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Off-Broadway Review—Simon Stephens’ “On the Shore of the Wide World”

On the Shore of the Wide World
Written by Simon Stephens; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through October 8, 2017
 
Ben Rosenfeld, C.J. Wilson and Tedra Millan in On the Shore of the Wide World (photo: Ahron R. Foster)
Simon Stephens’s ambitious plays include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which daringly got inside an autistic teen’s headspace thanks to Marianne Elliott’s astonishing Tony-winning staging; and Heisenberg, a routine May-September romance between an elderly man and a younger woman whose dullness was saved on Broadway solely by a luminous Mary-Louise Parker. 
 
In between sits On the Shore of the Wide World, a 2005 effort titled after a line from a John Keats poem, belatedly getting its New York premiere.
 
Three generations of the Holmes family muddle through their quotidian 21st century existence in the north of England. There are two brothers—teens Alex and Christopher (smitten with Alex’s new girlfriend, Sarah)—their parents Peter and Alice, and Peter’s own father and mother, Ellen and Charlie. 
 
After one of the brothers is killed in an accident, it sends shock waves through the family, and the bulk of the play deals with coming to grips with that loss by taking tentative steps toward rebuilding their lives and relationships.
 
The major problem with the play is that these are indistinct characters with muddled motivations and a manner that’s subdued to the point of being somnolent. Maybe Stephens is showing the ultimate British stiff-upper-lip sensibility, but when Peter mentions the death of his son to Susan, the mom-to-be whose house he is renovating, it’s the first time the audience has heard about it and it feels like cheating: why is such a momentous event handled in an “oh by the way” manner, and in a conversation with a relative stranger some weeks after it happened?
 
By omitting immediate reactions to the biggest dramatic incident in the Holmes family’s lives, Stephens shortchanges both the characters and the play they inhabit, ensuring that everything from that point is greeted with audience skepticism: the playwright is playing untrustworthy games.
 
Too often the characters are mere chess pieces placed by their author into contrived situations. When grandfather Charlie is rushed to the hospital with a seemingly serious ailment, it ends up being for purposes of obvious dramatic irony as his son Peter comes to visit and confess his lifelong love-hate for his own dad. 
 
And when Alice meets John, the father of the boy who accidentally killed her son, they embark on an improbable (but platonic!) relationship, replete with delicious home-cooked meals, that exists solely as an inelegant parallel to the equally unconvincing bond between Peter and Susan.
 
Since there’s little coherence in the story’s strands or emotional resonance in the characters, even a first-rate staging doesn’t help. Director Neil Pepe sensitively paces the action—there are many scenes, some brief, some lingering, in several locales (the canny set design is by Scott Pask)—and gets affecting performances by a mainly American cast whose British accents sometimes waver but whose grasp of these sketchy people feels more lived-in than they deserve.
 
Blair Brown is a subdued but transfixing Ellen, Peter Maloney his usual ornery self as Charlie, Mary McCann a riveting bundle of raw nerves as Alice, C.J. Wilson a trenchantly expressive Peter, Ben Rosenfeld and Wesley Zurick finely wrought as the brothers, and Tedra Millan just right as Sarah—this, her first stage appearance after she nearly stole Present Laughter from Kevin Kline, confirms her as one of our most promising performers, on and off Broadway.
 
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY
atlantictheater.org

September '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
 

The Vietnam War

(PBS)
For the formidable team of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, it was only a matter of time before they got to the Vietnam War—following Burns’ famous The Civil Warand The War (on World War II)—and, over 10 episodes and 18 hours, theirs is a thorough and informative history lesson in the usual Burns way, with clear-eyed chronicling and analysis from fascinating talking heads and sobering archival footage. It might not be the last word on such a divisive, disastrous war, but what could?
 
 
On Blu, the series looks and sounds fantastic (big late ‘60s-early ‘70s hits are heard throughout); extras include a making-of featurette and extra scenes.
 
The Big Knife
(Arrow Academy)
Erik the Conqueror
(Arrow)
Clifford Odets’s intriguing but overly melodramatic play The Big Knife—on Broadway a few seasons ago with Bobby Cannavale—was adapted by director Robert Aldrich in 1955, an unsatisfying exploration of a Hollywood superstar’s difficulty balancing his personal and professional lives, despite strong work from Jack Palance, Ida Lupino and Shelley Winters.
 
 
Italian schlockmeister Mario Bava’s 1961 Erik the Conqueror—an often risible but mainly watchable swords-and-sandals epic—has its moments, especially whenever stunning twins Alice and Ellen Kessler are onscreen. The films look pleasing enough in new hi-def restorations; extras include commentaries and Erik’s original ending.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Festival 

(Criterion)

Murray Lerner—who died earlier this month at age 90—directed this classic 1967 time-capsule about the Newport Folk Festival, with performances by luminaries Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger.
 
 
Criterion’s Blu-ray features a superbly restored print with excellent sound, bonus musical performances, When We Played Newport, a new program of archival interviews with Lerner, music festival producer George Wein, Baez, Seeger, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Peter Yarrow, and Editing "Festival," with Lerner, associate editor Alan Heim, and assistant editor Gordon Quinn.
 
Madonna—Rebel Heart Tour
(Eagle Vision)
Although her career has gone on longer than I expected for a celebrity of scant musical and artistic worth—notwithstanding a brilliant PR machine—Madonna does hire the best in the business, so this two-hour concert from her most recent tour is well-paced, -staged and -performed by her band and sundry dancers.
 
 
That she’s always been arrogantly unsubtle has served her well with her many fans, and she gives them what they want: “shocking” sexual come-ons and a “daring” potty mouth. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch; extras include a CD of the concert, excerpts from another concert and a performance of “Like a Prayer.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Slayer 

The Ghoul

(Arrow)
In 1982’s The Slayer, two couples find themselves at the mercy of a killer in a remote vacation house; director J.S. Cardone’s slasher flick is heavy on atmosphere and gore but light on true chills, despite a game, attractive cast and photogenic locale (Tybee Island, Georgia).
 
 
Dime-store psychology gives way to absurdity in The Ghoul (2013), Gareth Tunley’s would-be thinking-person’s thriller about a detective investigating bizarre murders, with an accomplished cast unable to overcome bumpy dramaturgy. Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; extras include commentaries, interviews and making-of featurettes.
 
Wonder Woman
(Warner Brothers)
If it wasn’t for Gal Gadot—an Israeli actress who dominates the screen with personality, charisma, charm and fierce strength—as the title character, this overlong, overstuffed, underwritten and self-important superhero movie would be as redundant and pointless as all the others from the past decade or so.
 
 
Director Patty Jenkins harnesses what she can of Gadot’s uniqueness but 40-50 minutes of bloat needed to be shorn from this 2-hour, 20-minute slog. The movie looks great on Blu; extras are extended scenes, blooper reel, alternate scene and several featurettes.
                                                                                                                
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVDs of the Week

Abacus—Small Enough to Jail

(PBS)
Anyone still outraged that no big bank executives were punished for actions leading to the 2008 financial meltdown—except for several billions of dollars in fines, more than offset by taxpayer bailouts and bonuses—will be enraged anew by director Steve James’ probing look at how tiny Abacus Bank in New York’s Chinatown was the only financial institution hauled into court.
 
 
As James deftly demonstrates, overreach by the New York attorney general’s office was the bigger story: it tried for at least one conviction, however miniscule in the grand scheme of things, to show it was tough on the big bad bankers. This is also a tale of the togetherness of a family banding together to fight to clear the name of the institution it’s run for generations.  

The Treasure
(Sundance Selects)
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu loves shaggy-dog stories, which he once again pursues in his latest dryly droll feature, of a piece with his earlier, accomplished but flawed Police, Adjective and 12:08, East of Bucharest.
 
 
A treasure hunt undertaken by a man and his neighbor serves as a metaphor for post-Communist, post-capitalist Romanian society—one with lots of skeletons in its historical closet—with priceless moments of deadpan observation alternating with arid stretches.

Off-Broadway Review—Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday”

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday
Written by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Les Waters
Performances through October 1, 2017
 
Kathleen Chalfant (center, arms upraised) in For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday(photo: Joan Marcus)
Sarah Ruhl’s plays are an ungainly hybrid of whimsy, tragedy, absurdism and sheer absurdity—and her latest to arrive in New York, with the equally ungainly title of For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, is no exception. (The haphazard capitalization is Ruhl’s own.) Its protagonist is Ann—which rhymes with Pan, of course—a former grade-school player of Peter, who introduces herself, is seen at her father’s agonizing deathbed with her four siblings, then at the booze-fueled wake with their father’s ghost wandering in and out of the proceedings with the family dog, and finally in a fantasy sequence donning the green outfit and flying harness one last time as her brothers and sister enact roles from J.M. Barrie’s beloved saga, like Captain Hook, Wendy and the Lost Boys.
 
The idea of an elderly woman stepping into Pan’s shoes to replay her childhood certainly has promise, but Ruhl bludgeons it to a premature death with countless side trips into forced whimsy and heavyhanded dialogue, right from Ann’s opening monologue in front of the curtain, and continuing with the deathbed scene, where it’s not the physical and emotional turmoil of waiting for someone to die that’s excruciating but the paucity of the writing and meaningless conversations. The wake, too, suffers similarly: would a group of middle-aged Midwesterners from Iowa boisterously start singing “O Canada” simultaneously? The other song interludes—including one of the brothers picking up a trumpet to play not “Taps” but “The Saints Go Marching In”—are additional desperate padding.
 
For 90 intermissionless minutes, Ruhl’s play meanders both obviously and pointlessly. Unsurprisingly, she has explained that she wrote it for her mother, which is fine as far as it goes, but For Peter mines territory similar to her other work, as willful weirdness and irrational characters and their relationships pile up onstage in order to stretch out a play whose ideas barely pass muster for a 10-minute curtain-raiser.
 
What’s disheartening is that Les Waters directs persuasively, David Zinn’s sets are beguiling, Matt Frey’s lighting is often dazzling, and Kristopher Castle’s costumes are amusing. Fully on board is the entire cast, led by Kathleen Chalfant, who plays Ann with her usual resourcefulness and intelligence. But nothing can disguise that For Peter Pan—even more than her previous play seen in New York, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage—is all dressed up with no place to fly.
 
For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
phnyc.org
 

September '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Heal the Living
(Cohen Media)
Based on Maylis de Karengal’s best-selling novel, Katell Quillevere’s profound film probes the emotions and private lives of several people damaged, destroyed, or otherwise affected by the death of a healthy young man and the donation of his organs.
With clinical precision but affecting immediacy, Quillevere dramatizes the dizzyingly complicated decisions that arise from life-or-death ordeals, with persuasive performances and two graphic scenes of surgery that are perhaps two too many. The film looks splendid on Blu; lone extra is a Quillevere interview.
 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
(HBO)
Rebecca Smoots’ remarkable journalistic endeavor dove into the history of the woman whose harvested diseased cells have become an enduring line of defense for fighting cancer and a host of other diseases since her death in 1951.
And while the film adaptation—written and directed by George Wolfe—can’t hope to cover the same amount of time, narrative and breadth of characters in a mere 90 minutes, by concentrating on the relationship between Smoot (a wonderful Rose Byrne) and Lacks’ daughter Deborah (a poignant Oprah Winfrey), it demonstrates what such a momentous scientific breakthrough meant to those most directly affected by it. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras are two brief featurettes.
 
Jessica Jones 
Daredevil
(Netflix)
Netflix’s first two Marvel-inspired series show how a strong main character can lead the way to binge viewing, as Krysten Ritter tears up the screen in Jessica Jones, overwhelming the preposterous storylines and ridiculous characters she has to deal with.
Unfortunately, Daredevil is stuck with limp noodle Charlie Cox as the hero, which seriously crimps its style. Luckily, there’s a supporting cast sturdy enough for Daredevil to muddle through, including Rosario Dawson, who’s also superb in Jessica Jones. Both shows look great on Blu; no extras on either set, however.
 
The Love of a Woman
(Arrow Academy)
French director Jean Gremillon’s final film was this intimate, unsentimental 1953 drama about a female doctor who becomes an island’s new MD while battling sexism—then falls in love with a man who wants to take her back to Italy and make her a housewife.
It sounds like pure soap opera, but under Gremillon’s sensitive guidance, actress Micheline Presle and actor Massimo Girotti give performances of enormous sympathy, making this a quite satisfying tragic romance, and a lovely swan song for the director. The B&W films looks flawless on Blu; the lone extra is a substantial one: a 96-minute documentary, In Search of Jean Gremillon, from 1969.
 
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity 
(Arrow)
This trilogy directed by Kinji Fukasaku between 1974 and 1976 continues the epic gangster tales told in his original late ‘60s quintet, but these may be even more ferocious, forceful and brutal in their studying such amoral and immoral characters. That each of the films works as a standalone story is another enticing feature.
Arrow’s boxed set is another winner: all three films are in good (if sometimes soft) new hi-def transfers, there are interviews with co-screenwriter of the second and third films, Koji Takada, and an appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, and also included is an illustrated accompanying book.
 
Night Moves
My Blue Heaven
(Warner Archive)
Night Moves was director Arthur Penn’s last fully-realized drama, a 1975 private eye mystery with Gene Hackman at his peak (and then 17-year-old Melanie Griffith in the altogether) in a ramshackle but pointed pulse-taker of an America wounded by Vietnam and Watergate that’s become a nation of isolation, loneliness and confusion.
Herbert Ross’s amiable 1990 comedy about a gangster in the witness protection program, My Blue Heaven traffics in so many stereotypes that even a cast led by Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, Bill Irwin, Deborah Rush, Melanie Mayron and Carol Kane can’t save its increasingly labored attempts to wring laughs out of the basest genre clichés. Both films have excellent hi-def transfers; Night Moves also includes an on-set featurette.
 
Ronin 
(Arrow)                                
John Frankenheimer’s 1998 action flick has grown in stature over the years, mainly for its often spectacular car chases through Paris and the narrow alleys of Nice. There are several inventive if illogical set pieces, including one in the Arles Roman amphitheater, but the action continues so relentlessly that two hours fly by.
The top-notch cast, led by Robert DeNiro, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, Jean Reno, Michael Lonsdale and Stellan Skarsgard, also helps. Arrow’s new hi-def transfer is superb; many extras include Frankenheimer’s commentary, interviews with the actors and cinematographer Robert Fraisse and featurettes on stunts and music.
 
The Tempest
(Opus Arte)
Shakespeare’s final play was this magical fantasy about reconciliation and forgiveness, but this new Royal Shakespeare Company production accentuates the magic, remarkably realized by Imaginarium Studios, with projections, lighting and other visual effects given primacy over the poetry and relationships.
Such stagecraft swallows up the performances, mainly Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, who comes across as slightly dull and plebian, not the aged wizard who sheds his otherworldly powers when all is returned to normalcy. The staging looks quite spectacular on Blu; extras are director Gregory Doran’s commentary, a Beale interview and other featurettes.
 

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