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Theater Review—Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” with Dianne Wiest

Happy Days
Written by Samuel Beckett; directed by James Bundy
Performances through May 28, 2017
 
Dianne Wiest in Samuel Beckett's Happy  Days (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
It’s her voice that does it. Despite the deep, throaty intonations of her signature line, “Don’t speak!”, hilariously repeated throughout Woody Allen’s 1994 classic Bullets Over Broadway, Dianne Wiest is known for her fragile, even squeaky voice that flutters and fibrillates. But as Winnie—the defiantly unflappable heroine of Samuel Beckett’s shattering comedy about mortality, Happy Days—Wiest gathers reservoirs of strength almost entirely through that unique instrument: that’s because Winnie, initially buried up to her waist in a mound of sand, finds herself trapped up to her neck at the end.
 
With easy mastery, Wiest displays Winnie’s unbridled brightness throughout her two-hour near-monologue—occasionally interrupted by appearances by Winnie’s husband Willie—punctuating her dialogue with the hopeful exclamation “happy days.” Wiest’s Winnie is sympathetic without being pathetic, and optimistic without being naïve, her precise and subtle gestures punctuating the hilarious (and often devastating) prattle that Beckett wrote to demonstrate her last, desperate attempt to stave off inevitable extinction.
 
James Bundy perceptively directs on Izmir Ickbal’s impressive set of an arid landscape, adhering closer to Beckett’s stringent stage directions than did Deborah Warner’s 2008 staging at BAM with Fiona Shaw. Jarlath Conroy’s amusing Willie complements Wiest, who finds the poignancy and sadness in Winnie’s final song, leaving a collective lump in the throat of the entire audience.
 
Happy Days
Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
tfana.org

May '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Accidental Tourist

(Warner Archive)
One of Anne Tyler’s most satisfying novels—about an emotionally distant travel writer reeling from his young son’s death and grieving wife’s leaving him who finds redemption and love—became director Lawrence Kasdan’s best film in 1988. This melancholy romantic comedy with few false Hollywood moments is also a showcase for extraordinary performances by William Hurt (husband), Kathleen Turner (wife) and especially Oscar-winning Geena Davis as the new woman. The movie’s subdued colors look impressive on Blu; extras are Kasdan’s intro, deleted scenes, vintage making-of featurette and Davis’s commentary.
 
Africa’s Great Civilizations
(PBS)
For his latest entertaining history lesson, Henry Louis Gates travels to the great continent to explore nearly a quarter of a millennium’s worth of civilizations that thrived, traded and battled with and often defeated their adversaries from Europe and Asia. Throughout these six hour-long episodes, Gates speaks engagingly with experts who provide edifying discussion and also goes to the actual locations—from Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to Zanzibar and Timbuktu—which look ravishing in their uniqueness and importance on Blu-ray.
 
Good Morning 

(Criterion)

A humanist filmmaker blessed with uncommon grace and rigor in equal measure, Yasujiro Ozu was the rare artist who could elevate the quotidian into the sublime, as in this gentle but hilarious 1959 comedy about two young boys who refuse to speak until their parents get them a television set. Ozu’s films contain enough wit and insight, laughter and tears to be worth any discerning viewer’s time; that Criterion has included Ozu’s amusing silent comedy,1932’s I Was Born, But… (Good Morning’s forerunner), with Donald Sosin’s 2008 musical score, is a delightful bonus. There’s a first-rate new hi-def transfer; other extras are a fragment of Ozu’s 1929 silent A Straightforward Boy, interview with David Bordwell and video essay by David Cairns.
 
The Loved One
(Warner Archive)
Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s sly novel might have been racy and daring in 1965, but half a century has dulled its edge and muted its satiric depiction of Southern California as a land of shallow slickness compared to the more cultured Old World. The movie is best seen as a time capsule that features cameos by stars of the day from Jonathan Winters and John Gielgud to Liberace and Milton Berle. Haskell Wexler’s exquisite B&W widescreen compositions look even more luminous in hi-def; the only extra is a featurette.
 
Seven Days in May 

(Warner Archive)

In John Frankenheimer’s tense 1964 Cold War thriller about a U.S. president whose disarmament overtures towards Russia triggers an attempted military coup by a cabal of right-wing generals, an array of stars makes this a deliciously paranoid drama in the manner of Frankenheimer’s own The Manchurian Candidate. Frederic March (president), Burt Lancaster (bad guy), Kirk Douglas (good guy), and Ava Gardner (love interest) are all in top form; the hi-def transfer brings the striking B&W visuals to the fore, and there’s a Frankenheimer commentary.
 
DVDs of the Week
Between Us
(IFC)
Writer-director Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s dreary and pretentious drama of a longtime, just-married couple whose wedding-day argument turns into a chance for both to cheat comes to life only when that amazing and underrated actress Olivia Thirlby gets a chance to shine. Too bad Thirlby is stuck in the contradictory part of an intelligent, confident woman who ends up screwing a performance artist she just met to get a measure of revenge against her husband, who ends up not what she does. The banal ending—which fails to be happy and deep simultaneously—perfectly summarizes the director’s pretentiousness, at the expense of his actors.
 
The Great War 

(PBS)

PBS’s excellent American Experience series tackles the complexities of the First World War in a three-part, six-hour documentary which illustrates how it was the first modern war, one which brought America global prestige and power but also increasing political difficulties back home. The must-see program brings together precisely chosen newsreel footage, images, speeches, songs, etc. (along with Oliver Platt’s narration) to give a robust flavor of an era of true devastation and destruction—and a slight hopefulness that there would be no Second World War in the future.

New Musical Revivals—“The Golden Apple” at Encores!; Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” at Classic Stage Company

The Golden Apple
Music by Jerome Moross; written by John Latouche; directed by Michael Berresse
Performances May 10-14, 2017
 
Pacific Overtures

Book by John Weidman; music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Performances through June 18, 2017

Ryan Silverman and Mikaela Bennett in The Golden Apple (photo: Joan Marcus)

The Golden Apple is the kind of musical Encores! was made for: an almost forgotten show that ran off-Broadway in 1954, then transferred to Broadway—the first musical ever to do so—only to close after a few months. Now, for all of us who’ve never seen or heard it in the ensuing 60-plus years, it’s back for a few performances.

 
Most noteworthy is Jerome Moross’s beguiling, sung-through score, closer in spirit to operetta (and opera) than your garden-variety Broadway musical. The infectious and witty songs are in a variety of styles within the Moross’s distinctly Americana vernacular; John Latouche’s accompanying lyrics run the gamut from solid to stolid, with clever and welcome tongue-in-cheek rhymes. But Latouche takes the heroic Greek myths of The Odyssey and The Iliad and, by transplanting them to the year 1898 during the Spanish-American War in the fictional town of Angel’s Roost in Washington State, makes them utterly ridiculous.
 
Luckily, the story’s silliness doesn’t derail the show:  Michael Berresse’s adroit staging—the usual Encores! mix of concert and full production—features Allen Moyer’s droll sets, William Ivey Long’s sassy costumes, and Joshua Bergasse’s lively choreography for the many dance sequences. Moross’s songs are given full-voiced loveliness by newcomer Mikaela Bennett, as Penelope; she belies her inexperience—this is the Juilliard student’s first professional production—with a powerful but not show-offy voice and a scary heaping of stage confidence. 
 
Lindsay Mendez, an amusing Helen, steals scenes right and left while giving a beautiful rendition of the show’s solo standout, “Lazy Afternoon.” Ryan Silverman’s robust Ulysses joins Bennett’s Penelope for Moross’s romantic duets, “It’s the Going Home Together” and the finale “We’ve Just Begun.” The non-singing Barton Cowperthwaite dances up a storm as Paris, a hot-air balloon traveling salesman who kidnaps Helen.
 
Rob Berman and his Encores! orchestra give Moross’s charming music the best possible platform, but an inane plot and large cast make The Golden Apple a doubtful Broadway revival any time soon.
 
Geroge Takei (center) in Pacific Overtures (photo: Joan Marcus)
Pacific Overtures was made for Broadway: its huge cast and expansive storyline about the opening of Japan (starting with the 1853 landing of American Commodore Matthew Perry) need a big stage to house Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s problematic but thought-provoking show exploring the fallout of the West’s introducing the East to “progress.”
 
Unfortunately, John Doyle—who tinkers with everything he touches, usually Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Passion) and opera (his disastrous Peter Grimes at the Met)—has downsized Pacific Overtures in its staging and its music, which reduces it to a highlights performance with tantalizing bits of pointed commentary strewn throughout its intermissionless 85 minutes. 
 
Doyle’s spare but evocative visuals—the stage splits through the audience like an unfurling scroll—are complemented by his suggestive blocking, as the ten performers mimic stylized Japanese movements. But why Doyle has cut several songs—including those that make a strong case for the show’s musical supremacy among Sondheim aficionados—and instead kept a more obvious satirical rant like “Please Hello,” in which stereotypically arrogant Western representatives convince the Japanese to bow to their cultural superiority, is puzzling.
 
In a generally fine cast, George Takei’s stately presence as The Reciter stands out. Too bad Doyle’s unfocused production reduces a provocative piece of theater—with a punning title (taken directly from Commodore Perry) that speaks volumes about its intentions—to a stale deconstruction mistaking poverty for intimacy. One awaits Doyle’s next move with increased trepidation.


The Golden Apple
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY
nycitycenter.org

Pacific Overtures
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

May '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Kiju Yoshida—Love + Anarchism

(Arrow Academy)
One of the unsung luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, director Kiju Yoshida has made relatively few films, his reputation hinging on the three features in this must-have boxed set: his magnum opus, 1969’s epic Eros + Massacre, presented in its 165-minute release version and the stunningly original 215-minute director’s cut; and his subsequent features, 1970’s Heroic Purgatory and 1973’s Coup d’Etat.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Yoshida’s political trilogy (simultaneously hip and historical, free-form and rigidly structured) are screaming to be discovered anew thanks to flawless hi-def transfers that bring to life his ingenious B&W compositions, along with contextualizing extras: intros by scholar David Desser and Yoshida, commentaries by Desser and a 30-minute featurette about Eros featuring Yoshida.
 
Brain Damage
(Arrow)
Frank Henenlotter’s grubby 1988 gorefest introduces a brain-eating parasite named Edgar who finds a willing young idiot to do his murderous bidding: this is the kind of tongue-in-cheek horror flick where a young woman, ready to perform fellatio on our hero, instead ends up with Edgar in her mouth, and he burrows through her mouth to suck out her brain.
 
 
 
 
There’s definitely an audience for this type of low-budget schlock, but credit must be given to Edgar creator Gabe Bartalos, who comes up with a crafty little monster. It looks good and grainy on Blu; extras include interviews, featurettes and a commentary.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Serial Mom 

(Shout/Scream Factory)

John Waters’ silly 1994 satire has grown in relevance since then, as Kathleen Turner’s murderous middle-class mom who gets off in a sensational trial remains one of her best, most deadpan creations.
 
 
 
 
Although the movie keeps beating the same dead horse for 95 minutes, the collection of misfits in Waters’ cast—Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard as Turner’s family, Patty Hearst as a juror and Mink Stole as a bitchy accuser—makes it a fun watch. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras include two commentaries (one by Waters and Turner and one by Waters solo), featurettes and a conversation with Waters, Turner and Stole.
 
Things to Come
(Sundance Selects)
After an auspicious career start (All Is Forgiven, The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love), French director Mia Hansen-Løve has regressed with her shallow 2014 feature Eden and her latest, with a somnambulistic Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy professor with a long-term marriage, two teenage children and a psychosomatic mother who suddenly finds herself unmoored; as she says: “I got divorced, my children have moved out, and my mom died. I’m free.”
 
 
 
 
Instead of an insightful look at a woman beginning a new life, Hansen-Løve makes a meandering soap opera that not even the redoubtable Huppert can save. The director’s unerring eye and beautifully composed shots look ravishing on Blu-ray, at least.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CD of the Week 

Mahler Third Symphony—Budapest Festival Orchestra

(Channel Classics)

It takes a village to perform Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony—if not as many as his Eighth (the aptly, and only slightly exaggeratedly, titled “Symphony of a Thousand”)—thanks to a large orchestra, two choirs, alto soloist and a conductor who can marshal all of those forces into a cohesive whole that plays some of Mahler’s most sublimely emotional music.

 

 

 

 

And that’s what conductor Ivan Fischer does with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, Cantemus Children’s Choir, Chorus of the Bayerischer Rundfunk and singer Gerhild Romberger, all of whom perform brilliantly in this magnificent 95-minute journey through one of Mahler’s most momentous compositions.

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