Culture Vulture: VIOLET, ALL THE WAY, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, TOP OF THE LAKE, NORMAL HEART, and Roz Chast

May 22, 2014

THEATER

5.9.14 – VIOLET – I’m a huge fan of Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change, Fun Home), and I’d only heard the original cast recording of the 1998 premiere at Playwrights Horizons of her first musical, Violet. The Broadway revival at the Roundabout Theatre stars Sutton Foster as a woman horribly disfigured by her father in an ax-wielding accident as a child who take a cross-country bus trip to ask a TV preacher to give her a beautiful movie-star face. It’s a thoughtful, detailed short story of a musical (played without intermission) but for me it never really took off, either emotionally or musically. I did enjoy the performances in several small roles by the great character actress Annie Golden (below, with Foster) and Rema Webb as the gospel singer Lula Buffington who almost but not quite raises the roof.

VioletBway06_605x329

5.14.14 – ALL THE WAY – I’d heard Robert Schenkkan’s play about President Lyndon Johnson’s push to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was long and shouty, so I wavered about going until my friend Misha Berson, in town seeing shows for her gig as theater critic for the Seattle Times, generously took me along as her guest. I was happily surprised at how good the play is. It’s very similar to Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, in that it spends most of its running time focused on the minutiae of Washington politics, how bills work their way through Congress, and the machinations and back-channel dealing that goes on.

All-The-Way_650
I wasn’t so impressed with Mr. Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston’s performance, which was too shticky by half, but the story kept me rapt, if at times appalled to the point of furious tears, hearing the most disgusting racist sentiments delivered as Senate testimony in my lifetime. Ugh. Bill Rauch of Cornerstone Theater did a fine job casting and staging a large company of actors. Some performances I especially enjoyed included Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover and Brandon J. Dirden as a dignified yet remote Martin Luther King.

5.15.14 – THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN – I love Martin McDonagh’s plays, and I’d seen this one twice before, its American debut at the Public Theater directed by Jerry Zaks and a spectacularly good revival at the Atlantic Theater Company staged by Gerry Hynes with a largely Irish cast. Andy’s a fan of McDonagh’s hilarious film In Bruges but had never seen his work onstage, and I thought this would be a dandy introduction, an acclaimed London production directed by Michael Grandage and starring Daniel Radcliffe. Ehhhhh, not so much. Radcliffe is an absolute non-starter in the title role, dull and unimaginative even in the way he plays Cripple Billy’s physical disability. None of the other actors met or matched my fond memories of earlier productions, although I did enjoy Sarah Greene as Slippy Helen (below). Which left only the play to enjoy, with its insane deadpan repetition and whiplash plot turns, from high comedy to melodrama and back.

Cripple

TELEVISION

TOP OF THE LAKE – Casting about for something to try out on my new Apple TV device, I remembered that Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker had good things to say about the BBC mini-series conceived and directed by Jane Campion, a filmmaker whose work I’ve admired for its narrative eccentricity and visual boldness if not always loved. There were almost immediately a bunch of things I found highly implausible about the main character played by Elisabeth Moss, a young police detective on a hometown visit to her ailing mum who suddenly takes over the investigation of a missing teenager and starts bossing around the local police force. But damned if I didn’t get hooked on the thing and ended up watching all seven episodes with its relentlessly grim arc about the horrible exploitation and mistreatment of women by slickly corrupt cops and gnarly local violent maniac meth-dealers.

Picture shows: G,J (HOLLY HUNTER)
Mostly I became intrigued by the subplot of an encampment of damaged women presided over by their guru-who-claims-not-to-be-a-guru, an Asperger’s-like savant named GJ played by Holly Hunter with long gray Jane Campion hair and a compelling, brusque affectlessness. The community of women she shepherds are a crazy, individual assortment even more fleetingly and quirkily depicted than the gals on Orange Is the New Black – we learn almost nothing about them, which of course makes each scene with them riveting. It’s sort of Prime Suspect set in the back woods of New Zealand, though Moss’s character is way more flawed and not nearly as great as Helen Mirren’s.

THE NORMAL HEART – I am astonished at how well Ryan Murphy managed to pull off the long-awaited HBO film of Larry Kramer’s incendiary historical play about love, community, and politics in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Having seen the original production and the revival at the Public Theater as well as the Broadway production two seasons ago, I really didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina to revisit those horrendous mid-1980s years of catastrophe, loss, helplessness, and fury. Yet with Murphy’s coaching, Kramer extensively revised and expanded and deepened his play so that it becomes a much more generous portrait of the time and the gay male community in New York, not so much a self-righteous screed about how right he was and how wrong everyone else was.

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Aside from the fact that (like every other actor who’s played the part) Mark Ruffalo is ten times better-looking than Larry Kramer ever was, his performance is excellent and honest, as are many of the supporting players (including Joe Mantello as Mickey, above with Ruffalo) and Jim Parsons, reprising his Broadway role as Tommy Boatwright). I watched a screener of the HBO show with five friends, we barely breathed while it was playing, and we had a good heartfelt conversation about it afterwards.

BOOKS

CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? is Roz Chast’s brave, hilarious, sad graphic memoir about ushering her parents through the last few years of their lives. I’ve always taken Chast’s cartoons in the New Yorker depicting the neurotic fearfulness of her family as comic exaggeration. But here she documents with unsparing detail her parents’ devotion to each other, their denial about aging and sickness, her father’s monumental anxiety, her mother’s domineering and punishing personality, and her own alternately meek, loving, exasperated, and calculating efforts to please and care for them.

roz chast memoir excerpt

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