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Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through December 1, 2019
Brenda Wehle and Charlotte Bydwell in The Michaels (photo: Joan Marcus)
Richard Nelson’s conversational, almost shockingly quiet plays—which began with That Hopey Changey Thing in 2010—happily continue with the start of his third cycle, The Michaels.
Taking its cue from The Apples and The Gabriels—all of the plays are set in Rhinebeck, a bucolic small town two-plus hours north of Manhattan—The Michaels is set in the kitchen of Rose Michael, a former dancer and teacher who lives with her partner of six months, Kate. In the course of a couple of hours—all of these plays are set in real time, which accentuates the feeling that we are eavesdropping on a real family preparing dinner—Rose’s kitchen is filled not only with food and dance and music and conversation, but also with warmth: and even occasional discord. Present are her family and friends: Rose’s ex-husband, theater producer David; their daughter, dancer Lucy; David’s wife (and Rose’s colleague/friend from their dancing days), Sally; Rose’s niece May; and another longtime dancer friend, Irenie.
Rose’s incurable cancer hangs over the proceedings; Lucy is planning to go to France for a dance intensive but has second thoughts since she doesn’t want to leave her mother. Kate—who was Lucy’s ninth-grade history teacher, something that would seem contrived in another playwright’s hands but which shows Nelson’s close attention to grace notes that flesh out these relationships—doesn’t know much about dance, so she gets explanations when Rose namedrops Merce or Tricia or Paul or Pina. But Nelson isn’t just showing off his arcane knowledge: like his previous dance-oriented play, Nikolai and the Others (about Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s collaboration on Orpheus), Nelson couches such information in the coziness of a chamber drama/character study, making it seem as natural as breathing.
And natural as breathing is what dance is to several of these characters, so Nelson affectingly includes a trio of dances, a solo each by Lucy and May and a duet for them (Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Takamoto give fiercely physical performances as the pair). While their movements are exhilarating—the closeness of the audience to the stage makes these moments particularly intimate—the dance episodes also provide insight into the dynamics of the relationships between Rose and Lucy, and, by extension, to Rose and May’s mom, Rose’s sister, who is still living in their hometown of Utica: to Rose’s eternal, and amusing, horror.
As always in these plays, the dialogue is delightfully natural: Nelson has mastered the art, from Chekhov, of quotidian talk providing further dimension to his characters than showier monologues or confrontations. Since it’s set on October 27, 2019—in the midst of the disaster that is the tRump administration—The Michaels mentions al-Baghdadi’s killing earlier that day, along with a French play that David saw in Paris about tRump and Kermit the Frog. But as Nelson showed in his other Rhinebeck Panorama plays, he’s not willing to gratuitously take down tRump and his Republican minions, however much they deserve it. Instead, there’s an unspoken sigh in the air, a semblance of political burn-out that defines these people, along with most of the country’s population.
The acting is, unsurprisingly, superlative. Maryann Plunkett (Kate) and Jay O. Sanders (David) are the only veterans of the other Rhinebeck plays, and their lived-in performances have a genuine feel of homey familiarity. Rita Wolf (Sally), Haviland Morris (Irenie) and Brenda Wehle (Rose) are equally masterly inhabiting their characters. The play’s final moments, thanks to the combined efforts of the writer/director and his estimable cast, are unbearably moving in their ordinariness—the ultimate strength of Nelson’s ennobling theater.
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
A Bread Factory
Patrick Wang’s mammoth two-part, low-key comedy displays intelligence and wit in its depiction of a small town’s arts center whose 40-year reign is in trouble when the arrival of a Chinese avant-garde duo threatens to upend the community’s artistic status quo. The excellent ensemble plays it straight but also deadpan enough to lighten the load when some plotlines take a turn toward the absurd.
Led by Tyne Daly, the large cast features Brian Murray, Amy Carlson, Janeane Garofalo and Nana Visitor. Wang’s loyalty to them—and to his own vision—helps smooth over occasional rough patches, like scenes of theatrical rehearsal that are uncomfortably reminiscent of Jacques Rivette. The film has a strikingly grainy look in high-def; extras on a DVD include a conversation between Wang and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a making-of featurette and a music video.
Days of Wine and Roses
Hard-hitting performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as an alcoholic husband and wife who falls into his spiral with devastating results are the main reasons to see Blake Edwards’ perceptive but at times dated 1962 adaptation of JP Miller’s 1958 television play.
Despite melodramatic bits, Lemmon and Remick are on-target throughout, especially in the unforgettable scene when the sober Lemmon visits the drunk Remick and slowly proceeds to fall off the wagon. Philip H. Lathrop’s expressive B&W photography looks especially impressive on Blu; extras comprise an Edwards commentary and vintage Lemmon interview.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
This 1973 TV movie, creepy and silly in equal terms, dramatizes a bizarre tale of spirits in a house trying to lure a housewife who’s just moved in with her otherwise occupied husband to their grasp, with terrifying results.
Director John Newland has made one egregious mistake: actually showing the monsters, who look like badly dressed gremlins and are quite risible. Otherwise, this is taut and effective—and, at 75 minutes, satisfyingly compact. The film looks good in hi-def; extras are two commentaries.
From Beyond the Grave
Five strange tales of terror make up director Kevin Connor’s 1973 omnibus film, with Peter Cushing as the owner of an antique store whose perceived slights give several customers—especially those who try to con or steal from him—awful payback, like a suicide prodded by a spectre or a horrible death at the hands of the proprietor himself thanks to a coffin studded with spikes.
It all goes down quite effectively thanks to an energetic cast, including David Warner, Lesley Anne-Down, Donald Pleasence and Ian Bannen. There’s a nice-looking hi-def transfer.
This sympathetic portrait introduces photographer Jay Maisel, who lived in a landmark building, The Bank, on the corner of Spring Street and the Bowery for the past half-century (he bought it for a song back in 1966).
Director Stephen Wilkes gives us an eye-opening glimpse at how Maisel had to move his voluminous collection of artifacts after he sold the building in what was the largest private real estate sale in the city’s history. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include additional interviews with Maisel and his colleagues, along with outtakes.
Based on a graphic novel, this rambunctious tale of a trio of Mafia wives taking over from their husbands after the men are sent to prison has its intermittent pleasures, but first-time director Andrea Berloff has decided that a surfeit of violence—even dismemberment—is entertaining. Hint to Berloff (who also wrote the movie): it isn’t.
Such gratuitous scenes detract from a well-made if not groundbreaking mob movie, and as the wives, Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy and especially Tiffany Haddish—who underplays superbly—keep it afloat. Grimy Hell’s Kitchen locations look great on Blu; extras are a deleted scene and a two making-of featurettes.
Artist Jill Magid has directed a fascinating if obviously frustrating documentary about how the archives of the great Mexican architect Luis Barragán ended up in Switzerland, almost completely unavailable to scholars and the general public.
When she wants to mount her own exhibition about the architect, Magid tries to get through to Federica Zanco, who oversees the archive, by proposing ever more desperate schemes—building to a diabolical one at the end—but the bulk of the film is taken up by ethical quandaries: who owns another artist’s legacy? Does the public deserve to see it? There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise a commentary and Magid interview.
CD of the Week
Magnard—Symphonies 3 and 4
French composer Albéric Magnard is known, if at all, for his death: in 1914, at age 49, he was killed by German soldiers defending his home. The army also set the place on fire, which ended up destroying several of his unpublished scores. Magnard's music, which should be far better known, is powerful and even majestic, as his great opera Guercoeur demonstrates.
But the summit of his oeuvre are his four symphonies, and this recording of the third and fourth displays his brilliant orchestration, his long, flowing musical lines and simultaneous nodding back to Wagner and anticipating Mahler. Fabrice Bollon conducts the Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra in an illuminating account of these seminal works.
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