Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked Predictably, I overheard a moviegoer say to the ticket-seller, “I’d like to see Juliet, Naked.” You should see it too (trailer)! Nick Hornby’s novel has been turned into a highly entertaining romantic comedy directed by Jesse Peretz. The strong script is by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins.

The story starts with an awkward website video, in which Duncan (played to hilarious effect by Chris O’Dowd) rattles on about obscure American rocker Tucker Crowe, who has not been seen in decades, much less produced any new music. Duncan lives with Annie (the delectable Rose Byrne), who runs a small museum in a seaside British town. The museum’s biggest attraction is a shark’s eyeball, bobbing in formaldehyde.

To the dismay of  megafan Duncan, Annie doesn’t especially appreciate Tucker Crowe, nor how his music has taken over their listening and the mystery of his disappearance their conversation. Like anyone obsessed with in a very small slice of life’s enormous pizza, Duncan is tedious in the extreme. (Juliet, Naked is an album title, I think.)

When Annie posts a few of her less flattering thoughts about Tucker Crowe on Duncan’s website, Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke) responds. To her surprise, he agrees with her, and they begin a secret trans-Atlantic email correspondence. The two have great charm together, playing off each other and admitting their shortcomings. They’re neither one perfect and able to admit it.

Crowe is living in the center of the United States, somewhere, in a garage lent him by his ex-wife, and taking part-time care of their young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). We soon learn another woman is the mother of his grown daughter, who’s now pregnant, and he has twin boys by yet another. He’s barely in touch with these children and totally out of touch with the daughter of his first love, Juliet.

Perhaps it’s the pseudo-anonymity of email that encourages him to speak to Annie. When he has a trip to London, the face-to-face is awkward. It might be the beginning of a relationship, but there are a lot of kids and partners in the way.

What I loved about this movie, in addition to the fine acting, is that the situation avoids the typical Hollywood relationship clichés (which the movie Puzzle fell prey to, disappointingly), and strives for honesty.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences: 90%.

P.S. I love the crazy job titles that turn up in movie credits. In this one: “Petty cash buyer.”

Puzzle

Puzzle, Kelly McDonald, Irrfan KhanWhile you can’t fault the acting in this new Marc Turtletaub rom-com, written by Oren Moverman, it contains few surprises (trailer). All the typical Hollywood assumptions about relations between men and women are on display, along with filmmakers’ strange notions about how ordinary people in relationships or financial turmoil actually behave.

Agnes (played by Kelly Macdonald), has been married a couple of decades to Louie (David Denman), who owns an auto repair shop, and they have two sons, the unhappy Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and his younger brother Gabe (Austin Abrams), who’s planning to go to college and is in love. Agnes isn’t happy and she isn’t unhappy; she’s in a disappointed stasis.

They live in one of the Connecticut suburbs of New York—Bridgeport, I think. They don’t travel, not even into the city. (It’s a cinch she doesn’t have a passport, the significance of which I won’t explain.) If they have a vacation, they go to their cottage on the lake. The adults’ attitudes about sex-roles predate the Eisenhower Administration—as does Agnes’s wardrobe—though they are only in their forties now. In short, the premise seems dated. Not that there aren’t still people with old-fashioned ideas and lives, but we’ve seen that movie.

Agnes is aware that, while she engages in an endless round of housekeeping, meal preparation, and church lady functions, life is passing her by. A poignant moment occurs early when she decorates the house for a birthday party, serves the food and cleans up, and brings out the huge chocolate-frosted cake she’s made so people can sing happy birthday—to her. The only pastime she truly enjoys is working jigsaw puzzles, and she’s a whiz at it.

One day she sees an ad from a person seeking a puzzle partner. She contacts him and, in a move that surprises even herself, takes the commuter train into New York to meet him. Robert (Irrfan Khan) tries her out and is amazed, and they practice two days a week, aiming for the forthcoming national championships.

Louie would object to her spending a day in the city (“Where’s my dinner?”) so she lies about it. That seems out of character, as do a number of her subsequent actions. Meanwhile, her puzzle partner Robert is the only man who takes an interest in her interior life or even supposes she has one. She is like someone dying of thirst offered a glass of water. You’ve guessed the rest.

Denman’s portrayal of Louie, who may have been conceived as a cardboard anti-feminist, is so sympathetic that he actually doesn’t come off as a bad guy.

I was sorry I didn’t like this movie as much as the critics do because I love jigsaw puzzles myself, and what the movie says about the mental process of working on them seemed to me exactly right. They make order out of chaos, when what Agnes is doing is, at least for a time, the exact opposite.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences: 78%.

Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit

Brent Harris, Kate MacCluggage, Tina Stafford; photo: Jerry Dalia

Conceived during London’s 1941 Blitz and brought to the page in a six-day writing frenzy, Noël Coward’s quirky comedy Blithe Spirit was meant to counteract the gloom overtaking the country as battlefield deaths mounted and national collapse seemed possible. It became one of the West End’s longest running non-musical productions, with almost 2,000 performances.

The version currently at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on stage through September 2, once again proves this work’s lasting ability to appeal. With spirited direction by Victoria Mack, it moves along briskly, retaining Coward’s farcical elements, though for me, at least, condensing some of that would be appreciated. A bit of business funny the first time isn’t as amusing on the fourth or fifth go.

Still, the author’s ability to craft a witty epigram that seems perfectly apt seventy years later is firmly intact. My favorite, out of the mouth of Charles Condomine: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Charles, the husband of the story (played by Brent Harris), lives apparently quite happily with his wife Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) in elegant, upperclass English drawing-room style. With unreliable assistance from their well-intentioned maid Edith (Bethany Kay), they put on a dinner party for friends.

The party entertainment will be a séance conducted by a local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford). What seemed a harmless bit of fun unexpectedly conjures the ghost of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Susan Maris), whom only Charles can see and hear. She interacts with him, though for everyone else, his reactions to her are inexplicable (too many martinis?). He tries to pass them off as a joke.

Intent on disrupting Charles’s current marriage by one means or another, Elvira is a devious and unsympathetic character. Coward thus avoided evoking the sadness that might have accompanied a play so concerned with the death of a young person. (Note that the play ends slightly differently than the movie version, in which Rex Harrison played Charles.)

Harris, who was brilliant in STNJ’s production of Tartuffe earlier this season, shines again, and MacCluggage, as Ruth, extracts every bit of nuance from her character. Stafford and Kay both have the opportunity for broad physical comedy and make the most of it, delightfully. Somehow, the character of Elvira didn’t work for me; she was so slinky and manipulative, it was hard to understand Charles’s attraction, in either her corporeal or spiritual form.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade Comedian Bo Burnham wrote and directed this debut comedy about a girl approaching the end of eighth grade (trailer). Seeing this movie makes your present life look pretty darn good! So while it’s funny, it’s painfully so. Been there. Or someplace similar. While American adolescence has been typically miserable for generations, today’s added dimension is the unrelenting pressure of social media.

The awkward, socially ignored Kayla creates self-help vlogs on topics like “putting yourself out there” and “growing up.” They are mainly a way for this suburban teen to articulate her own confused thoughts and give a pep-talk to herself, because at some point we see her usage stats. No one watches them.

Though New Yorker critic Richard Brody complains that the introvert Kayla has no friends and seems to have no interests (forgetting her participation in the extremely forgettable school band), he’s overlooking not just the video production, but also the way constantly scouring social media dominates Kayla’s day. There’s no time left for swim team or cheerleading practice or piano lessons.

Elsie Fisher does a remarkable playing Kayla. In fact, all the kids are perfect, including “mean girl” Kennedy (played by Catherine Oliviere), for whom Kayla is a non-entity or worse. Message from Kennedy to Kayla: “hi so my mom told me to invite you to my thing tomorrow so this is me doing that.” Kayla is reticent, slightly hunched, but moving forward doggedly, whether to class, a pool party, or, well, life. You have to admire her, including her drive to help others.

At one point, a boy makes a pass at Kayla. Women watching this film will see an all-too-familiar dynamic when he turns what happens into her fault and she ends up apologizing.“Sorry,” she keeps saying, when of course she should have punched his lights out.

Contrast this role and performance with that of Tom in the much-hyped Leave no Trace. Unlike director Debra Granik, Burnham gives Fisher plenty to do, and she does it, with all the stumbling and uncertainty of a thirteen-year-old trying to live up to expectations, but not quite sure what those are.

Kayla’s relationship with her father, a single dad (Josh Hamilton), is what you’d expect. He reaches out, but most of the time she’s too absorbed in her own world to think he’s anything other than embarrassing. Points for hanging in, Dad.

To quote Kayla, “Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.” Absolutely.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 87%.

American Animals

American AnimalsIn writer-director Bart Layton’s entertaining new film (trailer), four bored college students plot to steal priceless works from the library of Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. Is this a daydream, or will they go through with it? Should they do more than watch old heist films to prepare?

A vivid demonstration of Murphy’s Law, their wildly inadequate scheme is both hilarious and tension-filled. Yet, as far-fetched as it may seem, the film is based on a real episode from 2004 and includes fourth-wall breaking interviews and current-day reflections of the actual would-be thieves and their parents. Using his skills a documentary filmmaker, Layton cleverly meshes their different perspectives on events (who decided what when), and his energetic recreation of their misbegotten enterprise is “singularly fascinating” says Cary Darling in the Houston Chronicle.

The four criminal masterminds are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. The librarian they must disable is played by Ann Dowd (if you’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll recognize her voice before you even see her).

Drifty art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) wants something to happen in his life. The idea of the theft comes to him as a kind of vague “what if?”, but when he shares it with Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), he’s found someone with the single-minded enthusiasm to turn it into a sort-of reality.

Have you ever pursued an idea long past the moment when it makes any sense? Then you can understand how the four students got carried away, trapped by their own momentum. What starts out as an especially brazen prank by privileged college students has a long tail of consequences, and at times the former students’ articulate silences express their belated second thoughts. A visual theme based on the paintings of John James Audubon—one of the works they plan to steal is his Birds of America—recurs throughout, adding grace notes to a tawdry episode.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85% ; audiences: 91%.

Tartuffe

Tartuffe

photo: JerryDalia

A theatrical work maintains its ability to delight audiences for more than 350 years for one reason: continued relevance. Such is the case with Molière’s comic masterpiece Tartuffe, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This sparkling production, directed by STNJ’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, opened May 19 and runs through June 10.

In 1664, Tartuffe so scandalized the powers-that-be with its take-down of religious hypocrisy and false piety that the right wing clergy banned it. After a few text changes and with French King Louis XIV’s strong support, the ban was lifted five years later. In the current era, with #MeToo, families rent by political divisions, and the difference between truth and lies increasingly contentious, Tartuffe hits home once again.

A 2018 audience responds with fresh outrage to a situation in which a woman is threatened with rape, but the man accusing her attacker is disbelieved—“Now you know what it’s like not to be believed,” says a female character. Today’s audience likewise has a robust appreciation for the wiles of con man and dissembler Tartuffe (played by Brent Harris), his credulous and all-too-willing victim, Orgon (Patrick Toon), and the frustrated household members who cannot convince him of the deception.

That household includes Orgon’s wife Elmire (Caroline Kinsolving), daughter (Sarah Nicole Deaver), son (Aaron McDaniel), Elmire’s brother (William Sturdivant), and the saucy maid Dorine (Victoria Mack). Only Orgon and his mother (Vivian Reed) side with Tartuffe against the family.

Orgon took the pious Tartuffe in when he was a beggar, installed him in his home, and moves him closer and closer to the center of family life. His next plan is to rescind permission for his daughter to marry her love and instead wed her to the odious Tartuffe. Several scenes take place in which Tartuffe’s unwelcome intrusions are thoroughly discussed before we see the man himself. When he does appear, Brent Harris does not disappoint. He is so-o-o-oo smarmy, wearing a long white-blonde wig as pallid as his pieties.

The entire cast is strong, especially Toon and Kinsolving, the delectable Deaver (she has a great scene with her fiancé, played by Mark Hawkins), and Mack and McDaniel’s lively physical comedy. Reed lends an unexpected, preacherly African-American cadence that works admirably with the verse. (The translation is by Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, the late Richard Wilbur).While some of the speeches tend to be long, the production is so full of movement and wit that it never flags.

Brittany Vasta’s elegant set is perfect for quick entrances, dramatic exits, and closet-hiding, and the mouth-watering costumes are by Nikki Delhomme.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Turning Off the Morning News

Turning Off the Morning News

photo: T. Charles Erickson

For the subject of his latest play, Christopher Durang has reached into the stewpot of Americans’ current malaise and plucked out one of the most difficult of all: gun violence. This challenging, yet comic new 90-minute production had its world premiere at McCarter Theatre Center May 12 and runs through June 3. McCarter also premiered Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, 2013 winner of  the Tony Award for Best Play.

The new play features Kristine Nielsen as Polly, endlessly talkative, whose dialog is pure stream-of-consciousness. John Pankow plays her underachieving husband Jimmy. He announces at the outset that he’s depressed and considering killing himself, his family, or perhaps strangers at the mall. Nicholas Podany is their 13-year-old son. These bizarre parents have never told him he’s adopted, and when he inadvertently learns it, he’s relieved.

Rachel Nicks (Salena) and Robert Sella (Clifford) play the couple’s new neighbors. They’re meant to be the sane ones, but they have secrets too. And Jean Harris plays Rosalind, a new friend of Salena’s, in a role right out of the theater of the absurd catalog: to avoid skin cancer, she wears a pillowcase over her head and does a manic dance when tension becomes too much.

The underlying story—Jimmy’s threats to kill people—will make this play difficult for some audiences. It was for me. Still, I could appreciate much of the excruciatingly dark humor, and the cast puts it over well. It may be funny, but it isn’t fluff. The play’s director, Emily Mann, says the play not only exposes today’s personal and societal anxieties, “it also gently reveals the antidote—reaching out beyond ourselves to find connection with others.”

Important in the play are what is seen and not seen. Polly introduces this idea when she misplaces a potted plant that is in full audience view. Subsequently, several characters see Jimmy leaving the house in disguise, they don’t see the semi-automatic weapons protruding from the duffel he carries. Polly sees the guns but dismisses their importance. For me, this device directly echoes the typical speculations after a mass shooting: “Why did the shooter even have a gun? Didn’t they (whoever ‘they’ are) see he was unhinged/angry/writing in his diary he wanted to kill people?”

All the performances are solid, but the cast standout is Kristine Nielsen, who keeps her knees slightly bent, ready to move in any direction—physically, mentally, emotionally—and brilliantly captures the play’s lightning-fast changes in mood and tone. Jean Harris is also a gifted physical actor, filling her portrayal with well-realized gestures.

Beowulf Boritt’s set conveys a suburban community of overwhelming—and totally  misleading—sameness. On the outside, the houses are all such a buttery yellow you could spread them on toast. Mark Bennett (sound design) has created jaunty sit-com music to introduce scenes in Polly and Jimmy’s house, which differs sharply from the classical music and cool grey of Salena and Clifford’s residence. In different ways, both households have turned off the morning news and Durang suggests that hasn’t worked well for either of them.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

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

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

On Stage: A Loverly New “My Fair Lady”

my-fair-lady-poster2This spring Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is presenting the first new production of Lerner and Loewe’s irresistible musical My Fair Lady in a quarter-century. Opening night for this production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is April 19. We were lucky to get good seats for a preview performance and enjoyed it tremendously.

Lauren Ambrose (Claire in Six Feet Under) plays the redoubtable Eliza Doolittle, with spirit and a knock-your-socks-off singing voice. It turns out she had classical voice training, but this is the first time since high school she’s had a role that let her use it.

Ambrose’s Eliza is more than Higgins’s life-sized doll, as she’s transformed from cockney flower girl to elegant lady. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I’m fighting for the dignity of the character.” This helps counter some of the show’s ideas that are uncomfortably dated, though Henry Higgins remains a deliciously irredeemable throwback. His “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” is right out of a time capsule. Yet the play as a whole overcomes that successfully in this #MeToo moment.

You’ll recognize Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Professor Higgins, from numerous roles on British television, most recently in The Crown. Unlike Rex Harrison, he can actually sing. The cast-member who is our sentimental favorite is Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering. We met him when he played Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre, and seeing Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins was a delicious treat!

Any actor playing Alfred P. Doolittle has the gift of two rousing numbers—“A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and Norbert Leo Butz plays them for all they’re worth, supported by his two semi-sober pals. He has everything he needs to bring the house down, and, boy, does he. Great support from the huge (29 members!) and hugely talented ensemble.

Michael Yeargan’s main set is on a revolving turntable, and the rest is designed for quick scene changes and continuous movement. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are loverly, especially for the scenes at the Ascot races—a golden opportunity for the costume designer to pull all the stops. The red taffeta coat Eliza wears to the Embassy Ball is a brave and dramatic choice for the red-haired Ambrose. That’s a scene where her dress has to be up to the drama of the moment: “She is a princess,” after all. But I’m still trying to figure out what color that dress was.

I especially appreciated that the orchestra—part of which appears on stage for the ballroom scene—did not drown out the singing.

MFL is often considered “the perfect musical.” If you’ve never seen the show, or if you haven’t seen it in years, it will leave a big smile on your face. “What in all of heaven can have prompted you to go?” The promise of a terrific evening at the theater!

The Band’s Visit

The Band's VisitIf you saw the award-winning 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, you’ll recall what a charming story lies behind this new musical, directed by David Cromer, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (video clip).

The eight-man Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, is invited to Israel to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. Due to a language mix-up, the band members end up in the desolate, nothing-happening-here desert town of Beit Hatikva.

There is no hotel, only a tiny restaurant, and no transportation to their correct destination until for another day. With varying degrees of wariness and acceptance, the townspeople take them in and, suffice it to say, everyone learns something. The leading roles are played by Tony Shalhoub as the band leader and Karina Lenk as the bored restaurant owner, with a large and accomplished supporting cast of actors and actor-musicians.

As it’s a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses, there are the requisite singing numbers, as well as numerous opportunities for one or two or three of the band members to play in background, often a folk-derived tune. Those are especially nice.

The production is receiving much positive attention and already considered a shoo-in for several Tony awards, perhaps partly because of its heartwarming message, as well as some endearing performances. The movie was funnier, though, and at times the background music overpowered the singing, so I couldn’t catch the lyrics. Lenk sits awkwardly and undulates a little too much a little too often in some scenes (is she feeling the music?). The contrast between her sensuality and the stiffly upright band leader is evident without that.

This is one of the new 90-minute, no intermission entertainments that are increasingly popular and a good-hearted, pleasing hour and half it is. But you say you’re not in New York? Watch for the touring production already booked in major cities around the country, starting next year.