1.22.15 Stephen Adly Giurgis, last seen on Broadway with The Motherfucker with the Hat, rises in my estimation with every new play he writes. The general description of Between Riverside and Crazy makes it sound, as Mr. David Zinn quipped, like a sitcom starring Doris Roberts and Fyvush Finkel: an intransigent old guy battles to hang on to his huge rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. The actual play is much darker and deeper than that. The intransigent old guy is Walt Washington, aka Pops, a recently widowed black ex-cop (played not by Fyvush Finkel but by the magnificent Stephen McKinley Henderson, veteran of many August Wilson plays) engaged in a years-long lawsuit against the NYPD after being shot by an off-duty cop. Pops shares his apartment with his ex-con son Junior (the always-great Ron Cephas Jones, such a master of understatement that he can look like he’s doing nothing), Junior’s bodacious girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colon), and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), a friend of Junior’s fresh out of jail and trying to stay clean and sober. I can’t think of anybody who writes better dialogue for these kinds of contemporary urban characters – it’s energetic, funny, profane, and Stan Mack-like in its lifelike verisimilitude, right up there with Wilson and Mamet. And like those artists, he writes big messy great roles that actors love to fling themselves into, especially the kind of actors who make up the LAByrinth Theater Company. But beyond the living-room sitcom veneer of the play lie deceptive mythological and literary depths. If you think you’re watching a strictly naturalistic play, it can seem wrong that Walt’s old partner, Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), are two white people who show up to load up the plot with problems in act one and then return in act two to magically take them away. But the way Giurgis maneuvers them – and a ring that turns out to figure heavily in the plot – indicates that we’re dealing with something grander than kitchen-sink realism.
It’s not a stretch to find traces of both King Lear and Shylock in Pops. And I haven’t even mentioned the Church Lady and her impact on Pops’ life (she is played by the ferocious Liza Colon-Zayas, above with Henderson, one of LAByrinth’s most valuable assets). Many surprises, many rewards. I loved the show, which ran last year to rave reviews at the Atlantic Theater Company and has come back for a second run at the Second Stage, in a production well-staged by Austin Pendleton with a tricky, effective set designed by Walt Spengler.
Andy wasn’t as crazy about the play as I was (he enjoys referring to it as Between Broadway and Bonkers, and our friends Judy and Bea had mixed feelings as well, but we had a vigorous and enlightening conversation about it over dinner afterwards at Nizza on Ninth Avenue.
1.23.15 I love seeing Christine Ebersole perform, but I didn’t love her new show, “Big Noise from Winnetka,” at 54 Below. I don’t really need to hear her sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Landslide,” or “Woodstock” – anybody can sing those songs. I don’t really need to hear her sing gospel or “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” And I wasn’t crazy about hearing her sing a club version of “The Revolutionary Costume of the Day” so fast that the clever lyrics got lost in the mix. I think it’s cool that her family is multiracial – a bond with NYC’s First Family she acknowledged through a convoluted story – but I didn’t really need to have her bring her older son onstage to tell a rambling self-involved story and sing a so-so song.
In plays and musicals, Ebersole has proven to be a smart and nuanced comic actor, and previous cabaret acts have featured better, less familiar material. I was happy that at least she ended the show singing “Will You,” one of the two gorgeous ballads she introduced in the musical Grey Gardens, which she sings like no one else can.
Dave and George liked the show better than I did – they’d never seen her before. Afterwards, we came back to my house and watched the Netflix DVD of Ida, the fantastic low-key Polish film nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. It may seem weird that this small, quiet film about a young nun on the verge of taking her vows in 1961 would also get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. But the striking cinematography is the major pleasure of the film – it’s shot in black and white, at odd angles, with the actors almost always off center or low in the frame, the camera never moving (until the very end of the film) so it’s one meticulously composed shot after another.
We watched the DVD extra Q&A interview with director Pawel Pawlikowski, who explained that their DP got sick and had to drop out of the production after the first day of shooting and he had no choice but to go with young camera operator Lukasz Zal, who was 29 and looked 19 but who contributed to making a film that inevitably invites comparisons to Dreyer and Bresson is its concentrated lighting and imagery. The movie is streamable on Netflix and definitely worth watching for many reasons, including the two leading performances. Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays the title character, has never acted before; Agata Kulesza, who plays the very interesting character of her aunt, a Communist former state prosecutor, is a renowned Polish stage actor.
1.24.15 Let the Right One In was an amazing, beautiful 2008 Swedish film – a vampire story not like any other. It’s not something you would automatically expect the National Theatre of Scotland to adapt to the stage, but I’ll see anything staged by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, the guys who created The Black Watch, Once, The Ambassador, and a bunch of other terrific shows.
Adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne, Let the Right One In made for some fun penny-dreadful theatrical effects and a lot of creepy tension. I’d forgotten about the whole love story between the vampire Eli (played by the suitably unusual Rebecca Benson) and Oskar, a perennial bullying victim (Cristian Ortega). But ultimately I’m not sure this ranked as an especially necessary stage production. I like going to St. Ann’s Warehouse and hanging out afterwards in Dumbo. We had a good meal at Superfine and then came home and listened to some albums by Olafur Arnalds, the Icelandic musician who composed the lovely, ominous original score for Let the Right One In.
I also spent a couple of evenings last week devouring Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words, a book put together by Canadian broadcasting personality and folk musician Malka Marom, who interviewed Joni for the first time in 1973 around the time of Court and Spark and then again in 1978 around the time of Mingus. Recently she decided to make a book out of these intimate conversations and met with Joni again to fill in the blanks. There’s not a lot of news or major revelations (Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me as I Am had more of those), but Joni Mitchell is almost always fascinating in interviews — she’s pretty uncensored and unfiltered talking about other people, especially people she dislikes or who piss her off, but she’s also unafraid to talk very specifically and engagedly about her work, about music, writing, painting, and poetry. Aside from a couple of great quotes I’ve already posted on my blog, I tucked away little bits of trivia — her story about meeting Mae West at a New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles at Ringo Starr’s house, and the time she met Nina Simone: “She came running through the shopping centre calling my name, ‘Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell!’ And she came up to me and grabbed me. She’s a big woman, swung me off the ground, kissing me, going “‘Ethopia’, girl! ‘Ethiopia’!” Swinging me around in circles, this big barrel of woman.”