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The Height of the Storm
Written by Florian Zeller; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Jonathan Kent
Performances through November 24, 2019
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm (photo: Joan Marcus)
Devastating loss permeates Florian Zeller’s shallow memory play, The Height of the Storm, in which a long-married couple is shown in the last throes together. The mother, Madeleine, and father, André, now living in their former summer home outside of Paris, are seen together and each one of them alone. It’s a conceit that, on paper, allows for interesting ambiguities, but the unsubtle Zeller instead relies on platitudes and blatant effects to color his study of old age, dementia and death: rather than an affecting drama, the play remains curiously inert.
If that has to do with Christopher Hampton’s translation and Jonathan Kent’s direction, which keep the characters French even though the entire cast is British it’s impossible to say. But both of those add more layers of distance from these people, which further lessens the effect of an intimate chronicle about long-gestating emotional wreckage in a family weighed down by André’s notoriety (and infidelities) as a writer while Madeleine raised their now-grown daughters Anne and Élise, who have relationship problems of their own.
Zeller’s melodrama presents fragments of this couple’s alternate realities, while Kent’s fussy staging underlines the obvious point that sometimes Madeleine and other times André is not present. Of course, “not present” also means lacking mental capability, one sign of dementia, which is how André often appears, even while physically present.
Such vacillation is less piercing than it might be; early on it already seems a mere gimmick rather than a salient way of displaying the ravages of dementia and old age. And despite a formidable cast—Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are unimpeachable as Madeleine and André, with equal amounts of welcome humor to alleviate the tragic aspects, despite Pryce’s tendency to shout his lines—The Height of the Storm (whose heavyhanded title, from both a poem recited by André and a weather event that’s mentioned, is freighted with symbolic and actual weight) provokes neither tears nor empathy.
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Bard Summerscape/Bard Music Festival
Performances June 29-August 18, 2019
Laura Benanti at Caramoor
July 6, 2019
Lunchtime Concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields
June 4, 2019
Violinist Daniel Pioro at Wigmore Hall
June 2, 2019
Composer Erich Korngold
Now that fall is here, let’s backtrack to a summer of performances on both sides of the Atlantic. First, Bard Summerscape, Bard College’s annual summer arts festival on the bucolic shores of the Hudson River, two hours north of Manhattan, and the accompanying Bard Music Festival looked at Korngold and His World: the great Viennese composer Erich Korngold was best known for his fantastic film scores when he went to Hollywood during the golden era of the 1930s but, as artistic director Leon Botsein showed in his usual impeccable and provocative programming, Korngold and his music were so much more.
I caught two Korngold programs at Bard: a concert anchored by his orchestral music and a fully-staged production of his opera Das Wunder der Heliane, both conducted by Botstein and both equally accomplished and mesmerizing musically, if—in the opera’s case—less so dramatically. The orchestral concert, titled The Orchestral Imagination, was highlighted by Korngold’s dazzling piano concerto for the left hand, played with aplomb by stellar soloist Orion Weiss, even at times he and Botstein didn’t seem to be on the same musical page.
Also on the program were works by other underrated Viennese composers Franz Schreker (his Vom ewigen Leben comprises lovely settings of two Walt Whitman poems) and Alexander Zemlinsky, whose Lyric Symphony is a large-scale wonder. Botstein, despite bumpy patches, led the American Symphony Orchestra in a vivid reading of Zemlinsky’s masterpiece, with stellar vocal contributions by soprano Erica Petrocelli and baritone Michael J. Hawk. The same goes for the orchestra’s playing during Korngold’s Heliane, an opera filled with beautiful, memorable melodies but whose libretto—takes convolutedness to another level.
Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane at Bard Summerscape (photo: Stephanie Berger)
If director Christian Räth’s visuals are too extreme—but which still let Thomas C. Hase’s magisterial lighting come to the fore—the orchestra, chorus and the leads, particularly Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte’s virtuoso Heliane, give the audience a chance to concentrate on Korngold’s music, among his very best.
Closer to Manhattan, the summer festival at Caramoor (in Katonah) comprises orchestral and chamber concerts, jazz performances and sundry other events, including the appearance of Broadway diva Laura Benanti—one of the Great White Way’s brightest lights—and her fabulous new show, Tales from the Soprano Isle.
Soprano Laura Benanti (photo: Jenny Anderson)
In addition to singing both Broadway standards and contemporary tunes, along with a marvelously delivered mini-suite of classics from My Fair Lady, in which she recently starred on Broadway, with her silvery, shimmery soprano, Benanti tells stories about her career and her life which now features her toddler daughter) with her singularly hilarious and pointed sarcasm. Accompanied by pianist Todd Almond, Benanti proves herself (once again) as a multi-threat hyphenate: singer-actor-comedian-storyteller extraordinaire.
The summer music season began early in June on a trip to London, which included terrific concerts at Wigmore Hall and the Church at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The latter hosted the formidable Kennedy Ensemble played Mendlessohn’s Octet in a fiery (and free!) performance that caught the playfulness and seriousness of purpose the 16-year-old composer corralled for one of his greatest works.
Violinist Daniel Pioro (photo: Hugh Carswell)
The storied and acoustically perfect Wigmore Hall was the setting for a superbly programmed recital by violinist Daniel Pioro. Opening with an exquisite version of Biber’s singular G Minor Passacaglia, Pioro was joined by pianist Roderick Chadwick for an arresting rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and then, finally and most thrillingly, was a breathtaking arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ yearning The Lark Ascending for violin, piano, cello and viola by cellist Clare O’Connell (who joined the men and violist Charlotte Bonneton for the performance). Pioro’s passionate playing of Vaughan Williams' lovely violin line allowed us to hear this familiar but gorgeous piece anew.
Blu-rays of the Week
When this eight-hour miniseries premiered on NBC in 1978, it was a controversial event: could a sanitized reenactment show viewers the true horror of the holocaust? Well, it can, to an extent. Even though director Marvin J. Chomsky and writer/producer Gerald Green work within their era’s constraints, there’s still a powerful shock running through this melodrama about the travails of the Jewish Weiss family during Hitler’s murderous reign.
Helped by a top-notch cast—Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris, James Woods, Tovah Feldshuh and Meryl Streep as the Weisses and David Warner and Michael Moriarty as Nazis—Chomsky and Green bring out the immediacy and offhanded cruelty of those horrifying dozen years. The hi-def image looks impressive, even if the standard TV aspect ratio has been “converted” to widescreen.
When a car accident victim awakens in a hospital room without his memory, he finds himself accused of being a serial killer—so he kidnaps a sympathetic nurse and goes off on a journey to clear himself and discover his true identity.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers tries to invest this convoluted tale with gravity but isn’t able to transcend its utter familiarity; directors Alex Cher and Fedor Lyass (also the cinematographer) have made a stylish but empty drama. The film does look exceptionally good on Blu.
Doom Patrol—Complete 1st Season
Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.
In this bizarrely entertaining superhero origin story, a quartet of freaks and outcasts who have been transformed into a kind of “misfit toys” society of superheroes—Crazy Mary, Cliff Steele, Mr. Nobody and Elasti-Woman—join forces to have one another’s backs and fight injustice and evil.
There’s a welcome sense of tongue-in-cheek glee along with a mix of parody and true belief in the genre that makes it diverting throughout. Whether the series can keep up such a pace past a single season is a big question: but right now it’s good, unclean fun. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel.
My Favorite Year
Peter O’Toole got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his scenery-chewing performance in this mild 1982 comedy as a movie star and drunkard whose impending appearance on a 1950s comedy show (like Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows”) causes consternation among the staff when it’s problematic whether he’ll be sober enough to appear on live TV.
Richard Benjamin’s routine direction takes much of the hilarity out of an already familiar tale, as pros like Joe Bologna, Lainie Kazan and Bill Macy and then-newcomers Mark Linn-Baker and Jessica Harper do what they can to back up O’Toole. The hi-def transfer looks good; Benjamin’s commentary is the lone extra.
A Touch of Class
Melvin Frank’s romantic comedy about adultery was old-fashioned as soon as it was released in 1973; despite often groaningly obvious jokes and physical pratfalls, there’s an elegance and wit to the performances of the always underrated George Segal and Oscar-winning best actress (!) Glenda Jackson, which mitigates the movie’s essential shallowness.
That this also got a Best Picture and Best Screenplay nomination is surprising; equally surprising is that, though Jackson won, Segal was (as usual) shamefully ignored. There’s a clean, crisp hi-def transfer.
4K/UHD of the Week
Joe Dante’s 1984 fantasy/monster spoof made a lot of money and made audiences happy, but it remains, 35 years later, an unnecessarily crude succession of parodies, many of which are so specific to its era that they now make little sense and provide few laughs.
Dante has some fun finding new ways to kill off both humans and the creatures, but after awhile, it starts to pall; even such good sports as Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan and Harry Carey Jr. can’t save what’s an overlong mess of a movie. The UHD transfer is transfixing; a plethora of extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.
CD of the Week
Hans Werner Henze—The Raft of the Medusa
German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) often brought his leftist politics into his works, and his 1971 oratorio— titled after the classic 1819 painting by French artist Théodore Géricault and dedicated as a requiem for murdered Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera—is among his greatest meldings of the political and the musical. Henze set Medusa for a large orchestra, chorus, baritone and soprano soloists and a speaker, and Ernst Schnabel’s text vividly recounts the horrific events surrounding the few survivors of the shipwrecked French frigate, Medusa, in 1817: the crew was forced onto a makeshift raft and all but a handful of the 154 perished.
Henze’s score, alternating sorrow with anger, is given a dramatic reading by conductor Peter Eötvös, who impressively marshals the array of forces at his disposal: the SWR symphony orchestra, three choirs, soloists Camilla Nylund and Peter Schöne, and speaker Peter Stein
Written by Michael Tucker; directed by Nadia Tass
Performances through October 20, 2019
Mark Linn-Baker and Jill Eikenberry in Fern Hill (photo: Carol Rosegg)
As a playwright, Michael Tucker is a terrific actor, as his play Fern Hill shows. This amusing if familiar sitcom about three couples that are also longtime friends is distinguished by the funny back-and-forth among the men and their wives (some friendly, some nasty), which Tucker writes with an ear toward the easy banter that veteran performers can make their own.
If the play itself suffers for that emphasis—laugh lines come regularly, at the expense of making the people speaking them full-bodied creations—it’s something unnoticed until later, because Fern Hill shows the facility of a Neil Simon play.
Fern Hill is the name of the sprawling farm where Jer, writer and professor (and whose 70th birthday brings the couples together), lives with his wife Sunny, an accomplished but self-critical painter. Visiting are Billy, a 60-year-old fading rock’n’roller with a penchant for cooking, and his wife Michiko, whom he met decades before while she was a groupie; and Vincent, a famous 80-year-old painter, and his wife, Darla, a professional photographer.
After nearly an hour’s worth of imbibing and good-natured ribbing about work and play and whether the six of them will live together as a sort of commune as a bulwark against getting old (Jer is adamantly against the idea), the first act turns on the revelation that Jer is having an affair—with a far younger student, no less.
The friction this causes allows other recriminations to well up, and the house is soon awash in bad feelings amid the many drinks, the play culminating in a six-way confessional of sorts to let Jer realize the error of his ways.
Director Nadia Tass guides this predictable but well-paced play to its conclusion on Jessica Parks’ superbly-detailed set, in which every inch of space tells us more about the characters—the paintings on the wall, the liquor they drink, the furniture they sit on—than Tucker’s script. But it’s the acting that gives Fern Hill its real pizzazz.
Jodi Long (Michiko) and Ellen Parker (Darla) have less to do than the others but still give finely-tuned comic performances. Mark Blum’s levelheaded Jer makes it easier to dislike him, while Jill Eikenberry (Tucker’s real-life wife) is given the widest character arc of all as Sunny deals with the fallout of Jer’s philandering. Eikenberry comes through in spades: her final glimpse at Blum gives us more insight into Sunny than Tucker’s script.
Last (and best) are the two scene stealers. As aging rocker Billy, Mark Linn-Baker—with his sideburns, goatee and long hair a dead ringer for David Crosby—gets many of the most pungent lines and spits them out with lascivious glee. And John Glover has great fun as the narcissistic artist Vincent (what else would his name be?), letting the dialogue fly and home in on whomever he’s targeting.
Linn-Baker and Glover give Fern Hill the comic heft it needs.
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
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