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Monday, December 26, 2011

Make an appointment to see Hairspray at Signature!

I have really come to treasure seeing plays in smaller theaters. Even when I go to New York, I try to see off-Broadway shows for that more intimate experience.  Of course, Washington has its share of smaller venues and once in a while, the experience can be amazing - like Ruined at Arena last year, Woolly's Bright New Boise or Constellation's Three Sisters.  I can safely and enthusiastically add Hairspray, currently at Signature Theater, to that list. This is a show that slowly buiilds with a wonderful score by Marc Shaiman and a serviceable book by the great Thomas Meehan. By the time it hits its stride in the second act, your realize you're about 5 rows away from an amazingly talented and diverse cast singing hummable songs. The plot - about integration in Baltimore in the early '60s by way of a kids music show - feels important. And then Nova Y. Payton blows us away with her big number. And then Can't Stop the Music finishes things up in an all-out party.  Please go see this show if you can.  Signature puts on many new works that hit and miss - they should be commended - but this is what they, namely director Eric Schaeffer, do best. Oh, and Robert Aubry Davis should be commended for playing the mother (why doesn't AroundTown have a place to play every week?).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Week With Marilyn Showcases The Best of Britain

Interestingly, My Week With Marilyn starts in the same way that the starting-to-be-acclaimed movie The Artist does: with a film within the film. The device works in both pictures as a way to admire the stars whose story we will see unfold - yet also give us that distance that stars demand. In Marilyn, we see young Colin watching a Marilyn Monroe film - and then get stylish shots of Michelle Williams actually singing the number in the film. I enjoyed the movie. I would call it style over substance. There are so many great English actors in the film: Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond. And Williams is able to carry it with a sexy, intuitive performance. No, she does not have the curves of the real Marilyn, but she's able to show a few sides of her. It's a difficult role - she has to be Marilyn, be Marily acting, be Marilyn cooing, be Marilyn crazy. And sing. So while it's not a great film - there's just not enough plot really despite a nice supporting job by Emma Watson as a woman Colin's age - director Simon Curtis (he's married to Elizabeth McGovern) does a pretty good job of holding it all together. It's just a fun movie to watch. Branagh gives Olivier a kind turn, as does Ormond with Vivian Leigh. Eddie Redmayne, who I liked with Kristen Stewart in The Yellow Hadkerchief, also holds his own among the many luminaries. I regret not seeing him on Broadway last year in Red.  I would guess a couple Oscar nominations come out of this film, perhaps for Williams and Branagh.

Friday, December 16, 2011

US Botanic Garden Features Concerts During Holiday Nights

I had not been back to the the U.S. Botanic Garden since July 3, when they graciously opened the doors during an incredible storm that canceled the Capitol Fourth Rehearsal concert. I enjoyed our personal tour then and I loved it last night as well. I cannot imagine a more beautiful setting for the holidays. The klezmer group Lox and Vodka performed and offered a little bit of everything. They will be having four more evening concerts on the next two Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-8 pm: Dec. 20, Project Natale, jazz; Dec. 22, Samovar, Russian folk music; Dec. 27, Hot Club of DC, gypsy jazz and swing; and Dec. 29, 40 Thieves, Irish rock music. The concerts take place in the beautiful gardens, decoreated with poinsettias, a lighted tree and many ornaments. In the next room an incredible series of toy trains choo choos around another holiday-themed room.  You can also just walk through the maze of plants and trees and get a little of that tropical high right in the middle of DC. This place - with no annoying security gates either - is a gem. Take advantage of these wonderful concerts. Oh, they're free. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Artist Gives Us a Gilmpse of the Grand Way It Was

I was fortunate to see the wonderful new film The Artist at a packed house at New York's famed Paris movie theater. About halfway through this mostly silent film - both a tribute to the films of the past and a history - I took a look at the heads below the screen and the black and white images on them and thought that this is what it was like: a huge screen in a big cinema with a balcony (and $13 prices!). French writer and director Michael Hazanavicius has crafted an age-old story of boy-meets-girl and aging star loses luster and added so many clever wrinkles that the result is incredibly smooth and heart-tugging. Kudos to the casting director for using Jean Dujardin (of the OSS 117 spy spoof films) and finding Berenice Bejo to team with him. They are both athletic and graceful, and look good together. John Goodman shows how to bluster without any sound, James Cromwell admirably plays the good chauffeur - I still shiver when I think of him in LA Confiudential - and Penelope Ann Miller (wow where has she been?) plays the unloved wife. It is amazing to see how a story can be told so well without sound - although there is a beautiful original score by Ludovic Bource which is crucial to the film. So I don't know if you can find an old theater to see this in. Let's hope either the Avalon or the Uptown shows it. If they do, please see it there. It's such an original film, which is so odd to say considering it's a silent. There must be a lesson there.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Descendants Ascends to Oscar-Worthy Status Thanks to Big Performances in Small Roles

The Descendants works so well probably because of its small moments. They ring true. Like when George Clooney wakes up in the middle of the night and has a short talk with Sid the good-hearted but slightly dim friend of his daughter. We don’t get sudden wisdom from Nick, but we do learn a little more about him - and Clooney's character. When Clooney bids goodbye to Judy Greer—who after a check on IMDB seems to have appeared on every tv show in existence in the last five years—in a key late-movie scene, he has a special way of parting that makes you smile (sweet revenge). And when you think early on that this might be another troubled teen story who hates her father, it’s quite the opposite. She’s the most normal one in the story and wants to love her father. Alexander Payne has produced by far his best film here, worthy of a best picture nomination—in addition to nominations for Clooney and Shailene Woodley (who my colleague tells me is on a teenage soap opera). The casting agent deserve kudos here for a range of excellent characters from the grandfather (the estimable Robert Forster) to Nick (Nick Krause) to cousins who include where-have-they-been actors Beau Bridges (with long hair like his brother Jeff now) and Michael Ontkean. I think I met him once 25 years ago - more on that in another post - after the debut of a movie he did with Harry Hamlin. The final scene works incredibly well to take us past the death of the wife who has been in a coma the whole movie. As opposed to the ending in Martha May Marcy Marlene where we have no idea what's happening, we're comfortably settled in with the King family at the end of The Descendants.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Martha Marcy Is Well-Done Filmmaking, but for the best film about cults...

Before going to Martha Marcy May Marlene, I thought I would be seeing a film similar the powerful early '80s sleeper called Ticket to Heaven. (Rent it if you haven't seen it.) And in a couple ways - the power of the cult leader, trying to bring the person out of the spell - it was similar. But in many ways it wasn't.   Where Ticket to Heaven shows the whole gut-wrenching process of the person being consumed by the cult, Marcy May starts with her (the phenomenal Elizabeth Olsen) already well in. The film then goes back and forth between those scenes and the scenes after her sister picks up her up, with the sister and her husband (the suddenly ubiquitous Hugh Dancy) in a fancy lake house. The film is very well-done and feels pretty true, except for perhaps the one violent scene. There's tension just oozing out of all pores of this film, including of the sexual variety. I can't say it's a great film; it chooses an ending similar to Cache, Michael Haneke's film with Juliette Binoche. But I can recommend it as interesting and worthwhile. Don't forget Ticket to Heaven.  That's the one that will stay with you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Warhol Screen Tests and Dean and Britta Make Beautiful Music Together

The National Gallery is just an amazing place. We were joking last night that you could do a lot worse than just hanging out there every weekend. Yesterday we saw an amazing concert/film - Dean and Britta formerly of the group Luna were commissioned by the Warhol Museum in Pitttsburgh to write 13 songs for 13 of the 400-plus "screen tests" that Warhol filmed back in the '60s. They went through most of them and chose 13 of the "personalities" who most hung out at the Factory, Dean told us yesterday. The CD is out and I'm getting it. We saw Lou Reed as the world's coolest Coke drinker to the tune, "Not a Young Man Anymore." The gorgeous Jane Holzer brushing her teeth to "Knives from Bavaria." The tragic Edie Sedgwick primping to "It Don't Rain in Beverly Hills." And Dennis Hopperf finally breaking down and smiling to "Herringbone Tweed." Though none of us recognize the young Hopper until Dean told us it was him after the song. The perfomance was brilliant and if Dean and Britta come around again, I will let you know. The Warhol Exhibit also elicits many emotions and some of the screen tests can be seen there. But what was great about the music was that it allowed you to watch the whole screen tests which really do reveal characteristics about the Factory regulars (and yes, all beautiful people).  On Sunday, Dec. 4, there will be a film about Warhol at the National Gallery. Check the whole schedule here.   They do a wonderful job and yes, it's all free!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

European Union Filmfest Shines Spotlight on Finland and the U.K.

The European Union Film Showcase at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring runs through Nov. 22 and continues to be one of the best film festivals that this area has to offer. I saw my first film of the festival last night - Kid With a Bike by the Dardennes Brothers. It was very well-done and should get a release to theaters that show foreign films. The brothers deal in realism so this tale of an 11 year-old boy abandoned by his father is not always pretty, but it always feels right. Thomas Doret gives a fresh performance as Cyril and Cecile de France as his foster guardian proves likeable and believable. Two Finnish films have gotten some buzz here - The Good Son, which plays today at 5 pm and Le Havre, the latest film by indie-fav Aki Kaurismaki. The latter film has finished here but hopefully will get a release. I have bought a ticket for the closing night film on Monday, Nov. 22, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a new adaptation starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and John Hurt. The director, Tomas Alfredson, and Oldman are scheduled to appear at the closing night. The film has garnered wonderful reviews in London. Two other much anticipated films from the U.K. playing here are an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea (Rattigan is also represented on Broadway right now) with Rachel Weisz and Tom Huddleston (Nov. 17); and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method with Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightly (Nov. 18).  See the full schedule here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

That's Entertainment! Gatsby Returns to Ken Cen in All Its Splendor and Glory

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams--not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his own illusion. It had gone beyond her; beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion.
--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Sometimes, I guess, you can go home again. The Washington Ballet has brought back its successful rendition of The Great Gatsby, choreographed by Septime Webre, its artistic director. He has constructed thia ballet/show/spectacle with such originality, enormous talent and passion that you can't look away. Smartly, Webre has brought back the top-notch live jazz band and the incomparable talents of Will Gartshore - now that's a narrator! - and E. Faye Butler - her "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" again brings down the Eisenhower Theater house. Female tap dancer Quynn Johnson even gets a spectacular solo in the second act. What makes the evening so grand is that Webre puts all this talent within one of the greatest frameworks of the English language. The story works with scenes colorfully and lavishly played out, from Gatsby's Charlestonish parties to teas and lunches in Manhattan to the frightful scenes on the highway and at Gatsby's pool. The music also succeeds, in a conglomeration of new tunes by Billy Novick and old ones from Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin - we were all humming What'll I Do on the way out - and Duke Ellington among others. It seemed even better than its premier a year and a half ago.
Tickets are still available - it runs through Sunday and is highly recommended. I'm no expert on the dancing, but I am pretty good on pace, creativity, theatricality and a good story. And Gatsby has it all. One wishes it could stay with us longer. I need to go read the book again! (for the 10th time?)

Are there any better last lines in fiction than... 
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further...And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oranges and Sunshine and Margin Call both put this Cinephile in Movie-Watching Bliss

Two movie recommendations are always  a good thing. Oranges and Sunshine navigates its way through a difficult subject in an engaging, never over-the-top way, probably because the name Loach is involved - not Ken but his son Jim. It's the true story of a social worker in England who stumbled upon the history of the deporting of children to Australia. These were children who were taken away from their parents, often illegally; some were sent to awful places in Australia where they were mistreated. Now adults, they want to know who they are. A great cast tiptoes its way through this horrific episode, without abuses ever being seen. The acting is top-notch - led by Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving (who was wonderful in Uncle Vanya at Kennedy Center this summer) and especially David Wenham (a new face for me, he handles his difficult role with a revengeful glee). I was moved by the film.

Margin Call reminded me a little bit of Glengarry Glen Ross, but without all the steroids, and last year's highly underrated Company Men without the tinge of blue collar. The scene shifts from real estate to financial trading, but all the drama of men in an office (and getting fired) remains.  Kevin Spacey plays a role that Tommie Lee Jones excelled at in Company Men: the older boss who has seen it all but isn't calling the shots anymore. Stanley Tucci departs from his happy husband to strong women role to beautifully underplay his fired analyst part here. Demi Moore is also ably on hand to show her legs and let her hair down a bit. And like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, we are heralded to the "Man" making an entrance, and that man is Jeremy Irons. Irons and Kevin Spacey in a well-written scene puts a cinephile such as myself in film heaven. It's a very good film.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Delightful Wilkerson Appears at Phillips to Talk About 'The Warmth of Other Suns'

On Thursday night, I went over to the Phillips Collection to see a lecture by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. Her award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is now out in paperback. It is the "Epic Story of America's Great Migration" - the migration of African Americans from the South to the North during the period from after WWI to the 1970s. She said that she spent 15 years of her life on this book, and I can't wait to read it. She is a brilliant speaker, able to sound a bit intellectual but also personable. She frames her story by saying that everyone here has relatives who risked everything they had - some at a very young age - to pursue a better life somewhere else. That could also be from Poland or Ireland or Italy or Latvia or Russia and Romania (the last two is my lineage). Maybe they came by foot or by train or by ship (my grandparents), maybe their parents pushed them off. She named many famous African American figures and nimbly traced their families to the South: Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Theolonius Monk, Toni Morrison, Miles Davis, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, etc. I spent a summer as Wilkerson's friend and colleague many years ago when we were interns at The Washington Post - she in Style and me in Sports. She was fresh out of Howard University, soft-spoken but confident and supremely talented. (David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, was also in that intern class. It's very easy to get an inferiority complex looking back now.)  It is wonderful to see Wilkerson's success. She teaches at Boston University now and travels promoting the book - she's already been to most states and even a couple countries in Europe. "Immigration is a universal story, she says. She laughed when she said that Alaska is next on the itinerary - in January. "I know, not the best planning," she said. Eventhough I have not read it yet, I will heartily recommend The Warmth of Other Suns; I trust Isabel. The title, by the way, comes from a quote by Richard Wright that goes like this:

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”
Richard Wright


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Photography Show in the Embassy of Finland Is a Can't Miss Exhibit!

I saw the most spectacular exhibit yesterday enhanced by a private tour from the artist.  Fortunately, she will be back on Nov. 11-12 to talk more about it. The Loveliest Girl in the World at the Embassy of Finland is the name of the exhibit and should not be missed! It will be showing Friday - Sunday from 11 am to 4pm through Nov. 13. About 10 years ago, the photographer, Miina Savolainen, took notice of a home for abandoned children. She decided to begin a project with all 10 young girls in one of the units of the home, to try to make them feel special. She started getting to know the girls and then taking them - one by one - on field trips into the incredibly beautiful Finnish countryside. Once there, they would put on some beautifully elaborate dresses and gowns that the girls and Miina worked on getting ready. The idea was for the girls to dictate how they wanted to look.  (This is actually part of a course that Miina teaches in Finland for businessmen, doctors, health professionals, etc., that she calls empowering photography.)  Then she would shoot the pictures.  This went on for years so she could photograph them in various stages of childhood. So what we get now are sublime photos of these girls often looking like models and movie stars, with landscapes that Hollywood would pay millions to re-create (craters, icicles, snow-covered plains, endless bounding brooks, mountaintops, etc.). And they look so confident and comfortable.  What's amazing about Miina's work is that in a group photo of the girls where they're smiling and normally dressed, they look just like any other group of teenage girls. Then in these photos, their specialness shines through. "Everyone can be special if you're looked at in a lovely way," Miina told me. The exhibit has won awards throughout Finland.  She said she would send me some photos that I could post - I've posted a couple. But you need to see these in person, if possible. There are over 120 of them in the exhibit, and in the great Embassy of Finland space - surrounded by the woods - it is a privilege to be there.  I will check if Miina will be doing anything specific - like a lecture - when she returns in November.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

With A Bright New Boise, Woolly Brings Another Intelligent Play to Our Midst

Woolly Mammoth can be pretty hit and miss in my opinion. But with their youthful crowds and enthusiasm that brings - especially during their generous PWYC nights - solid acting company and beautiful home just off 7th Street, when a play is good, it's a total pleasure. Such is the case with their current offering, A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunter. The play centers on a father, having left a cult-like church in norther Idaho after a tragedy, confronting the son he never met at a Hobby Lobby box store in Boise. Just writing that scenario here feels bizarre. But Hunter does make sense of this in a startlingly good first act, which almost sets up the play as a a comedy. As the father, Michael Russotto proves to be a willing straight man to top performances from Kimberly Gilbert as a spooked out fellow employee, Emily Townley as an epithet-spewing (in a fun way) boss and Joshua Morgan as his surprised son. The problems arise in the second act when Hunter has to take these characters somewhere. He told us after the play that he is still rewriting this act, so I'm curious to see it again in a few weeks. He loses the tone he set in the first act as he struggles to give meaning. Should the father be persecuted for his part in the tragedy? Will the son come around to him. As he wrestles with these questions, the wonderful scenario that he set up in the cafeteria - with a brilliant company video playing in the background - gets dropped a bit. Hunter himself said that he set up a plot where the ending he's searching for does not give the play much action. He wrote the play in just 3 months on a commission from a theater in New York, so he is clearly incredibly talented. His comfort with dialogue reminds me a little of Neil LaBute before his plays spring their surprises. Hunter needs to find his style with the second act as LaBute found his. Woolly should be congratulated for bringing this fine play and playwright to Washington.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sheen and Estevez Show "The Way" in This Wonderful New Film

There's a moment towards the end of The Way - the new film by Emilio Estevez starring his father, Martin Sheen - where no words are said but it's brilliant. Each of the four main characters looks at each other, having walked together for many kilometers, with this knowing glance and then a smile. It encapsulates so much, about traveling, about friendship, about taking chances and about living. Sheen does give an Oscar-caliber performance in the role of a father who must go to Spain to retrieve the ashes of his only child (his son played briefly by Estevez). It's a tough role because he must reflect the sadness that he feels, but we must also see a glint start to form in his eye - an alarm to the life that his son strived for. He decides to walk the El Camino de Santiago from France to Spain, finishing at Santiago de Compastela - all in honor of his son who had set off on the walk and was killed in an accident on the first day. The three foreigners that Sheen hooks up with on the way are all played with gusto and charm. Yorick van Wageningen as Joost does a fine job balancing zealousness with sympathy. Deborah Kara Unger plays the Maria Bello part - the beautiful 40-something woman - with mischief and a gradual awakening. And James Nesbitt proves a perfect choice for the Irish writer. This isn't quite Dorothy and company in Oz, but it does feel like a yellow brick road that they're traveling and they're all in search of something. I guess that's an age-old story. Who knew that Estevez had this kind of story in him. The beautiful Spanish scenery doesn't hurt either. And like the film Another Earth earlier this year, the very brief last scene here has all kinds of implications. Nicely done!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Two Film Rental Recommendations With the Likeable Zoe Kazan

Here's a roundabout way to give two film rental recommendation. I was up in New York last weekend and met Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of famous movie director Elia Kazan and an actress/playwright in her own right. She was outside the Manhattan Theater Club where I attended the first preview of her new play, We Live Here starring Amy Irving and Mark Blum. It's a family drama that started out with a promising first act but then faded.  (Much better was a production of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer I saw at Hudson Theater Guild.) Anyway, I highly recommend two films that Kazan has appeared in: I thought Me and Orson Welles was a hugely underrated film; and Happythankyoumoreplease has an awful title and no one saw it, but is a decent film. Kazan was very nice greeting all her friends and looked cute and very thin in person; hopefully, the play can improve before it officially opens. New York critics can be rough. Looks like she has a new film coming out next year called He Loves Me that she wrote the screenplay for. It co-stars Antonio Banderas - can't wait to see him in the new Almodovar film! - Annette Bening and Paul Dano. And it's directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who directed Little Miss Sunshine.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ives Is a Saint When It Comes to Writing Entertaining Plays

Experience and Shakespereans. That's just one of the clever rhymes in David Ives' rollicking Heir Apparent at the Shakespeare Theatre. I've been an Ives fan ever since I saw All in the Timing many years ago; that's the evening of one-acts which includes the now-classic, first-date vignette where the bell rings any time someone says something off-putting to the other. Studio had a huge hit earlier this year with Ives' Venus in Fur, an intense play about an actress auditioning for a part. The play is now headed for Broadway. Meanwhile, Ives, Michael Kahn and Shakespeare Theatre have found a new cottage industry in obscure French comedies that Ives restores with rhyming dialogue. Last year was The Liar and Heir Apparent is equally funny and clever. The other revelation here is Carson Elrod as the servant Crispin. Where has he been? His energy and ability to play off of the always-great Floyd King give Heir Apparent its enormous energy. Along with Habit of Art, we are truly lucky to have two very entertaining plays in DC right now.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Moneyball May Actually Appeal More to Non-Baseball Types

When screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin (Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindlers List) - credited with the screenplay of Moneyball - have a good story to tell, watch out. We're in for something special, because they can certainly write exceptional dialogue. Just rerun that first scene of Social Network over and over where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is talking to his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). (Zaillian apparently wrote the script for the upcoming - is it really much-anticipated? - Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which stars Mara.) After seeing Moneyball yesterday, I just don't know if this was a great story to tell. It certainly is a quality film. We get lots of zippy, slyly poignant dialogue, impressive acting (Brad Pitt is incredibly likeable here, Jonah Hill has become the king of that "Who me?" kind of acting and Philip Seymour Hoffman Has the deadpanning down) and very competent directing from Bennett Miller (Capote). And there's a scene with a 12-year-old girl singing that just kills. But the film drags a bit towards the end, and as a baseball movie that's not really about baseball, it just doesn't get enough right for me.
I believe many of the good reviews have come from critics who don't know baseball. If you do, there's just so much that doesn't figure well. And I don't mean little details like a Washington DC movie where the Metro comes up in Georgetown. The team at the center of this story, the Oakland Athletics, really didn't achieve anything and haven't since Billy Beane has been in charge. So the film tries to key on a record winning streak, but those don't matter that much in sports unless they lead to a title. For the sake of the story, the film focuses on 2 or 3 moves that Beane made and ignores so much else. It's just hard to buy into this knowing that the foundation is flimsy. I'm not saying that it's not true; it's more that probably the analyses and theories that worked for the book just don't carry the gravitas to make a great film. Robin Wright is totally wasted as his ex-wife. (Didn't even realize that was her. Will she or Maria Bello ever show age?)
So I'll probably watch Bull Durham for the 10th time the next time it's on. For Moneyball, even though I admire the dialogue and performances, once was fine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Habit of Art Gives Us Another Pleasurable Encounter With the Great Alan Bennett

Anyone who saw The History Boys or The Madness of King George (both successful plays turned into movies) knows the singular sensation that is playwright Alan Bennett. We are lucky that the Studio Theater, which put on a wonderful History Boys with Floyd King a couple years ago, has become the theater that brings Bennett to us. They have borrowed from The Shakespeare Theatre again in the person of wonderful veteran actor Ted van Griethuysen - as well as the great Paxton Whitehead from Broadway and Hollywood - to put on a very intricate and engaging production of Bennett's latest, The Habit of Art. Bennett has taken a little from Michael Frayn's classic Noises Off to give us a play-within-the-play scenario to tell the story of the friendship between poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Where Noises Off gave us different looks at the rehearsal process, Habit of Art gives us one run-through of it with quirky actors and a mothering stage manager. Bennett has a lot to say here about actors and artists. Do we care who they really are? Or should we just pay attention to the art? There's one line at the end where Auden falls asleep and the question is raised if this is Auden, the actor playing Auden, or in our minds van Griethuysen himself. The others decide that it's appropriate for any of them really. Actors break out of role to ask questions about their characters or just talk about themselves. Cameron Folmar will be nominated for a supporting actor award for his portrayal of the BBC interviewer who imagines the make-believe re-encounter of Auden and Britten. (They were friends early in their lives before a falling out.) The much anticipated "music" he opens the second act with is worth the price of admission. It's nice to see the Studio Theater rebound after a so-so season with a first-rate production.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Widow of Photographer Leonard Freed Lends Photos for an Incredible Show at German Historical Institute. Lecture to follow at DCJCC on Oct. 6.

I have always wanted to visit the German Historical Institute on New Hampshire and 16th St., NW, for a lecture (and reception, of course), but never found the time.  I'm very glad I did find the time last night. Brigitte Freed was the guest and the photos taken by her late husband Leonard Freed were the stars - Berlin when the Wall went up; Berlin when the Wall came down ("I told Leonard that he had to be there for that," Brigitte said); and various other photos from postwar Germany.  Freed was an American Jew, born in Brooklyn, who ventured to Europe in 1952, settling in Amsterdam until moving back to New York in 1970. As the literature handed out at the exhibit explains: "Postwar Europe was a puzzle for Freed: a land of great artistic civilization, familial aura, Jewish trauma, postwar destruction and potential redemption. In his mind, Germany was the central and most jagged piece." His photo of the Wall coming down, in black and white, spotlights the faces of the people against the backdrop of a classical building. It's brilliant. The exhibit is called An American in Deutschland (on exhibit until Nov. 15), and two other institutions are showing Freed's prints: the DC Jewish Community Center where there will be a talk on Thursday, Oct. 6 about Freed by co-curator Paul Farber (Farber's friend, Septime Webre, head of the Washington Ballet, was on hand last night); and the Goethe Institut. Farber encourages people to visit the GHI to see the photos (as do I) and said he would even give a tour if a group could be arranged. He's a very interesting young guy, who was on his way to New York to speak about a book he worked on about the television show, The Wire. Brigitte Freed lives in the Hudson River Valley with her daughter. She surprised the large crowd by pointing to one of the photos and saying, "I took that."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fela and Bill T. Jones Both Make Quite an Impression

So there I was last night at intermission of the first preview performance of the stand-up-and-shout Fela - the Tony Award-winning musical conceived, directed and choreographed by 2010 Kennedy Center honoree Bill T. Jones - when who should walk in front of me but Mr. Jones himself. He is incredibly friendly, taking congratulatory handshakes from some and advising others the best way to get in touch with him. I guess he is ironing out the kinks as the musical takes over the Harman Theater for the next month or so. But as long as long as Tony and Olivier Award nominee Sahr Ngaujah is center stage as Fela Kuti, the kinks are pretty negligible. Ngaujah has us at hello, or at least at "Say Yeah Yeah." When the first uninspired response comes back, he starts to go to work. The man can sing, dance, make us laugh, play the saxophone and trumpet, AND make the ladies swoon when he takes off his shirt. There are incredible dancers, musicians, singers and actors surrounding him, all adding to a night of utter enjoyment. It's a clever piece as well. (Jim Lewis wrote the book with Mr. Jones.) To bridge to a story about going to jail, Ngaujah asks the audience who has been to jail. It's a very funny episode that can swerve many even funnier ways depending on the response. (One pretty woman in the audience just waved her hands furiously to each question. Jail? Holding cell? Handcuffs? He had a good time with her.) That bridge adds much more than if they had just gone right into that story. A friend named Mark asked me at intermission if I had ever seen Fela himself at the 9:30 Club. Apparently, he performed there a couple times. He died in 1997, I believe. Unfortunately, I did not see him but after seeing this show - which centers on a place in Lagos, Nigeria called The Shrine - I sure wish I did. I highly recommend Fela. After the reviews come out, tickets will be scarce. So be quick. Rarely does Washington get to see a performer like Mr. Ngaujah - who took both London and New York by gale force. Don't miss out.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Victoria Vox Trumpets, Strums and Sings a New Success

Okay, who has heard a mouth trumpet before?  My friend Jay and I heard a great one last night in the person of singer Victoria Vox at Iota in Arlington. If that was her only game, she'd still be good, but she is an amazing talent really starting to get known now. She performed at Strathmore's record-breaking Ukelele Festival last week where more than 900 people took out their ukes and strummed. With a couple thousand people there, I had to pause when this wonderful voice rose above the Tiny Tim-like din. So we checked her out last night and she's for real. Vox sang only with her ukelele playing, beautiful singing, mouth trumpet and Kate's amazing cello. (Her new CD is ukelele and cello.) She sang some great songs including one called "Chasing Love" that I just found on YouTube. (I also found a performance she did of the great Leonard Cohen Hallelujah on YouTube that's really pretty and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.)  I will continue to follow her and perhaps do a meetup the next time she plays around. Check her out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The French Still Make Exceptional Films

A very hot and humid Washington day drove me to two movies last week and both shared some traits. The Names of Love and Sarah's Key are both French and both see their lead female character visiting The Shoah Memorial in Paris. Engraved on the walls there are the names of 76,000 Jews, including 11,000 children all deported from France as part of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jews. Although The Names of Love is a comedy - and an exceptional one at that - the moment is not taken lightly. And in Sarah's Key, the writer and director do a great job of moving back and forth between past and present. This scenario of watching characters from the present trying to discern what happened in the past - and then seeing for ourselves what really happened - has become a more common tool of late, but that does not mean it is easy to pull off. Tom Stoppard, of course, pulled it off the most successfully with Arcadia, and I wonder if he ever considered turning that into a film. (I should have asked him when I ran into him on a smoke break he was having at Penn Station in New York a couple years ago.  As it was, I was tongue-tied. Anyway, The Names of Love chronicles a relationship between a young liberal activist - she sleeps with conservatives to convert them - and a middle-aged scientist who deals with dead animals. It has some very clever conceits that can be credited to the husband and wife screenwriters. In fact, she shares the same first name as the lead character - Baya.  You cannot go wrong seeing either of these films, just depends on the mood you're in.  A woman behind me at Sarah's Key said the book was better so you may want to read it first.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Blanchett philosophizes a bit at Uncle Vanya interview

“Begin as you mean to continue,” the lumnious, Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett told a young questioner seeking career advice a couple weeks ago at an interview I attended at the Kennedy Center - during her just-completed run of Uncle Vanya. Even trying to make herself look plain, she couldn't. “Make yourself a five-year plan; that will help you maintain patience. And you can’t make too many compromises.” Blanchett was, of course, talking about a career in the arts, but there are some parallels to be drawn with any profession that one seeks to pursue. Her response also made me marvel at the English language. The question has been asked so many times before yet Blanchett can still find an original phrasing: (Must be the 10 years she recently spent living in England.) In fact, I believe it’s good advice not just for young people but for anyone embarking on something new, be it a new business, project or even a hobby.
Blanchett of course, needs no training to be comfortable in the spotlight. She was asked if it’s hard to find the time to do theater with such a demanding film career. She looked a bit puzzled actually and answered, “No, not really. I’m old enough to make my own decisions now. This is an extraordinary privilege.” I particularly liked what she said next when asked if it was a tough decision for her and her husband Andrew Upton to take over the Sydney Theatre Company. “It would have been cowardice to turn it down,” she said. That kind of takes us full circle in the direction of the famous Goethe quote: “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
"We all value theater," she said, speaking for the accomplished cast that was sitting around her. Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year for Animal Kingdom and Hugo Weaving appeared in The Matrix Trilogy among many other films. "And we choose to return to it." Speaking of Australia and the bond it gives her company, she said, "You're talking about a company of 22 million, 17 million of whom are actors."
The interview ended with a question about great artists; one of the actors began very intellectually talking about Picasso. "Picasso was such a..." "Philanderer!" Blanchett shouted. They all laughed and went on to Uncle Vanya.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sholom Aleichem Director Does His Job Well; And Almost Nothing Lets 'The Guard' Down

"I loved the film but had one criticism," an audience member at the West End Cinema told director Joseph Dorman following a screening of his new film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,  "I wish you would have put more of his stories in." Dorman smiled. "You know, that's the perpetual decision: what should go in. I wanted to put him in a context and a world. But if my film sends grandparents and grandchildren back to read more of his stories, then I've done my job." The film documents the life of one of the greatest Jewish writers ever, and whose stories the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was based. (So we get some wonderful clips of songs from the Fiddler movie.) Sholom Aleichem wrote a great deal about the little towns - the shtetls - of Eastern Europe. So we get photos of working-class people in these towns and - although it may not have been enough for that one audience member - snippets of his stories. "It took 10 years to make this," said Dorman, a winner of television's prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. "A professor of Yiddish suggested the idea to me." While the West End crowd was a tad on the older side - "Is anyone here under 40?" Dorman asked - he is trying to get the film to younger people, including school children, by developing lesson plans.

"The Guard" sort of snuck up on us this summer. It's a refreshingly original film from Ireland starring the incredibly versatile Brendan Gleeson and the busy Don Cheadle as mismatched investigators looking into a drug ring in western Ireland. The writer/director is John Michael McDonough, brother of the playwright Martin. Talk about talent in one family. The film is not afraid to show the many faults in Gleeson's character but then also shows the traits that really attract us - the way he treats his dying mother, refusing to take the payoff money that everyone else thinks is standard and drinking many Guinnesses. This is a film where the ruthless criminals ride in the car talking about Dylan Thomas and the beauty of Wales. The killer contemplates if he is a psychopath or a sociopath finally deciding that there's not much difference.  The policeman who gets killed turns out to be gay, which makes no difference except that his pretty Croatian wife can perhaps hook up with Gleeson's character in the sequel. Given the way the last Bourne film ended, I think McDonough didn't feel a need to have his character emerge from the water. I won't say any more.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Clybourne Park Is Still a Neighborhood You Definitely Want to Spend a Couple Hours in

Woolly Mammoth has brought back the revelatory and elegant Clybourne Park and it is even better than it was last year - this due to the comfort of the actors in their roles. The stage is again set up with people sitting everywhere - in the balcony, on the sides, behind the stage (my friend thought there was a mirror) and most importantly in the upstairs room of the house on stage. One young man sits there thinking, moving a bit. We'll soon learn he's an important part of the play, not given any lines, but the "cause" in a cause-and-effect play that examines not just race relations but the way people talk to each other.

Winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for theater, Clybourne Park takes a brilliant conceit and runs with it. Where Tom Stoppard's Arcadia went back forth across 200 years to solve a mystery, Clybourne Park shows two acts 50 years apart to perpetuate a mystery: Why can't we still talk to each other without our preconceptions? The play takes the Chicago neighborhood where the Youngers of "A Raisin in the Sun" were hoping to get to and, in 1959, shows how the white neighbors react to a black family moving in. That family is not present but might as well be because the white family's maid and her husband are. Even one of the characters, Karl Lindner, who fights the move in Raisin, shows up here. Then in the second act, we move to 2009 when a white family wants to move into what is now a mostly black neighborhood. The black family now represents the neighborhood, and with a couple real estate people present, the situation quickly deteriorates into racial jokes and defensive mechanisms. Writing in The New Yorker last year about a concurrent Off-Broadway production, the wonderful writer John Lahr calls the second act "a dance of civility" turned into "a fracas of fulmination." Acting-wise, for me, Mitchell Hebert as Russ and Dawn Ursula as Francine continue to stand out, but there doesn't seem to be a wrong note. Go see it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

'Another Earth' Happily Brings Marling and Good Story to the Screen

A resplendent Brit Marling appeared as the lights went up - along with director MIke Cahill - following the premier DC screening of her new film, Another Earth. The two are graduates of Georgetown University and told the packed neighborhood audience that it was a pleasure to be back home with such a great project. The film, which opens Friday in Washington, is about the discovery a parallel Earth with all the same people, and a tragic accident between Marling's character and the family of an architect. Cahill and Marling wrote the script and ask questions like, "Can you undo your mistakes?" Is true love contrived if the path to is disguised? "We started with the idea of what it would be like to meet yourself," Starling said. "And then tried to work backwards."
I've heard several writers talk about a similar process, foremost John Irving who told a mesmerized crowd a few years ago, also at Georgetown, about working backwards for his novels "A Son of the Circus" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Cahill complimented Marling for her work, saying how much of the film is just shots of her face. Cahill tells a good story in the film. The sci-fi aspects are low-budget but convey the ideas they are looking for. The ending feels right and not contrived - no doubt evidence that they had this ending first. I recommend the film and Marling, who got written up yesterday in the Washington Post and just may be the new It Girl. As a writer, she may stay around for a while.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Set Your Scope on Venus in Fur at Arena

I'd like to declare that there's a new hit play in Washington. David Ives is certainly one of the leading playwrights around today. We are lucky in Washington to have seen his adaptation of The Liar - now in New York - that featured an amazing rhyming scheme. His collection of short one acts, All in the Timing, has also played recently. I love the Groundhog Day-ish episode of the two people having a first dinner date and then the buzzer sounding any time someone says something that the other person doesn't like. It's incredibly funny. Venus in Fur played in New York a couple years ago but I don't remember any huge buzz. However, when I went back and looked at a couple reviews, they very good. Well, the play just fits Studio Theatre perfectly and the two actors are also perfect. In fact, I think Erica Sullivan will be competing against Jenny Jules (now in the amazing Ruined at Arena Stage) for the next Helen Hayes award. She's amazing as an actress trying out for a role in a racy play in front of the guy who adapted it. Christian Conn doesn't have to quite show the range that Sullivan does, but he does have some hurdles to conquer. He has to be a bit likeable although his play and his morals may not be. But the play succeeds because of wonderful writing, and that's Ives. Two people talking for 90 minutes is not easy, but the dialogue flows so easily as Sullivan keeps us guessing with her many guises, and we don't know quite know what to make of Conn. Please don't miss this play!  The audience stood up immediately after the play ended when I went, and you don't see that very often. Incredible work.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fire and Ice in Reston Is Worth a Visit

I don't think that I have previously told you to head to the Greater Reston Arts Center - or GRACE as it is known - in this space, but I am now. The Reston Art Show is this coming weekend - May 21 and 22 - so that's a perfect time to see what might be the best thing there.  An art installation by Heidi Neff that is really spectacular in its scope, vision and beauty. She calls it Fire and Ice, inspired by the Robert Frost poem that goes like this:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The piece is about 8 feet high, 17 feet long and six feet wide. It contains 8 huge panels that divide into 98 separate drawings of conservatives (in ice) and liberals (in fire) and ceilings that remind one of the great ceilings of Italy. Why not 100 panels, someone asked Neff. Who's counting, she said. This seemed right and indeed it does. It will show until June 10.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Bang Bang Club Gives Good Take on War Photographers

In another lesson of, "don't listen to reviews," our Art House Meetup group went to see The Bang Bang Club on Saturday night at the West End Cinema where it continues this week. It's an extraordinary film, mostly because it's based on the true story of a group of photographers in South Africa in the last years before Mandela was elected president. These four guys do everything with style, flair, crazy courage and talent. Two of them win Pulitzer Prizes, and inevitably bad things happen from the risks they take. I think some of the criticism of the film has come from the parts where they go out drinking and show another side, but it seemed pretty reasonable considering the violence they preactically run into on a daily basis. Also I read that the timing was bad considering the death of photographer/director Tim Hetherington in Libya last week. I think that timing makes it a bit body-tingling; the stuff these photographers do in war scenes is real - and crazy.
It's beautifully filmed with some too-real-to-believe riot scenes. As some fact-based films have done lately, it shows us real photos at the end of the people and some events, and it sure looks like a lot did happen close to the way it's shown. Ryan Philippe does well in the lead role, able to portray enough vulnerability and humanity to go along with the craziness. Josh told us that the co-author of the book, Greg Marinovich, was in Washingtopn last week to visit the other co-author, Joao Silva, who was seriously injured in Afghanistan and is now at Walter Reed Hospital. Without notice, Marinovich visited the West End Cinema. It's a shame he couldn't have done a talk. Also a shame that the DC Film Festival could not have landed this film for opening night - with writer/director Steven Silver, Phillippe and Marinovich - instead of the awful Potiche - with nobody. That would have been amazing and I'm sure the Canadian Embassy would have gotten involved. (Many Canadian groups are thanked in the credits.)
Try to see this film if you can. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ruined Continues Arena's Banner Season

I was talking to a friend the other day about the woeful DC Film Festival which has quietly come and gone once again - Potiche on opening night? Please! - and he commented: they didn't even have any films from Africa; there are so many great stories there. Luckily, theater in town has picked up where film (or one festival) has dropped off. Ruined, which just began a couple-month run at Arena Stage, takes you into places - geographically and of the heart - that you don't go very often. Playwright Lynn Nottage won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for this emotionally intense, lyrical and entertaining play about a brothel in the Congo during Civil War strife. She conducted numerous interviews with women there to see the toll war took on them. That she's able to dramatize this in such a realistic yet pleasing way is incredible.
The audience stood and cheered follow Sunday night's performance. Particularly brilliant in the cast are lead Jenny Jules, Rachael Holmes (who was also superb this season at Studio in "Marcus"), Jamairais Malone (from Rutgers, my alma mater!) and all the incredible musicians who add vibrancy to this amazing mix. Yes, there are scenes of pure music and joy that fit well into the evening That this play works so beautifully should be no surprise given the talent of director Charles Randolph-Wright. His Sophisticated Ladies soared at the Lincoln for Arena last year, as did his Guys and Dolls a few years before that.
(Side note: We are also very fortunate to have the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, Clybourne Park, returning to the area this summer (Woolly Mammoth). Washington theater has certainly taken an upturn of late.)
Make your way to see Ruined.

Friday, April 22, 2011

AU Katzen Reception and a Couple Interesting Films to Catch Before They Disappear

American University's Katzen Center may be the perfect place for a partly rainy day tomorrow evening as they hold their MFA Thesis Reception for Graduate Art Students. Join the American University Museum, Department of Art, and MFA Thesis Students in celebrating the opening of their Spring Thesis Exhibitions.  This sounds like a good vibe to me.  And with free underground parking, what's not to love?

As for films this weekend, the Cinema West End has brought back Certified Copy, a very interesting film from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarastomi. Juliette Binoche gives one of her finest performances. Three excellent movies are playing at E Street: Win Win, Bill Cunningham New York (more on that one tomorrow) and Nostalgia for the Light. My meetup group saw Nostalgia a few weeks ago at the National Gallery and was blown away by the scenery in the Atacama Desert in Chile and the powerful stories of the Chilean people. The director is able to combine the astronomy taking place there with the horrific memories of the Pinochet era.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easing the Old Quarter Life Crisis

I don't usually go out at 9:30 pm on a school night. I may stay out past that time but usually once I'm home past 8 or so I'm home for good. Last Thursday night was an exception. I headed to the 10 pm showing of the film Happythankyoumoreplease at E Street because it was apparently the last time that this area will get to see this well-done film with a great soundtrack in a theater setting. Because now it seems to be gone - one can only hope that the Avalon's small upstairs theatre or Josh at West End might resurrect it. As I went to buy a ticket, the marquee said HTYMP or something like that, so that's what I asked the 20-something attendant for a ticket for. She looked at me funny and said it sounded like a porn thing or something. She laughed.
"Is it good?" I asked.
"Oh yes, very good. It portrays the quarter-life crisis in excellent detail."
"The what?" I asked.
"The quarter life crisis."
"There is such a thing?"
"I've been looking for a [full-time] job for six months now. Yes, there is one."
So the biggest problem with this movie might be the title. Who came up with that? I would guess the writer/director/star Josh Radnor, but someone should have got him to change it. Anyway, it's an intelligent movie about a group of quarter-life friends with one contrivance that it takes a little getting past. (He does a good deed by stepping in to help a 10-year-old boy who is lost and abandoned on the subway. But then he kind of keeps him as a Little Brother.)
Otherwise, the relationships that this movie draws up are very believable and sometimes even poignant as is the case with his friend Annie. His love interest is named Kate Mara, and she is everything that Gwyneth Paltrow used to be before she became what she is now. Mara sings the last song of a  really cool soundtrack - it's a departure from the indie folk stuff that we've heard up until then. It's Sing Happy by Kander and Ebb of Cabaret fame and it knocked my cotton socks off.
I will let you know when this film is available to see either in a theater or on rental. And when the nice quarter-life woman at the boxc office gets a real job. As much as I like the film, I hope she comes first.  

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Look Outside Your Window: Phil Ochs Documentary Is a Must-See Film

"Anybody could be Dylan. Ochs' songs were for those who cared." That's one of the quotes describing Phil Ochs (pronounced Oaks) in Kenneth Bowser's terrific documentary, "Phil Ochs: There But for the Fortune" - currently playing at the Avalon after a nice run at the West End. (My apologies to Josh there for my not taking a group to see this.) Like the great documentary film "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" which I also saw at the Avalon's upstairs theater, this film chronicles the '60s in all its war and tragic pieces. What a different world it was!  I knew of Phil Ochs because of an older brother who played his music, especially the wonderfully evocative "Outside a Small Circle of Friends." Hear it in this clip.

But he was best known for his protest songs, beautifully written from stories in the newspapers.  It's worth it to see this film just for the history lesson we get of the '60s. To go from the excitement of John Kennedy to his assassination and then to the start of the Vietnam War followed by the amazing passion and bravery of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy to their deaths. Oh my gosh!  Even to see them fall today is heartbreaking; they were so young!  And then ending the decade with Richard Nixon! Young people stood up for what they believed in - and foremost among these was Ochs.
We get interviews with the people who knew him, from family to Joan Baez, Christopher Hitchens, Pete Seegera and Tom Hayden, and finally to an admirer Sean Penn. With his music always playing in the background, we hear I Ain't Marching Anymore, The War Is Over, The Ringing of Revolution, What Are You Waiting For? They wouldn't give permits for protest concerts at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago but Ochs came anyway and just set up makeshift concerts on the street.
One poignant interview toward the end of the film with his daughter said that he would be pleased that his music is still relevant but not pleased that we're still fighting so many of the same battles (unnecessary wars). Unfortunately, Ochs started drinking, became very unstable and committed suicide at age 35. This film is riveting and should be seen by adults and teenagers alike.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Photograph 51 at Theater J

A Rare 'Photo' at Theater J
Theater J's engaging and well-acted new play, Photograph 51, opened Monday night. It's a fine production about a relatively unknown subject. Rosalind Franklin was a famous scientist who lived too short and never got the attention she deserved. In 1953, she arranged a transfer to JD Bernal's crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College in London. She focused on the structure of plant viruses, working with (and providing the key photograph for) a group of men, one of whom, Maurice Wilkins, went on to win a Nobel Prize. The play's 90 minutes move briskly as all performers stay on the stage and leave it to the lighting to give them the spotlight. Theater J is on quite a roll these days. I attended their production of The Chosen at Arena Stage on Sunday night and all 680 seats were sold!  Head man Ari Roth is now a professor so students show up at many of his performances, and he's always a friendly presence - even the night I saw the play, when he had to speaking knowing that a close friend, playwright Lanford Wilson, had died earlier that day.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Edward Albee's Talk at Georgetown University Last Night Delivers as He Recalls a Breakfast at Tiffany's Musical and the Fourth Great American Playwright

"Anything that isn't filled with ambiguity is missing something."
- Edward Albee, March 24, 2011

Seeing and hearing the great playwright Edward Albee speak at Georgetown University's glorious Gaston Hall yesterday evening was a rare pleasure. The occasion was the opening of this weekend's long-time-in-the-planning Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival. Albee and NPR's Susan Stamberg spoke for a little more than an hour, about Albee's classic creation "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (currently enjoying a fine production at Arena Stage - 1/2-price tickets at Goldstar), other Albee plays and the works of Williams, whom Albee said he met a couple times at a cocktail party here and there (probably around Central Park in New York, he said). He said he especially recalled meeting Williams' sister Rose whom he recalled as quite nice. Blanche in Streetcar is supposed to be based partly on Rose, though Albee did speak about how every plawright must become the character he or she is writing. That's part of the process - so when he was young he would imagine old, "and now I try to remember being young." Asked by Stamberg if any actor has surprised him in one of his plays, he paused and looked at the audience as if, "Yes, I have something important to say on this." He then specifically complimented Amy Morton (though he needed the audience to prompt his name), who is playing Martha in Virginia Woolf at Arena. He said she read the character of Tobias in the Pulitzer-winning "A Delicate Balance" during Arena's current Festival where every one of his plays is being read. He then begged her to play Tobias in a production somewhere, quite a compliment to a part that has featured actors such as Hume Cronyn and George Grizzard (whom I saw on Broadway). Interestingly, Albee was asked how many of these readings he has seen in person and he mentioned just one other play, "The Man Who Had Three Arms," which opened and closed quickly on Broadway but he has a special place for. (I was at Arena that night seeing Virginia Woolf and was told Albee was in the house.)

Stamberg asked about Elizabeth Taylor who died this week and famously played Martha in Mike Nichols' film version of Virginia Woolf (with Richard Burton). Albee said she was a "hoot" and did a good job in the film, trying to look and act "middle-aged" as she was only 32 at the time and the part was written for a 52-year-old woman. George is supposed to be younger than Martha and was played by Burton, who was 52 at the time. Albee recalled his initial conversation with producer Jack Warner in Hollywood, when he was told that James Mason and Bette Davis would be playing the lead characters. Albee was more than fine with this casting - which would have been age appropriate - riffing that he would have especially wanted to see Davis playing Martha imitating Bette Davis early in the first act, with the well-known line, "What a dump." He also commented on seeing Kathleen Turner read Martha at a recent benefit. She played the character in a Broadway and Kennedy Center run about five years ago with the great Bill Irwin. (Did anyone see his "Fool Moon"? What a delight!) Albee could not help but say that Turner makes a slight mistake in her Martha. "Funny, she did the same thing on Broadway," he recalled.

This kind of spontanaeity is what makes the just-turned 83-year-old such a delight. He also told a story about being called by the legendary producer David Merrick in the mid '60s to come to Boston and try to fix the pre-Broadway musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" called "Holly Go-Lightly." For real. "I liked Truman's [Capote] novel," Albee said, "and had no idea what I was doing so I decided to give it a shot." He said that, fortunately, it never opened on Broadway so he could not be taken apart by the critics - although "if I had two more weeks, I think I could have saved it." Reading a TBD piece this week by Maura Judkis, I see that Mary Tyler Moore was the star of that production - Albee did not mention that yesterday. (To quote Judkis's piece: “He transformed our lighthearted musical into a dark and rather gloomy semiopera,” actor Richard Chamberlain, who starred opposite Moore as the writer Jeff, wrote of Albee...“I had never known professional failure before and I was stunned and heartbroken... The audience yelled back at the stage during performances, before walking out.” He continued: “In theater, there is something called magic. Sometimes it arrives, sometimes it doesn’t. It definitely didn’t arrive at Tiffany’s.” Wow, she even links to Chamberlain's website where he has actual video of the production!)

Lastly, Albee had some great words when asked if he ever worked with the famous director Elia Kazan (who testified to Congress against artists during the Communist era), who was known for adding his own words to plays: Albee said no and yelled what he would have said if he had, "Write your own f***in' play, Elia!" Albee said that his copyrights say that nothing can be changed in his texts and he is adamant on this. Asked if he ever goes back to change anything, he said no. "I was a different person when I wrote that [a play from 20 years ago]. And as I said, no one should change the works." Unprompted, he also said that when the inevitable lists of the great dead American playwrights come up - O'Neill, Williams and Miller - there is a glaring omission: Thornton Wilder. He called "Our Town" and "Skin or Our Teeth" masterpieces and mentioned last year's memorable Off Broadway production of Our Town and bringing the play back to its deserved place. (This is one reason that I cringe when I hear of Washingtonians going up to New York and only seeing the much-publicized Broadway productions. Much of the great stuff happening is Off Broadway - Part of this problem is that the Post's Peter Marks loves to go to Broadway - today again is a review of a new Broadway musical when there is SO MUCH here in Washington.  I will try to give notices of Off Broadway stuff in the future. That Our Town production did indeed make you feel that you were watching a great theatrical event, down to the smell of bacon wafting up in the last act.) "I don't think they [O'Neill, Miller and Williams] would mind us talking about them," Albee said with a wink that I could see even from the balcony. Oh, I didn't event mention that three short performances were interspersed with Albee's interview. The incredible Albee actress Kathleen Chalfant read from Williams' Camino Real, students did a more than credible job with a scene from Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, and my favorite Washington actor, Rick Foucheux, teamed with Susan Lynskey in a beautiful and haunting scene between Mitch and Blanche in Streetcar. What poetry! I do not recall magic in that scene in last season's Cate Blanchett Streetcar at KenCen.

Try to get to Virginia Woolf at Arena and certainly one of the productions at Georgetown this weekend - many of which are free (including an interview with Christopher Durang Sunday). We are very privileged to be at the center of all this amazing theater!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We're back! Daisey Dukes It Out With Jobs - and Other Upcoming Events in the Week!

There seems no better time to get back to this blog than another Mike Daisey show at Woolly Mammoth. Got back last night from the second preview performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a near-two-hour monologue created and performed by Daisey. Go see it. I'm not a techie but I could easily identify with his takes on our digitalized, world-in-our-pockets, Steve-Jobs-ruled world. Just his take on PowerPoint alone - I don't want to spoil it - made me laugh enough to make an awful day seem better. (Or perhaps getting hacked in the morning made me appreciate this more.)
What makes Daisey so good at this is good writing and good acting. The character onstage may come out of himself, but it is still a character: he talks a bit like Kramer (the shouting), looks a bit like Newman (absolutely part of the persona), and has the wit of Seinfeld himself, the cynicism of George and the willingness to push back hard like Elaine. And he weaves quite a story, three parts a trip to China and three parts the rise, fall and rise of guess who. Reviews will soon come out and then the engagement through April 17 will quickly sell out. (They do sell nicely priced standing room when they sell out a show.) Enjoy.

I will always give try to coming attractions in this space, and anyone who is part of The Art House meetup knows that we post some good events. But I can't post everything there.
- The wondrous Environmental Film Festival has a few days to go. Some highlights - tonight, my bike club friend and excellent writer/director Laura Seltzer's The Last Boat Out; Into the Cold has a free reception after (no reservations needed); and I saw Olmstead and America's Urban Park on PBS recently and it is very interesting and well done. On Thursday see the U.S. premiere of Planeat, preceded by Truck Farm. On Friday check out Sun Come Up, a 2011 Academy Award nominee in documentary short film, it follows the relocation of some of earth's first climate refugees, the Cartaret Islanders of the South Pacific, whose home is threatened by rising seas, with filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn.
- The Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival starts in full force at Georgetown University on Thursday with an onstage conversation with one of the world's great playwrights, Edward Albee. It's free but you need to reserve tickets. The catch is this events begins at 5. I will be there. (I believe a free reception follows.) Check out the whole Festival here; about half the events are free. I recommend Sunday's free talk with the very funny playwright Christopher Durang and Saturday afternoon's theater piece (it's part of their Glass Menagerie Project).
- On Monday, the Synagogue at 6th and I is hosting an Irish/Israeli music group called Evergreen. Also free (but requires reservations) and it sounds exciting.  See you there!