Unexpected Synchronicities

If you’re a frequent reader, sometimes the parallel threads from several books get all tangled up. Characters with the same/similar names in books by different authors. Intersecting plot lines. Or you read one book that gives you interesting background about something (Daughters of Yalta), and soon you read another dealing with the same events (Gods of Deception). You feel like you turned a corner and ran into a mirror.

Two books I’ve read recently were set in Venice—thankfully at totally different time periods (1612 on one hand and 1928, 1938, and 2002 on the other)—but identical geography and modes of transport, and—OK, this is a stretch—the third, a contemporary mystery about life on a canal in England.

The Gallery of Beauties by Nina Wachsman is a new historical mystery featuring an unlikely pair of protagonists—Belladonna, a famous and wealthy courtesan, and Diana, a rabbi’s daughter who lives in the Jewish ghetto. These beautiful women come to the attention of an artist creating portraits for a “Gallery of Beauties.” Intrigue is high in the city’s Council of Ten, whose mistrustful leaders vie with each other for power and prestige, and leading citizens’ fear of poisoning is so great they employ official tasters. Diana must slip out of the ghetto to pose for the artist, but the chance to wear beautiful clothing and mix with the city’s elite, including her new friend Belladonna, convinces her to ignore the curfew imposed on ghetto residents. Out in the city, she could be challenged at any time. When the subjects of the Gallery of Beauties begin to be murdered, the two women must unravel the mystery for their own survival. An indelible portrait of Venice in the 17th century.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Barrie Kreinik, is mostly set during the days leading up to World War II, when English schoolteacher and artist Juliet Browning begins a romance with the wealthy and devastatingly handsome son of a leading Venetian family. As the Nazis close in, Juliet delays her return home until it’s no longer possible to leave. Without papers and out in a city patrolled by fascists, she could be challenged at any time. (!) Sixty years later, when Juliet dies, her niece Caroline inherits her Venice sketchbook and keys to she doesn’t know what. It will be up to her to discover Aunt Lettie’s mysterious past. This book was too formulaic for me, in terms of the plot and the relationships. But again, Venice.

Idiot Wind by Michael Broihier is set on the Oxford Canal, which runs some 70 miles between Oxford and Hawkesbury in central England. The protagonist, Mac McGuire, with his 60-foot narrowboat, Idiot Wind, delivers food and fuel to boat owners up and down a central portion of this canal. The countryside is beautiful, the boat dwellers are quirky devotees to an idiosyncratic way of life, and it’s a peaceful one—that is, until dead bodies turn up in the canal waters. There’s a lot of mechanics involved in opening and closing the canal’s many locks, repetitive actions I actually found quite soothing. It gave a certain controlled rhythm to the story. No wild car chases, just going with the flow. For me, Broihier’s portrayal of life on the canal was a memorable one. But then, any story with boats is OK with me, and this was a dandy.

Enchanted April — Last Weekend!

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey leads off its 60th season with Matthew Barber’s charming romantic comedy, Enchanted April, directed by theater artistic director Bonnie J. Monte. You may be familiar with one of the story’s earlier adaptations, including the 2003 Broadway production, with its Tony Award nomination for Best Play, or with 1991’s star-studded British film. Perhaps you even read the 1922 book, The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, which made an Italian sojourn a rejuvenating aspiration for Britons. In creating the stage version, Barber adjusted some of the plot but lost none of the appeal.

It’s set in the early 1920s, when the devastating effects of the Great War and the ensuing Spanish Influenza epidemic have left their mark. The ebullient Lotty Wilton (played by Monette Magrath) and uptight Rose Arnott (Carey Van Driest) are very different in personality but alike in being trapped by unhappy marriages. Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Greg Jackson) is controlling and penny-pinching; Rose, a highly religious woman, is offended by the scandalous books her husband Frederick (Anthony Marble) writes. The sympathetic Magrath and Van Driest are the core of the story and carry it forward brilliantly.

Spying a newspaper advertisement for a month-long stay at a castle on the Italian Riviera—wisteria! sunshine!—sounds like paradise to Lotty, compared to the oppressive gloom and rain of London. She and Rose can’t quite afford the rent and recruit two additional women to join them, the waspish Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Shepherd), firmly rooted in Victorian era mores, and her opposite, Lady Caroline Bramble (Samantha Bruce), a jazz age society star.

The first act powerfully demonstrates what Lotty and Rose are desperate to get away from. Mrs. Graves wants to join them and run the show according to her tastes, and Lady Caroline has her own ghosts. In Act Two, the bright and beautiful atmosphere of the castle retreat shows its transformative powers. In this optimistic play, every heart can be opened and healed, and the actors movingly portray their emergence from cocoons of resentment, fear, and grief.

Castle owner Anthony Wilding (Aaron McDaniel) also has a lacuna in his life, you discover. Meanwhile, the cook/maid, Costanza (Celeste Ciulla), whose dialog is almost wholly in Italian—as is her attitude—brings laughter to every scene she’s in. Impatient with the demanding Mrs. Graves, affectionate with the castle owner, she sees and understands all. It’s pleasant, upbeat summer fare, now in its last weekend. Don’t miss out! For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Photo: Daniel Rader

Dear Jack, Dear Louise

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson ©

If you’re looking for a show that will ease you comfortably back into the theater, the George Street Playhouse has found the perfect vehicle: Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. This romantic comedy won the 2020 Helen Hayes award for best new play, and this production isdirected by GSP artistic director David Saint. Of course, 2020 being what it was, hardly anyone has seen it. The story is based on Ludwig’s parents’ epistolary courtship during World War II, and the best word to describe it is charming.

In 1942, the parents of Jack Ludwig (played by Bill Army) and Louise Rabiner (Amelia Pedlow) are friends. It occurs to them that their children—now in their twenties—should meet. Jack is a military doctor stationed in Oregon, and Louise is an aspiring Broadway actor and dancer. The doctor indulges his parents and writes the actress, and a regular, increasingly warm correspondence ensues. As we all know, the road to true love is never smooth, and when two people have never met in person, when one of them ends up being stationed overseas for D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, and when the other starts to achieve professional success and male adulation, well . . .

Pedlow has numerous off-Broadway credits and had the role of Louise in the world premiere of  Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Army’s most notable Broadway role was in the original company of The Band’s Visit, and he also has numerous off-Broadway, television and film credits. In a play with only two characters, much depends on how strongly they inhabit their roles and the chemistry between them—a job made harder in this play because they communicate through the written word, not the telling glance. Yet, their growing affection for each other shines through convincingly.

As each one reads (that is, speaks) the words of the letter being written, it was interesting to watch the recipient’s reactions. One of the funniest moments was when Louise told Jack about a visit to her parents in Brooklyn and meeting his parents there. The expression of shock and dismay on his face was priceless.

Travel prevented our getting to the theater for the production’s opening in late October, but it is on stage at the beautiful new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center for several more weeks, until November 21. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Compliments to the theater for taking patrons’ safety into account with the mask and proof-of-vaccination status requirements.

Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

I Love Streaming!! Recent Finds

News of the World is a 2020 movie starring the ever-genial Tom Hanks and 12-year-old Helena Zengel, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Greengrass and Luke Davis (trailer).

The Civil War is over, and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling between the ramshackle towns of north central Texas entertaining the (mostly illiterate) residents with his readings from newspapers. It is, literally, the news of the world he brings to their muddy doorsteps.

Traveling between gigs, he encounters a busted wagon, a hanged man, and someone running through the trees. It’s an eight-year-old (approx.) girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa years before from a German-speaking settlement in the Texas Hill Country. She speaks only Kiowa. With little exposure to white culture, she longs to return to the Indians, while he’s determined to return her to her family against her will, and her will is formidable.

Together, they encounter a number of fairly predictable lowlifes and have some nevertheless tension-filled adventures. The depiction of immediate post-war Texas was of particular interest, as much of my family moved there from Central Tennessee and other places in the South. The rougher elements are not folks you’d want to tangle with!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 89%.

Les Parfums (Perfumes) is a 2019 French romantic comedy (subtitles) we watched through our local independent movie house’s website (trailer). Written and directed by Grégory Magne, it stars Emmanuelle Davos and Gregory Montel, who played Gabriel in the wickedly funny tv series, Call My Agent.

She’s a “nose”—someone who’s cultivated her sense of smell to the point that she’s created perfumes and developed scentscapes for boutiques. It’s a job that requires high sensitivity, and she’s afraid of losing it. Meanwhile, she’s very much the diva. Montel plays her much put-upon chauffeur, desperate to hang onto his job so he can gain partial custody of his daughter.

Unlike so many American shows, she’s a person with a real job and an interesting one, and you see her doing it. Montel is his bumbling self, who brings unexpected skills to the task of accommodating her.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; no audience rating.

Stories of Suspense: Romantic and Otherwise

Reading

Fiction River: Summer Sizzles

In her introduction to Fiction River‘s issue of romantic suspense stories, editor and romance writer Kristine Grayson (pen name of series editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch) says, “I love romantic suspense when it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s seriously mind-numbing.” That must be the type I’d read previously. This issue has made a bit of a convert out of me—I just have to keep finding the good stuff, like these examples:

In Katie Pressa’s story “Night Moves,” a man hospitalized for a head injury that robbed him of his memory kicks into high gear when he’s attacked again. Where did those skills come from? He doesn’t know, but the detective sent to sort out the second attack and prevent another one believes she has a hero on her hands and wants to find out more.

The sparks of romance might be flying between a female helicopter pilot and a laconic Delta Force operator, but their mission in Afghanistan is too dangerous for distractions, in “Flying above the Hindu Kush” by ML Buchman. Super-exciting!

Sabrina Chase’s lighthearted “Need to Know” made me smile. If only real life served up such delicious surprises!

“Totality” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes place on the Oregon coast during 2018’s total eclipse and turns it into a tale about a woman whose mentally ill sister is trying to kill herself and the man who may save them both. Nice portrayal of coping with irrationality.

And many more . . .

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Much to like in the March-April 2020 issue! Especially to my taste were:  

The clever police procedural “The Eleventh Commandment” by Paul Charles. So nice to have villains who puts a little thought into their crimes.

Peter Lovesey’s “Lady Luck” is just downright malicious, staring with the ironic first line. Ha!

I’m a fan of John Lantigua’s stories set in Miami’s Little Havana. Like previous ones, “In the War Zone of the Heart” is not only a good story, he spices it up with local culture.

You can read Karr and Wehner’s Passport to Crime story “Here in Tremonia a Crime Fiction Slam . . .” as a long poem, one with a few murders along the way and a happy ending.

In John F. Dobbyn’s entertaining “A Little Help from my Friend,” finally, at last, a story protagonist comes to the aid of his author!

Dave Zeltzerman’s entertaining stories about his modern-day Nero Wolfe/Archie stand-ins Julius Katz and a rectangular bit of hi-grade AI are always fun, especially in “Like a Lightning Bolt,” written from a would-be con-man’s pov. He doesn’t stand a chance.

The polyglot protagonist of Edith Maxwell’s tale, “One Too Many,” discovers she’s just too clever for her own good!

Photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

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 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

Oscar’s Foreign Language Contenders 2019

Only three of this year’s Oscar longlist for best foreign language film have made it to Princeton so far, at least that I’ve seen: The Guilty, Cold War, and Roma.

My favorite so far is the riveting Danish thriller, The Guilty. Alas, it didn’t make the final list of nominees, so it may be hard to catch.

Nevertheless, don’t miss a chance to see Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (trailer). Danish policeman Asger Holm is assigned to answering emergency calls until he goes to court on some unspecified matter. He deals rather cavalierly with a man who calls complaining that a woman stole his laptop and wallet, once Asger figures out the man is calling from the red-light district and the woman was an Eastern European prostitute. But then the calls turn serious and he works desperately to rescue a kidnapped woman. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the camera almost never does. You hear what he hears and know what he knows. As he frantically tries to figure out how to rescue her, the suspense is almost unbearable. Jacob Cedergren as Asger is brilliant.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 90%.

The Polish nominee is Cannes Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s romance Cold War (trailer), which begins in the 1950s. The romance is doomed, though, because Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a breakout role, can’t decide what she wants. Scenes of the communist-sponsored cultural performance troop, in which the peasant Zula’s lovely singing voice is discovered, are energetic and entertaining. She begins an on-again, off-again affair with the troop’s sophisticated conductor, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that over the next few decades is mostly off, to the regret of them both. Full of great music of many types and shot in lovely, deep black and white.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences 84%.

The other nominees are two films of a type Indie-Wire calls “poverty-row melodramas,” Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan), winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) which won the Cannes Jury Prize. In addition, there’s Roma (Mexico), sweet, but not great, in my opinion, and Never Look Away (Germany) from previous Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in which the Nazis take on “degenerate art.” You know, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and their ilk. That one’s on the “coming soon” board.

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.