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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

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
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 
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 
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.
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.

Broadway Review—Harold Prince’s “The Prince of Broadway”

The Prince of Broadway
Co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman; directed by Harold Prince
Performances through October 22, 2017
Karen Ziemba and Chuck Cooper recreate Sweeney Todd in The Prince of Broadway (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Harold Prince has had such a remarkable Broadway run it’s impossible to shoehorn his decades of musical hits—and occasional flop—into a couple of hours onstage. So The Prince of Broadway—the anthology Prince created with co-director/choreographer Susan Stroman—doesn’t even try, giving audiences a greatest hits compilation (with a few curveballs thrown in) that provides a commendable overview of Prince’s career.
Since Prince had a hand in dozens of shows from Damn Yankees and West Side Story to Fiddler on the Roof and Company (not to mention Show Boat, Follies, Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Spider Woman), it was likely tough to decide what to include and what to omit. The above-mentioned shows made the cut, along with The Pajama Game, She Loves Me, A Little Night Music, Cabaret, Evita, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, and even Parade and the mid-‘60s flop It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!
There are restaged sequences from these shows, often—but not always—their “classic” numbers, which tends toward imbalance whenever we don’t hear such songs from other shows. Having “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita and “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music is all well and good, but such showstoppers take the focus off Prince’s innovative stagings and instead shine a light on, say, composers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim.
There’s also been a nod toward making The Prince of Broadway more than a string of unconnected highlights, so all nine energetic cast members take turns walking onstage as Prince and relate some engaging bon mots or enlightening statements about his career and theater in general. 
But this conceit isn’t used to its fullest extent; at times we should hear from one of the faux Princes to set up certain numbers, but instead there’s simply a clunky segue to the next. And the routine finale, Jason Robert Brown’s song “Do the Work,” simply isn’t stylish enough to satisfyingly wrap up the show.
Still, great moments are scattered throughout, and no one can begrudge Prince and Stroman wanting to include as much as possible without making it four hours long. And the cast performs with incomparable zest, even if some aren’t perfect for the roles they assay. 
Chuck Cooper absolutely kills “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat, but is on less secure ground for Fiddler’s “If I Was a Rich Man” and a Sweeney Todd trio. Cooper’s Sweeney costar, the magnificent Karen Ziemba, is a delightful Mrs. Lovett, and also gives it the old college try as the gorilla in Cabaret.
Michael Xavier and Janet Dacal are a funny, sexy couple in the Superman segment, but the otherwise accomplished Dacal doesn’t come within hailing distance of Patti Lupone in Evita or Chita Rivera and Vanessa Williams in Kiss of the Spider Woman when she takes on “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and the latter’s title song.
Bryonha Marie Parham, Emily Skinner and Kaley Ann Voorhees show off superior pipes in various numbers, but the cast’s MVP goes to Tony Yazbeck for his versatility and virtuosity, especially during the seemingly endless and sweat-inducing tap-dance number, “The Right Girl” in Follies, for which he deservedly brings down the house and puts a stop to the entire show.
Though not the stage extravaganza that both Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Fosse were, The Prince of Broadway has an intimacy that serves its creator’s more subtle approach, despite its hiccups.
The Prince of Broadway
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

M-O-D DVD Archive Sites Offer a Cinematic Feast for Movie Buffs


Manufactured on Demand (MOD) discs are a cinephile’s dream. They offer a new way to satisfy movie buffs burning desires. There’re treasure chests of classic chestnuts and films of all manner: sound and silent, classic and cult, musicals/comedy/drama, made-for-TV movies, TV series, and documentaries. These are DVDs, many remastered, some in HD, and many debuting in Blu-ray that you’ll only find at studio archive sites. For the most part, these DVD-R discs burned to order are quite reasonably-priced. More often than not you can hit upon a sale. Items often ship within three days. 

Library Journal estimates there are 2,000-plus M-O-D titles available, with new titles released weekly. There’s original package art, but don’t expect booklets or bonus material. There can be trailers and cartoons as bonus materials. Widescreen movies are shown in their proper aspect ratio and formatted for 16X9 TV screens. Closed-captions are rare except on films recently released. 

Some resurfacing titles were thought to be “lost” forever. Initially, the offerings were outdated “off-the-shelf” items or titles studios didn’t deem economically sound for mass distribution.

Since Warner Bros. pioneered M-O-D eight years ago, more or less to do something with the huge hunk of the MGM library they purchased when that once invincible studio ceased to exist, their claims Metro’s old boast of having more stars there are in the heavens.

MODWBArchive8-17The WB archive covers a vast array of tastes. There’re lots of titles you may wonder “Why” about, but for every one of those there is film noir galore [such as The Big Sleep and Out of the Past], the film noir musical 42nd Street, and other musical gems [such as KismetCole Porter’s Silk Stockings, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring Oscar nominee Debbie Reynolds in a rousing performance.

There’s animation, cult favs, and Metro’s extraordinarily popular singing lovers, who had a massive cult following [despite the fact that they despised each other and played revenge tricks during shooting], Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in a two volume/eight film collection [which includes Rose Marie and Naughty Marietta).

There’s a helpful Search option. In addition to the above, here are some finds that might be of interest: 

Cinema Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood (2009; 90 minutes) – This Turner documentary spotlights the 1933 and 1939, over 800 Jewish members of the German film industry who fled the Nazis for the U.S. and Hollywood, from 1933-1939. Many had a massive impact on American cinema in comedy, drama, horror, and, especially, film noir. Told through film clips, interviews, photographs, and rare archival footage including home movies, it explores directors Fritz LangErnst LubitschBilly Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, stars such as Garbo and Peter Lorre, and composers Rozsa, Steiner, Tiomkin, and Waxman. Once in Hollywood, they raised money so others could escape. Numerous clips. Actors recreate some voices, but those heard as themselves are Dietrich, Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton, Heddy Lamarr, Lorre, Lubitsch, Ann Sheridan, and Wilder. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver.

Six by Sondheim (2013; 86 minutes) – This HBO documentary takes quite a candid look at Sondheim, as revealed through the performance of six of his songs, and by the man whose ground-breaking work redefined musical theater  – one that leads to a deeper understanding of him. “Everybody has problems,” he says. “Nobody goes through life unscathed. If you write about those things, you’re going to touch people.” Directed by James Lapine, the film weaves Sondheim interviews with those of Yvonne de Carlo, Dean Jones, Larry Kert, Ethel Merman, Mandy Patinkin, and Bernadette Peters. Darren Criss, America Ferrera, and Audra McDonald sing classic tunes, including “Being Alive,”I’m Still Here,” “Opening Doors,” “Send in the Clowns,” and “Something’s Coming.” 

Bogie & Bacall Films:

MODBogieBacallTo Have and Have Not (1943; 100 minutes; remastered; Blu-ray debut) – Howard Hawks’ masterpiece, loosely adapted from Hemingway novel with an assist from Faulkner, captures the pair’s size in their first pairing. Bacall, still in her teens, as lounge singer and French resistance sympathizer, sets off sirens with famed “whistle” line; but Bogie matches bravado scene after scene as she wraps him around her little finger. He segues from pickpocket in WWII Vichy France to smuggler to hero as he transports a fugitive on the run from Nazis. Walter Brennan, Hoagy Carmichael, and Dolores Moran co-star. The uncredited score is by legendary Franz Waxman.

The Big Sleep (1946; 114 minutes) – Raymond Chandler gumshoe Philip Marlowe tackles blackmail, following a film noir trail of murderers, pornographers, rogues, spoiled rich, and other denizens. Director Howard Hawks serves it up in brisk, hard-boiled style – screenplay is co-written by Nobel Laureate William Faulkner. There’re snappy characters, none more so than Bogie and Bacall. The Blu-ray doubles your pleasure with two versions: the 1946 theatrical version, with additional scenes of incendiary Bogie/Bacall chemistry, and the 1945 pre-release version. Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, Regis Toomey, Western legend Bob Steele [in his tough guy period], and a standout Elisha Cook Jr. are featured. Great Max Steiner score. 

Dark Passage (1947; 106 minutes; remastered in 1080p HD) – Sparks fly in the duo’s third pairing is a bold and surreal noir fable about a prison escapee trying to prove he was framed and the mysterious dame who aids him. Director Delmer Daves lends a surreal air by keeping the con‘s face unseen for film’s first half, only revealing it post plastic surgery. Agnes Moorehead, cheated out of an Oscar nod, nearly steals the show as a flighty femme fatale. Bonus material: making-of feature and cartoon, Slick Hare, starring Elmer Fudd and Bugs, which has Bogie ordering rabbit, but Fudd has a tough time getting Bugs in the pot.

Classic Westerns:

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949; 103 minutes: 1080p HD Blu-ray Technicolor and sound remaster) –– Western master director John Ford captains the middle film of his acclaimed “Cavalry Trilogy,” based on stories by James Warner Bellah. John Wayne (40, playing 60) is a widowed captain , on final assignment before being mustered out,  escorting commander’s wife and niece through hostile Indian territory (Monument Valley, Utah) as he makes a bid for peace between warring tribes. Joanne Dru, Mildred Natwick, Harry Carey Jr., John Agar, Ben Johnson, and Victor McLaglen (The Quiet Man) co-star. Duke was cheated out of an Oscar nod. Oscar-winning cinematography by Winton Hoch

Stage to Screen:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf(1966; 131 minutes; Blu-ray debut) – Albee’s bitter tale of an alcohol-fueled aging couple, on the rocks in more ways than one, who use a young couple to fuel emotional pain against each other. Not for the faint of heart. Directed by Oscar-nominated Mike Nichols. Stars Oscar-winner Elizabeth Taylor in a daring performance not-to-be missed; and the Oscar-nominated co-stars: Richard Burton, giving as good as he gets, George Segal, and Oscar-winner Sandy Dennis in her shining hour.

Astounding Animation:

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993; 76 minutes; remastered, Blue-ray debut) – While celebrating the 25th anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, how about a nostalgic look back with this animated theatrical release? Superhero animation guru and executive producer Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, legendary Batman voice Kevin Conroy, co-screenwriter Alan Burnett, and Warner Archive Podcasts will offer a glimpse at the remastered footage and a making-of discussion. Other voices: Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach (Phantasm/Carl Beaumont), Abe Vigoda, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Arthur), and Mark Hamill (The Joker).

Cult Craziness:

The Green Slime (1968; 90 minutes; remastered; wide-screen)– Even judged against low standards, it doesn’t get any cheesier than this romp from Japan, Italy, and the U.S. – but it’s so bad, it’s good. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who inspired Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s schlockiness, it’s a campy Sci-Fi story of astronauts disembarking from space station to nip a giant asteroid in the bud. They return with gooey green mess that has mind of its own. Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel headline.

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