Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express - Corduner

Allan Corduner as Hercule Poirot in McCarter Theatre Center’s Murder on the Orient Express; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here’s a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.

Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.

In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.

The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes).

In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.

In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic plot create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.

In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

Up on Our Housetop

Naughty or Nice

photo: Mobilus in Mobili, creative commons license

What with new snow on the ground in parts of the country, there’s a remote possibility you can tolerate another morsel of Christmas. Below find the sum total of my non-culinary creative output for late December! I wrote it for the children in our family—Lincoln (age 8), Indiana (almost 7), and Irving (age 5), plus their mom, Alix (age redacted). Sing it to that familiar holiday tune!

“Up on Our Housetop”

First comes a present for Mr. Lincoln
A Chemistry Set? What was Santa thinkin’!
Next thing we know, a big explosion,
Police cars, fire trucks—what a commotion!
(Chorus: Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go,
Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.

Next is a talking doll for Indie,
She’s so pretty she names her Cindy,
But all Cindy says is “Wash up!” and “Clean!”
And Indie says she’s just too mean!
(Chorus)

Then there’s a deck of cards for Irv,
Boy, that Santa’s really got some nerve,
Irv plays so well, he’s never beaten
And Lincoln says, “It’s ʼcause he’s cheatin’!”
(Chorus)

Last there’s a present for Alexandra,
Oh, what’s this? It’s a movie camera!
She films all the toys that have caused such tears
And writes Santa, “Please do better next year!”
(Chorus)

(Applause and pass the hot toddies.)

Santa Claus

photo: Bill McChesney, creative commons license

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has long been a staple of family holiday celebrations in Central New Jersey. Even 18 years  after the previous version premiered, the show routinely drew huge crowds during its December run. Still, it was time for a new approach, and the revamped 2016 production has been eagerly anticipated.

Director Adam Immerwahr sought a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling new production, which premiered December 10 and runs through December 31. Immerwahr’s intent was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.”  Then he filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era” (carol playlist). Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,”  whose music was composed by Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Warner Miller) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively, including: Fred/Undertaker (JD Taylor), Lily/Belle (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Fan/Miss Kate (Kelsey Carroll), Solicitor Matthew/Young Scrooge (A.J. Shively), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Lance Roberts), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters and many parts amount to a cameo, but all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivy Cordle) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Elisha Lawson) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective (frightening a child sitting in front of me) and has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

A Christmas Carol

photo: T. Charles Erickson

The cast is augmented by a 27-member community ensemble, which greets theatre-goers, carols and rings bells from the stage, the aisles, and the boxes, and dances exuberantly! Members of this adult group, plus a dozen-member children’s ensemble were recruited through partnerships with ten local organizations and schools. The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Also underscoring the community nature of this production are the theater’s plans for sold-out Fezziwig Parties, a drama workshop for children on the theme of kindness and generosity (called Cratchit Kindness) on December 28, engagement of local businesses in developing unique refreshments for patrons, as well as its usual audio-described and American Sign Language interpreted performance (December 17) and an open captioned performance (December 18).

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Café Society

Cafe_Society, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Woody Allen

Eisenberg & Stewart with the director

In the new film written, directed, and narrated by Woody Allen (trailer), actor Jesse Eisenberg gets the Allen role and at times, early in the film, appears to be channeling his klutz persona. But the part requires something more, and Eisenberg delivers that as well.

In the 1930s, Bronx-raised Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) travels to Hollywood to look for work with his big cheese uncle (Steve Carell). He keeps semi-busy, but mostly falls in love with his uncle’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Alas, she says her heart is spoken for, though Bobby gives romancing her an energetic, hopeful shot.

Missing New York, Bobby returns to Manhattan to work for his sleazy older brother’s new nightclub, which he helps turn into The Place To Be. Bobby becomes a smooth and sophisticated operator in that world. You know he’ll meet Vonnie again, though what will happen . . . Eisenberg and Stewart add real substance to these characters, and her performance has been widely, rightly praised.

If you like Woody Allen’s humor, the scenes with Bobby’s parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) are classic and hilarious. There’s not much story to hold the whole schmear together, but perfect moments of Hollywood hype and Manhattan glitz make it fun to watch. Fantastic score of 1930s jazz, beautiful and atmospheric cinematography, and big dose of nostalgia for a pre-digital age.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 72%; audiences: 68%.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the WilderpeopleThis New Zealand comic gem (trailer) is about 13-year-old misfit Ricky Baker, whose last-resort foster placement is way, way out in the bush. Frankly, he’d rather be in urban Wellington or Christchurch, hanging with his homies, busting out to his walkman, tagging prime real estate, and living the gangsta life (in his head). But it isn’t to be. He’s too far and too needy to make it back. Not for want of trying.

When Ricky (played superbly by Julian Dennison) disappears into the bush with his foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill, almost unrecognizable under a beard), the child protective system moves into high gear to “rescue” him. This dramatic and high-profile effort to save the boy, one can only imagine, comes after a dozen years of ignoring his needs and the quality and suitability of his placements atop no real understanding of what children need.

Directed with great energy by Taika Waititi, who also wrote the script, it has perhaps one chase scene that goes on too long, but as it occurs, the viewer is still basking in the enjoyment of Hec and Ricky’s hilarious encounter with a real bush man. Colander, anyone?

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times acknowledges Waititi’s effervescent touch reminiscent of Wes Anderson, and says, “Charming and funny, it is a drama masquerading as a comedy about an unloved boy whom nobody wants until someone says, Yes, I’ll love him.” And you will, too.

The credits include mention of drone pilots, and, though there are numerous helicopters in the plot, drones enable an amount of aerial photography heretofore prohibitively expensive. In the film’s travelogue dimensions, also awesome.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 100%!; audiences 92%.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)(revised)

Shakespeare Theatre of NJYou may recall with delight the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), whose madcap condensation of Shakespeare’s plays began making the rounds in 1981 and became one of the theater world’s most-produced plays. Some of the funniest material from the play’s many international productions has made its way into this new version—“updated for the 21st century”—by the three founding members of RSC: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield.

It’s a fast-moving farce, well suited for The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s (STNJ) annual outdoor stage production. This new production has new surprises, including a rap version of Othello (thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda). As directed by Jeffrey M. Bender, it’s as antic and energetic as its predecessor. It would have to be, since (abridged)(revised) presents all 37 plays and the sonnets, after a fashion, in 97 minutes. There’s one intermission an hour in—Red Bull break for the cast, methinks.

The cast includes STNJ regular Jon Barker (a master of body language), Connor Carew, and Patrick Toon, each changing personae at the blink of an eye or slapping on of a wig. Carew’s Ophelia is hilarious, and Toon is a lustily belligerent Romeo. From time to time, there are bits of audience participation, perfect for the relaxed atmosphere of the outdoor stage.

The clever set comprises giant volumes of the Bard’s works. The books’ spines conceal doors, prop drawers, and the like. While the set and the setting are great, and the cast does an amazing job, the script itself fits my mother-in-law’s ambiguous phrase, “it is what it is.” A couple of the most familiar plays—Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet—receive more attention than the others, and the roller-coaster ride through the comedies is great fun.

We overheard that some of the reworking of material was intended to make this play—and perhaps Shakespeare’s works themselves—“more attractive to a younger audience.” In line with that goal, tickets are free for kids 18 and younger at the Outdoor Stage, thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Bank of America.

Presumably, the younger audience in question means 14-year-old boys, given the emphasis on bawdy humor of the type that makes them giggle knowingly. The script has enough gags—verbal and sight—that there’s no need to tarry in some of the more obvious places (“the last four letters” of Coriolanus, for example). While what people will find funny is heavily a matter of individual taste, Sunday’s audience at STNJ found enough of what they liked to give the performers steady laughter and an enthusiastic reception.

Through July 31 at the beautiful outdoor Greek Theatre on the campus of the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey. Arrive early, take a picnic.

For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online.

Maggie’s Plan

Ethan Hawke, Greta Gerwig, Maggie's Plan

Ethan Hawke & Greta Gerwig in Maggie’s Plan

Tons of history and your mom tell you falling for a married man is a chancy way to find happiness and a father for your baby. In this romantic comedy by writer-director Rebecca Miller (trailer), the unlikely happens and aspiring novelist John Harding (played by Ethan Hawke) actually divorces his self-absorbed, chilly wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) and marries the girl. They have a lovely baby. A couple of years on, though, the marriage is just not working.

That’s when Maggie (Greta Gerwig) develops her plan. She’ll try to get John and Georgette back together.

There are some nice moments and some funny moments, though the comedy is never quite as screwball as it might have been. As a tale of female manipulation, Maggie’s efforts don’t reach the delicious complexity of Lady Susan Vernon  in Love & Friendship, also in theaters now.  Lady Susan plows ahead like an ocean liner, let the devil take the hindmost, and that creates a more comic effect than the rather more realistic angsty New Yorkers in Maggie’s web.

Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are a prickly married couple, long-time friends of Maggie, stuck to each other like burrs. Mina Sundwall is John And Georgette’s teenage daughter, a perfect adolescent cynic.

Gerwig gives an engaging performance, Hawke is always interesting, and Julianne Moore shines as the ambitious academic—with a Danish accent, no less. There’s a real New York feel to the film, too. Says Christy Lemire in RogerEbert.com, director Miller “truly gets the city’s rhythms and idiosyncracies, and her dialogue frequently sparkles.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 59%.

Love & Friendship

Lady Susan, Kate BeckinsaleIn this brilliantly funny movie (trailer), writer-director Whit Stillman takes on a lesser-known early Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan. It’s a a gem of female manipulation cut and polished on male cluelessness, and Lady Susan Vernon is the lapidarist in chief.

In this early epistolary novel (probably written when Austen was only 23), the author’s disdain for the treatment of women is evident, and her character gets her revenge, deliciously. Though it’s still the cake underneath  her better-known novels, there it’s masked by a thicker romantic frosting (see this recent post about the dark subtext of Austen’s novels).

Near-penniless, Lady Susan must find a husband for herself and her daughter, and Kate Beckinsale is a powerful Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” The cast is strong, with Chloë Sevigny as the American Alicia Johnson, Susan’s co-conspirator, eager to avoid being returned to Connecticut, Susan’s perceptive sister-in-law Catherine (played by Emma Greenwell), and long-suffering daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Jemma Redgrave, playing Catherine’s mother, immediately reveals herself as an heir to the British acting family through her strong physical resemblance to auntie Vanessa.

The men are cheerfully dim-witted, none more so than Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). With £10,000 a year, he’s as rich as Darcy. But he’s also “a bit of a rattle”—“Regency slang for blithering idiot,” A.O. Scott reminds us in The New York Times. “How jolly! Tiny green balls. What are they called?” Sir James asks, pushing them around his dinner plate. “Peas.” Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) is not dim, but even he is no match for Susan’s calculated charm offensive and her “uncanny understanding of men’s natures.”

Quite apropos of the current political season, friends Susan and Alicia blithely justify their most outrageous behavior, putting themselves always on the high ground. At one point, when confronted with her own irrefutable error, Susan snaps, “Facts are horrid things.” Clearly, a woman for this season.

Above and beyond the satisfying plot, delicious characters, and irresistible pull toward respectable matrimony, the charming countryside (filmed in Ireland) and gorgeous costumes are worth the price of admission. Over the story, widow Susan’s costumes go from all-black deep mourning, to light mourning (grey and lavender), to none at all. When she dons that scarlet dress, look out! “It all ends up pretty much as expected,” Scott says, “and yet also manages to take you by surprise.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 74% (I’m betting audiences find it “talky.” But in the talk, there’s wit.)