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Broadway Review: Crossing "Fences" with Denzel & Davis

Written by August Wilson
Directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Chris Chalk

What happens when the victim becomes the victimizer? When a man's spirit is so thwarted that he turns hard in his soul and becomes so self-centered that he can't love or care for anyone else? It's the message of August Wilson's tough 1983 play set in the late fifties that attempts to explain the dysfunctional working class black men who were being studied to death.

Denzel Washington as Tony Maxson and Viola Davis as his wife Rose are tragic figures who encompass desperate desires to get ahead and heartbreaking experiences of failure. They shine in director Kenny Leon's production that at once tugs at your heart and makes you furious. Leon directed August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf on Broadway and knows very well how to mine circumstances in the playwright's work that bring forth both sympathy and dismay.

The setting is Wilson's Pittsburgh, this time 1957, at a shabby brick house with a back porch and paved over yard, a tall maple planted in the hard dirt and concrete as if to emphasize that this space that ought to be for grass and shrubs is sterile. Close next door is a similar red brick two-story home. The set is by Santo Loquasto.

Troy, who is 53 and working on a garbage truck, vents his anger at racism to his co-worker and friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has become a necessary featured actor in Wilson's works). Troy complains that the whites get to drive the trucks while blacks haul the garbage cans. He refers in a dreamy way to the time when he played minor league baseball. Even that didn't work out. He grumbles that white men won't let him get anywhere. Washington gives a brilliant performance as a man eaten away by anger and resentment.

His isn't the only family tragedy. Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), his brother, has a plate in his head from a war wound and now hallucinates. He gets some welfare, but not the care he deserves. (Of course, the Veterans Administration is famous for the bad treatment given veterans of all races.) Gabe says he's gone to heaven and seen St. Peter. He imagines he chases Hell hounds, and he carries a trumpet for Judgment Day. Is that an ironic reference to the Biblical Gabriel and his horn? (The real, fine trumpet music is composed by jazz musician Branford Marsalis.)

But Wilson is not writing agitprop. This story is complex, and there's blame to go around. On the down side, Troy's past includes some dicey events in the years before he played baseball. And his stony emotional failure repeats the lack of love his felt from his father. In a grabbing moment, he repeats that failure with his own son, Cory (played with subtly controlled emotion by Chris Chalk), who has dreams of accepting a football scholarship that will get him to college. "How come you never liked me?" Cory asks.

Troy's inability to understand the meaning of love leads to the betrayal of his wife Rose, played with tenderness and strength by Viola Davis. Yet, Wilson knows how to pull survival out of the family tragedies, overcoming the "dysfunctions" that sociologists are still studying. That may account for the enthusiasm of black audiences who see heroism through the pain.

Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
New York, New York

(212) 239-6200
Opened April 26, 2010; closes July 11, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

[Photos: Joan Marcus]



Kevin's Digital Week 27: Colors and Cartoons

Blu-rays of the Week

No one sane would call Showgirls a classic, but it's become a cult movie since being released to universal derision in 1995. Attempts to resuscitate Paul Verhoeven's campy melodrama about a small-town girl who becomes a top-notch Vegas stripper never take, simply because its limitations -- bad acting, dialogue and directing -- remain front and center. Still, there's a certain fascination watching such an onscreen train wreck, especially seeing Sin City in all its late 20th century glory.

On Blu-ray, Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' epic bleeds off the TV screen, as the Vegas strip's garish colors, along with the garishness of the strippers' performances, are given a superior hi-def treatment. Many extras--super-fan David Schmader's snickering commentary and several tongue-in-cheek featurettes--were included on the last DVD release. Bottom line: if you think Showgirls is the last word in “guilty pleasures” or just want to see Elizabeth Berkeley and Gina Gershon naked, then you already know what you're in for.

Mary and Max
Adam Elliot's breakthrough animated feature follows two misfits, feeling left out of their respective worlds--a lonely Aussie gal and a middle-aged male New Yorker--who become unlikely lifetime friends through the letters they write to each other over the years. With freshness and wit, Elliot brings this relationship to life and fashions an uplifting, heartbreaking story given further humanity from the terrific voice acting by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette as Mary, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, Eric Bana (Mary's husband) and Barry Humphries (narrator).

Elliot's stunning stop-motion and claymation look tremendous on Blu-ray. The extras are often appropriately cheeky, including a tongue-in-cheek "making-of" (featuring Bana complaining about his relatively small part), a real making-of, two deleted scenes, Whitmore's audition and Elliot's own Oscar-winning animated short, Harvie Krumpet, about a man whose life is punctuated by various diseases -- a perfect precursor to the emotionally rich Mary and Max.

DVDs of the Week

Red Desert
When Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film came out in 1966, it was the last word in color symbolism: indeed, the director supposedly had rocks, trees and grass painted to achieve the effects he wanted. This story of a woman (Monica Vitti) teetering on the edge of sanity is another penetrating Antonioni study of contemporary alienation that's underscored by his detailed use of different shades of color to visualize his protagonist's state of mind.

Red Desert remains powerful and ultimately moving, as Antonioni's world of isolation run amok still obtains today. In Criterion's new transfer, the colors look more naturalistic than I remember them being: it looks as if the colors have been cranked down a notch, which results in (to my eyes) a less pleasing color palette. Still, Antonioni's visual artistry can be seen in every frame, and the many contextual extra--an audio commentary, vintage interviews with Antonioni and Vitti, two short Antonioni docs, even dailies from the original shoot--round out an important release of a classic film.

World Cup Soccer in Africa: Who Really Wins?
If there was ever a timely DVD release, this is it: Craig Tanner's muckraking documentary takes aim at the fallacy that the current World Cup in South Africa will be good for the country in the long run. As Tanner sees it, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to build brand-new stadiums in cities and towns to host World Cup games could have been better spent to help with the disastrous infrastructure of a nation that has a high murder rate, unemployment rate and increasingly bad news about AIDS victims.

Tanner allows both sides to tell their stories: those who are pro-World Cup say that it will help pull everyone up by their bootstraps, while others -- who aren't against the tournament per se -- see the irony in building huge stadiums that will probably never be used again by other sports teams or by the people who live near them. Tanner eschews nuance, showing everything in black and white , but he makes some challenging assertions that needed to be brought up. Extras include additional interviews.

CDs of the Week

Old World -- New World: Emerson String Quartet
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Most people only know Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony, based on themes from his stay in America. However, he composed other works related to his time in the U.S., including the magnificent American string quintet, a highlight of the Emerson String Quartet's impressive three-disc set championing Dvorak's chamber music.

Violist Paul Neubauer expertly plays the quintet's additional viola part, while the Emersons handle the rest of this immediately appealing music by themselves. In addition to splendid performances of four of Dvorak's mature quartets, the Emersons also pull out of mothballs his Cypresses, wonderfully evocative songs originally composed for piano and voice that are given added emotional shading in this attractive arrangement.

Brahms: Complete Songs Volume I
After releasing superb complete editions of songs by such great composers as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Gabriel Faure, the Hyperion label now ventures into the world of Johannes Brahms, whose vocal works are less immediately appealing than those aforementioned masters, but who also penned several gems. In this first Brahms volume, Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager is teamed with her frequent recital partner, British pianist Graham Johnson, who are well-suited to these  melodically lovely lieder.

Kirchschlager, in her element with these German-language songs, sounds especially beguiling on this disc's most famous song cycle, the Sieben Lieder. Other, more obscure tunes include several charming works based on folk tunes. Johnson is not only a sensitive piano accompanist, but also contributes  informative program notes which add immeasurably to the listening experience.

Theater Review: "When We Go Upon the Sea"

Written by Lee Blessing
Directed by Paul Meshejian
Starring Conan McCarty, Peter Schmitz, Kim Carson

In his anti-Dubya fantasia When We Go Upon the Sea, Lee Blessing tries to be evenhanded about a president he loathes. George W. Bush (Conan McCarthy), staying in a hotel room in The Hague the night before his trial for crimes against humanity begins, is allowed by is creator to ruminate about his predicament and even semi-lucidly talk about his reasons behind what he did after the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.

That rumination comes in the form of late-night talks with Piet (Peter Schmitz), a proper Dutch butler who supplies the former president with booze and cocaine, and a woman named Anna-Lisa (Kim Carson), whom Piet brings to keep George company for part of his last night of freedom.

Although this unlikely trio discusses various political topics -- like George's contention that, if what he did in the War on Terror was so heinous, why was he re-elected to continue the same job that he'd been doing? -- When We Go Upon the Sea would rather play with the idea that George should be allowed to simmer awhile for his sins, all while enjoying himself one last time by getting drunk, high and laid.

There are scattered throughout the play some amusing lines at George's expense, but we already know that the former president is an easy target. Even his introduction to Piet brings on the insult humor. "Pete?" George asks in confusion. "No, Piet -- like Mondrian." This is followed by the inevitable blank stare.

Since Blessing's allegorical conceit doesn't allow for much dramatic conflict, the playwright invents back stories for Piet and Anna-Lisa, who are given long monologues that are supposed to add weight, but in fact do little more than stretch a wafer-thin play beyond its means. George also gets a chance to spin yarns.

McCarthy provides a decent Dubya impersonation, Schmitz and Carson make strong impressions in roles fraught with metaphorical significance, and Paul Meshejian's economical staging makes good use of Meghan Jones' nicely appointed set. But 85 minutes of When We Go Upon the Sea -- an evocative title too poetic for such prosaic goings-on -- are too little, too late: nearly two years after Obama's election, even George's most vociferous detractors have moved on.

When We Go Upon the Sea
59 E 59 Theater,
59 East 59th Street

New York, NY
June 10 to July 3, 2010

Theater Review: "Posing"

Written by and starring Patrick Askin
Directed by Jack Hyman

In the autobiographical one-man show Posing at the Wild Project theater on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the charming and attractive Patrick Askin appears as an art class model, posing au naturel for most of the performance (naturally) while recounting his life experiences, from his childhood days of advising his older sister on her prom attire, to his mistreatment by the NYPD for the "crime" of crying on his Chelsea rooftop during a period of depression.

This 75-minute tour de force takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride from comic to tragic and back again, with the emphasis on the comic.  Askin's humor is of the self-deprecating variety, never mean-spirited or bitter, even when recounting career setbacks or relationships that ended badly.
Injected throughout the show on an upstage screen were several vintage black and white film clips, including the classic scene from 42nd Street when Ruby Keeler is told by Warner Baxter that "you are going out a chorus girl but you must come back a star!" These well-chosen clips, although not directly related to the narrative, helped to set a lighthearted, nostalgic mood.

The author/actor has been pursuing his craft since his graduation from the University of Virginia and, despite experiencing only limited commercial success (so far), is determined to continue in his chosen profession, regularly auditioning for both theatrical and film projects.

After several years of perfecting the production, Askin is now hoping to take Posing to an Off-Broadway theater for a limited run and is seeking investors. I feel Posing could be successful Off-Broadway as an inspirational vehicle which speaks to thousands of struggling New York actors, both working and wannabes.

Most one-person, autobiographical shows have starred celebrities, as did, most recently, Leslie Jordan's My Trip Down the Pink Carpet. Askin's production could be a breakthrough in the spirit of a then-unknown Nia Vardolos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which had its genesis as a one-woman show in Los Angeles. At the time Vardolos was an unknown actor who turned her stories of growing up in a Greek-American family.

Am I predicting the same kind of success for Mr. Askin's production? Not exactly. I don't make predictions. But what Posing has going for it is its universal subject matter told in a uniquely comic manner, and the irrestable charm of Mr. Askin portraying the character he was born to play.

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