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Off-Broadway Review—"The Last Match"

The Last Match

Written by Anna Ziegler; directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Performances through December 24, 2017

Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY


A scene from The Last Match (photo: Joan Marcus)

A tennis match as a grand metaphor for life isn’t the most original idea, but playwright Anna Ziegler puts some topspin on it in The Last Match, which takes place during a U.S. Open semi-final between Tim Porter, the world’s greatest player who’s contemplating retirement but making one last run, and Sergei Sergeyev, a young hotheaded Russian talked about as a future champion.


As they play a hard-fought, five-set thriller, the men get on each other’s nerves, admit to their own nerves, and flashback to their off-court lives, which mainly consist of Palmer’s all-American wife Mallory, a tennis pro who gave up her career to marry and give him children (the latter of which was harder than they expected), and Sergei’s feisty fiancée Galina, whose brimming self-confidence helps balance Sergei’s rattling man-child antics.


As a tennis fan, I found it interesting that Ziegler’s players are at least partly based on real pros: Tim seems modeled after Roger Federer, the effortless, beloved G.O.A.T., while Sergei seems a cousin of a younger and more distracted Novak Djokovic. The men’s better halves are stock characters, but Ziegler’s zippy way with dialogue allows all four to play an entertaining doubles match at the same time that the men’s singles battle is going on.


With Tim Mackabee’s clever set showing off the U.S. Open court and the couples’ off-court battlefields, Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs with persuasive finesse, easily juggling the men’s shotmaking with their verbal shots and flashbacks. Of course, her exemplary cast is The Last Match’s ace in the hole. Wilson Bethel’s Tim and Alex Mickiewicz’s Sergei trade witty barbs while they impressively duke it out on the court, while Zoe Winters’ Mallory and Natalia Payne’s Galina are perfect foils who also provide a needed perspective to the players’ battle royale.


The Last Match has its faults: Ziegler, who otherwise has the court lingo down, lets her players serve at wrong times during the match, a huge unforced error on her part. But there’s humor and drama in abundance, which makes her play a down-the-line winner.


The Last Match

Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

October '17 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Voice of the Moon
(Arrow Academy)
For his last film, made in 1990 but never released here until now, Italian master Federico Fellini made this flawed but funny and even touching fantasia about a lovestruck young man (Roberto Benigni, before he became insufferably smug) who, while aimlessly wandering, runs into the usual Fellini phantasmagoria of bizarre, weird characters.
Parts of the film come off as pale echoes of earlier and better Fellini, but a bittersweet atmosphere pervades, making this a melancholy and satisfying capstone to a magnificent career. Arrow’s terrific release includes an excellent new hi-def transfer and an hour-long on-set featurette of Fellini directing his final film.
Annabelle: Creation
(Warner Bros)
I never thought that 105 minutes of slamming doors and young women screaming at the top of their lungs would constitute an actual horror movie, but it’s what this risible origin story of the original doll flick Annabelle unfortunately provides.
There’s little rhyme, reason or rhythm to the monotonous filmmaking, not to mention the three or four non-endings. There’s a sleek-looking hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes, director commentary, on-set featurette and two short films.
The Durrells in Corfu—Complete 2nd Season 
(PBS Masterpiece)
Wherein the Durrell family—widowed mom Louisa and her four growing (and grown) children—continue living on the remote Greek island where romance is definitely in the air: Mom juggles a couple of suitors, her oldest son has an affair with their sexy landlord, and her daughter decides only foreigners are eligible for her affection.
It’s all handsomely photographed, and if the plotting tends toward cutesy soap-opera antics at times, the cast—led the superlative Keeley Hawes as Mom—keep the series’ six episodes light and frothily entertaining. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are short featurettes.
The Lift
(Blue Underground)
Dutch director Dick Maas made his seminal horror film The Lift in 1983; its malevolent elevator—which kills indiscriminately—is a foolish conceit (why don’t the authorities just completely shut it down?), but it’s a fun ride nevertheless, with satisfyingly nasty endings for several victims.
His own 2001 New York-set remake Down follows the original fairly closely, with a few added gory scenes that go above and beyond—and it’s notable for the presence of a young Naomi Watts. The Lift is preferable, however. Both films have fine transfers; extras include Maas’s commentaries, his own clever 2003 short, Long Distance, a making-of featurette and (on Down) a couple of hours of on-set footage.

Broadway Review—Clive Owen in “M. Butterfly”

M. Butterfly

Written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Julie Taymor

Opened on October 26, 20017


Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M. Butterfly (photo: Matthew Murphy)


In the nearly three decades since David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway—winning Tonys for Best Play, Best Director (John Dexter) and Best Featured Actor (B.D. Wong)—unearthed facts have buttressed Hwang’s hard-to-believe true story about a Frenchman who had an affair with a Chinese spy for several years, apparently without knowing his beloved was a man.


Having incorporated some of this material makes play a different animal: while as fascinating as ever, the added elements let us see this story through our present lens; what in 1988 would have seemed implausible to audiences—gender fluidity—is now firmly in our wheelhouse, making M. Butterfly more in the present by dramatizing how sexual and social taboos are broken down.


Sitting in prison, French diplomat Rene Gallimard tells his tale about his love affair with Song Liling—a Peking Opera performer—a relationship that tentatively grows more intimate and physical, which we discover during an unnecessarily descriptive courtroom scene in which Song describes how he transformed himself to make Rene believe he had the requisite female parts to engage in sexual intercourse.


In Hwang’s new version, Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly is less central; instead, a Chinese opera The Butterfly Lovers is given two lengthy excerpts, which director Julie Taymor—with help from her arranger-composer-partner Elliot Goldenthal—stages with a flourish, the lone moments of visual ravishment in an otherwise restrained production. Large, colorful screens slide on and off the stage almost continuously in a play with dozens of short scenes in varied locales; Taymor’s consummate design team—scenic (Paul Steinberg), lighting (Donald Holder), costume (Constance Hoffman) and sound (Will Pickens)—creates a vivid world of deception and, even more damagingly for Rene, self-deception.


Clive Owen gives an intense and ironical performance as Rene, balancing the ludicrousness of his fate with an almost reaction to each new, puzzling situation. Although he’s less exasperated than the role’s originator John Lithgow was, Owen effortlessly finds the humanity needed to ground this character in a reality that points the way to his abyss.


As Song, Jin Ha is persuasively gender fluid, although our first glimpse of him as a man plays havoc with subsequent scenes in which he’s Song as a woman. Despite some contrivances and overexplicit explanations, M. Butterfly flourishes in its new metamorphosis.


M. Butterfly

Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review—Brian Friel’s “The Home Place”

The Home Place

Written by Brian Friel; directed by Charlotte Moore

Performances through November 19, 2017


John Windsor-Cunningham and Rachel Pickup in Brian Friel's The Home Place (photo: Carol Rosegg)

It’s a measure of how dire things are on Broadway for non-musicals that, a dozen years after it was written—and two years after its author died—the great Irish playwright Brian Friel’s lovely valedictory, The Home Place, is getting its New York premiere, not on the Great White Way (where Friel was represented by such classics as Dancing at Lughnasa, Translations and Faith Healer), but at the Irish Rep.


That’s not to say that the cozy Irish Rep is not a good place for The Home Place; on the contrary, this small-scale drama with a fairly large cast sits comfortably on the theater’s small stage, and in director Charlotte Moore’s sympathetic hands, the comic and tragic sparks created during this bracing snapshot of late 19th century Ireland—where the increasingly outspoken Nationalist movement against the English presents itself in several desultory but significant encounters—are gracefully embodied in this captivating production.


In the rural village of Ballybeg in County Donegal, middle-aged Englishman Christopher Gore lives with his adult son David at The Lodge, an old homestead, along with the much younger Margaret, a neighbor turned close friend who has overseen upkeep of the place in the years following the death of Christopher’s wife. Although both men are in love with Margaret, she has fallen for David, and doesn’t want him to indelicately let everyone know, including his father.


Meanwhile, Christopher’s cousin, Dr. Richard Gore from the family’s “home place” of Kent, is taking cranial measurements of various locals to prove the supposed Darwinian theory that the Irish are an inferior race. As usual in Friel’s lilting, poetic plays, the political and the personal dovetail beautifully, even with the added weight of racism and nationalism that has scarred both countries.


Moore directs with supreme understatement: the actors are led by Rachel Pickup, a winning and touching Margaret, and John Windsor-Cunningham, a forthright and commanding Christopher. Only Ed Malone makes a less than vivid impression with his awkward, immature David—but even that can’t harm this artful, bittersweet final work from one of our premier playwrights.


The Home Place

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

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