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Reviews

Off-Broadway Review—Billy Crudup in “Harry Clarke”

Harry Clarke

Written by David Cale; directed by Leigh Silverman

Performances through December 10, 2017

Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY

vineyardtheatre.org

 

Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke (photo: Carol Rosegg)

One of our most accomplished stage actors, Billy Crudup delivers a tour de force performance in Harry Clarke, a solo play by David Cale. Crudup effortlessly portrays Philip Brugglestein, an American who takes on the identity of a Britisher he names Harry Clarke to escape his small-town Midwest upbringing and moves to Manhattan, where he meets Mark Schmidt, a strapping young WASP from Connecticut, and his heavy-drinking family—all of whom he dupes into believing that “Harry” was once pop singer Sade’s personal assistant. He soon beds Mark, Mark’s sister Stephanie, and even their mother Ruth, making his own life (as Philip and Harry) complicated indeed.

 

The conceit of Cale’s clever if misogynistic and ultimately misanthropic one-acter is that the actor is onstage alone for entire 80 minutes, not only speaking as Philip but also as Harry, whose voice fluctuates between a standard (to American ears) British accent and more outlandish Cockney one. He also speaks the parts of Mark, Stephanie and Ruth, among others. 

 

The glory of Crudup’s bravura acting is his shifting gears among all of these differing and at times competing accents while narrating this initially amusing then deeply troubling story about how this nondescript kid from Indiana fooled several people—including himself—into thinking him a big shot from London, a place that Philip has never been to. (Crudup even credibly sings a couple of Cale’s sly songs.)

 

Crudup, who from his first Broadway forays (in the original production of Arcadia and opposite Mary Louise Parker in Bus Stop) has been a talent to be reckoned with, has gone from strength to strength onstage, from Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and Arcadia revival to Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

 

But his prestidigitation in Harry Clarke, juggling so many different accents and, even more impressively, disparate characterizations, is what makes this flawed play—disturbing in its implications of how a man can so cavalierly ignore others’ well-being, whether his lover or his lover’s vulnerable sister or even more vulnerable mother—worth attending.

 

Harry Clarke

Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY

vineyardtheatre.org

Amazing Acting and Directing Seen In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Director/Writer: Martin McDonagh

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), doesn’t merely grieve for her daughter who was raped and murdered in a particularly grisly way, she takes action. She has felt that the local police have done little to solve the crime, so she issues her own public complaint in a particularly dramatic way — by buying space on three billboards outside her home, demonstratively declaring the local sheriff’s incompetence. 

Her response is not unlike the firestorm hitting the media nowadays as certain powerful men are being accused of sexual assault, harassment and cover ups. One only wonders how many of these stories would have come to the light if one of those affected had said something sooner or as demonstratively as does Mildred Hayes. One wonders what would have happened if these victims had been paid attention to rather than see their accusations swept under the rug or paid off.

The frustration Hayes feels is like that of today — and then she takes action. This sets off a series of reactions on the part of both law enforcement and the locals which was not unexpected but was also painful for her and her family. 

The townspeople, are upset over the billboards’ content, particularly Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and incompetent, racist officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Many people also find the signs in bad taste considering that Willoughby suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer. Soon after the billboards are put up, Mildred and her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) are harassed and threatened, but Mildred stays firm, much to Robbie’s chagrin.

A cascading series of events tumble down until Mildred surprisingly joins forces with enervated former officer Dixon to track down the perpetrator or someone else who has assaulted women as well. 

An internationally recognized playwright and occasional film director, Martin McDonagh skillfully toys with emotions and possible outcomes in order to force an audiences to allay their expectations. He did some thing of the same with his previous film, “In Bruges” where he humorously stood expectations on their head. 

If any film that’s come out this season turns simple, raw emotions like rage and frustration into a deep psychological essay, then it’s this one. But none of it could have happened without the director’s partnership with such a unique set of actors. The core acting trio which exudes the film’s glue — McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell — emotionally inhabit their characters so successfully that they deeply engage audiences. If any film warrants a crop of award noms, it’s this one.

Actor Liam Neeson Inhabits “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

 

Director/writer Peter Landesman

Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Ike Barinholtz, Tony Goldwyn, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood, Michael C. Hall, Brian d'Arcy James, Josh Lucas, Eddie Marsan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maika Monroe

We all should remember the Watergate break-in and its connection to the Nixon White House. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did the expose to discover who was behind it and that led to bringing down Richard Nixon and his White House for multiple nefarious abuses of power.

None of that would have been possible had not FBI agent Mark Felt given secret information to these investigators because he believed that the President had betrayed his country’s trust in order to serve his own interests over those of the United States.

In “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” veteran award-winning actor Liam Neeson assumes Felt’s persona in order to establish with audiences just how deeply Felt resented Nixon’s actions and what it took for him to take the steps he took.

Directed and written by Peter Landesman, this 2017 biographical tale plays out like a spy thriller but is based on the 2006 autobiography of Felt’s, written with John O'Connor. Felt became "Deep Throat" —the Post reporters’ anonymous source — and his revelations and tips pushed forward their investigation which not only led them to the exposing the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s downfall but changed the course of politics in the ‘70s.

Without histrionics or melodrama, Neeson portrays a man who has had a grip on incredible power only to see it disappear once his mentor, the fearsome FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, dies. The film is both a dissection of a thundering historical event and a deft character study of man who understood how the levers of power worked — or didn’t. 

Bolstered by an all-star supporting cast of Diane Lane, Tony Goldwyn, and Maika Monroe, this is a smoothly directed, informative film that has been overshadowed by a plethora of films addressing past events which now have a fresh relevance.

Broadway Review—Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk”

Junk

Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Doug Hughes

Performances through January 7, 2018

 

Steven Pasquale in Junk (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, a critical self-examination of how Islam’s tenets fit into 21st century culture, and The Invisible Hand, which provocatively demonstrated how Islamic terrorism and today’s money-obsessed world converge, Ayad Akhtar returns with Junk, a sprawling but meticulously structured dramatization of the roots of our current financial predicament.

 

Set in 1985, Junk centers on Robert Merkin—based on the infamous Michael Milken, jailed for insider trading—wunderkind of the Reagan-era financial world, an L.A.-based whiz kid at the forefront of the new junk bond industry. Planning a hostile takeover of a successful family-owned steel company—his intended target, CEO Thomas Everson, doesn’t stand a chance against Merkin’s updated playbook—Merkin simply doesn’t care how he wins, as long as he wins.

 

That plot outline is just the tip of the iceberg, as Akhtar and his shrewd director Doug Hughes make Junk a wide-ranging, epically-scaled exploration of what money means in America and how we got to this point. With some two dozen characters and many plot strands intersecting, the play is unafraid to be complicated, even if it’s fairly easy to follow it through the crannies without having any insider Wall Street knowledge. A lively ensemble, John Lee Beatty’s imposing two-tiered set and Ben Stanton’s magisterial lighting contribute to that all-important fluidity.

 

Akhtar also shows how money infests everything: everyone is dragged down to Merkin’s level, even enterprising journalist Judy Chen (the poised Teresa Avia Lim), who is asked by Merkin’s crooked lawyer Raul Rivera (a perfectly slimy Matthew Saldivar) to junk the manuscript of a tell-all book she’s writing for a pile of hush money, or veteran financier Leo Tresler (a blustery, bellowing Michael Siberry), who sees what junk bonds will end up doing to Wall Street but who realizes he may have to play Merkin’s game himself to survive.

 

Admittedly, since Akhtar wrote Junk with the benefit of hindsight, there are moments that ring false or obvious. When Merkin (the roguish charming Steven Pasquale) asserts that the Dow might someday hit 15 or 20 thousand, an incredulous Chen retorts, “Yesterday’s close was 1300. The Dow at 20000 sounds absurd,” which is greeted with wink-wink nudge-nudge responses from the audience. And the Giuliani-like D.A. going after Merkin for insider trading, Giuseppi Addesso (a properly Rudy-esque Charlie Semine), says “nobody understands this shit—and nobody cares,” which elicits giggles of approval. Then there’s the entire dramatic arc of Merkin getting his comeuppance, which plays out as one would expect, with little suspense or even schadenfreude.

 

That said, Akhtar nails the persona of Merkin as a charismatic, unscrupulous “master of the universe”—he even lies to his financial whiz of a wife (a sober Amy Silverman) about a shady character he’s using for suspect trades, Boris Pronsky (a bedraggled Joey Slotnick), who’s eventually his Achilles’ heel. And Merkin is allowed to speak uncomfortable truths about American exceptionalism and how other countries are surpassing us, crystallized in a rousing act two speech that climaxes thus: “Let’s just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let’s stick with the facts. Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can’t change. When you can’t change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now.”

 

Junk ends with a sly zinger about the possible cause of the 2008 mortgage crisis that Akhtar smartly doesn’t telegraph; it’s a deliciously satisfying wrap-up to a bracingly serious play.

 

Junk

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

lct.org

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