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Broadway Play Review—“Sea Wall/A Life” with Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal

Sea Wall/A Life

One-acts written by Simon Stephens & Nick Payne; directed by Carrie Cracknell

Performances through September 29, 2019


Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life (photo: Joan Marcus)


Grief is at the center of the one-acts that make up Sea Wall/A Life, as two fathers try to articulate their grieving and possible next steps towards healing. But neither play delves too deeply into these subjects, instead staying on the surface as the protagonists wear their emotions on their sleeves.


Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall introduces Alex, who regularly leaves England with his wife and young daughter to visit his father-in-law Arthur, who’s living comfortably in the south of France and who debates the existence of God with Alex. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs at the beach near Arthur’s home, whether God even exists becomes moot. 


In Nick Payne’s A Life, Abe is a reluctant father dealing with his own father’s dying. Unlike in Sea Wall, there’s no sudden tragic event, but Payne creates a kind of crude suspense by having Abe simultaneously describe his wife’s giving birth and his father’s final moments. 


Despite moving passages in both plays, both men’s stories of family loss are dramatized in the most contrived way possible, even if, in Sea Wall, Stephens’ description of the tragedy at the beach is chillingly poetic. Payne’s A Life even drags in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which director Carrie Cracknell makes sure we hear a snippet of on the piano that has been sitting on the stage for the entire show in an impotent anticlimax. 


Most problematic, however, is that Alex and Abe are simply not very interesting characters. Although the unseen wives and children are ciphers, Abe’s father and Alex’s father-in-law are more fascinating than the men telling their stories. 


The performances can’t be faulted. Tom Sturridge (Alex) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Abe) disappear fully into these men, and even turn the staging’s cutesy touches—playing around with the house and stage lights, an awkward-looking ladder up which Sturridge ascends to the set’s second level, Gyllenhaal finally sitting down at that onstage piano—into moments that charm the audience...but as Sturridge and Gyllenhaal, not Alex and Abe. These one-acts work far better as actors’ exercises than as fully-realized plays. 


Sea Wall/A Life

Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY

August '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Buster Keaton Collection, Volume 3—Seven Chances/Battling Butler 

(Cohen Film Collection)

The latest Buster Keaton release comprises two of the comic genius’ lesser-known efforts. 1925’s Seven Chances, an inspired piece of classic Keaton lunacy, crams more awesome hilarity and stuntwork into 57 minutes than movies twice as long. As always, Keaton builds the humor to a thrilling crescendo, as he tries to outrace rolling boulders in an exhilarating finale.




1926’s Battling Butler shows him hoping to impress his girlfriend’s tough-guy brothers by entering the ring: needless to say, the climactic bout is a doozy. Both films have superlative new hi-def transfers; lone extra is a short featurette on Keaton’s amazing stunts.


La Donna Serpente 

La Nonne sanglante 


Naxos has resurrected more worthy operatic rarities, beginning with the substantial La Donna Serpente, the only opera by the unheralded Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947). His fantastical 1932 tale is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s equally absurd Love for Three Oranges, as Casella’s richly dazzling music is nearly the playful Prokofiev’s equal. The colorful 2016 Turin staging is highly rewarding.




Charles Gounod (1818-93), best known for Faust and Romeo et Juliette, composed La Nonne sanglante in 1854; a tragic tale of forbidden love, it’s bumpy musically and dramatically, although the 2018 Venice production makes a good case for its stageworthiness.






The Hustle 


This comedy pitting Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as competing con artists—a female reboot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—is about what you’d expect, with Wilson’s smart-mouth shtick dueling Hathaway’s elegant straight-woman manner.




It percolates for 90 minutes in pretty routine fashion, never allowing its stars to stray from their obvious strengths, like Wilson’s sarcastic one-liners. The filmmakers should have had them switch roles, but at least they had the good sense to shoot in the south of France. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are three on-set featurettes.


The Inland Sea


Author Donald Richie was the go-to expert on Japanese cinema—particularly that of Ozu and Kurosawa—so this little-seen (and little-known) gem from director Lucille Carra, which transforms Richie’s own book of his Japanese cultural explorations into a relatively brief (56-minute) but poetic travelogue, is worth seeing.




At times it seems less like a Criterion Collection project—or, at most, an extra on a Criterion Japanese film release—but it looks beautiful in high-def, and the bonus features (new Carra interview, 1991 Richie interview, conversation between filmmaker Paul Schrader and cultural critic Ian Buruma on Richie) bring context to an obvious labor of love.







(Deutsche Grammophon)

Richard Wagner’s heroic opera has been given a fresh makeover by director Yuval Sharon at Wagner’s own shrine, the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. The music—all 3-1/2 hours of it—of course, is gorgeous, especially as played by the Bayreuth Orchestra under conductor Christian Thielemann.




The standout vocalists are Piotr Beczala as the title hero, Anja Harteros as heroine Elsa, and Waltraud Meier as antagonist Ortrud. The hi-def video and audio are top-notch.




When a new resident at a Georgia retirement community—a boisterous New Yorker stricken with cancer—ruffles feathers by starting a cheerleading club, both those who applaud her scheme and those dead set against it are forever changed by her tenacity.




If Diane Keaton wasn’t in the lead, this high-concept, low-wattage comedy-drama would even be less memorable. Along for the ride are Jacqui Weaver, Pam Grier, Celia Weston and Rhea Perlman, proving that even women “of a certain age” can’t overcome lazily-written and crudely directed pep fests. The film looks fine on Blu.







Queen of Spades 


These 2018 Salzburg Festival productions value directors over composers to both operas’ detriment. Strauss’ Salome, one of the most shocking operas ever, has been defanged by stage/set/costume/lighting designer Romeo Castellucci, who benightedly hides Salome during her famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” (maybe he is wearing one hat too many?). Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian is a magnetic Salome, and Franz Welser-Most conducts a thrilling reading of Strauss’ score by the Vienna Philharmonic.




Tchaikovsky’s intense Queen of Spades loses a lot except for the climactic card game, which has been staged incisively by director Hans Neuenfels. Otherwise, Tchaikovsky’s music and a fine cast help keep interest throughout.


DVDs of the Week

The Sun Is Also a Star 

(Warner Bros)

In this queasily artificial melodrama, the delightful star of Blackish, Yara Shahidi, gives her all in the service of an unrelievedly sappy YA romance. Although she and costar Charles Melton have good chemistry and she exudes more intelligence and charm than actresses twice her age, even Shahidi can’t overcome the annoyingness at the heart of this contrived relationship flick.




Some underseen New York locations are supremely photogenic backdrops, so there’s that. Lone extra is brief making-of featurette.






Trial by Fire 


The true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas father convicted of murder after his three young daughters perished in a tragic 1991 fire, is straightforwardly recounted in Edward Zwick’s barely-released drama, which shows how far the semi-mighty have fallen (Zwick directed 1989 Oscar winner Glory after creating TV’s Thirtysomething).




This punishing exploration of capital punishment might lack nuance, but necessary perspective is added by the powerhouse performances of Jack O’Connell (Willingham), Laura Dern (Elizabeth Gilbert, who befriended Willingham and tried getting him a new trial) and—most stunningly—Emily Meade as Willingham’s wife.


CD of the Week

The Film Music of Gerard Schurmann 


Here was a film composer with whom I was completely unfamiliar, even though I’ve seen a few of the films for which he wrote scores. But British composer Gerard Schurmann—born in 1924, he’s a spry 95 now, according to the liner notes—supplied an impressive array of colorful music to a surprisingly eclectic group of features, as this disc—devoted to excerpts from eight of his scores, from a 1956 police drama The Long Arm to a Dostoevsky adaptation that Hungarian director Karoly Makk made in 1997, The Gambler—demonstrates.




Schurmann’s music—as played by the BBC Philharmonic under the sympathetic baton of conductor Rumon Gamba—has sufficient variety and versatility to encompass the aural soundscapes of routine thrillers and horror flicks and even an historical melodrama about Mussolini’s mistress.

August '19 Digital Week II

DVD Boxed Set of the Week 

The Best of the Carol Burnett Show—50th Anniversary Edition 


The funniest woman to ever appear on television—sorry, Lucille Ball—Carol Burnett hosted her comedy-variety show for 11 seasons (1967-78), and this superlative set housing 21 DVDs shows how hilarious Burnett and her costars Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence were as they dazzled audiences with improv skills and manic attempts at making one another break down.




The 60 episodes in this massive is set include highlights such as “The Family,” “As the Stomach Turns,” “Went with the Wind” and “The Oldest Man”; the emotional final episode is also featured. The terrific extras include interviews with Carol, Vicki, Tim, Alan Alda, Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, Steve Lawrence, Don Rickles, and others; cast reunion and backstage tour of Studio 33; outtakes; and several featurettes.


Blu-rays of the Week

Merrill’s Marauders 

(Warner Archive)

Writer-director (and army veteran) Samuel Fuller’s semi-gritty 1962 WWII drama follows a battalion of American soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater during the 1944 Burma campaign—shot on location in the Philippines, the film moves swiftly if somewhat blatantly, Fuller’s visual sense more fully-realized than the one-dimensional characters.




Still, Fuller smartly mixed a well-cast group of familiar and unknown faces, including Jeff Chandler, Ty Hardin, Will Hutchins and Claude Akins. There’s a lovely new hi-def transfer that shows off William H. Clothier’s Panavision photography.






Project Ithaca 


Nicholas Humphries’ ungainly sci-fi/thriller/horror hybrid revels in unpleasantness and awfully standard-issue chicanery as five strangers are kept restrained aboard an alien spacecraft without knowing why they were kidnaped.




Although they (and we) eventually find out—after 85 minutes of mostly unimaginative narrative and visual flourishes—there’s nothing here that wasn’t done better in everything from The Matrix and Alien to Saw. There is an excellent hi-def transfer, at least.


The Reflecting Skin 

(Film Movement Classics)

In Philip Ridley’s eye-poppingly creepy 1990 feature, a young boy (growing up on a Midwest farm in the idyllic ‘50s with his sullen mother and closeted father) is horrified when his older brother begins an affair with an English widow who he thinks might be a vampire.




Dick Pope’s glistening cinematography—with obvious nods to Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth paintings—gives an unnatural sheen to the dark goings-on, and Lindsay Duncan, Viggo Mortensen and young Jeremy Cooper persuasively inhabit Ridley’s strange characters. There’s a first-rate new hi-def transfer; extras are a Ridley commentary and featurette Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of “The Reflecting Skin.”






Searching for Ingmar Bergman 


Margarethe von Trotta’s very personal look at the great director starts with her memory of seeing The Seventh Seal for the first time in Paris. Von Trotta’s journey takes her to where Bergman’s genius was most felt: Sweden, where she speaks to one of his muses, Liv Ullmann, and his sons—who candidly discuss their often distant relationship with him; and von Trotta’s own Germany, where Bergman escaped to Munich in the ‘70s as a tax exile and directed plays and films.




If Searching never really finds him, that isn’t von Trotta’s intent: rather, it’s an essay about the impossibility of separating genius from the flawed individual making art. The hi-def transfer is superb; extras are a von Trotta interview and panel discussion with von Trotta, her son Felix Moeller and the Bergman Foundation’s Jan Holmberg.


The Thin Man 

(Warner Archive)

This classic 1934 comedy-mystery—adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel—has some stale moments of dated humor, but William Powell and Myrna Loy are an unbeatable match as Nick and Nora Charles, solving the mystery of the title character’s disappearance. W. S. Van Dyke’s directing is competent and effective, and the material and actors are delightful.




The B&W film looks wonderfully detailed on Blu-ray; extras are a 1957 episode of the TV series Nick and Nora starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk (and an uncredited Frank Sinatra pops up) and a 1936 radio version starring Powell and Loy.


CD of the Week 

Villa-Lobos—Guitar Works 


The captivating music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)—which encompasses everything from 17 string quartets to a dozen symphonies, several concertos, and his great series of Bachianas brasileiras, especially No. 5, his most famous work, for wordless soprano and a cello octet—is distilled to its essence in these works for solo guitar.




The two sets of preludes and etudes, as expressively performed by Andrea Monarda, are the apotheosis of what that six-stringed instrument can do. An exuberant performance of his beguiling Sextuor Mystique—a sextet for flute, oboe, celestra, harp, saxophone and guitar—rounds out this impressive recording.

Shakespeare in the Park Review—“Coriolanus” in Central Park


Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan

Performances through August 11, 2019


Jonathan Cake in Coriolanus (photo: Joan Marcus)


I had hopes for Daniel Sullivan’s Central Park production of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most explicitly political plays, whose eponymous protagonist is a military man through and through, a Roman general with little thought—and even less use—for ordinary citizens. 


But Sullivan succumbs to an apparent desire to smooth out the edges of this difficult, troubling drama, flattening a richly complex psychological portrait of a fatally prideful man into a dimestore Freudian melodrama about a mama’s boy, which is not what Shakespeare intended.


From his first appearance, Gaius Martius displays his naked contempt for those who aren’t his comrades in arms. When he returns to Rome a hero after halting the advance of the hated Volscian army, he is talked into running for the office of consul by his controlling mother, Volumnia, and the friendly senator Menenius, who bestows on him the honored title of “Coriolanus.”  


But Coriolanus isn’t a politician: he can’t fake having compassion for the plebians, and when confronted by who he thinks are insolent rabble-rousers in the public and senate, he loses his temper and insults them, bemoaning how it’s fine for “crows to peck the eagles.” Unsurprisingly, popular opinion turns against him and he is banished. Angrily offering himself to Aufidius, the leader of the Volscian enemy, he joins with him to attack Rome and gain some revenge.


There are plentiful layers of conflict that Shakespeare lays out, but Sullivan is content to show everything in superficial black and white, as it were, instead of subtler shades of grey. So Coriolanus cowers when his mother Volumnia speaks, making their relationship more one-sided (and laugh-getting from an audience accustomed to being spoonfed) than it should be. That Kate Burton gives one of her most trenchant performances as Volumnia and Jonathan Cake is a curiously one-dimensional Coriolanus with a weirdly droning Rambo-like voice further makes the mother-son bond implausible.


Beowulf Boritt’s post-apocalyptic set of relentless monochromatic dullness comprises trash cans, a burnt-out car and sheets of corrugated metal, while Kaye Voyce has designed costumes of unremitting ugliness, with no differentiation between Romans and Volscians, leaders and ordinary people. Aside from Burton, only Teagle F. Bougere’s Menenius has a firm grasp of Shakespeare’s potent language. As Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, Nneka Okafor makes no impression; although her part is small, it’s crucial to establishing the couple’s conjugal respect. Without it, everything that comes after remains unaffecting and remote. Even Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film, flawed in many ways, captured that crucial notion conspicuously missing from Sullivan’s impassive production.



Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

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