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Film and the Arts

Broadway Review—Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other”

Significant Other

Written by Joshua Harmon; directed by Trip Cullman

Opened March 2, 2017

 

A scene from Significant Other (photo: Joan Marcus)

 

Like his Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other is crammed with clever, even riotously funny dialogue, along with moments when characters mouth off crassly and snidely. But there’s an emotional weight to the new work that makes it more palatable than the sour earlier play.

 

We meet 29-year-old Jordan Berman (a name very close to the author’s), a gay man working in a Manhattan office, whose three closest friends are all female: sassy Kiki, fun-loving Vanessa and down-to-earth Laura, with whom Jordan roomed with in college. One by one, each woman meets a man and gets married; Jordan, meanwhile, is unable to begin, let alone sustain, a relationship. Significant Other begins at Kiki’s bachelorette party and ends at Laura’s wedding: in between Jordan becomes ever more desperate to find intimacy, especially when he realizes that the women will not be friends in the same way once they have husbands to prioritize.

 

But it’s when Laura—his best friend and soulmate—finally finds love that Jordan feels his own loneliness even more forcefully. Making him feel even more pathetic are visits to his loving, elderly grandmother, who both gives him positive reinforcement and makes him feel worse. There are also painfully funny scenes of Jordan trying to date Will, a coworker who agrees to see a bad documentary about the Franco-Prussian war with him, and a failed relationship with Zach, whom Jordan met while interning in Chicago, but who can’t let go of his own recent ex.

 

Harmon’s likably dark comedy chronicles how relationships constantly fluctuate, and the play’s often amusing conversations lay bare the frayed bonds within even the strongest friendships—like Jordan and Laura’s after her engagement. But the biggest sympathy for Jordan comes courtesy of Gideon Gick’s marvelously shaded performance, in which the shyness, neediness, and bruised but beating heart of this confused young man are laid bare wittily and compassionately.

 

Jordan’s quartet of women is beautifully embodied by four fine actresses. Sas Goldberg makes a sassy and vivacious Kiki, Rebecca Naomi Jones an appealing Vanessa, and Lindsey Mendez a sensitive and supportive Laura. Barbara Barrie is on hand to provide a lovely oasis of calm as Jordan’s grandmother.

 

Mark Wendland’s set design spiffily evokes the Manhattan apartments, offices and public spaces these people move through, complemented by Kaye Voyce’s adept costumes and Japhy Weideman’s expressive lighting. Add to all of this Trip Cullman’s knowing direction, which makes Significant Other anything but insignificant.

 

Significant Other

Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY

significantotherbroadway.com

Off-Broadway Reviews—The New Group’s “Evening at the Talkhouse” and “All the Fine Boys”

Evening at the Talkhouse
Written by Wallace Shawn; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through March 12, 2017
All the Fine Boys
Written and directed by Erica Schmidt
Performances through March 26, 2017
 
Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in Evening at the Talkhouse (photo: Monique Carboni)
 
With irony so thick you can’t even cut it with a knife, Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talkhouse dramatizes how the United States degenerates into barbarism (random beatings, escalating drone attacks, state-sanctioned murders) after the demise of all things cultural.
 
Shawn has always tended toward heavy-handedness in his playwriting, but his latest—which premiered in London in 2015, before Trump’s rise—pretends to be a corrosive political satire when it’s really just more sophomoric shock tactics like those in his earlier Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Designated Mourner.
 
One night at a local joint, artists who put on a play that flopped a decade earlier get together to commemorate the last gasp of an art form that fizzled out in favor of mindless, safe televised junk. Playwright Robert; lead actor Tom; producer (turned agent) Bill; costumer Annette; and composer Ted arrive for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and reminiscing about old times. Also there, hiding in the corner, is Dick, former matinee idol turned shriveled old man who lost out for the lead role in Robert’s play.
 
Their seemingly amiable discussions quickly morph into conversations about how casual violence is now considered normal, including how some of them—desperately short of cash—have become murderous operatives for the government, whether from afar by directing drones or as hired assassins in other volatile areas of the world.
 
It all ends up being pointless and muddled, despite Shawn’s dialogue huffing and puffing as it tries desperately to sound menacing and duplicitous. After awhile, a pall sets in, even as the cast tries its hardest to make everything seem creepily ordinary.
 
Director Scott Elliott has fashioned the performers into a convincingly bemused group. The always reliable Larry Pine (Tom) and Jill Eikenberry (Talkhouse proprietress Nellie) have their good moments, while Talkhouse server Jane is embodied with a terrifying sense of calm strength by Annapurna Sriram. As Robert, Matthew Broderick works his patented laconic delivery for all its worth: when he admits to his own personal decisions, it all sounds even worse through his casual Ferris Buehler intonations. Too bad Shawn’s play doesn’t measure up to its able interpreters.
 
Isabelle Fuhrmann and Abigail Breslin in All the Fine Boys (photo: Monique Carboni)
 
All the Fine Boys is a pointed if not particularly resonant play about teenage friends Jenny and Emily, circa the late 1980s, whose raging hormones lead them into close proximity to a couple of young men, with (for one of them) horrific results.
 
Playwright Erica Schmidt—who also bluntly directs—has these girls’ lingo, actions and relationships down pat (maybe it’s a sort-of self-portrait?), as they sit around bored, eating Pringles and discussing guys. When Jenny meets Joseph, a 28-year-old from the local church, and goes home with him, she hangs on to him for dear life after losing her virginity, while Emily more conventionally flirts with Adam, a 17-year-old high school senior.
 
Schmidt crosscuts between these two couples, as one becomes ever more strangely unsettling and the other haltingly romantic. But since the ending has been telegraphed the start—the girls arguing over what slasher movie to watch—any dramatic impact is muted. Luckily for Schmidt, Abigail Breslin fearlessly enacts Jenny’s confusion, neediness and self-abasement, even if she (alongside Isabelle Fuhrmann, who engagingly plays Emily) is too old for the 14-year-old she’s playing.
 
There’s also a nice supporting turn by Alex Wolff—who most recently gave a chilling portrayal of one of the Tsarnaev brothers in the film Patriots Day—as the guitar-playing Adam who makes Emily swoon.
 
Evening at the Talkhouse
All the Fine Boys
The New Group @ Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
thenewgroup.org

March '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Boyfriend

(Warner Archive)
One of Ken Russell’s most atypical films, his 1971 version of Sandy Wilson’s old-fashioned musical still contains the director’s often uncontrolled frenzy in abundance, even if—in this case—it’s at the service of a frivolous but fun story starring the enchanting Twiggy, of all people, who shows herself a more than competent actress, dancer and singer.
It’s nice to finally get this from Warner Archive in a superior hi-def edition, with a vintage on-set featurette as the lone extra; maybe someday we’ll finally get The Devils on Blu-ray?
 
 


Moana
(Disney)
Disney’s latest animated extravaganza follows its eponymous heroine as she leaves her Polynesian home with shape-shifting ex-demigod Maui in tow to help save her people by bringing a relic back to an island goddess.
Mixed in with interchangeable songs co-written byHamilton auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda are lustrous aquatic visuals that often overwhelm the feel-good feminist tale being told. On Blu-ray, the computer-generated visuals look terrifically; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes, deleted song, and bonus Easter eggs.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth 

(Warner Archive)

If you’re going to make a silly, incoherent movie anachronistically showing cavemen and women living alongside dinosaurs, then the stop-motion effects better be up to snuff: for that reason alone, this 1969 adventure makes the grade, with surprisingly effective sequences of predators vs. their human targets.
Otherwise, the amateurish acting, disposable directing and non-existent script make their marks throughout the sluggish 100-minute running time. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
 
DVDs of the Week
City in the Sky
(PBS)
This three-part documentary mini-series presents the inner workings of the airline industry by showing behind-the-scenes glimpses at ultra-busy airports like Atlanta’s or a fascinating look at the actual assembly of an Airbus A380, with its thousands of interlocking parts.
By naming the segments “Departure,” “Airborne” and “Arrival,” the series cleverly develops a narrative of sorts, based on the fact that, at any moment, around a million people are airborne at the same time around the world: hence the program’s title.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Oklahoma City 

(PBS)

Timothy McVeigh’s homegrown terrorist attack, which shocked the country in 1995, is recounted in this thorough and unmissable exploration of what triggered McVeigh, how authorities dealt with it—including pretty quickly apprehending him after the first impulse was to blame Middle Eastern terrorists—and the reactions of those who had to trudge through the rubble, including first responders and parents who lost—or thought they lost—their children.
One of the PBS series American Experience’s best episodes, director Barak Goodman’s impeccably researched and painstakingly put together study scarily demonstrates how McVeigh’s moment of madness had its origins in the white supremacist movement.
 
A Place to Call Home—Complete 4thSeason
(Acorn Media)
In the most recent season of this superior Australian soap opera, the year 1954 embodies two opposing political stances, conservative fearmongering and liberal hopefulness, which color the actions of all of the characters.
Jealousy, homosexuality, murder-suicide….the melodrama continues throughout these dozen episodes, aided by top-notch performances and a real sense of time and place. Fans will be pleased to know that a fifth season is currently in production.
 
CD of the Week 
The Film Music of William Alwyn, Volume 4
(Chandos)

One of the most accomplished if underrated British composers of the last century, William Alwyn wrote music in many genres—symphonies, chamber music, concertos, operas, solo piano and vocal works—but his music remains, except for a slew of welcome releases on Chandos in the ‘80s and ‘90s, relatively unknown. That even extends to the often imaginative and dramatic scores he wrote for more than 70 films throughout his career—he died in 1985 at age 79—and Chandos has already released fine recordings of several of his best scores.

This fourth volume, which includes his atmospheric suites (ably reconstructed and arranged by Philip Lane) for such ordinary British titles as On Approval and A City Speaks,continues the label’s winning streak of making this composer’s music available once again. Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic in exciting performances of works from ten different films.

Off-Broadway Review—Janie Dee Returns in “Linda”

Linda
Written by Penelope Skinner; directed by Lynne Meadow
Performances through April 2, 2017
 
Janie Dee (right) in Linda (photo: Joan Marcus)
 
It begins promisingly with its heroine giving an impressive, impassioned presentation to kick off a new line of anti-aging products for women over 50 for her company, Swan Beauty. In these opening moments, actress Janie Dee—conspicuously absent from the New York stage since her incandescent portrayal of a robot in Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential in 2000—expresses herself with witty, intelligent and appealing charm. Too bad Penelope Skinner’s Linda, despite its leading lady’s lively presence, never again approaches its opening high.
 
Skinner’s eponymous heroine has overcome sundry obstacles: at age 55—the new 35—she has a great job, a great husband and two great daughters. But the play artlessly takes Linda on a predictable ride once it’s obvious that nothing is as it seems: Neil, her husband, is cheating; Alice, her grown daughter (with another man), is a mess mentally; and teenager Bridget annoyingly talks about which male role she wants to recite in her acting class.
 
And the office has gotten tougher: Linda’s longtime boss Dave has hired a hot—in both senses—25-year-old spitfire, Amy, who’s already angling for Linda’s job. Throw in Stevie, the nubile young singer fronting the band Neil’s moonlighting in (and fooling around with) and Luke, a fresh (in both senses) “spiritual” temp with eyes for Linda, and you’ll know exactlyLinda is going long before it gets there.
 
It all plays out as routinely as you’d expect. Linda discovers that Neil is cheating when she comes home early one day from her poisonous office situation and finds Stevie in the kitchen wearing his shirt. Soon, Alice—also temping at her mother’s office—discovers that Amy is an old classmate who had a hand in posting some sexual photos of Alice on the internet a few years back.  And when Luke seduces Linda in a weak office moment, Amy (who else?) gets hold of his selfie memento of the occasion and sends it off to Dave (who else?).
 
Skinner relies too heavily on contrivance and sheer irrationality to get from point A to point B. Would Linda really go to the storage room with Luke for a quickie and let him take a postflagrante selfie that the whole world might see? Would Luke let Amy take his and, discover said selfie so she can disseminate it around the office? The characters in Linda end up acting like those in any run-of-the-mill sitcom, the main difference being that, by clocking in at over two hours, Linda and its denizens wear out their welcome.
 
Lynne Meadow’s handsomely mounted production comprises Walt Spangler’s ingenious rotating set, Jason Lyons’ sagacious lighting and Fitz Patton’s smart sound design. But, if the talented supporting cast is defeated by the shaky material, there’s Janie Dee giving her all: such astonishing vitality makes one wish that Linda was the equal of its Linda.
 
Linda
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY
lindaplay.com

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