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Off-Broadway Review—Tracy Letts’ “Man from Nebraska”

Man from Nebraska
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by David Cromer
Performances through March 26, 2017
Reed Birney and Heidi Armbruster in Man from Nebraska (photo: Joan Marcus)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his towering psychological drama August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts writes about extremes in behavior, as an early play of his,Man from Nebraska—belatedly making its New York premiere, long after Killer Joe, Bug, August and Superior Donuts did—fitfully demonstrates.
Letts’s protagonist, Ken Carpenter, is a 57-year-old Baptist living in Omaha with his beloved wife Nancy. The play begins with the couple going through a typical day together: driving to church, sitting at services singing a hymn and listening to a sermon, going to a local place to eat, and visiting Ken’s mother in an assisted living facility. Then, after they turn out the lights for the night, Ken gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom, where he begins weeping uncontrollably. When Nancy awakens and asks what’s the matter, he drops a bombshell: “I don’t think there’s a God. I don’t believe in Him any more.”
After that statement, nothing is the same again. Nancy can’t understand, their cynical daughter Ashley thinks he’s taken leave of his senses, and Reverend Todd, who provides him with some clichéd bromides, tells him to get away for awhile: which Ken actually does, flying to London for the first time in decades since he was there briefly while in the Air Force. Leaving Nebraska loosens him up, of course: he meets Pat, a flirty vivacious businesswoman, on the flight over and talks so insistently with Tamyra, a young bartender at his hotel, that she makes him an alcoholic drink—he’s pretty much a teetotaler—which he loves so much that he gets smashingly drunk.
This leads to (for Ken) aberrant behavior: being seduced by Pat (who turns out to be a sex freak, natch), becoming friends with Tamyra and her artist roommate Harry, who give Ken a pep pill which makes him an uninhibited dancer and—apparently—a game sculptor, which Harry trains him as with Tamyra as their model in their small flat. Eventually—after hearing bad news about his aged mother—Ken returns home to make amends with God and Nancy.
Letts can be incisive when he shows how a devout man can suddenly, seemingly inexplicably decide that he no longer believes, skillfully charting his confusions, self-doubts and self-recriminations. But Ken’s linear progression from believer to unbeliever and back is charted all too predictably; it may be that Letts wants it to remain mysterious—after all, faith is beyond any intellectual reasoning—but by letting Ken have the time of his life partying it up, fooling around and even becoming an artist of sorts while in London is a little too much on the side of having his cake and eating it too, especially when he hotfoots it back home at the first sign of life’s adversity.
Actually, Nancy becomes the more interesting character after Ken leaves for London: first she’s in denial, waiting for him to return, then she begins falling into a depression until she slowly starts coming out of her shell, even if it’s initially to fend off the bumbling but earnest advances of Reverend Todd’s 75-year-old father Bud, who enjoys Outback Steakhouse, mindless shows on TV and making crude remarks. Nancy seems to grow more than our man from Nebraska, but it’s not a given that the playwright knows this.
As sensitively staged by David Cromer and acted with by a nuanced and penetrating cast led by Reed Birney, who makes Ken a persuasive bundle of contradictions—both secular and spiritual—and by Annette O’Toole as Nancy, whose transition from dutiful to less dutiful wife is sympathetically drawn. Special mention must go to Heidi Armbruster, who embodies Pat, conceived as an unconvincing character, with a bruised honesty that gets to the heart of Lett’s often strained and manipulative exploration of the spirit.
Man from Nebraska
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Theater Review—“Big River” Returns via Encores

Big River—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Book by William Hauptman; music & lyrics by Roger Miller; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances February 8-12, 2017
Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch in Big River (photo: Joan Marcus)

Premiering in 1985 on Broadway—where it won several Tonys, including Best Musical—and returning in 2003—revived by Deaf West Theatre—Big River doesn’t seem the usual kind of reclamation project at which Encores excels. But in Lear deBessonet’s lively staging, this tuneful musical based on Mark Twain’s classic 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn remains engaging and thought-provoking.
There will be carping about using the “n” word to describe Jim, Huck’s fellow traveler down the river—but Jim is an escaped slave and those using the epithet are whites with ties to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Although deBessonet doesn’t skimp on what audiences find uncomfortable a century and a half later, she never gets bogged down in a heavy-handed “message.”
Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Huck and Jim, by turns dramatic and funny, and tough-minded and sentimental, complemented nicely by Roger Miller’s score, a collection of sturdy, alternately rousing (“River in the Rain”), emotional (“Worlds Apart”) or spiritual (“How Blest We Are”) songs that hit on gospel, country, bluegrass and even rockabilly. In the leads, Nicholas Barasch’s delightful Huck and Kyle Scatliffe’s powerful Jim are worthy companions and even adversaries; both men sing beautifully, but it’s Scatliffe who mesmerizes during the show-stopping “Free at Last.”
In the supporting roles of The King and The Duke—who board Huck and Jim’s raft, take over their lives, and sell Jim back into slavery—David Pittu and Christopher Sieber again show why they are among today’s best comic actors. There’s lovely singing by Adrianna Hicks, Katherine A. Guy and Patrice Covington in their soulful solo turns, while the Encores Orchestra and music director Rob Berman provide the often fiery playing.
Big River—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

February '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Betty/L’Enfer/The Swindle

(Cohen Film Collection)
These features by French director Claude Chabrol—who, at his best, could compete with Alfred Hitchcock for witty, well-turned suspense films—are variable in quality, as so much of his career was. 1992’s Betty is an intimately offbeat drama about two scarred women; 1994’s L’Enfer stars a breathtaking Emmanuelle Beart in a twisted psychological portrait of a husband (Francois Cluzet) who believes his wife is cheating; and 1997’s The Swindle wastes Isabelle Huppert, Michel Serrault and Cluzet in a by-the-numbers comic thriller.
As usual, Cohen’s hi-def transfers are exemplary; too bad the scarce extras are two commentaries and a Cluzet interview: no extras from the French discs are included, a shame since we’re missing out on interviews and commentaries from Chabrol himself.
By Sidney Lumet
This intelligent documentary portrait is essentially one long discussion that director Nancy Buirski conducted before Sidney Lumet’s 2011 death, taking the director from his early TV days to his string of ‘70s and ‘80s film classics that took the pulse of his city (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City) and even the nation (Network, Running on Empty).
Lumet is smart, funny, personable and compulsively listenable, and Buirski shows copious clips from his most—and even least—celebrated films (The Wiz, anyone?). The hi-def transfer looks good; extras comprise bonus interview footage and an interview with Treat Williams, who starred in Prince of the City.
Hacksaw Ridge 
Director Mel Gibson fetishizes violence: Christ being tortured in The Passion of the Christ, Mayans being slaughtered in Apocalypto, Scots and English armies fighting in Braveheart. His latest ultra-violent war drama ups the ante: in showing how an American pacifist joins the service during World War II, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gibson actually made combat carnage worse than it really is.
At heart a standard war film, it’s sentimental and brutal by turns—with boot-camp sequences stolen from The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket, but far less effective—and it’s up to Andrew Garfield’s emotionally naked performance to deliver the goods. The film looks superb on Blu; extras include a 70-minute making-of documentary, deleted scenes and Gibson’s Veterans Day greeting.
Love in the Afternoon
(Warner Archive)
In Billy Wilder’s gossamer 1957 May-December romance, Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper are an unlikely couple who fall for each other in a Paris made even more glamorous by Wilder’s lustrous black and white visuals, which illustrate every cultural cliché of the City of Lights.
Hepburn is luminous, of course, and Maurice Chevalier strangely right as her father; even if Cooper is far too stiff, Wilder has made a high-gloss entertainment of the highest order. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray includes a first-rate hi-def transfer.
Nocturnal Animals 
Tom Ford’s excruciating would-be thriller is a textbook study in how not to make a movie: with his flat, repetitive visual palette, clumsily handled plot devices and comatose acting from a stellar cast—how often can Amy Adams look up in feigned shock from a manuscript she’s reading?—Ford’s drama is ham-fisted and pretentious.
Only Michael Shannon escapes the dourness as a dying detective, but even he can’t resuscitate something that’s already DOA. There’s a stellar Blu-ray image; extras include short featurettes and brief interviews.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Pedro Almodovar became an international art-house figure with this colorful 1988 comedy that had the anarchic spirit of his earlier, scruffier films but also had winning performances from formidable female stars, led by the great Carmen Maura.
Almodovar’s unique comic sensibility has long since worn out, but he was near the top of his game here; Criterion’s hi-def transfer is appropriately outstanding, and extras are new interviews with Almodovar, Maura, brother/producer Augusto Almodovar and former New York Film Fest head Richard Pena, who introduced Almodovar to festival audiences.
The Yakuza 
(Warner Archive)
In this 1974 Sydney Pollack drama, Eastern and Western customs literally do battle when Robert Mitchum visits Japan to help save longtime buddy Brian Keith’s daughter from the murderous clutches of the Yakuza, a Mafia-type organization with long-reaching tentacles.
The melding of gangster film, travelogue and romance sits uneasily in Pollack’s messily problematic if intriguing film, with Robert Towne and Paul & Leonard Schrader’s gritty script at odds with Pollack’s more cerebral direction. The fine performances are led by Mitchum’s non-nonsense anti-hero. The grainy hi-def transfer is exceptional; extras are Pollack’s commentary and vintage featurette.
DVD of the Week
London Town
This minor but diverting study of teenage angst follows its nerdy music-loving hero—teen Shay, living in a lower-class London suburb in the late ‘70s—who is befriended by Joe Strummer of the still-unknown The Clash.
The movie ambles along with bursts of punk rock blasting out of the speakers as Shay falls for his very first girlfriend Vivian and deals with his parents’ separation, all while discovering that Strummer, of all people, is a friendly dude. It’s all kind of precious but redeemed by emphatic acting by Daniel Huttlestone (Shay), Nell Williams (Vivian) and Jonathan Rhys-Myers (Strummer).

February '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Kirsten Johnson has shot many seminal images over the past few decades, and Cameraperson is her own “greatest hits” package gleaned from footage of films she has photographed for great documentaries like The Invisible War, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, along with her own “home movies” of herself and family.
Though there’s a sense of randomness to this project, there are powerful glimpses of people in such far-flung places as Bosnia, Nigeria, and Brooklyn, providing further proof (if any was needed) that she’s made important contributions to many indispensable films. The Blu-ray looks first-rate; extras include interviews, roundtables and Q&As.
Mercy Street—Complete 2ndSeason
The intrigues in and around a Union Army hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War have escalated during this drama’s second season, which plunges further into the medical and personal lives and relationships among the soldiers and other army personnel, doctors and nurses, civilians and slaves.
After seeming out of place last season, Josh Radnor has grown into his role as Union doctor Jed Foster, aided by equally strong performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as nurse Mary Phinney and, as a Confederate couple dealing with treason and grown daughters, Gary Cole and Donna Murphy. The season’s six episodes look gorgeously realistic on Blu; extras are 20 minutes of deleted scenes.
In the tradition of such biker flicks as Easy Rider and The Wild One, this 1973 British entry ups the ante with a group of zombie bikers terrorizing the local populace, but director Don Sharp has made a pretty muddy film with little drama, scares or thrills.
That it’s played relatively straight doesn’t help, as it keeps the film to one dull gear for nearly its entire 91-minute running time. The film has nicely filmic grain in hi-def; extras include new and archival interviews and a featurette.
Quarry—Complete 1st Season
When Mac Conway returns home from Vietnam, he discovers that his gorgeous wife Joni is having an affair, thanks to a mysterious dude who also recruits him as a hitman: the early 70s in America is presented with shrewd surreality that underlines the relentlessly downbeat vision of adultery, betrayal and murder.
Logan Marshall-Green is perfectly cast as Mac, South African actress Jodi Balfour is a revelation as Joni, and the writing and direction ratchet up the intensity throughout. The hi-def image is quite good; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes, commentaries and music videos
The Tree of Wooden Clogs 


Ermanno Olmi has made immeasurably finer films—from his early Il Posto and The Fiances to later masterworks One Fine Day and The Profession of Arms—but this 1978 epic may be his most beloved: winner of the grand prize at Cannes, this nuanced and insightful drama follows a group of Italian peasants over the course of a year.
Finely wrought, with amazingly lived-in performances by an all-amateur cast, it has its creator’s characteristic humanity and generosity in abundance, despite its overlength. Criterion’s otherwise excellent hi-def transfer is a bit cooler color-wise than I remember it when I originally saw it, but that’s not a deal breaker; extras include Olmi interviews, a South Bank Show episode on the film’s making; director Mike Leigh’s intro and new cast and crew interviews.
Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, completed after his death, is diffuse dramatically but contains some of his finest music, the latter of which is shown off in spades in this absorbing 2015 staging by director Nikolaus Lehnhoff at Milan’s La Scala.
Conductor Riccardo Chailly presides over a startlingly dramatic performance with grand and soaring vocals by soprano Nina Stemme (in the title role), tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko and soprano Maria Agresta. The hi-def video and audio are strong.
DVDs of the Week 
(Film Movement)
In Michal Vink’s appealng study, teenage loner Naama finds herself irresistibly drawn to free-spirited Dana, and their relationship, which soon goes from friendly to physical, is yet another difficulty in a constricted family life that includes a rebellious older sister.
Superb performances by Sivan Noam Shimon and Jade Sakori as the two young women anchor a sensitive drama that explores its thorny subject with tact and subtlety. The lone extra is a short, This Is You and Me, directed by American April Maxey.
The Forest for the Trees
(Film Movement)
Neither the enervating mess of her sophomoric sophomore feature Everyone Else nor the overblown pretentiousness of her breakthrough Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s 2005 debut is an engagingly slight comedy about a brand new teacher in over her head.
It’s incredibly clumsy at times, with choppy editing and mediocre acting, but there’s enough of a glimmer of talent that makes it more disappointing that Ade hasn’t continued to make more—rather than less—interesting movies. The lone extra is Estes Avenue, a short by the U.K.’s Paul Cotter.
CD Release of the Week 
Weinberg—Chamber Symphonies/String Quintet

Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), whose music has gained wider currency since his death, has had many champions, none more stalwart than violinist Gidon Kremer, who has played and recorded many Weinberg works, and whose stalwart ensemble Kremerata Baltica tackles five of Weinberg’s most imposingly satisfying pieces on a must-hear two-CD set.

Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and piano quintet are performed with a superb ear for detail that doesn’t ignore the overall conceptions of these dramatic and yearning works. Weinberg has been one of the happiest discoveries of the past decade: may Kremer and others continue to bring forth his musical riches.

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