****The Ex

Manhattan

photo: Mr. Nixter, creative commons license

Written by Alafair Burke – Even two decades later, New York criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall has never quite forgiven herself for the unnecessarily cruel way she broke up with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Subsequently, however, Jack seems to have found happiness in his career as a best-selling novelist and on the family front with his wife Molly and teenage daughter Buckley. But that happiness was merely a respite. Three years before the novel begins, a mentally disturbed fifteen-year-old murdered thirteen people and injured many more in a Penn Station shooting. One of the dead was Molly Harris.

The boy was the son of prominent investment banker Malcolm Neeley, who’d refused to get the boy treatment or do “anything that would label his son as ‘sick.’” The outraged families of the victims, led by Harris, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Neeley, a suit recently dismissed by the court.

The book opens with the transcript of a police station interview with Harris. An NYPD detective is looking for information about a shooting that occurred earlier in the day: “Boyle: Okay, I’ve turned on the machine, Mr. Harris. Just to make clear, are you here at the First Precinct voluntarily?” Then, “And you’re willing to speak to me of your own accord?” You know immediately that Jack has already made a colossal mistake. He’s talking to the police without a lawyer.

Their flimsy excuse for taking him to the station for the interview, the pretense of needing to put the interview on tape because they’re talking to so many potential witnesses, all are bright flashing neon letters reading, “you’re in the deep water now, Jack!” The interview tells you a lot about Jack as well as the trouble he’s likely in. when the police reveal that one of the three people killed in that morning’s shootings is Malcolm Neeley.

Partly out of her own past guilt and partly because she can’t imagine Jack committing any crime remotely close to a triple murder, Olivia takes on Jack’s case. One of her first challenges is trying to unravel the puzzling sequence of events that lured Jack to the vicinity of the shootings in the first place. It seems to have been an elaborate ruse involving a woman, a book, and a picnic basket, with a big assist from social media. Did this woman even exist?

In her Internet research, especially, Olivia is aided by her office assistant Einer, a smart and savvy young man with a gift for sarcasm. Many of the other secondary characters come across strongly too in Burke’s skilled hands.

In the face of mounting evidence and doubts about Jack, Olivia can’t help but wonder, is this the same man I knew two decades ago? Can you ever really know what someone else is capable of? These are not uncommon questions, and the final reveal is fairly familiar territory as well.

In The Ex, you see a civilized, realistic New York City—not the city of top-to-bottom corruption in Don Winslow’s summer hit, The Force. Burke’s is a city of private schools, functioning public services, trendy night spots, and Armani.

On the short list for an Edgar Award in 2017, this is Alafair Burke’s eleventh crime thriller. She is a professor of criminal law in New York, a former prosecutor and has good genes. She’s the daughter of acclaimed thriller writer James Lee Burke.

Guys & Dolls

Guys & Dolls

Lesli Margherita performing “Adelaide’s Lament”

If you live within striking distance of New Hope, Penn., you won’t want to miss the fantastic production of Guys and Dolls at the Bucks County Playhouse, on stage until August 12 (Box Office). Tickets may be hard to get, because the glowing reviews of this classic have prompted a bit of a run on them. Last Saturday afternoon, no one in the audience went away disappointed—even folks who know the score, truly, and have seen the musical multiple times.

It’s easy to forget how many great numbers this 1950 show contains: “If I were a Bell,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You,” and “Luck Be a Lady,” not to mention the comic numbers: “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York),” “Guys and Dolls,” “Take Back Your Mink,” and the show-stopper, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Under the direction of William Shuler, an orchestra of only six pieces makes a lot of music, and the choreographer has arranged several inventive and energetic dance numbers.

Because the story of the romances between Adelaide and her reluctant fiancé Nathan Detroit and between soul-saving Sarah and dedicated sharpster Sky Masterson are so well known, there’s no need to recap the plot. The characters are based on the comic tales of Damon Runyon, who chronicled the New York demi-monde of the 1920s and 30s.

Abe Burrows, Jo Swerling, and Frank Loesser turned this material into the Tony-award-winning musical. (The Burrows/Loesser team won a Pulitzer Prize for their How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and would have won it for Guys and Dolls, except for Burrows’s problems with the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

The production values—sets, costumes, choreography, music—are solid. Then there’s the cast. Other reviewers have commented on Lesli Margherita’s strong performance in the comic role of Adelaide. She captures Adelaide’s attempts at sophistication undercut by her fundamental brassiness perfectly, with a fine sense of timing, physical comedy chops, and a powerful singing voice. A surprisingly big voice also comes out of diminutive Elena Shaddow as Sarah. Steve Rosen (Nathan Detroit), beset by complications as well as his lady-love, is super, as are all the gamblers. Darius de Haas (Nicely-Nicely Johnson) brings down the house by rocking the boat.

See it if you can.

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Noir at the Bar: Manhattan

microphone

photo: Adam Fredie, creative commons license

I had to see for myself. Noir at the Bar (N@B) is a thing, a cultural phenomenon I’d never heard of until Canadian writer-friend June Lorraine Roberts told me about it. It’s simple in concept: crime writers occasionally get together at a local watering hole and read about ten minutes’ worth of their work to each other. I suspect the interpersonal dynamics can be more complicated.

Last Sunday, my friend Nancy K. and I met up at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village for the Manhattan N@B and found a noisy group laughing and talking. I yelled in Nancy’s ear, “Well, they are word people.” Mostly under 40, mostly male, and a notable prevalence of tattoo sleeves. We heard nine of the 11 scheduled presenters, ducking out early so I could catch the train back to Princeton.

What an entertaining evening! The quality of the presentations never let up. The authors read from printouts, books in hand, cell phones, tablets. E.A. Aymer included music (a first, we were told); Nik Korpon had memorized a piece in the style of a tent-revival preacher.

Although I had a friend in the audience (short story writer Al Tucher), the readers were all new to me, and they weren’t all from New York, coming from Washington, Baltimore, and California too. For the flavor of these events, here’s E.A. Aymer reading one of his stories at the Washington, D.C., N@B—he was the lead-off reader Sunday.

While each reader was entertaining in his own way, the most compelling for me was Danny Gardner’s gritty story about how black people in Chicago get guns. Maybe that’s because my family lives in Chicago, and I care about that city. Maybe it’s because I was in Chicago for the four-day July 4 holiday when 101 people were shot. Or maybe it’s because the story’s characters were just damn good. All three, I think.

Other readers we heard were Joe Clifford, Angel Luis Colon (Nancy won one of his books!), Rory Costello, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Nick Kolakowski, and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, Scott Adlerberg.

Peter Rozovsky started the N@B thing about a decade ago in Philadelphia, and it has spread across this country and internationally, including to Canada and the U.K. Over the next few months June and I are going to report on conversations with some of these N@B organizers and participants about the enduring appeal of crime fiction, story trends, and the local crime writing scene.

Meanwhile, if you discover a Noir at the Bar near you, go, enjoy!

Richard Gere: Two Ways Cinematically

Norman

Richard GereFull title of this Joseph Cedar movie is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (trailer). Norman the person is not very likeable. He stands too close when he talks to you, he’s relentless in searching for an angle, he’s quick with the half-to-full-lie. But in Richard Gere’s nuanced portrayal, initial discomfort turns to something more like sympathy. How he’s treated by the people who see him for what he is becomes simultaneously justified and painful.

The sympathy is possible because Norman isn’t angling to benefit himself, at least not financially. He only wants to feel important, that he matters in the world, yet he remains “always just a few capillaries removed from the beating heart of power,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. When he has a setback, and he has plenty of them, you see the gears turning until he hits a way to make the best of it.

When Norman “bumps into” an Israeli diplomat and does him a favor, right there you know the seeds of calamity are planted. I won’t say more about the plot, which is complicated in the delicious way that only someone like Norman could complicate it.

Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the diplomat; Michael Sheen plays Norman’s put-upon nephew; Steve Buscemi as the rabbi of a financially distressed congregation is “a marvel of wit and off-kilter humanity,” Scott says; and Manhattan plays itself, beautifully.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%; audiences 70%.

The Dinner

Richard Gere - The DinnerI have a friend who doesn’t like intense family dramas—too many bad associations. He’ll have to avoid The Dinner (trailer), written and directed by Oren Moverman. The movie is based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s excellent novel (2013), which I greatly admired (best book cover ever!). It’s told in the first person, and I wondered how the narrator’s snide and witty commentary would translate to the screen. That aspect of it worked differently in the book and survived less successfully in the film, with biting humor replaced by mental chaos.

Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an erstwhile high school history teacher who loathes (actually, is desperately jealous of) his politically successful older brother Stan (Richard Gere), now embarking on a gubernatorial campaign. The brothers and their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) are to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant, but Paul at least is not looking forward to it. Nor should he be. Stan has an agenda. He wants to discuss something truly awful—criminal, in fact—their teenage sons have done, which could explode all their lives.

Comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Carnage are perhaps inevitable, but the fireworks and the damage here are all in the family. The kids who caused the whole debacle are weakly portrayed, and the movie, unlike the novel, ends ambiguously. If your focus is on strong performances, this is a worthy effort. If you want a convincing story, read the book.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 51%; audiences, 18%.

Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel

Quincy Tyler Bernstine & Tasso Feldman; photo: T. Charles Erickson

As Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat continues on Broadway, you can see her much-produced earlier work, Intimate Apparel, at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.  It opened May 12 and continues through June 4. Directed by the award-winning Jade King Carroll, Intimate Apparel takes place in 1905 on New York’s Lower East Side.

In Nottage’s story, reportedly based in part on the experience of her own great-grandmother, a lonely 36-year-old African American corset-maker reaches out, by post, to a distant male correspondent she has never met. As she cannot read or write, Esther, the corset-maker (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine), relies first on a wealthy white client (Kate MacCluggage), then her more amorous-minded friend, the prostitute Mayme (Jessica Frances Dukes), to compose her letters.

Her correspondent is George (Galen Kane), a young Barbadian engaged in the grueling work of building the Panama Canal. Typical of people in epistolary relationships, Esther and George read between the lines of these exchanged letters, creating an image of the other that doesn’t line up with who they actually are. Inevitably, their meeting will be a challenge in reconciling dream and reality.

The two strangers finally do meet, on their wedding day. Esther wears a beautiful dress made from yardage of white lace, a gift from a man who does know, understand, and appreciate her, the gentle Jewish cloth merchant, Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman). He and Esther visibly yearn for connection, while all-too-aware of the cultural and religious barriers that separate them.

George, by contrast, turns out to be rough-edged, sexually demanding, and costly in every way. Esther can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her cautious landlady (Brenda Pressler), gossiping and busying herself around the boarding house, is into everyone’s business. However, she is genuinely fond of Esther, her boarder for almost two decades.

The cast of the McCarter production is excellent, especially Bernstine, who appears in every scene, and the ragtime-playing Dukes. Although her piano-playing is a theatrical illusion, she pantomimes playing the jazzy tunes with gusto. Thanks to Nicole Pearce’s lighting, the set design from Alexis Distler enables a half-dozen different “rooms” within a single scaffolded backdrop and minimal furnishings, and it echoes the “New York under construction” meme of Hamilton.

Those strengths aside, the play itself is disappointing. The story is sadly predictable, and Nottage has chosen to tell it almost entirely in two-person scenes. Interspersed is an occasional monologue (George reading “his” letters to Esther—a bit of a puzzler there, since it turns out he didn’t write them). It’s like going to a concert of nothing but duets. You long for a trio or a chorus number to break up the pattern and provide an energy boost. There’s too little of the vitality of the time and none of the cacophony of the locale, which may be a feature of this production rather than the play itself. But see it for the fine performances.

Additional production credits to Dede M. Ayite (lovely costumes); Karin Graybash (sound design); and Thom Jones(dialect coach).

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

WINK

Wink, Joshua de Jesus

Joshua de Jesus as Wink

We braved the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit/Penn Station debacle last Sunday to go into New York to see an off-off-(perhaps a third off is needed here, I’m not sure)-Broadway play in which our nephew-in-law is appearing.

It was fun to rub elbows with intrepid theater-goers, trying a performance that might be a little risky, perhaps hoping for something a little risqué and figuring out which cast member they are related to. The play is Neil Koenigsberg’s WINK, directed amiably by Ron Beverly, and playing at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, just south of 10th Street through May 7.

Since we’d allowed so much extra time for train delays, we had ample time for a long cross-town walk and fortification with blood marys at the bar across the street from the theater, where a baby shower was in full swing.

The cast did a terrific job (nephew-in-law included), but the play itself is problematic. It takes place in Hollywood today, and its major conflict is between the desire of a teenage character, the eponymous Wink, to not declare a gender—“I’m just Wink”—and the determination of a Hollywood agent to find out. If Koenigsberg—a former Hollywood public relations luminary-turned-playwright—had set the play in 1950 or somewhere other than Hollywood, this obsession might be more believable. The gender identity wars are being fought on different ground.

A good reason to see this play, though, is to see Joshua de Jesus as Wink. He does a heartfelt job on territory that’s pretty well trodden. Joe Maruzzo is engaging as a past-his-prime actor, Jose Joaquin Perez is a homeless counselor, and Nikole Williams a public relations consultant struggling with how to describe Wink and getting no help from anyone. The awful agent is our nephew, Joe Isenberg.

As Director Beverly told me after the show, “Joe has to be willing to be not liked,” and he paraphrased a reviewer who said, “you may not like this character, but you can admire Joe’s portrayal.” We did! And we liked all the do-wop music too.

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Yesterday in New York City—terrible weather threatening all day, and a one-hour train trip home transformed into a six-hour wait-a-thon due to downed wires. Trains packed to bursting!

All that couldn’t dampen my enthusiastic endorsement of the Rolling Stones exhibit at Industria, a show venue in Manhattan’s West Village near the south end of the Highline (775 Washington Street, entrance on 12th), on view until March 12.

Seeing Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the others throughout a fantastic 50-year career tickles a lot of memories. One of the themes of the show is how they—Mick and Charlie, especially—recognized early that there was more to “show business” than their music. As a result they involve many of the arts and artists in their work. Alliances with folks like Andy Warhol and top set designers, graphic artists, and fashion designers led not only to innovative, memorable album covers and shows, but also plenty of interesting material for this exhibit!

The music gets its due, as well. You see a recreation of one of their favorite studios, lyrics as they wrote them in a notebook, and, if you’ve ever picked up a guitar, the display of many beautiful instruments they’ve used over the years and their comments about them are fascinating.

An early apartment is recreated (you wouldn’t want to live there), and the show ends with a 3-D movie. “Satisfaction,” indeed.

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.