Falsettos

Princeton Summer Theater begins its 2019 season with an ambitious production of the Tony award-winning musical Falsettos, book by James Lapine and William Finn, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Directed by PST artistic director Daniel Krane, the production opened June 20 and runs Thursdays through Sunday until June 30. The show’s nonstop music is provided by a “tiny little band,” of four musicians led by Amber Lin.

Falsettos is a story about all kinds of love—gay, straight, marital, parental, between friends. Its nonstop songs work hard to capture the evanescence of feeling, perhaps best in a moving song near the end: “Who would I be if I had not loved you? How would I know what love is?”

In the story, Marvin (played by Michael Rosas) leaves his wife Trina (Bridget McNiff) for the carefree young man, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein). Trina, left with their 10-year-old son Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski) is bitter about this, and baffled by Marvin’s insistence that what he wants is “A Tight-Knit Family” involving them all.

Marvin suggests Trina straighten herself out by seeing his psychiatrist, Mendel (Justin Ramos), who immediately falls for her. Complications ensue, and Trina’s state of mind is perfectly—hilariously—reflected in her star turn, “I’m Breaking Down.”

This first act of Falsettos, which is set in 1979, is based on a one-act play, March of the Falsettos that premiered in 1981. The second act is based on another one-act, Falsettoland, set in 1981, which premiered in 1990. The two were merged to create Falsettos in 1992. A lot changed for gay men in that intervening decade. The authors had to acknowledge AIDS (actually barely a blip in 1981), highlighted by Dr. Charlotte’s (Chamari White-Mink) prophetic song, “Something Bad is Happening.” And, in act two, the play takes a sharp turn.

The growing realization of the seriousness of Whizzer’s illness is a painful backdrop to disagreements between Trina and Marvin about Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, to be catered by Cordelia (Michelle Navis) who specializes in Jewish nouvelle cuisine. The comedy is still there, but it’s bittersweet. One of the show’s most beautifully rendered numbers is the quartet, “Unlikely Lovers,” sung around Whizzer’s hospital bed.

The cast (and crew) for PST’s college summer stock productions are primarily Princeton students and recent graduates. For the principal roles, as played by Rosas, McNiff, Edelstein, and Ramos, this constraint was inconsequential, but a bit of a handicap in casting the role of Jason. The set was well designed (Jeffrey Van Velsor) to be adaptable and interesting.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

The Three Musketeers

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey kicks off its 2019 season with a rollicking dramatic comedy adapted from the Alexander Dumas classic by popular playwright Ken Ludwig, which opened June 15 and runs through July 7.

As director, renowned fight choreographer Rick Sordelet makes good use of his experience in the swashbuckling swordplay the stage barely contains. Sitting in the front row, I was sure a rapier-wielding musketeer would end up in my lap!  

In 1625 France, the handsome young d’Artagnan (played by Cooper Jennings) and his sister Sabine (Courtney McGowan) leave their home in Gascony for Paris in search of adventure. He wants to join the famous school of musketeers, charged with defending King Louis XIII (Michael Stewart Allen) and Queen Anne (Fiona Robberson). Sabine is bound for a convent school, but disguised as d’Artagnan’s servant, gleefully finds herself embroiled in his exploits.

In Paris, d’Artagnan stumbles into the three most admired musketeers, each in turn—Athos (John Keabler), Porthos (Paul Molnar), and Aramis (Alexander Sovronsky)–offending each of them. The result is a schedule of three duels for that very night. Before d’Artagnan can be skewered, they are set upon by the minions of the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Bruce Cromer) and his guardsman Rochefort (Jeffrey M. Bender). The now four allies fight the Cardinal’s men bravely. Impressed with d’Artagnan’s fighting skills, he’s won three important friends. An assignation d’Artagnan has made with the queen’s lady-in-waiting Constance (Billie Wyatt) also turns out rather well.

The plot proceeds mostly along the story’s familiar lines, except that Ludwig has given a larger role to the women. His creation Sabine is her brother’s equal in fencing and in enthusiasm for combat. In several scenes, the women are active fighters, including Sabine, the evil Milady (Anastasia Le Gendre), and the serving wench at an inn who uses a short sword and a serving tray as shield.

With all of Ludwig’s trademark humor and love of stage chaos, there’s not a dull moment, and the 20-member cast delivers the action convincingly, with a heady mix of heroism, treachery, narrow escapes, music, and laughter. Especially fun was the somewhat dim Louis XIII. He may not be the brightest, but, boy, does he love being king! Jennings is physically perfect for the unworldly d’Artagnan. He’s a young actor, yet plays the role with perfect assurance. The “inseparable three” (Keabler, Molnar, and Sovronsky) establish distinct and interesting personalities. Special mention should be made of McGowan, who stepped in on short notice when the original actor playing Sabine broke her foot in previews. She had only a few days to prepare and performed flawlessly.

The adaptation, originally commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic in England was a tremendous hit when it premiered in 2006, a result of its judicious updating alongside its timeless evocation of loyalty and honor. “All for one and one for all!” 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 the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Photo by Jerry Dalia

The Mustang * Woman at War * Beirut * Rembrandt

The Mustang (2019)

Mustang, horse

Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).

The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.

There’s a special prison program (in place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”

The parallels between the confinement and anger of this mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters. But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .

Woman at War (2019)

This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.

The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.

She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From this point, carrying out one last adventure before  flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.

Beirut (2018)

Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated into civil war (trailer). In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund Pike seems to have her head on straight.  He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%. 

Rembrandt (in theaters 2019)

This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of recent films on Caravaggio and Van Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was “An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you can find a screening near you.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet. 

The Gods of Comedy

Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center presents the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s delightful new play, directed by Amanda Dehnert. The Gods of Comedy opened March 16 and runs through March 31.

In a university classics department, a normal day is about to collapse into turmoil, thanks to a madcap mix of switched identities, characters who become invisible, and not-so divine intervention. Daphne Rain (played by Shay Vawn) is a bookish young classics professor entrusted by her colleague and boyfriend Ralph Sargent (Jevon McFerrin) with the priceless manuscript of the lost Euripides play, Andromeda. When the manuscript goes missing, she calls on the ancient Greek gods out of desperation. And who turns up? Dionysus and Thalia, the gods of comedy.

The boisterous Dionysus (Brad Oscar) and flirtatious Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) turn Daphne’s life upside down as she tries to hide the manuscript’s disappearance from Ralph and their dean (Keira Naughton). Meanwhile, the dean is determined to showcase the prize that evening at a Greek-themed costume party for the school’s big donors. One of these donors is a glamorous actress named Brooklyn de Wolfe (Steffanie Leigh) who sets her sights on Ralph.

Daphne and the gods have to devise a plan to satisfy the dean and keep Ralph away from Brooklyn. A pretty effective distraction arrives in the divine personage of Ares, god of war (George Psomas). Wearing his helmet and cape and brandishing his sword, he’s mistaken for one of the party-goers, and when he intones so confidently, “I am a god,” Brooklyn naturally responds, “Yeah, that’s what all men think.”

The plot of a farce never benefits from minute dissection, but Oscar, Cannizzaro, and Psomas create such strong and entertaining characters, you willingly suspend disbelief, and the many clever touches pile up one after another, keeping the audience roaring. There are a few lulls in act two, but the pace picks up again when Dionysus and Thalia use their powers of metamorphosis to become other characters—a tangle that is baffling for the other characters and hilarious for the audience.

Vawn is sympathetic as the worried academic, simultaneously grateful for the gods’ help and dismayed at the trouble they’re causing. McFerrin is clueless, especially when under Brooklyn’s spell, and Naughton, once she dons her Artemis costume, reveals a naughty side. Psomas plays two small roles, in addition to Ares, each to perfection. And Jason Sherwood designed beautiful sets, especially for Act 2.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus 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.

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Weekend Entertainments, 2/1-2/3

In Washington, D.C., summers, we’d go to a movie theater to cool off. You may be considering the same strategy this weekend just to warm up! If so, here’s my take on two movies currently on view and one riotous play sparking the New Jersey theater scene. Let’s take the serious one first.

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo, If Beale Street Could talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

When James Baldwin published the book this movie is based on back in 1974, it was out of sync with the times and not a success. Americans had turned attention from their civil rights concerns, distracted by Watergate and the windup of the Vietnam War, perhaps, or perhaps it was another sorry indicator of how short our national attention span is for issues that defy quick solutions.

Now writer/director Barry Jenkins has timed the book’s film version perfectly (trailer). All the issues Beale Street raises remain relevant, and our persistent racial injustices are once again top-of-mind. This is a love story with many threads, and each is knotty, whether the love is between a young man (played by Stephan James) and woman (KiKi Layne, the film’s gentle narrator), between parents and their daughter, or between an incarcerated father and his pre-school son, living apart. The acting is all top-notch, and I particularly enjoyed Tish’s parents, Colman Domingo and Regina King, who doesn’t have to say anything to reveal her heart to you.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences: 69%.

Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie

As a kid, I was a big Laurel and Hardy fan, and this Jon S. Baird film, written by Jeff Pope, about the duo’s late-stage career, is necessarily bittersweet (trailer). They’re approaching the top of the hill they’re about to go over. Genius British comic Steve Coogan is Stan, the writer of most of the skits and bits, and John C. Reilly, in an unbelievably natural fatsuit and rubber chin is American comic Oliver Hardy.

Although it’s a movie about two slapstick comedians and about what it means to have and be a partner, some of the funniest moments come from the sniping between Ollie’s devoted third wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Stan’s fourth wife Ida (Nina Arianda). The two women can’t stand each other, but even Ida softens when Ollie’s precarious health is endangered. Well worth the price of a ticket!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 88%.

Noises Off

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is presenting this non-stop Michael Frayn comedy on stage through February 3. Directed by Sarna Lapine, you may run out of breath laughing well before the end of Act I and the absurdities continue to pile up.

In case you’re not familiar with the story, in Act I, a lackluster theater company is in the final rocky rehearsal for a show called Nothing On, which takes place in an English country house. The house is supposed to be empty, but is soon filled with people trying not to be found there. During the cast’s conversation between scenes, you learn about several ongoing love affairs and problems among them.

In Act II, the set is turned around and, though you hear some of the play dialog on the other side of the wall, the action is backstage, mostly in pantomime, as the lovers quarrel, try to make up, and generally behave badly. There’s a pause before Act III, and the set turns again to the front. Now it’s the play’s last performance, and situations have spiralled totally out of control. Sheer mayhem!

Ellen Harvey plays the housekeeper in the play-within-the-play, Jason O’Connell the homeowner and Kathleen Chloe his wife; Michael Crane is the realtor and Adrianna Mitchell his somewhat dim would-be paramour (when the show is falling apart, she keeps delivering lines that no longer fit what’s happening); Philip Goodwin is an aging actor whose sobriety must be constantly monitored; Gopal Divan is the play director, Phillip Taratula the stage manager, and Kimiye Corwin his assistant. I named them all, because they were all so good!

The Two River ticket office online; or call 732 345 1400.

Weekend Movie Picks – 1/18-1/20

Green Book

By now you may have heard of the Shirley family’s reservations about director Peter Farrelly’s movie, despite its winning a Golden Globe for best motion picture (trailer). Based on a true story, the script was written by Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, and Brian Currie, who won a Golden Globe for best screenplay

There’s no faulting the acting, Mahershala Ali (Golden Globe) portraying sophisticated jazz pianist Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen as his rough-around-the-edges and racist chauffeur, (Nick Vallelonga in real life), are both tops.

They embark on a concert tour of the Deep South in the early 1960s, before the Civil Rights movement, and encounter all the expected restrictions, slights, and prejudices. And that was part of the problem. I’d already imagined, known about, and seen these situations in many other films back when this type of content was an eye-opener.

I fear it gives today’s white people a too-easy win, encouraging us to think “I’m sure glad I’m not like those Southern racists.” Racism can’t be just put in a drawer as if a piece of the past that no longer needs attention. Black Americans traveling today still encounter racism.

Perhaps a new generation needs these reminders, and perhaps younger people will take from the film the powerful lesson that connection and friendship and respect can grow between people who are so unlike each other. That’s something to hope for.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 94%.

On the Basis of Sex

Having seen and enjoyed the documentary RBG, I was prepared tro be disappointed in Hollywood’s version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, directed by Mimi Leder with a script by Daniel Stiepleman (trailer). To my delight, I was not. Felicity Jones as RBG and Armie Hammer as her devoted and amazingly patient husband Marty do a fine job, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU is busy being political, and the courts are against her, but Ruth soldiers on to victory (as we know beforehand). I particularly liked the scene where opposing counsel waved a list of the hundreds of U.S. statutes that applied differently to women, thinking to show how “normal” the practice was, and RBG instead used it to show the practice was pervasive and pernicious.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 71%; audiences 72%.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Haven’t heard of this one? Me neither, until I found it in the Academy Award shortlist of nominees for song and music. This Coen Brothers experiment appeared ever-so-briefly in theaters then went straight to Netflix (trailer).

It’s an anthology of six short stories, alike only in the brothers’ trademark dark vision and black humor, and it won the best screenplay award at the Venice International Film Festival. There’s music too, of the cowboy lament variety.

Each of the six tales has its own cast, including Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, and Bill Heck.

There is violence, of course, but most of it is cartoonish. While there’s humor, there’s wistful sadness as well. Most memorable, I think, is the story “Meal Ticket,” in which a young man with no arms and legs but a wonderful voice for oratory (Harry Melling) performs for a dwindling audience of shantytown residents. In the story, “All Gold Canyon,” featuring Tom Waits, you’ll see the most beautiful valley imaginable.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 77%

A Christmas Carol

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

This is the third season for McCarter Theatre Center’s most recent and most joyous version of A Christmas Carol, its delightful return to Christmas in the Age of Dickens. Opening night was December 7, and this sparkler of a show, based on playwright David Thompson’s adaptation and directed by Adam Immerwahr, runs through December 29.

Immerwahr’s intent when he took on this holiday staple 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.” His version is filled 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,” whose music was composed by the late Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show exemplifies McCarter’s goal of celebrating creativity, community, and diversity in the presence onstage—and before the curtain, in the lobby and theater aisles—of a cheerful community ensemble of 26 adults and a dozen children. The entire audience is involved in singing the opening carol, and probably no one in the audience avoided beaming and foot-tapping during the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party, with its exuberant, full-cast dance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) has never been more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, is as lively as ever, bringing Dickens’s memorable characters wonderfully to life.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how others, especially the Cratchits, live; and the Ghost of Christmas Future presents a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective and delivers my favorite line, the sententious “I wear the chain I forged in life.I made it link by link and yard by yard.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a reformed man.

Underscoring the production’s goal of community engagement is the scheduling of a sensory-sensitive, relaxed matinee performance on December 28, to enable a wider range of people to enjoy a live performance. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

Creative Commons License

Still looking for that perfect book for under the Christmas tree? Here are a few ideas for your weekend shopping that might suit some of the hard-to-buy for people on your list:

Film Noir Junkies – A.J. Finn filled his blockbuster psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, with references to classic noir, and the main character watches quite a few too. And drinks Merlot by the case (trigger warning, Sideways fans).

Intrepid Travelers – if you can’t give a trip to Paris, you can give Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense. If they’re also classical music devotees, bonus points to you for finding this story about an aging cellist in the City of Light who really makes crime pay.

Jive-Talking Rap Music LoversRighteous or any of the other I.Q. books by Joe Ide. His characters’ language unspools across the page in pure urban poetry, as they solve crimes and right wrongs.

Unrepentant Bookworms – a book they can burrow into for days and maybe never sort out all the plot shenanigans, Lost Empress is about football, Rikers’ Island, a missing Salvador Dali painting, a man and his mom, transcribing 911 calls, Paterson, New Jersey, and so much, much more.

Armchair Psychologists – OK, does he have dementia or doesn’t he? Grace may not live long enough to find out on a Texas road trip with the elderly man she believes murdered her sister. Paper Ghosts is nice work from Julia Heaberlin.

Inveterate Classicists – David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo is another in his fine adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Always inventive, always interesting. His Macbeth and Hamlet were winners too.

Road WarriorsShe Rides Shotgun is Jordan Harper’s award-winning debut thriller about a man and his young daughter on the run. They won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Fairy Tale Fans – True, they may be startled at the liberties Karen Dionne took with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, but in The Marsh King’s Daughter, she’s created a compelling story of a girl raised off the grid and what it takes for her to build a conventional life. Can she keep it?

Anyone Who Just Likes a Damn Good Book – You should get a twofer for Philip Kerr’s book Prussian Blue, which does a deep dive into both the dark days of the Third Reich and early 1950s France. Detective Bernie Gunther’s skill at solving murders doesn’t always make him friends.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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*****Lost Empress

Football, leaves

guvo59, creative commons license

By Sergio de la Pava – Does anyone these days have the time to read a 640-page novel? I made the time and was glad of it! This remarkable book came to me as a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, and it bucks convention in more ways than its length.

In all those pages, a lot happens—interesting, challenging stuff you won’t find in a typical novel. It includes a meditation on Time, an evisceration of professional football, a hilarious take-down of the U.S. health care system, an exploration of the meaning of loneliness and the futility of religion. Fundamentally, however, it’s a kaleidoscopic, postmodern approach to the question “what is justice?” All the while, Sergio de la Pava’s sly sense of humor keeps the pages turning, as situations at first merely odd spiral out of control like a poorly judged forward pass.

Characters are described with juicy details that make their stories tantalizing, and as the story settles down, two principal characters emerge. The first is Nina Gill, former co-owner and brains behind the wildly successful Dallas Cowboys. Family maneuvering gives her a football team of her own—not the Cowboys, the decidedly non-competitive Paterson (N.J.) Pork.

Nina is a woman who gets what she wants, and what she mostly wants is a winning football team. The NFL players are in a lockout, the owners have cancelled the season, and gutsy Nina recruits men desperate to play. Her second-in-command is college student Dia Nouveau, and the laugh-out-loud banter between tough Nina and can-do Dia is like the script for a screwball comedy, sometimes even written in script format.

Nuno DeAngelis is a career lawbreaker headed to Rikers Island. Nuno is a philosopher. “They can put him in Rikers, but they can’t make him live there.” The story of his life in prison, how he gets out and back in again, is written in what you might call a suprarealistic style, not as gritty crime drama, but floating somewhere above reality. But, since he’s there, his various connections give him assignments: avenge a vehicular homicide, snatch a Salvador Dali painting Nina wants . . . you know, the usual prison malarkey. Nuno writes his own brief for his Grand Jury proceeding, and it’s both expletive-laced and morally persuasive.

Trying to give a sense of the plot of a novel this sprawling is probably irrelevant. De la Pava has created a three-ring circus involving clowns, daredevils, and high-wire performers, creating extraordinary characters from people engaged in seemingly ordinary activities—a 911 call transcriber, a man caring for his ailing mother, a parking garage operator, a priest in a dwindling parish, and a failed doctor who becomes the Paterson Pork mascot.

De la Pava’s first novel, 2008’s A Naked Singularity, was originally self-published, but when the University of Chicago Press discovered and republished it in 2012, it received the PEN/Bingham Prize for best debut novel of the year. His is a refreshing and unforgettable voice, one that busts out of the boxes of both crime and literary fiction, stretching the form and the reader as well.

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