Saturday, February 21, 2015

Slap-Happy: NBC's The Slap

Zachary Quinto in The Slap.

The Slap is a title that gets right to the point of a limited-run NBC series – only eight episodes – about the dysfunctional dynamic of several families gathered for a Brooklyn birthday party. Perhaps this new drama should be called The Blink, as in blink and you’ll miss it. Which would be a shame, given the stellar cast and a timely premise: In an age of permissive helicopter parents, what happens when a child of about six, still being breast-fed and bearing the burden of a name like Hugo, is disciplined by another kid’s father for unruly behavior? That slapper is Harry (the always fascinating Zachary Quinto), a working class guy with a short fuse. He’s the cousin of Hector (Peter Sarsgaard, also a gem of an actor), an urban planner who is turning 40, has not gotten an anticipated promotion and is experiencing a mid-life crisis mostly geared to fantasies about a flirtatious teenage babysitter, Connie (Makenzie Leigh, Gotham). His wife Aisha (Thandie Newton) is a doctor; they have two biracial children. Add to the mix a Greek immigrant generation, a paternal grandpa and grandma portrayed by Brian Cox and Maria Tucci, critical of their daughter-in-law’s 21st-century feminist ways. The slapped brat in question (Dylan Schombing) is coddled by his dad, Gary (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), a struggling artist type resentful of Garry’s nouveau riche status thanks to a lucrative high-end car dealership. The nursing mom, Rosie (Melissa George, The Good Wife) seems to think of Hugo as a misunderstood genius.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Brave Face: Interview with Luca Perasi (Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions, 1969-2013)

At the 2012 Grammy Awards, while young audiences were listening to Paul McCartney sing from his album of standards called Kisses on the Bottom, one person on Twitter later asked: "Who is the real Paul McCartney?" Whether that tweet was designed as a slight or an ironic crack, there's still no simple answer to that question. If you examine McCartney's full body of work, you find that he is more than the sum of his parts. In The Beatles, McCartney felt right at home whether he was doing a chamber work like "Eleanor Rigby," a rave-up like "I'm Down," a touching ballad like "I Will," the music hall vaudeville of "When I'm 64," the nostalgic impressionism of "Penny Lane," the Fifties doo-wop of "Oh Darling!," or a let's-top-The-Who hard rock of "Helter Skelter." His musical range in his years since The Beatles broke up has been no less adventurous. One year he can release an easy listening pop album like Kisses on the Bottom, or he might just unleash a record of pure rock and roll (Run Devil Run). He could put out a ballet score one moment (Ocean's Kingdom), and an oratorio (Liverpool Oratorio) the next, and then deliver another Fireman album like their last one in 2008 called Electric Arguments that combined both ambient music and actual songs.Whatever he does, and whether he signs his name to it (or does so under a pseudonym), Paul McCartney is totally free to do any form of music that moves him.

Luca Perasi, an Italian freelance journalist and writer, has spent ten years charting the path of Paul McCartney's richly eclectic solo years and written an exhaustive study of every recording session since he walked away from the other Fabs. Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013) (L.I.L.Y. Publishing, 2014) isn't just a chronology of facts, however; Perasi has also provided his own insights into the recordings from McCartney in 1969 to New in 2013 with the help of over 70 interviews with McCartney's many collaborators, who include guitarist Carlos Alomar, arranger Richard Hewson and conductor Carl Davis. His book has the alchemical ability to bring you right into the studio and witness how even a seemingly simple pop song like "Let 'Em In" has more going on than might otherwise be assumed. I spoke with Perasi from his home in Milan earlier this week.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XII

It would be tempting to call Hampton Sides' Hellhound On His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt In American History (Doubleday Anchor) a thriller – as many did in their reviews – but that assessment doesn't come close to describing its power. His 2011 account of the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, its investigation, and the assassin's escape and eventual capture, is what Sides calls a requiem for an era that's passed. But Hellhound on His Trail also opens up room for a more unnerving and contemporary context – a context that in the Obama era is unshakable even if the events he depicts happened almost fifty years ago. Borrowing his title from Robert Johnson's haunting "Hellhound on my Trail" (but written in the mood of "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"), Sides illuminates the country that Johnson mapped out in his songs, a land that Greil Marcus called in his essay on Johnson in Mystery Train, "a world without salvation, redemption, or rest." It's a book where an assassin, James Earl Ray, passes (as most assassins do) into anonymity. He becomes a construct who continually recreates himself in a country that invites its citizens to do just that – only to eventually step into the light and snuff out a prophetic voice, a man who made demands on his country to live up to its founding ideals.

Sides deliberately borrows the fictional style of historian Shelby Foote who "employ[ed] the novelist's methods without his license." But unlike, for instance, the documentary films of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) that aestheticize reality, Sides enhances and enlarges the drama instead and makes the familiar seem strange, the obvious feel more mysterious, and the events of 1968 more vividly real and heartbreaking. Creating a number of narrative paths that begin with James Earl Ray (as alias Eric Starvo Galt) breaking out of a Missouri prison in 1967 that runs parallel to Martin Luther King, Jr. breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and planning a Poor People's March on Washington, Sides sets up a convergence that paves a road to King's inevitable and tragic death in Memphis. Yet even as we know the events to happen are inescapable and that history will change irrevocably that year, you're always at war with the chapters, with time itself, and with your desire to step back into history to alter its pull. Sides doesn't flinch from that pull either. Like a great detective, he realizes that looking for clues can uncover yet more mysteries, so he thankfully doesn't succumb to the helpless paranoia and safety of conspiracy theories, or take refuge in irony. Hellhound on His Trail takes stock of loss, and like Robert Johnson watching his baby's train disappear in the distance in "Love in Vain," considers its cost.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long Day's Stay in Nothing: The Second Girl

MacKenzie Meehan, Kathleen McElfresh, & Christopher Donahue in The Second Girl. (All photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night may well be the greatest American tragedy ever written for the stage, so when I read the premise of The Second Girl at the Huntington Theatre Company, my curiosity was piqued. Irish playwright Ronan Noone has crafted a drama about the most unlikely of characters—the domestic help at the Tyrone household in Connecticut during the fateful day that O'Neill's autobiographical play chronicles. It takes a lot of balls to piggyback on O'Neill like this. How do you compete with the intensity and dramatic precision of the Tyrone tragedy? One successful approach would be to adopt a totally different style and genre, the way Christopher Durang parodies the play in his absurdist comedy The Idiots Karamazov. Another would be to siphon the tragic elements of O'Neill into the companion piece. Noone opts for neither approach, instead attempting a social commentary play that bears precisely no relation to the dramatic world it inhabits. The results are baffling.

If you're going to write a serious drama set in O'Neill's landscape, you have to follow the rules of engagement he sets down. Long Day's Journey is the archetypal family and barroom play, dramatizing with brutal honesty how relations simultaneously love and hate each other the most. During the titular day in the Tyrone house, Mary relapses into morphine addiction while her younger son, Edmund, is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Around and around the four Tyrones go in accusation and recrimination, dredging up old wounds and creating fresh ones in the process. The play's replete with symbolism—the fog off the Connecticut River, signifying illusion. Mary's misplaced wedding dress, representing the youthful happiness she's lost in her marriage to James. Mary herself, at once an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a drug-addled whore, at least in Jamie's mind. On that note, O'Neill employs his standard dramatic accouterments (booze, dope, whores, etc.) and themes: sin, nothingness, and man's inability to reconcile with himself and those around him so as to find peace.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bespoke Banality – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth and Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service.

My issues with graphic novelist Mark Millar, creator of Kick-Ass, Wanted, and The Secret Service, usually also extend to the film adaptations of his work. Millar exhibits a highly questionable sense of morality (embodied in human form by Kick-Ass's Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed pre-teen assassin) and an extremely myopic view of societal class structure (exemplified by the "hero" of Wanted, who discards his desk job to inherit a career as a supervillainous mercenary). His ham-handed "self-awareness" exacerbates these problems, often underlining an amoral subversion of a typical hero character or genre without actually deconstructing or commenting on the thing he attempts to send up. Ordinarily, sticking as closely as possible to the source material would be cause for celebration in a film adaptation – but translating Millar's material, warts and all, to the big screen often results in movies that are slick and entertaining on a surface level, but which fall apart on close examination. Kingsman: The Secret Service – directed by (surprise!) Guy Ritchie protege Matthew Vaughn (of Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past fame) is a perfect example: for all appearances a flashy, energetic film, whose oddly disconcerting tone may leave you feeling confused or upset, without being able to pinpoint exactly why.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Merry Widow: Broadway at the Met

Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Franz Lehár’s 1905 Viennese operetta The Merry Widow has been filmed twice in English, three times if you count Erich von Stroheim’s perverse and entertaining silent version. But it isn’t revived very often on stage, so I anticipated the version in the Metropolitan Opera season, which the Met offered as part of its Live in HD series last month, with pleasure. This production cross-pollinates the worlds of the opera and the musical theatre. It stars opera diva Renée Fleming opposite Broadway leading lady Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn, an opera singer who sometimes appears in concert versions of musicals; the new translation is by Jeremy Sams, who furnished the best translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera that anyone has done to date; and the staging is by the explosively talented – and prolific - director-choreographer Susan Stroman. But though this Merry Widow has its points, it turns out to be something of a disappointment: tired and sagging in the middle, its fin-de-siècle exuberance strained, the farce strenuously overplayed. I couldn’t tell whether Stroman, whose recent stage work hasn’t garnered the enthusiastic reception she once drew, was trying too hard or whether she just wasn’t a match for the frothy, high-comic style of the material. I hope it’s the latter; I wouldn’t like to think that the ungenerous response to her dazzlingly inventive work on Bullets Over Broadway likely a ricochet effect from the way the culture lashed out at Woody Allen around that time – has shaken her confidence.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Two-Hander Text: Twisted at the Factory Theatre

Photo by Racheal McCaig

If it needed proving that Canadian culture no longer revolves around wilderness, forests and the snow-covered North, the gritty urban drama Twisted would be the proof. This two-hander from playwrights Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (Scratch, Sudden Death) and Joseph Jomo Pierre (Who Knew Grannie, Shakespeare’s Nigga) is set in the heart of darkest Toronto, in the seldom-seen space populated by addicts, dealers and sex-trade workers. The show is said to be a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but that seems like a bit of a reach. It’s true that the two main characters are named Nancy (Susanna Fournier) and Oliver (Ngabo Nabea), and that other characters, unseen, are named Sikes and Dodger. But that recycling of names is about as far as the similarities go. Furthermore, and more significantly, there is no redemptive plot line in Twisted, no kindly Mr. Brownlow coming to the rescue.

This Nancy and Oliver are both pretty much doomed. Nancy is a 23-year-old webcam stripper (known online as NasstyFresh), working for the digital pimp Sikes and abusing Oxycontin, also known as “hillbilly heroin.” We learn of her loveless childhood in small-town Ontario through a series of angry, rancorous monologues on such subjects as school-yard bullies, playground design and Niagara Falls, and through text messages projected on the stage’s backdrop. These texts are mostly exchanged with 17-year-old Oliver – she calls him Ollie, he calls her Lady Porcelain – a product of Ontario’s foster-child system. Oliver’s monologues are something altogether different, delivered in hip-hop rhythms and poetic language, also angry and bitter, but without the drug sensibility. We learn of his upbringing in foster care and the maternal woman, “Big Bird” – he gives everyone nicknames, Nancy has told us – who raised him. Nancy is Sikes’ “bottom girl,” charged with running the other women in his stable of strippers. As such, one of her jobs is to meet the young girls when they arrive in Toronto, enticed by Sikes’ seductive descriptions of big-city life. She is to meet Rose at Dundas Square – “the only part of the city that made sense: concrete and pretense” – and turn her out into the sex-trade world. But in a development that turns the story sharply, Nancy has determined that she can’t go through with Sikes’ plan. She decides that Rose is “someone to save,” and enlists Ollie in a plan to set the youngster free: Nancy introduces Rose to him and he drives her out of the city to Big Bird’s place, where she will be safe and out of harm’s way. Afterward, Nancy and Ollie will flee the city, and Sikes.