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Reviews

Off-Broadway Review—Greg Pierce’s “Cardinal”

Cardinal

Written by Greg Pierce; directed by Kate Whoriskey

Performances through February 25, 2018

 

Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally in Cardinal (photo: Joan Marcus)

In Greg Pierce’s affably modest comedy Cardinal, Anna Chlumsky puts her years of batting snide comments back and forth on Veep to good use as Lydia Lensky, who returns to her upstate New York hometown with an idea she’s sure will make the sleepy hamlet the toast of travel agencies everywhere: literally paint the (down)town red—a color that gives the play its title—and sit back as hordes come to visit and help resuscitate not only the moribund business district but also anyone left in a burg that’s been shedding population for decades.

 

Lydia is a talker, buzzing through everyone with her incessant machine-gun delivery. The only plausible reason Pierce provides for why the red paint idea becomes popular is because it’s a new thing, but he also reveals that the town’s mayor Jeff has a crush on Lydia because she reminds him of her sister, who dumped him way back in high school. Although Lydia initially uses that to her advantage, things conspire against her in a way she hadn’t expected.

 

Some local business people—embodied by no-nonsense Nancy and her autistic son Nat, who run a local bakery/gift shop—are not happy everything has turned red, while Manhattan developer Li-Wei starts tours that bring in visitors while guides like his son Jason tell tales about the town made out of whole cloth. 

And there’s Jeff himself who, after sleeping with Lydia for awhile, realizes that her fast talk and charitable bedroom manner obscure what he really feels is right for the area, which is not a downtown painted red.

                              

None of this is presented with any sense of urgency; in fact, its breeziness makes it resemble a direct-to-Netflix rom-com at times. And the play turns downright desperate toward the end, as a gun appears out of nowhere and ends up in Nat’s hands before being inadvertently fired by Jason. 

But Cardinal does mirror the tenor of our times, when there’s a con man in the Oval Office who has answers for everything but is unable to do anything, and where coats of paint only temporarily cover up crumbling infrastructure and a systematic inability to modernize left-behind towns.

 

Under Kate Whoriskey’s understated direction, Chlumsky’s Lydia is an appealing whirlwind, and Alan Pally’s Jeff makes an amusingly befuddled straight man. Too bad the rest of the cast—Becky Ann Baker (Nancy), Alex Hurt (Nat), Stephen Park (Li-Wei) and Eugene Young (Jason)—gets little chance to humanize the cardboard characters. Like its heroine, Cardinal handles a bright idea inelegantly.

 

Cardinal

Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

2st.com

February '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Orchestra Rehearsal

(Arrow Academy)

Made for Italian television in 1978, Federico Fellini’s faux-documentary satirizes Italian politics with a contagious zest, even if it’s occasionally too on the nose as it shows an orchestra rehearsal that degenerates into in-fighting among musicians, the conductor’s dictatorial behavior, lunatic union demands and climaxing with a wrecking ball. Obvious and didactic at times, it’s magically Fellinian at others, with the great Nina Rota’s beguiling final score (he died soon after composing it).

At 72 minutes, the film ends before it wears out its welcome, unlike some of the other later Fellini works. It all looks spectacular in a restored hi-def transfer; extras are a Richard Dyer interview about Rota’s and Fellini’s relationship and Fellini biographer John Baxter’s video essay.

 

The Aftermath

(VCI)        

In this relentlessly second-rate post-apocalyptic adventure, cowriter-director Steve Barkett plays an astronaut who crash-lands on earth only to discover there’s been a nuclear war and Los Angeles has been destroyed—all that’s left are ragtag bands of mutant survivors.

Acting, writing, directing and plotting are amateurish, but B movie fans might find enough of interest to make it  a true guilty pleasure. The film looks decent on Blu; extras include Barkett’s commentary and short film Night Caller, along with interviews.

 

The Deuce—Complete 1st Season 

(HBO)

Everything about this deep dive into the sordid world of prostitution and pornography in early ‘70s New York City is impeccably mounted, from the sets and costumes to the lingo and seedy Times Square atmosphere. But the converging stories are written and handled without much adroitness, and the acting is surprisingly uneven.

Maggie Gyllenhaal does what she can with the whore (and later porn director) with the heart of gold and James Franco makes a hash of the twins he plays; even the appealing and gifted Margarita Levieva—who’s definitely an actress to watch—is defeated by the underwritten role of a smart college student mixed up with shady characters. The series’ eight episodes look splendid in hi-def; extras include commentaries and interviews.

 

DVD of the Week

Finding Your Roots—Complete 4th Season

(PBS)       

For the latest 10-episode season of discovering celebrities’ lineages, Dr. Henry Louis Gates takes 28 guests—running the gamut from Bryant Gumbel and Lupita Nyong’o to Christopher Walken and Ana Navarro—on a highly emotional journey into their families’ pasts, which chronicles our nation’s long and checkered immigration history.

There are even some lighter moments in this fascinating glimpse at American identity: the look on Amy Schumer’s face (and her response) when she finds out that she and Gates are distant cousins is priceless. 

Musical Review—“Hey, Look Me Over!” at Encores

Hey, Look Me Over!

Conceived by Jack Viertel; directed by Marc Bruni

Performances February 7-11, 2018

 

Vanessa Williams (center) in Hey, Look Me Over! (photo: Joan Marcus)

City Center’s Encores has as its mission to resurrect obscure or unjustly forgotten musicals for a week’s worth of semi-staged performances. And for the first show of its 25th anniversary season, we got something called Hey, Look Me Over!, a look at shows that even Encores has passed over for whatever reason—it’s 2-1/2 hours of excerpts from nine musicals that opened on Broadway between 1957 and 1974, but have been (mostly) unheard of since their short runs.

 
 

The show’s conceit is that Bob Martin—of Drowsy Chaperone fame—comes onstage as our MC of sorts, introducing the performances and giving us some context, along with some hoary (and a couple of amusing) theater and political jokes. But despite the creakiness of the concept, there is the music and the performances, which is why we are all in the theater in the first place.

 

To be sure, a lot of what is excerpted for Hey, Look Me Over! is not top-drawer—it’s easy to hear why Cy Coleman’s Wildcat (which includes the evening’s title tune) or Charles Strouse’s All-American have remained obscure—but even when the material isn’t top-notch, the performers are. Take Vanessa Williams, who dazzles in two numbers from Jamaica, a show with music by Harold Arden that was a vehicle for Lena Horne. Or Bebe Neuwirth, who snarls spectacularly as the jaded cruise hostess Mimi in Noel Coward’s witty Sail Away, which was written for Elaine Stritch (whom I saw in a 1999 Carnegie Hall concert version).

 

Clifton Duncan kills it in “Never Will I Marry” from Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow, Judy Kuhn and Marc Kudisch sing an appealing “Shalom” from Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey, and Alexandra Socha takes center stage for a thrilling “Look What Happened to Mabel” from Herman’s Mack and Mabel, a flawed but lively musical I saw at Canada’s Shaw Festival in 2007 and which definitely deserves a second life somewhere on a New York stage.

 

Although the finale—“Give My Regards to Broadway” from George M., with sensational tap-dancing and a surprise guest—is  anti-climactic, Hey, Look Me Over! remains a delightful evening of sheer entertainment, skillfully directed by Marc Bruni, choreographed by Denis Jones and conducted by Rob Berman, whose Encores Orchestra is, as always, the evening’s true highlight.

 

Hey, Look Me Over!

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

nycitycenter.org

Off-Broadway Review—Terrence McNally’s “Fire and Air”

Fire and Air

Written by Terrence McNally

Directed and designed by John Doyle

Performances through February 25, 2018

 

Marsha Mason, John Glover, Douglas Hodge and Marin Mazzie in Fire and Air (photo: Joan Marcus)

One of Terrence McNally’s most popular plays, Master Class, had opera’s great diva Maria Callas at its center. Now McNally turns to ballet for Fire and Air, about fabled Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, who formed the groundbreaking troupe Ballets Russes in the early 20th century, and his volatile personal and professional relationships, including those with his favorite dancers: Vaslav Nijinsky, his first muse and erstwhile lover, and Léonide Massine, who took over after Nijinsky’s spot after he ran off and got married.

 

McNally’s play mainly chronicles Diaghilev’s time in Paris, when he took the dance world by storm with his stagings of Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s historic The Rite of Spring—which caused a riot at its 1913 premiere. There are also glimpses of Diaghilev’s life away from stage rehearsals, as he alternately relies on and pushes away his oldest friend/cousin/first lover Dima, childhood nanny Dunya—who, improbably, is still taking care of him—and a Russian countess, Misia, whose husband finances Diaghilev’s art.

 

McNally, who has done his research, combines factual detail with imaginative flights of fancy. But Fire and Air (a nicely evocative title, from Diaghilev’s self-description) ends up an unsatisfying jumble of biography and fictional re-imaging; John Doyle’s typically stripped-down production (consisting of a few chairs and two large mirrors) cleverly visualizes these scenes of an artist’s life from, as it were, different angles.

 

As the dancers, James Cusati-Moyer (Nijinsky) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Massine) are lithe and athletic, their toned bodies speaking more eloquently than their acting. The cast’s veterans are Marsha Mason (an amusingly doddering Dunya), Marin Mazzie (a crisply elegant Misia) and John Glover (a believably Russian Dima).

 

As Diaghilev, British actor Douglas Hodge gives a broad but good-humored portrayal that at times reminded me, unaccountably, of both Nathan Lane and Dom DeLuise. But Hodge does make Diaghilev relatable as more than a self-pitying genius, which gives Fire and Air its intermittent vigor. 

 

Fire and Air

Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

classicstage.org

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