Friday, October 31, 2014

Broadway Review—Sting's Musical "The Last Ship"

The Last Ship
Music & lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan & Brian Yorkey
Directed by Joe Mantello
Performances began September 29, 2014
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY
thelastship.com

The Last Ship (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sting's best solo album, 1991's The Soul Cages, was crammed with his most personal songs, referencing his life growing up in England's shipbuilding region and taking the measure of his grief and anger over his father's death. The opener, "Island of Souls," a lyrically elegant dirge, distills— in a mere six-plus minutes—the plot of Sting's new Broadway musical The Last Ship, about a young man who returns to his small seaside hometown after years on the ocean.

The concise, powerful imagery of "Island of Souls" echoes throughout the 2-1/2 hour The Last Ship which, though superbly staged and acted—the show might even provoke a tear or two from its audience's eyes—has little sense of real drama, let alone tragedy, while the title ship is built; instead it hits on every imaginable dramatic cliche.

Unsurprisingly, the haunting "Island of Souls" opens the show, its lyrics changed, as it introduces Gideon Fletcher—not Billy as in the original song—as the hero. Sting's own hometown Wallsend is the setting for the tired plot that's been concocted by book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Gideon (the sympathetic Michael Esper) comes back home from his 15 years at sea and expects both his father Joe (a ship riveter who disowned Gideon when he left) and his first love Meg (the lively, lissome Rachel Tucker) to remain where he left them so long ago. But he's too late: Dad recently died and Meg has a teenage son Tom (the scrappy Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and a lover, Arthur (the strong-voiced Aaron Lazar), the only smart local working to salvage scrap from the town's beloved—but shuttered—shipyard. 

The rest of the men, now unemployed, spend their time drinking in the pub where Meg works and bemoaning their fate: cheaper labor in Asia has made them expendable. Leave it to jolly old Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate, having great fun with the cliched drunken Irish priest character) to have an idea—and the capital—for the men to take over the yard to build one last ship, which will be launched....but to where? This naggingly important question is never answered, making The Last Ship more heavily symbolic than it need be and keeping it from reaching its tragic-dramatic potential.

David Zinn's set, comprising the shipyard's dingy steel girders and catwalks, bleeds authenticity, but since other shows have used these visuals it seems instantly passe, however harrowingly lit by the talented Christopher Akerlind. Joe Mantello's direction provides as much variety as one can squeeze out of a show set in a shipyard and a pub, while Stephen Hoggett's repetitive choreography, consisting of his increasingly familiar odd gestures and foot-stomping, is indistinguishable from his work on the musical Once.

Sting's new songs, dragged down by a certain sameness on his own recording last year, are enthusiastically fleshed out onstage by the rock-steady cast and Rob Mathes' striking arrangements; still, the four older Sting tunes ("Island of Souls," "All This Time," "When We Dance" and "Ghost Story") are far superior to the batch composed for the show. 

The Last Ship is a worthy, serious musical—no Disneyfied Synchronicity The Jukebox Musical for Sting—but it's also been torpedoed by its book of banalities.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Begin Again 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
In John Carney's belated follow-up to his overrated romance Once, Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley totally outclass their material as a washed-up music exec and jilted young singer who hit it off professionally during a song-filled Manhattan summer. The indefatigable Ruffalo and ultra-charming Knightley (and tremendously affecting Hailee Steinfeld as Ruffalo's teenage daughter) partly compensate for a cutesy premise, Carney's cheesy melodramatics and lifeless Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine as a pop star who dumps Knightley. The authentic New York location shooting—the movie's most salient feature—looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras are a making-of featurette and music videos.

Death Comes to Pemberley 
(PBS)
Miss Marple—Volume One 
(BBC)
The three-hour mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley is a slow-moving adaptation of P.D. James's clever mystery novel based on the characters in Pride and Prejudice; despite ravishing costumes and locations and a fine cast led by Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, Death unfortunately founders. The first Blu-ray release of Miss Marple, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's sleuth, features four one-hour episodes that showcase Joan Hickson's low-key but witty performance as the no-nonsense detective. Both shows look OK on hi-def; Marple extras are a featurette and A Very British Murder, Part 1, the beginning of a three-part series about British interest in murder mysteries.

Moebius 
(Ram)
South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk's grandiosely yucky horror movie follows a family dragged into depravity and possible insanity after the actions of a philandering father and vengeful mother. In a movie with no dialogue, it becomes absurd after awhile that absolutely no one would be talking about what is going on, especially as it escalates further into outright lunacy. Under the creepy circumstances, actress Lee Eun-Woo—who plays the grandmother, the mother and the father's and teenage son's lover—deserves some kind of medal for bravery. The Blu-ray transfer is top-notch; extras comprise interviews and a post-premiere Q&A.

The Vanishing 
(Criterion)
George Sluizer's unnerving 1988 chiller is one of the scariest movies ever made, and that it's done with such an economy of means—nary a drop of blood is spilled, and the horrifying ending leaves one shaken for awhile afterward—is a testament to the director's artistry. (That his own misguided 1993 American remake had an absurdly happy ending tacked on, proves that.) On Criterion's Blu-ray release, the film looks better than ever; extras comprise interviews with Sluizer (who recently died) and actress Johanna ter Steege, whose memorable—if necessarily brief—debut this was.

Whitey—United States of America vs. James J. Bulger 
(Magnolia)
In his latest revealing documentary, director Joe Berlinger recounts how the FBI made Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger into an informant, in the process allowing him to kill or have killed whomever he wanted without any blowback: he always had cover thanks to his relationships with certain agents. For decades, Bulger terrorized Boston neighborhoods, offing dozens of mostly innocent people, and Berlinger makes a compelling (and scary) case that the government is as guilty of his crimes as he is. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras include deleted scenes and Sundance Film Festival interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Behaving Badly 
(Vertical)
In director Tim Garrick's raunchy misadaptation of Ric Browde's book While I'm Dead...Feed the Dog (written by Garrick and Scott Russell), teenager Rick Stevens must juggle dealing with an alcoholic mother, his best friend's horny mom, the hot classmate he wants to date and her angry ex-boyfriend, among others. Although it's hit or miss all the way, parts of it are very funny, and there are finely tuned comic performances by Natt Wolff as Rick, Mary Louise Parker as his mom, a still gorgeous Elisabeth Shue as his friend's sexy mom and Selena Gomez as the girl of his dreams.  

Cannibal 
(Film Movement)
Do we really need a movie about a respected tailor named Carlos who kills unsuspecting women and eats them, only to find himself falling for Nina, sister of a woman whom he killed and ate earlier? The answer is not really, even if actors Antonio de la Torre (Carlos) and Olimpia Melinte (Nina) make their bizarre characters semi-believable. The problem is that despite director Manuel Martin Cuenca keeping actual gore to a minimum, his premise itself is so grisly that no matter how well done—or, more likely, despite that—Cannibal can't shake a nagging feeling of an unholy alliance between elegant filmmaking and ugly plotting. Lone extra is Ogre, a French short.

Level Five
On Strike! 
(Icarus)
Avant-garde French director Chris Marker (who died in 2012 at age 91) made Level Five in 1996, a typically playful but dense sci-fi film that both predates and anticipates the digital and virtual culture we've since become accustomed to. Far more interesting, however, is On Strike!, a compilation of  two documentaries, 1968's Be Seeing You, chronicling a French strike and factory takeover, and 1969's Class of Struggle, a portrait of a young woman at a watch factory and her own radicalization. The lone extra, La Charniere, is a 13-minute audio recording of a post-screening debate among the workers shown in Be Seeing You. 

Mona Lisa Is Missing 
(Midair Rose)
When Vincenzo Peruggia stole the "Mona Lisa" from the Louvre in 1911, he kept it hidden in plain sight for over two years before it was finally seized when he attempted to sell it to Italian authorities hoping to return it to what he thought was its homeland, as director Joe Medeiros shows in his highly entertaining, often lighthearted look at the theft and its aftermath. A surprising amount of extras include 12 featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, an alternate ending and a director's commentary that's as fun as the movie itself.

The Wild Geese 
(Severin)
This uneven 1978 action flick stars Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger as semi-retired mercenaries who get back together to train a band of commandos to go into an unnamed African country to spring a corrupt leader from jail. Director Andrew V. McLaglen does the bare minimum, falling back on lazy scriptwriting (by Reginald Rose) and acting that could charitably be called competent. There's occasional bloody fun (in both senses), but two-plus hours is far too long for such meager dramatics. Extras include audio commentary with Moore, McLaglen interview and featurettes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

2014 New York Film Festival Wrap-up

New York Film Festival 
September 26-October 12, 2014
Film Society of Lincoln Center
New York, NY
filmlinc.com

The Wonders
Despite the big-name directors whose new films were unveiled at the 52nd New York Film Festival—David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Mike Leigh, John Boorman—I was most looking forward to seeing The Wonders (no distributor), the sophomore feature by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, whose stunning debut, Corpo Celeste, was a highlight of the 2011 Festival. 

However, Rohrwacher's explicitly autobiographical new film is almost inevitably a letdown after her enormously affecting first feature: Rohrwacher grew up in a bilingual household with a German father and Italian mother (played here by Alice's sister Alba Rohrwacher, last seen in Marco Bellochio's dazzling Dormant Beauty), and the eldest of film's four children, a 12-year-old daughter, is likely the director's self-portrait. But, despite its probing intelligence and haunting performances, too much of the film is given over to a bizarre reality TV show, which pits local families against one another for prizes, and a too obviously metaphoric subplot about a delinquent German boy who comes to live with the family. A near-constant, Felliniesque parade of freaks elbows its way into an otherwise lively and refreshing small town milieu, Satyricon uneasily grafted onto I Vitelloni.  

Mia Hanson-Love's first three films are intensely intimate studies of relationships, reaching their apogee with 2011's Goodbye, First Love; too bad she jettisoned her strengths to make Eden (opens Spring 2015), a shallow, monotonous exploration of the '90s garage rave scene, in which a fictional DJ duo rubs shoulders with Daft Punk, if you please. The movie's unflattering protagonist, Paul, treats every woman in his life—starting with his mother—abominably; Hanson-Love was obviously influenced by her brother Sven, who co-wrote the script but I hope is not the model for Paul. There are interesting recreations of the Paris and New York rave scenes, but Eden criminally wastes the usually terrific Laura Smet and allows Greta Gerwig to give a scandalous non-performance in a pivotal role.

In Two Days, One Night (opens Dec. 24), chameleon Marion Cotillard impressively plays a harried woman who keeps her dignity as she visits her coworkers' homes to ask that they vote to save her job instead of to selfishly get a bonus. Belgium's Dardenne brothers follow their usual strict moral code, but their premise is flawed, or at least how they dramatize it: if such a small company allows its workers to choose between a bonus and an employee, how exactly does it work? Is it a one-time-only bonus? (One worker's salary is a lot more than the 1000-euro bonus all the other employees would receive.) That aside, the narrative does have a sense of urgency, not just because Cotillard has only the title time frame in which to save her job, but because the actress once again lays bare unvarnished emotional truths in every gesture, however miniscule. 

The Blue Room
For his latest directorial effort, French actor Mathieu Amalric daringly adapts The Blue Room (now playing), a novel by the great Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon: his tense, nail-biting thriller is all the more remarkable for what's crammed into a 76-minute running time. Amalric plays a devoted father and husband having an affair with an old flame: when their spouses meet untimely ends, suspicion naturally falls on the adulterous couple. As in the book, Amalric avoids linear plot progression to enter his character's confused mindset: is he culpable or merely a dupe? The movie is a study in careful visual and narrative compression—the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1 greatly helps—rendering our anti-hero incapable of escaping the net he's in. There's sublime acting by Amalric, his real-life paramour (and cowriter) Stephanie Cleau as the fellow adulterer and Lea Drucker as his wife, and a brittle chamber orchestra score by Gregoire Hetzel, which adroitly gives way (at the chilling ending) to a perfectly chosen Bach-Busoni piano piece.

The New York Review of Books, one of our most venerable literary institutions, was born in 1963 when Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein decided that The New York Times book reviews were lacking. Over the next half-century, the journal has gone from primarily book reviews to rarely book reviews, but it has remained among the most intellectually rigorous literary journals. The 50-Year Argument (on HBO), directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi's paean to the Review, includes interviews with many of its contributors, along with editor Epstein (she died in 2006), but if this 90-minute documentary doesn't deeply analyze its intellectual arguments from Vietnam to the War on Terror, it is second to none as an historical glimpse at an important era in our country's intellectual history.

For his first foray into comedy, L'il Quinquin (opens Jan. 2), French director Bruno Dumont retains his usual milieu of a seaside town in Northern France to explore tough-minded characters in a brutal, heartless world. The blackness of his previous work remains, but it's pitched toward bitter humor instead of bitterly humorless drama. Dumont's borderline inept sheriff (played by a game Bernard Bruvost) has so many facial tics and twitches that the character goes beyond parody, while the eponymous title kid busies himself by chasing foreign kids with his equally blockheaded friends, yelling racist epithets at them as they do so: young Alane Delhaye—who, with his hearing aid, looks like an old bald man—makes an utterly persuasive and charismatic Quinquin. Originally a four-part mini-series for French TV, the 200-minute film has its lulls, but its bizarrely humorous moments—centered around the story's mysterious murders which, for all the time they take up, are essentially MacGuffins—hint at a new direction for the usually dour director.

Considering its prestigious Opening Night slot, I hoped that David Fincher could elevate Gillian Flynn's trashy novel Gone Girl (now playing), but working from her equally trashy screenplay gets the best of him: this glossy but uninvolving  2-1/2 hour adaptation of one of the least deserving bestsellers in recent years is as close to a hack job as Fincher has ever made. There's a choppiness and lack of rhythm that's shocking coming from Fincher, whose Zodiac is a textbook example of how to pace a slow-moving story. Flynn's satirical targets are obvious—blueblood New Yorkers, moronic Midwesterners, white trailer trash, the media, fatuous TV hosts, ambulance-chasing lawyers—and Fincher indulges her so much that the movie quickly becomes tiresome. There's a lone moment of effective, substantive filmmaking in a brief shot of the accused husband's bar overrun with patrons now that he's a notorious possible wife-murderer. But the very casting is ineffectual: Ben Affleck's chiseled jaw and Rosamund Pike's ice-queen look don't make their acting any better; only Carrie Coon gives a fully realized performance as Ben's twin sister. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's hackneyed music sounds at times like Penderecki outtakes from The Shining. But that's as close as Fincher comes to Kubrick the master, who would have made a far more potent film than this. 

With Tales of the Grim Sleeper (on HBO in 2015), his first film in the New York Film Festival since 1993's Aileen Wuornos documentary, intrepid director Nick Broomfield canvases the streets of south central L.A. to probe the strange case of the "grim sleeper" who was arrested by the LAPD in 2010 for the serial killings of 10 women since the mid-80s—but there may have been dozens, or even hundreds, more. Broomfield keeps his well-earned goofball persona on ice for the most part, but his outsider status in South Central allows him to talk to those who knew the accused—friends, women who survived encounters with him, even his own son—none of whom spoke with (or were even approached by) the police. Guiding Broomfield and his son, cinematographer Barney Broomfield, through a never-ending maze is former hooker/crack addict/"Grim Sleeper" survivor Pam Brooks, an amazing character in her own right. Brooks is another example of how Broomfield's methodology works: diving headfirst into a story, he often surfaces miles from where he entered, which is what makes his documentaries unique—they often go off on tangents that end up as important as his ostensible main subject. 

In The Clouds of Sils Maria (opens Spring 2015), Olivier Assayas' least memorable film since 2007's Boarding Gate, the usually luminous Juliette Binoche is self-consciously mannered as an actress returning to the stage play with which she made her mark two decades earlier, playing the older woman opposite a volatile young superstar actress (the always intriguing Chloe Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart looks lost in a thankless role as Binoche's assistant; her appearance is, sadly, solely a study in the vintage T-shirts her character wears. Assayas moves his camera with characteristic fluidity, although the endless shots of the Alps (where the film was shot, beautifully, by Lorick Le Saux) do little but provide an unnecessary metaphor for the movie, its morose leading lady and the pretentious play she's stuck in.

Life of Riley
For his final film, Life of Riley (opens Oct. 24), Alain Resnais—who died in March at 91—unveils another puckishly illuminating adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play (after Smoking; No Smoking; and Coeurs): it's amazing how well the sensibilities of the French filmmaker and the British playwright mesh. In his version of Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy of manners about three couples and their adulterous travails, Resnais utilizes comic-strip backdrops, stylized sets and exaggerated performances from his cast (including regulars like his wife Sabine Azema and old friend Andre Dussolier, both too old for the characters they're playing) for this lovely valentine to art and humanity from a master at the top of his game. Fifty-five years after its premiere, the power of Resnais' debut feature Hiroshima Mon Amour (now playing) has not diminished; instead it remains a psychologically penetrating portrait of not only a couple but of a world scarred by and scared of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Brilliantly acted by Emmanuelle Riva, magnificently shot by Sacha Vierny and Mochio Takahashi and exquisitely scored by Georges Deleure and Giocanni Fusco, Resnais' classic has never looked sharper nor more modern than in its new restoration, coming soon to Blu-ray players everywhere.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Deep Purple with Orchestra—Live in Verona 
(Eagle Rock)
For the British hard rockers' 2011 outdoor concert at a gorgeous ancient Roman amphitheater in Verona, Italy, the group—comprising original members Ian Paice (drums), Ian Gillan (vocals) and Roger Glover (bass), with guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey—is abetted by the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt orchestra, led by conductor Stephen Bentley-Klein, which brings a welcome and heavy richness to such Purple tunes as the opening "Highway Star" and "Woman from Tokyo." But the undoubted audience favorites are all-time classics "Perfect Strangers," "Hush" and, of course, "Smoke on the Water." The band is in fine form, and even if Gillan can't hit all the notes, there's still a strength to his singing. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great. Bonuses are encore tracks (why not just have the full concert uninterrupted?).

The Following—Complete 2nd Season 
(Warners)
A year after closing the gruesome case of serial killer Joe Carroll, ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy finds himself once again ensnared in a bizarre and murderous cult of Carroll followers—and could the serial killer himself still be alive? Throughout its 15 high-wire-drama episodes, this dramatic series ratches up the psychological tension, although the implausibilities in plot and characterizations keep this from being better; the cast, by an appropriately stern-faced Kevin Bacon as Hardy, does the best it can. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras comprise deleted scenes, featurettes and an alternate ending to the season finale.

Snowpiercer 
(Anchor Bay)
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's first English language film is a stylishly empty post-apocalyptic dystopia about a future Ice Age where a speeding train holds humanity's survivors, and where a class war is brewing between the haves and have-nots on board. There's not much tautness or excitement in this two-hour adventure, and the direction often allows the pace to slacken, which doesn't help. Also unhelpful are performances that are either wooden (Chris Evans' hero) or hopelessly overwrought (Ed Harris, John Hurt, Alison Pill, a mercilessly mugging Tilda Swinton). On Blu-ray, the movie looks appropriately icy; extras comprise a critics' roundtable commentary, with a second disc of featurettes and interviews.

Supermensch 
(Anchor Bay)
Shep Gordon, the title mensch, took Alice Cooper's career into the stratosphere in the early '70s, then went on to manage stars as diverse as Teddy Pendergrass, Ann Murray and Emeril Lagasse. For director (and good friend) Mike Myers, Shep is one of the friendliest, most honorable people in the world, as multi-millionaires go: his admittedly varied and interesting life encompasses the pop music scene of the '70s and '80s, and tidbits like how he got a wheelchair-bound Pendergrass to perform at Live Aid are the juiciest kind of morsels. The hi-def image looks good; no extras.

Tasting Menu 
(Magnolia)
This lightweight but amiable lark spends 85 minutes in a Catalan restaurant on the night it's shuttering its doors, and the special diners comprise VIPs and ordinary people who get entangled—in an out-of-left-field twist—in an attempt to rescue survivors of a sunken boat that containing the restaurant's musicians and dessert! Director/co-writer Roger Gual and writer Javier Calvo cleverly intertwine the various characters, and the actors from Stephen Rea and Fonanula Flannagan to Claudia Bassols and Marta Torne give it all, making this delicious if ultimately not very filling. The Blu-ray image looks superb; no extras.

DVDs of the Week
Corpus Christi 
(Breaking Glass)
Terrance McNally's play Corpus Christi—about a gay Jesus and apostles—premiered in New York in 1998 with metal detectors and a police presence, so to say it's controversial is an understatement. Nick Arnzen and James Brandon's effective documentary shows how a recent production of the play affects its cast, director, creator and protesters (who of course haven't seen it), giving it life beyond the stage. The play itself is honest and heartfelt, as are the people who discuss its importance in their lives. Extras comprise scenes from the play, deleted scenes and additional interviews.

For a Woman 
(Film Movement)
Diane Kurys—who hasn't been represented stateside since 1999's Children of the Century—wrote and directed this engrossing story of two sisters who find, after their mother's death, what she, their father and his brother did as Russian Jews in Paris during the volatile post-WWII era. Kurys finds a fresh way to tell a familiar story, and her actors, led by Benoit Magimel, Micholas Duvauchelle and Melaine Thierry as a dangerous love triangle, give trenchant performances. A bit of soap opera prevents it being truly first-rate, but it's heartening to see that Kurys still makes interesting and mature films after nearly 40 years. Lone extra is a short French film.

The Last Sentence
(Music Box)
Swedish director Jan Troell—whose most recent masterpiece was Everlasting Moments—usually makes films about real people with a love and understanding of the complications in even the most ordinary of lives. His protagonist in his new film is Torgny Segerstedt, a Swedish journalist who was unafraid to mock Hitler and the Nazis, which placed his reputation and his country's neutrality in jeopardy. Troell films it with his customary intelligence and probing camera (shot in evocative B&W); too bad his cast (which features well-known actors like Pernilla August) isn't quite up to the task. Still, it's a serious, sober film whose message resonantes across the decades. The lone extra is an extraordinary making-of documentary, the 44-minute A Close Scrutiny, by Troell's daughter, actress Yohanna Troell.

Nuclear Nation 
Uranium Drive-In 
Wagner's Jews 
(First Run)
Atsushi Funahashi's Nuclear Nation devastatingly recounts the aftermath of the tsunami which crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, and how it not only displaced an entire town—Futaba, where the plant is located—but destroyed the psyche of its people. Suzan Beraza's Uranium Drive-In unblinkingly looks at how the promise of a new mining plant in a depressed part of Colorado is a boon for some desperate people and a bane for others. Finally, Hilan Warshaw's Wagner's Jews delves into the anti-Semitic ravings of the great German composer, who literally used many Jewish artists to keep his music front and center even as he belittled their race. Most thought-provoking are the comments by several scholars who discuss whether Wagner should be performed in Israel. Extras include interviews and deleted scenes.

Violette 
(Kino/Adopt)
Martin Provost, who made a compelling biopic about French painter Seraphine Louis a few years ago, returns with another provocative, encompassing biography: this time of French writer Violette Le Duc, an unsung member of the mid-20th century literary set that included Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet. Le Duc's violent life and art are brought to vivid life by Provost and his superb actresses: Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kilberlein as Simone give the kind of effortless but intensely focused portrayals that uncover psychological truths about both of these fascinating women. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Broadway Review—Donald Margulies' "The Country House"

The Country House
Written by Donald Margulies; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through November 23, 2014
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
manhattantheatreclub.org


Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Sunjata, Blythe Danner in The Country House (photo: Joan Marcus)
At his best, playwright Donald Margulies has a rare gift for creating characters whose very down-to-earth realism makes them iconic, as in Dinner with Friends and Sight Unseen. At his less than best—as in his latest play, The Country House—Margulies still penetratingly analyzes his characters, although there is something lacking in the plotting, exposition and his usual insightfulness.

The Country House sounds as generic as its title: this is a play about actors who converge on the Berkshires each summer to perform at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The central character, matriarch Anna Patterson, is the grand dame of Williamstown, and holds forth in the house, which she and her late husband have owned for decades, for the first time since the death of her beloved daughter Kathy. (The play is dedicated to actress Dana Reeve, who died in 2006 of lung cancer.)

Staying with Anna are her granddaughter, level-headed college student Susie; her son, perennially auditioning actor and budding playwright Eliot; Susie's father (and Kathy's widower), famous movie director Walter Keegan, who arrives with his new (much younger) girlfriend Nell; and superstar hunk (and beloved TV doctor) Michael Astor, in town to return to his stage roots for the summer, and invited by Anna—who met him at the local supermarket—to crash at their house while his own sublet is being fumigated.

So Margulies sets up a tragicomic Chekhovian journey, with readily identifiable characters sketched in short of outright caricature. That Anna is played by the luminous Blythe Danner—herself a big Williamstown presence for many years—is one of the play's many in-jokes. But Margulies also piles up contrivances more than is warranted for a playwright of his stature, even if it must be admitted that the gimmicky situations and relationships are so well written from scene to scene that they never fatally compromise the play, only make it teeter on a weakened foundation.

It's no surprise that we discover that Nell had a short fling with Eliot years before, and that he still pines for her; or that Eliot has written a nakedly autobiographical play that the households reads through; or that Anna all but ignored her son Eliot while putting her darling daughter Kathy on a pedestal; or that Susie's had a crush on family friend Michael since she was a toddler; or that Nell and Michael are intensely attracted to each other. That last leads to the play's biggest contrivance, which makes for a pre-intermission surprise: but it's so well prepared for by Margulies' crafty writing, the cast's excellent acting and Daniel Sullivan's artful direction that it works, at least at that very moment. Just don't think about it too much.

The Country House works like a perfectly oiled machine, which is the problem. As resourceful a writer as Margulies is; as forceful and funny as his jabs at theater, movies and TV are; as dexterously knitted together as is the superb cast of six—with special mention to David Rasche for his blustery but droll Walter, a once-hailed director reduced to making movies for 15 year old boys; as well-paced as Daniel Sullivan's direction is on John Lee Beatty's meticulously detailed set, The Country House is ultimately less than the sum of its many proficient parts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October '14 Digital Week II

Boxed Set of the Week
The Wonder Years 
(StarVista)
This massive set is the Holy Grail for Wonder Years fans: every episode of the beloved half-hour show, on ABC from 1988 to 1994—that's 115 episodes in all—are housed on  26 discs, so the entire dramatic and comedic arc of this wise and wonderful character study of young baby boomer kids growing up and going to school in the volatile Vietnam era can be enjoyed and savored. There's superlative acting by Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Olivia d'Abo, Alley Miles and Dan Lauria, while narrator Daniel Stern provides the precise tone of wistful looking back. 

Inside a metal locker, the discs fit into two school binders, and there are also booklets and photographs; voluminous extras include commentaries, interviews and featurettes. (One complaint: the discs slide into the binders' pages very tightly, so be careful when pulling them out—several of mine were scratched.) Finally, the reason this set took so long to arrive on DVD—getting clearances for 285 popular songs from the era—is one of its most salient features: there are classics by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and even Joe Cocker, whose brilliant cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends" is the series' perfect title theme.  

Blu-rays of the Week
Chinese Puzzle 
(Cohen Media)
The third film in a trilogy about handsome writer Xavier and his relationships with women—after L'Auberge espagnole and Russian Dolls—is the kind of movie that director Cedric Klapisch could make in his sleep: that's not necessarily a criticism, since no one makes such slick, charming but ultimately paper-thin comedies of manners as Klapisch. His cast is uniformly strong—with Romain Duras, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly and Cecile de France are at their charismatic best—and there are amusing explorations of New York City through the eyes of Frenchman Xavier, but at two hours, Klpaisch ends up repeating himself. The hi-def image looks first rate; a nice complement of extras comprises 35 minutes of interviews and a 50-minute making-of.

Million Dollar Arm 
(Disney)
In this entertaining sports picture based on a true story, Jon Hamm plays a sports agent at the end of his professional rope who decides to go to India and find a new pitcher that could crash the majors—and, of course, he does! (Not one, but two, actually: both pitchers are in the Pittsburgh Pirates organziation now.) This agreeable movie could lose 10-15 minutes with no loss of effectiveness, but Hamm is charming, Lake Bell wonderfully eccentric as his love interest, and the Indian cricket backdrop is nicely rendered. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.

Persecuted 
(Millennium) 
One of the weirdest entries in the bizarro world of conservative filmmaking is this straw-man entry about a world in which religious liberty gives way to a new law forcing all religions to give others equal time, and a famous preacher finds himself facing a trumped-up murder charge when he doesn't go along with a powerful senator who sponsored the legislation. This screed isn't even inept enough to be mocked mercilessly; rather, it's just humorless, strident and boring. Any movie in which Fox News' bubbleheaded bleach blonde Gretchen Carlson gives the most persuasive performance is seriously lacking in every way. The movie does looks good on Blu; extras (only on the DVD version, for some reason) are a commentary, featurette and interviews.

Sharknado 2—The Second One 
(Cinedigm)
Of course, the sequel to a cheesy movie about a hurricane-like storm that rains down killer sharks on an unsuspecting populace would have to be even cheesier and more addle-brained than the original: that said, there's some ludicrously guilty fun to be had, especially the cheerfully idiotic scenes of the Statue of Liberty's severed head rolling down a Manhattan street or sharks chewing up subway riders after a Mets game. It's nice to see that Viveca Fox and especially Kari Wuhrer still look smashing, but garbage is garbage, even if it doesn't pretend to be anything else. The Blu-ray looks great; a plethora of extras comprises featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and commentaries.

DVDs of the Week
The Honorable Woman 
(BBC)
In this timely, sadly relevant eight-part mini-series, Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastically understated as an Anglo-Israeli entrepreneur trying to secure Middle East peace who finds herself caught in a controlling system (led by American and English spy services) that would prefer to keep the warring factions in place. Creator-director Hugo Blick's scripting sometimes lacks nuance, but a top supporting cast led by Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan provides the shades of grey necessary to keep this fast-moving thriller going. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.

To Be Takei 
(Anchor Bay)
Star Trek's Sulu, George Takei, turned himself into a remarkably durable celebrity in the 40-plus years since the beloved sci-fi series ended by becoming one of the most inspiring and witty voices for gay rights: hell, even Howard Stern is on his side. Jennifer M. Kroot's concise documentary follows Takei from his childhood in a WWII Japanese-American internment camp with his family to his early acting days to his breaking down barriers for both Asian and gay actors, all with his trademark grin and extremely likeable personality kept front and center. Lone extras are deleted scenes.

Two and a Half Men—Complete 11th Season
2 Broke Girls—Complete 3rd Season 
(Warners)
The appearance of Amber Tamblyn as the Jon Cryer character's niece isn't enough to brighten Two and a Half Men's 11th season; on the contrary, the whole charade smacks of desperation on the part of a sitcom that's been running on fumes since Charlie Sheen left—that this new season is to be its last is certainly no surprise. On the other hand, the third season of 2 Broke Girls continues a smutty but funny winning streak thanks to the comic chemistry of its stars, Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings, the latter of whom has a way with snarky remarks that are second to none. The lone Men extra is a gag reel; Girls has a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Venus in Fur 
(IFC)
David Ives’ witty play is turned by Roman Polanski into an exhilarating romp in many ways superior to what was onstage in New York in 2011. Set in an empty theater, this two-hander features Mathieu Amalric as a playwright-director who auditions Emmanuelle Seigner (real-life Mrs. Polanski) for the sizzling lead role in his new play. Though too old, Seigner gleefully throws herself into it with abandon as her husband lustfully photographs her from all angles; Amalric holds his own by keeping out of Seigner’s way. Unlike Carnage, his stillborn God of Carnage adaptation, Polanski never allows staginess and talkiness to bog down Venus. Extras are interviews with Polanski, Seigner and Amalric; but why, in 2014, is a film by one of our major directors not on Blu-ray?

Witching and Bitching 
(IFC Midnight)
The latest effort by off-kilter Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia is an unsavory brew that mixes a bungled heist, one of the robber's young son who's an accomplice, the boy's understandably upset mother, and a trio of witches—grandmother, mother, daughter—whose house the crooks stumble upon. For nearly two hours, we are subjected to de la Iglesia's usual stew of cheap jokes, cartoonish gore and ridiculous campiness (a deformed female monster appears); how the director got one of Spanish cinema's grand dames, Carmen Maura, to be in this farrago is anyone's guess. Extras are three short featurettes.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink"

Indian Ink
Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Carey Perloff
Performances through November 30, 2014
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
roundabouttheatre.org

Bjandi and Garai in Indian Ink (photo: Joan Marcus)
Tom Stoppard's 1995 drama Indian Ink, which runs along parallel story paths like his 1993 masterpiece Arcadia and his 1997 play about poet A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love, toggles between Flora Crewe, a British poetess visiting India in the 1930s, and Eleanor, Flora's now-elderly younger sister, trying to fend off an American scholar from piecing together, 50 years later, the poetess's mysterious and short life.

Flora, one of Stoppard's most elegant creations, is an attractive, vivacious, free-spirited young woman who arrives in India to find a more agreeable climate to ward off her tuberculosis (which ends up killing her): her natural curiosity and bewitching personality make her irresistible to the men whom she meets, like Indian painter Nirad Das (for whom she poses nude) and British envoy David Durnance (with whom she flirts good-naturedly). 

Flora narrates her own Indian adventures through the letters she sends home to Eleanor, whom we see half a century later giving some of them to Eldon Pike, an odious American academic writing a book about Flora who is searching for her correspondence. The letters are written in a way that allows someone like Eldon to misinterpret the events and relationships they cover: Eleanor doesn't bother correcting his misapprehensions, which parallel how the British acted while colonizing India for centuries.

Although at times it feels as if Stoppard is deliberately withholding pertinent information—unlike so many of his other plays, which practically show off their erudition, crammed to the gills as they are with cultural bric-a-brac—Indian Ink is, for the most part, a stimulating journey into Western and Eastern art and history. 

Director Carey Perloff, who knows the play intimately (she helmed its 1999 U.S. premiere in San Francisco), provides shimmering stage imagery as both stories play out near-simultaneously on a mostly empty set that's little more than a blue background. But Neil Patel's set becomes less impoverished when complemented by Robert Weirzel's expressive lighting and Candice Donnelly's snazzy period costumes.

As Eleanor, the legendary Rosemary Harris has a formidable presence, while the men in the sisters' lives—Nirad, David, Eldon and Nirad's son Anish, who talks with Eleanor about his father's relationship with her sister—are sketched decently by Firmas Bjandi, Lee Aaron Rosen, Neal Huff and Bhavesh Patel. 

Then there's Romola Garai, who gives a wonderfully realized performance that vividly embodies the manifold aspects of Flora—her intense intellect, psychological makeup, curiosity and sexuality—painting a three-dimensional portrait far richer than the pictures of her Eldon fruitlessly searches for. 

Indian Ink
Laura pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
roundabouttheatre.org

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Broadway Review—"You Can't Take It With You"

You Can't Take It With You
Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; directed by Scott Ellis
Performances through January 4, 2015
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY
youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com

Nielsen, Byrne and Jones in You Can't Take It With You (photo: Joan Marcus)
You Can't Take It With You, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's most enduring play, is an hilarious forerunner of the lovably eccentric family TV sitcoms and movies that followed in its wake: debuting on Broadway in 1936, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the next year and was 1938's Oscar-winning Best Picture, directed by Frank Capra (who also won an Oscar).

For its latest stage incarnation, savvy director Scott Ellis has assembled a juggernaut cast as the Vanderhof family: James Earl Jones as lovable grampa Martin, Kristine Nielsen and Mark Linn-Baker as his daffy daughter Penelope and her equally daft husband Paul, Annaleigh Ashford and Will Brill as their ballet-dancing daughter Essie and her xylophone-playing husband Ed, and Rose Byrne (in a delectable Broadway debut) and Fran Krantz as their semi-normal daughter Alice and Alice's rich boss's son Tony, whom she is dating.

These people deliciously interact with one another and others who find themselves in the family's crammed Manhattan house; thanks to Martin's refusal to pay his income tax and Ed's hobby of printing Communist slogans and passing them around the city, the authorities arrive unannounced for a bust that nets everyone, even Tony and his straitlaced parents, who happen to be visiting one day earlier than Alice had planned. 

This material, which precariously teeters between endearing daftness and sentimental cuteness (the latter of which Capra's film unsurprisingly milked to the hilt), needs to be handled precisely to work perfectly, and Ellis corrals his talented cast members to mesh as a cohesive ensemble at the same time they play close to the edge of caricature. This has the effect of having it both ways, as the goofy behavior never threatens and the family's closeness is never in doubt: there's poignancy in the way the Vanderhofs stick up for one another, however silly it all becomes by play's end. 

David Rockwell's colossal set of the interior of the Vanderhof house—which even moves so we can see the lovingly rendered exterior before each act as well as for the briefest of scenes when Alice and Tony return home from a date—scatters around the richly appointed living room so much interesting bric-a-brac in every nook and cranny that one could study it for all 2-1/2 hours of the performance without catching everything. It physicalizes the family's cluttered but coherent existence: everything (and everyone) is in its rightful place.

In an accomplished cast, standouts are the lovely Byrne, who makes Alice irresistible instead of a dullard and Ashford, whose dynamic klutziness and dazzling virtuosity on pointe—she's either spinning or just about to, a whirling dervish or cartoonish Tasmanian Devil—underline her delightful Essie. There's also wonderful work from performers who play Russians that transform the plot even more outlandishly: Reg Rogers as an hilariously unprofessional dance teacher Boris, and none other than Elizabeth Ashley, who swoops in at the end as former Grand Duchess Olga to, of all things, make blintzes. Yes, blintzes.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Concert/CD Review: Robert Plant

Robert Plant (photo: York Tillyer)
No one can ever accuse Robert Plant of resting on his laurels.

The former Led Zeppelin singer has steadfastedly ignored calls to re-reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones after their successful 2007 London reunion show, preferring to concentrate on his own musical endeavors, which stretch from his first solo efforts, the superlative Pictures at Eleven (1982) and even better The Principle of Moments (1983)—still his most memorable post-Zep albums—to his new release, Lullaby...and the Ceaseless Roar, which has gotten some of the strongest notices of his career.

While I don't share the general enthusiasm for the new album—it's yet another Plant exercise in restless musical experimentation, but its ceaseless drone isn't a patch on his best  Zep and solo work—I have no complaints about how the new songs sounded when Plant brought his terrific band, the Sensational Space Shifters, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House recently for two shows that ended a month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records, home of musical innovators from John Adams and the Kronos Quartet to Natalie Merchant and now Plant himself.

The Lullaby songs generated a cumulative power lacking in the studio versions, from the evening's second song "Poor Howard" to the lone encore, "Little Maggie." Especially effective were a raving "Turn It Up," which sounds like a poor cousin to Zeppelin bombast on record but flared to blistering life onstage, along with "A Stolen Kiss," whose quiet strength came across far more persuasively live. Plant's voice, long ago losing its wail and roar that was as much a Zeppelin trademark as Page's guitar or John Bonham's drumming, found a comfortable middle register that snugly fits the new songs.

That said, it's too bad Plant didn't play more solo material: I would have loved to hear him and his band on classics like "Sixes and Sevens," "Big Log" or "Pledge Pin," for starters. Instead, aside from scintillating blues covers "Fixin' to Die" and "No Place to Go," the rest of the 95-minute show comprised songs from Plant's old band. 

Surprising to this long-time Plant observer—I've seen him in concert seven times since his first solo tour in 1983—was that his versions of Zep songs were unusually faithful to the originals, from the brooding opener, "No Quarter," and the folksy "Going to California" (about which he quipped after singing it, "pretty profound stuff, huh?") to the psychedelia of "What Is and What Should Never Be" (after which he jokingly railed, "that song's not about fuckin' hobbits!") and the primal blast of "Whole Lotta Love," the main set's closer.

My initial post-show thought: so why doesn't he play these legendary songs with the guys with which he wrote and recorded them, since he's obviously proud of how they still stand up decades later? The answer: playing the 2500-seat BAM Opera House is one thing, but touring with a reformed Led Zeppelin would force him to sing in big hockey arenas or massive football stadiums. Which is about as far from where Robert Plant is in his element these days. 

Robert Plant's U.S. tour ends October 9 in Brooklyn, NY.
robertplant.com
New album Lullaby..and the Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch Records) is out now.
nonesuch.com

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Are You Here 
(Millennium)
Populating his film with the irritating but oh so clever denziens of most of today's movies, writer-director Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) has made an occasionally well-observed comic portrait of American self-absorption. Though the tone is consistently inconsistent, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler and Zack Galifianakis are each less annoying than usual, while Laura Ramsey steals the film with sexy and funny performance. The Blu-ray image looks first-rate; lone extra is director's commentary.

Cold in July 
(IFC)
What begins as a typical crime drama—after innocent homeowner Richard shoots an intruder, his family is terrorized by the dead man's raging dad Ben—morphs into an engrossing thriller as Richard and Ben team with renegade cop Jim Bob and get involved in the mother of all criminal messes. Director-writer Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici's complex study of twisted relationships among men with little in common has its share of clunky moments, but strong acting by Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson and Vinessa Shaw more than compensates. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray; extras comprise commentaries, previsualization tests, deleted scenes and previsualization tests with optional commentaries.

From Dusk Til Dawn—Season One 
(e one/El Rey)
Based on the mindless but fun 1996 vampire movie by director Robert Rodriguez and writer-star Quentin Tarantino, the TV series stretches out the movie plot through 10 one-hour episodes, which unfortunately stretches the drama and amusement much too thin. Still, there's much to enjoy, especially when a true find like Eiza Gonzalez, who plays Santanico Pandemonium, the stripper/vampire whom Salma Hayek played originally, is onscreen. The hi-def image looks perfect; extras include commentaries, featurettes and premiere Q&A.

Nightcap 
(Cohen Media)
Claude Chabrol's delicious 2000 thriller sets up its convoluted but logical storyline—involving possible swapped babies at birth and a quietly fanatical stepmother with a penchant for poison—slowly, as in his masterly 1996 La Ceremonie, building inexorably to a final spasm of violence: offscreen this time but equally potent. Superbly enacted by Isabelle Huppert, Anna Mouglalis, Jacques Dutronc and Rodolphe Pauly and directed by an effortless master, Nightcap (whose original title, Merci pour le chocolate, is far better) is dryly diverting entertainment. The movie has an excellent hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a commentary.

Roger & Me 
(Warners)
Michael Moore's first documentary, made in 1989, introduced a unique cinematic voice who became (and still stands as) a populist call for fairness, especially in one of the first films to so memorably capture the "have vs. have-not" divide that has only worsened in the quarter-century since its release. The Blu-ray image is decent, but this isn't a visual film by any means; the lone extra is Moore's occasionally insightful commentary. But where is Moore's terrific follow-up short, 1992's Pets or Meat, which succinctly revisits the original's themes? 

Songs from Tsongas—Yes 35th Anniversary 
(Eagle Rock)
This 2004 concert showcases the legendary progressive rockers' most famous lineup (Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White and Rick Wakeman), comprising 2-1/2 hours of splendid music-making, including multi-part classics "South Side of the Sky," "I've Seen All Good People," "Yours Is No Disgrace" and "Starship Trooper," deep tracks "Wondrous Stories" and "Going for the One" and acoustic versions of smashes "Long Distance Runaround" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart." The hi-def image looks good and the music sounds superb in surround sound; extras comprise nine songs from another 2004 concert, including full-band versions of Tsongas acoustic numbers; a bonus track, the 25-minute epic "Ritual"; and an interview with album-cover artist and stage set designer Roger Dean.

DVDs of the Week
Father Brown—Complete 1st Season 
(BBC)
Based on short stories by G.K. Chesterton, this entertaining drama series follows the genial but whipsmart priest who immerses himself in local crime scenes from which he extracts guilty parties, thanks to abilities which even veteran detectives are lacking. As Father Brown, Mark Williams (best known for the Harry Potter movies) is amusingly real, while the natural beauties of the locations (it was shot in the Cotswolds area of England) give an enticing physical dimension to each of the 10 episodes. Extras include behind the scenes footage and cast and crew interviews.

The FBI—Complete 9th Season 
(Warner Archive)
The Mentalist—Complete 6th Season 
(Warners)
The classic crime-fight drama The FBI ended its nine-year run in the 1973-4 season, and the 23 episodes in this set explore the relationships among the agents, especially between new kid on the block Chris Daniels (played by ex-NFL star Shelly Novack) and veteran Inspector Eskerine (Efrem Zimbalist Jt.); the usual array of guest stars includes Dabney Coleman, Jackie Cooper, Joan Van Ark, Ann Francis and Leslie Nielsen. In the sixth season of the hit procedural The Mentalist, the team of agents finally closes the "Red John" serial killer case, before jumping ahead two years and going to investigate more killings; 22 episodes are included on five discs. Mentalist extras comprise a featurette and deleted scenes.

The Prosecution of an American President 
(First Run)
Prosecutorial legend Vincent Bugliosi, who convicted Charles Manson, wrote a book calling for the prosecution of George W. Bush: not for mere war crimes, but for the murder of thousands of Iraqi citizens and American soldiers; directors David A. Burke and Dave Hagen persuasively visualize his well thought-out brief. This is not an anti-Bush screed but a warning to any president who willfully enters into a war of convenience with lies and distortions, like the well- known ones shown. Most devastating, though, are the testimonies of families torn apart by loved ones dying unnecessarily in our endless War on Terror. Extras are deleted scenes.

To Be and To Have 
(Kino)
As anyone familiar with French director Nicholas Philibert’s non-fiction work can attest, he is an unassuming master at recording quotidian lives with care and precision—as he does in this sublime 2002 documentary about young schoolchildren and their caring teacher in the Auvergne region of central France. In his inimitable fly-on-the-wall way, Philibert shows the give and take between the selfless teacher George Lopez with the utterly natural youngsters in his classroom. Extras include a Philibert interview and a "children reciting poetry" featurette.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Broadway Review—A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters"

Love Letters
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Gregory Mosher
Performances through February 15, 2015
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY
lovelettersbroadway.com

Farrow and Dennehy in Love Letters (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Our most astute chronicler of the upper-crust, A.R. Gurney provides another one-percent primer with Love Letters, returning to Broadway for the first time since 1989 (it premiered the year before in New Haven). Comprising letters written by Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner over the course of their lives together and—mostly—apart, the play's epistolary structure makes it easy to perform (it's easily Gurney's most popular play): the performers sit at adjoining desks and read directly from their scripts.

The device is so ingeniously simple it's surprising it isn't been done more often. Andrew and Melissa discuss what's happening in their increasingly distant lives, while admitting to (or, occasionally, hiding) their feelings for each other as their decades apart pass by. Andrew is a WASP through and through who is a U.S. Senator by play's end—and, maybe one day, president—who writes letters that are mostly formal and even bland, while Melissa, far more emotionally volatile, wears her heart on her sleeve in each letter (about which she complains regularly, much preferring the telephone), signaling her intensely creative personality.

There are flaws, starting with that missing telephone: even with all their letter-writing, are we to believe these people never once pick up a phone to talk about important, or even everyday, matters? (We are also obviously in the pre-cell phone, pre-social media era.) Another problem is pitting highstrung Melissa against even-keel Andrew. She barrels through relationships, breakups, drinking bouts, stints in rehab, etc., while Andrew is the lone person to whom she writes about such momentous events. Even when they finally have their long-overdue affair—he's a Senator with a wife and children, she a divorced mother and frustrated artist—it seems that it's only so she can fly off the handle when he ends it because he's worried about his political career.

Gurney's acute ear for dialogue allows his actors to perform sundry miracles, particularly Mia Farrow, who looks two decades younger than her real age (69) as she makes manifest Melissa's broad emotions without wallowing in caricature. She even begins with a young girl's voice for the early letters, gradually—and imperceptibly—turning into a woman's.

Brian Dennehy has a forceful stage presence, so sitting and reading isn't his strong suit. But he's a hard-working, intelligent actor who nails Andrew's hesitant attitude. Understatedly directed by Gregory Mosher, Love Letters is an acting exercise in the best sense. (Dennehy and Farrow are in the play until Oct. 10, followed by Dennehy and Carol Burnett Oct. 11-Nov. 8 and Alan Alda and Candice Bergen Nov. 9-Dec. 5.)