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Theater Review: "The Glass Menagerie"

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Starring Keira Keeley, Judith Ivey, Patch Darragh, Michael Mosley

Dreariness is the design motif of Gordon Edelstein's persuasive staging of Tennessee Williams' 1944 memory play about a family trapped in unhappiness and illusion. Dreary dark wallpaper hovers over the single bed with a rose spread in the New Orleans hotel room that the writer, Tom (Patch Darragh), Williams' alter ego, inhabits. The same claustrophobic space becomes the St. Louis tenement rooms he shared with his mother Amanda (Judith Ivey) and sister Laura (Keira Keeley).

The mood created by designer Michael Yeargan is quite different from what I recall in an earlier production, where "the writer" was not a continuing presence and an all-white and bright drawing room -- that said "New Orleans" more than "St. Louis" -- was a cheerful place that seemed to hold memories and promise of a better life.

In Edelstein's production, you know from the beginning that dark events will follow the dark décor.

Ivey is superb as Amanda Wingfield, a southern lady, gregarious, garrulous, full of herself and her past beaux, almost embarrassed to have had a daughter that lacks the social qualities she prizes.

Keeley is subtle and moving as Laura. Her limp, the result of childhood polio, has so eaten away at her sense of self, that her real disability is psychological. She is painfully shy, with a manner half frightened, half apologetic, as if she is asking pardon for inconveniencing others by her physical flaw. In 1944, possibilities for women were at best limited. And for Laura, contact with others was so terrifying and disappointing, that she fled from the secretarial school that might have led to independence and self-worth, and chose to live in an imaginary world peopled by little glass animals.

Darragh is brilliant as Tom Wingfield, the son who feels caged, working in a shoe warehouse to support his mother and sister. Amanda, a nag, is suffocating him. On the outside he seem withdrawn, but inside Darragh shows Tom to be boiling.

Peering down from the wallpaper, an unremarked portrait and presence, is the mustachioed man in a straw hat who fathered the children and then left them and Amanda 15 years before.

Is there a way out of this trap? When Tom brings home a work colleague, Jim O'Connor (Michael Mosley), Amanda imagines he is the "gentleman caller" that can transforms Laura's life. Jim is a charmer, a "power of positive thinking" guy. Is he the one, or is this just another illusion?

This sweet, sad production admirably captures Williams' youthful sense of entrapment but also, though it might not be what he intended, the desperation of women who saw themselves as essentially flawed and their salvations only in marriage.

The Glass Menagerie
Roundabout Theatre Company at
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46 Street

New York City
Opened March 24, 2010; closes June 13, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photos: Joan Marcus


Kevin's Digital Week 24: Not-So-Odd Couples

Blu-ray of the Week
Valentine’s Day
No one would mistake Valentine’s Day as a great date movie: even as star-studded journeys into sappiness go, Garry Marshall’s self-satisfied, tone-deaf would-be romantic epic suffers from a skewered kind of democracy, wherein each story is given equal weight even when so many deserve to languish on the cutting room floor while others should have been expanded into more than “cameo” status. But that’s the rub with movies like these: everyone is a (supposed) star, so no one can outshine anybody else. They actually should have scorecards included with the disc to mark who should stay and who should go.

Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper have an interesting chemistry as two strangers on a plane, while Jessica Biel looks properly embarrassed as an agent with a loathing for the holiday who realizes her perfect man (Jamie Foxx) has been right under her nose--he’s her client. Anne Hathaway is hilarious as a nice girl moonlighting as a phone-sex operator, with a game Topher Grace as her bemused paramour. I don’t remember whom Kathy Bates or Emma Roberts played; would that I had also forgotten the Taylors, Swift and Lautner, who have zero onscreen presence. Valentine’s Day is overlong and overstuffed with second-tier stars, but if you’re in the right mood, one of the stories might hit home. The Blu-ray transfer is solid if unspectacular; extras include 14 deleted scenes (so the movie could have been even longer!), a gag reel and other cutesy stuff from director Marshall.

DVD of the Week
The Messenger
An affecting, low-key character study, The Messenger tells a simple story of two soldiers whose job is to notify families of the deaths of their loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan while in combat. In its documentary-style realism, the movie is nearly subversive in showing that the military’s policy to inform next of kin is of paramount importance, even in what many think of as an unjust war. The Messenger is no Saving Private Ryan-type melodrama, but rather a warts-and-all account of how soldiers who have seen the worst on the battlefield but steel themselves to look into disbelieving people’s eyes and tell them their children or spouses are not coming home.

The soldiers are portrayed with uncanny authenticity by Ben Foster and Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, and there’s another superlative performance by Samantha Morton as a grieving soldier’s widow. As good as Morton is, however, her scenes with Foster are the closest Oren Moverman’s restrained movie (co-written with Alessandro Camon) gets to sentimentality. But emotions are usually reined in, to the extent that when Steve Buscemi, of all people, appears as a father dumbfounded by his son’s death, you are struck by the unyielding honesty of the film. Extras include featurettes about the real soldiers who have done the work and the actors who portrayed them.

CD of the Week
Carole King & James Taylor: Live at the Troubadour
Baby boomer pop stars never disappear: they keep on touring and performing their best songs from years gone by to equally ageing--but enthusiastic--audiences. And that’s what James Taylor and Carole King are doing on their lucrative “Troubadour” tour, which continues this summer. This CD/DVD set is a terrific souvenir of their concerts together in 2007, when the two legends traded tunes at the famous Troubadour, where they both made auspicious debuts some 37 years earlier, in honor of the club’s 50th anniversary.

Beginning with Taylor’s joyous rendition of his early tune “Blossom,” the pair runs through some 40-plus years’ worth of classic hits in 75 minutes, from “I Feel the Earth Move” to “Fire and Rain,” with underrated gems like “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Smackwater Jack” also brought out of mothballs. The singers sound great together and apart, and they’re backed by a crack band that includes ace guitarist Danny Kortchmar. Along with a CD of the entire concert, a bonus DVD contains the show in HD video and superb 5.1 surround-sound.

"Shrek Forever After": It's a Wonderful Strife

Directed by Mike Mitchell
Written by Josh Klausner, Darren Lemke, based on the book Shrek! by William Steig
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Walt Dohrn, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch, Craig Robinson

Once upon a time there was the exquisite Shrek and the hilarious Shrek 2. Then darkness fell over the kingdom, and the heavy-handed, horribly sitcomy Shrek the Third strode hard upon the land. But then somewhere, a magic wand waved, and soon goodness and laughter and the sharp, polished wit of filmmakers trying once again to be fresh and funny rather than coasting on momentum and goodwill reigned. And there was much rejoicing. Yay. Verily.

"Fresh" might seem not the right word to describe a film that utilizes the most trusty plot device since that of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, namely the what-if-I'd-never-been born conceit of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. But a device is just a tool -- it's all in how you use it. Despite a tiny bit of shtick here and there in Shrek Forever After, director Mike Mitchell and company have given us a story of genuine, grownup romance and regret, suffused with a middle-aged longing that has nothing to do with the slow-burn, poor-put-upon-dad antics of the execrable third movie, which might as well have been a 1950s episode of TV's The Life of Riley -- talk about a revoltin' development.

No, here, instead, bitter real-life emotions anchor the jumping-off point, and yet somehow the tragedy of everyday life becomes not only roaringly funny but also gets camouflaged enough that kids too young to understand can simply enjoy the colorful characters running through the plot mechanics, and maybe years later will see how much deeper it all was.

Shrek (voice of Mike Myers), once a feared ogre outside the fairy-tale kingdom of Duloc, has now become, to his exasperated irritation, a cuddly celebrity in the once faraway kingdom of Far Far Away (which is now within walking distance of Shrek's original swamp—let's just call it geographical magic). What with infant triplets, neighbors who barge in and make themselves at home every night, tour-carriage announcers invading his privacy and an endless battle with backed-up toilets, it seems more or less reasonable for him to blow his top at a birthday party where strangers and friends alike demands things from him constantly. When his wife, the ogress princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), chastises and guilt-trips him for it, showing no empathy, it's no wonder he storms off -- or that he becomes easy prey for the Machiavellian Rumpelstiltskin (the Paul Reubens-like voice of Walt Dohrn, one of the lead animators).

That leprechaun-like goblin sweet-talks Shrek into a disastrous deal: The ogre can have one day all to himself, scaring people and being a carefree bachelor, in exchange for losing one day in his life. Of course, that turns out to be the day he was born, and so when Shrek's present is over, so is he.

The deliciousness of what-if universes never gets old, and the filmmakers create a logical Dystopia that'd have made Fritz Lang proud. Rumpel is now king of a decaying kingdom, where inside the castle is a nonstop party that appears to be, hilariously, a lesbian witches’ rave -- there certainly aren't any warlocks around, and the animators could have drawn them easily enough. What a riot! The Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon, a co-director of Shrek 2) is now a gladiator fighting animal crackers, Puss in Boots (a scene-stealing Antonio Banderas) is now literally a fat cat, and Fiona's become essentially Xena, Warrior Princess, leading an ogre underground in revolution against Rumpel.

Throughout, the CGI characters have more expressiveness than ever, and carry such a grounded solidity that when a flying dragon lands, you can almost feel the weight. Unfortunately, the 3D effects at an IMAX screening fell flat, except for the startlingly lifelike InTru3D logo.

The studio has billed this as the final movie in the Shrek series -- we'll see. But if this is indeed the final Shrek, it all ends happily ever after

For more by Frank Lovece:

Theater: Russian Satire "The Forest" Is Tree-mendous

Written by Alexander Ostrovsky; adapted by Kathleen Tolan
Directed by Brian Kulick
Starring Dianne Wiest, Herb Foster, George Morfogen, Lisa Joyce, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Sam Tsoutsouvas, John Douglass Thompson, Tony Torn

A table is set with bread and cakes, back-dropped by a forest created from a jumble of cross-hatched planks painted and splotched to suggest leaves. On this set by Santo Loquasto, a servant is angry at the housekeeper who enters the space without warning. "Do we barge in on you?" Class stratification and conflicts ripple through this richly comic production of Alexander Ostrovsky's satire of a Russian aristocracy high on self-importance and low on cash.

The play at the Classic Stage, expert in staging old dramas with modern inflections, is given a lively production by Brian Kulick who, with a new adaptation by Kathleen Tolan, makes it seem quite current in spirit. After all, class snobbery and hypocrisy haven't changed much. If you haven't seen an Ostrovsky play, go to this one.

Plays about Russian aristocrats immediately conjure up Chekhov, and there's a lot in this play that reminds one of  The Cherry Orchard. Raisa (a fulsome Dianne Wiest), a widow in her fifties who owns the estate, has been having a good time in the big city, but returns to take care of business, which includes selling off some of the forest to pay expenses. Chekhov, who completed his play in 1903, showed his female estate owner, also selling off trees to support her lifestyle, as spoiled, but not ridiculous. Not so Ostrovsky in 1870.

Ostrovsky's nobles, Raisa as well as her friends Milonov (Herb Foster) and Bodaev (George Morfogen) fall all over each other proclaiming how generous they are to the peasants. "Do I live only for myself, gentlemen? All that I have belongs to the poor," she declares. "I keep it safe for them, I am only a clerk. The poor and wretched of this world are the true owners."

Minonov wishes they could go back to the time of "severity in treatment, yes, but love in our souls." West, Foster and Morfogen (in a top hat) are hypocrites who really believe the nonsense they spout. The actors present just the right mix of seriousness and absurdity.

The most useless aristocrat is Aleksei (an appropriately clueless Adam Driver) who, having failed at school, has been invited for the summer to court Raisa's young niece, Aksyusha (Lisa Joyce). She, the compleat ingénue, is in love with the merchant's son, Pyotr (Quincy Dunn-Baker). But the merchant, Vosmibratov (Sam Tsoutsouvas), ever counting his kopeks, won't let his son marry without a dowry, and Raisa won't give the cash for anyone but Aleksei.

So, here, symbolically, is the challenge posed by the new economic class that exerts the power of self-made money against old-line status. Raisa is selling her forest piecemeal to the merchant, so we know who will win eventually. And for the moment, both cash and status seem to trump love.

Ostrovsky, quite ahead of his time, also directs some jabs at egregious male chauvinism. Bodaev tells Raisa, "Please don't take offense, but the fact is so many of our fine estates have been ruined by women. If a man squanders his money, nevertheless there is some sense to his extravagance, but in a woman, the stupidity knows no bounds." Vosmibratov the merchant agrees: "Nothing good comes from giving womenfolk their freedom."

However, Raisa seems quite modern, or perhaps timeless, when she makes a play for Aleksei, who, fool that he is, doesn't figure out what is happening.

The best part of the play is when Ostrovsky speaks through two itinerant actors who remind one of Shakespeare's buffoons. The tragedian, Gennady (an exuberant and commanding John Douglass Thompson), is Raisa's late husband's nephew, once in the military, now gone for 15 years, but keeping in touch by sending her presents from all over Russia. His foil is the comedian Arkady (Tony Torn).

Gennady is a theatrical charmer and ultimately the truth teller of the story, which he expounds with dialogue from Schiller's play The Robbers. At the end, you'll ask why we don't see more of Ostrovsky. Fortunately, there's the Classic Stage to make sure he's not forgotten.

The Forest
Classic Stage
136 East 13th Street

New York City
Opened May 6, 2010; closes May 30, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photos: Joan Marcus

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