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Off-Broadway Review—Marisa Tomei in “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage”

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Written by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Performances through May 7, 2017
Marisa Tomei in How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (photo: Kyle Froman)
Marisa Tomei has come a long way. Sure, she won the 1992 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, but her next few movie (and Shakespeare in the Park) appearances made her seem a one-trick pony regurgitating variations on Mona Lisa Vito to diminishing returns. However, she persevered and has turned into one of our best actresses, both onscreen (Oscar nominations for In the Bedroom and The Wrestler) and onstage, where she is giving a delectable and ultimately moving performance in Sarah Ruhl’s new tease of a play, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.
With their opaque plots, absurdist situations and flowery language, Ruhl’s plays hint at significance but—with the glorious exception of her lone Broadway outing, the focus and superb In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play—always come up short. At least Marriage begins tantalizingly, with a tart exploration of how two happily married, middle-aged couples from New Jersey perceive sexuality and its taboos after falling under the spell of Pip, a polyamorous woman who is blissfully living with (and loving) two men.
Tomei plays George, our narrator and spirit guide, who is most transformed by Pip’s appearance at a New Year’s Eve party; she becomes obsessed with Pip to the point that she even misremembers what happened at the orgy that ended their debaucherous evening. One day, George—short for Georgia, her nickname a sly Ruhl move that further confuses the issues of sexuality and identity—goes bow hunting with Pip to shoot deer (Pip kills and eats her own food, apparently another symptom of polyamory), only to shoot a dog by mistake and end up in jail.
As a character, George may not have true inner logic—another unfortunate Ruhl staple—but, like Mary Louise Parker and Laura Benanti before her, Tomei delivers a sparkling display of comic energy and touching vulnerability, even putting across George’s clunky closing monologue—which heavy-handedly equates the joys of polyamory with music-making—so charmingly and committedly that it nearly sounds meaningful.
But Ruhl falters, as she often does, by confusing absurdism with absurdity. The first act has intelligent, amusing dialogue among the incredulous foursome and Pip and her men. But after the orgy, Ruhl spins her wheels until simply letting the play trail off without a dramatically or psychologically coherent resolution. That a real bird suddenly shows up late in the play is a clear sign of desperation: by concentrating on its sudden appearance, the audience might notice that leaden dramaturgy has taken over.
Rebecca Taichman’s skillful production corrals an expert cast to play these people as individuals, not freaks or parodies: Lena Hall is perfectly cast as the blue-haired, tattooed and universally alluring Pip, while Robin Wiegert has a lovely and understated presence as George’s close friend Jane. Credit also goes to David Zinn’s stylish set, Susan Hilferty’s spot-on costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s astute lighting. But head and shoulders above all is Marisa Tomei’s George, guiding us in for a relatively safe landing after an exceedingly bumpy ride.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

March '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Demon Seed
The Valley of Gwangi
(Warner Archive)

In Donald Cammell’s tepid sci-fi shocker about a murderous and sexually assaultive computer, 1977’s Demon Seed, Julie Christie totally outclasses her material as the wife of a computer scientist who finds herself at the mercy of their home computer—which wants a baby with her.
Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects are the attraction of 1969’s Valley of Gwangi, an often risible fantasy that combines Westerns and dinosaurs: a Jurassic Wild West, if you will. A wooden cast is outclassed by Harryhausen’s miniature creatures, especially a dazzling (and destructive) allosaurus. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Gwangi extras include vintage featurettes.
Collateral Beauty
(Warner Bros)
Will Smith’s least memorable movies are always far too heavy on the sanctimony: like the execrable Seven Pounds, his new movie piles it on until there’s nothing left for the viewer except to laugh at the ridiculous self-importance. Also, an incredible supporting cast is pretty much wasted: there’s Ed Norton, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris and Michael Pena, if you please.
That there are several nicely-photographed New York locations is about the most one can say in favor of this overwrought, treacly drama. The Blu-ray image is sharp; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Finian’s Rainbow
(Warner Archive) 
Burton Lane’s tunefully whimsical 1947 musical was belatedly turned into a movie in 1968 by an up-and-coming director named Francis Ford Coppola, who only rarely balances whimsy with realism, and the result is a fitfully entertaining pastiche that could have been so much more.
Fred Astaire is too old for Finian, while Petula Clark is enchanting as his daughter Sharon; the musical numbers are serviceably done, and Philip H. Lathrop’s color photography is, if not inspired, more than competent. On Blu-ray, the film’s colors are eye-poppingly gorgeous; extras are Coppola’s commentary/intro and a vintage “world premiere” featurette.
(Opus Arte)
American composer Lowell Liebermann’s full-length ballet based on Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel is a dramatic delight, with atmospheric music that heightens the intensity of the whole monstrous saga. The dancing—notably by Steven McRae’s creature—is pretty spectacular and exquisitely shows off Liam Scarlett’s inventive choreography.
The entire performance is a happy case of something that seemed iffy but ended up top-notch. Hi-def image and sound are excellent; extras include several backstage featurettes.
A Kind of Murder
Though based on a Patricia Highsmith mystery novel, this drama about a husband hoping to rid himself of a neurotic wife is mostly bland and uninteresting, despite its accurate mise-en-scene and accomplished performances by Patrick Wilson (husband), Jessica Biel (wife), Haley Bennett (other woman) and Eddie Marsan (killer).
Despite the relatively short running time, this 96-minute would-be thriller moves like molasses. The Blu-ray looks good; extras comprise three featurettes.
Live by Night
(Warner Bros)
Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Ben Affleck’s latest triple-threat offering—which is set during the Roaring ‘20s and Prohibition—follows a Boston gangster who sets up in Tampa to become a rum-runner.
It’s exceedingly well-made, with local color galore and flavorful characterizations courtesy of hams like Brendan Gleeson and Sienna Miller, but meandering plot lines—it should be much leaner than a drawn-out 128 minutes—and overdone violence (including the worst gun accuracy imaginable) contribute to its status as good, not great. The hi-def transfer is high quality; extras are featurettes, an Affleck commentary, and deleted scenes with Affleck commentary.
Won Ton Ton—The Dog That Saved Hollywood
In 1962, director Jules Dassin made Phaedra for his muse Melina Mercouri, whose typically intense performance makes this shaky update interesting; she’s hamstrung, though, by Anthony Perkins’s inert portrayal of the stepson she’s (gasp) fallen for. 
Won Ton Ton, a wan 1976 silent-film spoof by director Michael Winner, has intermittent laughs among unfunny pratfalls and dozens of desultory cameos (Henny Youngman, Cyd Charisse, Billy Barty, George Jessel and the Ritz Brothers, for starters), but also has the always enchantingly funny Madeline Kahn, who even steals scenes from the titular canine!
(Warner Archive)
Blake Edwards made this jet-black 1981 satire of the movie business after his successful Pink Panther films and 10 with Bo Derek, so it’s not surprising it contains the same highs and lows: extremely funny moments coupled with limp slapstick and general crudeness.
Although the movie is most notable for showing star (and Edwards’ wife) Julie Andrews’ breasts, it’s at its best whenever the triumphant comic turns by veterans Robert Preston, William Holden, Richard Mulligan and Robert Webber are front and center. The Blu-ray looks solid but unspectacular.
Wagner—Das Liebesverbot 
Schoenberg—Gurre-Lieder (Opus Arte)

Richard Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot—an adaptation of Measure for Measure—is nothing like his later canonical works, but it’s entertaining and holds the stage, even in last year’s messy Madrid staging by director Kasper Holten.

Best known as a 12-tone composer, Arnold Schoenberg wrote the lushly romantic Gurre-Lieder for large orchestra, soloists and chorus: but this cantata should not be turned into an opera (of sorts) with its love triangle “plot” enacted onstage, however cleverly director Pierre Audi did it in Amsterdam. On both discs, hi-def video and audio look and sound great. The lone Gurre-Lieder extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Piotr Anderszewski Plays Greats of Mozart & Chopin at Carnegie Hall

Piotr Anderszewski

On Friday, February 17th at a packed house at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, the extraordinary piano virtuoso, Piotr Anderszewski, gave what will surely prove to be one of the strongest recitals of the current concert season. The composers on the program—all titans—were amongst those whose work he is most closely associated, but a wonderful feature of the evening was the relative unfamiliarity of the repertory.

Anderszewski opened with an exquisite account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's sublime Opus 11: the lovely Fantasia in C Minor, K. 457, followed with barely a pause by the remarkable Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, with the playing of both works characterized by an unusual delicacy. 

The pianist, who is half-Polish, has had a special relationship with the music of his country and has been a great promoter of the works of Karol Szymanowski—several of whose works he presented at Carnegie Hall in a memorable series of concerts a few years ago—as well as the most celebrated of Polish composers, Frédéric Chopin, here represented by the introspective Polonaise-fantaisiein A-flat Major, Op. 61, sensitively rendered by Anderszewski.

The second half of the program opened with more Chopin, the beautiful Three Mazurkas, Op. 59, performed with characteristic aplomb. Chopin proved to be the fulcrum of the recital in more ways than one as his works were bookended by those of his two favorite composers, i.e., Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, whose glorious English Suite No. 6 in D Minor, brilliantly executed by the pianist, was to end the evening. Enthusiastic applause, however, elicited an outstanding encore, the three exquisite Bagatelles of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 126, providing a perfect finish for a phenomenal program.

Movie review—Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After the Storm”

After the Storm
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hirokazu Kore-eda's After the Storm
Although he’s made memorable dramas about family bonds, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda comes a cropper with his latest, After the Storm.
Ryota, a once-famous writer, now works as a private detective in a small agency. But whatever he earns he usually loses gambling, which makes it difficult to keep up his child support payments to ex-wife Kyoko for their son Shingo. Ryota is also bemused that his mother Yoshiko is moving on after his father’s death—including learning about music (currently Beethoven’s quartets) from a neighbor—and his sister Chinatsu is spending more time at their mother’s house, apparently—he believes—sponging off her.
One evening, Ryota brings Shingo and Kyoko to his mother’s house just as a storm is brewing—they end up stranded there overnight, and it’s while there Ryota (after Kyoko tells him they have no future together and that he’s a failed father) hopes to finally earn his son’s affection.
As always, Kore-eda has enormous sympathy for every character onscreen, even if he sometimes tends to rub Ryota’s nose in his continued inability to shape up and become responsible. But Hiroshi Abe’s sensitive portrayal beautifully balances Ryota’s irresponsibility with his half-hearted attempts to mend fences, which lets us root for him even as he keeps screwing up. But Kore-eda’s steady hand and insight into tempestuous family relationships were shown to far greater emotional impact in Still Walking and Like Father Like Son.
There are wonderful moments scattered throughout, especially in the final rainstorm scenes: when Ryota takes Shingo (an adorably unself-conscious Taiyo Yoshizawa) across the street to sit in the old playground where he went with his own dad as a kid, there’s a lovely, unforced, casual quality to it. But although After the Storm reaffirms Kore-eda as one of our pre-eminent chroniclers of real life, it’s the least resonant of his films I’ve seen.
After the Storm
Opened March 17, 2017 in New York and Los Angeles

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