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Off-Broadway Play Review—Richard Nelson’s “The Michaels”

The Michaels

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 Michaels

The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

November '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

A Bread Factory 

(Grasshopper Films)

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 

(Warner Archive)

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 

(Warner Archive)

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 

(Warner Archive)

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.







Jay Myself 


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.


The Kitchen 

(Warner Bros)

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.







The Proposal 


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.

Broadway Play Review—Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista”

Linda Vista

Written by Tracy Letts; directed by Dexter Bullard

Performances through November 10, 2019



Chantal Thuy and Ian Barford in Linda Vista (photo: Joan Marcus)
Tracy Letts is one of our most interesting playwrights. His best-known work, August: Osage County, is a three-hour explosion of recrimination and venom in a dysfunctional extended family, while his earlier Killer Joe and Bug are even more dark and deeply disturbing psychological studies. If Superior Donuts is a humorously sitcom-like exploration of an unlikely friendship, his last play seen in New York, Mary Page Marlowe, slightly missed the mark in its depiction of events in the life of an unremarkable woman. But his newest, Linda Vista, finds him on far more fertile ground.
Linda Vista is the name of an apartment complex in San Diego where our protagonist, Wheeler, has just moved following ongoing and bitter divorce proceedings with his wife. He has a teenage son, but Wheeler doesn’t seem to care that much about him. What he is good at is self-loathing and narcissism in equal measure. The 50-year-old Wheeler, who works in a camera shop fixing old equipment, contributes condescending, clever, nasty put-downs of friends, coworkers, family and anyone within earshot. It’s all a desperate ploy to keep himself from admitting that he is at fault for everything that’s gone wrong in his life, which prevents him from moving forward, ahead of his many mistakes.
It’s said that Wheeler is at least partly autobiographical; whether that’s true or not, Letts is unafraid to let him shoot his mouth off while shooting himself in the foot with all of his relationships. But despite Wheeler’s orneriness, crassness, and supreme political incorrectness, Letts does have a soft spot for him, giving him some easily attainable women to woo and bed. Wheeler’s friends Paul and Margaret set him up with nice, attractive, bright, available Jules, who promptly falls for him on a blind date and goes back to his place. And, despite the fact that she is only able to have an orgasm by herself, they have amazing sex and begin seeing each other. 
This is not enough for Letts, however; he further muddies the melodramatic waters with Minnie, a pregnant, tattooed Vietnamese young woman half Wheeler’s age, whom he meets in a sports bar, becomes friends with after discovering she lives (rather conveniently) a few doors down and who soon—rather improbably—becomes his enthusiastic lover. To his credit, Letts doesn’t let his protagonist down easily but instead, after Wheeler breaks up with Jules (who, all too predictably, is devastated) to be with Minnie and help raise her baby, Minnie wants out to be near her family and maybe even the baby’s father. 
These contrivances threaten to derail the play, so when Wheeler grovels all too predictably to try and get Jules back, it doesn’t feel completely genuine. Still, Letts doesn’t fully exonerate Wheeler: the final scene shows him perhaps finding his personal bearings again—or is he just making a play for his camera-shop coworker Anita? 
This painstakingly realistic and often laugh-out-loud play is also quite potent for what it omits: Letts smartly keeps Wheeler’s ex and son offstage, forcing him to deal with his new problems, which include estranging Paul and Margaret when he embarrassingly attempts to look hip while enthralled by Minnie’s youth and sexuality. (Letts also suggests Wheeler and Margaret were once an item, shedding new light on his longtime friendship with Paul.) 
Linda Vista is as messy as its protagonist’s life, but director Dexter Bullard’s sure hand ensures that it remains focused, exploring the paths Wheeler sets out on with precision. The dead-on music choices run from Steely Dan tunes during scene breaks to such cornball karaoke-bar staples as Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On”—mistaken by one character for a Huey Lewis song—and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr’s “You Don’t Have to Be a Star.”
The supporting cast is spectacularly good. Cora van der Broeck is a heartbreaking Jules and Sally Murphy is a superbly shrill Margaret. In the tricky role of Minnie, Chantal Thuy plays it beautifully by alternating between acting coolly and distantly and baring her soul in woundingly intimate moments. As the levelheaded Paul, Jim True-Frost has the play’s best monologue, an hilarious locker room harangue about deathbeds. And as Wheeler’s boss Michael and coworker Anita, Troy West and Caroline Neff amusingly navigate the treacherous waters of sexual harassment in the workplace.
But above all, caught in a storm of his own making, is Ian Barford’s Wheeler, whose torrents of abuse never cease being funny even as they hurt others—and himself. Barford’s brilliantly pinpoint portrayal drips with sarcasm and fury but manages to remain likeable, even charming. Whether haranguing Jules and Minnie to watch Kubrick’s classic film Barry Lyndon—which they promptly fall asleep to—or spitting out “like Elton John on a Shetland pony” to refer to his boss Michael (an image I’m still laughing at), Barford gives the deeply flawed but endlessly fascinating Wheeler one hell of an entertaining midlife crisis that’s at the heart of Letts’ equally provocative Linda Vista.
Linda Vista
Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

"The Masters" of Ballet Perform at Lincoln Center

Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak in Theme and Variations. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Gene Schiavone.
A terrific evening—entitled “The Masters”—of the American Ballet Theater at the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center—presented on Saturday, October 20th—recaptured the glories of the company’s wonderful spring season.
The program opened entrancingly with a marvelous performance of George Balanchine’s magnificent Theme and Variations, set to extraordinary music from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for Orchestra, here splendidly conducted by Charles Barker. The ballet features exquisite scenery and costumes designed by Zack Brown with lighting by Brad Fields. The choreographer here, in what is one of his most immediately pleasurable works, revisits the Russian imperial era of his youth, demonstrating his special affinity for the composer. Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak, who both have been moving from strength to strength, enchantingly led an excellent cast including Skylar Brandt, Sung Woo Han, Zhong-Jing Fang, Tyler Maloney, Luciana Paris, Cameron McCune, Cassandra Trenary, and Arron Scott, along with superb support from the remarkable corps de ballet.
Twyla Tharp’s delightful, postmodern A Gathering of Ghosts— set to the exceptional String Quintet in G Major by Johannes Brahms, with striking costumes by Norma Kamali and lighting by Jennifer Tipton—a fine example of her popular, contemporary idiom, provided a marked stylistic contrast to the Balanchine. This is the choreographer’s first ballet for the company in a decade and received its world premiere earlier in the week. The outstanding star of the evening was the bewitchingly handsome Herman Cornejo—currently celebrating his twentieth year with Ballet Theater—who dominated this work with his wit and dynamism. However, the remainder of the cast was very impressive, including Blaine Hoven, Stephanie Williams, Joo Won Ahn, Calvin Royal III, Catherine Hurlin, Aran Bell, Christine Shevchenko, Wanyue Qiao, Zimmi Coker, as well as Brandt, Paris, and Trenary again.
The evening concluded unforgettably with a dialectical synthesis of the first two works—combining the classicism of the Balanchine with the postmodern playfulness of the Tharp—with Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s enchanting The Seasons—one of his most engaging works and which received its world premiere at Ballet Theater this spring—set to a beautiful score by Alexander Glazunov—conducted with aplomb here by David LaMarche—written originally for the legendary Marius Petipa, with colorful costumes by Robert Perdziola and lighting by Mark Stanley. This work again featured a superlative cast, including Bell, Katherine Williams, Devon Teuscher, Hurlin, Paris, James Whiteside, Coker, Brandt, Isabella Boylston, Hoven, Maloney, Scott, Trenary, and Royal, along with more accomplished dancing from the corps.
With such a rewarding program I am again eager for the return of Ballet Theater for next spring’s season.

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