Lady Bird & I, Tonya

Both these movies have garnered impressive award nominations, but if you have “mommy issues,” you may want to make a different pick.

Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (trailer), Lady Bird is beautifully portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (Golden Globe winner) as teenage Lady Bird and painfully so by Laurie Metcalf (Golden Globe nominee) as her mother. The mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, has a remarkably limited array of skills in dealing with her adolescent daughter. She certainly knows how to criticize and brow-beat, though, even as she hates the words coming out of her mouth.

Tracy Letts is a huggable, mostly ineffectual father, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet are Lady Bird’s early, disastrous loves, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush are sometime high school besties at opposite ends of the cool-kids spectrum.

Attending a Catholic girls school and desperate to escape Sacramento, Lady Bird’s determination to fly to more receptive, less suffocating surroundings will resonate with many (especially female) viewers. For economic and so many other reasons, her mother is determined she stay. The importance of this quest must have touched a chord with critics and with audiences, as it won the Golden Globe for best comedy, and Gerwig was nominated for the screenplay.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: a whopping 99%; audiences: 82%.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Director Craig Gillespie’s Golden Globe-nominated biopic about national figure-skating champion Tonya Harding—who never fit the little princess image of the figure skater, nor wanted to—takes the mommy problem to another level (trailer).

Tonya (Margot Robbie, Golden Globe nomination) is raised by a chain-smoking mother (Allison Janney, Golden Globe winner) who never gave an inch and wasn’t above hitting Tonya when her words didn’t cut deep enough. Tonya’s eventual “escape” was into a violent marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

This movie is also billed as a comedy, oddly, though Gillooly’s inept friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who’s convinced himself he’s an international terrorism expert, and the media personality played by Bobby Cannavale are hilarious. The plans to mess with Tonya’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan go wildly awry—but would be funny only to people who don’t understand the many sacrifices and tremendous effort necessary to skate at her level.

The script written by Steven Rogers is compassionate toward Tonya and based on lengthy current-day interviews with the principals—do you wonder, has she changed?—who promise to reveal what “really” happened in Tonya’s life. Their conflicting stories are, of course, riddled with self-justification, leaving you to decide whom to believe. It’s not much of a spoiler to say you won’t believe the mother.

If you remember the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national figure-skating championships in Detroit (I was there!), orchestrated by Gillooly, the movie may make you think differently about that incident. Tonya was never loveable; now we know why.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

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

Last year, McCarter Theatre Center’s revamped its annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the first time in almost two decades. This season is the second with the update, and the new version is really coming into its own. Director Adam Immerwahr has achieved a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling production, which runs through December 31.

Immerwahr’s intent is to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” He has filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play.”

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 to perfection by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively. Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters, giving special mention of Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Thom Sesma), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Though many parts amount to a cameo, all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Adeline Edwards) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi B. Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Christopher Livingston, who also plays young Marley) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Michael Genet) has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

The cast is augmented by a 36-member community and youth ensemble, whose members greet theater-goers, sing carols, ring bells, and dance exuberantly! The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

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

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

The Importance of Being Earnest

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is putting on a silky-smooth version of Oscar Wilde’s classic satire, now through December 3. Although the witty dialog keeps coming and coming, you dare not do more than chuckle or you’ll miss the next line. The show’s directed by Michael Cumpsty, whom Princetonians may remember as Henry Higgins in McCarter Theatre’s excellent My Fair Lady a few years back.

Importance of Being Earnest

Sam Lilja & Liesel Allen Yeager, photo by T. Charles Erickson

And here are a few of those timeless lines:

  • The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
  • No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
  • The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Artistic Director John Dias’s program notes say this about Wilde’s brilliant dialog: “We feel both horror and delight when witnessing this expert employment of language—its flexibility and the kind of doubleness of meaning that both masks truth and somehow reveals it.”

If you haven’t seen this play recently—or if by some mishap you’ve never seen it—this is a sparkling version. The two leads, friends Algernon Moncrieff (played by Sam Lilja) and Jack Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) are especially strong, and Liesel Allen Yeager’s Cecily Cardew is a delightful flirt.

The men fall in love, and though the women are willing, circumstances are not. How they sort out the absurdity of  Jack’s dubious origins—as a baby, he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station (“The line is immaterial!”)—and the women’s outré determination to marry men named Earnest . . . well you’ll have to experience those pleasures for yourself.

Excellent scenery from Charlie Corcoran and costumes from Jess Goldstein.

In a before-the-show talk, cast member Henry Vick (perfect as Algie’s super-discreet butler) reminds audience members that only a few months after this play opened in London to great acclaim in 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He never wrote another play.

Today, 117 years since Wilde’s death in Paris, a penniless man, we can reflect on how Victorian society, which he skewered so lightheartedly in Earnest, would seem to have had the last word, yet the fact that audiences still delight in his work and flock to see it  suggests a different outcome.

****Kompromat

newspaper headlines

CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/caseydavid

By Stanley Johnson – If you’re one of the millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic who look back on the elections of 2016 and say, to yourself or at the top of your lungs, “What just happened?” this satirical new political thriller is for you.

Its characters are such thinly disguised versions of today’s leading political figures, you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve inadvertently picked up a recent copy of The Times. Much-needed is the list of its many characters—from the US, Russia, Germany, China, various other countries, four “key animals” and, most numerous of all, leaders of the UK. “Kompromat” is a Russian word—a portmanteau meaning compromising material, and in this novel—as, possibly, in real life—most of these countries hold plenty of it on each other.

As the book opens, a 2016 US presidential candidate is participating in an international wildlife expedition that hopes to radio-collar a tiger. Events go wrong almost immediately. The candidate ends up in a hospital where the Russians plant a bug in his body. The CIA, ever on the ball, figures this out, and replaces it with their own bug. And they’re not the only ones. By the book’s end, America’s new president unwittingly has unwittingly become another “Voice of America.”

Meanwhile, the British have problems of their own. Its Secretary of State for the Environment is approached by the Russians, who have singled him out as a leading light of the “Eurosceptic wing” of the Conservative Party. He learns the Prime Minister agreed to the Referendum on EU membership (the “Brexit” vote) for a reason no more complicated than money. Apparently, the PM believed the vote would never actually occur and, even if it did, it wouldn’t succeed, and the Party would receive money for doing nothing.

Author Johnson devises numerous amusing and convoluted scenarios in which the hapless politicians become entangled. In his scenario, these byzantine schemes are organized and carried out by the Russian Security Service—the FSB, heir to the KGB—“ to change the whole structure of international politics.” The book is not only entertaining, it makes you think “what if?” and, as more news drifts out of world capitals, perhaps “why not?”

Johnson is a former politician and member of the Conservative Party, and a former employee of the World Bank and the European Commission, who has held a number of prominent environmental posts as well as being an environmental activist. In the time preceding the Brexit vote, he co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe. Although he’s on record as opposing the Referendum, his son Boris was a key leader of the “leavers.” The book is in development for a six-part television series too.

Shakespeare in Love

Perhaps you remember remember the charming 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Lee Hall—best known for Billy Elliott—has transformed Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay into a theatrical version, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through November 12. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directed this lively production, which she describes as “a perfectly ebullient homage to Shakespeare, to life, to love, to the art of theatre, to the centuries of players who inhabit our stages, and to the process of creating art . . . a delight from beginning to end.”

Will Shakespeare (played by Jon Barker) is having trouble finding the right words for a sonnet, and is helped by his friend, fellow playwright, and competitor Kit Marlowe (Anthony Marble). Will encounters the enchanting young Viola de Lesseps (Whitney Maris Brown) and Marlowe again feeds him the words he needs to entrance her.

Viola, on the cusp of marriage, is smitten with the stage and, disguised as a man, tries out for Shakespeare’s new barely-begun play, and is tapped for the part of Romeo. With Viola as his muse, the Bard’s writing takes off. It being forbidden for women to appear on stage at the time, the lovers are in risky territory, not least because Viola’s fiancé (Marcus Dean Fuller) believes Something is Up.

The perils of casting, the comedic antics of rehearsals, the wiles of Viola’s nurse (Erika Rolfsrud), and the parallels between the evolving play and obstacles to the lovers keep the action moving in about a dozen directions at once. A fine—and large—supporting cast, especially noting Ames Adamson, Edmond Genest, Garrett Lawson, and David Andrew Macdonald, plays about forty roles! Spot, (Boston Terrier Dublin Delancy McFinnigan) makes his bone-afide theatrical debut, well trained by Seamus Mulcahy (playing John Webster). (Mulcahy has produced a DVD of dogs performing Shakespeare. A niche product in so many ways.)

Jon Barker and Whitney Maris Brown generate considerable heat in their lovely scenes together. Barker is a frequent STNJ cast member and has a gift for achieving perfect body language and gestures in any role, including this one.

Mention should be made of the energetic and entertaining way the cast pitches in with the set dressing for the numerous scene changes. Brian Clinnin’s deceptively simple-looking scenic design lends itself to transformations from lowly tavern to royal theater box to boat on the Thames.

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!

Weekend Movie Pick: Logan Lucky

Need a 119-minute break from the news headlines? This Steven Soderbergh caper comedy, script by Rebecca Blunt, may be just the thing (trailer). There’s nothing too serious going on (a planned heist at NASCAR’s big Memorial Day weekend race), but the characters are so well-developed and their robbery plot so complicated and devious, your attention is captured from the outset.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, out of work and, if his ex-wife has her way, out of his young daughter’s life. He needs money. He proposes the theft to his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), the serious one, a bartender who lost an arm in Afghanistan. Clyde is reluctant, because he’s convinced every family enterprise is destined for disaster—“the curse of the Logans.” Love how he whips up a martini one-handed to quiet a mouthy British patron (Seth MacFarlane)! Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a beautician, is in on it too and gets sweet revenge on an irritating client who drives a purple Caddy. See that for yourself.

To pull off this daring crime, the brothers need help. Unfortunately, the one man they know who really knows how to blow a safe is in prison. Part of their plan is to spring him for a day. Daniel Craig plays prisoner Joe Bang, in “a wonderfully wacky, show-stealing turn,” said Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter. Joe insists his two brothers (Jack Quaid and Briain Gleeson) be brought into the plot, and the likelihood of success appears to plummet as these two slouch onto the scene. Prison warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) is also a treat.

Many funny moments, some relatively subtle. I particularly enjoyed the big race’s opening ceremony, which deployed all the worst excesses of American sports jingoism.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 76%.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

****The Nix

demonstration

photo: Pedro Lozano, creative commons license

By Nathan Hill, narrated by Ari Fliakos – A lot happens in the early pages of this multilayered novel set in the American Midwest: a woman throws a few bits of gravel at a right-wing presidential candidate; adepts play a round of the immersive multi-role-player game World of Elfscape; and untenured college professor Samuel Andreson Anderson debates how to handle plagiarizing student Laura Pottsdam.

Then the pieces start to fit. The professor is one of the gamers, indulging in his e-addiction when he should be doing something productive, like working on the book he’s contracted to write, and for which he received a healthy advance. Another piece clicks into place when Samuel meets with his impatient publisher, who reveals the gravel-thrower was his mother Faye, who abandoned her son when he was 11. If he will only write Faye’s biography—how she came to be such a dangerous radical terrorist—all will be forgiven, and he won’t have to return the advance, long-since spent.

The problem is, he knows nothing about his mother. Once he starts asking questions, though, he realizes how badly he wants some answers. At first the clues are scant. The novel spends time on Samuel’s childhood and the Norwegian legends his immigrant grandfather and mother passed on to him. The one that gave the book its title is the household spirit—the Nix—whose mission is to foil a person’s plans. The lesson of the Nix is: “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Once a Nix latches onto you, it never leaves. “A person can be a Nix to another person,” his mother explains, and pretty much everyone in this book has Nixes to contend with. That includes Samuel’s best childhood friends, Bishop and his twin sister, the violin prodigy Bethany.

Samuel learns that his mother was briefly a student in Chicago in 1968, as the radicals and the Establishment prepared for the Democratic convention. For a while, his mother’s story takes over the narrative, and though her students days were short, they were filled with incident and the outsize personalities of the counterculture and its foes. Faye had a Nix too.

Jason Sheehan for NPR said the lives of both Samuel and Faye were filled with “the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies,” or you could just say their Nixes keep getting in the way.

With its sly and at time hilarious commentary on American culture of the Sixties and today, The Nix was chosen by numerous publications as a Notable Book of 2016. Though the book is hard to describe without becoming entangled in its richly conceived plot, it’s author Hill’s writing—“looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages,” Sheehan says—and the on-point humor that pull you in. An early scene in which the plagiarist student Laura explains why she shouldn’t be penalized for her poor performance is a LOL model of self-absorption and self-justification.

Narrator Ari Fliakos does a fine job inhabiting the characters—not just the principals, but also the entitled Laura, the self-satisfied Chicago protestors, the insufferable publisher, and the World of Elfscape-obsessed Pwnage (pronounced Pone-aj). At almost 22 hours, it is rather a long book for listening, yet I enjoyed it a lot.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan  The Big Sick is loosely based on the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who together wrote the script. Directed by Princeton native Michael Showalter (trailer), it puts fresh juice into the romcom genre.

Kumail’s family moved from Pakistan to the Chicago area when he was a child, in part to give him a better life. What they gave him was an American life. While his parents (played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) expect religious devotion,  marriage to a Pakistani girl, and a professional career, he’s become perhaps too assimilated—secular, uninterested in an arranged marriage with any of the beautiful but traditional young women his mother parades before him, and a part-time Uber driver focused on developing his skills as a stand-up comic. At the downscale comedy club where he works he meets graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan), and the two of them hit it off. Really well.

Ultimately, though, if he marries a woman who’s not Pakistani, he knows his family will disown him. When Emily at length senses the problem, she asks, “Can you envision a future where the two of us are together?” He can’t say it, but he shakes his head, and she breaks off the relationship.

Kumail finds out Emily has developed a mysterious illness and is hospitalized with cascading medical complications. He goes to visit her and ends up signing papers allowing the doctors to put her in a medically induced coma. Now he’s responsible, and he cannot leave her bedside. Her frantic parents (played to perfection by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive from North Carolina. Aware of the unhappy break-up, they are not very friendly, and now Kumail must deal with them too. And his wobbly career.

Nanjiani does a terrific job as himself (much harder than it might seem). He occasionally reminds me of Bill Murray, in the way he has of being acutely observant and still, as if thinking, “Ok, I’m smiling, but would somebody please tell me what the hell’s going on here?!!?”

The acting all around is warm-hearted and true. Particularly enjoyable are the other comics (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) jabbing each other mercilessly. They’re all experienced, well-regarded comedians IRL, and kudos to Braunohler for taking the role of a somewhat dim guy who the others decide is really not that funny.

It’s sweet, you’ll laugh, and it has a rewarding core of truth.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; Audiences: 92%.

The Bungler

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Kevin Isola & James Michael Reilly; photo by Jerry Dalia

Molière’s classic, but infrequently produced comedy about a lovelorn swain and his wily servant premiered July 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and is on stage through July 30. The theater’s promotion promises that “if laughter is good medicine, then this show will cure all ills,” and the production directed by Brian B. Crowe leaves the audience well-healed.

Adhering to the strict requirements and principles of French Neoclassicism, Molière’s first full-length play has a single plot that takes place in one setting, in a compressed time span. His characters reflect the conventions of their class (the principle of decorum) and their actions and attitudes are real, probable, and (mostly) believable (the principle of verisimilitude). Molière stretches those rigid rules, established by the redoubtable Cardinal Richelieu, as much as he can through the introduction of elements of Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Many of The Bungler’s characters typify that tradition.

In Messina, Sicily, the young Lélie (played by Aaron McDaniel) falls for a servant, a ravishing gypsy girl (Sophia Blum). Upper-class, but without financial prospects, he must contrive a way to free her from her curmudgeonly master (Eric Hoffman). Alas, Lélie is not very bright, and relies on his valet Mascarille (a classic harlequin, played by Kevin Isola) to develop some ingenious plan. Complicating the valet’s stratagems are a formidable romantic rival (Sam Ashdown), Lélie’s upstanding father (Drew Dix), a money lender who could help out, wants to, then . . . (James Michael Reilly), and his glamorous daughter (Devin Conway).

All of these fine players (and others) eventually figure in Mascarille’s clever stratagems, none of which are understood by Lélie, who at every turn foils certain victory. Although there is only one plot in the play (as required by Cardinal Richelieu’s rules), Molière finds ever-more imaginative ways to set up and carry out the joke, which left the audience laughing uproariously in both anticipation and execution.

Director Crowe keeps the action moving, thanks to his skilled players’ exquisite timing and aided greatly by the many talents of Isola as Mascarille for both physical comedy and the on-point delivery of a line. McDaniel as Lélie, the perpetually confused yet inexplicably confident suitor, is a picture of bafflement. The set design by Dick Block is like a trip to the candy store, and Paul Canada’s costumes are beyond beautiful.

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Sophia Blum, Kevin Isola, & Aaron McDaniel; photo: Jerry Dalia

The STNJ used a translation of The Bungler by Richard Wilbur, the nation’s second poet laureate. Wilbur has won numerous awards for his translations, as well as his own work. The brilliance of his achievement is evidenced by the fact that, although the dialog

proceeds in couplets throughout, this device never becomes tiresome. Instead, it repeatedly delights with its freshness.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey produces an excellent know-the-show guide for each production. Performances 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!