I, The Juror

July 19, 2017

90887318.pngI just spent a month serving as Juror No. 3 in a murder trial. I don’t care to give you the details, though some New Yorkers might be able to suss them out when I tell you we reached our verdict this past Monday morning.

What I want to talk about instead was the jury-room dynamic, that tension which Reginald Rose so searingly dramatized in TWELVE ANGRY MEN. While we never descended into Rose’s near-feral warring factions, there was definitely an added burden which we all felt — for although some of us had done jury duty before, this was the first homicide case for everyone.

Years ago I served on a narcotics grand jury, where our job was mainly to rubber-stamp crack purchases by undercover cops. In a month of half-days, covering about a hundred cases, we only refused to indict three or four times. All we had to answer was, is there enough evidence to justify going to trial? The resolution in court would be somebody else’s problem.

I was also on the jury for a criminal trial, in which the defendant used a knife but nobody died. It was my introduction to an uncomfortable position: the law is black and white on such matters, and whether or not you agree with a statute or think it’s fair in any individual case is beside the point. After some discussion and even some tears, we found the defendant guilty because we had to. We empathized with him but we couldn’t get around the fact that the law clearly says if you do this, you’re guilty of a crime. And we were only condemning the defendant to a minor jail term: it’s a great relief that the actual sentencing is done by the judge later.

This case in June and July was different. There were four counts in descending order of gravity, the most serious being second degree murder. It was similar to my previous criminal case in that this defendant also freely admitted his actions. The nuances surrounding the death he caused formed the core of the trial. The one legal aspect each of the four charges shared was “justification,” more commonly known as “self-defense.” The prosecution was required to prove that he had not been justified, had not acted to protect himself under the law.

The testimony took three weeks. We listened to about thirty witnesses, including the defendant, heard opening statements and summations, then handed in our cell phones and sat in a small conference room. For the next four days we hashed it out, pausing only for deli lunches brought in by the court. Four counts, guilty or not guilty, each verdict had to be unanimous.

Since all four counts included justification, we took our first vote on that issue. If we all agreed that the defendant was justified — or, more precisely, that the prosecution had failed to prove he was not — then case closed, not guilty on all counts. Our first vote as a jury was split. We were going to have to talk it over.

I know that there’s a science to jury selection, some lawyers are better at it than others, and on a big case like Cosby or O.J. they even hire consultants to help them. (Read John Grisham’s THE RUNAWAY JURY for an almost satirical look at this process.) But it’s utterly beyond me. The twelve of us — there were also four alternates and one of them had to join the jury proper after a family death — were racially, ethnically and psychologically diverse: I couldn’t see any rhyme or reason. But I’ll say this. Every single one of them was trying their best to do the right thing. I heard cogent arguments from a couple of people who I’d thought hadn’t been paying attention in court. I was mistaken. One juror was a university professor whose default mode was to treat us like students, so frequently came off as patronizing. Another one liked to draw diagrams, and changed my own mind with one. One tended to talk in platitudes that seemed irrelevant, then something important would dart in.

The thing TWELVE ANGRY MEN got right was that a jury is a hive mind. Nobody remembers everything, but twelve people together can come damn close. Little bits of evidence were bandied back and forth until we had competing views on a series of events and were able to say, it could have happened this way, but this other way is more probable. If this had been an open-and-shut case it would have never gone to trial: the defendant would have copped a plea or they’d have let him go. It was very, very hard to true up slightly divergent testimony from various witnesses.

In fact, sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility over a man’s life, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. How could I possibly get to a place where I could mete out justice fairly? We were missing critical first-hand documentation, as juries so often are, and had to fill in blanks ourselves. At one point eleven of us were of one view, against one lone holdout; I thought immediately of Henry Fonda in TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The pressure was so great on the twelfth juror at that major impasse, the doubt so profound, that we all had to step back and consciously let the person breathe. This wasn’t a Reginald Rose drama. This was real life.

Then, one night as I was trying to drift off to sleep, I came to my senses. I wasn’t lacking any information. I had all the evidence I needed. It wasn’t my job to reconstruct the incident like a detective. All I was being asked to do was to judge whether the prosecution had proven its case in open court. This I could get my head around. After some more ups and downs, more backs and forths, and more soggy deli sandwiches, we made up our collective mind.

Many people think jury duty is a drag, but I’m glad I spent that month in court. Because of the nature of the case, I learned a lot about how certain New York City institutions really work (and if you’re paranoid, you should probably remain blissfully ignorant). For me the experience was grueling, yes, but ultimately positive. It has frankly made me feel a lot better about human beings, and boy, do I need that right about now.


Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

tn-500_juliuscaesar0037rr.jpgOutre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania, then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic, and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

90.jpegOf course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

Screen-Shot-2017-06-13-at-12.27.16-PM.pngHere is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

julius_caesar_production_still.jpgI don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

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Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

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…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The pair turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood, and a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

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Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

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Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

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Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.

7/3/17: In response to my letter of complaint to Delta Air Lines, I received the following email today: “Thank you for writing to let us know how you feel. No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We are sorry if our decision disappoints you. Thank you for your feedback. Regards, Ms. Rolfe.” I think Delta brass might be trying to officially pin this on the “gore” factor, not the actual one. But Shakespeare is way ahead of them. For example, Titus Andronicus serves up his own children in a fucking pie, and no corporate sponsors have ever said boo about that. The airline doth protest too much, methinks.


My NYFF 2016

October 17, 2016

unknownThe evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.

For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a precious festival slot. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?

Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:

manchester-seaMANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that the story seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.

toni-erdmann-19-rcm0x1920uTONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.

paterson-credit-mary-cybulski-cannes-film-festivalPATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropCERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.

arton4596JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.

thumb_1892_media_image_1144x724PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.

20th-century-women20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.

thumb_1896_media_image_1144x724SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.

ob_ce416f_le-fils-de-joseph-8-eugene-green-amalrSON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.

elle-cannesELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.

lost-city-of-z-charlie-hunnam-and-tom-hollandTHE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.

WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)

Other NYFF Reports

2015   2014


Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation-creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

img_14609/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.


The Stage, On The Page

April 12, 2016

The-Secret-Life-of-American-Musicals-by-Jack-ViertelThe Broadway musical is as American an art form as jazz or the blues, and it has patriotically survived the recent British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The term “musical comedy” has become rather archaic, since we find very little humor (but there is some) in bombastic productions like LES MISERABLES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Yet troupers are still singing and dancing on the Great White Way, and to record-setting business, too; the New York “legit” theater has never been healthier.

I know a few people who don’t like musicals on principle. It annoys them whenever a character breaks into the story to sing: it’s unnatural, unrealistic, even silly. (Now when a hobbit puts on a magic ring to turn invisible, they’re perfectly happy. But we all have our own contradictions, don’t we?) My niece, one of the most devoted Broadway fans I know, attends nothing but musicals. But to non-aficionados they’re all pretty much the same, distinguishable only by the setting or, more rarely, by the intrusion of a contemporary type of music (HAIR, RENT, HAMILTON). A devotee would certainly disagree, but how many of them have sat down and truly thought it through? Any presentation that demands the attention of an audience for nearly three hours has to lead it on some kind of narrative ride. My biggest takeaway from an eye-opening new book is how much commonality most well-made musicals share, even when very creative people are racking their brains for brand new ways to surprise and delight the folks in the seats.

There are general principles that most of the best, longest-lasting musicals observe, and they are deconstructed for you in THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel. It’s packed with anecdotes and lore, authoritative without forgetting to be fun, the best general-audience guide to “how Broadway shows are built” (per the subtitle) that I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of the three big Broadway owner/producers (see more below), and he has also been a dramaturg and newspaper critic. Over a long career he’s worked with both the creators and the landlords, combining an expert’s breadth of knowledge with a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm. I used to joke that I was the only straight man in New York who saves all his Playbills. Evidently I was mistaken.

“Building” a musical, no matter what kind, requires some basic materials. When the curtain rises, the audience immediately needs to know, Where are we? Who are these people? How can I tell them apart? And why should I care? From there, a remarkable number of classic pieces — including the current hottest ticket in the world, HAMILTON — use similar patterns to create interest and pleasure in their audiences. “It’s only in hindsight that the patterns emerge,” Mr. Viertel writes, and he takes pains to assure us that writers and composers are not working from a cookie-cutter template. But in his hands it’s amazing to compare creative solutions that achieve common goals. Not all hit shows follow these patterns, and not every show contains every single one, but there’s much more agreement on what the author calls the “classic chassis” than you’d expect at first thought.

The book is organized like a two-act show. From the overture to the curtain call, Mr. Viertel illustrates structure with historical examples, trivia, and backstage color told with savvy assuredness. He shows how the “song plot” advances storytelling: despite my friends’ distaste, there are perfectly valid reasons why somebody starts singing. We learn about the “I want” song, which establishes a difficult goal (like “My Shot” in HAMILTON); the conditional love song (there’s a dramatic reason it’s “If I Loved You” in CAROUSEL instead of just “I Love You”); the “noise,” which uses comedy and kinetics to recharge the audience in the third or fourth song slot (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” in THE BOOK OF MORMON); the song which is basically there so a big star can shine; the Main Event, sometimes called the “11 o’clock number”; and lots more. You find yourself nodding your head at aspects of the musical experience that you’ve frequently seen but never really noticed, like the Second Couple (Will Parker and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA!, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) which provides counterpoint to, and frequently comic relief from, the romantic leads. It’s a little like finding out how a magic trick works, but the net effect is to make you appreciate originality even more.

razzleMr. Viertel’s book is about the show. A second one is about the business. RAZZLE DAZZLE by Michael Riedel recounts the colorful, sometimes oddball history of the people who own the Broadway houses and battle each other for the best bookings. Mr. Riedel has been the wildly popular theater columnist for the New York Post for nearly twenty years; he’s probably the second most influential journalist in the field, just behind the lead critic for the New York Times. He is impressively well plugged in, and has either witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of some hair-greying events in a wobbly industry that was almost snuffed out by the slow deterioration of its Times Square neighborhood by the mid-Seventies. Now, of course, Times Square, most notably the formerly notorious 42nd Street, has been transformed into a booming, profitable family destination — and the Broadway theater owners had a great deal to do with it.

A pause for some definitions. Despite how it sounds, the difference between a “Broadway” and “off-Broadway” production is not location, but the number of seats in the theater. Five hundred and above makes it a “Broadway” house, no matter what’s playing there. One hundred to 499, “off-Broadway.” Below 100, “off-off-Broadway.” At Lincoln Center, for example, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current home to THE KING AND I, is “on Broadway.” Under the same roof, down one flight of stairs, is the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, much more intimate and thus “off-Broadway.” And neither one of them is located in the Times Square “theater district.” So it’s the auditorium, not the address. There are exceptions, like Carnegie Hall, which usually hosts individual musical performances rather than scripted theatre; and the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home only to two “free Shakespeare in the Park” shows each summer.

This distinction isn’t simply academic. As you have probably guessed, money is involved. The actors, musicians and backstage crew work under different contracts depending on the producer’s potential gross. Furthermore, some Broadway houses are physically much smaller than others, so they tend to book straight plays, where every cost is more modest, and those productions can certainly yield profitable hits too. But big brassy shows, in the largest theaters, are where the real money is and where the tourists flock. If you’re waiting for discount tickets at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and you fancy a play, go straight to the far window. Non-musicals only. Nobody’s there. Smaller doesn’t equal worse: much of the most exciting theatre in New York, including a few reduced-scale musicals, is performed off-Broadway. But razzling-dazzling singing and dancing in Broadway-sized houses is what each of these books is overwhelmingly about.

Mr. Riedel chronicles the rise of the Shubert family, Broadway’s biggest landlord, beginning with its hardscrabble upstate origins and finally its brave move into New York City, where a loose consortium actually referred to as “the Syndicate” — its founders were the five largest theater owners at the turn of the century, who controlled the best houses in the biggest cities across America — intimidated its rube competition as surely as Vito Corleone and his boardroom peers. We watch the bold, determined Shuberts buy and build, and suffer its own clan’s fools as must any family-run company. On July 7, 1972, the feckless, drunken surviving Shubert was deposed as head of the Shubert Foundation, which legally owns the theaters, by family lawyers Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. “Bernie and Jerry” then became responsible for the Shubert Organization’s greatest years, and for a notable era were the most powerful producers on Broadway. Mr. Riedel has the most intimate access to these people, and my main beef is that he gives the other players short shrift. But after all, the Shuberts are arguably where the action is. They are far and away the largest landlord, with 17 Broadway theaters. The competing Nederlander organization owns 9, and Jujamcyn (Mr. Viertel’s employer, which is mentioned here only in passing) has 5.

The colorful business story is interspersed with fascinating producers’-eye views of how a few landmark shows (at least in a business sense) made their way to the stage: EQUUS, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS, CATS, NINE, CHESS, 42ND STREET, and more. Creative talents like Michael Bennett and Andrew Lloyd Webber deal with both adulation and ignominy before our eyes. And the long slog toward the desperately needed rejuvenation of Times Square — featuring Atlanta architect John Portman, he of the glass elevators, and his mammoth Marriott Marquis Hotel, which plants a gentrifying flag in the seedy district (its lobby is five floors above the hoi polloi at street level, and there’s a Broadway theater inside the hotel) — becomes a life-and-death struggle from the producers’ point of view. (“Where’s Broadway going to go? New Jersey?” asks a skeptical Mayor Ed Koch about the neighborhood.) Again, the book is too Shubertcentric: we also don’t get that close a look at interlopers like the Walt Disney Company, whose seemingly daft 49-year lease of the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater was the key to the revival of 42nd Street.

In the analog era I might have noted that some of the location description might be a little off-putting to people who don’t know New York City that well: I might have complained that there was no theater-district map. But everybody can locate these places on their frickin phones by now, so all you really need for SECRET LIFE and RAZZLE DAZZLE is a love for the American musical, and/or a curiosity about how it’s served to you. One’s for the notes. The other’s for the C-notes. But you can’t have Broadway without both of them.


The Bloomberg Factor

January 28, 2016

bloombergpoint.banner.reuters.jpgThe new year’s most intriguing political development is the news that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is quietly exploring the possibility of entering the Presidential race as an independent.

Bloomberg has always wanted to be President — along with Dick Cheney, he likes the idea of the office but hates the self-abasement required to get there — and you can’t blame him for considering a run just about now. To Bloomberg, who is difficult to pigeonhole on the rigid political spectrum of our day, the race for the Republican nomination is devolving into a mean-spirited circus, and two scary clowns are currently leading the pack. Should Bernie Sanders win the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg would probably despair over the prospect of even more intractable gridlock than we have now. In a worst-case scenario — say, Sanders against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz — Bloomberg would see more than an opportunity: from his point of view, it might be closer to a necessity. But he can’t wait for clarity: he has to push the button long before the two nominees are chosen. Plus, Michael Bloomberg doesn’t like to lose.

Serious third-party Presidential candidacies in my lifetime have all had unintended consequences. The two most notorious were Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. Both men siphoned away votes from a major party’s natural constituency, thus helping to elect the opposition: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But who might benefit and who might suffer from a Bloomberg-led ticket? It’s far less evident.

On the one hand, he’s a fat-cat multibillionaire (he’s way richer than Trump, and he got that way without a seven-figure loan from his father; he could easily self-finance a national campaign) with “New York values,” meaning, I guess, moderate positions on gun control, immigration, abortion, climate change and the like. A perfect target for Citizen Cruz. Then again, he has used the power of government as mayor to ban smoking in shared public spaces, an idea which has caught on as far away as Dublin, and he was just starting to pose ways to reduce the consumption of sugary sodas when the clock ran out. Those pesky nanny-state regulations, which successful businesspeople are supposed to hate. Bloomberg was also a welcome voice of reason during the trumped-up kerfuffle over the “Ground Zero mosque.” A few people carped about his making New York especially better for the especially better off, but he’s generally remembered as an effective mayor: he made other moderates like himself fairly pleased with his ideas and his courage.

There are plenty of Democrats who would vote for Bloomberg in a general election, especially if their party chose Bernie Sanders. It’s not that they don’t like the Bern, they just recognize that the good ideas he’s campaigning on would be impossible to enact without the kind of compromises that would wind up displeasing the Senator. Yes, what’s missing is the art of the deal. The good thing for Bloomberg is that Sanders has pretty much nullified any latent anti-Semitism: its not going to be an issue. You have to be some kind of king-hell bigot in this day and age to object to a candidate just because he’s Jewish, and those few serious knuckle-draggers vote Republican anyway.

Bloomberg has said that if Hillary Clinton were nominated, he’d be less inclined to run, and I can see that. Outside of a sitting veep, she is the best-qualified Presidential candidate in memory. Her views dovetail with Blooomberg’s reality-based pragmatism more neatly. She seems to understand how the federal government really operates, and knows where to push and prod. And she makes those scary clowns froth at the mouth.

If he had a crystal ball, Bloomberg’s decision would be easy. He made his fortune by predicting the future, correctly sensing a potential lucrative symbiosis between the financial markets and emerging power and speed in data processing at a time when his learned bosses and colleagues at Salomon Brothers thought he was nuts. But now he can’t. If he wants in, he has to act by early March. That would still give him time to get his name on the ballot in all fifty states, and the very first thing an independent candidate needs, even beyond a vast pile of money, is a ballot with his name on it. He won’t have time to analyze his chances in all but a few early-primary states. The GOP nomination, maybe both, could still be up in the air when summer rolls around. But you can bet his people are carefully studying the likely scenarios, because Michael Bloomberg wouldn’t be running to make a statement. He’d be running to win.

Statewide and national politicians depend on sugar daddies more than ever before. We all know that a few immensely wealthy donors have outsized influence over modern campaigns. Not necessarily by flooding the tube with commercials — that gets less and less effective each presidential cycle (hi, Jeb!) — but one sole megadonor like the Kochs or Sheldon Adelson or Cruz’s Robert Mercer can keep a campaign afloat and the staffers paid even after popular support has dwindled: look how Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum hobbled into oblivion way past their sell-by dates last time. Now we have self-funding candidates, and lots of them. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman were unable to parlay a wad into an office, but it’s not at all unusual to read that a newly elected governor was his own largest donor.

Trump’s big hook is that he’s so rich, no “special interest” can tell him what to do. Should he enter the race, Bloomberg could handily, er, trump this notion. But he has to jump in before anybody is nominated, and his independent candidacy could suck moderate votes from potential nominees Clinton, Sanders, Rubio, Jeb!, Kasich. When you share such votes, you just might give an advantage to the fiery id of the political zealot, and hello, President Cruz. And if you divide electoral votes three ways, you might not even get a clear winner at all — throwing the 2016 Presidential election to the ineffable wisdom of that distinguished body, the United States House of Representatives.


The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015

thAs Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night, it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.

th-1When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)

th-1I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.

th-2Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora thumping away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep picking that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.

thMaybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.

th-2No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! it was done.

th


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