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Broadway Review—Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men”

Straight White Men

Written by Young Jean Lee; directed by Anna D. Shapiro

Performances through September 9, 2018


Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider 
in Straight White Men (photo: Joan Marcus)

Young Jean Lee’s first Broadway play—and the first on the Great White Way by an Asian-American woman—Straight White Men is an intermittently funny but frustratingly uneven comedy that’s as blunt and unsubtle as a ten-ton weight dropped on our toes, starting with its jokey title. For 90 minutes, a widowed elderly father and his three grown sons engage in horseplay, casually racist, sexist and homophobic comments and general un-P.C. behavior during a Christmas visit at dad’s home.


The brothers—the seemingly unambitious oldest, Matt, who has moved back home with their father, Ed; the arrogant middle one, Jake, who’s divorced from his black wife and has two young children; and the sarcastic youngest, Drew, who’s an aimless would-be writer—reenact juvenilia from their shared childhoods, making sure it annoys the others and conjures unhappy memories, along with telling NSFW jokes that show how they wear their privilege (the name they’ve given their family’s Monopoly board game) on their sleeve. That even includes Jake and Drew ganging up on their older brother for his being adrift in their eyes—if he doesn’t want to make real money, he must be a real loser, which to them is the ultimate curse word.


Despite its obvious topicality, Lee’s play tries to have it both ways, indulging in the men’s entitled but mostly harmless behavior while purporting to satirize it. Some of her dialogue is amusing and pointed, but too much of it is variations on a single theme, and these diminishing returns—even with its short running time, the play feels hopelessly extended—call to mind an SNL skit that simply doesn’t know when to end.


Blatantly underscoring the play’s façade as an epic take-down is gimmickry dreamed up by Lee and adhered to by her otherwise resourceful director Anna D. Shapiro. Before the show begins, raw, vulgar rap music—performed by the opposite of straight white men—is blasted into the auditorium, loud enough to bother the blue-haired ladies but not enough to cause consternation among those made of sterner stuff. 


Then non-binary performance artists Kate Bornstein and Ty Dafoe (playing Persons in Charge 1 and 2) come onstage for a tongue-in-cheek introduction to what unfolds in front of the audience for the next hour and a half. After they leave—and they return periodically to assist the actors during scene changes—we see a working-class living room set (imaginatively dressed by designer Todd Rosenthal) framed by a…well, large picture frame, with the play’s title on an engraved plaque at the bottom as if our characters are behind glass in a museum.


It’s too bad that Lee never reconciles all the contradictions, contrivances and concerns that jostle one another, instead leaving them to fend for themselves. The machinations in the script are partially redeemed by the actors, who adroitly turn these cardboard cutouts into real people. Josh Charles (Jake), Armie Hammer (Drew)—who makes a smashing New York stage debut, by the way—Paul Schneider (Matt) and Stephen Payne (Ed) earn laughs alongside their thoughtful portrayals that go beyond what Lee provides in her provocative but protracted play. 


Straight White Men

Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

August '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Remaking a forgettable 1987 Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell vehicle in 2018 might seem a non-starter, but someone thought pairing Mom’s Anna Faris and Mexican star Eugenio Derbez as, respectively, the working-class stiff and ultra-rich douche who fall in love after the latter gets amnesia and the former pretends she’s his wife would be comedic gold. It isn’t.
Faris is always amusing and Derbez is game, but the one-note premise is stretched out even beyond the original’s slender means, and various subplots only extend the running time, further watering down the comedy. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include a commentary and three featurettes.
Le comte ory 
(BelAir Classiques)
Rossini’s last comic opera, Le comte ory (1824), has been given a boisterous 2015 production in Malmo, Sweden, with a top-notch cast, orchestra and chorus providing much enjoyment despite Linda Mallik’s over-the-top staging.
In Verdi’s 1841 grand opera Nabucco, the chorus is the star, and in this 2017 Verona, Italy production, the Arena di Verona chorus lives up to that billing. Arnaud Bernard’s directing and costumes and Alessandro Camera’s sets are also impressive. Both discs have excellent hi-def video and audio.
Dark Crimes 
Jim Carrey sleepwalks through another serious role in this sordid and relentlessly derivative detective drama set in Eastern Europe about a gruesome killing that may be related to a writer’s latest novel, which describes a similar crime.
With a bearded, sullen look, Carrey tries but remains impassively dour, and he’s outclassed at every turn by Marton Csokas as the writer and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the writer’s former lover. Director Alexandros Avranas makes everything twisted and ugly, which gets old really fast. The greyness is impeccably rendered in hi-def; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Lou Andreas-Salomé—The Audacity to Be Free 
(Cinema Libre)
This engrossing biopic about one of the most formidable female intellectuals of late 19th century Europe—who counted among her admirers Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke—is propelled by a full-bodied performance by Katharina Lorenz as Andreas-Salomé in her prime (three other fine actresses play her at other times in her life).
Director Cordula Kablitz-Post might lean too much on the great men surrounding her protagonist but still keeps the heroine front and center throughout this fascinating true story. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer; extras comprise a director commentary and interview.
After their beloved mother dies, four siblings must fend for themselves in the family home which seems to be haunted by a ghost in the attic—whose malevolence leads to a would-be heart-pounding finale.
Sergio G. Sanchez has written and directed a haunted-house movie with a few suspenseful jolts, but it all leads up to a protracted “surprise” that even diehard genre fans won’t buy. At least it looks pristine on Blu-ray; extras are extended/deleted scenes and two featurettes.
CD of the Week
Khachaturian—Piano Concertos 
Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is best known for his engaging ballet scores Spartacus and Gayane (the latter featured in Kubrick’s 2001), so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that this disc of his D-flat major Piano Concerto and Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra is filled with exquisite melodies spun out one after the other.
The attractive playing is by the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, led by conductor Daniel Raiskin; piano soloist Stepan Simonian performs with extreme delicacy but can also bring the bombast when he needs to. 

Off-Broadway Review—“The Originalist” at 59E59 Theaters

The Originalist

Written by John Strand; directed by Molly Smith

Performances through August 19, 2018


Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in The Originalist (photo: Joan Marcus)

I never thought I’d be pining for the halcyon days of kinder, gentler Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But John Strand’s The Originalist—a creaky, at times compelling two-hander about the fiercely conservative Scalia and a fiercely liberal law clerk he hires to spar with—does just that, showing us that the United States, though deeply divided for decades, at one time had civility, honor and respect even among those who vehemently disagreed.


Strand’s Scalia is a brilliant legal mind with a sarcastic, superior—even haughty—attitude, and who enjoys, as he sees it, putting liberals in their rightful place with his analysis of how the Constitution’s framers saw the law. Scalia decides to hire Kerry (called Cat) as his law clerk for the 2012-13 term—she’s his opposite in every way: liberal, lesbian and black. 


Their literal sparring matches—at times, Scalia mentions boxing—form the core of the play, which moves along quickly if familiarly as opposites attract with a grudging respect despite their political divide. When Scalia has a chance to kill gay marriage, Cat even helps prepare his dissent, along with another clerk, the conservative, straight—and very white—Brad.


Strand writes clever dialogue that allows his antagonists to go at it like bitchy Edward Albee characters. Of course this leaves little room for nuance in the writing, and Tracy Ifeachor’s Cat suffers for it. She’s shrill and unlikable, the fault more of the author than the actress. 


But that liability lets Edward Gero’s gregarious Scalia soar. It’s easy to see why ultra-liberal Ruth Ginsberg was his best friend even beyond their affinity for opera. (Director Molly Smith’s slick production includes excerpts from operas by Verdi, Strauss and Mozart, along with other classical works that show off Scalia’s erudite side.) Gero sidesteps caricature even while enacting a larger-than-life figure that owes far more to Scalia the myth rather than the reality. 


But even Gero can’t fix the play’s ignominious end, when—after their professional relationship ends—the former adversaries meet again at the gun range where Scalia took Cat against her will. But now the formerly embarrassingly bad shooter has become a decent markswoman, and Scalia is pleased. Such leaden dramatic irony makes for a tidy wrap-up, but also shows that The Originalist is as flawed as its lead character’s infamous jurisprudence.


The Originalist

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

July '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Billy Budd 

(Warner Archive)

Peter Ustinov directed and stars as the honest Captain Vere in this straightforwardly dramatic 1962 adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novella set on a British warship circa 1797.





With strong work by Robert Ryan as the dastardly Claggart and (in his film debut) Terence Stamp as the naïve and idealistic Billy, Ustinov paints a pointed portrait of good (and innocence) vs. evil. On Blu-ray, the B&W Cinemascope photography looks splendid; the lone extra is an informative audio commentary by Stamp and director Steven Soderbergh.


Keeping Faith 

(RLJ Entertainment)

A wife and mother who is just returning to her law office following the birth of her third child, Faith Howells must now deal with the unspeakable: her beloved husband vanishes one day on his way to the office, forcing her to raise her kids alone, start searching for him and—most importantly—fend off the suspicions of locals.





This colorful Welsh-set series takes its sweet time to get going, but its slow-burn dramatics work in its favor, as does Eve Myles’ ingratiating performance as Faith. Extras comprise a 45-minute on-set featurette and character intros.







Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg 

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Richard Wagner’s colossal comedy runs 4-1/2 hours when staged (plus lengthy intermissions), but in the right hands it is an hilarious and heartwarming work that many consider the master’s greatest. Last summer at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, Philippe Jordan conducted the orchestra and chorus in an illuminating reading of the marvelous score, and the veteran cast—Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kranzle, Klaus Florian Vogt and Anne Schwanewilms—responds with a marvelous collective vocal performance.





Too bad that director Barrie Kosky’s gimmicky production lowers the bar quite a bit; but luckily, with such pros onstage and in the pit, the visuals are enervating without being destructive. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.


DVDs of the Week

The Great Game 

(Icarus Films)

Intrigue is the name of the game in Nicolas Pariser’s initially diverting but quickly wearying espionage drama, in which a formerly leftist writer is hired by a right-wing politician to help discredit the prime minister and a far-left faction—and, naturally, help elevate the conservative to head of state.





Despite a strong cast—Melvil Poupaud, Clemence Poesy, Sophie Cattani, and the great Andre Dussolier—Pariser never achieves the sophistication and elegance of the best French films that effortlessly mix the political and the personal.












Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s earnest drama is set in Los Angeles in 1992, before and during the riots that ensued when white cops were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King (which was captured on video).




Although Halle Berry, Daniel Craig and newcomers Lamar Johnson and Rachel Hilson give crackerjack portrayals of local residents caught up in a fatally out of control spiral, Ergüven—unlike her remarkable previous film, Mustang—never settles on a coherent way to dramatize these events, instead relying on hackneyed melodrama to show how violence destroys ordinary lives.


Love after Love 

(IFC Films)

Director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh’s pretentious and diffuse melodrama fails its potentially emotionally powerful material about a family that starts to disintegrate after the death of its strong-willed patriarch. His wife and two sons find themselves floundering amid their own difficulties sustaining relationships within and without the family itself, but Harbaugh is content to create a sub-Woody Allen drama vibe instead of making us invest our feelings in these people.




A game cast led by Andie McDowell and Chris O’Dowd is set adrift, and a final shot of cremation is enervating to the nth degree. Lone extra is a short, Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

CD of the Week 

MacMillan—String Quartets 


Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s three string quartets are spread out at approximate decade intervals: his first came at age 29 in 1988 (revised 1991), the second ten years later and the third nine years after that.





The two-movement first quartet, Visions of a November Spring, alternates between stillness and outright frenzy; the second, Why is this night different?—referring to the first night of Passover seder—moves between ecstasy and despair; and the accomplished third quartet proves the composer’s musical maturity, including his creative use of silence. The Royal String Quartet plays with immense passion, which is what such remarkably self-contained works demand.


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