Posts Tagged ‘martin mcdonagh’

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.

normal20tvf-1-web

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

Performance diary: A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE and MR. & MRS. FITCH

March 10, 2010

March 3 – I’m in awe of Martin McDonagh as a playwright for his humor, for his theatricality, for his sly storytelling, and for his sheer mastery at composing sentences that explode in the air. His new play, A Behanding in Spokane, had me from the very beginning and never lost me. First of all, there’s Christopher Walken with his wild hair and ruined face, sitting on the bed in a crappy hotel room with one hand and one stump, looking grim. That gets a laugh all by itself, somehow. The flimsy latticed wardrobe door starts rattling, being kicked by someone apparently bound and gagged inside. That gets a laugh. (The crappy hotel room is beautifully designed by Scott Pask: the wardrobe has been built as an afterthought to the room, without any attention to the wallpaper pattern.) Walken goes to the wardrobe, opens the door, leans in and fires two shots. That gets a laugh. He closes the  door, walks over to the phone, dials a number, and speaks the first line of the play: “Hi, Mom.” Laugh. This insane mixture of menace, goofiness, surprise, and mundanity – the essence of McDonagh’s dramatic universe – may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it’s absolutely mine.

The play occupies a territory midway between David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Like American Buffalo, the play is a caper that involves bumbling low-level thieves, terse sentences, and fast-flying obscenities. Walken’s character, Carmichael, has spent the last 47 years trying to retrieve the hand that a gang of hillbillies chopped off when he was 11 years old. Somehow he ends up in small-town Arizona (?) where two young dumbass pot dealers (Toby and Marilyn, played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan) claim to know where they can get his hand for $500. There’s always been a strong connection to Shepard in McDonagh’s plays – as here, at the center is a showdown between two guys who are more or less alter-egos, and there’s a wittily self-conscious theatricality afoot. Carmichael’s unlikely sparring partner is Mervyn (played by Sam Rockwell), the guy who works at the front desk of the hotel. Mervyn, who is quick to insist that he’s NOT “the receptionist” and was apparently doing sit-ups in his boxer shorts when Carmichael arrived to rent the room, is the play’s Fool, meaning he seems like a loser but winds up being the voice of truth and reason, sort of. He’s both a character and a device, the picture pointing to the frame, the writer talking to himself and punching holes in his own story.

The plot is very slight and not especially plausible, but key moments tell us to let go of naturalistic drama and pay attention to McDonagh’s postmodern hijinks. Mervyn first appears at the door to inquire about the gunshots he heard, and after repeating back the ludicrous explanation Carmichael gives him he asks, “Where is this story going to go?” Carmichael says, “We’ll find out as soon as you leave the room.” And although it wouldn’t seem too hard for two energetic kids to run away from a one-handed man, even if the other hand was holding a gun, all Carmichael has to do is whistle and jerk his head and his two captives willingly walk across the room to be handcuffed to heating ducts, as if under a spell. There’s no intermission, but the action is interrupted by an interlude in front of a drawn curtain in which Mervyn steps out to give us his hilariously discursive back-story. It’s a kind of vaudevillean moment that contributes to lifting the play out of the kitchen sink and conjures both Beckett and Brecht. And the scene is written and played in a manner very close to the bravura letter-reading monologue in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the play that introduced us to Martin McDonagh.

Directed by John Crowley, the cast is spectacular – David Zinn called it “the character-actor Olympics,” although as he pointed out, the roles of the two kids are so thinly drawn that you end up feeling sorry for the actors, especially Anthony Mackie, an excellent actor (see him in The Hurt Locker!) who has to spend most of the show playing a stoopid guy with vocabulary that ranges from “motherfuckin’ this” to “motherfuckin’ that.” The New Yorker’s Hilton Als was enraged by the shallow stereotypical nature of the character and Carmichael’s casual racism, and DZ objected to Carmichael’s needling Toby for “crying like a fag.” Somehow those things didn’t bother me – I saw them as part of McDonagh’s edgy examination of theatrical language, which included Marilyn’s hilariously earnest/lame challenging Carmichael for his homophobia and his use of “the n-word.” If anything, I wound up thinking that Mackie and Kazan were miscast. They’re terrific actors, up-and-coming stars (in Ian Rickson’s production of The Seagull last year, she was the best Masha I’ve ever seen), but a little too squeaky-clean to really represent small-town losers. Christopher Walken is, of course, amazing – ceaselessly inventive, scary, present, vulnerable, and as DZ put it, he has the deadest deadpan on earth. I was knocked out by Sam Rockwell’s performance because he goes nose-to-nose with Walken and holds his own without budging, and his performance is a comic triumph of its own.

The show got mixed reviews – Ben Brantley in the Times called it “erratically enjoyable” – but then so did McDonagh’s debut as filmmaker, In Bruges, which I think is one of the funniest and best-written movies of the last decade. David was much cooler toward the play than I was, but we had a good juicy conversation about it over drinks at Angus McIndoe, where McDonagh apparently does all his interviews and post-show drinking. I didn’t see him there, but he was at the theater greeting well-wishers, and I got a kick out of seeing the silver fox in person (see above).

March 5 – DZ called Behanding “the slightest excuse to gather 1000 people in a room,” but that encomium is much more appropriate for Mr. & Mrs. Fitch at the Second Stage, Douglas Carter Beane’s hard-hitting satire about…celebrity journalism. In an attempt at Noel Coward-style brittle and topical comedy of manners, John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle play gossip columnists who drop about 100 literary names to suggest that they’re superior to everybody else. But it’s thin, hasty stuff that recycles old jokes (“Bi now, gay later”) and dispenses with character continuity altogether (one minute She’s avidly encouraging Him to invent a fake celebrity – the play’s major plot point – and the next minute she’s castigating his journalistic ethics for doing so). The funniest idea is that headline writers at the New York Post use “Camptown Races” as the rhythmic model for their creations – you can tell they’ve hit on a classic if you can follow it with “doo-dah, doo-dah!”

March 6 – Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, a volunteer group that symphony orchestras job in for massive choral works (like Britten’s War Requiem). Every so often they do a concert by themselves, and this program at Merkin Concert Hall consisted of three contemporary pieces: three Psalms by the recently deceased Lukas Foss, a pretentious and ugly piece by Harold Farberman called Talk inspired by dialogue overheard at an upstate diner, and Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets, based on a series of poems by Jones Very (1813-1880). The Foss and the Gann at least provided some beautifully lush choral singing, and the two soloists were excellent – tenor Jeffrey Hill and soprano Megan Taylor.

%d bloggers like this: