Monday, April 30, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day Five

-Taxi to the Dark Side
In this new documentary from Alex Gibney, the sad tale of Dilawar, a taxi driver from Yakubi, Afghanistan, opens a narrative on how torture became widespread as a panicked, desperate response to terrorism. The film covers the same territory as The New York Times or The New Yorker, and the picture isn't really worth a thousand words, considering that by now everybody who would be interested in this film has seen the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. But film is perhaps the most compelling medium for investigative research: the more carefully edited and thought out the documentary, the more powerful the ultimate message, especially when you give dramatic arcs to the characters serving as your talking heads (in this case, military soldiers brought up on charges).

Just as in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney manages to convey all the necessary technical details of law that allowed the Bush Administration to, in effect, circumvent the law, reinterpret portions of the constitution, and pardon themselves of any wrongdoing that might eventually be uncovered. The bullet points are like live ammo, and terms like "PUC" (person under control) and "force drift" (when you slowly step up the interrogative measures from what's accepted under Geneva to what is deemed "necessary" to extract information) are easy to comprehend -- or easy to mock, as with the government's much-hyped semantic difference between NEC/NLEC (Non-Enemy Combatant/No Longer Enemy Combatant).

The evidence of wrongdoing is so apparent that it is often difficult to continue watching Taxi to the Dark Side: the rule of law has eroded, and the ultimate fare of this one-way ride to disaster has yet to be calculated. From the pop culture indoctrination of 24 to the ghoulish reality of our own terrorist-breeding camps (if they weren't before, they will be now), Gibney covers it all. There can be no doubt that psychological torture is as bad (if not worse) than the physical-- sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will drive you mad--and worse still is murder, which one prosecuted soldier accurately describes as "the ultimate torture."

-Chasing 3000
The mark of a good movie is when it is able to make even the sappiest of scenes work to its advantage. With Chasing 3000, director Gregory J. Lanesey and writer Bill Mikita are able to turn their demonstrable love of baseball (specifically Roberto Clemente) from mush into gold. The framework is the weakest portion, with Ray Liotta playing a grown-up Mickey who is racing traffic to get to a Padres game that is honoring his idol, but it soon relegates Liotta to a narrator, and focuses us on a story of two brothers, Mickey (Trevor Morgan) and Roger (Rory Culkin), their love for each other and for baseball, and on the romanticized '70s themselves.

This isn't a sports-centered film, though: instead, it trails the two brothers as they make a cross-country road trip to see Clemente make his 3000th hit. It's a feel-good film, made all the more emotional by Roger's MD, a medical condition that is never treated as a liability -- only as another obstacle to overcome. Being a kid's flick, there's no real danger of anyone dying in the film, which takes some of the suspense out of the boxcar jumping, or the midnight motorcycle ride, but these are the familiar limitations of family entertainment, and the moral lessons of the film are well worth any of the guff on the side.

-The Air I Breathe
Jieho Lee's fantastic urban fable is an allegory for the four emotional cornerstones of life (according to a Chinese proverb), but also a striking visual interpretation of our existence as well. Four subtly overlapping stories draw us in to a world in which innocent businessmen risk their lives for a taste of the something more that is happiness (Forest Whitaker, the opposite of Idi Amin here), where zoned-out pop stars living under the thumb of those with money have a chance to dig themselves out from their own sorrow (a generic Sarah Michelle Geller), where washed-up thugs understand what it means to live a life free of predestination (a brooding Brendan Fraser), and lonely doctors get a second chance to prove themselves and their love (a manic Kevin Bacon). Of course, they'll have to contend with mobsters (Andy Garcia, on loan from Ocean's Twelve) and their nephews (Emile Hirsch, who with smarter management could rival Shia LaBeouf), but this whimsically dark tale is exquisitely executed and ultimately inspiring. For all that it is a fragmented swirl of coincidences, so is life, and so the film serves to remind us of the pure mystery of circumstance that delivers each new child into the world (and what a beautiful, terrible, beautiful world).

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day Four

-Nobel Son
Randall Miller's Nobel Son pairs its genius autodidact characters with the rush of Paul Oakenfield's techno beats to make an swift but smart thriller. Whereas The Crystal Method were stuck in a slow drama (London), Nobel Son doesn't slow down for a minute, which works well in conjunction with over-the-top acting (courtesy of youngbloods like Bryan Greenberg and Shawn Hatosy).

The plot switches from kidnapping to revenge to double-cross to turnaround so fast that it'll make your head spin: will the recent Nobel laureate pay his son's ransom? Is his son in on it? Is the kidnapper more than just a villain? Is the mother? The genre switches as often as the plot, from dark romance (Eliza Dushku) to a rather one-sided car chase, and all the way to comedy (a droll Alan Rickman). If this is the result of pop-culture oversaturation and ADHD, then bring it on: it doesn't take a genius to recognize Nobel Son as an exhilarating rush of a film.

-Mulberry Street
Always be nice to your friends: if you do, they might someday help you make a low-budget horror film. Mulberry Street doesn't have much of a plot and no more than the usual flings of character development, but Jim Mickle's back-against-the-wall passion has been the mother of invention for him and his film is a beautiful monstrosity. The camerawork, always tight when it's not canvassing the grimy wonders of Manhattan, finds a wide variety of angles to shoot from (or through), and the rat-zombies, gently brushed in the dark of night, fit right in. The on-site apartment where this was filmed is given a real presence in the film, and all of the chase scenes are tightly shot moments of chaos. Classic shots too: monsters pounding at the doors to get in, bodies being devoured on lonely streets, young women running with a desperate gait from packs of flesh-eating zombies . . . not to mention the ever-lasting appeal of a main character who, as a boxer, has to punch each and every beast in his path.

The film is so impressively executed that I'm willing to forgive the fact that it doesn't really end, so much as get interrupted, and that there are plot holes bigger than the ones ripped into the corpses strewn across the set. We don't need explanations so long as we're being properly entertained . . . and besides, horror and thinking don't exactly go hand in hand. The claustrophobic and decomposing tenements of lower Manhattan make for a fittingly frightful place to make a last stand against the gnashing horde of "rat people, fucking rat people" and the studios would be foolish not to give Mickle an opportunity . . . at least for a second film.

-West 32nd
Kal Penn may have made good on his Harold and Kumar fame, but if this is all John Cho has to give us . . . . Michael Kang's film is a straight-up mundane amalgam of Korean gang culture and traditional corruption films. The street toughs are bombastic and overplayed, the heroes are staid and boring, and the women are nothing more than epaulets that sparkle and shift in the wind. Why the idea of "room salons" -- private parlors amongst the karaoke rooms of Manhattan's 32nd Street -- is so fascinating or mysterious is a fascinating mystery to me, but the film itself is far from compelling, especially given the hasty and hackneyed script.

At best, we can understand why John Kim (Cho) needs to get inside a syndicate: he needs evidence that will clear his client and secure his partnership. But why the middle-man, Mike Juhn (Jun Sung Kim), would deal with John -- especially as portrayed by Cho -- is beyond me. Maybe it's just a cultural thing, but the film's ill-conceived conclusion makes little sense, too: if all it takes is a lying witness to get Kim's client off the hook, and if Juhn's just looking for a dirty defender, why not just do that to begin with, and skip all the exposition? Hey, industry: if you can't figure out a reason to tell a story, don't. Especially when you don't have stars or directors able to sell it for you.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day Three

-The Grand
Zak Penn beats Christopher Guest to the World Poker Tour (and even brings Michael McKean along for the ride). Though there's more than just interviews building up this improvised mockumentary, The Grand still feels a little slapdash and thrown together, but it is funny. At the end of the day, when you put Richard Kind, Chris Parnell, David Cross, Cheryl Hines, and Woody Harrelson together, you're going to get some funny scenes. Throw in some subplots about a self-obsessed and ignorant announcer (Michael Karnow), an odd duck who likes to take it up the beanstalk (Ray Romano, who's really just trying to say that he wants a large coffee), and a crazy German (Werner Herzog), and you've damn near got the equivalent of reality film.

Sometimes the cameos don't go anywhere (like Hank Azaria), are funny but out of place (Jason Alexander), or just plain take up space (Dennis Farina), but on the whole, the film's got at least a straight set of laughs. The one downfall is that it lacks the sense of authenticity of other mockumentaries: the big hands aren't planned very well, and aside from Harrelson's nickname of "One Eyed" Jack Faro or Parnell's "brain juice" recitations, there isn't much action at the table. There are already enough personalities on the WPT; it hardly seems necessary to make fun of them. The Grand coasts through on star power, but it's at the same time lackluster, and doesn't quite do for poker what Kingpin accomplished for bowling.

A schlocky combination of both Alien and Predator, it's somewhat fitting that the ill-directed action scenes are harder to make out in the endless darkness than Aliens vs. Predator. Fun as those coincidences may be, Matthew Leutwyler's direction is outdone only by his even less revealing script, the kind of plodding monstrosities that allows for animal scientists in the middle of nowhere to proudly proclaim that they have equipment, on-hand, that will let them extract uranium. It's a shame: Anasazi myths are creepy, and the monster cooked up by TyRuben Ellingson is pretty gruesome (for the few frames we can make it out). But the film's relies far too much on gory flashcuts and dead bodies to scare us, and not enough on atmosphere or actual horror.

The only person who makes sense in Unearthed is Charlie Murphy, who takes on the much-needed role of Mr. Obvious, stating what everyone in the audience already thinks about the stupidity witnessed on screen. Unfortunately, as the token black guy, we know he won't be around long enough to keep us entertained; the problem is that there are enough people left alive to keep the filmmakers entertained as they play with the "splatter" button. There's just no need to unearth this film from anywhere but the cutting-room floor: having a cool monster doesn't make you any cooler.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day Two

-Gardener of Eden
As with most superhero origin stories, it takes a long series of coincidences to bring Adam to the turning point. But Gardener of Eden has no hero, just an anger-management-needing man-child who gets lucky that the person he self-destructs on is a wanted serial rapist. Director Kevin Connolly tries to make Adam likable, but the plot is harder to get past than Lukas Haas's whining, nasal voice.

The film struggling to break free of the erstwhile violence is a variant on Garden State, as Adam falls for the girl he saved (after the fact) and tries to remain in "The Loop," a barter system he and his three best friends have worked out. Though these characters are formulaic, there's always room in a film for sweetness, and all the comic-book nonsense that Connolly and writer Adam Tex Davis have thrown in seems forced, and far too dark for the cinematography. The one saving grace of this film is Vic (Giovanni Ribisi), a charismatically nasty drug dealer who, despite his criminal connections, actually serves more of a purpose than Adam, or this film. When you factor in the anachronistic shots of Manhattan (hookers in Times Square in 1999?), ill-defined characters (like Adam's over-the-top military father), and all the loose plot sequences, it becomes clear that Gardener of Eden still has one too many weeds to make it worth caring for.

-Two Embraces (Dos Abrazos)
Enrique Begne's beautiful double-feature doesn't have a plot, but it has a wonderful mood. His two short films are tied together by a single baton-passing shot, and linked by a haunting and paralleled image of a vital, necessary embrace. Between doling out odd aphorisms ("If anyone had never been born, nobody would ever know") and making much of long camera shots that refocus rather than cut the action of two characters on screen at the same time, Begne finds a way of catching quiet little smiles in the midst of the dark and solid reality of Mexico City.

Both high-school student Paco and checkout girl Silvina have anger issues (she's bipolar, and his mood is entirely dependent on hers), but they each find a quiet peace in each other. The stronger of the two segments follows an angry taxi driver who makes the most unlikely of connections when a fare of his has a stroke, leaving him to find the man's estranged daughter. The stories are simple, but the emotions Begne captures with his artistic choice of lighting and effect (his happier shots have been solarized) are complex and very relatable. Whether it's endorphins or just physical contact in a lonely city, sometimes we all need a hug: Begne has two.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day One

Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into, dear reader. Over a hundred and fifty films and only eight days to see them all in. Using my careful "index" methodology (turn program guide, place finger down, see film), I've come up with a refreshing mix of not just the artsy Narrative films in this year's competition, but with a nice blend of nonsensical Midnight films and hopefully some great new Discoveries as well. Today I kicked off the grand tour with the artless Black Sheep and then overdosed on Turkish culture with the heavy-handed Times and Winds. How fitting that the day's final screening, The Last Man, was then a bland blend of both sense and nonsense. Let's begin at the beginning though, as all good stories must.

-Black Sheep
You can't possibly expect me to give a film with the tagline "Get ready for the violence of the lambs" a positive review, so I won't insult your intelligence. But guess what? Neither will the director/writer, Jonathan King. For the first half of the film, King works off the natural terror of sheep, a passive, but certainly zombie-like species. Watching a cab get boxed in by a flurry of sheep is a peculiar sort of horror, but it works . . . up to a point. When the first sheep bursts through a wood door, a furrier but somehow less animal version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, we're okay: but when Tucker drives him off with a shotgun and the catchphrase "You're one dead muttonchops" (which is less funny in context), much less so. Even less when the response to the leading question, "Who's driving the car?" is the money shot of a sheep behind the wheel. (To be fair, it promptly drives off a cliff.)

In Michael Crichton's hands, the genetic modification of livestock for food purposes could make even sheep seem frightening. In the hands of a man who'd rather crack jokes about bestiality ("I understand you've got a pretty fucked up idea of animal husbandry") to cover up the awful special effects of his monsters (paging Sam Raimi), there's just a ba-a-a-a-d joke that won't end.

-Times and Winds (Bes Vakit)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: that's why directors need to bring more to the table than rustic tableaux. Reha Erdem has the panoramic shot mastered, and he's handy with the long shot, the tracking shot, and the awkward rhythm of stillness. He's even got some truly beautiful scenes that express the way children forge ties with one another and rebel against their parents, no matter what the culture. Unfortunately, while the shots are anchored to the five phases of the film (broken up by the five daily prayers) and involve a lot of similarly executed shots, the majority of the film is as restless as the wind. The mundane moments and the passivity of the camera don't instill any tension in this supposedly tragic world, and the one event that catches us off guard is as quickly forgotten as it occurs. Perhaps the strong, classical score was meant to be enough of an emotional prompt, but it's not, and because of the distanced and piecemeal narrative, the actions of these characters are often inexplicable and careless. Children will be children, I guess; but I weep more for those eroding cliffs and wasting forests than for the characters themselves.

-The Last Man
I kept hoping that Ghassan Salhab's surreal opening -- three interwoven scenes involving a scuba diver's POV, a flamenco dancer in the black darkness, and grainy footage of a sleeping man -- would somehow develop into a coherent plot. Once it did -- a doctor, who happens to be a scuba diver in his spare time and who dates a flamenco dancer -- I longed for it not to be so obvious. For you see, this doctor is on the trail of a serial killer who keeps leaving dead bodies behind that have only a single bite mark on their neck. And it turns out this doctor had an encounter of his own not so long ago. And leaves blood bags emptied in bathroom stalls. This is the world's most pretentious vampire film, filled with a bevy of incongruous scenes that are frequently superimposed over one another for some dubious artistic effect.

The film is also remarkably quiet, though it could stand to be more Kubrick-like in the actual cinematography. There are far too many shots of our hero, Carlos Chahine, and his blank face: here he is popping into focus from a camera effect . . . then there he is again, moments later as the window-wipers suddenly reveal his stoic gaze . . . and there again, making oblique small talk with a painter as the film slowly turns a reddish hue (the worst sort of foreshadowing). At its core, The Last Man might work as a post-neo-Gothic story of horrific self-discovery, that's just overdressed in the baroque, but sluggishly presented here by Salhab, it's just got no bite.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

PREVIEW: Tribeca Film Festival 2007

Welcome back to Tribeca, folks; what that means for you is that there's two weeks to catch over 150 films; what that means for me is that I've got eight days to see over twenty-five movies. For those of you who don't know what Tribeca is, it's the ever-expanding film festival centered in New York that is now in its sixth year. This year brings back the popular Narrative and Documentary competitions from across the world, as well as the Spotlight performances that feature notable actors and directors doing smaller (but in no way less important) works, and the fantastic Discover films that are either new approaches to film or first-time forays by directors. Those of you who want to see what's most talked about can head to the Showcase to see films previously screened to critical acclaim at festivals around the world, or go to the Encounters series to see the films that may become the next festival's showcase. Those of you who just want something different, perverse, and hopefully fun, can head to the Midnight block of films. There are Shorts and Family plans -- this year, there's even the involvement of ESPN to bring some sports centered works into the spotlight.

You can buy tickets and plan your marathon of filmgoing up on the Tribeca website, and I strongly recommend trying something like the Daytimer pass (access to all screenings before 6:00) to get in -- just remember to show up a little earlier for the big-name films (or the big-buzz ones) as a lot of these get overbooked by pass holders, industry insiders, and the occasional entourage. There are talkbacks at many screenings, not to mention plenty of faux red carpets (and some big ones, like the premiers of Lucky You and Spider-Man 3), so start the planning now. Here's my guide to the big show.

First Picks:

  • THE AIR I BREATHE is going to be the sleeper hit of this festival; an unknown director has written a story based on a Chinese proverb and will be playing with Forest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Bredan Fraser, Andy Garcia, and Sarah Michelle Geller in an fractured tale about the essentials of our life. Struggling with corruption makes for good film, no?
  • THE GRAND is another film with high-expectations. The first mockumentary to nail the poker circuit (not counting Bravo's real-life Celebrity Poker) not only has Woody Harrelson returning to the comedy he perfected in Kingpin, but also has plenty of cameos from people like David Cross all the way to Werner Herzog.
  • WATCHING THE DETECTIVES stars Cillian Murphy, whose selection of starring roles makes it easy for a critic to simply follow along blindly. Given that it's also a mockery of noir films -- all about a guy who is obsessed with the genre, until walking into it himself -- I don't see how this can be anything less than brilliant.
  • TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE is a documentary from the people who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, but it's also a mystery that aims to reveal what's really going on with the torture policy of the US.
  • TWO EMBRACES could be Mexico's next Amores Perros, but even if it's not, it's sure to be a heartbreaking work that looks at people forced to suddenly fend for themselves in an often unforgiving world.
Second Round:
  • MULBERRY STREET puts half-rat half-zombies monsters in Manhattan's historic Lower East Side. BLACK SHEEP puts mutant sheep on the attack in New Zealand. Risky premises, but with horror flicks, that's also the potential for huge cult value, and I can't resist either, especially after Snakes on a Plane bombed.
  • THE OPTIMISTS is an episodic film that deals with illusory visions by its characters. At the least, expect to seem some breathtaking cinematography, at the worst, expect to be confused. See also the works of TAXIDERMIA and TIMES AND WINDS, both of which are foreign films (Austria, Turkey) that are pushing the envelope of storytelling.
  • GARDENER OF EDEN is Kevin Connolly's first full-length film, and it's not a comedy. That may hurt him more than it helps, but he's got some serious material to work through, involving the accidental capture of a serial rapist and the questions that raises. Look for Giovanni Ribisi to surprise us all in this film; let's hope for Connolly to do the same.
  • Also, be sure to check out the documentaries BOMB IT, PLANET B-BOY, DOUBLETIME, and KING OF KONG. If last year's Air Guitar Nation has revealed anything, it's that our odd little cultural pasttimes produce the best characters: so graffiti artists, serious breakdancers, hardcore Double Dutch activists, and Donkey Kong enthusiasts should hook us all in.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

PLAY: "Losing Something"

Losing Something isn't just the first American play to use the Eyeliner System to mirror actors into a floating void of physical space, and to use the Isadora technology to fine-tune the timing of holograms enough to let them interact with onstage actors. It's also the first play that's managed to make philosophy into a metaphor for emotion. It is not the first play to deal with 9/11, nor is it the first play to lose plot in the complexity of narrative: it's just the first to look so good doing so.

Kevin Cunningham's play is hard to follow, and harder to relate to: our unnamed everyman (Aldo Perez) ceases to double for the audience when he screws a baby-fetish prostitute who straddles him with her diaper and injects him with heroin. The work is sexed to the point of distraction (most conversations take place with actors bound up in one another), and everything projected on the backdrop (from close-up bloody body parts to neon-orange bubbles) is an exercise in further dissociation. Ambient sounds rustle through the theater like drugs through the bloodstream, and even the ideas are transient, mostly, and out-of-focus, like the older, holographic self of our everyman, shuffling in and out of the scene. But this sense of removal and the separatism of even the actors from their own bodies is a testament to the play's theme and title: losing something.

Like elegiac poetry, gossamer ghosts float from the corners of the stage, on snarls of smoke and tangled in spider-web dreams, to torment our hero. Is his friend Daniel really dead, surviving 9/11 only to finish the job later with a succumbing suicide? Or is it our anonymous protagonist who has killed himself and who now plagues the dreams of Daniel? The thoughts of such a fractured consensual reality (is the blue you see the same as the blue I see?) clash with the constant contortions of the sex-crazed phantoms, and the show's gravity is more like inertia that it would like to acknowledge. I come away from the show confused by its beauty and impressed by its technology, but I am not found, and the show is still Losing Something.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

PLAY: WildBard's "Twelfe Night"

After seeing this rowdy and energetic production of Twelfe Night, the question I have is: are modern audiences ready for truly classic Shakespeare? We see heavily studied and processed performances, the result of careful studies of the text and based on years of experience and formal training. What WildBard does is to go back to the way Shakespeare's troupe was forced to act: ten different shows a week. According to WildBard, there wasn't enough time to learn lines, so they relied on miniature cue-cards and a stage prompter to get through the show. Of course, in Shakespeare's time, the language didn't need study -- as performed today, WildBard brings us full-body Shakespeare, played like an Olympic sport and filled with abrupt interpretations and unique line readings, fresh every night (just like the rotating cast).

The final assessment is that while the first act was entertaining, the overall performances were so far over-the-top that they ceased to be grounded in reality. They were also laden with asides that showcased the actors more than the roles, which is a perverse form of futurism that seems at odds with the classical nature we now associate with Shakespeare. Furthermore, while some actors wound up playing roles that came naturally to them (like this evening's Andrew and Viola), others came across as not just mediocre, but affected (Antonio and Sebastian played gay not to make a statement or to be true to the character, but for laughs that fall on deaf ears). For the actors who have vocal range or knacks for accents (like Maria's Irish brogue), such an evening of theater must be great fun. For the audience subjected to a series of off-the-cuff Shakespeare, it's really just hit-and-miss; bawd and bold, but no longer the bold bard.

It's appropriate that the subtitle of Twelfe Night is Or What You Will; WildBard has certainly done what they will with this show. Thankfully, of all the bard's plays, this is the one that most easily survives and adapts to these antics. The haste and sloppiness are subsumed, as they should be, by the strength of the language (a first folio usage), and if companies really train their voices and bodies, they'll have the endurance to make more than the first act a memorable evening of theater (the company petered out after intermission). Still, it's an old take on an old play, and it's surprising how hip and new such an idea can be.

Friday, April 20, 2007

ESSAY: Criticizing Criticism

Show Showdown. New Theater Corps. My work here. In part of my year-long adventure and process experimentation to find a place for not just my voice, but that of the community, and to find growth--survival, sometimes--in the theater, I've been working on a manifesto of sorts: what it means, to me, to review something. The following is a link to the actual concept that I've been kicking around and developing in my head, and I'm hoping some of you will take the time to respond with ideas and thoughts of your own on the state of criticism. No more arbitration of taste; just a beautiful dialogue of artists, each doing their own thing.

[Read on]

Thursday, April 19, 2007

PLAY: "Bed"

Photo/Brian Michael Thomas

Brendan Cowell's play, Bed, is a disturbingly comfortable work that aims to show, in a cycle of five intimate moments in time, what life is all about. There's the innocent youth, where Phil and Kane come to an awkward appreciation of their bodies, and then the amorous college years, where girlfriends like Daisy obsess over why they allow Phil to fuck them in the ass. As time passes, Phil settles down into a sexless life with Grace, baby and all; bitterness consumes him when he uses drugs to buy a live-in manservant, a straightforward dirty-talker named Drew; then finally ends his life in the arms of a woman, Flo, who he can at last love . . . almost, but not quite. It's a very unabashed play, but the lack of covers exposes only a firm mattress of text, and while the script itself is clever, it needs a larger frame than the sparse fifty minutes of a one-act to really convey more than a gloss. The show is more of a cat-nap than a slumber, a series of abbreviated moments memorable more for their writing than their performance.

Nick Flint, who also serves as a producer with director Ianthe Demos, is just an example of this love affair with the text. As Phil, he must portray not one character, but five, using the actor's physical and vocal tools to show a depth to this otherwise sketched man. But he loves the narcissistic angst of Phil too much to let go of the language: he is too articulate, and his words are too often the facade for him to hide behind. This falls in line, to some degree, with the way others perceive him--"You love with your hands in front of your eyes"--but as the playwright points out, "Love is not an argument, "and the monotonous portrayal of Phil makes it impossible to see that he loves or that he ages. Demos flows each scene into the next with only a change in the background lighting for transition--a wise choice for a small production--but without cues from Flint, it takes a third of the play to realize that time is passing at all.

If Flint fails to carom across the stage--if he prefers to smother his emotions with the vicious pillow-talk of his character--it is not from a lack of cajoling from his cast, and certainly not from an absence of motivation in the script. The homophobia-induced shame that drives him from Kane is apparent in the way Nico Evers-Swindell is able to say, without batting an eye, that he loves Phil. His arrogant libido is reflected more in Emma Jackson's obsessive fits of passion than in his treatment of Daisy. Sarah-Jane Casey's emotional reserve implies that she has something to hide: but his secrets are anecdotal, and at odds with Grace. As Drew, Nick Stevenson has the range of being electrifyingly vain, but it's his terror when at the mercy of Phil that shows Phil's previously unseen rage; not Flint's own performance. Is Ana Lucas, who plays Flo, the best actor of the bunch for managing to get Flint to really interact with her, or is her erotic freedom just more loosening by contrast?

Bed is a great idea for a play, and Cowell's writing is so mundanely poetic that it works (for instance, the phrase "I earth you," serves as both love and grounding, all while sounding more romantic than either). But the scenes of angry bondage, post-coital therapy, and sexless intercourse (the verbal kind) don't add up to much, and it's perhaps time to change the sheets. We need more dirty laundry: not less.

Monday, April 16, 2007

PLAY: "transFigures"

transFigures fades in with a series of bodies, their genders indecipherable at first beneath their white robes, lying in front of two metal towers and three paper-thin Chinese walls. As music filters through the theater, a purposeful type of ambient electronica, the bodies come alive with an inexplicable passion: they move, they shudder, they roll across one another, they live. When it is over, they rest again, just as inexplicably, on the stage as the lights come down. Rest easy, dear reader, this is just the curtain-raiser for another stunning theatrical work by Lear deBessonet (see Bone Portraits), a prologue to a seamless collage of texts and ideas revolving around (but in no way limited to) the exploration of Jerusalem Syndrome.

The center of the play follows Bill (David Adkins) and Susan (Marguerite Stimpson) from their New York office (complete with a God-crazy secretary played with unnerving accuracy by Juliana Francis) to Jerusalem. At the same time, two subplots (lacing exquisitely in and out of this main story) focus on neuroscientist Gene's study of Joshua, a young boy who is afflicted with hyperreligiosity and a series of theatrically thrilling delusions, as well as on an Israeli therapist's engaging explanation of the syndrome. (A psychosis of passion overcomes the afflicted, and results in them delivering a confused sermon in a holy place.)

Rather than narrowing the focus after establishing the necessary technical background, deBessonet widens the scope, abetted by her textual patchwork: the show is written primarily by Bathsheba Doran, but involves text from Chuck Mee, Erin Sax Seymour, and Russell Shorto, to name a few. If she is trying to deliberately trick our brain's OAA (Orientation Association Area), to make us forget, as with Jerusalem Syndrome, where we are: she succeeds. Mark Huang's ambient sound design sets the mood, Andrea Haenggi's choreography breaks down the delusion (shambled, joyous, confused, and satisfied masses), Jenny Sawyer's multileveled set (reaching along the sides into the audience and up steel towers to the sky) breaks into multiple dimensions, Ryan Mueller's lighting (or darknessing) evokes the phantasmal, surreal, and modern with a profoundly succinct grace, and we? We are transported.

We are also astonished by the range and fluidity of deBessonet's direction. With the slightest sweeps of lighting and the rare use of props (always malleable items, like string, or paper), she is able to evoke not just the awe-inspiring, but the awful, and often at the same time. Those paper-thin walls are just as easily wailing walls, being spun around the theater by the cast, as they are the Wailing Wall. At the same time, she can bounce from idea to idea, without ever seeming fragmented, which is largely a credit to her malleable cast. For instance, her summarized spoof of Henrik Ibsen's Young Girl and the Sea is one of the most shamelessly embarrassing feats of ham on the stage, and it flows just a few minutes later into a cross-section between testimony of the abortionist-killing hairdresser, John Salvi (T. Ryder Smith is flawless here) and everyone's favorite God-hearing martyr, Joan of Arc. Although the texts are very different in tone, once deBessonet weaves something into her tapestry, you can't imagine ever hearing them apart again. It's just one more wonderfully indelible effect of the play.

It had better NOT be snowing in Bakersfield: if transFigures is what its like to lose one's mind, or to be touched by God, then we should all be so lucky, for this is a beautiful, beautiful play.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

PLAY: "A Guy Adrift in the Universe"

All those philosophically numbing plays getting to you? Do you feel lost or confused, not just by the theater you've gone to see lately, but by life itself? Larry Kunofksy's A Guy Adrift in the Universe has to be the most straightforward, explicit comedy I've seen this year. God bless it. Spurred on by a frantic, hard-working cast, and a fast-paced, joke-heavy script, this is a concise summation of life, no strings attached. The scope of the show forces it to be a deliberate and overbearing, but it's not long enough to be redundant, and too sweet to ever taste bitter.

The story begins, as it must, with A Guy being born. Sitting in the hospital (so we're told), in some weird cross between Family Guy and the classic baby skit from Free To Be Me and You, he instructs Another Guy (Corey Patrick, who in this case is the doctor, but will later on be the father and the son, the employer and the employee, and so forth) to return him to the womb. When told it's impossible, he curses, does a double-take, and wonders what that word means. Quips the doctor: "That's what your mom and dad did." A groan-worthy joke, yes, but the show charms with the relentlessly innocent jokes. (I would, however, pare back on the curses: they give the show a sophomoric feel that director Jacob Krueger has worked so hard to ameliorate.)

Krueger's work is fairly subtle for a work so flatly punctuated. The show begins with three chairs hanging from knobs on the wall made out to be stars, and as time progresses, those chairs are joined by the detritus of life. I'm a fan of economical design: every prop has significance, both in the scene, and then as a memory, fastened to the wall. When the show ends, as it must, with A Guy leaving the stage, there is a moment, before the lights dim, that we can still see him, spread out in the mementos across the stars.

Also of note are Zarah Kravitz and Sutton Crawford, the appropriately titled A Woman and Another Woman. The two are fine comic actresses, and they slip easily into and out of each role. Like the men, they're comfortable hamming up the physical comedy of breast-feeding or making-out (especially that first orgasm), but they're also quite capable of evoking sorrow, especially as A Guy's mind starts to go.

A Guy Adrift in the Universe may be a blunt instrument, but let's not forget for a moment that hammers are what nail points home. This production is a testament to the successful use of simplicity.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

FILM: "The Lookout"

As a writer, I always get a personal thrill from watching another author put down the pen and paper for a moment to get behind (or in front of) the camera. There's no passing the buck at this point, no middle-man to reinterpret the idea: The Lookout is Scott Frank channeling Scott Frank, and there's nothing holding him back. Except for the genre of film: I get the creepy notion, watching Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to sequence the events of a normal day, that I'm watching Little Man Tate trapped in a thriller.

To give another parallel, this film is a little like watching the world of The Talented Mr. Ripley creeping in to Good Will Hunting. On one level, Chris is trying to recover from the car crash that has made him dependent on routine and careful organization. His family (as depicted in a very creepy, wonderful return home) can't accept that he's no longer a rising young hockey star, his old friends (including his old girlfriend, whom he crippled) can't look him in the eye for fear of seeing their own mortality, and all he's got is the wonderfully wry shoulder of his wise, blind roommate, Lewis, to pick up the pieces of some sort of life. On the other, Gary (Matthew Goode) would like to manipulate him with sexual distractions like Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), into not only helping him rob the bank (Chris is a janitor), but into taking the fall as well. The problem with these colliding themes (real as they may be) is that whereas Memento wound the two up into one narratively thrilling adventure, The Lookout reveals everything to us far in advance: Chris may forget that he's hidden a gun, but the audience remembers, and so there are no surprises, and without surprises, there's no thrill--just drama.

Luckily, the drama's pretty good. So's the direction. These are fine actors, and the only ones who don't get fleshed out are the fodder-like robbers there to help Gary with the heist. My favorite characters are probably the most minimized: there's Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio), who stops by the bank with a box of donuts every night just to spend time with Chris and also Chris's friend, a shy teller at the bank named Mrs. Lange (Alex Borstein) who obviously has a crush on him. Whole volumes could've been spent on these characters, and while I don't blame Frank for fixating on the troubled Pratt, he needs to realize that directing is a lot like writing: the best stuff comes out of freeing yourself from the lines on the page, and going right through them.

I enjoyed The Lookout: it's a warm and genuine character study, and save for a few telegraphed scenes, it does its best to instill the audience with equal parts helplessness and hope. I don't agree that the best way to tell a story is to start at the end (any more than I like the catchphrase: "Whoever has the money has the power"), but Scott Frank doesn't either, and his straightforward approach to one man's slippery slope of life makes for some great film.

Friday, April 13, 2007

PLAY: "Committed"

Photo/G. Roeker

I have no idea how the three one-acts in Committed are supposed to connect with each other. Every play is about relationships, but then again . . . every play is about relationships. That's what people go to the theater for. Living Image Arts (LIA) has missed their mark with this production: it's nice to foster diverse and distinctive voices, it's no good if they've got nothing to say (that is, if it's not "compelling and innovative" or "living and relevant"). To be fair, I don't see how you can do either of those quotable things in a stylized comedy like "Off the Cuff" or how you make something as cute and bland as "Men Are Pigs" anything more than the short and sweet joke it is. "Boxes," which is a sharp, smart, poignant piece by Robert Askins, is put off by a lulling monotony between the two actors (who are all brogue and no brash), so even the success of the night comes with a grain of salt. But hey, writing theater's hard: you have to be committed, in both meanings of the word, to really make it work.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

PLAY: "Topsy Turvy Mouse"

Topsy Turvy Mouse is a show in development through the Cherry Lane Mentor Project, which I greatly admire and respect, so please take the following with a grain of industrial salt. Peter Gil-Sheridan's script, which has apparently won a few awards that I've never heard of, appears to have been selected because of its political edge: the play fast-forwards fifteen years into the future so that we can see what has happened to the two smiling soldiers of the now infamous Abu Ghraib pictures. However, that idea has no teeth, and the problem with the play is that there isn't a single thing in it that's topsy, or turvy. It's just quiet, like a mouse.

Daniella Topol, who directed the beautiful Dead City last year, manages to work in the way in which two isolated, confused children find solace in imitating the pictures, with their cheerful, bubbling mirth a nice contrast to the stark pictures projected, as a parallel, behind them. It's too bad the kids (Daniel Zaitchik and Ian Quinlan) are stuck running around in circles, and that talented actors like Kelly McAndrew are stuck playing over-emotive parents. The show is stolen by a single monologue, delivered by a sub-plot's mother (Rosalyn Coleman), and for all that it connects to the rest of the play, she might as well have just walked in from another show, in another theater, across the street, to have done this part.

Right now, the play is too much like the game Richie tries to play with Darla at the beginning of the show: a vague attempt to connect the dots between stark photos (or scenes) that are very different in tone, time, and texture. But all Gil-Sheridan has to do is take his own character's advice: "You have to change things to be able to tell a story." I'm looking forward to when he gets away from the melodrama of "people with issues" and starts unraveling the tension between Richie and his criminal parents (he'll have to rework Amit's stereotypical Indian mother, Una, too): the world needs more "why" plays, not more "because" plays. Right now, Michael Weller's mentoring isn't apparent, but if Gil-Sheridan figures out how to tell this story soon, it could really be something.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

PLAY: "Apostasy"

In which genre can you classify a play whose artificial passion sweeps up all the loopholes of its plot into one long rambling drama? Given that one of the main characters in Gina DiIorio’s Apostasy is a televangelist, let's call it a teledrama. Although the play purports to be about apostasy itself, there is no faith to renounce: our hero, the cancer-ridden Sheila Gold, is a Jew-turned-agnostic-turned (because there "are no agnostics on a cancer ward") born-again Christian. And while Sheila plans to donate all her money to her newly-found personal savior, a charismatic televangelist named Dr. Julius Strong, if there's any abandonment of loyalty, it's from Sheila's daughter, Rachel, who refuses to acknowledge Strong as anything other than a con artist.

Director Frances Hill does a decent job of keeping us guessing as to whether or not we can take Dr. Strong seriously, but playwright DiIorio lets the secret slip out in the end, which takes all the doubt out of the play. Considering there's already a dramatic lack of tension, this straightforward conclusion serves only to add another layer of blandness. The set, designed by Roman Tatarowicz, is more interesting than the script: a sterile, waiting-to-die room in a private cottage in Westchester Hospice (complete with televisions built into the wall).

Though there are plenty of opportunities for DiIorio to play with the politics of the show – Shelia takes medical marijuana to stoke her appetite, while Rachel works at an abortion-clinic and has received death threats – Apostasy only manages to explore the superficial relationship between a needy woman and a desperate preacher. The relationship is rendered irrelevant in the wake of DiIorio's climactic shouting matches. Perhaps Entropy would've been a more suitable title than Apostasy.

Monday, April 09, 2007

FILM: "Grindhouse"

Grindhouse isn't just a double-feature from two of the smartest, most enjoyable filmmakers of today, it's an experience, a deliberate package of hackneyed dialog and exploitative gore that's sheer right down to the fake trailers that bridge the films and the false advertisements for local dining establishments. On their own, Planet Terror and Death Proof are simply enjoyable B-movies, the former coasting on pure adrenaline and squeamish effects, the latter a slower, more passionate combination of hot girls, mean men, fast cars, and just deserts. But together, the evening takes on the emotion of an era, the terrible thrill of flimsy film, and is a must for movie lovers. It's smart to be stupid, but it's even better to be struck dumb.

Talking about plot in a grindhouse picture is beside the point, so instead I'll mention the overall momentum of this atypical adventure. In Planet Terror, the deliquescent dead attack with bone saws and pistols as our hardwired heroes dispatch them with wall-flipping panache and knife-slicing mayhem, each shot designed not for elegance but for maximum splatter. Nothing bad happens to characters, only the somethings worse are worth filming and exaggeration is the name of the game. A doctor's hands are paralyzed simply for the sadistic glee of watching her try to unlock a car door, a go-go dancer's leg is chewed off so that it can be replaced first with an awkward wooden splinter (giving a whole new meaning to the term "walk the plank") and later with a glossy, fully-automatic, missile-launching machine gun. Where the film would be crippled by exposition (or, unfortunately, by a sex scene), the reel simply goes missing, and we skip to the next moment; whenever we might possibly grow bored, Rodriguez simply explodes another person's head. It's more fun that way. Add in some militaristic mutants, led by the one-line magnet that is all that remains of Bruce Willis, and you've got yourself a real picture.

On the other end of the spectrum, Death Proof spends thirty minutes ratcheting up the tension before the otherwise lovable Stuntman Mike (a simply flawless Kurt Russell) reveals his bad side. Tarantino evokes the subtler side of grindhouse: because he spends so much time sharpening his ax of a film (in addition to how he's already honed his craft), his swings are more efficient and last longer than Rodriguez's, whose endless gore grows a little redundant, and is all-too-often forced to rely on humor in the face of tedium. The climactic car chase isn't just a culmination of classic cinema, it's also genuinely thrilling: a moment of the genre overcoming its own hangups, of the sheer joy of the ride peeling back the decrepit paint of the vehicle.

The only problem with both features is that they sometimes feel a little forced: whereas the four short trailers for fictitious films can focus on the money shots (I dare you not to shudder at the unnecessarily brutal shots of Thanksgiving, and I double-dog dare you not to crack up at the ghastly ghost story of Don't or the ludicrous concept of Werewolf Women of the SS), there are moments of banal grossness in Planet Terror and get-to-the-point chatter in Death Proof. Tarantino's flaw is more excusable, as his dialogue always seems to roll off the tongue, but Rodriguez is blood for bloodness's sake: not as gleeful as Sam Raimi, not as chilling as Rob Zombie, just there, like a free condiment that one simply must use, even though they're full.

Then again, why settle for less? If you've got a mini-scooter, don't you have an obligation to find a way to put your hero on it? Isn't it infinitely funnier for him to shoot zombies on a tiny cart, and isn't that joviality infinitely cooler than simply having him save the day? Hollywood is all about style over substance, and I say it's about time that two directors had the balls to squeeze that tube until the style splattered everywhere, leaving nothing of meaning behind. Grindhouse is a kegger in an arthouse, and Cristal in a slum, and it's proof that bad movies don't have to be bad so long as they're bad ass.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

PLAY: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

Picasso at the Lapin Agile is one of the few comedies I've seen that successfully mixes the highbrow with the low, which should be no surprise as it's written by Steve Martin, an oscillating force if there ever were one. However, the current presentation at T. Schreiber Studio is somewhat of a solemn affair, and as a result, the joy of Martin's comic observations are often muted. Cat Parker's direction is excellent, with clever blocking that makes the punctilious puns of this play seem more natural, but the cast lacks the energy for slapstick, and the passion of Picasso (and Einstein, to a lesser affair) is a bit sloppy.

The show is on a slippery slope when the humorous rapport between characters gets too close to the rhapsodic discussion of art; when Schmendiman enters, he's supposed to steal the show with his absurdism: he's not supposed to be the first instance of laugh-out-loud comedy. It's not Parker's fault: she can change the lighting and underscore the quiet drama, but the only place she can do that for the comedy is the wild-west showdown between Picasso and Einstein.

All the technical choices work in Parker's favor, too: the set evokes the early-20th century vibe of a Parisian bar, and the costumes are dashing, be they intellectual or painterly, rich or snobbish, blue collar or blue suede. The cast speaks frequently to the audience (in fact, some of Martin's jokes are aimed at the structure of the play itself, like the Order of Appearance), so the choice to have VIP guests drinking wine in the side booths is both clever and an efficient use of space. The one ill-fitting choice is to have the bartender introduce the theater company and the play at the same time; that takes too much from the setting, and considerably slows the pace of the opening. (A fact that isn't helped by either Frank Mihelich's plodding simplicity as Freddy, or Jim Aylward's unsexed portrayal of Gaston.)

On the whole, this production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile is pretty good. It's a little too sober--the actors don't seem to be having very much fun channeling Martin--but it's got a pleasant aftertaste, and there are plenty of icebox laughs left in this masterful script.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

PLAY: "Suburban Peepshow"

(Photo/Ben VandenBoom)

James Comtois's new play with Nosedive Productions, Suburban Peepshow, is neither suburban nor peepshow. It's also not fine art, a fact the playwright both bravely acknowledges in his notes ("The main goal of me writing this was to make myself laugh") and in the show itself, where he leaps onstage half-naked as "Chubby Guy," there to jiggle for the audience's amusement (and to provide the cast time for a scene change). But as the playwright within this metacomedy tells the Catholic-schoolgirl-clad actress he's trying to bone (them's the rules of the game), "seeing that chubby guy dancing has increased [the audience's] happiness," and with all the prancing around of dismembered carnival barkers, the violent sequins of ninja crossdressers, the cutthroat economy of in-office gladiators, and romantic flings with self-titled characters ("Pool Guy" and "New Girl"), Suburban Peepshow does succeed in making us laugh. (It's also preceded by a comic short, Trailers, which spoofs the Hollywood movie formula, and itself, at the same time.)

A show like Suburban Peepshow isn't asking to be finely parsed: you could say that Bill's transition from suburban father to Roman gladiator represents his inner monologue, the way he dreams himself as a conquering savage. But you could just as easily accept that Patrick Shearer, who plays Office Guy #2, was really just trying to stop his external monologue ("Man, you really are boring") long enough to get some time in the spotlight. Given that the show is satire in good fun, replete with over-the-top performances by everyone outside of the family (they'd be nightmarish if they weren't so funny), I'd stick with the latter. However, it's for this reason that Comtois's work falls short of the literary (like George Saunders) and sticks with the low-brow (think Comedy Central). The humor leaks everywhere, from the absurdity of the narration (killed off faster here than in Into The Woods) to scenes where the increasingly drunken playwright (Anthony Bertram) is berated for not giving an actor a bigger "part" (by which he means the member's member) and for hitting on his cast. This isn't actually how Suburban Peepshow was written (one assumes), but the flow between the external forces and internal forces shows a playwright more concerned with good times than deep meaning.

Suburban Peepshow's greatest strength is that it writes itself: anything someone says about a character winds up becoming true, as if the world around us is shaped by what we think (which, in some ways, it is). Mother (the talented Leslie E. Hughes) considers having a fling with Pool Guy (Ben VandenBoom), and so when she inevitably meets him, he comes clad completely in cliche, all macho swagger and mustache. When Bill (a nicely suppressed Zack Calhoon) compares the "antics" at his office to those of Office Space, the next scene is filled with wry lines that could be ripped straight from our perception of the world. I said at first that Suburban Peepshow was neither suburban nor a peepshow, but that's not accurate: it's the world of both, but as we imagine it . . . and as they imagine it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

PLAY: "Orestes 2.0"

There are plenty of fragmented, confusing Greek plays already: so why rethink (and reink) the text of one of the few straightforward ancient dramas? Well, the plain truth is that classicism is often dryly stylized, rich in rhetoric, but dry in depth. Just look at the difference between an old-school version of Orestes, and the rebooted version, Orestes 2.0, currently playing at HERE Arts Center, written by Chuck Mee and directed by Jose Zayas.

Chuck's certainly sexed up the action, and refragmented the text by using an chorus of nurses and mental patients, radio voices and thier irrelevant (but eloquent) flood of private thoughts, but that's it. The disconnect is so high that the merits of the original have been lost in whimsy. Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love at least recast the heroes and changed the message, all while keeping true to a wild artistic style; this is more like last year's Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, a modern, hypervisual piece, shaken out of context. You can justify the jarring anachronisms of language because they're aesthetically cool, but you can't place fragments from other plays atop those and expect the whole jumble to still make sense.

Orestes 2.0 overlaps, doubles back, and cuts off so often that if you're unfamiliar with the source material, following the show is near impossible. Barrett Doss, who plays Electra, delivers an explanation of the history at the beginning, but her performance is so forceless that her lines, character's names, and plots are even more confusing than they were before. The show itself seems to be a purposeful exercise in obfuscation: the only character who is clear is Orestes's hip young friend (clad in graphic T, sports jacket, jeans, and designer sunglasses), Pylades. Joseph Carusone makes this role appropriately glib, and his smarmy subtext overcomes the challenging text. Everyone else in the family--Orestes; Orestes's uncle, Menalaus; Orestes's grandfather, Tyndareus; and especially Electra, Orestes's sister--is plagued with a bombastic seriousness that belies the frantic nature of Zayas's staging.

Individually, there are many portions of Orestes 2.0 that work just fine. Charles Mee has a dark and poetic style, Jose Zayas has a deep understanding of classical blocking (which he successfully adapts with a harsher, punkish modern edge), and the hollow, dried-out lighting well-represents a soul-sucking hospital. Together, they're a hodgepodge of cancelling effects: the techno sound design drowns out the epic monologues, the overlapping text makes following any one thread an impossibility, the themes themselves are bleeding watercolors (still making a picture, but messily). When Orestes and Electra are placed on trial for the murder of their mother (who murdered their father, as Greeks do), the play gels: the arguments of the court are pantomimed and silent, and intimate conversations about cock sex float in over microphones like a fine haze, coupled with a violent argument about pubic hair from another corner. Here, the classic is reduced to ridiculousness, here, the past is chided for irrelevance. But is that reason enough to resurrect a play? I think Orestes 2.0 is struggling far too much to be heard: in actuality, like its predecessor, it still has very little to say.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

PLAY: "A Lie of the Mind"

Photo/Rachel Wood

One of the terrifying beauties of humanity is our ability to make anything true, if only we believe in it hard enough. Sam Shepard's playwriting is a true staple of this culture: his plays very often bend our beliefs, but his characters are always truthful enough to hold us steady. His 1985 drama, A Lie of the Mind, now in an intimate production at Manhattan Theater Source, is filled with metaphoric dressings, and doesn't balk at abusing the American flag to emphasize our own dissociative culture.

Here, the persistence of memory overrides death (the star-battered lovers, Jake and Beth cannot escape their thoughts of each other), and the stubbornness of love overwrites memory (though Beth cannot live with her abusive love, she cannot live without it either, which is why her mind transfers it onto Jake's brother, Frankie). With every line, truth spills over the top of the bucket, revealing self-deception. The one failing in Shepard's play is that to flood us with guilt, he first has to add a lot of rambling to that bucket. It's a flaw in name only, perhaps, for the performances and dialog are a delight, but the show does stagger on for three hours, and there are stretches of indulgent text. The third act is too forceful with its metaphors, too confusing with its conclusions, and too distracted by its subplot.

Buried Child is the better Shepard play, more focused and precise, but A Lie of the Mind gets a lot of mileage from its characters and range. It isn't until Act 3 that the two-pronged narrative (it switches between Jake scenes and Beth scenes) loses its edge. But right from the bat we're drawn in: the play opens with Jake frantically phoning his brother to confess the murder of Beth and then simultaneously surprises and saddens us by revealing that she's actually still alive: in the care of her brother, Mike, but mentally damaged from the abuse.

These sharp initial scenes with Beth are the tragic strength of the show: her desperate cry for Jake ("HEEZ MY HAAAAAAAAAART!"), in spite of all he has done to her, is a wail rivaled only by "Stellllla!" It's a fantastic role, and Laura Schwenniger delivers: she is clear and precise, though her character remains in a fog; she struggles beautifully with words, even though as an actor she is in control. Likewise, Todd d'Amour's portrayal of Jake plays up the petulant violence with a series of childlike mannerisms and an overburdened gravel voice: his eyes flinch with every scolding even as they smolder with a longing for his love.

As the play continues, the circle widens in scope to show us their families: Mike's mother, Lorraine, is a craggy realist, and his sister, Sally, is a tough-as-nails survivor; Beth's father, Baylor, is a domineering rancher, and her mother, Meg, is pliant and a bubbly font of trivia. Cindy Keiter makes for a delightfully dotty Meg ("Don't yell in the house, the walls can't take it! Screaming is not the thing that we were made for"), and Emily Mitchell has the harsh maternal instincts of Lorraine down cold (just watch her play "Helicopter" with Jake).

The scenic design, by David Roman, emphasizes the split-screen differences by using a firm, red-washed adobe color for Jake's solidity, and a cold, drowningly dark aqua blue for Beth's infirmity. All in all, the theatrics are underplayed by director Daryl Boling, but this contrast stands out. (If only the choice to use bluegrass music for the transitions had been so strikingly played up: as is, the upbeat music clashes politely in the background like elevator Muzak.) When it comes down to it, Shepard is more concerned with truth of character than anything else, and this production couldn't ask for a better cast.

Monday, April 02, 2007

PLAY: "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs could've been a fantastic play, a real American classic. (In some aspects, at the time, it was.) But William Inge's small town tragedy is missing the tragedy and is left only with some subtle observations on the brittle, self-defeating nature of man. It doesn't help that the first and third act are sluggish and protracted, nor that Transport Group's production has emphasized the overbearing monologues with equally overbearing lighting. The second act is a buoyant, lively piece of theater that exemplifies storytelling, and it is commandeered by the delightfully vivacious Lottie Lacey (Michele Pawk) and her deadpan dentist of a husband, Morris (Jay Potter, master of the awkward pause). Simply put, Inge's quiet brand of suffering only works when it wears a happy face (which is what makes Bus Stop such a pleasant work): the awkward resolutions and confabulations are the sturdy center of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

There are major issues addressed in Inge's play, including suicide and spousal abuse, but because his three acts are disconnected in thematic structure, the final resolution of those scenes seems rushed and ill-conceived. The few dramatic moments in the stagnant finale revolve largely around a confessional series of soliloquies from the wild, passionate patriarch of the Flood family, Rubin (steadily but unsurprisingly played by Patrick Boll) and some poorly scripted attempts by the matriarch, Cora (a distant Donna Lynne Champlin) to take charge of her own life. The two actors don't have much in the way of chemistry, and given all that we've heard about their characters, the words (at this point) actually come in the way. Flirt (Liz Mamana), a ditzy friend of the shy, pallid Reenie Flood (Colby Minifie), appears out of the blue to give an announcement that is shrugged off by both the playwright and (accordingly) the actors, and neither of the two children (the bland and uncharming Sonny, played by Jack Tartaglia, is the other) have any sort of dramatic arc or change in their personalities to even justify what passes as "side plot."

I don't enjoy panning Inge's work, especially from a man who comes up with such powerful statements as: "I wish that someone loved me enough to hit me," and "Sometimes the people who act the happiest are really the unhappiest." But there's a sense of pinning the tail on the donkey in his development, and he leaves a lot of holes in his script trying to get it on just right. The two characters we're interested in, Sammy (the depressed young boy, played by a bright-eyed Matt Yeager) and Lottie are all-too-brief candles in the wind, and the ones we're left with are never adequately handled. I respect Jack Cummings III for reviving this show for its fiftieth anniversary, but he doesn't do enough: his early theatrics (the walls are transparent, making the characters behind them ghosts and darkness, at all once) aren't matched by the script, and though there's a valiant struggle in the second act, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs simply isn't very riveting.