.

Marquee luster aside, Craig and Jackman’s performances are likely to stand tall among the performances yet to come this theater season.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Invention of Lying (Warner Bros. Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

“The Invention of God” is more like it.

This deceptively innocuous – but surprisingly subversive -- romantic comedy starts out amusingly enough. The Massachusetts setting suggests small town Americana, but in this parallel universe, the concept of lying has not yet been invented, and everyone speaks the bluntly honest truth at all times. Even the signage tells it strictly like it is: a lodging is a “Cheap Motel for Intercourse with the Nearest Stranger.” A bar is a “Cheap Place to Drink.” And so on.

Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful screenplay writer. He works for Lecture Films, purveyors of filmed lectures (all there is, as there’s no such thing as fiction), run by the perpetually exasperated Anthony (Jeffrey Tambor). Tina Fey is rather wasted as a bitchy receptionist. (Some other stars, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton make cameo appearances.)

Mark is hopelessly smitten with the patrician Anna (played appropriately with fable-like innocence by Jennifer Garner), cousin of his best friend Greg (Louis C.K.). They go on a date. But though she later admits she enjoyed his company, she feels their relationship can go no further as he’s “not in her league,” and she worries they’d have fat kids with little snub noses. And that would never do.

Anna is also pursued by Mark’s handsome but dim and mean-spirited office rival Brad (Rob Lowe), whom she believes would provide a more suitable genetic match, even as her friendship with Mark deepens.

When Mark loses his job, and is about to be evicted from his apartment, he inadvertently secures the needed rent money when the bank teller misinterprets his faltering remark about the size of his account. She assumes a bank error, and blithely hands over the desired amount.

Having thus uttered the world’s first lie, he soon puts his new gift to further use, not just raking in money for himself and his Greg, but with compassionate (if not truthful) words lifting the spirits among all he encounters, including his suicidal neighbor Frank (Jonah Hill).

Things take a darker turn at the deathbed of his ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan). When her doctor (Jason Bateman in a cameo role) bluntly informs her she’s about to die, she cries piteously how she dreads the nothingness of the afterlife. As the “lie” of religion has not yet been invented, Mark improvises a version of heaven and an all seeing “man in the sky,” while he doctor and his staff listen in hushed wonderment.

She dies peacefully, but before long, word spreads of Mark’s wisdom on spiritual matters, and he’s compelled to hold a press conference on his front porch – delivering a modern-day version of the Ten Commandments written on Pizza Hut boxes – describing in humane terms concepts we would call God, heaven, hell, and sin. But it’s merely a salve to a gullible populace. Later, dejected at Anna’s engagement to Brad, he becomes a recluse, with a Jesus beard and bed sheets.

Ironically, Gervais -- who also co-wrote and directed the film with Matthew Robinson – gives perhaps his most sympathetic performance yet, but in addition to the tonally misguided script, the direction is singularly uninspired.

Those of a non-believing frame of mind may find this just their cup of tea. Others will be less pleased about the film’s underlying atheistic message, despite the surface gloss. Does a largely sentimental movie-going public really want to hear Mark speaking to his mother at her graveside that, despite all he’s said publicly about an afterlife, he knows she’s really in the ground?

Religious matters aside, some of the gags are amusing, but others are only so-so. And though Anna’s growing realization that what’s below the skin is more important than surface perfection is an admirable if commonplace sentiment, we’ve seen this theme more satisfyingly dramatized elsewhere.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for language including some sexual material and a drug reference.)

Zombieland (Columbia Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

You might not think so from the title, but “Zombieland” is a funny and even touching action comedy about four disparate characters – survivors of a world where a virus has turned nearly everyone into flesh-eating zombies – who become reluctant comrades.

First, there’s nerdy, highly phobic college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s figured out a list of hard and fast rules for dealing with zombies (and these appear on screen for comic emphasis each time he states them). He joins forces with tough-talking road cowboy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) who, when he’s not gleefully bashing or shooting zombies, is engaged in the eternal search for one of the world’s last Twinkies.

For all their smarts, they soon get ripped off by a pair of con artist sisters: Wichita (Emma Stone) and 12-year-old Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

But finally, forced to unite against the diseased mutants, they decide make their way from Garland, Texas to California’s Pacific Playland, a theme park said to be zombie-free.

Along the way, they take refuge in a deserted Los Angeles mansion – the home of actor Bill Murray, Tallahassee’s idol, and have an extended zombie-free, and for Columbus and Wichita, slightly romantic, interlude. And yes, Murray himself is on hand for an amusing cameo.

Eisenberg and Harrelson make an inspired comic duo. Harrelson’s wacky performance here provides an impressively striking contrast to his superb serious work in the soon-to-be-released “The Messenger.” Stone and Breslin make appealing counterparts, once they drop their tough personas.

Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s script is remarkably consistent for most of the film’s 87 minutes.

Though primarily a comedy, the squeamish should know the zombie sequences are played for real with enough flesh chomping and gore to satisfy fans of the genre. But the most extreme of those sequences comes early in the film just to establish that the threat to the central foursome is real. And Maher Ahmad’s production design – a cluttered and desolate landscape -- is as convincing as any post-apocalyptic flick. But, on the whole, it’s the pervasive threat, rather than on-screen presence, of the zombies that permeates the film.

Ruben Fleischer, in his feature film debut, balances the horror and comedy-romance with nicely, and the climactic Playland sequence is well executed.

Tallahassee tells Columbus to “enjoy the little things.” The same advice might be applied to this lightweight but thoroughly engaging film.

(Rated R by the MPAA for horror violence/gore and language.)