If Magic Goes Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

May 14, 2020

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I’ll bet I’ve sold a dozen tickets to THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG since I first saw it in the West End nearly five years ago. It’s a door-slamming farce, a cousin to NOISES OFF (of which I also can’t get enough), only the premise here is that the cast and crew are British amateurs. As they attempt to stage a stereotypical locked-door murder mystery, Murphy’s Law arrives, flourishes, and rampages for two solid hours. It’s the unluckiest production humanly possible, but the poor beleaguered cast charmingly soldiers on: what else can they do? It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

I’m not the only one smitten. J. J. Abrams loved THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG so much that he helped bring it to Broadway, where it won the Tony for set design; if you see it you’ll understand why. Later, the comic magicians Penn & Teller also had a (separate) look and were just as excited. This was their introduction to “Mischief Theatre,” founded by the three lads who devised the deliberate debacle, and somebody must have said, “hey, guys: MAGIC GOES WRONG! The instant my brother and I heard of it, we snagged our tickets, and at approximately one month B.C. (Before Coronavirus), we settled into London’s Vaudeville Theatre for the collaboration.

The piece presents itself as a televised fundraiser for a charity devoted to magicians who have been injured attempting to perform magic tricks. (The “charity’s” hilarious cartoon logo features a magic wand stuck in the magician’s eye.) Then we are treated to a typical tv variety show during which the magicians turn out to be not nearly as deft as they intended. As we’d hoped, the result is tear-makingly delicious.

Not only is the show heartily entertaining on its face, it also takes sly digs at the cliched tropes of magic. The emcee is “Sophisticato,” who has faced a lifelong struggle for the approbation of his recently deceased conjuror-father (played by a portrait of the late Johnny Thompson, who was a beloved magic consultant). “Mind Mangler” is a delightfully inept mentalist and card handler. Funniest of all is a daredevil “rock & roll magician,” an over-amped cross between Criss Angel and David Blaine, known as “The Blade.” Four other performers keep things moving faster than you have time to ponder, which is, after all, the secret of magic, even when it’s going to go wrong.

I won’t offer any specifics regarding what actually happens. Magic is all about surprise, so that’s for you to discover. (This show is almost certain to make the same trip to America as did THE PLAY, especially with Abrams as a lead producer.) But fans of Penn & Teller’s work will occasionally have an unusual perspective, as a handful of tricks originated in their act, including their hilarious Houdini water torture, a card-finding illusion using a sharp object, and a sawing-a-lady-into-halves routine. P&T devotees will thus be able to discern the lovely handiwork of Mischief Theatre as the “Wrong Boys” (that’s how their American partners refer to them) contribute bits and beats that lift each piece over and above the original presentation — and that’s only the few we’ve seen before. This truly is a match made in prestidigitational heaven.

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Sophisticato (Henry Shields) and Mind Mangler (Henry Lewis), about to saw. What could possibly go wrong?

 


Richard Penniman, 1932-2020

May 9, 2020

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My boss at the ad agency and I had gone to Dallas to shoot a commercial, early Eighties. We were in the hotel lobby checking in, and he left the line to take a whiz. I overheard the guy in front of me give his name to the check-in lady. “Reverend Penniman.” Even from behind him I could tell. As he turned around, yep, exactly right. 

“Reverend,” I said, “I just want to say thank you for all the good rockin’ you gave me.” His face lit up as if it hadn’t been the five millionth time he’d heard that. “I tell you what, young man, it was MY PLEASURE.” I said, “I’m here with somebody, he’s in the john, could you wait a few seconds? I want to make his year.” He giggled and turned back toward the desk as my boss walked up.

Now came one of the top ten most delightful moments of my entire life. “John Broderick,” I said, “meet Little Richard.” The Reverend swung around, SHRIEKED, and hugged us both. He puffed up with energy. Joy exuded from him. We were just two normal guys, but he was a star. The whole encounter took less than a minute, but I’ve never forgotten it and I never will. 

Bye bye, Rev. I’d say, get them off their booties up there, but I’ll bet you already have.


The Duty Dozen

April 20, 2020

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If you’re chafing at having to work from home, just consider yourself lucky that you are not essential to the functioning of daily life. One, you still have a job, and it’s soft enough that you can do it at a social distance. Two, that job doesn’t require you to be out in harm’s way, like people in healthcare or law enforcement or municipal services or the armed forces or food distribution. And three, so far you’ve managed to avoid contracting a debilitating, ravenous virus.

Still, cabin fever comes with a dull psychological ache that may give way to gloom. I propose fighting it by spending time with some people who have it even worse off than you do. For instance, a contentious sequestered jury in a murder trial, crammed into a claustrophobic little room on the hottest day of the year. This might be a good time to count your blessings and watch Sidney Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN.

This searing drama is one of the towering works of the Golden Age of television, securing for Reginald Rose his deserved place alongside pioneers of original teleplays like Stirling Silliphant, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. I’ve seen the original 1954 performance on CBS’s STUDIO ONE, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. (It’s available on YouTube, as well as on the superb 2011 Criterion DVD.) I was there for the Roundabout’s 2004 Broadway staging. I saw the 1997 tv adaptation directed by William Friedkin, updated to include black actors and to delete smoking. I’ve even screened a Russian adaptation. These talented artists were all inspired by the same crackling dialogue from Rose. But none of them have come close to matching the power and artistry of Lumet’s film in the 63 years since it was released.

12 ANGRY MEN was a sensation when it was performed live on September 20, 1954. It was perfect for the fledgling medium: the confines of the cathode ray tube helped instill a feeling of uncomfortable closeness (on today’s widescreen monitors, black vertical bars preserve the original clinging aspect ratio). The story is told in real dramatic time: after each commercial break, the actors return to their precise marks and continue as if not an instant has passed. There had been legal thrillers before, but this was the first time the courtroom itself was only a bit player; we go instead to a little conference table around which twelve jurors deliberate and we do not leave until they’re done.

In the mid-Fifties, television was a country cousin to the movies, yet a perceived existential threat which the studios contested with the spectacle of widescreen panoramas. But there was a plausible path to cinema for smaller chamber pieces from tv, paved in 1955 with the feature adaptation of Chayefsky’s MARTY, which won Oscars for the author, director, star, and picture. Rose and Henry Fonda decided to follow suit as producing partners with 12 ANGRY MEN.

Even at its small physical scale, 12 ANGRY MEN could not have been made into a feature without the two producers deferring their salaries. Fonda was the film’s only bankable star. The rest of the jury were played by up-and-coming New York-based actors known, if at all, for their work on stage and tv, not movies. Several went on to fine careers and are familiar faces to us today, but in 1957 they were unknown to the national audience.

To direct, Fonda and Rose chose Sidney Lumet, an experienced veteran of the live television scene. Though this would be Lumet’s first feature, the project was right in his wheelhouse; he specialized in the small, gritty “kitchen-sink dramas” that Golden Age live tv was making so popular. Here, of course, he’d be able to shoot out of sequence for efficiency and broaden the story (Rose’s screenplay is nearly twice as long as his 1954 teleplay, but somehow it still seems to move faster). The combination of incendiary acting, surefooted direction, rich black-and-white cinematography by Boris Kaufman, and above all that sizzling real-time script, is breathtaking.

The first time through, one’s attention is riveted on the plot, which demonstrates the inexactitude of our justice system. Try as we might, sometimes it’s impossible to be certain; that’s where the notion of “reasonable doubt” comes in. And sometimes it’s impossible to be dispassionate: prejudices and fears can enter a jury room too. Anyone who’s ever served on a jury will recognize another aspect that the film gets right: this dozen forms a hive mind. Some people remember snippets of information that others don’t. A jury’s honest decision is a group effort.

You may want to watch the film again to observe the technical mastery that achieves its almost unbearably intense emotional effects; it’s just as impressive the second time around. The table-bound setting is no match for Lumet’s inventiveness: the actors are constantly in motion, fussing with windows or a wall fan, prowling for emphasis, sweating through both heat and effort and pacing for any possible relief from the oppressive atmosphere. In Lumet’s wonderful book MAKING MOVIES, he describes settling on a “lens plot” to make the room seem smaller and smaller as the story proceeds, gradually using longer and longer lenses to reduce the apparent space between the subjects. In addition, Lumet and Kaufman shot the first third of the movie above eye level, the middle third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level so that the set’s ceiling began to appear. “Not only were the walls closing in,” Lumet writes, “the ceiling was as well.” Watching 12 ANGRY MEN with this in mind shows us how cinema can affect our mood without even announcing itself.

12 ANGRY MEN marked the beginning of Sidney Lumet’s legendary movie career, and was a breakout showcase for Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E. G. Marshall (who would later go back into the courtroom as the star of Rose’s highly respected tv series THE DEFENDERS), Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Robert Webber, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam and Edward Binns. The other two actors were reprising their roles from the live CBS production: George Voskovec (Juror 11, the naturalized European watchmaker) and Joseph Sweeney (Juror 9, the oldest man).

I served on a jury in a murder trial a few years ago, even walked the steps of that same building at 60 Centre Street which commands Lumet’s opening and closing shots. More than once during the three weeks of testimony and especially the five solid days of deliberation (sometimes heated, even tearful, but never feral), I thought of 12 ANGRY MEN. I thought of how imperfect we humans are, especially when we presume to judge the actions of others, and I thought of the near-impossibility of knowing the truth about an event which one did not personally witness. But by the time it was all over, I experienced the same relief that Lumet blessedly grants film viewers in the final two minutes, when we at last emerge into fresh air and heavenly sky. Twelve people had each tried their best to do the right thing. In both the movie and in real life, I learned how noble and difficult that effort can be.


See How They Run

April 7, 2020

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The coronavirus lockdown coincided with my six-week rehab period after a hip replacement. (I got the new hip just a few days before the hospital indefinitely postponed all elective surgery.) So I can’t go out to a restaurant or a movie or a concert or a play or a game or a museum or anything else. But I knew I’d be housebound. I just didn’t expect all of you to be in the same boat with me.

When I survey such a chasm of time one good thing remains, an opportunity like poor old Burgess Meredith thought he had in that postapocalyptic TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Books. Lots of books. Especially big fat ones that had formerly intimidated me with sheer spine size. Thus it was that I plucked a honker off the shelf that had been sitting there for nearly thirty years: WHAT IT TAKES by Richard Ben Cramer. 

Everybody had told me over the years that this was the single best book about a Presidential campaign ever written, better than Teddy White’s, better than all the op-edders whose tomes come out like clockwork these days. I always said, yada yada yada. I trust you all, don’t get me wrong, but this sumbitch is a thousand pages long! Now, newly hipped, I had no excuse, just a truckful of hours in front of me — so what the hell; I cracked it expecting to snooze though about a hundred pages. 

Friends, this is the single best book about a Presidential campaign ever written. 

It covers the 1988 race, in which you may remember that George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the 41st POTUS. But that two-man general election battle appears only in a modest epilogue at the end. The overwhelming majority of the book deals with the primary competitions, on both the Democratic and Republican sides, in which the prize is the party’s nomination in an election without an incumbent on the ballot. What distinguishes Mr. Cramer’s work from Theodore H. White’s masterful MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT volumes isn’t the accuracy of the journalism, but its deeply personal nature. White appears to be everywhere, sifting through mountains of third-party research as well as his own field work, to produce a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of an almost unimaginably grueling journey. Mr. Cramer digs deeper, so that the reader isn’t on the wall but inside his subject’s psyche. The level of empathy he thus achieves is far beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. 

Mr. Cramer fulfills the promise of his title in two ways. We follow along on a physically and emotionally debilitating slog, which wreaks a tremendous toll not only on the aspirant himself but also his wife (the candidates are all men) and children. That’s what it literally takes to seize a major party’s nomination for president. But there’s a second meaning: we reach into the personal histories of each of Mr. Cramer’s subjects deeply enough to find out what it takes to seriously imagine yourself in the nation’s highest office. In other words, what kind of guy runs for president in the first place — and how does he then go about it?

The author intended to profile six main subjects divided equally between parties, but campaign events dictated a different combination. So we follow Vice President George H. W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole on the Republican side, and four Democrats: former Senator Gary Hart, Congressman Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis — and Senator Joe Biden, whose candidacy in 2020 makes this report unexpectedly timely. Other abiding figures also make their appearances, including a pugnacious George W. Bush (“Junior”), the pre-Fox News Roger Ailes, and of course Ronald Reagan, whose relationship to his veep’s effort to succeed him was fraught with unwanted drama. 

The first commonality you notice is that all six of the candidates are alpha males who demonstrated leadership skills and a competitive spirit early in life. You could have picked each one out of a grade-school class and said, that kid could be President one day. Our most recent two Republican Presidents were born to privilege and used that status as leverage throughout their lives, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Only one of these guys — Bush — was descended from money, and he made up for it by flying daring combat missions over the Pacific (he was such an obvious preppy that his nickname aboard the aircraft carrier wasn’t “Butch” or “Curly,” but “George Herbert Walker Bush”) and trudging around in the west Texas dust trying to start an oil business on his own in the early Fifties. The rest of them were classic hardscrabble overachievers, each with something to prove. And when they all compete against each other, sparks fly, but there can only be one winner.

Mr. Cramer’s reporting is legit. He interviewed more than a thousand people. Every depicted scene comes either from eyewitnesses or from independently published reports verified by eyewitnesses. The author read back every section to “the candidate, to a family member, or to closest aides — whoever seemed likeliest to know about the events described.” In other words, this is exactly what really happened.

The book flies — it took me less than a week to gulp it down, and I invariably couldn’t wait to get back to it — for two main reasons. One, after a more legato opening section where we calmly get to know each of the distinctive personalities, Mr. Cramer juggles six intertwining narrative arcs at increasing speed over 130 chapters (the book moves fastest when whirling through the scandal that quickly derailed Gary Hart’s campaign; the chapters are “Saturday Night I,” “Saturday Night II,” “Sunday, “Monday,” “Tuesday” and “Wednesday”). Two, Mr. Cramer’s writing style is informal and thrillingly compelling, a kind of cross between a slightly calmer Tom Wolfe and a slightly medicated Hunter S. Thompson. Here he is, inside the mind of Lee Atwater, Bush’s blues-guitar-playing Southern hatchet man:

This was part of Atwater’s southern fire-wall strategy, Lee’s determination to erect an unassailable, insurmountable Super Tuesday bulwark, so that even if Bush lost Iowa…even if he fell on his face big-time and pissed away his lead (and Governor Sununu’s help) in New Hampshire…even if Bob Dole got hot and swept the lesser early contests in Minnesota and South Dakota…even if Jack Kemp convinced the tax-cut-and-Star-Wars crowd that he was the Real and Rightful Reagan Heir…even if Pat Robertson’s eye-in-the-middle-of-the-forehead charismatics crawled out by thousands from under church pews…still, even so!one way or another, George Bush was going to look like a winner on March 8. This was defense by suffocation — you look to see where the other guy’s breathing, then mash down the pillow of Bush, Inc.’s superior resources.

Man, that’s how I want my campaign journalism to read! The whole book is that colorful, even when representing family and friends in moments of jagged agony or tearful tenderness, and there are plenty of each. The level of access is nothing short of phenomenal. The reader has a backstage pass that gets through any imaginable door.

With a sole flukeish exception — his own son in 2004, when Dick Cheney’s terror-tinged slogan was basically Vote for us or die! — George H. W. Bush was the only Republican to win the popular vote over the last 32 years. Absent a candidate with Reagan-like charisma (and that would be exactly who?), the GOP may never win the popular again. They’re outnumbered, and it gets worse every cycle. (Which of course is very different from saying they won’t continue to occupy the White House.) The main takeaway from this magnificent book is not how little personalities have changed over the years, but that the seeds of Republican national electoral dominance were carefully tilled in fertile soil for more than a generation. In our republic, determination is truly what it takes.


To Whom It May Concern

March 12, 2020

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I write this on Thursday, March 12, 2020. My planet is being ravaged by a worldwide pandemic, declared only yesterday by the World Health Organization. No one yet knows what the end will bring, but I leave this document in the hope that it may eventually be recovered by persons who will benefit from a contemporary report.

Perhaps they will find it in the rubble of a crumbled Manhattan. Maybe a long-untouched virtual computing cloud will be examined by those clever enough to reconstruct it. These words may succumb to entropy and never be found at all. But I have to try and explain what happened. Somebody has to try.

In December 2019, a new severe acute respiratory syndrome virus was first reported in Wuhan, Hubei, China. It was transmitted among people via respiratory droplets, similar to influenza, but the elapsed time between exposure and symptom onset was as long as fourteen days. So by the time a patient exhibited fever, cough and shortness of breath, other nearby infections were likely already present. Most patients would exhibit flu-like symptoms and recover. But the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) seemed to be about ten times more lethal than influenza. Most deaths, at least initially, were among people over 60; the vast majority of fatalities had pre-existing health conditions, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Within weeks the virus had spread beyond China, beyond the far East. Different countries tried different responses, but our interconnected world was unable to stop the spread of this virulent strain. The most useful tactic seemed to be finding ways to slow it down, so that the overtaxed healthcare infrastructure would have more time to catch up. Countries with national health services were able to mobilize mass testing more quickly and dampen the rate of spread by emphasizing proper hygiene, the avoidance of crowds, and other social distancing.

Then there was the United States, the origin of this report.

The nation, oddly, had elected a vain, narcissistic television game show host to its highest office. His governing style was to foment chaos by pitting his countrymen against one another. He did this by demonizing real and perceived enemies, casting doubt on the veracity of the free press and the government bureaucracy, and — aided by the country’s most partisan tv network — spewing forth cascades of lies and misinformation until it became a chore to distinguish the truth, even impossible for about a third of the country. 

The pandemic arrived in America in an election year, and the president was desperate to win re-election. Legal technicalities associated with his office had so far shielded him from the most serious consequences of his sordid actions, but as a private citizen he would again be subject to a torrent of temporarily postponed litigations, perhaps even criminal indictments. So he was frantic.

The president’s guiding philosophy had always been to take all credit and deflect all blame; to never concede and never apologize. His orientation had always been to himself above all others, coupled with a fierce xenophobia. So his first instinct was to portray the virus as a foreign threat that could be battled by closing borders. At a February 26 news conference, he claimed there were only 15 cases in America. “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” he said.

As the virus marched inexorably forward, he falsely tried to slam his hated predecessor for regulatory restrictions that did not in fact exist. He falsely blamed his political opponents and the media for exaggerating the severity of the threat (the reporting turned out to be accurate). He even repeated on social media the theory that coronavirus was a secret biological weapon deliberately wielded by the Chinese.

The president had always used one particular metric to gauge the strength of the economy: the Dow Jones Industrial Average. When it slid 2,000 points in two days during the last week of February, he ignored investors’ fears of a global pandemic and instead blamed it on poor response to the most recent Democratic candidate debate. He was not puzzled by the logical conclusion: if investors noticed weak opposition to the incumbent, thus implying his re-election, why in the world would they sell? And never mind that the debate took place after the second day’s closing bell. The eleven-year bull market that he had inherited from his predecessor had finally come to an end on his watch.

Just as inept was the president’s spectacularly uninformed medical knowledge. Early on, he advised that the virus “miraculously goes away” in April. He said WHO’s early calculation that 3.4 percent of reported cases of the virus had died was a “false number.” Based on “my hunch,” he put the true figure at “way under 1 percent.” During one meeting, he seemed surprised to learn that influenza can be fatal. He falsely claimed spread of the virus was not “inevitable,” that cases in the United States were “going very substantially down” — and that they “are all getting better.” He said there could be “hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work” — the single worst piece of advice they and their colleagues could possibly receive. He said scientists were “very close to a vaccine,” within “months” — at least an entire year ahead of all legitimate researchers’ forecasts.

In case anyone doubted that the president’s main concern was his prospects for re-election and not human lives, he declared he would prefer to keep the thousands of passengers and crew of a cruise ship off the California coast aboard the vessel rather than bring them ashore for quarantine. “I like the numbers being where they are,” he said. “I don’t need the numbers to double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” 

Then, last night, after the WHO pandemic declaration, he decided to speak to a nervous nation. “The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States,” he said unconvincingly. All around him, schools were closing, sports leagues were suspending or postponing their seasons, workers — including those in government — were being urged to do their jobs at home. New York canceled its huge St. Patrick’s Day Parade and banned all gatherings of more than 500 people, including Broadway shows. Late-night talk programs were planning to tape indefinitely without studio audiences, and college basketball’s “March Madness” games would not be played at all. The entire world was preparing to move into a strange new era, where public gatherings are dangerous and it becomes rude or even gauche to shake hands. The president’s rosy picture of the outbreak was now a laughingstock, but nobody was laughing.

In his Oval Office address last night, desperate to be seen to be doing something, the president disturbed Europeans by announcing a 30-day travel ban — the U.K. was exempted for some reason, perhaps the existence of president-owned golf courses — and added that the prohibitions would also “apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo.” An hour later, he backpedaled: “Very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe.” (The president also said in his speech that health insurance industry leaders had agreed to waive all co-payments, not only for coronavirus testing but also for treatment. That was not so.) This morning in a statement, the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission called the outbreak a “global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action. The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.” Of course, despite any travel ban, the virus was already here. Stock futures started plunging even while the president was speaking last night, and this morning the market lost 7% so rapidly that, for the second time this week, a rare “circuit breaker” trading halt was imposed to prevent an even more precipitous slide. The Dow continued to sink and closed off almost 10%. If the president’s intention was to calm anyone down, he only managed to emphasize how rudderless the United States has become, and dismayed the rest of the world even more.

So here we are, hunkering down against the inevitable. We’re not afraid of dying, that’s not it. Even if the virus goes on a rampage in our tightly packed city, most of us will only get sick and recover. But as the cancellations and restrictions continue to feed on one another, how long will it be before vital services are threatened? How long before we run out of food — or are unable to transport it onto the island? What about ATMs? Is this essentially a hurricane that’s going to last for weeks and weeks, or will life miraculously return to normal in April? The notion of facing feral groups of investment bankers is absurd until you think about it a bit too long. How anxious should I be? Here on March 12th, I don’t know. You in the future, maybe you do. But if the worst has happened and the inflection point of 2020 has been lost to deep time, maybe these small details can help you piece it back together.


My Sundance 2020

February 27, 2020

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I’m about to have my hip replaced, completing the set that I began six years ago. While I can walk ok, if slowly, standing for a long time is a problem. I had been dreading the necessity of having to do just that at Sundance. But our hostess, who is a festival volunteer, saved my bacon. She suggested I trot out the folding cane I carry everywhere (but had never used before) and ask if I could sit in the, you know, limited-mobility section to wait. Whew! So for the first — and almost certainly the last — time, I saw all my films at the same venue. The reason it’s significant is that Sundance’s largest auditorium tips toward movies in the dramatic competition, or premieres. That’s why the fifteen below are spare on world cinema and documentaries. Next year, bro.

We had planned to spend the festival-closing Sunday night in Park City and get up early Monday for an Uber, but a blizzard was scheduled to dump about an inch an hour by then, so we hitched a ride into Salt Lake and stayed over Sunday at an airport hotel. Good thing, too, because said snow fell indeed. The weather doesn’t care about my hip!

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THE NEST*** Jude Law convinces his American wife (a fine Carrie Coon) and kids to move from Yank suburbs back to his native England, where he will rejoin his old firm and lease a humongous country manor. It’s the Eighties, so much of business is fast talking and artifice. The go-getter lives beyond his means, and the pace gradually becomes more and more frantic until Daddy gets a little creepy. Then a lot. Thoughts of THE SHINING will drift your way; the spooky, sprawling house they can’t really afford looks a lot like the Overlook Hotel. Sean Durbin’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE thrilled this fest almost ten years ago; his second feature demonstrates the same talent for depicting human nature, even at its most venal.

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WANDER DARKLY**** To say this isn’t for everybody would be the understatement of the festival, but I was at rapt attention throughout. I can save you some reading time by asking: do you admire the work of David Lynch? If your answer is NO, then by all means, next flick please. After a traumatic incident, new parent Sienna Miller becomes as “unstuck in time” as poor old Billy Pilgrim, interacting with people who shouldn’t be there, careering among locations, emotions and even existential points of view. She’s, um, shadowed by her partner Diego Luna. Anyone who wants a traditional three-act story is in the wrong theater. But the askew view (beg pardon, Kevin Smith) is profoundly revealing, and plot strands actually do begin to re-tie before it’s over. It’s a distant cousin to the wonderful A GHOST STORY, but even that rhetorical relationship is misleading. You will either love this or hate it. No middle ground. 

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MISS JUNETEENTH*** “Juneteenth” is the annual celebration of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865; one character explains that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but “Texas didn’t mind him.” Part of the celebration in one small town is a beauty pageant/talent show, and single mom Turquoise Jones (a terrific Nicole Beharie) was the winner when she was a teenager. She’s grooming her daughter for the same victory, hoping for the college scholarship that goes along with the crown, but young Kai has other aspirations. This is a charming, colorful look at all the fish in Turquoise’s small Texas pond, anchored by the loving tension between what mother wants and what daughter needs.

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PALM SPRINGS*** At a family wedding studded with stereotypes, the reluctant, rebellious maid of honor (Cristin Milioti, in what should be a career-maker) meets goofy, nihilistic Andy Samberg when he brashly saves her from having to plow through a boring wedding toast. He is brash because he has a secret, a secret you will instantly recognize from a certain Bill Murray movie that was recently made into a Broadway musical. That’s the main problem: the key premise feels too familiar — though the hit-and-miss story has some funny moments as writer Andy Siara follows the couple’s new situation to its logical extremes and then keeps going. The always dependable J. K. Simmons is featured in a scenery-chewing role that’s perfectly in tune with the flick’s farcical nature. This one sold for a sum that broke the all-time Sundance acquisition record — by exactly sixty-nine cents (funny!).

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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN**** Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, but then she dropped out of medical school and now lives an ostensibly boring life, working as a barista and living with her parents. But at night she becomes a femme fatale, imparting justice to men who think they’re about to take advantage of her (the remarkable opening sequence shows her in full flower). Something has traumatized Cassie and turned her brutally vengeful, and before we’re done we will find out what that was. Comic and filmmaker Bo Burnham plays it straight as a former classmate who kindles a relationship that will take him to unexpected places. Written and smartly directed by KILLING EVE’s Emerald Fennell, it’s way dark, but it’ll definitely provoke conversation.

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THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION*** A fictionalized “version” of the life of writer-director Radha Blank, a playwright and, later in life than usual, a rapper. She’s trying to get her plays produced while eking out a living teaching hilariously sullen high-schoolers. But then she finds the perfect jolt of creative satisfaction by returning to her first love and belting out rhymes. Meanwhile, she’s getting some bites from the theatre community and there’s a good chance one play might land on Broadway. So the two artistic urges pull her in different directions while we watch her prance through her beloved New York in glorious black and white. This film depends entirely on whether you fall in love with the title character, but she’s a force of nature and it’s hard to imagine anyone resisting.

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DINNER IN AMERICA**** This was one of my favorite films of the fest, but I was in the distinct minority among our group, so as the kids say, YMMV. About ten minutes in, you think you have it nailed. Then the movie takes a severe right turn, maybe even a yooie, and the screenplay remains one step ahead of you until the credits roll. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a misfit-couple-road-movie starring a punk-rock pyromaniac and the cutest nerd you’ve ever seen. It’s both brutal and funny, and I so admired the ability and the determination required to surprise us again and again. The depiction of the punk era and punk-era fandom is just off the scale. It’s one of those movies that asks you to let go and float down the river with it. But if you’re game for unexpected shenanigans, you will HOWL.

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FALLING*** (Festival Closing Night) In Viggo Mortensen’s writing-directing debut, he plays the son of a raging, bigoted, solitary, mentally declining dad (Lance Henriksen) who tries to help his father by moving him from the rural family farm back East into his California household. Problem #1 is the father’s relentlessly increasing dementia: the opening scene on an airplane will be painful to anyone who’s ever been close to early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, who tend to be resistant to change of any kind. Problem #2 is that the Mortensen character lives with his male partner and they are together doing their best to raise a daughter; can you guess the old man’s level of approval? This is a sensitive, sumptuously photographed family story that is quite sophisticated for a first feature. Henriksen’s is a juicily showy and intense role, but I thought he not only took the character to its histrionic limit but went past that point a few times into emotional bluster. Then again, maybe he was just following the boss’s instructions.

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UNCLE FRANK*** CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF meets 1973 South Carolina. Beth (Sophia Lillis, the ingenue from the IT movies) adores her Uncle Frank (a stalwart Paul Bettany), but when she moves to New York for college, she learns a deep family secret: Uncle Frank is gay. Furthermore, circumstances conspire to bring both Frank and his husband (Peter Macdissi) down South for a family funeral. The three characters already named form the crux of the tale, but Stephen Root also has a ball as the patriarch, “Daddy Mac.” It’s a bit Douglas-Sirky, and the melodramatic moss hangs heavily from the trees, but it’s the kind of tale we can really use these days.

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KAJILLIONAIRE*** Now this one is definitely for those who can handle visual and verbal absurdity a la Lynch or Quentin Dupieux without throwing up their hands in frustration. If you know writer-director Miranda July’s earlier work, you may understand where I’m headed. Imagine if I described TWIN PEAKS as a police procedural set in a logging town: that’s technically correct, but I am omitting everything that makes the show worth watching. Well, this is the story of a con-artist family, a couple (Richard Jenkins and Debra frickin Winger) and their daughter (an almost unrecognizable Evan Rachel Wood) who are plying their shoddy retail-level trade until a talented grifter (Gina Rodriguez) hooks up and raises their sights. The family lives next door to a laundromat, and several times a day they have to fight the huge soap-bubble effluent that leaches into their place a la Chaplin in MODERN TIMES. Get it? I’ll be candid: this is just as likely to perplex as it is to delight, but if you hang in there you’ll be treated to images (like the one I just described) that will stick to your cinematic ribs.

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WENDY*** Benh Zeitlin follows up BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD with a bayou-flavored take on the Peter Pan story. The “real world” is a down-home diner owned by the family of Wendy and her brothers. One sleepy night they are drawn to an elfin character riding atop a train car, and before long they are whisked to a magical place where they will never grow old — unless they stop believing. (That place is played by gorgeous Montserrat.) There’s an earthbound sibling and generational strand here that first seems to be only occasionally interrupted by beats from the famous J. M. Barrie tale, and that’s a legit point of view on Zeitlin’s part. This one ebbs and flows, but the child actors are wonderful. However, I recommend that you forget about the Peter Pan stuff until, say, the last reel, when it gets tough to follow the film’s arc without it — a dichotomy which I do consider a narrative flaw. You can judge for yourself when it opens tomorrow.

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FOUR GOOD DAYS*** Harrowing mother-daughter confrontation as Glenn Close takes one last chance on Mila Kunis, a hopeless junkie who has thrown her life away and shows up at Mom’s door trembling from withdrawal. She can get an injection that will break the cycle, but not unless she can stay clean for the titular time frame. The busy Stephen Root acts against type as Close’s long-suffering husband who really wants to end his wife’s suffering. Both women are able to blast it in their own ways, and the moral heart of the movie has you cheering for each of them — but not without serious trepidation bordering on dread. The climax I will leave for you to discover, but it ends on the best final shot I saw this year.

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YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS*** (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize) Maryam has killed her husband Hassan and faces the death sentence. But the otherwise patriarchal Iranian law provides for the murdered man’s daughter, Mona, to forgive Maryam, if she so chooses, on a nationally televised reality spectacle; it will resemble a Jerry Lewis telethon to Western eyes of a certain age. We remain in the control room and tv studio for nearly the entire picture, with only one short break for fresh air before we return. Within this very creative tick-tock setting we learn much of the backstory, including why the crime was committed. This tradition, held on Yalda, the winter solstice celebration, may strike some as crass and commercial. First, how can you deride something as crass and commercial if you live in America? And second, it’s Maryam’s only hope. Breaths are dutifully held.

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BOYS STATE***** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize — Documentary) A verite (meaning there is no narration or underscored music) look at a peculiarly American institution. Each year, the American Legion sponsors statewide convocations of bright high-school students who spend one week together forming a government (this one is in Texas). They decide on platforms, run for office, and, as we discover, use many questionable techniques they have osmosed from their elders. Any documentary is biased because you see only what the filmmaker permits you to see, but as the boys divide into “Nationalists” and “Federalists,” the “mock” element seems to recede, until the all-important election for Governor — the highest Boys State office — becomes both more political and more personal. As you watch, you may casually think of the many analogues to our real-life political system, but your attention is repeatedly thrust back to the boys. It’s riveting. 

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MINARI**** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize — Dramatic) A Korean family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, an expert chicken-sexer (yes, that’s actually a thing), wants to “plant a garden.” That is, start a farm. The family has been reluctant, but he can’t be dissuaded from his vision, especially since he becomes a clock-punching superstar, while his wife’s slower speed is still “good enough for Arkansas.” Eventually they invite Grandma to join them, and she powers the rest of the plot. I noted as I walked out that there had been no racial prejudice depicted: this film is about a family that happens to be Korean, and their ethnicity does figure into the story, but no more than yours or mine would. They are assisted by a cross-bearing, God-fearing farmhand delightfully brought to life by Will Patton. 

WISH I’D SEEN: BAD HAIR, BE WATER, FEELS GOOD MAN, THE FIGHT, HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY, POSSESSOR, SHIRLEY, SPACESHIP EARTH, THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS, WHIRLYBIRD

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My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2019

January 22, 2020

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THE DUBLIN TRILOGY. Probably the highlight of the (or damn near any) year. On the cozy Irish Repertory Theatre main stage — we’ve been thrilled there so repeatedly that we decided to start supporting them — we were treated to Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK as well as the lesser-performed THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS and THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN. O’Casey’s rare ability to weave warmth and humor into the direst of circumstances opens up these plays and makes us better able to face horror because we are among recognizable fellow human beings. The Irish Rep acting company is uniformly superb, always has been, even alongside visitors like Matthew Broderick and here, in PLOUGH, the wonderful Maryanne Plunkett of the O’Casey-cousin Richard Nelson plays down at the Public. 

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FERAL. Another norm-bending piece from Scotland, not as arresting as last year’s FLIGHT but swimming in a nearby loch. Three puppeteers, a sound effects artist and a video director concoct a story before your eyes: first using line drawings, then with three-D paper, cardboard cutouts and oddly poignant human figures with eyes but no mouths. You watch a live minicam feed on a video screen above their heads as they create an idyllic little town in charming detail and then destroy it as commercialization (in the form of a megastore called “Supercade”) comes in and infects the culture. The moral and physical rot is palpable and heartbreaking. All the fascinating, tightly coordinated “backstage” work takes place in plain view. The audience was stunned into awed silence at the close. 

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HADESTOWN. Musical retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice story by Anais Mitchell. Rachel Chavkin’s inventive staging is dazzling: three independent concentric turntables are just a few of the surprises she has for you. Everybody is great, but two old pros really own the stage: Andre De Shields as Hermes and that human subwoofer Patrick Page as Hades. Most of the songs are really good too, and since there’s a cast album dating back to 2010, plenty of people came prepared. You don’t need a Greek mythology textbook to follow along (the first musical number hands all the relationships to you on a platter), but as a bonus you get a sensational seven-piece band that features two of the hottest trombone solos I’ve heard in quite a while. Although it’s only coincidental, the Act I closer, “Why We Build The Wall,” could have been written yesterday: it’s as if Trump met Hades and said, “Daddy like!” 

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THE MOTHER. Isabelle Huppert is as mesmerizing on stage as she is on film. You can’t take your eyes off her, not even in a show that’s deliberately staged in widescreen. It’s a tense, packed, tightly wound ninety minutes, but the best part was being about twenty feet from her the whole time. Chris Noth also did yeoman work, but the show is Ms. Huppert’s possession. It’s the kind of performance critics tend to call “brave,” as in, “I can’t believe what I just saw Isabelle Huppert do!”

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OKLAHOMA! I appeared in a production of this show in college; after about six weeks of memorization, rehearsal and performance, you can’t help getting to know a piece pretty well. So it was such a treat to see the thought that went into Daniel Fish’s brilliant restaging, using only twelve cast members and seven musicians. In the famous three-quarter-round room at Circle In The Square, the house lights were full nearly the whole time, drawing the audience into the setting (they’re invited onstage for chili and cornbread at intermish). But “Pore Jud Is Daid” was performed in pitch black dark, so dark that nobody dared to laugh at the song’s dryly comic lyrics (“He looks like he’s asleep / It’s a shame that he won’t keep / But it’s summer and we’re runnin out of ice”) because the “hero” is in fact cruelly urging a suicide. This production is stripped down but somehow even more authentic: we hear pedal steel, mandolin, banjo and accordion along with the bass, cello and violin. Yet they make enough noise that the audience head-bangers on the title song continue their devotion at its end-of-show reprise. Damon Daunno as Curly contests the stage with Ali Stroker, a wheelchair-bound actress who destroys as Ado Annie, but I particularly loved Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry. The staging requires actors to sit out others’ scenes, but Vaill’s spot was just opposite my seat and I never saw him break character unless he was joining a song’s male chorus (e.g., “Kansas City”), in which case he acted to the song instead. He looks like Caleb Landry Jones but sings like Hugh Jackman. Keep your eye on him. 

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THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. With such wattage — book by Lynn Nottage (SWEAT), music by Duncan Shiek (SPRING AWAKENING), lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (JELLY’S LAST JAM), and directed by Sam Gold (KING LEAR, FUN HOME, HAMLET) — one can’t possibly stay away. Fortunately, this show delivers. A kinetic thirteen-member ensemble makes great noise in a variety of styles: lots of gospel, show-tune belters, I even heard a samba beat in there. The musical numbers work for the story yet most of them can stand alone as independent songs. This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of personal-level race relations in 1964 South Carolina works the illusion of being effortless, as if it had really been a musical all along. Gold’s bare-bones representational staging (the various appearances of the “bees” are beautiful) reminded me of the crepe-paper ocean waves of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. The nine-piece orchestra includes a bitchin horn section. The entire production is just wonderful and should conjure plenty of fans, especially those who loved the non-musical film adaptation.

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SOFT POWER. The best new musical I’ve seen since HAMILTON (whose DNA shows up a couple of times, if I’m not mistaken). Play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang, which alone is reason enough to be interested. It’s a meta-drama whose crucial subjects are China-America relations, Chinese American (like the author) relations, the 2016 elections and the real-life 2015 stabbing which nearly ended Hwang’s life and appeared to be a random hate crime. One of the characters is “Hillary Clinton,” and another is “DHH” — in other words, the playwright. It’s provocative and funny and serious and playful: the show-within-the-show is THE KING AND I from the Chinese perspective. Oh, yeah: the songs are great and they run the musical gamut, complete with a standing-still eleven-o-clock number. The ditty explaining the nutty U.S. elections system is funny because it’s true. The fourteen-member company can sing, dance and act — they’re all triple-threaters. China may not be getting more like us, this show posits: we may be getting more like China. You get something to think about while you’re simultaneously having a great time.

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TOOTSIE. Tons of fun, featuring an exceptionally sharp book by Robert Horn. They’ve traded the movie’s tv soap opera milieu for a Broadway show, an intentionally bad musical sequel to ROMEO AND JULIET. Santino Fontana is sensational in the Dustin Hoffman role: not only does he have to act two parts, he also has to sing two parts, and you really do buy him as a female alto. It’s an old-fashioned razzle-dazzler (complete with overture and entr’acte), only lots funnier than most others. It’s been a long time since there was a big hit at the Marquis, but I guarantee you: one has arrived.

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WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. We saw the last preview before the Broadway transfer officially opened. At first it seems to be a memory monologue, but it transmutes into a fantasia on feminism (there will eventually be two other performers besides the main one). Powerfully planned and performed (Heidi Schreck is a seasoned playwright and you can tell from the careful construction of the piece), one of the most moving things I saw on a stage all year. It has a lot to do with our current times but approaches from an oblique angle. A theatrical treasure. 

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WHITE NOISE. The brilliant Suzan-Lori Parks’s new one is jam-packed with intelligence and outrage. It’s a four-hander (featuring Daveed Diggs and Thomas Sadoski and two excellent ladies who were new to me, Sheria Irving and Zoe Winters) with an outre premise — I’d rather leave it for you to discover — which peels away the layers that cover our posturing and privilege, even when we’re most sanctimoniously proud of ourselves. Plus each actor gets an absolutely stunning monologue. Oskar Eustis’s direction in the Public’s snug Anspacher space is clear as a bell. 

HONORABLE MENTION: ALL MY SONS, COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE, THE ENIGMATIST, INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN, THE MICHAELS, SEA WALL/A LIFE 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017    2018


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