For two-thirds this was an unusually realistic take on motherhood, albeit focused on the negative, made enjoyable by the intelligent dialogue and the fine acting of Charlize Theron. Then the plot jumped off the tracks, and Theron’s character started acting in ways that made no sense. At the end, was it revealed that the nanny had been a figment of Marlo’s imagination? If so, much of what came before made no sense and I felt cheated. What I had been praising as “realistic” wasn’t realistic at all. And the more I looked back, the less I liked what I had seen.
Ignore the meaningless title: there wasn’t much sunshine here, just a series of flawed relationships for the wondrous Juliette Binoche in an essay on the subject of, when lovers talk, are they actually saying anything? There are no resolutions – indeed, Gerard Depardieu is still discussing the subject, unreliably, as the credits end – but lots of closeups of Binoche’s face, beautifully lit, which is not a bad way to spend a late afternoon at the movies.
Our ambitious program of eight shows in five weeks got off to a disappointing start: both Harry Clarke and Three Tall Women were well reviewed but left us cold. Billy Crudup and Glenda Jackson, the respective stars, gave flawless performances, but neither was a character we wanted to spend time with. They were both self-centered and led lives we couldn’t relate to. Gay romance, the subtext of the former, is a bit too much with us these days, at least in movies and theater; and senility and infidelity, which propelled the latter, don’t enthrall. Three Tall Women also had two dubious performances supporting Dame Glenda. We never really figured out Allison Pill’s role, not was she convincing as a law-firm associate, if that was her job. And Laurie Metcalf was a total disaster: she overacted without creating a character and made me uncomfortable watching her. Unfortunately, both plays were performed without intermission, so we had to sit through their entireties. Conversely, they were over sooner.
Our faith in theater-going was restored the next week by Lobby Hero. Kenneth Lonergan’s play was seemingly simple: two security guards and two cops performing a roundelay in an apartment lobby late on two consecutive nights. Yet that little world contained four well-defined, slightly caricaturish characters whose relationships were constantly amusing. And then something happens offstage that causes each one to weigh principles against self-interest, and guess which wins. The performances were stellar: one wonders whether Michael Cera fidgets his hands in his pocket in real life, his acting persona is so consistent. One also wonders if Lonergan reprised this play with Cera in mind, he was so perfect for the role. But the others were just as compelling. My definition of a good play is one that makes you laugh and makes you think, with characters you care about.
In one week we saw two musicals, Escape to Margaritaville and My Fair Lady; against all expectations it was the former that made our day. Every minute of the Jimmy Buffett show was a total kick: the songs were great, but just as much fun was how they were set up. The plot was nothing to be concerned about – you knew what was going to happen and it was not to be taken seriously. The game was watching J.D. complain about Jesus (Hay-zeus) taking the salt shaker, then five minutes later when the troupe broke into Margaritaville, the song, hearing J.D. sing out, “searching for my lost shaker of salt,” after a chorus of “My Head Hearts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus.” The actors were having fun, and so were we. I found Tully, the Buffett character, a bit artificial in the last act, but the women leads were excellent.
As for My Fair Lady, of course I knew what to expect, but the music and staging are so great that shouldn’t matter. What mattered was the lack of magic, the lack of chemistry between Higgins and Eliza, and the unconvincing portrayal by both of them. I hate to say that Lauren Ambrose wasn’t pretty or cute enough to play Eliza, but you look at her so much you like to be charmed. And the shadow of Rex Harrison loomed doomingly over Harry Hadden-Paton, who seemed too young and too volatile for the part. Diana Rigg seemed a visitor, and Freddie seemed to have wandered in from another play. It’s hard to say why nothing connected, but I never felt an emotional tingle all evening, and when I clapped, it was dutiful rather than enthusiastic.
In other revival news: Jessie Mueller’s performance as Julie Jordan was almost enough to overcome the dated book and other uneven performances in Carousel (and the cramped confines of the Imperial Theater). Her face was innocent and sweet and her singing voice was thrilling: “If I Loved You” was transporting. The rest of the cast was confusingly polyglot, despite the efforts of set and costume to place events in Maine of 1900. Lindsay Mendez’s Carrie Pipperidge sounded like a refugee from Brooklyn, Renee Fleming from the opera and Joshua Henry from a politically correct casting agency. Billy Bigelow is such an unsympathetic character to begin with, having a black man play him with attitude dissipated the ambivalence you needed to feel about his situation. The dancing was nice, but there was too much of it, and it was too repetitive, for my taste. Finally, the whole bit about “after you’re dead you can go back to earth for one day of your choosing” stuck this play back in the 1940s, not in a good way.
Beast in the Jungle was a charming mix of dance and play, called a “dance play.” The story took liberties with the Henry James novella, mostly to create excuses for dance numbers, but stayed true to the themes of love and longing and lost chances. In a small theater, the Vinyeyard, and played without an intermission or a program(!), it had the feeling of an experiment, but the talents at work, notably Susan Stroman for dance and Fred Kander for music, were first-rate. The orchestra played unseen above us – I didn’t know they were there until their curtain call – while the six-woman corps de ballet filled the small stage in numerous guises. I liked all the principal actors – Paul Friedman, Tony Yazbeck and Elena Dvidorodenko – (Siri didn’t). The book was ham-handed at times, but it always felt like a way to get to the next dance, a la Margaritaville, and there were no subplots to distract us from the overpowering presence of love.
I forgot to review Mlima’s Tale, a short Lynn Nottage work at the Public Theatre that better fit the Henry James title. An actor with sinuous, gleaming black body played Mlima, a big-tusked African elephant that is poached for its ivory. We follow the tusks on their route to Southeast Asia and China, courtesy of corruption, greed, vanity and general disregard for the law. The tale is a familiar one, and the stagecraft is clever, as a handful of actors assume the various roles. In the end, it was a bit too didactic to be engaging – like Junk last fall. There was nothing to criticize, but I wasn’t swept away.
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are notable first off for their tidy structures, their clever stagecraft (see Norman Conquests). A Brief History of Women – terrible title – follows this pattern: four distinct playlets all take place in the same setting, twenty years apart, with one character, an attractive but self-effacing man, appearing in all of them, more as an observer of the human condition around him than an active force. The other constant in Ayckbourn’s work is the commonness of his characters and plots: regular people, but my aren’t they silly and look at what knots they get tied in. The acting in Brief History, as was to be expected from the British troupe, was impeccable, and it was fun to see each performer take on four quite different roles. There was no particular point that I could detect – just, here is one life, not special or extraordinary, and here are the unexpected, slightly dramatic moments that changed its course along the way.
As a late add-on we went to the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Othello.The night was beautiful, as were the costumes and stage set, and the principal actors were all excellent. I especially liked Corey Stoll’s Iago, a modern character from House of Cards, who lessened the distance from Shakespeare to us. Although I had read the first two acts beforehand, it was still a challenge to grasp the dialogue, which betimes made me feel I was taking a test, rather than enjoying a play. And the play troubled me at two points: how was it so easy for “honest” Iago to convince Othello that Desdemona was untrue, especially so shortly after their nuptials; and why didn’t Desdemona “use her bean” and remember that she had lost her handkerchief while mopping her husband’s brow. Nevertheless, it was a fine reminder of an important work in Shakespeare’s canon. (Aside: seeing this two days after seeing Joshua Henry play Billy Bigelow in Carousel was a bit disconcerting: while we were meant to ignore the fact that Henry was black, it was all-important to recognize the blackness of Othello.)
In sum: it was not an especially rewarding theater season, with only Lobby Hero and Escape to Margaritaville making me glad I was at the theater instead of, say, watching the Twins or Warriors win a game on TV.
The most interesting character in this movie was the Orthodox Jewish community in London to which all the actor-characters were related. Was it meant to look narrow, constricting and petty – or was that my prejudice? Eetsy’s escape was the dramatic high point, but then what to think of her simultaneous escape from the other constriction in her life, a heterosexual marriage? Otherwise, matters were rather predictable if you’d seen a trailer or read a review, but I never tire of admiring Rachel McAdams in her chameleon roles.
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