The Farewell

This lovely new film written and directed by Lulu Wang starts with that staple of family dramas, assembling the clan (trailer). In this case, a woman’s sons and their wives and children are returning to Changchun, China, from Japan and America on the pretext of a family wedding, but in reality because the family matriarch, Nai Nai, is dying. Though widely dispersed, they are united in a conspiracy to keep that truth from her as long as possible.

All except Billi (Awkwafina). She immigrated to America with her parents at age four and has adopted this country’s attitudes toward personal autonomy. This secret is too big, too consequential, too awful to keep. So, when her young poleaxed-looking cousin moves up his wedding to a Japanese woman as a ploy to get the family together, Billi is discouraged from attending. She doesn’t have the poker face necessary to maintain the deception. She goes anyway.

And what do families do when they get together? They eat! Over a series of meals, including the eerily familiar wedding reception, the food serves as a distraction when discussions become too intense and personal. Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is lively and charming, and the mutual love between her and a devastated Billi is beautifully portrayed. They tell her she isn’t sick, and that’s the attitude she adopts. And, really, she manages the family and the wedding minutiae with energy. The family keeps trying to take on various tasks, but she’ll have none of it.

I especially liked the portrayal of Billi’s parents, her stunned father (Tzi Ma) and chilly, no-nonsense mother (Diana Lin), as well as the poor Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara), gamely participating in everything without understanding a word.

The movie delves deeply into cultural differences and, by exploring them in such vivid detail, establishes bona fide universals. Given the subject matter, you would not expect this film to have a nice dose of comedy, but it does. Families closely examined almost always do, in the midst of whatever chaos surrounds them—painful wedding toasts eliciting surefire groans.

Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, nails it when she says Wang has “made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés.” See it!, then go out for Chinese food. You will be in the mood.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 99%; audiences 88%.

Topdog/Underdog

The final production of the 2019 season at Princeton Summer Theater is Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. The show premiered August 8 and runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater.

Sibling rivalry that boils over into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan), five years older, have an uneasy relationship made more acute by their dwindling life prospects. Despite Booth’s determination to change his name to Three-Card, the brothers seem constrained by the names their father chose for them as a cruel joke.

Booth has a one-room apartment and a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to live with him after his wife threw him out, and Booth would like to get rid of him too, but Lincoln has a job and income, even if paltry. In a tangle of symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him with a gun filled with blanks. They carnival hired him because they can pay him less, but even that meager income is threatened, because management plans to replace him with a wax dummy.

In the old days, Lincoln made a good living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but initially refuses to take up the cards again. Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full Lincoln regalia. Startled by Lincoln’s entrance, Booth pulls his gun, then lies about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.

Throughout the course of the play, much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by their parents when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts back and forth many times.

Raeburn gives an energetic performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, morose and beaten down not just by his bizarre job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it. He resists Booth’s importuning to go back to his Three-card Monte days, and finally, alone in the apartment, really comes to life when he takes up the cards again.

Rakesh Potluri produced the set (the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery). Music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which like the play is thematically influenced by differences between the two principals.

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 also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

The Rainmaker

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production of the N. Richard Nash hit The Rainmaker is an apt thematic fit for a summer this hot, where land and spirits are parched. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directs the show, preserving all its comedy and charm, which opened August 3 and runs through August 18.

In the early 1950s, somewhere Out West, the Curry family ranch is in trouble. A severe drought imperils the cattle herd, and tempers are frayed. Father H.C. Curry (Mark Elliot Wilson), older son Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), and younger son Jim (Isaac Hickox-Young) are preoccupied not only with the lack of rain but with their clumsy attempts to interest someone—anyone?—in marrying their sister Lizzie (Monette Magrath). A visit to the office of Sheriff Thomas (Nick Plakias) to inveigle his deputy, File (Corey Sorenson), to come to dinner—a fix-up ploy File sees through immediately—fails miserably. Noah counsels Lizzie to act more like the mincing, flattering kind of woman who, though vapid and undignified in Lizzie’s view, gets her man nonetheless. His and her imitation of how she should behave provides a number of hearty audience laughs.

Just when the family’s situation seems bleakest, with their prospects as empty as the sky is empty of clouds, flamboyant Billy Starbuck (Anthony Marble) appears at their door, claiming to be a rainmaker. All he needs is $100. As ranch manager, Noah wants to run him off the property; Lizzie calls him a con man and a liar. Only Jim, naïve enough to see the world through the lens of hope and H.C., desperate enough to try anything and astute enough to see something in Starbuck that might broaden Lizzie’s horizons, want him to stay. What can be the outcome of such a reckless and costly venture?

All the Currys are well portrayed, with Magrath especially poignant and frustrated as Lizzie, facing what Noah claims is certain spinsterhood. Hickox-Young is delightful as the credulous, mercurial Jim, quick to take offense and as quick to forgive. Eakeley plays the over-practical Noah with a hard edge, while secretly yearning for relief from the burdens of the ranch and the family. And Wilson as H.C. manages to be simultaneously indulgent and strong.

In a sense it is Marble’s show when he is on stage, because his showman character is so unpredictably over-the-top, yet the actor conveys heart-warming tenderness when dealing with Lizzie, and Magrath is equally engaging in their scenes together.

The script holds up some 65 years after being written and retains its comedic as well as romantic luster. It’s easy to see why this strong and moving story has been revived on stage, made into a movie, and repackaged as a musical (110 in the Shade).

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!

Maiden

Twelve times since 1973, an international set of racing yachts has taken to the ocean for a Round the World Yacht Race (first sponsored by Whitbread brewery and now called the Volvo Ocean Race, under its new sponsor). It’s dangerous work, with crews pitted against each other, the weather, and the implacable seas. Until 1989, ocean racing was a man’s game, with women unwelcome even in the galley. Only five of the 200 crew members on boats in the race before 1989 were women.

But in that year, everything changed, as shown in the riveting new documentary written and directed by Alex Holmes detailing the voyage of the Maiden (trailer). Using 30-year-old footage it includes film of the trip, comments by other captains, and excepts from upbeat interviews with the Maiden’s captain, Tracy Edwards. Interviews with her today reveal how frightened she was. For a very long time, she couldn’t get a sponsor for the expensive venture; even running the race was costly, with a land crew to meet and help them at every stop. A lot was riding on her boat’s success.

No one expected them to do well against the 22 other boats in the race. Everyone knew “girls” couldn’t sail such a demanding course. The local Portsmouth punters took bets on how far they’d get—out of the harbor, then back? the Canary Islands? No one expected them to finish the race’s first leg, across the Atlantic to Uruguay, much less the entire race. The dismissive yachting journalists and rival captains reinterviewed today have vivid memories of how Edwards scuttled their assumptions.

The Maiden won the most grueling leg of the race, across the far south latitudes, icebergs and all, to reach Australia, then the shortest, around to a stop in New Zealand, which required precision boat-handling. It wasn’t just the physical challenge of controlling a 58-foot boat in heavy seas. It was a mental and endurance challenge as well, especially for Edwards, who served as skipper and navigator.

For every member of the crew then and now, this experience was the adventure of a lifetime. An uplifting journey for viewers too. Says Adam Graham in the Detroit News, Maiden “ tells a story whose tidal waves were felt far beyond the deck of her ship.” And you stay dry.

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

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.