Posts Tagged ‘sutton foster’

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.

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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.

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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

In last week’s New Yorker…

April 21, 2011

I seem to be running a week behind at this point. But in the “Journeys” issue I enjoyed reading Evan Osnos’s report about travelling through Europe with Chinese tourists. Hilton Als’ review of the new revival of Anything Goes starring Sutton Foster was so interesting it made me want to see the production, which otherwise I’ve been ignoring since the Lincoln Center production is still so fresh in my mind. Sasha Frere-Jones astonishes me by repeatedly writing interesting pieces about pop musicians I’ve never heard of who have already made 13 albums already! The latest is Bill Callahan, whom he makes sound quite intriguing. Since he turned me on to Of Montreal and Bon Iver, I tend to pay attention whenever Frere-Jones writes about music.

But my favorite piece in this issue is by Geoff Dyer, the novelist whose Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi impressed me very much. He writes about a pilgrimage he made to two famous earthworks, Walter De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico and Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah. Dyer is a fantastic writer, and his observations are worth reading. In passing, he refers to an essay D.H. Lawrence wrote about Taos, which he compares to the monasteries of Europe. I was particularly struck by this passage because Andy and I recently watched Into Great Silence, the engrossing documentary about the very austere Carthusian monastery in the French Alsp called the Grand Chartreuse, which made us question what purpose such isolated temples of worship and study serve in the bigger picture. Lawrence provides a very interesting perspective on that question:

“You cannot come upon the ruins of the old great monasteries of England, beside their waters, in some lovely valley, now remote, without feeling that here is one of the choice spots of the earth, where the spirit dwelt. To me it is so important to remember that when Rome collapsed, when the great Roman Empire fell into smoking ruins, and bears roamed in the streets of Lyon and wolves howled in the deserted streets of Rome, and Europe really was a dark ruin, then, it was not in castles or manors or cottages that life remained vivid. Then those whose souls were still alive withdrew together and gradually built monasteries, and these monasteries and convents, little communities of quiet labour and courage, isolated, helpless, and yet never overcome in a  world flooded with devastation, these alone kept the human spirit from disintegration, from going quite dark, in the Dark Ages. These men made the Church, which again made Europe, inspiring the martial faith of the Middle Ages.”

Performance diary: Marina Abramovic and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE

April 12, 2010

April 8 – Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA, “The Artist Is Present,” includes many of her intense body-based performances recreated by a squadron of young recruits. There’s the one where two naked performers stand in a doorway so that those wishing to pass from one room to another have to brush against them. (Originally this was the only entrance to a gallery show, and the performers were a naked man and a naked woman. Watching the documentary film adjacent to the current installation, you can witness how most people enter without looking at either performer and most of them choose to face the woman rather than the man. The gender aspect was nullified the day I visited MOMA, when both performers were women. Plus, it’s not the only way into the room so anyone can avoid touching naked people.) There’s “Hair Piece,” in which a man and a woman sit back to back, their long hair tied together. My favorite body piece had a naked man lying on his back with a skeleton lying on top of him; in the same room is a series of films projected onto the wall, one of a dozen naked men humping a grassy field, another of women pulling up their skirts and exposing their crotches to the falling rain. I admire Abramovic’s commitment to the body as art, though the work is very very cerebral, not very erotic or even emotionally compelling. She likes durational pieces, and nothing she’s done before has been quite as demanding as her current residency at MOMA, where she sits in the big rotunda on the second floor at a table (below, in red dress) while visitors come and sit opposite her silently for as long as they want. I perceive it as a form of darshan (that’s when spiritual teachers give audience to their devotees one at a time, usually very briefly), an encounter with the artist or guru as a mirror of oneself. Spectators do seem to be taking it that seriously. When I walked by, two different young somber-looking women sat opposite Abramovic, the two of them staring at one another. The guard told me that some people have been sitting with her for hours at a time and if you don’t get in line by 10:30 am you’re not likely to get your chance that day. In addition to the spiritual presence aspect, there’s something very Warholian about this performance as well – it takes place surrounded by fancy lighting, in the atmosphere of media circus.

I was more taken with the performative aspects of the William Kentridge show, “Five Themes.” His animated films are very beautiful and worth taking the time to sit through. I especially admired “Ubu Tells the Truth,” a fascinating take on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings, in which perpetrators of horrendous crimes during the apartheid era were granted amnesty for telling their stories – a theoretically healing process for the country, but paradoxically also a public airing of outrageous brutalities (Ubu-esque is a terrific way of framing them – a reference to Alfred Jarry’s fictional tyrant-clown). There’s also an elaborate hour-long show featuring an adaptation of The Magic Flute on a scale model of an opera stage – something I want to go back and spend more time with another day.

April 11 – Anyone Can Whistle is the kind of show that the Encores! series at City Center was created to present: a flawed musical that flopped in its day, hasn’t been seen much, isn’t really worth a full-scale revival, but has a score that’s worth hearing under circumstances that aren’t too demanding. Most of the time when I go to Encores!, I assume I’m going to see a pretty dumb show with a lame book, but if there are a couple of fine musical numbers and a handful of delightful performances I count myself lucky. Anyone Can Whistle definitely had one of the better casts in my experience: Donna Murphy as Cora Hoover Hooper, the brassy, maniacal mayor of a small-town that needs some kind of miracle — no matter how phony — to survive economically (Angela Lansbury played her originally); Edward Hibbert as Comptroller Schub, her partner in crime; Sutton Foster as Fay Apple, the head nurse at the local psychiatric hospital, sensitively referred to as The Cookie Jar; and Raul Esparza as J. Bowden Hapgood, who arrives in town as a patient and gets mistaken for the doctor-savior whose job is to decide definitively who’s crazy and who’s not.

The premise for Arthur Laurents’ 1964 play (with songs, of course, by Stephen Sondheim) comes straight from the heart of the countercultural ‘60s, when the very notions of sanity and craziness, right and wrong were up for questioning. The play is a kind of fractured fairy tale out of a Nichols-and-May nightclub routine, with the kind of sweetly neurotic mental patients and caricatured crooked authority figures that populated Jean Anouilh’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and the long-running cult film King of Hearts. Simplistic and vaudevillean, and yet Laurents was getting at the arbitrariness of classifying mental illness (after all, he and Sondheim were both gay guys in psychoanalysis at a time when homosexuality was officially designated a mental illness). And the hilarious, crazy way that the townspeople unquestioningly go along with Hapgood’s dividing them up into two factions – the A team and the 1 team, both of whom consider themselves superior – speaks to the fierce us-against-them state of American politics today.

[Further thoughts: Anyone Can Whistle was written right in the midst of the tumultuous civil rights movement, when crazed white racists were bombing black churches and Southern white cops were setting attack dogs on non-violent freedom marchers. And the McCarthy era was fresh in the memory of politically alert New York Jewish artists like Arthur Laurents. Those events are part of the backdrop for songs like “Simple,” which cheerfully trots out a series of syllogism: the opposite of dark is bright, the opposite of bright is dumb, therefore dark = dumb; the opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is wrong, therefore left = wrong. That’s a lot of political content for a musical comedy circa 1964, plus it’s delivered in an edgy, Brechtian way — not by modelling Right Thinking for the audience but by espousing offensive sentiments as if they were acceptable, forcing the audience to actively object rather than sink into the warm bath of agreement. David Gursky, Rob Berman’s assistant musical director for the show, told Andy and me afterwards that Angela Lansbury told the company that at the curtain call for the original production, the actors could totally feel the hatred coming from the audience.]

There’s a lot going on, emotionally and psychologically, amidst the play’s crazy cartoon atmosphere. Certainly, the mayor is a dazzling and entertaining monster, and Donna Murphy had a ball playing some wacky mixture of Jackie Kennedy, Tammy Faye Bakker, Kay Thompson, Ethel Merman, and Barbara Streisand. The always-appealing Sutton Foster got to play both the buttoned-down Nurse Apple and her liberated faux-French alter-ego in red dress and wig. “I love a woman who comes with an accent” was my favorite smutty line, spoken by Raul Esparza, suitably genial and manic as Hapgood. Once considered an obscure Sondheim score, Anyone Can Whistle brims with songs we now call classics: in addition to the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (which Foster sang with her usual dazzling lucidity), there’s “Everybody Says Don’t” (Esparza) and the ballad I can’t get out of my head, “With So Little to Be Sure Of.”

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