10.5.14: SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE at New York Theater Workshop. My taste for Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptations of classic films and plays has not yet reached its capacity. His staging of Ingmar Bergman’s epic drama (which I hadn’t seen or really thought about since the made-for-Swedish-TV film came out in 1973) once more reinvented the insides of New York Theater Workshop, creating three separate playing spaces that the audience cycled through for the first three scenes; after a lengthy intermission, we returned to one big space for the final long collage sequence. Casting three very different couples in the roles originally played by the great Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson acknowledged the truth about long relationships – they go through so many phases and stages that who you are when you started doesn’t look much like who you are at the end. Among the mostly admirable performances, Arliss Howard and Tina Benko (below) were most consistent as the oldest of the three
couples, though I also thought Alex Hurt (William Hurt’s handsome son) and especially Susannah Flood were awfully good as the youngest, and the great downtown actress Mia Katigbak practically blew them all off the stage with her two different cameo roles. I’m always intrigued by the music van Hove chooses to flood his productions, but the one clunky note here was having Arliss Howard flit about at the very end of the show to the tune of “The Windmills of Your Mind” sung by Noel Harrison – but I guess it wouldn’t be a van Hove production without some unacceptable bit of eccentric perversity. Playwright and director Emily Mann supplied the very playable English adaptation.
10.8.14 : THE TEMPEST at La Mama ETC. The unusual constellation of director Karin Coonrod, composer Elizabeth Swados, and leading actor Reg E. Cathey as Prospero drew me to La Mama for the first of three variations on Shakespeare’s play, the whole series loosely inspired by Hurricane Sandy and its ongoing impact on the NYC area. Sadly, this was the driest, least magical Tempest of my theatergoing experience. Coonrod’s strict structuralist intellect drained all the juice from the play, leaving the actors stuck on the chalk outlines of a set making blahblahblah of their lines. Two redeeming graces: the witty idea of having the male nobility distinguished by wearing high-heeled white pumps (some of the actors more comfortable in them than others), and the singularly galvanic performance by Slate Holmgren as Caliban (below with Tony Torn’s Stephano), played by a white man, for a change.
10.11.14: THE LAST SHIP at the Neil Simon Theatre. I don’t have a lot to add to the critical consensus on the show, which is that Sting did a lovely job at creating a theatrical score that both works dramatically AND sounds like his own musical voice, rather than generic Broadway tunesmithing. The book is the weakest part of the show – there are huge gaps where information and narrative logic are missing, possibly the result of Brian Yorkey starting the job and John Logan finishing it. But there are some lovely performances (Rachel Tucker as the female lead stood out for me), continuously captivating choreography (more like stylized movement) by Steven Hoggett, and a wonderfully monumental set by Mr. David Zinn.
I walked out of the theater with two songs stuck in my head – one that had been there before (the beautiful “When We Dance,” repurposed for the show from a Sting album), and the shipbuilders’ stomp, “We Got Nowt Else.”
10.30.14: INDIAN INK at the Roundabout Theater Company. I don’t understand why it took so long for this rich, dense feast of a Tom Stoppard play to get a major production in New York, but I’m glad it finally came about. Written around the same time as The Invention of Love and Arcadia, two of Stoppard’s best works ever, Indian Ink shares with those plays a simultaneous existence in two time periods. In 1980s England, Eleanor Swan, an aged widow (played by the resplendent Rosemary Harris), sorts through correspondence with her sister Flora Crewe, a poet whose brief and adventure-filled life ended from tuberculosis in India in 1930 (she’s played by Romola Garai, new to me – not the only actress in the world who could play such an extravagant part but damned impressive). Entertained by romance and intrigue, we also learn a lot about British colonialism, Indian sectarianism, painting and poetry, biography and secrets. It’s well-staged by Carey Perloff on Neil Patel’s simple colorful sets with excellent costumes by Candice Donnelly and notable performances by Firdous Bamji as a modest yet ardent suitor for Flora’s affection and Nick Choksi as an effervescent tour guide. This show seems to have slipped in under the radar – there’s not a lot of chatter about it, in the shadow of the fall’s major Broadway openings – but I highly recommend not missing it.
10.31.14 THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at the Public Theater. The Public Theater’s recent track record and the score by prolific and fertile Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labours Lost) lured me in to Itamar Moses’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel about the friendship between a white kid and a black kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late ‘70s and early ’80s. It’s an ambitious and sprawling work, musically and narratively and scenically, but not very much of it landed with me, except at the very end, when I felt the pain and anguish of the gap between the boyhood friends – the white guy (Adam Chanler-Berat) whose education and privilege took him away and up, and the black guy (Kyle Beltran) unable to escape the confinement of his family’s collapsed legacy. Staged by Daniel Aukin, the show felt like the hetero male version of Fun Home, but without nearly as much fun.
Days and Nights – Stage actor Christian Camargo’s debut as film director came and went in a flash, but for theater buffs it’s definitely worth tracking down when it becomes available to rent or stream. It’s an inspired contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s often-performed, often-adapted, yet never-exhausted tragicomedy about theater people summering in the country. The movie got wretched reviews from film critics, maybe because to appreciate the movie at all you pretty much have to know Chekhov’s play chapter and verse. Since it’s my favorite play in the world, I guess I’m among the small but hardy ideal audience for the film, which features a magnificent array of New York stage actors: Alison Janney (in the Arkadina role), Camargo (in the Trigorin role), Ben Whishaw (as the Treplev character), Juliet Rylance (as Nina – she’s Camargo’s wife and not an actress I care for), her father Mark Rylance, Cherry Jones, William Hurt, Jean Reno, Katie Holmes, Michael Nyquist, and Jean Reno (star of The Artist). You can watch the trailer here.
Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – I remember walking by the St. James Theater on West 44th Street one night and seeing the marquee for Riggan Thompson’s stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and vaguely understanding it was a set for some movie. What fun to learn that the entire film pretty much takes place in and around that exact theater, where Michael Keaton’s character, a Hollywood actor burned out on the superhero movie sequels that made him famous, attempts to reinvent himself artistically. I haven’t been a huge fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films but this one was a gas, and of course it didn’t hurt for the cast to include not only the excellent Edward Norton,
Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts but wonderful New York theater actors like Bill Camp, Merritt Wever, Amy Ryan (I guess she belongs to the world now), and playwright Stephen Adly Giurgis. The one scene that seemed stupid and gratuitous was the Keaton character’s confrontation in a bar with the New York Times theater critic who snarls, “I’m going to destroy your play” – even played by the superb Lindsay Duncan, that character doesn’t fly. The scene comes off as a movie director’s tirade against Manohla Dargis that’s been stored up for years.
The Life and Ideas of James Hillman Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist by Dick Russell doesn’t automatically sound like perfect reading for a ten-day retreat in the Amazonian rainforest jungle, but it turned out to be ideal for me. Modeled perhaps on Richard Ellmann’s magnificent biography of James Joyce (a hero of Hillman’s), Russell’s doorstop of a book (678 pages including back matter and pages of footnotes after every chapter) runs on scrupulous research and encyclopedic detail parceled out in short titled subsections across 15 chapters, making for compulsive and highly entertaining reading, especially for me, having slightly known and massively revered Hillman in his later years. This first of two volumes only covers barely half of Hillman’s life, from his birth in Atlantic City in 1926 to 1969, when he was driven out of his post as Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich (the details of which I never knew – a suitable if sordid climax to the book). Lots of other stuff I didn’t know: what an aristocratic family he came from, anything about his first marriage to a wealthy Swedish woman who was the mother of his four children, even what a late bloomer he was, professionally. Russell carefully and beautifully unpacks the slow, unsteady making of a thoughtful writer and revolutionary thinker through many wanderjahren and entrepreneurial publishing dead ends. Needless to say, I’m chomping at the bit to read volume 2, even though I know it won’t see light of days for a few years still.
Olive Kittredge – I’ve long been a fan of lesbian filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko’s movies (High Art, Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright), and who doesn’t love Frances McDormand? The four-part HBO series, adapted by Jane Anderson from a novel by Elizabeth Stout, is the kind of tour de force we haven’t seen McDormand in since she first made an unforgettable splash in Fargo. She plays a crusty, unrelievedly unpleasant schoolteacher in small-town Maine, married to a mild-mannered pharmacist (the great Richard Jenkins) with whom she has a hyper-sensitive son (the grown-up version is played by John Gallagher, Jr.), both of whom she treats fairly brutally. She does also have a soft spot in her heart for wounded birds, especially the suicidally depressed, whom she considers kindred spirits. But her flashes of kindness are unpredictable and usually short-lived. Classic line: “I’m waiting for my dog to die so I can shoot myself.” At first I wasn’t sure I could tolerate four hours of Olive’s miserable personality but the performance is beautiful and uncompromising, and the production is high-quality all round. I especially loved the final episode, in which Olive forges a testy friendship with a widower played by Bill Murray. Looking at these two amazing actors with these amazing now-aged lumpy, wrinkled, characterful faces – in HIGH DEFINITION – was surprisingly exhilarating. I would love to see them do Happy Days. I would love to see Bill Murray do anything by Beckett.