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Written by Sharr White; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through October 28, 2018
Michael McKean and Edie Falco in The True (photo: Monique Carboni)
The 1970s political battles in Albany, of all places, don’t sound like the most enticing subject matter for a play, but Sharr White—whose earlier The Other Place and The Snow Geese left me cold—has pulled it off with The True, an absorbing drama that smartly concentrates on the personalities behind the politics.
The True centers around Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, the right-hand woman of Albany mayor Erastus Corning 2nd for decades. (She was also Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother; kudos to White for not shoehorning that irrelevant information into his play.) Erastus was the poster boy for the city’s Democratic party machine, reigning as mayor from the 1930s until his death in 1983. His stranglehold was such that only a grassroots candidacy in 1973 came close to toppling him. White sets his play in 1977, the year of the lone primary fight Erastus ever had, and shows Polly—who began as Erastus’s secretary and soon became his closest confidante (although their relationship was, by all accounts, strictly professional)—working her behind-the-scenes magic to help Erastus win that battle and, eventually, the election.
Although it doesn’t sound like the stuff of urgent stage drama, The True keeps its singular focus on people rather than political machinations and in-fighting (interesting as they are). Polly, a brash, foul-mouthed spitfire, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, while husband Peter is her opposite, his quiet, steady demeanor the yang to her yin.
The closest The True comes to soap opera is when Erastus decides to drop Polly (and by extension Peter, even though they’ve all been close friends for years) as his adviser because his wife doesn’t like that another woman takes up so much of his time as primary season approaches. The play’s middle section sags slightly as Erastus first resists Polly and Peter’s entreaties, deferring to his wife’s wishes, then decides he does need the Noonans—particularly Polly—bad optics be damned.
But The True still rings true, thanks to White’s incisive writing and Scott Elliott’s deft direction, culminating in a potent coup de theatre not in the script. The estimable cast features Peter Scolari, whose Peter is a gracious and understated support system to Polly, and Michael McKean, whose Erastus is a full-bodied, complex man caught between personal and professional loyalty.
Centering The True, however, is Edie Falco, who embodies Polly with her usual vivid zestiness and an effortless ability to make ordinary women anything but ordinary. Falco’s riveting performance even has a slight tragic air nicely balancing the ample humor she displays throughout.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are no strangers to having their names in lights, but in A Star Is Born, [Warner Bros./MGM; 135 minutes] their names explode in such magnitude that they light up the sky. Except for a few moments of homage, it would be theatrically incorrect to call the just released A Star Is Born an updated remake of its three predecessors with the same title. Four-time Oscar nominee Cooper, as director, co-writer, and co-producer, has created a Star that won’t eclipse the powerful 1937 dramatic original or 1954 musical remake but which becomes a cinema legend of its own. In fact, it’s poised to become an instant classic. As far as the edgy 1976 box office blockbuster musical remake with the same title – the verdict is still out.
In this 90% original take, written with Oscar winner Eric Roth [Forrest Gump, The Insider, Ali], Grammy-winning Oscar-nominee [Best Song] Gaga as Ally says, “Almost every single person I’ve come in contact with in the music industry has told me that my nose is too big and I won’t make it.” During the 10 years she studied acting and auditioned for theater, film, and TV, she said she heard similar and much worse. In 2008, with her debut Platinum plus-selling album Fame, we saw star potential. It was just the tip of the iceberg.
Many didn’t take her seriously because of her attention-getting antics. As a megaselling recording artist [31 million albums and a multitude of hit singles], she popped up in cameo and guest roles, but it wasn’t until the 2015 Oscars when she stunned with a mesmerizing soprano rendition of a medley of tunes for the 50th Anniversary Sound of Music salute that the masses took notice [during the 20-second standing ovation, with her tattooed arms outstretched, among those avidly applauding was none other than Cooper]. Her fan base quintupled with her Golden Globe-winning casting as the Countess that year on American Horror Story/Hotel, channeling a host of notorious film fatales and aided by extravagant costumes, platinum blonde hair, and glam make-up] that finally the public met Gaga the actress.
Cooper, making his directorial debut, envisioned the film with Gaga as co-star. It’s fascinating watching as they prop each other up. The romance begins a bit too soon and rushes toward the inevitable pledging of troths. In love, in performance, and at war their chemistry is solid. It’s the oft-told story of two who fall in love not so much with each other but with each other’s talent. As one up and comer bursts on the scene like a megastar, jealousy rises its ugly head and the megastar fades into a black hole.
Gaga gives a shattering performance as Ally, a singer struggling to break into the big time but who’s given up after so many defeats. She finds it hard to believe that at last someone believes in her. Enter rock legend Jackson Maine, Cooper in another brilliant performance. Reckless boozing, cocaine, and a devastating secret that would ruin his career have him on a destructive path. It’s a performance so vividly etched that it will be long remembered.
With her Star accolades and the inevitable nominations to be heaped on both stars during awards season, Gaga can close the book on her period of dresses fashioned with meat and outrageous shenanigans and can start a new one – coffee-table size. Singing or dancing or acting, she’s a force to be reckoned with. There were big shoes to fill, and quite smartly she pays homage to Judy Garland, star and co-producer of the ’54 film, with an “Easter Egg” hum of “Over the Rainbow.” It was also her idea to pay homage to her idol Edith Piaf, with her standout rendition of “La Vie En Rose.” Another “Easter Egg” is Gaga/Cooper’s bubble bath ala Streisand/Kristofferson’s in the ’76 Star – minus candles burning on beer cans. Gaga pays tribute to her legend of gay fans by singing, as she did early on, in a drag bar – where Jackson wanders in [only in search of a drink, though he ends up signing autographs in unusual and very personal places].
The burden of Cooper’s own demons as a recovering drug and alcohol abuser is obvious as he bares his soul singing in sequences filmed live at music festivals. To prepare, he studied with a voice instructor and learned to play the guitar well enough so he would never get booted offstage. Gaga bares more than her soul in a flash of nudity from her solo bubble bath.
Cooper surrounded himself and Gaga with an equally impressive ensemble cast: Sam Elliott, as Jackson’s caretaking brother; Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father; comic Dave Chappelle as a trusted old friend; and Rafi Gavron as the manager who steers Ally toward stardom and an independence that affects her marriage.
The stars are immensely complemented by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who helps push the music sequences and raw emotion with HD close-ups [you won’t soon forget the last image of Gaga]; and two-time Oscar-nominated editor Jay Cassidy. Songs are by Cooper, Gaga, and Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, who also performs with his band.
To enjoy the huge impact in store, the only way to see A Star Is Born is at a huge-screened cineplex with surround or Dolby sound.
A Star Is Born is also co-written by Will Fetters. It’s produced by Cooper, Bill Gerber, the controversial Jon Peters [due to rights he held for the ’76 Star], Todd Phillips, and Lynette Howell Taylor.
Blu-rays of the Week
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 biographical epic about the medieval Russian icon painter is a mesmerizing classic crammed with sweeping visuals and intimate moments that paint an indelible picture of an artist and culture more than half a millennium old.
In this typically thorough Criterion package, both Tarkovsky’s 183-minute preferred cut and original 205-minute version, titled The Passion According to Andrei, are included, the former looking particularly impressive in restored hi-def; voluminous extras include commentaries, featurettes and Tarkovsky’s student thesis film, 1961’s The Steamroller and the Violin.
Art of the Prank
Joey Skaggs might be unknown to the general public, but he’s become infamous for his many media hoaxes over several decades, which are recounted with equal parts whimsy and seriousness in director Andrea Marini’s sympathetic portrait of a man who may well be the creator of “fake news.”
The movie centers around his latest public prank, which is better discovered when you watch the film, to show that media manipulation might be the easiest thing in the world (as a certain White House occupant proves every day). There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are interviews and featurettes.
The Big Bang Theory—Complete 11th Season
For the big hit comedy series’ latest season, the plots and jokes may seem recycled, but the cast—Kalie Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, and Kunal Nayyar, for starters—is still hitting on all comic cylinders in these 24 episodes.
On Blu-ray, the show looks good; among the extras, which include featurettes and a gag reel, there’s a touching remembrance of and memorial to Stephen Hawking, a fan of the show who appeared several times before his death earlier this year.
John Milius’ 1978 memoir was supposed to be a huge nostalgic blockbuster, a la American Graffiti: even Steven Spielberg, no less, thought that it was going to be a smash hit. Instead, it tanked, as critics and audiences considered it another mindless surfing flick.
At two hours, it has a lot on its plate, but the acting by Jan Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt is painfully uneven, the script by Milius and Dennis Aaberg is scattershot, and Milius’ directing is so bludgeoning that the Big Moments all become little ones. The Blu-ray at least has an excellent hi-def transfer.
Exorcist II—The Heretic
Upon its release, John Boorman’s 1977 sequel to the biggest horror film of all time was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences; 41 years later, the movie hasn’t improved—Richard Burton overacts, Louise Fletcher and Linda Blair underact, and a horde of locusts outacts everyone—but what surrounds it is far more interesting, thanks to Scream Factory’s extras.
There are glistening hi-def transfers of Boorman’s original, messy 117-minute cut and the even more incoherent 102-minute version; informative commentaries by Boorman and “Special Project Consultant” Scott Michael Bosco; and Linda Blair’s discussion of what went wrong in a short but in-depth interview.
Lucifer—Complete 3rd Season
In the latest season showing how the prince of darkness infiltrated 21st century American life, Lucifer continues his professional relationship with the LAPD, especially detective Chloe Decker, who helped rid the world of his dastardly Mom (who returns as murdered lawyer Charlotte Roberts).
The 26 episodes are light-hearted and—unsurprisingly—silly, which is mitigated by the charm of leads Tom Ellis and Ellen German, and entertaining support from the likes of Lesley-Ann Brandt and D. B. Woodside. There’s a sharp hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, two featurettes and a gag reel.
Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Concert—Encore
This set collects the induction ceremonies from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, which were highlighted by massive outpourings of emotional support from audiences and musicians for Genesis (2010) and especially Rush (2013), when uber-fans Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins not only inducted the band but played its prog-rock classic “Overture” from 2112.
Best of the induction speeches are Elton John’s heartfelt one for Leon Russell (2011) and the late Chris Cornell’s for Heart (2013); Alice in Chains leader Jerry Cantrell even jammed on rousing versions of “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” with the Wilson sisters. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
Keanu Reeves seems content to make barely-released action films that let him travel to Europe and work with nubile young actresses; his latest in this vein casts him as an American diamond merchant in Russia—who speaks fluent Russian—who gets involved with organized crime and travels to Siberia after his partner disappears.
As lukewarm thrillers go, it’s watchable, and Reeves has real chemistry with Romanian actress Ana Ularu, who plays the beautiful (and available) woman who (of course) falls for and helps him. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
DVDs of the Week
Brothers David and Nathan Zellner’s western has a deliberately misleading title because nothing is as it seems in this evocative, occasionally grisly exploration of what it means to be a hero or villain in a dangerous world.
Robert Pattison gives a strong performance as a man traversing rugged landscapes to, he thinks, rescue the love of his life (Mia Wasikowska) from her husband, which is only the beginning of a surprising journey helped by Adam Stone’s splendid photography and fine acting all around.
In this first-person documentary, Serena Dykman introduces her grandmother Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, a Polish Jew whose heartrending accounts of barely surviving the Nazis are shown through valuable clips of interviews and Q&As she gave throughout her post-war life in France.
Dykman is a novice director, but emotions never overwhelm her: she worships her grandmother as an unsung heroine, but has still made a lucid, tender and fascinating tribute that fully encapsulates the phrase “never forget.”
CD of the Week
Ralph Vaughan Williams—A Sea Symphony
Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of our most colossally underrated composers, especially in regards to his symphonies, of which he completed nine between 1903 and 1958. The first, A Sea Symphony, is a massive structure, more than an hour long and, based as it is on Walt Whitman poems, filled with choral and solo singing throughout its four movements.
This recording, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under conductor Martyn Brabbins, with soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, catches the work’s majestic sweep and irresistible forward motion. Also included is Darest thou now, o soul, a short Whitman setting the composer wrote in 1925, some 20 years after the symphony.
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