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Film and the Arts

Off-Broadway Review—Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget”

If I Forget
Written by Steven Levenson; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through April 30, 2017
 
Jeremy Shamos, Kate Walsh and Maria Dizzia in If I Forget (photo: Joan Marcus)

Although he trods familiar ground, Steven Levenson imbues his compassionate Jewish identity play 
If I Forget with fresh insights as the bickering Fischer clan hashes out its personal problems in the family home in Tenleytown, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
 
Lou, the 75-year-old patriarch who’s still reeling from his beloved wife’s recent agonizing death from cancer, and his three children are all under one roof. Eldest Holly, who lives nearby, has her second husband Howard and 16-year-old son Joey in tow; middle child, only son and mother’s favorite Michael is visiting from New York with his wife Ellen, while their 19-year-old daughter Abby is visiting Israel at a particularly fraught time (it’s July 2000, and the latest peace process has just broken down, which makes Michael antsy about her safety); and youngest Sharon, who mostly took care of their dying mother, has grown close to a Guatemalan family renting out—at far below market rates, says money-conscious Holly—the old family store in another part of town.
 
Remarkably for a young playwright (he’s best known for the book of the current hit musical Dear Evan Hansen), Levenson has created three-dimensional, palpably alive characters exhaustively prepped for battles both personal and political, like the one Michael has brought with him. An atheist Jewish Studies professor up for tenure, he has written a controversial book, Forgetting the Holocaust, which threatens to irrevocably damage already tenuous Fischer family, especially since Lou was in the army and helped liberate Dachau, and Sharon makes no bones about finding the book demeaning to the six million who perished.
 
What helps make If I Forget such a vibrant and incisive examination of the horrors the Fischers must face is a spiky sense of humor, notably when—since the play is set in July 2000 and February 2001—there is talk of Bush v. Gore, Ralph Nader and hanging chads. Before the election, Michael equated Bush and Gore, but he later owns up to his mistake. In July he says, “there’s no difference between four years of Bush and four years of Gore,” then in February admits, when Sharon berates him for not voting for Gore, “Well, I didn’t think he was going to lose.” Such lively and intelligent exchanges among the siblings are often funny but without losing the underlying seriousness. 
 
This is where the estimable contributions of Daniel Sullivan, one of our premier theater directors for decades, come in: he effortlessly combines a light touch with poignant drama. In Sullivan’s sensitive staging, even the plot’s most melodramatic aspects—an unexpected pregnancy, internet credit card fraud and Michael’s inability to realize his book is incendiary—are delicately rendered. And the story’s unseen characters—troubled young Abby and the Jimenez family, with whom Sharon is far too close for comfort—come through vividly.
 
But what makes If I Forget unforgettable is the extraordinary cast Sullivan assembled to do these people justice. Seth Steinberg’s Joey, Tasha Lawrence’s Ellen and Gary Wilmes’s Howard are sheer perfection, while Larry Bryggman brings his usual laconic intensity to Lou, whose high point—a late-night memory when he describes what he and other shocked soldiers confronted at Dachau—is among the most breathlessly wrenching few minutes I’ve spent in a theater.
 
Then there’s the flawless trio portraying the flawed siblings. As Sharon, Maria Dizzia—a chameleonic actress whose lack of any affectation makes her seem like someone who’s just walked in off the street, not a performer inhabiting a character—is gloriously understated, even in her many well-timed jabs at Michael’s perceived self-hate. Kate Walsh tamps down her usual glamour to make Holly a brash and sharp foil for her brother and sister, particularly in the pivotal scenes when they discuss how to take care of their suddenly sickly father.
 
And Jeremy Shamos, one of our finest stage actors, adds another indelible creation to his resume with his performance as the complex and prickly Michael, an intellectual trying not to be snobbish in front of his family, and a man whose entire being consists of a struggle between his Jewish heritage and lack of faith. Michael also gets some great speeches, like his impassioned harangue about how the Holocaust’s lessons: “We learned all the wrong lessons from the Holocaust. We learned that the world hates Jews, that the world will always hate Jews, instead of what we should have actually learned—that nationalism is a sickness and it is lethal.”
 
Such pointed encapsulations of his own beliefs are so brilliantly articulated by actor, playwright and director as to make If I Forget not only a compelling drama but absolutely indispensable theater.
 
If I Forget
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
roundabouttheatre.org

February '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Brahms—German Requiem
(Clasart Classic)
Perhaps the most emotionally charged of the famous Requiems (Mozart, Verdi, Faure, Britten), Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem is often trotted out for an anniversary or other large-scale memorial.
But this 2016 performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Franz Welser-Most, the Vienna Singverein chorus and soloists Hanna-Elisabeth Muller and Simon Keenlyside in Austria’s gilded baroque Saint Florian Basilica doesn’t need any extra-musical reason to hold its audience in thrall. The hi-def video and audio are excellent.
 
Deep Water
The Level
(Acorn Media)
Led by a bold, confident Yael Stone (best known from Orange Is the New Black), Deep Water is an absorbing police procedural about a series of murders that may be related to several unsolved gay-related killings that occurred in the same area decades earlier.
And, propelled by a gritty performance by Karla Crome, The Level is an arresting crime drama about a young detective whose ties to a sordid underworld figure may hinder her investigation—especially if her colleagues discover the connection. Both sets’ extras include on-set featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Doctor Strange 

(Marvel/Disney)

One of the most watchable of recent superhero movies is this fairly streamlined—under two hours—if crazily plotted odyssey of an arrogant neurosurgeon who gains an awesome array of mystical powers after he’s almost killed in a car crash that destroys the use of his hands.
Benedict Cumberbatch nicely balances the haughtiness and self-parody of our title hero while Rachel McAdams invests the underwritten female sidekick role with far more sympathy and humor than is warranted. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are director commentary, deleted scenes, gag reel and several featurettes.
 
We Are the Flesh
(Arrow)
Emiliano Rocha Minter’s demented post-apocalyptic drama is twisted right from the start: a trollish loner is joined by a desperate brother and sister, and to allow them to stay with him, he makes them have sex as he watches.
Aside from the camp factor—there’s actual sex filmed among actors Noe Hernandez, Maria Evoli and Diego Gamaliel—it’s also been done with a certain amount of artful flair, but with this ultimate “dividing audiences” type of film, viewers’ mileage will vary. It looks fine on Blu; extras include director and cast interviews, Minter short films and video essay.
 
DVDs of the Week 
Casablancas—The Man Who Loved Women
(First Run)
This engaging portrait of John Casablancas—who rose from obscurity to found the Elite model agency in 1972—is centered around a revealing interview he did two years before his untimely death in 2013.
Director Hubert Woroniecki’s documentary returns to the days of celebrities hobnobbing at Studio 54 and supermodels from Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell to Stephanie Seymour and Christie Brinkley becoming global superstars. And there was Casablancas, helped make it happen.
 
Creepy
(KimStim)

As usual with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movies, more is most definitely less: the first hour or so of this ominous mystery follows a crime investigator who, while looking into an unsolved series of serial killings, discovers that the actual culprit might be his and his unsuspecting wife’s neighbor.

It’s too bad that the final hour becomes increasingly more hysterical and shrill as the murderer is triggered to continue with his lethal behavior, logic be damned. The first half is suggestive, and all the more effective for it, while the second half is unnecessarily oppressive, and all the poorer for it, unfortunately.

Off-Broadway Review—Tracy Letts’ “Man from Nebraska”

Man from Nebraska
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by David Cromer
Performances through March 26, 2017
 
Reed Birney and Heidi Armbruster in Man from Nebraska (photo: Joan Marcus)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his towering psychological drama August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts writes about extremes in behavior, as an early play of his,Man from Nebraska—belatedly making its New York premiere, long after Killer Joe, Bug, August and Superior Donuts did—fitfully demonstrates.
 
Letts’s protagonist, Ken Carpenter, is a 57-year-old Baptist living in Omaha with his beloved wife Nancy. The play begins with the couple going through a typical day together: driving to church, sitting at services singing a hymn and listening to a sermon, going to a local place to eat, and visiting Ken’s mother in an assisted living facility. Then, after they turn out the lights for the night, Ken gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom, where he begins weeping uncontrollably. When Nancy awakens and asks what’s the matter, he drops a bombshell: “I don’t think there’s a God. I don’t believe in Him any more.”
 
After that statement, nothing is the same again. Nancy can’t understand, their cynical daughter Ashley thinks he’s taken leave of his senses, and Reverend Todd, who provides him with some clichéd bromides, tells him to get away for awhile: which Ken actually does, flying to London for the first time in decades since he was there briefly while in the Air Force. Leaving Nebraska loosens him up, of course: he meets Pat, a flirty vivacious businesswoman, on the flight over and talks so insistently with Tamyra, a young bartender at his hotel, that she makes him an alcoholic drink—he’s pretty much a teetotaler—which he loves so much that he gets smashingly drunk.
 
This leads to (for Ken) aberrant behavior: being seduced by Pat (who turns out to be a sex freak, natch), becoming friends with Tamyra and her artist roommate Harry, who give Ken a pep pill which makes him an uninhibited dancer and—apparently—a game sculptor, which Harry trains him as with Tamyra as their model in their small flat. Eventually—after hearing bad news about his aged mother—Ken returns home to make amends with God and Nancy.
 
Letts can be incisive when he shows how a devout man can suddenly, seemingly inexplicably decide that he no longer believes, skillfully charting his confusions, self-doubts and self-recriminations. But Ken’s linear progression from believer to unbeliever and back is charted all too predictably; it may be that Letts wants it to remain mysterious—after all, faith is beyond any intellectual reasoning—but by letting Ken have the time of his life partying it up, fooling around and even becoming an artist of sorts while in London is a little too much on the side of having his cake and eating it too, especially when he hotfoots it back home at the first sign of life’s adversity.
 
Actually, Nancy becomes the more interesting character after Ken leaves for London: first she’s in denial, waiting for him to return, then she begins falling into a depression until she slowly starts coming out of her shell, even if it’s initially to fend off the bumbling but earnest advances of Reverend Todd’s 75-year-old father Bud, who enjoys Outback Steakhouse, mindless shows on TV and making crude remarks. Nancy seems to grow more than our man from Nebraska, but it’s not a given that the playwright knows this.
 
As sensitively staged by David Cromer and acted with by a nuanced and penetrating cast led by Reed Birney, who makes Ken a persuasive bundle of contradictions—both secular and spiritual—and by Annette O’Toole as Nancy, whose transition from dutiful to less dutiful wife is sympathetically drawn. Special mention must go to Heidi Armbruster, who embodies Pat, conceived as an unconvincing character, with a bruised honesty that gets to the heart of Lett’s often strained and manipulative exploration of the spirit.
 
Man from Nebraska
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
2st.com

Theater Review—“Big River” Returns via Encores

Big River—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Book by William Hauptman; music & lyrics by Roger Miller; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances February 8-12, 2017
 
Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch in Big River (photo: Joan Marcus)

Premiering in 1985 on Broadway—where it won several Tonys, including Best Musical—and returning in 2003—revived by Deaf West Theatre—Big River doesn’t seem the usual kind of reclamation project at which Encores excels. But in Lear deBessonet’s lively staging, this tuneful musical based on Mark Twain’s classic 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn remains engaging and thought-provoking.
 
There will be carping about using the “n” word to describe Jim, Huck’s fellow traveler down the river—but Jim is an escaped slave and those using the epithet are whites with ties to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Although deBessonet doesn’t skimp on what audiences find uncomfortable a century and a half later, she never gets bogged down in a heavy-handed “message.”
 
Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Huck and Jim, by turns dramatic and funny, and tough-minded and sentimental, complemented nicely by Roger Miller’s score, a collection of sturdy, alternately rousing (“River in the Rain”), emotional (“Worlds Apart”) or spiritual (“How Blest We Are”) songs that hit on gospel, country, bluegrass and even rockabilly. In the leads, Nicholas Barasch’s delightful Huck and Kyle Scatliffe’s powerful Jim are worthy companions and even adversaries; both men sing beautifully, but it’s Scatliffe who mesmerizes during the show-stopping “Free at Last.”
 
In the supporting roles of The King and The Duke—who board Huck and Jim’s raft, take over their lives, and sell Jim back into slavery—David Pittu and Christopher Sieber again show why they are among today’s best comic actors. There’s lovely singing by Adrianna Hicks, Katherine A. Guy and Patrice Covington in their soulful solo turns, while the Encores Orchestra and music director Rob Berman provide the often fiery playing.
 
Big River—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY
nycitycenter.org

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