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Film and the Arts

Broadway Review—Paula Vogel’s Play “Indecent”

Indecent
Written by Paula Vogel; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Opened April 18, 2017
 
The cast of Indecent (photo: Carol Rosegg)
When two women kissed on a Broadway stage in 1923 in Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, it caused a scandal. The show was shut down, something that didn’t happen during many European stagings since the Polish-Jewish playwright Asch wrote it in 1907. But the unique prudishness of the United States—even in a culturally rich and ethnically diverse city like New York—demonstrated that intolerance rears its ugly in many ways.
 
Paula Vogel’s play Indecent follows the complicated and haunting history of God of Vengeance, from its first reading in a Warsaw, Poland, literary salon to its being enacted one act at a time in the Lodz Ghetto by performers who don’t know if they’ll get to perform the last act before the Nazis round up everyone. An acting troupe is introduced, and the performers are seen onstage and off, their personal lives intertwined with the fictional but very real characters they play in Vengeance. Pivotal scenes are reenacted from various productions of the play, giving a real sense of not only its historical importance, but also its enduring dramatic interest.
 
Indecent is stimulating without being particularly illuminating, despite an early image of ashes spilling out of the characters’ clothing powerfully evoking what happens to concentration camp victims. But even if it’s admittedly manipulative, Vogel and her sensitive director Rebecca Taichman make effective use of Brechtian stage devices that allow the non-linear narrative to flow more interestingly than it might have otherwise.
 
The klezmer-like music performed onstage is nicely integrated into the drama, with the versatile instrumentalists joining in on the action at times (the ingenious choreography is by David Dorfman). The outstanding performers, all of whom play multiple roles, are led by the winning actress Katarina Link, whose intimate scenes with Adina Verson—not only in their censored onstage kiss but their warm offstage relationship—are the linchpin of the plays God of Vengeance and Indecent.
 
Indecent
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
indecentbroadway.com

May '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

I Am Not Your Negro

(Magnolia)
Remember This House, a book James Baldwin never finished, survives in manuscript form and is a personal reminiscence of three civil rights leaders who were murdered: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
 
 
 
 
 
Director Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary—nominated for an Oscar this past year—makes intelligent use of Baldwin’s own words (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) to make the persuasive case that Baldwin’s views on racism in America have never been more relevant. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras are two Peck interviews (one of them an hour long) and Jackson interview.
 
Animal Kingdom—Complete 1st Season
(Warner Bros)
Based on the gritty 2010 Australian film that garnered an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver as the matriarch of a petty crime family, this new series moves the action to the heart of southern California, a more uneasy fit than in the Outback.
 
 
 
 
 
Still, Ellen Barkin is fun as lead villainess Janine “Smurf” Cody, who keeps her four sons under control, and the series goes off on interesting tangents after a prolonged set-up over the first few episodes. The hi-def image is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and six featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Detour 

We Are X

(Magnet)
In Detour, a straitlaced young man goes on a drinking bender and finds himself “befriended” by a crazed redneck and his stripper girlfriend; too bad that this derivative road-trip drama is not nearly as interesting as writer-director Christopher Smith thinks. 
 
 
 
 
 
We Are X is NOT a documentary about the legendary L.A. punk band but instead a fascinating look at the popular Japanese rock outfit that’s been led for decades by Yoshiki, an intense and conflicted artist. Both films have exemplary hi-def transfers; extras are deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and (on We Are X) live performances and a fan video.
 
A Dog’s Purpose
(Universal)
Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling novel, this sanctimoniously sappy drama about a reincarnated dog’s various lives with various owners—good, bad and indifferent—is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that makes no bones about rubbing our noses in its canine cuteness and tear-inducing melodrama.
 
 
 
 
 
Adorable dogs notwithstanding, director Lasse Hallstrom has come a long way (down) from his breakthrough classic, My Life as a Dog, for which he got Oscar nominations for writing and directing way back in 1988. The film has a natural look on Blu; extras include deleted scenes, outtakes and two featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Rounders 

Spencer’s Mountain

(Warner Archive)
Henry Fonda, in a long career, made several forgettable movies. Like these two: 1964’s The Rounders teams Fonda and Glenn Ford in a frivolous western about a couple of aging cowboys dealing with a bucking bronco.
 
 
 
 
 
1963’s Spencer’s Mountain—a predecessor to The Waltons—finds Fonda playing a father of nine in this sweetly unassuming if too saccharine family drama. Both films have luminous hi-def transfers; Spencer extras are vintage featurette and vintage Fonda interviews.
 
The Wheeler Dealers
From Hell It Came
(Warner Archive)

1963’s The Wheeler Dealers is a harmless and rather pointless Arthur Hiller romantic comedy with an amusing James Garner as a typical Texas millionaire and glamorous Lee Remick as a hard-edged New York gal who falls for him.

 

 

 

 

 

1957’s From Hell It Came has one of the most absurd monsters ever—half-man, half-tree—terrorizing whoever crosses its path. It’s so bad that it might be worth a look just for its extreme lousiness, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. The hi-def transfers are excellent.

Broadway Musical Reviews—“Bandstand” and “Anastasia”

Bandstand
Book & lyrics by Robert Taylor & Richard Oberacher; music by Richard Oberacher
Directed & choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Opened April 26, 2017
 
Anastasia
Book by Terrence McNally; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Opened April 24, 2017
 
Laura Osnes in Bandstand (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
I saw Bandstand in 2015 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse as The Bandstand. Losing its definite article isn’t the only change for Broadway, as this sentimental but affecting musical about a group of bebop-playing WWII vets from Cleveland who enter a songwriting contest that takes them to Manhattan has dropped some fat and added more inventive movement courtesy of director (and Tony-winning Hamilton choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler.
 
But its ace in the hole remains Laura Osnes, who plays Julia, widow of a soldier killed in the war who starts singing with the band after Donnie Nowitski—her husband’s closest friend in the army who was in the foxhole when he was killed—checks in on her as he promised he would.
 
Osnes is the emotional center of a show that also generously allows each of the bandsmen—scarred by the war in his own way—to work out his demons by playing the music he loves. And Blankenbuehler has ingeniously visualized those ghosts and the weight on each vet’s shoulders with astonishingly effective choreographed movements.
 
Richard Oberacher’s toe-tappingly swing-inflected music at times digs into a well of melody and emotion, notably for the mournful but exhilarating climax, “Welcome Home,” which Osnes knocks out of the park with her impassioned, nakedly soul-baring vocal performance.
 
Corey Cott is a likable piano-playing Donnie, Beth Leavel a sturdy presence as Julia’s mom (still a thankless role, unfortunately) and the actors playing the band members—Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, Nate Hopkins, Geoff Packard and Joey Peroa, all playing their own instruments—give as good as they get as dramatic and musical foils.
 
But it’s up to Osnes—backed by fierce instrumental backing by the onstage sextet—to bring Bandstand home by putting us through an emotional wringer for a few glorious moments.
 
Christy Altomare in Anastasia (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Anastasia is the latest critic-proof Broadway musical. I don’t know how long it will run, but the legions of satisfied youngsters in the audience—how many parents can afford to pay Broadway prices to bring their kids to see it?—demonstrate that it’s being done right. At least for them.
 
Based on two movies—the 1956 drama for which Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar and the 1997 animated movie with Meg Ryan, of all people, voicing the title character—the musical is a hodgepodge that never decides on a direct course but instead meanders, hoping to keep both kids and parents happy. Six songs (including the Act I climax, “Journey to the Past”) are from the 1997 version, and the rest are new, undistinguished ones from the same team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
 
Terrence McNally’s rambling book precariously balances outright fantasy (Anastasia survived the Russian royal family’s 1917 slaughter by the Bolsheviks) and historical drama (Gleb, a Bolshevik apparatchik, tracks down Anya, a girl who purports to be Anastasia, and is caught between his duty and his attraction to her).
 
Despite the silliness, director Darko Tresnjak’s staging is filled with handsome trappings: dreamy ballet choreographed by Peggy Hickey, enticing costumes by Linda Cho, agreeable sets by Alexander Dodge and, best of all, consistently imaginative projections by Aaron Rhyne which make liberal use of HD photography to show off two of the world’s most beautiful cities, St. Petersburg/Leningrad and Paris, where the action is set. Too bad the show is longer than it needs to be: at least 20 minutes could be cut, like the lame attempts at humor, endless ballroom scenes, and appearances by the ghosts of the dead Czar’s family to haunt our heroine’s dreams.
 
As Anya, supple-voiced Christy Altomare credibly transforms from street-sweeper with amnesia to elegant princess. Derek Klena’s Dmitry, who falls for Anya, is appealingly goofy, and John Bolton’s Vlad—Dmitry’s friend—gets the most out of his comic moments. As Gleb, Ramin Karimloo looks uncertain but compensates with strong singing, and Mary Beth Peil’s regal Dowager Empress doesn’t condescend to her part or the material.
 
Overlong, not tuneful enough, too derivative: Anastasia is all that and more. But for those who just want a pretty package, it will do nicely.
 
Bandstand
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
bandstandbroadway.com
 
Anastasia
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street
anastasiabroadway.com

Broadway Review—Allison Janney in John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”

Six Degrees of Separation
Written by John Guare; directed by Trip Cullman
Opened April 25, 2017
 
Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in Six Degrees of Separation (photo: Joan Marcus)
More than a quarter-century since its premiere, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is the rare play that has entered public consciousness in ways far exceeding the number of theatergoers who have actually seen it: anyone familiar with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” knows the title refers to the theory that each person is connected to everyone else on the planet by no more than six people, from the most remote cave dweller to, say, Bill Gates.
 
Whether it’s true is certainly debatable—and it’s probably more true now in our incredibly shrinking world—but it works as a conceit for his play, in which several Upper East Side snobs are taken in by a charming con man who claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Based on a true story that occurred a few years earlier, Six Degrees is an acidly funny takedown of the white upper crust, and their racism, classism and homophobia. Guare accurately depicts the state of New York City circa 1990, before the crime rate started dropping and the city was safer for everyone, not only those already ensconced in their ivory towers on Park Avenue.
 
The original production, zestily staged by Jerry Zaks, starred Stockard Channing as Ouisa Kittredge, who handled Guare’s pungent, often bitchy dialogue with gleeful ease. Her bravura performance also focused the drama on a mother with three ungrateful children who sees Paul, the young black man who talks his way into her home and—for a brief moment—heart before his charade was unmasked, as a lost “son” who needs her guidance and protection.
 
Channing made Guare’s questionable narrative leap for Ouisa plausible, even touching, and in the new production—staged savvily, if at times too frantically, by Trip Cullman—Allison Janney does the same, equaling her predecessor’s effortless command of the stage. As Ouisa, Janney luxuriates in Guare’s rat-a-tat dialogue, spitting it out forcefully yet caressingly, making lines like “Rich people can do something for you even if you're not sure what it is you want them to do” and “Who said when artists dream they dream of money? I must be such an artist” even more pointedly funny than they are on the page. And with her six-foot tall frame, Janney coolly radiates the luxuriousness of Ouisa’s affluent lifestyle without losing sight of the fact that Guare’s play explores what’s buried beneath the splashy gowns and tuxedos (spiffily designed by Clint Ramos).
 
Wonderfully complementing Janney is John Benjamin Hickey as Ouisa’s husband Flan; a master of playing flustered characters hiding behind a polished veneer, Hickey is in top form, especially when he and Janney literally finish each other’s sentences in their direct addresses to the audience. Corey Hawkins brings a formidable mix of charm and menace to Paul, a role that has flummoxed other actors, notably Will Smith in Fred Schepisi’s otherwise estimable 1993 film adaptation.
 
Cullman overdirects the actors playing the spoiled college-age children of the adults Paul has fooled, a shame since the easy laughs they go after are there in the script, without the cheapness. Better are the other parents: Michael Countryman and Lisa Emery as another gullible couple and Ted Eisenberg as a credulous doctor. Paul O’Brien makes a properly gruff detective.
 
Mark Wendlend’s set is an impressionistic combination of Upper East Side elegance and downtown decay, its half-finished shapes mirroring the large two-sided Kandinsky painting hanging over the stage, which itself figures heavily in the play through its blatant symbolism. No one ever said Guare was subtle, but he gets away with it in Six Degrees of Separation.
 
Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street
sixdegreesbroadway.com

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