Monday, May 20, 2019

Sentimental Journeys: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Burn This, Doris Day

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Photo: Deen van Meer)

I’ve been skipping productions of Terrence McNally’s two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune for decades – I didn’t see Kathy Bates with F. Murray Abraham or with Kenneth Welsh in the off-Broadway version in 1987, or Edie Falco with Stanley Tucci in the last revival, in 2002 – but I opted to see the latest one, on Broadway, with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. It’s a lousy play, an American variation on an English kitchen-sink drama that begins with a pair of lovers in bed naked, having sex, and then takes a couple of hours to show them opening up to each other in other ways. The (stock) idea is that they’re both desperately lonely but he’s willing to acknowledge it and she isn’t, and, attempting to persuade her that she should see him as more than a one-night stand, he’s got his work cut out for him because emotionally she’s closed down. It’s an unconventional courtship drama with the same basic structure as Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly (1980), which takes a far more inventive approach to the man’s effort to win over the cautious, distanced woman – and which has far more interesting characters. Talley’s Folly is a comedy with serious undertones; Frankie and Johnny tries for loopy romanticism but ends up glum and monochromatic, though with a sentimental ending.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Museum Must Be Decolonized: The First Monday in May (2016)

A shot from The First Monday in May (2016).

The first Monday in May is when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds its annual Met Gala to raise money for the museum, especially for its Costume Institute; the Gala also serves as the opening night of a fashion exhibition at the Met. The First Monday in May (2016) is a documentary about the preparation for the 2015 iteration of this event, when the exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, on the influence of China on Western fashion, in cooperation with the Met’s Department of Asian Art. It turned out to be a record-breaking exhibition.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dust Bowl: Oklahoma!

 Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma!. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which has moved from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, is being hailed as brilliant and revolutionary, much like the original 1943 version, even though that didn’t do anything that the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein Show Boat (or for that matter, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart Pal Joey), hadn’t done before and better.

Revolutionary? Let’s start at the end: in this Oklahoma!, after the cast has sung the title song, our heroes, the bronco-buster Curly (played by Damon Daunno, so slight he looks like he’d split in two if he ever sat astride a horse) and Laurey (a very angry Rebecca Naomi Jones) are dressed in white for their wedding, when Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) crashes in and offers Curly a gift, conditional upon his getting to kiss the bride. Jud and Laurey French-kiss, despite Jud's having previously tried to rape her and threatened her and her family. Curly opens the gift, and it’s a gun (not the booby-trapped “Little Wonder” traditional to stodgy stagings of yore). Jud then stands about ten feet in front of Curley and spreads his arms. Curly shoots him. Curly’s gun is rigged so that Curly (yes, Curly) is spattered with copious amounts of blood, his face crimson and dripping, his white (modern-dress) cowboy suit now mostly red, with a significant portion of blood spattering his bride. Jud is still standing. The rest of the eleven-person cast, who have been sitting around in chairs watching this, intone the next four or five minutes of dialogue with no affect. “Is he dead? He looks dead.” (Uh, he’s still standing, so no, he isn’t dead.) After too much of this, Judd goes upstage and lies down on the floor. Aunt Eller (the redoubtable Mary Testa) then bullies the local marshal and judge into a kangaroo-court trial that finds Curly innocent by reason of self-defense; the ensemble reprises the title tune; and as they sing of the grandness of the land they belong to and the new union they hope to join, Laurey sobs in sorrow, others writhe in misery, some stomp in anger, and Curly plays the guitar in his blood-stained clothes. All is corrupt, all is unclean, all is rot.

Wait, what?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Tootsie: In Name Only

 Julie Halston, James Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, John Behlmann in Tootsie. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new musical of Tootsie, with a book by Robert Horn and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has “smash hit” written all over it. It’s slick and rapid-fire. The veteran director, Scott Ellis (who’s also represented on Broadway this season by the revival of Kiss Me, Kate at Studio 54), and his expert cast build the farce perfectly, so that the more complications that are piled on top of the premise – actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), whose temperament has made it impossible for his agent (Michael McGrath) to land him jobs, finally gets one by presenting himself as a woman, Dorothy Michaels – the funnier it is. Rather than set the story in the period in which the movie was made, the early eighties, Horn has contemporized it. There are #MeToo jokes – Michael’s wry aspiring-playwright roommate Jeff Slater (Andy Grotelueschen) quips that in an era when women are literally seizing power from between the legs of men, Michael is risking infuriating everyone by pretending to be female. There are jokes about sexual fluidity – when Michael, forgetting momentarily that he’s in drag, kisses his co-star, Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), whom he’s fallen for, instead of scaring her off since she’s not gay, she likes him so much that she decides to try to be gay. It’s all very up to the minute, and the audience at the Saturday matinee I attended screamed with laughter. I would be dishonest if I said that I didn’t have a pretty good time, too. But I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell this Tootsie is about.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Permanent Witness for the Defense: The Legend of K.

The ultimate anti-author, ca. 1919.

A review of the new book by Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial, from Norton, Penguin/Random House.

“A book should be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.” – Kafka, 1904

“Where faith is lacking, everything seems bare and frigid.” – Max Brod, 1920
If the subtitle of the fascinating new book by Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial (from Norton, Penguin/Random House), about competing cultural agendas sounds like the name of a mystery novel about Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous defense attorney, that’s because it does almost read like a classic Perry Mason plot: “The Case of a Literary Legacy.” And indeed, there are even some characters in this real-life story of courtroom drama who feel like the erstwhile Mason, Hamilton Burger, Lt. Tragg, Paul Drake and even Della Street. There are detectives, combative litigants, accusations of false ownership, desperate pleas, outlandish nationalist claims, ill-advised decisions, questionable motives and selfish assumptions abounding.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

From the Musical Theatre Canon: The Music Man, Kiss Me, Kate and Lady in the Dark

Ellie Fishman and Edward Watts in The Music Man. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man became a classic as soon as it opened on Broadway in 1957, with Robert Preston in the role of “Professor” Harold Hill, the scamming salesman who transforms a pre-World War I Iowa town – and himself – in the course of persuading the locals to purchase instruments and uniforms for a children’s band. Willson, who wrote book, music and lyrics, did as much to develop the archetype of the American snake-oil salesman as Eugene O’Neill had in The Iceman Cometh, though his version was sweeter and came with a bona fide happy ending. (Preston recreated his career performance in the 1962 movie version.) Revivals of the show are generally good news: Susan Stroman’s opened on Broadway in 2000 and ran for two years, and it was so glorious that I saw it twice, once with Craig Bierko playing Hill and once with Robert Sean Leonard, who was even better than Bierko. (Eric McCormack played the role between Bierko and Leonard.) I’m looking forward to seeing Hugh Jackman in the part next season.

In the meantime there’s an exuberant new production at the Goodspeed Opera House, directed by Jenn Thompson and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, with Goodspeed veteran Michael O’Flaherty doing his usual yeoman service as musical director. The Music Man is the ideal show for Goodspeed – big-boned, spirited, infectious, with a lot of wonderful ensemble numbers that show off the way imaginative staging can make a limited space feel like it’s being expanded from the inside. The choreographic high points of this production are “Marian the Librarian” in act one and “Shipoopi” at the outset of act two. But even the staging of the barbershop quartet numbers, especially “Lida Rose,” counterpointed by “Will I Ever Tell You?,” the most tuneful ballad Willson wrote for Marian (Ellie Fishman) and introduced by the four men (Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner and Kent Overshown) strolling down the theatre aisle, is tremendously satisfying. The show moves from scene to scene in a graceful arc aided by the scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III, whose inventions compensate for his single mistake, an unfortunate (and anachronistic) painted backdrop more or less in the mold of the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Art Therapy: Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell and Merritt Wever in Welcome to Marwen.

The almost universal disdain with which Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen was met on its Christmas release aroused my curiosity, but by the time I had a chance to check it out it had vanished. There had been no press screenings and though it was award season, no screeners were sent out. One might have thought that Zemeckis’s name or that of Steve Carell, who plays the lead, would have rescued it from its ignominious demise, but I had to wait until it came out on Amazon Prime to catch up with it. And it turns out to be so good that the stench around it seems like a bad joke. It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogencamp, who was attacked in 2000 by five men at a bar in his hometown in northern New York and abandoned for dead; he survived, but his memory was wiped and he had severe PTSD. His strategy for dealing with it was to construct a doll village on his property that he called Marwencol in which the characters, mostly versions of Mark and women friends from his life after the attack, are reimagined as Allied warriors of the Second World War holed up in a village in Belgium. Hogancamp became known for his photos of Marwencol – and they provided him with a livelihood. The story is familiar to art-house mavens from Jeff Malmberg’s memorable 2010 documentary Marwencol. What Zemeckis brings to it is real directorial finesse and invention – not to mention Carell, in a sensational performance that’s the best thing he’s done thus far.