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Broadway Play Review—James Graham’s “Ink”

Ink

Written by James Graham; directed by Rupert Goold

Performances through July 7, 2019

The cast of James Graham's Ink (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

A play about Rupert Murdoch doesn’t seem high on the list of things we need right now. But James Graham’s often thrilling, even intoxicating Ink—especially in Rupert Goold’s splendid staging—is a particularly nuanced take on the early exploits of a man whose very name conjures images of the caricatured dark lord of an evil empire.

 

Ink, set in 1969, begins with a restaurant dinner between Murdoch, an Australian millionaire looking to make a splash in the British newspaper business, and Larry Lamb, an editor who’s slogged away at various papers. Murdoch offers him the job as editor of the Sun, the tabloid that Murdoch has just purchased as his entry into Fleet Street. Darkly humorous and slightly ominous, this scene encapsulates and anticipates what later unfolds.

 

Lamb accepts the position and quickly sets about making the Sun popular and profitable in the ridiculously short time frame Murdoch has given him. Much of the first act is given over to the breakneck pace of his recruiting, hiring and getting the tabloid up and running with what looks like a skeleton crew. At the same time, the editors of the Mirror—the world’s biggest-selling newspaper, where Lamb worked years earlier—are responding to the Sun’s increasingly successful (and borderline plagiaristic) gambits, at first incredulously and amusedly, then bemusedly and, finally, very nervously.

 

The second act takes some darker turns: as the Sun continues its improbable rise, Lamb and his crew must come up with ever more creative ways of keeping it all moving forward, like introducing their nude Page Three girl. In a scene that’s dramatically riveting if most likely invented, the young woman (played with appropriate strength and agency by Rana Roy) insightfully describes her view of the situation to Lamb: “That’s weird, isn’t it. To think after this, I’ll go and we’ll probably never see each other again but we’re linked in this now. Handcuffed together, for all time. Isn’t that funny.”

 

Ink’s most potent section comes when Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick McKay, is kidnapped and responses to the crime are splayed all over the Sun’s own front pages. Lamb decides that spilling ink and adding more readers is more important than an innocent person’s life (even one connected to the paper), and when Muriel’s body is never found—presumably fed to pigs by the killers—there’s a bit of soul-searching, but not too much, as the race to the top, i.e., the bottom, continues. 

 

Hovering over all of this is Murdoch, flitting in and out even if he finds some of Lamb’s innovations problematic—at least until they work. The excellent Bertie Carvel plays Murdoch with a perpetual hunch, as if he’s already leaning toward what’s going to happen. Speaking out of the side of his mouth gives him a slightly sinister edge, but Murdoch never comes off as the worst person in the world—which may be why Graham adds a line, at Murdoch and Lamb’s final dinner, that he’s going to New York to buy a TV network. ("TV is the future," he casually says.) The audience dutifully groans.

 

Skillfully keeping apace of Carvel is Jonny Lee Miller’s Lamb. Miller has to do most of the play’s heavy lifting, as he’s onstage nearly the entire time. He also has to be amped up for long stretches, barking out orders, yelling at subordinates, screaming for new and better ideas, even angrily taking control of the printing process after the union men and women refuse when the McKay kidnapping breaks. But Miller is never showy or blatant; his noisy rage is plausibly within range of a man whose Faustian bargain may preclude him from keeping his dignity. 

 

Goold’s directing mirrors Miller’s performance—sometimes it seems overdone (a few winking song-and-dance routines in the first act), but it’s of a piece with the Sun’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink ethos. Bunny Christie’s imposing set, on which a mound of office furniture is precariously stacked in helter-skelter fashion, spectacularly visualizes that go-for-broke attitude. Christie’s own costumes, Neil Austin’s canny lighting and Adam Cork’s haunting sound design also contribute handsomely to Ink's sordidly enticing atmosphere.


Ink

Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

manhattantheatreclub.com

April '19 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dragged Across Concrete 

(Lionsgate)

There are no good guys in S. Craig Zahler’s relentlessly grim and gratuitously brutal crime drama about a couple of rogue cops who get caught up in a bank robbery masterminded by a group of sadistic crooks. Despite a good cast—Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are surprisingly effective as the policemen—and some intense sequences, the film is dragged down by an ungodly 160-minute running time and much pointless and casual cruelty, including, just minutes after she first appears, the killing-off of a bank employee quite conflicted over returning to her job after maternity leave.

 

 

 

Some might call it realistic, but it’s really lazily manipulative, and too much of the film relies on one-upping its own violence to be truly worthwhile. The film looks superb on Blu; extras comprise several on-set featurettes with interviews.

 

Frankenstein 1970 

(Warner Archive)

Boris Karloff returns as another Frankenstein, this time a grandson of the Baron, who lets a Hollywood crew rent his Bavarian castle while making a movie so he can to fund his own mad-scientist experiments in Howard W. Koch’s low-budget, low-energy 1958 thriller.

 

 

 

Karloff’s hamming is the most entertaining aspect of this weak black-and-white entry in the series, whose scant 80-minute running time betrays that little imagination went into making this; even the monster’s killing scenes are pretty paltry. The most effective moment is the opening, a clever head fake that would have made a terrific start to a better movie. At least there’s a beautifully detailed hi-def transfer.

 

My Brilliant Career 

(Criterion)

In Gillian Armstrong’s incisive 1979 portrait of a young Australian woman whose independent streak finds her out of step with her conservative family, Judy Davis gives a star-making performance as the headstrong heroine, and she’s matched by Sam Neill as the wealthy childhood friend who falls for her despite (or because of) her iconoclasm.

 

 

 

Armstrong was the first woman to break through among the Aussie New Wave (which featured Bruce Beresford and Fred Schepisi, most notably) and her film is still a sharp exploration of female independence. Criterion’s release has a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are Armstrong’s commentary, new interviews with Armstrong and production designer Luciana Arrighi, archival Davis interview—too bad there’s nothing new from Davis and Neill—and Armstrong’s 1973 student short, One Hundred a Day.

 

CD of the Week

Busoni—Piano Concerto in C Major (Myrios Classics)

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the iconoclastic Italian composer, created at least two difficult but enduring works—his brilliant opera Doktor Faust and his one-of-a-kind Piano Concerto, which is not only gargantuan in its forces (large orchestra, piano soloist and men’s choir, of all things) but also length: its five moments total 70 minutes of music.

 

 

 

This recording, from a 2017 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at its home in Symphony Hall, vividly showcases Busoni’s intricate and often subtle piano writing, and how it remains perfectly balanced amid the huge orchestra’s playing; the final movement, which features the chorus, is as thrilling as it should be. Kirill Gerstein is the sublime piano soloist and conductor Sakari Oramo superbly leads the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the BSO.

Off-Broadway Review—Halley Feiffer’s “The Pain of My Belligerence”

The Pain of My Belligerence

Written by Halley Feiffer; directed by Trip Cullum

Performances through May 12, 2019

 

Halley Feiffer and Hamish Linklater in The Pain of My Belligerence (photo: Joan Marcus)

In her new play, The Pain of My Belligerence, Halley Feiffer lays bare the chaotic tRump era. Taking place on three successive presidential election days (2012, 2016 and 2020), the bluntly-titled black comedy takes the measure of an emotionally abusive relationship between New Yorker writer Cat and the obnoxious, narcissistic Guy, who has a wife and two young daughters at home. This “charmer” makes tRump himself look angelic, and as Feiffer writes him and Hamish Linklater plays him, he’s a roguish bad boy with no redeeming features except an astonishingly self-confident arrogance. Of course—as we see in the first scene, which chronicles their first date—Cat doesn’t mind his physical pushiness, foulmouthed racist and sexist remarks and sexually charged innuendos: despite feigning disgust, she ends up hungrily falling into his arms.

 

The second scene is set four years later, and Cat is sick and bedridden, her toxic relationship with Guy and tRump’s candidacy physically and mentally affecting her. Guy shows up bearing groceries (or, as Linklater pronounces it, “grosh-eries”) and the two continue their mind games of nasty insults and self-pitying behavior, punctuated by bouts of oral sex and—after Cat turns on the TV to see that tRump will probably win the election—full-fledged intercourse.

 

Four years after that, the third scene chronicles Election Day, 2020. Guy’s wife, Yuki—whom Cat had interviewed years earlier, which led to that fateful first date—and one of their daughters greet Cat at their home. Cat is there to ostensibly interview Yuki again but actually to discover what happened to Guy after he stopped visiting her. It turns out that Yuki has also been damaged by her relationship with Guy; they have passed on their emotional and physical baggage to their two daughters. Yet, in an improbably happy (or at least bittersweet) ending, Cat and Yuki become friends of a sort, and there’s a glimmer of hope for the future—whether or not tRump is reelected.

 

Feiffer has (as she admits in her program note) taken on a lot to fit into her play’s 75-minute running time. Cat, like the playwright herself, has Lyme disease and awful experiences and relationships with men. But such autobiographical details don’t necessarily translate into thought-provoking theater. The characters’ one-note toxicity might be truthful, but Feiffer has been unable to balance that with any crucial insights into or observations about them: just having one or another of them say something belligerent followed by the exclamation “joking!” does not count.

 

The play ends up as an endurance test: if you can stomach these people and their self-destructive ways, then you might get more out of it. In the end, it works best as an actors’ exercise: the onrushing back-and-forth dialogue is especially intricately worked out by Feiffer and Linklater, as are the sexual acrobatics they engage in. You applaud the performers, but not what they’re performing.

 

Trip Cullum directs with his usual precision and the fearless Feiffer is unafraid to present herself naked emotionally and physically, both as playwright and performer. Too bad that doesn't make The Pain of My Belligerence any less desultory.

 

The Pain of My Belligerence

Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

playwrightshorizons.org

Off-Broadway Review— John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”

Nantucket Sleigh Ride

Written by John Guare; directed by Jerry Zaks

Performances through May 5, 2019

 

 

John Laroquette and Will Swenson in John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

John Guare’s streak of playful absurdism makes even his lesser works enjoyable to watch unfold onstage. That’s the case with his latest, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, whose breezy title—a whaling phrase describing the wild ride a harpooned whale could dangerously take those hunting it down on—winks at its protagonist’s own journey. Edmund “Mundie” Gowery is a successful—read: ruthless—Wall Street trader who authored a single hit play, Internal Structure of Stars, some four decades ago: when we meet him, he’s giddy that he’s become a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. (57 Across: 1970s playwright. 6 Letters.) When two zombie-like adults, Poe and Lilac, enter his office, his memories of a long-ago summer flood back and we enter his past; or, at least, how he supposedly remembers it.

 

Gowery’s summer of ‘75 concerns a home in Nantucket his lawyer talks him into buying with the proceeds from his play: the police call with the news that his tenants are part of a child pornography ring and that he may be implicated since he’s the owner. Dropping everything in New York, he arrives in Nantucket and meets a whole cast of characters: 9-year-old Poe and his 7-year-old sister Lilac; their father, Schuyler; their mother’s (supposed) lover, McPhee; and a Nantucket police officer. The children’s mother and Schyuler’s wife, Elsie, is the catalyst for the entire plot: she staged a production of Mundie’s play and, when she called to let him know that, he nastily denigrated what he considered its amateurishness. Mundie believes that she may have designed an elaborate revenge scheme against him revolving around his shady tenants.

 

Guare delights in such farcical plotting, which variously includes Magritte, vengeance, adultery, suicide, pedophilia (Roman Polanski is mentioned in a subplot about Mundie’s next possible project) and possible murder; there are even pop-up appearances by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and Walt Disney himself (!), as well as references to Jaws, both book and movie, which ruled that summer’s beach reading and box office. How does it all fit together? Guare really never answers that question, but his breathless journey through Mundie’s (and his own?) possible past is often exhilarating, at times reminiscent of the sleight-of-hand that distinguishes his best work, i.e., The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation, A Few Stout Individuals and Landscape of the Body.

 

A huge assist comes from Jerry Zaks, whose dizzyingly precise direction is always on Guare’s offbeat wavelength, sorting out the strangely compelling story strands and characters and sending them on their merry way. Paul Gallo’s arresting two-tiered set adroitly visualizes the fragmented states of Mundie’s memory, while the estimable supporting cast is led by Will Swenson’s amped-up McPhee, German Jaramillo’s amusingly deadpan Borges, and Clea Alsip and Tina Benko’s hilarious turns as women in Mundie’s messy life.

 

Standing front and center, John Laroquette plays Mundie with an infectious enthusiasm as he makes every utterance and inflection, however slight, drip with caustic meaning. A peerless guide frantically leading us through Mundie’s mind, Laroquette even gives Guare’s final bit of dialogue about self-recognition a weariness that’s quite touching, an unexpectedly emotional capstone to a bizarre but buoyant trip down memory lane.

 

Nantucket Sleigh Ride

Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

lct.org

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