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Theater Review: Albee's "Me, Myself & I"

Me, Myself & I
A play by Edward Albee
Directed by Emily Mann
Starring Elizabeth Ashley, Brian Murray, Zachary Booth, Natalia Payne, Stephen Payne, Preston Sadleir

Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I, one of the celebrated playwright’s weakest efforts, is a wan comedy pretending to be daring and original, much like his recent successes on and off-Broadway, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and The Play about the Baby.

Like most Albee’s plays, Me, Myself & I concerns a family that defines “dysfunctional”: middle-aged Mother can’t tell the difference between her identical twin sons, who are (almost) identically named OTTO and otto. In earlier Albee plays, family situations were explored with bile but with semi-realism; now, he is besotted with an all-purpose absurdism which has become ever more absurd with each play.

Throughout Me, Myself & I, there are Albee’s usual long-winded monologues and vulgar, repetitious dialogue, along with examinations of language that even include characters correcting others’ (and sometimes their own) grammar. Someone says “llama,” another wonders if it’s the “Dalai” Lama, but the response is no, “they’re pronounced differently—llama, Lama.” Why the twins are named “Otto” is discussed, and we find that the name “reads the same forward and backward.”—“Palindrome.”—“Yes; palindrome. Reads the same forward and backward.” And, most ridiculously of all, someone says “ta” when leaving and another character says that it should be “ta ta.”

These tiresome tics have infected Albee’s writing for the past several decades, except, miraculously, his marvelous character study, Three Tall Women. The needless repetition often occurs when someone says something that’s repeated by someone else. When otto says that, if OTTO wants to become Chinese (no, I’m not making this up), he’ll have to “get his eyes slanted, his penis shortened,” Mother asks in exasperation, “His penis shortened?” Repeating that line is good for a cheap laugh, if nothing else.

But Albee abounds in cheap laughs by constantly throwing vulgar insults into the mix, guaranteeing audience guffaws because there’s nothing funnier than Mother saying “motherfucker” or otto calling his girlfriend Maureen a “whore” after finding out she slept with OTTO by mistake. Upon discovering Maureen is part French and Cherokee, Mother calls her “frog” and “half-breed,” but curiously says nothing nasty about her being part German and Scottish, making Albee’s political incorrectness highly selective.

There’s a germ of a decent idea in Me, Myself & I about twins having psychological difficulties dealing with mirror images of themselves, but the best Albee can muster—aside from the rank cliché of OTTO sleeping with Maureen while pretending he’s otto—is to have OTTO create a “third” (unseen) twin, whom he calls otto: to differentiate him from otto, no doubt.

Emily Mann directs uninspiredly on the nearly completely bare stage, while her actors are hamstrung by characters which become mere puppets for Albee’s manipulation. Brian Murray comes off best as Dr., Mother’s lover-companion for the past 28 years, thanks to his sober line readings. Contrarily, Elizabeth Ashley mercilessly hams it up, perhaps in the vain hope that that’s the best way to play Mother (it may well be!). While Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir—good actors both—look remarkably alike as OTTO and otto, they can’t mold anything out of the clotted clay their author has handed them.

Performances August 24-October 10, 2010
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
playwrightshorizons.org

Kevin's Digital Week: Solitary Men and Women

Blu-rays of the Week
Red Riding Trilogy
IFC)
Three separate films made by three different directors, the Red Riding Trilogy dramatizes David Pearce’s quartet of novels about a serial killer on the loose in northern England. The films, titled after the year each covers — 1974, 1980 and 1983 — present the frustrating investigations into the killer of several young women. Although each film  introduces us to the police, journalists and townspeople who are tied to the killings, the cumulative impact of all five hours is less enthralling than it should be. The problem is that none of the three directors—Julian Jerrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker—transcend “serial killer movie” stereotypes, particularly the hoarily sentimental shots of 1983's finale.

The actors, including Paddy Considine, Rebecca Hall, Peter Mullan and Saskia Reeves, are uniformly good, although it becomes comical watching skinny Andrew Garfield getting beaten up by everyone he meets as 1974’s crusading journalist. The films were shot in different formats—16mm, 35mm and digital video, respectively—but the Blu-ray transfers faithfully preserve each film’s unique, grainy look. A second disc has a truckload of extras like deleted scenes and interviews with directors and actors.

Solitary Man (Anchor Bay)
Michael Douglas gives his best-ever performance as an unrepentant heel who cannot stay away from women; though it's ruined him, he seems unable to stop. Playing the car salesman who has sold lemons to the women in his life—his ex-wife, his daughter, his current girlfriend, her college-age daughter—Douglas painfully shows how charisma and charm can destroy a man.

Directors Brian Koppelman (who also scripted) and David Levien are unafraid to hang their “hero” out to dry—especially when he beds his girlfriend’s daughter without a second thought—even if their shaggy-dog ending leaves a monumental decision unresolved. As a bonus, the movie is well-acted across the board, as playing opposite Douglas are a gaggle of great actresses: Susan Sarandon, Mary Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots and Olivia Thirlby. The sharp Blu-ray transfer is full of detail; the extras include a making-of featurette and a commentary by Koppelman and Levien.

DVDs of the Week
The Exploding Girl (Oscilloscope)
Actress Zoe Kazan's career has been on a semi-meteoric rise onstage, where she has become a fixture on and off Broadway. Too bad that the movie The Exploding Girl doesn’t allow her to create a memorable onscreen character. Kazan flits around this meandering portrait of a young, epileptic woman in New York City trying to sustain her relationships.

Kazan has been good in supporting parts, but at this stage in her young career, leading roles seem beyond her reach. And Bradley Rust Gray’s film, though it has moments of quiet introspection (beautifully shot on digital), remains undramatic and lacking in any insight. Extras include Gray’s short, Flutter, a music video and an interview with Kazan and Gray.

Prime Suspect: The Complete Series
(Acorn Media)

Although she’s been splendid in numerous movie roles—including her Oscar-winning turn as Elizabeth II in The QueenHelen Mirren’s greatest triumph will always be Jane Tennyson, the police inspector at the heart of Prime Suspect. When it first debuted on PBS nearly 20 years ago, little did we know that, within the space of a dozen years, we’d watch with increasing awe and admiration how Mirren made Tennyson not only an unglamorous human being but an exciting, new kind of detective, as well as applaud her ability to solve crimes, work on an unfulfilling personal life and tame her male partners' sexist attitudes.

This excellent multi-disc set contains all seven Prime Suspects—which, along with Mirren’s brilliance, also showcase superb performances by a pre-Schindler's List Ralph Fiennes, Peter Capaldi, Tom Wilkinson, David Thewlis and many others. Aside from these sublimely crafted crime dramas, there are two extras: a behind-the-scenes featurette and a longer (50-minute) making-of encompassing all seven episodes.

CDs of the Week

Julia Fischer: Paganini’s 24 Caprices
(Decca)

Niccolo Paganini’s 24 caprices are considered the Mount Everest of Virtuosity for any violin player, so it’s no surprise that Julia Fischer—one of our most engaging young classical fiddlers—gives them a go on her new recording of these two dozen essential snapshots of wide-ranging violin technique.

Although Fischer obligingly sets a fast pace, she also finds the meaning behind the material. The two longest caprices in the set (Nos. 4 and 6) run the gamut from slow introspection to speed-demon displays, but Fischer makes them sound like coherent dramatic statements, not just exercises in whiplash. Still, the sense of excitement in these high-wire string acts is encapsulated by the dazzling runs of No. 15, which Fischer dispatches without breaking a sweat.

Panufnik: Symphonic Works, Volume 2
(CPO)

Composer Andrzej Panufnik, who died in 1991, wasn't one of Poland’s 20th century masters like Lutoslawski, Szymanowski and Penderecki. But at their best, Panufnik’s scores are solid and imaginative, and this new disc is a nice overview of a quarter-century of the composer's career, performed with alternating forcefulness and finesse by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under conductor Lukasz Borowicz.

The early, evocative Lullaby and folk-based Polonia suite sound marvelously rich and full, while the two symphonies—No. 1 and No. 4—are Panufnik at his best: Sinfonia Rustica is a vigorous, expressively dramatic work (to steal the composer’s own details for two of its movements), while the Sinfonia Concertante for Flute, Harp and Strings is a lovely two-movement work which Panufnik wrote for his wife as a 10th anniversary gift. She was no doubt pleased.

Kevin's Digital Week: At War

Blu-rays of the Week
9th Company
(Image)
The former Soviet Union’s quagmire in Afghanistan, which preceded our own by some 20 years, contributed to its ultimate demise. That it was also Russia’s Vietnam is undeniable, and Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 2005 drama is the first Russian film we’ve seen in America that equates their lost war to ours, mainly by aping American war movies set in Vietnam, like Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Apocalypse Now.

It’s remarkable that, for all its war-movie clichés, 9th Company is a gripping, 140-minute thrill ride: it’s no surprise this was a hit back home. A large, impressive cast carries out the company’s impossible mission; the movie, though patriotic to a fault, knows enough to praise soldiers over unseen Kremlin leaders. The first-rate Blu-ray presentation is complemented by an extra DVD of interviews with cast, writer, director and actual veterans who are, unsurprisingly, highly emotional after seeing the film.

The Simpsons: The Complete 13th Season (Fox)
Compared to how terrific Season 20 looked in its Blu-ray incarnation—it was the first season of the long-running Fox series to be shown in HD—older seasons of
The Simpsons are at a slight disadvantage. Happily, though, the 21 episodes that make up Season 13 (from 2001-2) have a sharper look than I would have expected from them; worth noting are the fun interactive menus in full HD.

As to the series itself, 13 is another uneven Simpsons season, with guest stars Pierce Brosnan, REM, Paul Newman, Phish, N'Sync and U2 muddling their way through some lazy storylines and even lazier jokes. Still, let’s face it: The Simpsons on auto-pilot is better than pretty much everything else on TV. The extras include a Matt Groening intro, deleted scenes and commentaries, and a few negligible featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Cinevardaphoto (Cinema Guild)
French director Agnes Varda has had a bumpy feature-film career: for every classic like Vagabond, there's a dud like Kung Fu Master. But her shorts and documentaries are another matter. Her recent autobiographical essay, The Beaches of Agnes, was among the best non-fiction films of recent years, and this new disc collects several short works that reinforce Varda's reputation as one of our most valuable and insightful directors.

Cinevardaphoto is a triptych of shorts showing the staying power of photographic images, whether an exhibit of vintage pictures, each of which includes a teddy bear; an old photo Varda reexamines three decades later; or hundreds of pics that Varda herself shot during the early, heady days of Fidel Castro's Cuba. In addition to these incisive historical and psychological portraits, the disc includes a half-dozen other Varda shorts and a 20-minute featurette in which she self-effacingly discusses her cinematic artistry.

Selling Hitler
(Acorn Media)
The 1981 scandal of the Hitler Diaries hoax is the focus of this hilarious but tellingly real dissection of the journalists and historians who were taken in by an obvious forger in one of the biggest-ever journalistic fiascos. This 1991 British mini-series stars an exemplary cast led by Jonathan Pryce as German reporter Gerd Heidemann, always looking for the next big scoop, who spend millions of Stern magazine’s money to ensure no one else could scoop the “scoop” of the century.

Giving Pryce strong support are Barry Humphries, Alison Doody, Alan Bennett and Alexei Sayre; directed adroitly by Alistair Reid from Howard Schuman's teleplay, Selling Hitler’s five fast-moving episodes only rarely degenerate into surrealistic but silly Wagnerian parody. The lone extra is an onscreen update about the major players involved—too bad there’s no documentary that sketches in the historical background.

CDs of the Week
Martinu: Cello Sonatas
(Chandos)

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), one of the 20th century’s greats, composed two cello concertos and a cello concertino, along with three cello sonatas, all heard here—along with two short sets of variations (on Slovak and Rossini themes)—in this beautifully performed recording by cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Huw Watkins.

Although both sets of variations are charming, the meaty sonatas are the disc’s real treats. In the first sonata, composed in Paris in 1939, you can hear the ominous rumblings of the war to come; the second, composed in New York in 1942, has the nervous energy of an artist starting anew; the light-hearted third, composed in France in 1952, has Bohemian folk songs at its root. Although other recordings of these essential pieces exist, this is among the best.

Tyberg: Symphony No. 3; Piano Trio
(Naxos)

Composers whose careers—and even lives—were snuffed out by the Nazis have become an entire cottage industry: Decca’s invaluable Entartate Musik CD series in the ‘90s unearthed much chamber/orchestral music and operas that were forgotten; more recently, conductor James Conlon has led works by composers like Braunfels, Zemlinsky and Schreker to critical acclaim. Now add to this list the name of Marcel Tyberg, an Austrian Jewish composer who died in Auschwitz on New Year’s Eve in 1944.

A Buffalo doctor came into possession of some Tyberg scores and gave them to Buffalo Philharmonic conductor JoAnn Falletta, who led the world premiere of Tyberg’s Symphony No. 3, which, along with his Piano Trio, are heard here. Tyberg’s music shimmers glossily,  but ultimately doesn’t measure up to Braunfels, Zemlinsky or Schreker. Although attractive and well-played—the slow movements of both works sound particularly lovely on this recording—they are not the unearthed masterpieces we hoped for. Yet to hear Tyberg’s music at all is a treat, so thanks are due to Naxos, Falletta and her Buffalo musicians.

Kevin’s Digital Week 33: Middle East, America and Europe

Blu-rays of the Week

Ajami
(Kino)

Ajami is a ghetto on the outskirts of the Israeli town of Jaffa populated by Palestinian immigrants, Christians, Arabs and Jews, all living in close proximity. In Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s tense crime drama, these people continually butt heads, extracting revenge for the pettiest—or most vicious—of slights, and bloodshed is the usual result. Never wallowing in its display of this endless cycle of violence, Ajami  unflinchingly — and, ultimately, heartbreakingly — shows the best and worst of humanity, often seen side by side.

Don’t hold last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination against it: Ajami is certainly unsettling, but it’s also an edge-of-your-seat thriller detailing minute-by-minute survival. This brutally frank glimpse at quotidian reality in the Middle East was shot on digital video and transferred to film, so the clarity of the images is given a harshness by the grain so essential to its quasi-documentary quality. The extras include a half-hour featurette, The Story of the Actors, and a substantial 23 minutes of deleted scenes.

City Island
(Anchor Bay)

Writer-director Raymond De Felitta studies a dysfunctional — but ultimately lovable — family living on a Bronx island most people think of solely as a place to eat fresh seafood. Although these characters are fashioned out of clichés (smart daughter goes bad, mixed-up teenage son horns in on chubby neighbor, mom suspects dad of cheating, etc.), De Felitta and his cast let us care about their them, even when they act stupidly or are stuck in a familiar subplot (Dad, a corrections officer, is also an aspiring actor, which his wife would never understand).

Andy Garcia and Julianne Margulies as the parents, Dominik Garcia-Lirido and Ezra Miller as their kids, Steven Strait as the father’s son from another relationship, and Emily Mortimer as an actress befriending dad — all are authentically New Yawkers without resorting to caricature. The hi-def image is excellent, and the extras include a De Felitta/Garcia commentary, deleted scenes and a conversation among director and cast at a City Island restaurant.

DVDs of the Week

Temple Grandin
(HBO)

In Mick Jackson’s biopic, Claire Danes gives the kind of transformative performance as a real-life autistic woman who became our greatest advocate for humane livestock treatment that we usually associate with Meryl Streep. Danes throws herself into her role with such fervor that we experience Grandin's incredible and difficult journey to overcome a disability and an uncomprehending society.

Julia Ormond
gives an equally affecting portrayal as Grandin’s sturdy mother, whose own strength obviously helped her daughter succeed. David Straithairn and Catherine O’Hara round out an excellent cast, yet whenever Danes is onscreen, she dominates the movie like she never has before. It’s heartening to watch Danes (and Ormond) show the ferocity needed to do justice to Grandin’s inspiring story. Extras include Grandin's own audio commentary and a short making-of.

Visions of Israel
(Acorn Media)
Another in the impressive Visions of.. series, this time the overhead aerial cameras roam over the cities, countryside and stunning natural wonders of Israel. We see the sprawling capital, Tel Aviv, along with the biggest city, Jerusalem, by day and at night; outlying areas like the one that houses an ingenious irrigation system that literally turned the desert green; and awe-inspiring ancient relics like the hilltop fortress at Masada.


With narration that’s by turns jocular and serious by renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a soundtrack that features the often jaunty rhythms of Klezmer music, Visions of Israel is another winner in this travel series: too bad it’s not on Blu-ray like some of the other episodes are. The bonus feature (an extra 23 minutes of superlative footage that weren't used in the 55-minute program) includes sights as breathtaking as what’s in the original program.

CDs of the Week

Pizzetti: Chamber Works
(Naxos)
Ildebrando Pizzetti is no household name, not even in Italy, where this underrated composer lived from 1880 to 1968. His music, while conservative, is original and attractive, and many of his works should be heard in the concert hall, where they would undoubtedly win new converts. Instead, Pizzetti is getting his partial due on CDs, and the Naxos label has been at the forefront of releasing his orchestral and chamber music for a fresh hearing.  

This new recording features three of Pizzetti's most appealing chamber works, two quite substantial and one, Tre Canti, a buoyant 10-minute bauble in three short movements. The two large-scale works (each about 30 minutes long) are the Piano Trio and Violin Sonata, and the superb musicians—violinist Leila Rasonyi, cellist Laszlo Fenyo and pianist Alpalsan Ertungealp — acquit themselves admirably, particularly in each work’s slow movement, in which yearning tones and gorgeous melodies intertwine.

Shostakovich: The Lady and the Hooligan
(Delos)
Dmitri Shostakovich didn’t write many ballets—only three in a long composing career—but those three are masterpieces: The Golden Age, The Bolt and The Limpid Stream. The delightful The Lady and the Hooligan (a choreographic novel from 1962) is instead a pastiche patched together from his earlier works, like the latter two ballets, Ballet Suites and Cello Sonata. If you didn’t know better, you'd think Shostakovich composed a familiar-sounding but lovely new ballet.

The Delos recording features the Minsk Symphony Orchestra under Walter Mnatsakanov’s baton, and if there’s roughness in some of the orchestral playing, the weightiness needed to make it all work comes through, particularly in the tragic finale. Also included is Shostakovich’s Ballet Suite No. 2, which contains Shostakovich's characteristic eclecticism in spades.

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