The Boys (And Girls) Who Cried Wolf

May 1, 2018

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Boy, did Michelle Wolf raise a ruckus last Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Or, more precisely, a ruckus was raised about her. Because, man, what did you expect when you hired a topical comedian? As Judd Apatow noted, “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man.’”

Did Wolf’s set step over a line? Judge for yourself. You can read what she said here, or watch her say it here. I would recommend going directly to the source, because the set’s already being misrepresented by guess which tribe. For example, despite what you may read and hear, Wolf did not make fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance. She made fun of her mendacity and enabling as White House Press Secretary. True, Ms. Sanders was sitting a few feet away, and was visibly unamused, but all this has happened before, you know.

I’m thinking back to the 2006 dinner, when Stephen Colbert “bombed” by speaking truth to power. His show was brand new at the time, and not everybody realized his right-wing blowhard character, “Stephen Colbert,” was an ironic parody of windbags like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I was in a COLBERT REPORT audience later that summer and overheard a guy explaining to his date before the taping, “You have to read between the lines of everything he says. And a running joke is his huge ego. Everything’s all about him.” The concept was still new enough to need a rundown. Now Jordan Klepper is doing the same thing to conspiracy “theorists” like Alex Jones by playing a character and trusting you to sift out the truth.

So it’s possible that whoever booked Colbert for the WHCA dinner was unaware of the gag and took him at face value. People are not always as subtly thoughtful as you may wish them to be, and conservatives are not known for their senses of humor. To the room’s apparent surprise, Colbert cleverly blasted George W. Bush while pretending to be a fawning acolyte: “tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say I did look it up, and that’s not true. That’s cause you looked it up in a book.” On he went. Watch the set here. Bush clearly did not find it funny, much of the laughter in the room was only nervous, and the first reports were that Colbert had died with a lousy bit. But then we noticed where those first reports were coming from: Fox News and other Bush promoters. When we later got a chance to read Colbert’s set, and even see him deliver it, we realized what had happened.

The prevailing attitude at occasions like this had always been, we kid you, Mr. President, but we do it with love and we’re grateful for your service. But what Colbert was saying now — and what the President was receiving — was, Mr. President, sir, we don’t think you’re doing a very good job. That’s what made the live audience uneasy. Colbert was turning on the right-wing spit for days afterward, just as Michelle Wolf is now, but when you look back twelve years later, Colbert’s remarks were both funny and spot on. The next year, WHCA overcompensated by booking the dangerous rogue mind of Rich Little.

At least Bush’d had the guts to show up. Wolf called Trump “cowardly” for skipping the WHCA dinner for a second time (in favor of a self-aggrandizing rally in Michigan) and that’s accurate. Trump’s legendarily fragile ego cannot coexist with even a smidgen of criticism; he’s still smarting from the time Barack Obama roasted him at WHCA — with some funny stuff — just after secretly giving the order to kill Osama bin Laden. Trump even refuses to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park, I assume for two reasons. First, he’s afraid of getting booed, which would certainly happen. Second, the 60 feet from mound to plate is a lot longer when watched by a mid-five-figure crowd, bigger than any rally he’s ever headlined — and as Trump himself might put it, “people are saying that he throws like a girl.”

Speaking of girls, Michelle Wolf. I didn’t find everything she said funny, but I could also say that about Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, even Lord flippin Buckley. Any comic who’s at all edgy is taking a risk with every joke. But, especially after the Colbert incident, if you aren’t aware of a comic’s body of work before you hire her, then any blame is on you. What is fairly irritating here is the faux outrage and abject hypocrisy. Wolf was “disrespectful”? Trump is permanently dripping with louche contempt and schoolyard meanness: these juvenile nicknames, cruelly mocking a physical handicap, treating women as pieces of meat, constantly punching down at people who are (temporarily, always remember) less powerful than he. Where is his dadburn respect? Wolf was “vulgar”? Again, the pussy-grabbing shithole in the Head Shed is Numero Uno among that rapacious gang of bottom-feeders who are his colleagues. When Trump does his best every day to delegitimize the very notion of White House correspondents, maybe we’re talking about a different kind of relationship, and perhaps some more acerbic words are in order. Even from a frickin comedian. 

There was something else unexpected about Wolf’s performance, probably what brought some caustic comments even from representatives of non-fake media like the New York Times and NBC. Michelle Wolf took them down too. “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.” It’s fun and games when politicians are in the crosshairs, less so when it’s you yourself — and deep down, White House correspondents know they actually do have a lot to answer for.

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained to those same correspondents after Trump seemed to question Rex Tillerson’s intelligence, “He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime, but he simply made a joke.” Maybe everybody should try it sometime.

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Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018

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NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.

It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.

Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

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Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.

But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.

Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.

Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie. 

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Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.

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By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.


Yacht ‘n’ Roll

March 16, 2018
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The Yacht Rock Revue.

Been listening to a good bit of yacht rock lately. No, I hadn’t heard the term either until I stumbled upon it in a magazine. But it turns out yacht rock is indeed a thing, it has fans and its own subculture, and it’s ready to make you feel better in these troubled times.

The term may have been used as far back as the late Eighties, but it got its 21st-century rev with a podcast created by four guys who were sending up those oddball radio formats: “the Quiet Storm,” “the Wave,” etc. Then something even odder happened. The snark began to recede, the tongues pulled back a tad from the cheeks, and people began rediscovering “yacht rock” music for real — and rediscovering that they loved it. There’s an entertaining oral history of the genre that I gulped down in two hours. Jimmy Fallon does regular TONIGHT SHOW segments on yacht rock. There’s a compilation album (I object to some of the selections, but that’s what music pigeonholes are for). Yacht rock has its own Sirius XM channel. There’s a band from Atlanta, the Yacht Rock Revue, that does enthusiastically received live tribute shows. The genre has already been parodied by Bill Hader and Fred Armisen (who wrote the intro to the book) in their beautiful series DOCUMENTARY NOW! It started as a goof, but when more and more people play along…

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Judd Apatow and Jimmy Fallon dig some yacht rock.

Let me see if I can pin down the concept. Yacht rock is that smooth, silky, lavishly produced, harmony-driven stuff that ruled the radio in its Seventies and Eighties heyday. We used to call it “soft listening,” “mellow rock,” “the California sound.” By coincidence many songs have nautical themes, inspiring the term, but yacht rock doesn’t have to take place on the water. (It all ipso facto sounds great when it’s blasting on the deck of an actual yacht, but it also works anywhere else.) Many songs are soft, but some have big dynamic range. Many of them are ballads but some are uptempo pounders. They get you still, chill, make you feel nice for a few moments.

The great pyramids of yacht rock were erected in the Sixties by the Beach Boys. But the post-hippie flowering included Toto, Loggins & Messina, America, Bread, Hall & Oates, Poco, Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Little River Band, Air Supply, Seals & Crofts, Christopher Cross (his record “Sailing” is yacht rock supremo). Get the idea now? Then there are the “one-hit wonders” (they’re not really; more later) of yacht rock. “Baby Come Back” by Player. “Brandy” by Looking Glass. “So In To You” by Atlanta Rhythm Section. “You Are the Woman” by Firefall. “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder. And the giants, the Fab Four of the genre: the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers, the post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, and Steely Dan. Damn near everything they have is yacht rock.

There are other contemporary acts which don’t quite rise to the yachtific level, but they’re close. David Clayton-Thomas-era Blood, Sweat & Tears. Chicago. Dave Mason. Jim Croce. Three Dog Night. Don McLean. And the paragon of what they call “nyacht rock,” Mr. Billy Joel.

You may well disagree with some of the membership of these categories, just as I have several beeves with the compilation record. That’s the whole point; it’s something else to debate about. You even may dislike “soft rock” altogether: if so, keep moving, nothing to see here. But as any charted music act well knows, you don’t pick your hit records, the fans do. You can rock as hard as you like in your live shows and it still might not matter. For example, in the book Ronn Moss of Player recalls opening for Eric Clapton on his Slowhand tour. They’d added lots of more rocky (in other words, nyachty) stuff to their stage show to fit in better with the headliner. They were getting over so well one night that a sloshed Clapton ordered the plug pulled during their set! Yet what we remember from Player is still “Baby Come Back.” If you hit huge with a ballad, then that’s you.

An amazing amount of yacht rock was played by the same musicians, studio cats who migrated from session to session. This was the generation that succeeded the legendary Wrecking Crew of Sixties pop non-fame (by now sidemen were getting album credit; did you know that Toni Tennille was a singer on Pink Floyd’s THE WALL?). A bunch of session players even formed a band that worked out pretty well: they called it Toto.

The oral history wastes too much space on a discussion of rock fashion and a report on the political career of Orleans’s John Hall, who served two terms in Congress — they don’t have anything to do with the subject. But it’s crammed full of tidbits like Rupert Holmes’s recollection of recording what author Greg Prato calls “The Yacht Rock National Anthem.” He’d written a story song called “Escape,” which had the line, “If you like Humphrey Bogart.” On the spot, over the mike, Holmes decided that “escape” meant getting to an island paradise, and the color the lyric needed was “pina colada,” a drink you would only ever order on a relaxing vacation. The public chose “Escape” as a huge hit, and that’s what it said on the first pressing. But store clerks reported that they had trouble finding this record the kids were asking for: “the pina colada song.” So now the official title is “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” He didn’t realize it then, but with that instant decision Rupert Holmes set sail for the mystic land of yacht rock.

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Civil Righting

February 25, 2018

IMG_0552I expect the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to become a regional travel destination: if you’re anywhere near Jackson, Mississippi, you will want to take time to stop by. I lived in Jackson for more than twenty years, beginning as a 12-year-old in 1962, so I was made keenly aware of the prevailing Jim Crow culture, so starkly different from that of my native Virginia (which had sported its own share of slaveholders, to be sure). But it’s so hard for a white man to truly appreciate what it was like to have the wrong skin color in the most notoriously racist part of the United States. This place helps us get it. For the victims of civil injustice, and their descendants, there’s yet more. Their long struggle has been laid bare for all to see. Their bottom-line emotion must be something beyond gratitude. Something like pride.

IMG_0557The museum is a well-heaved stone’s throw north of the Old State Capitol, where generations of elected bigots made black life miserable, first with enslavement and later by exploiting Dixie whites’ inbred revulsion to the notion of racial equality. Racism is by no means restricted to the Deep South (neither were lynchings, which took place in your state too — look it up), but that is the stereotype. Give Mississippi credit, though, for owning up to its past: this is the first museum about the U.S. civil rights movement to be sponsored by a U.S. state. (The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis.)

IMG_0554There are actually two museums under the same roof in the new complex. You can also visit the Museum of Mississippi History, which unless I miss my guess was floated by white legislators as a quid pro quo to allow the civil rights exhibition. It begins with dioramas of cavemen — there’s lots of history down in Mississippi — and it’s fun in its own way. But the headline grabber is the civil rights side.

IMG_0559The facility is managed by the state’s Department of Archives and History, a stand-up agency which pored through its own files as well as those of the vile, secretive Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, sort of a state-run White Citizens’ Council which prowled the political sewers from 1956 to 1977. The people who put this campus together are scholars, not partisans. Nothing is spun or sugar-coated. Nowhere in either museum did I find anything but unvarnished history, nor did I read a single word which I knew to be untrue.

IMG_0556The Civil Rights Museum is intuitively easy to navigate. The exhibit halls radiate out from a large central rotunda, where you return after each exhibit. Keep going clockwise, and you’ll see it all in order. (A two-day “Dual Admission” lets you into either museum or both, which should give you all the time you need. If you are very interested in the subject and a physically fit museum-goer, you could easily spend a whole day at each one. I barely scratched the surface.) The first exhibits have to do with the slave trade: the physical passages are close and cramped, to give you a slight sense of discomfort. As you approach the birth of the activist movement, the rooms become larger, suggesting possibility, solidarity, and eventually freedom and triumph. This joint was built by pros.

IMG_0571There’s lots to read, which suits me fine, also a nice helping of tastefully programmed a/v. Little built-in theaters let you sit down and watch very well-produced short pieces on, for example, Medgar Evers (they also have the rifle that killed him, which is worked into the presentation). Hidden audio speakers startle you every so often by blasting an angry voice: “Whatchoo lookin at, boy?” Some of this stuff was happening while I lived there (e.g., Evers), but I was a white pre-teen and while I was dimly aware, I was not yet, you know, woke.

IMG_0566This movement is about blood and grit and passion. It can be emotionally exhausting before you come to the end — and you’re only in a museum! But you can’t make it through without hearing the glorious strains of songs like “This Little Light Of Mine” wafting past. That returns the mighty, overwhelming slog back to the shape of one human heart. Now the brave Freedom Riders feel like nervous soldiers engaging a fearsome enemy, and that’s exactly what they were: heroes in a long, grim battle.

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The museum was dedicated last December 9. You may have read something about the ceremony. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican — these days they’re almost ALL frickin Pubs down there — decided to invite Donald Trump to the dedication. (I assume it was Trump’s people who ordered the invite from the feckless guv. At the time, you’ll recall, he was stumping for fellow racist Roy Moore in neighboring Alabama.) The NAACP pleaded with Trump not to come. Nearly every civil rights leader, aghast, stood on principle and regretfully boycotted the ceremony. But it gets worse. Trump didn’t even attend the dedication. Instead, he took a private, 30-minute (?!) tour of both museums while protesters marched outside, then gave a ten-minute speech to a small, Trump-approved group of worthies. And then he went away. He did what he does best: he stuck his fingers in the eyes of anyone to whom this museum meant anything. He blew up what should have been a reverent dedication ceremony without even having to frickin go. His slimy work in Jackson was finished before the first Big Mac was unwrapped on AF One. (Civil rights leaders returned to the museum for a Trump-free “christening” on February 24.)

IMG_0567Well, this museum is going to outlast the current White House gang and the fool who lives there. I’m so glad to be able to pay tribute to this indefatigable movement, which fundamentally changed our country against all odds, political and physical. I’ll definitely be back. The museum was full of school groups when I was there. Maybe more than one child — of whatever race — will pause and look and listen. You want role models, kid? This place is packed full of them.

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My Sundance 2018

February 10, 2018

sundance18.pngNice weather this year for Sundance filmgoers, not so much for skiiers: a light dusting to make things pretty, but ice-free roads and sidewalks. Everything at the fest — including all 17 films below — is a premiere except for its “Spotlight” series, which screens a few notables previously shown elsewhere on the festival circuit (I saw one of them in New York last fall). But not everything is “in competition” and thus eligible for an award. You just have to get used to it.

futile.jpegA FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE**** Doug Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon and co-writer of ANIMAL HOUSE, is a humor-writing idol of mine, much as Brando or James Dean might be to an actor — Doug’s natural blazing talent was off the scale. So don’t expect any objectivity here: the fact that this movie even exists is worth a great deal to me. Director David Wain & co. obviously intended to create the type of biopic Doug himself might have written: arch, irreverent, self-aware. (Doug himself would have probably turned in something about teenage Venusians invading Chagrin Falls, Ohio, but never mind.) One feature he might have admired is the narrator, “Modern Doug,” played by the seventyish Martin Mull. The character itself is a metafiction since the real Doug didn’t last half that long, but he makes possible a current-day take on what is essentially a period piece, that period being the cultural adolescence of the Me Generation. We pick up our hero at Harvard and watch him co-claw the National Lampoon to prominence, then “graduate” to Hollywood excess. All the people around him, some of whom you’ll recognize from real life, are played by actors and comics and improv people who must have agitated to be in this picture. (There are some human Easter eggs too: for example, one of the magazine publishers pitched by the Lampoon is played by Mark Metcalf, better known to ANIMAL HOUSE fans as “Neidermeyer.”) Modern Doug pauses at one point to note that all these actors may not resemble the people they’re playing, but face it, does Will Forte (as movie Doug) really look like he’s in his twenties? He says this as a long list of factual inaccuracies crawls by on the screen too quickly to read. That’s the tone. Everybody, including Forte, is wearing era-appropriate wigs, so it’s a little like attending some perverse NatLamp-themed Halloween party: the only guy who physically falls into his role is Thomas Lennon as the acerbic Michael O’Donoghue. But even so bewigged, Domhnail Gleeson is superb as Henry Beard, Doug’s writing partner on both Lampoons, Harvard and National: he’s the best thing in the movie, nailing his American accent and providing desperately needed human emotion. If you don’t remember these days with fondness, you might not prevail over an hour and half of unrelenting sound and fury. But you can test a small dose right now, because it’s streaming on Netflix.

nancy.jpegNANCY** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Christina Choe) Now that we’ve survived a bout of misogny and infantilism, let’s move on to the main event: chick flicks!!! (Sorry, I promise to shake off all the remaining Doug Kenney dust. There.) A serious subtext this year was, many more films about and/or by women. One day we shall attain that pinnacle at which even Oscar voters renounce their historic snubbing of…fantasy films. (Go, Guillermo!) But until then, this is a notable and welcome wave. I didn’t like this one as much as I liked that it was here, which is only a baby step. Death mercifully frees a mousy, repressed, miserable 35-year-old temp (Andrea Riseborough, whom we will see later at a slightly more flattering angle) from her shrewish adopted mother. Meanwhile, a grieving couple (played with skill and taste by Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) hasn’t given up on their 5-year-old daughter, gone missing 30 years ago. A digital construct that shows what the daughter might look like now matches our Nancy perfectly, so she presents herself to the couple. Does she really believe herself the kidnapped lost soul? Might she actually be? Ambiguity abounds, any tension is psychological only, and that vacant look on Nancy’s face is pasted on for the entire running time. After many Sundance screenings over the years, I’m well prepared for grey skies and plot bleakness, but this one failed to move either me or the antiheroine.

kinder.jpegTHE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER*** (U.S. Dramatic Award for Directing: Sara Colangelo) Again with the antiheroine. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a mousy, repressed, miserable teacher and wannabe writer who discovers a poetic prodigy in her lower Manhattan classroom, a kid who periodically goes into a trance and spits out genius. Her interest inexorably ratchets down into obsession, which consumes her more and more powerfully and leads her to morally ambiguous (non-kid-threatening) acts that would basically make you punch out Teach if it were your family. It’s based on an Israeli film which I haven’t seen. The upside is that this is the type of character dissection that comes completely out of left field; Gyllenhaal owns the screen and really sweeps you up into her own madness as you flail for reasons to empathize with her. But by the time you finally throw up your hands and admit she’s just nuckin futs, the picture is basically over. A minor but hanging beef is that the kid’s poetry, which is supposed to be amazing enough to stun both a writing class and a public audience, was for me just meh, exceptional only because it came from a five-year-old. For this non-poet, it doesn’t work as well on its own, and that’s a critical plot point. A startling bit of MOS dialog is the last thing we hear; nice.

tully.jpegTULLY**** What working actress is braver than Charlize Theron? She shaves her head to race in the desert. She de-glams and gains weight (and gets an Oscar for it). I guess knowing you’re gorgeous must give your ego some room to tear the image down. But I’ve never seen her look more normally human on purpose than here as Marlo, a bloated ninth-month expectant mother. She already has young children, including an emotionally and physically exasperating ADD son, and as the picture opens she’s on the verge of clinical exhaustion and hasn’t even delivered yet. The idea of a “night nanny” to give Marlo some overnight sleep — the nanny will wake her whenever it’s time for feeding — sounds unusual at first, but soon after the baby’s born, young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at the door. I have to stop here, because screenwriter Diablo Cody is way ahead of us both, but let’s just say the engaging story kept us discussing it that night and into the next day, and will probably have the same effect on you. Both leads show us real chemistry; they are utterly believable and thoroughly charming. This one grows on you — you may well want to see it a second time.

puzzle1.jpgPUZZLE**** A mousy, repressed Connecticut housewife and mother (Kelly Macdonald) discovers that she is a savant at jigsaw puzzling, which quickly becomes her secret passion. This character is particularly interesting because her life is only humdrum, not miserable: it’s grounded in reality and keenly recognizable by the audience. She has a kindhearted if old-fashioned husband (David Denman of THE OFFICE) who owns a garage, and some fine sons, one of whom has his own secret passion. It has never occurred to her that there can be more to life. But when she begins practicing for a doubles competition with a Manhattan tech-fortune maven (a pitch-perfect Irrfan Khan), another dimension opens: her black-and-white world is now in full color. It would be impossible to explain to her family, so she sneaks train trips into the city — and, of course, something’s gotta give. Macdonald’s subtle, delicate performance reminded me of Isabelle Huppert: the movie’s on her shoulders and she carries it beautifully.

blaze.jpegBLAZE*** (Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Benjamin Dickey) Ethan Hawke’s adoring biopic of Blaze Foley, the “outlaw country” legend who was better known to fellow musicians than to the general public. Hawke weaves through three separate timelines: the young Foley’s love affair with (co-screenwriter) Sybil Rosen; a drunken but searing live set at Austin’s Outhouse bar; and a nostalgic radio interview with two close friends. The idea of this mashup is better than the result, and if every bit of Blaze’s story is new to you, it might feel somewhat like much ado. What saves the film is onscreen authenticity. Hawke went to the trouble of hiring genuine musicians who really play on camera. Folk singer Ben Dickey goes a great job in the harrowing title role, but for my money the real discovery is Charlie Sexton as Blaze’s friend Townes Van Zandt. (That’s him above.) Sexton is a longtime guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band, but you’d swear this natural raconteur was a veteran character actor. He has a great future in movies if anything ever happens to his pickin’ fingers.

eighth-grade-movie-image.jpgEIGHTH GRADE**** A surprise from Bo Burnham, the snarky standup who shined as part of the comic Greek chorus in THE BIG SICK. The surprise is that Burnham displays unabashed, unironic heart and emotion as he follows an eighth-grader through a time of maximum awkwardness. She’s more than a schoolgirl but not quite yet a woman, and thanks to social media she’s part of the first generation that constantly self-documents, probably living far too much of its life in public. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is tremendous in the lead: she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. How can a man write this stuff? Very carefully — but Fisher’s “Kayla Day” is clearly a projection of the director’s own adolescent social ineptitude. At the q&a Burnham noted that it was no problem directing newly teenaged actors: to them it was s.o.p., just another selfie lens. I can’t wait for his next film: he’s good.
hearts.jpegHEARTS BEAT LOUD*** (Festival Closing Night) This is a fairly standard story about a taut single father-daughter relationship, but with a big switcheroo. Stereotypically, with her prodigious musical talent she would want to cut the apron strings and blast off into show business. Here her dad is a onetime pro musician who now runs a failing Brooklyn record store, and she just wants to get into pre-med at UCLA. But that voice! As a way of staying connected, he keeps goading her into setting the books down for a regular “jam sesh,” and one day they noodle together the title song, which turns into a minor Spotify hit. The best thing about this picture is the musical numbers: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are really playing live, and their joy is infectious. An impromptu “concert” in the cramped record store is about as good as it gets on film. Aside from the music this is only a trifle, but it really leaves you in a good place.

burden.jpgBURDEN**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) A tough, gritty dramatization of a true story of racism and redemption that happened in South Carolina in the Nineties. Garrett Hedlund is calmly sensational as Mike Burden, a stepped-on white-trash orphan who discovers a wider world: Hedlund has developed this shrugging, schlumpy gait that makes him look like a whipped dog. When Dixie shit disturber and Mike’s mentor Tom Wilkinson (very scary) opens a “Redneck Museum” celebrating Klan history in a downtown storefront, he’s basically daring the cowed black community to do something suicidal. But nuance is entering Mike’s life in the form of girlfriend and single mom Andrea Riseborough (from NANCY; she was in four movies showing at the fest) and, crucially, a black pastor (Forest Whitaker) who has more Christian values in his little finger than does an entire tv “ministry.” It’s tough to watch at times but it feels right; you get to see prejudice and, uh, clannishness on both sides of the racial divide.

dark.jpegDARK MONEY*** (Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Katy Chevingy & Marilyn Ness) “Dark money” describes unlimited, anonymous contributions to political parties and even individual campaigns, as long as there’s a pro forma arm’s length. The last shackles were taken off by the Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision of 2010 in which unidentified donations were declared a form of free speech. Dark money influences elections everywhere — notably in furious negative postcards that flood mailboxes in the last few days before voting, opposing even conservatives if they don’t toe the corporate line — but it makes nobody madder than Montanans. They outlawed corporate contributions in 1912 after copper barons tried to take over the state using pure cash, and for a century they’ve had some of the strictest laws in the country. Now they are fighting back agains the likes of the Koch brothers as best they can. This documentary wisely concentrates on that one state to give this complex problem a human dimension, even against a constantly shifting opposition of blandly named shell companies which leave as few fingerprints as the law allows (i.e., nearly none). Too many election results are bought and paid for. Recognizing the problem is the first step in resistance.
three.jpegTHREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS**** (Special Jury Award for Storytelling) In 1980, three 19-year-old men discovered that they were identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families. They’d never met each other before but, remarkably, shared numerous personality traits. They became best friends, moved in together, did all the talk shows, ruled glittering Eighties New York nightlife, and opened a successful restaurant. The first half of this documentary takes you inside their joyful reunion, elaborated by talking heads including two of the boys themselves. But then author Lawrence Wright, researching a New Yorker piece on identical twins, makes a discovery that changes everything, and the movie takes an unexpected turn. Don’t read anything else about this before you see it, because the secret I’m dancing around is jaw-dropping. It unfolds like a piece of fiction, but it’s all true. Wonderful.

beirut_-_h_2017.jpgBEIRUT** This is a fairly standard spy thriller. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but there’s nothing special about it either. Jon Hamm is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon in the Seventies. Something really bad happens, and he returns to the States and a whiskey bottle. Ten years pass, and the CIA desperately needs him to go back to Beirut, by now basically a combat zone, but he’s kind of a wreck, and is there anybody he can trust? It looks like a Bourne movie, all gray and kinetic. Everything about it is perfectly professional; Hamm can play anything straight or arch, and he does look like a standard-issue movie spy. But it never reached out to grab me, and the only thing that stuck in my mind was a character turn that we could see coming a mile away.

the-sentence.jpgTHE SENTENCE**** (U.S. Documentary Audience Award) Anybody who thinks mandatory minimum sentencing is a good idea — especially Jeff Sessions — should see this one. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s sister Cindy gets a mandatory 15 years for conspiracy, meaning she committed no crime personally but did not report the misdeeds of her ex-boyfriend (rueful lawyers call this “the girlfriend problem”). As Cindy is separated from her husband and young daughters over a span of years, Valdez films the family so she can watch them grow up. Then they begin a desperate campaign to seek clemency from the outgoing President Obama. It’s easy to sound tough on crime if you tell yourself that justice is being done, but this is not justice. While Cindy was indeed guilty of conspiracy charges, no judge would have ordered so draconian a sentence, and this heart-rending film shows why. It’s an achingly effective piece of proof that judges need to be free to be fair.

butter.jpegBUTTERFLIES*** (World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) A dramedy about three Turkish siblings, not particularly close, who are called by their father (not very close either) back to the small village where they grew up, a podunk place they’ve been trying their whole lives to forget. Part road movie, part bonding drama, part farce (exploding chickens, a ludicrous astronaut suit, don’t ask), this is a showcase for the three stars, each of whom gets plenty of room to draw a plausibly complex character, all irascible but sweet too. Delightful.

kailash---still-1_38688674281_o-h_2018.jpgKAILASH*** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) A portrait of a very brave man: Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has made it his life’s work to rescue children trafficked as slave labor for clandestine factories around the world. Hidden cameras show us the squalor, and Kailash and his team pose as buyers to reveal the monstrous, cynical trade in the most vulnerable of human beings. It’s equal parts horrifying and hopeful, anchored by the search for a young boy missing in Delhi for eight months. Kailash’s rescue raids are daring and dangerous; the bad guys here are extremely bad. But his courage is contagious, and he’s not content just to shine a light on this horrifying practice: he’s determined to do something about it.

search_cropped.0.jpgSEARCH**** (NEXT Audience Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Sev Ohanian) A terribly clever thriller that takes place entirely on a computer screen: messages, FaceTime chats, tv news links, and other ephemera that will be instantly recognizable to both Windows and IOS users. John Cho plays a single dad whose high-school daughter goes missing, and the plot of the film is his increasingly frenzied search for her, using all the capabilities of the Internet. It’s amazing how major characters enter the computer-bound story organically, like Debra Messing as a detective who takes the disappearance personally. More than once I had the odd sensation that the big movie screen was actually before me on my desktop: I was concentrating so hard that my sense of scale was way off. The movie is marred toward the end by a dreaded “info dump,” in which mystery elements are explained away without having given us a fair chance to hypothesize. But here form trumps content. This gag has been tried before, notably in the horror film UNFRIENDED, but frankly there it felt like a gimmick. Here the effect is seductively plausible, essential to the story, and lots of fun.

i-think-were-alone-now.jpgI THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW**** (Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking: Reed Morano) Something apocalyptic happened, we’re not sure what. In a quiet little village somewhere in the Northeast, buildings are still standing but they’re atrophied. A lone grim survivor scavenges for gear and sustenance, compulsively cleans the houses, and lugs decomposed bodies into a field where he uses a backhoe to dig their graves. He lives in the public library, where he hangs onto a semblance of order by preserving and cataloging the books he finds on his rounds. He seems to be the last man on earth. Then one day he isn’t. The mesmerizing Peter Dinklage carries Act I all by himself with his trademark burning intensity, but suddenly Elle Fanning is there to disturb his reclusive, neurotic routine. This film settles into a quiet, somber rhythm and then upends itself. It’s supremely confident, taking its time to unfold, yet it stays one step ahead of the viewer, who will have no idea what is to come. I remember being impressed by Dinklage in THE STATION AGENT at my first Sundance in 2003; now GAME OF THRONES has made him a genuine movie star, but he’s retained his indie cred. You just can’t take your eyes off him.

WISH I’D SEEN: GENESIS 2.0, THE GUILTY, MONSTER, MONSTERS AND MEN, OUR NEW PRESIDENT

ALREADY SAW: THE RIDER****

Previous Sundance Reports

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Autoelectric Stimulation

January 19, 2018

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I have a ball cap with the Tesla logo on it. I wear it in nice weather when it’s OK to be informal. It’s amazing how many people stop me and comment.

The most typical question is, what kind of Tesla do you have, but I only have a cap, not a car. I haven’t owned an automobile of any kind for thirty years now. My interest in Tesla is thus oblique: we are modest shareholders in the company but don’t use its product.

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The Tesla Model S.

People seem fascinated by Tesla and its founder, Elon Musk. If you became wealthy beyond imagining, what would you do with so much dough that you couldn’t possibly ever spend it all on yourself? Musk has decided to try and change the world with his particular fortune, and one of his earliest goals has already been accomplished: he has proven that many drivers would choose renewable energy if they only had the chance.

At this point, of course, Tesla ownership is restricted to those affluent enough to afford the beautiful, super-functional, digitally-decked-out vehicles. As the company ramps its production of the far less expensive Model 3, it faces a second test: can it scale up to serve a larger market? There have already been some, ah, speed bumps, and the company’s sustainability as a business rather than an idea is by no means assured. That share price is, frankly, aspirational, and we realize it.

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Inside.

Yet I say again, Tesla has already succeeded at Musk’s basic mission. The corporation itself may live or die — we just don’t know yet — but it has woken up the major automakers. Driving a car powered by electricity is no longer just for tree-huggers and NPR fans. Teslas are cool, and people are noticing. The wave of renewables about to hit the roads may or may not be Teslas, but if you aren’t making one on your own assembly line, you’re giving away a chunk of potential business.

It’s a virtuous circle. Before long every reasonable objection to renewable power will be addressed (what about long interstate highway trips? can’t you make it charge faster?), and eventually we’ll reach the point where sucking up oil from the ground and spitting out noxious fumes just to get to Grandma’s house will seem as anachronistic as smoking in the office does now. It doesn’t take long once the ball gets rolling.

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The dash.

I certainly remember the exhilarating feeling of hopping into your own brand new car back in the day. But some of the people who stop me to chat are Tesla owners, and you can see something more on their faces, something almost beatific — way beyond the thrill of a new toy. They feel like they’re actually doing some good when they drive their cars.

They say you should never invest anything in equities that you can’t afford to lose. Tesla could go under tomorrow. But it wouldn’t matter. Uniquely among our investments, making a profit here is not the point for us. We just want to help support a societal change that has to come. Has to. I think most people even welcome it, they’re eager for it — at least it seems that way whenever my gimme cap catches somebody’s eye.


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2017

December 19, 2017

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DEAR EVAN HANSEN. A Broadway musical with real dramatic substance. It has a lot to say about adolescent peer pressure, bullying, deceit, and situational ethics — much too heavy for a musical, it would seem — but it preaches redemption from the heart, not the head. Gorgeous songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a star-making turn for Ben Platt in the title role. This show will kill on national tour.

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DERREN BROWN: SECRET. The British star of “psychological magic” made his American debut, and did it ever rock. It’s more than just magic; Brown is a performance artist too. For example, he can and does draw a very credible easel portrait upside down, and it’s not the same famous face every night. Brown controls every second of this magnificent piece: as he revealed in the jaw-dropping finale, even when he makes you think he’s improvising, he’s not. A cool, crafty master, but warm, open and delightful in the out-of-character “talkback” after the performance I saw. In a simultaneous piece of magic, after a halftime bladder break I noticed stage-lighting legend Jules Fisher in the milling crowd and sidled up to re-introduce myself, having met him once at the Ricky Jay weekend in Rhinebeck. The always gracious Mr. Fisher and I had a quick two-minute chat and I was bidding him goodbye just as his theatregoing companion walked up after his own restroom visit. It was none other than Stephen frickin Sondheim. I just smiled and nodded; if I had immediately gushed over the maestro too it would have been disrespectful to the now-undoubtedly-amused Jules Fisher. But I’ll happily imagine a post-show cocktail chat: “Hey, Steve, suck it: tonight some fan walked up to ME!” That makes the second offstage wonderment that Ricky conjured for me.

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EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE. A new play by Wallace Shawn, who loves to push buttons that subtly unnerve his audience. A group of television executives and performers, part of some society at an unknown diagonal from ours, gather at their favorite bistro for what begins as amusingly vapid chitchat. But the proceedings turn ominous with such ferocity that at first you wonder if you heard that last line correctly. (You did.) The satire is now deadly but darkly funny, an odd fantasia with elements that are disturbingly recognizable in our own culture. I went mainly to see a rare non-drag appearance by my old friend John Epperson, but he and the rest of the fine company gave me much more than I’d expected. I kept thinking about the simple but outre premise for weeks.

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GROUNDHOG DAY. Sue me, but it’s great, and just the endorphin jolt we needed in this grueling, debilitating year. Of course this is a musical version of the hit movie; along with the “jukebox musical,” movie adaptations have become a Broadway subgenre as producers relentlessly search for new ways to pre-sell tickets. But the songs are bright and clever and the redemptive emotional heart of the Bill Murray picture is perfectly preserved (Murray stopped by and loved it to the point of tears). We saw Andy Karl — the well-deserved toast of London in the earlier West End engagement of this show — at a preview just before he sustained a minor injury during his athletic performance. (The methods of misdirection are delightful as he starts his day over and over again faster than humanly possible, but he has to work strenuously hard to achieve them.) This is another one that should have a long life on the road: it’s much better than several current long-running hits I could name.

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HAMLET. Sam Gold’s intimate production in the snug Anspacher space at the Public Theater just might be the best HAMLET I’ve ever seen. The nine-member cast, led by the riveting Oscar Isaac, did some doubling and tripling — for example, the natural comedian Keegan-Michael Key was a fine Horatio but also performed with the players, receiving an ovation for their overwrought death scene — but its collective energy filled up a sparse, mostly bare-bones setting in casual contemporary dress to eliminate any distractions. The 3:30 running time didn’t feel labored at all. In fact, Gold cut out the Fortinbras character and subplot altogether: that’s how tightly packed this play is. Being so physically close to superb actors interpreting some of the most sublime words ever written for the theatre was an experience I won’t soon forget.

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IN AND OF ITSELF. Another magic show that defies description, because “magic show” is far too facile a term for this masterpiece. I saw Derek DelGaudio three years ago in NOTHING TO HIDE, the Neil Patrick Harris-directed two-man show he performed with Helder Guimarães (I’ve never seen better card handling in my life), but this bears little resemblance. It’s a very personal journey, for both performer and audience, that is illuminated by magic in a tiny off-Broadway theater. Deeply considered monologues guide the evening, interspersed with some of the most gaspingly creative illusions I’ve seen. I happened to learn the method for one mind-boggling trick and, as with most great ones, the how’d-he-do-it is tame and prosaic. But DelGaudio’s quiet showmanship is off the scale. The final few seconds left the audience stunned in amazement and unable to move until they could process what they had just seen.

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JUNK. The investor culture that invented “junk bonds” in the Eighties, the heyday of Michael Milken and pals, would seem a difficult atmosphere for a play. But Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar keeps the focus on human beings: specifically, those who were responsible for turning “industrialization” into “financialization.” JUNK’s dramatic core is this: is the main purpose of a corporation to serve its customers or its shareholders? This sprawling piece uses individuals to represent trends and presents the stakes so clearly that even we laymen can understand. It’s about nothing less than the soul of business and its vital relationship to the national welfare.

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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. My current #1 recommendation for prospective NYC visitors. I caught this in London a few years ago but it was great to see the original West End cast, including the three authors, on Broadway. (Yanks have since replaced them.) The premise is that a company of British amateurs has managed to book a real theater for its old-fashioned locked-door murder mystery, but to their chagrin Murphy’s Law intervenes again and again and again; adorably, there’s nothing else to do but soldier on. The timing and stagecraft necessary to make sure everything goes wrong right, if you get me here, is superb: the show won a Tony for Best Scenic Design and when you see it you’ll understand why. Gut-bustingly funny for two solid hours. If you do get tickets, arrive :15 early, because the pre-show routine is also a scream. EDIT: because of the words of mouths like mine, this show looks likely to not only recoup its investment but also send a bus-and-truck troupe across America. Congrats, mates!

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THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART. A folk tale with music from the National Theatre of Scotland. It was performed in the “Heath” Scottish-styled pub at the McKittrick Hotel, the inventive venue which also houses the immersive presentation SLEEP NO MORE. The five cast members were all around us at various points, telling and singing a spooky story but with big grins on their faces and mischief in their minds. Included in the ticket price was a flight of Scots whisky to get us in the mood. The charming nature of the staging also made it easy to get to know our tablemates. A great night out, and hurrah for Scotland.

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THE WOLVES. I missed Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist last year when it galvanized people in an off-Broadway production by The Playwrights Realm, so it was great to have a chance to catch up with a new staging. What happens is that nine members of a girls’ high-school soccer team — identified only by their uniform numbers — talk to each other while they go through their warmups (a soccer mom appears briefly). But their giddy teenage conversation carries a powerful current of serious subtext that engages the audience organically; you get jostled without even noticing it. The actors are pitch-perfectly plausible; I’ve never been a teenage girl but everybody assures me that’s what they really sound like. Such a simple setup and profound dramatic arc, performed by a true ensemble (most of them vets of the original production). And it’s the author’s first play.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE ANTIPODES (from one of my favorite young playwrights, Annie Baker), JULIUS CAESAR (we were there the night two right-wing trolls interrupted the performance), LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS (John Leguizamo teaches and learns), MEASURE FOR MEASURE (deconstructed by Elevator Repair Service, the brilliant experimental troupe), PRIDE & PREJUDICE (a madcap music-hally romp through Austen, but made with love)

12/20/2017: Add to the notables AT THE ILLUSIONIST’S TABLE at the selfsame Heath of PRUDENCIA HART. There’s a tad too much Derren Brown in Scott Silven’s bravura evening, but he freaks the folks just as powerfully — and here the audience is only two dozen or so, all sharing a lovely dinner and some fine whisky at the earnest Scot’s candlelit table. Wow on all fronts. (OK, now I’m positive I’m done for the year. My 2018 will actually begin with HELLO, DOLLY!)

 


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