Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Broadway Musical Review—Revival of “Once on This Island”

Once on This Island
Book & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown; directed by Michael Arden
Opened December 3, 2017
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island (photo: Joan Marcus)
Set on an unnamed Haiti, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical Once on an Island premiered in 1990, its initial run introducing LaChanze to New York. For the show’s first Broadway revival—a cleverly-conceived production in the round, complete with sand, rain and a pond—there’s another impressive actress making her debut: Oregon teenager Hailey Kilgore.

Kilgore is Ti Moune, orphaned in a raging storm as a youngster and taken in by the loving Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian on an isle bitterly divided between dark-skinned natives and lighter-skinned French descendants, the grand hommes. One day, Ti Moune sees a car crash involving Daniel, teenage grand homme; she nurses him back to health, begging the local gods—Papa Ge, Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie—to take her rather than him, imaging that he has fallen for her as she has him, despite sundry obstacles: his family, his fiancée and their class differences, for starters.

This beguiling fable has a homespun wisdom that’s greater than the sum of its parts, as Flaherty’s merely serviceable book and lyrics are married to Flaherty’s tuneful but derivative songs. The folk tale’s plot—filled as it is with unabashed sentiment, teenage romance and a celebration of the circle of life, so to speak—alternates between cloyingly and happily beneficent.

Michael Arden’s inventive staging begins before the musical proper: bare-footed actors mill around the sandbox set, mingling with audience members near the stage as they go about their everyday business like feeding the animals. Camille A. Brown's resourceful choreography allows spacious movement within the relatively cramped space of Dane Laffrey’s spry set, which seems to sprout new expanses wherever one looks (a trailer truck, a fallen telephone pole, even parts of theater seats are brought into delightfully ramshackle service). Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s ingenious lighting and Clint Ramos’s canny costumes complete the fully-formed world we are willingly whisked into for 90 mostly blissful minutes.

There’s commanding vocal work from Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian and Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie, and Isaac Powell’s poised Daniel and Kilgore’s enchanting Ti Moune make a charming pair of not-quite lovers. Best of all, the gods comprise a quartet of ultra-talented belters: Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell and the always winning Lea Salonga, whose clear-as-crystal soprano rings out even amid so many astonishingly strong voices on this island.

Once on This Island
Opened December 3, 2017
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Death Laid an Egg
(Cult Epics)
Giulio Questi’s wacky 1968 giallo is a product of its time: nodding toward Godard’s masterpiece Weekend (released in ‘67), Questi’s potent critique of a dehumanized industrial society is masked by a tricked-out tale of murder around a poultry plant owned by a philandering husband and his wife. In the leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant (husband), Gina Lollobrigida (wife) and Ewa Aulin (mistress) make a stunning trio; there are moments of visual overkill, but it’s stylish and enjoyably loony. There’s a quite impressive hi-def transfer.

Heat and Dust
(Cohen Film Collection)
This 1983 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel tracks parallel East-West culture clashes, as an Englishwoman, Anne, travels to India to discover the fate of her great aunt Olivia, who in the 1920s had an affair with a local ruler (Hindi film star Shashi Kapoor, who died last week). Although labored in its shuttling back and forth, there are compensations, notably Julie Christie as Anne and Greta Scacchi as Olivia, both splendid performances of intelligence and—especially Scacchi—sensuality. The hi-def transfer is excellent; there’s also a commentary and a second disc of bonus features: new interviews with Scacchi, Ivory, Jhabvala, composer Richard Robbins, actor Nickolas Grace and producer Israel Merchant; new Q&A with actor Madhur Jaffrey; and Merchant-Ivory’s hour-long 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess.

Pelléas et Mélisande 
(BelAir Classiques)
Claude Debussy’s tragic romance is one of opera’s towering masterpieces, its three hours alternately bracing and disturbing. This 2016 Malmo (Sweden) production is nicely staged by director Benjamin Lazar, with Debussy’s magnificent score being beautifully handled by conductor Maxime Pascal and the Malmo Opera Orchestra. But the glory is in the main performers: Marc Mauillon’s vivid Pelléas and—best of all—Jenny Daviet’s languid, meltingly lovely-voiced Mélisande. The hi-def video and audio are topnotch.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical opera is rarely seen on European or American stages, so who better than St. Petersburg’s own Mariinsky Opera to present such a boldly imaginative production? As always, Valery Gergiev persuasively leads his orchestra in music that they all feel in their bones, the usual array of Russian singers belts out convincingly, and the sets and costumes are bright and dazzling. The only caveat is that, since this is on film instead of hi-def video, the visuals don’t pop as they should.

DVDs of the Week 
Karl Marx City
(Film Movement)
Petra Epperlein (with co-director Michael Tucker) returned to the former East Germany to discover the truth behind her father’s 1999 suicide by hanging: was he—as he was accused of being—a spy for the Stasi, the formidable East German security force that terrified thousands of ordinary citizens on a daily basis during the Cold War? Epperlein has no illusions about what she finds, which she shares with her devastated mother and twin brothers, while the rest of this agonizing documentary comprises illuminating interviews with various archivists, former Stasi members and regular people that shed a necessary light on how dictatorships can thrive.

Maurizio Cattelan—Be Right Back
(Film Movement)
Maurizio Cattelan is an art world prankster without the social or political cachet of Banksy, but since he’s courted cognoscenti for decades he’s become one of the most reliable names in the business, and Maura Axelrod’s diverting documentary portrait shows him off as a sort-of raconteur par excellence. Whether he’s a real artist is another matter: despite the experts, that he gets a Guggenheim retrospective that garners critical raves and lines around the block says more about the state of our current culture than about his clever but minor works.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—“Downtown Race Riot” with Chloe Sevigny

Downtown Race Riot
Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through December 23, 2017
The New Group @ Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Chloe Sevigny and David Levi in Downtown Race Riot (photo: Monique Carboni)
In Downtown Race Riot, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld turns cartoons into real characters: with a huge assist from a talented cast and director, of course. But to what end? Nearly two hours of watching a drug-addled mom, her equally damaged children and her son’s friends and acquaintances meander through their mundane existence—culminating with a violent brawl—bring the audience no insight or point.

Mary, a 39-year-old single mom, lives in a West Village railroad apartment with two children by different men: 21-year-old Joyce and 18-year-old Jimmy, known as PNut. Mary has trouble keeping clean, collects disability checks and has a lawyer on the way to discuss suing the city for giving PNut asthma by his eating paint chips when he was younger (which he never did). PNut and his best friend, a Haitian black named Marcel, aka Massive, plan to go to Washington Square Park for an upcoming fight between neighborhood toughs and minority interlopers from other parts of the city. Joyce, though nominally a lesbian, seduces Massive when she comes home, in part to get back at her brother and especially her mom, who she feels cares more for PNut than Joyce.

Rosenfeld draws sympathetic but realistic portraits of his play’s inhabitants, even the “tough” Jay 114 and Jimmy-Sick, or Mary’s coke-snorting lawyer Bob, all of whom initially seem like refugees from Mean Streets or The Sopranos, but are humanized by the writing and acting. Still, the play and these people don’t go anywhere unsurprising: they are fated to remain behind, thanks to class or race, which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation.

Derek McLane’s tremendous set of Mary’s shabby apartment is arrestingly lit by Yael Lubetzky. Scott Elliott’s fluid direction allows the supremely confident performers to play off one another convincingly, whether Cristian Demeo and Daniel Sovich’s amusing would-be wise guys, Moise Morancy’s charming Massive, Josh Pais’s overanxious Bob, Sadie Scott’s tantalizingly ambivalent Joyce, or David Levi’s flailing PNut.

Chloe Sevigny’s Mary is scarily authentic, whether in her pathetic attempts to hide her drug habit—even when she slinks off to her bed, where she holds forth to PNut, Joyce and Massive—or while slinking around in shorts and a halter top (perfectly ugly ‘70s costuming by Clint Ramos) to entice Bob. It’s a marvelously physical performance that makes her character and the play she’s in seem substantial.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Dolores Claiborne
Doc Hollywood
(Warner Archive)
1995’s Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King’s novel and starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mother and daughter with disturbingly dark skeletons, was directed by Taylor Hackford with stylish ostentation, which fits the strangely compelling material. 1991’s Doc Hollywood, an amiable fish-out-of-water comedy, has a prime starring role for Michael J. Fox as a fresh-faced doctor who finds himself stuck in a small southern town, and who meets a charming young woman (Julie Warner, a delightful actress who unfortunately didn’t do much else in her career). Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Dolores includes a Hackford commentary.

Bat Pussy
(AGFA/Something Weird)
As if the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this supposedly infamous but mainly forgotten attempt at a porn flick from the classic early ‘70s era riffs on one of our favorite superheroes, but its ineptitude is about all it has going for it. It’s as if Ed Wood tried to make an X-rated film: that no one knows who made it and who’s in it adds a miniscule modicum of mystery that surrounds this curio. Extras are a commentary and bonus movie, 1971’s Robot Love Slaves.

(Blue Underground)
With a title like that, you’d expect a chintzy B movie, and although that’s basically what it is, director Bob Clark provides unsettling creepiness to this queasy tale of a soldier apparently killed in Vietnam who returns home and slowly becomes a zombie. Of course, it’s a metaphor for how soldiers were treated both in country and at home; what’s surprising is how effectively it works, even with committed but spotty acting. There’s an acceptable hi-def transfer; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurette.

Satan’s Cheerleaders
1976’s torpid horror flick Ruby came out the same year as Carrie; that both star Piper Laurie as the loony mother of a disturbed teenage girl is their main similarity. Unlike Carrie’s slick schlockiness, Curtis Harrington’s film is hackneyed, haphazard, and B-movie all the way. Satan’s Cheerleaders, Greydon Clark’s 1977 tease flick, also has little to recommend it, even for viewers on the lookout for T&A amid its typical scares. Amateurish performances, even from sleepwalking Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, don’t help. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Ruby extras include commentaries and interviews, and Cheerleaders extras comprise commentaries.

DVDs of the Week 
Happy Hour
I’d never seen anything by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, so to come cold to his five-hour, seventeen-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish women friends dealing with their quotidian lives is at first off-putting, then—very slowly—entrancing. Hamaguchi allows his film, and its characters, to breathe, and if there are certain static longueurs—one sequence at an author’s reading could be excised—there’s also an appreciation and understanding of life in all its ordinariness: and extraordinariness. The superlative acting matches the creator’s humanism.

Exhibition On Screen: Michelangelo Love and Death
(Seventh Art)
In presenting the several decade-long career of one of the Renaissance’s—and history’s—greatest masters, this 90-minute documentary overview hits all the expected beats (sculpture, architecture, poetry, Sistine Chapel ceiling) as it combines expert discussion with close-up views of the works that give occasional insight into his method and madness. As always with Exhibition On Screen, there’s a caveat: releasing this only on DVD, not Blu-ray, is a mistake, since these precious artistic treasures should be seen solely in hi-def.

CD of the Week 
Blackmore’s Night—Winter Carols
(Minstrel Hall)
Guitarist extraordinaire Ritchie Blackmore teams with his wife, singer/recorder player Candice Night, for an enjoyable journey through music of the holiday season. Don’t expect Rainbow Does Christmas, however: in these folky-cum-Renaissance Faire arrangements, Blackmore’s tasty acoustic playing beautifully complements Night’s lovely vocals on evergreen titles such as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships” and “We Three Kings.” First released in 2006, this re-release include three songs not included on the original; a second disc (from a 2013 re-issue) has several tunes recorded live, along with various versions—including one in German—of Night singing a Yuletide original, “Christmas Eve.”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Broadway Review—“The Parisian Woman” with Uma Thurman

The Parisian Woman
Written by Beau Willimon; directed by Pam Mackinnon
Performances through March 11, 2018
Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Uma Thurman and Marton Csokas in The Parisian Woman (photo: Matthew Murphy)
The Trump era will undoubtedly beget other plays about what his election wrought, but Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, an updated rewriting of Henry Becque’s 1885 French comedy La Parisienne, and concerning the high-society wife of a well-connected Washington lawyer who wants a hoped-for judgeship from the new president, gets a head start.

There are disparaging references to Trump’s predilection for Twitter and his listening to the last person he saw in this tidy but static one-act drama that’s a slight disappointment from a writer whose political bona fides were brought to bear with the play Farragut North (which became the George Clooney film The Ides of March) and the Netflix series House of Cards. Willimon writes literate dialogue with acid dripping from it, but his cardboard characters’ machinations do little more than provide for the audience’s amusement and also, finally, bemusement.

It’s obviously how Washington operates—we witness the nastiness behind the scenes—but The Parisian Woman doesn’t so much illuminate as show it, so we see the results without much insight. Chloe, liberal wife of conservative tax lawyer Tom, is first seen with middle-aged banker Peter, with whom she’s having an affair (the spouses apparently have a no-talk policy about extracurricular activities). Peter’s undying love gives her the upper hand when she needs a favor: for Peter to whisper in the president’s ear about her husband’s availability for the court vacancy.

Also used by Chloe is Jeanette, Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Reserve (and seemingly modeled after Janet Yellen, the current Fed chairman), a D.C. veteran who becomes a close confidant of Chloe’s, at least until she realizes that her own daughter Rebecca—a recent Harvard law grad with a bright political future ahead of her—has become a willing pawn in Chloe’s game.

Much of the play consists of conversations in three locations—Chloe and Tom’s living room; the balcony of Jeanette’s home; and a ritzy restaurant (the stylish sets are by Derek McLane)—and director Pam Mackinnon has trouble sustaining the forward motion of a play that sits around for much of its length. That it’s only 90 minutes helps, and the final scene climaxes with another Trump allusion that’s a well-timed punch line.

Josh Lucas (Tom), Marton Csokas (Peter), Philippa Soo (Rebecca) and Blair Brown (Jeanette) give persuasive support, although Brown often barks too much like a bitchy Elaine Stritch. Making a smashing Broadway debut is Uma Thurman, whose Chloe is self-confident, shrewd, smart-looking and impossibly elegant (Jane Greenwood did the dead-on costumes): even how she lounges while sipping Sancerre is charming. Thurman makes The Parisian Woman look better than it really is.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Classical Music Review—Barbara Hannigan at Park Avenue Armory, on CD/DVD/Blu-ray

Barbara Hannigan
November 18, 2017
Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY

Barbara Hannigan performing Satie at Park Avenue Armory
Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan is no stranger to daring programs, which she proves again with her recent stunning Erik Satie recital at the Park Avenue Armory, a new CD of music by George Gershwin, Alban Berg and Luciano Berio, and a concert Blu-ray of her singing more Berg and another of her contemporary favorites, Gyorgy Ligeti.

At the Armory, Hannigan paired with estimable pianist Reinbert de Leeuw for two programs. I missed the first, of songs by the Second Viennese School, but the second, of works by Satie—the minimalist French master best-known for his elegant miniatures Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes—was revelatory not only in performance but in the presentation.

As the audience waited outside the Armory’s intimate Board of Officers Room, the doors opened, de Leeuw began playing Satie’s ballet Uspud, and Hannigan walked barefoot through the crowd holding a candle. After she entered the room, the audience followed, taking seats arrayed around the piano. (The semi-darkness hampered some from taking their seats promptly and properly: one unfortunate soul tripped and fell.) As de Leeuw finished his crisp reading of the half-hour work, Hannigan walked up to a second-level balcony overlooking the room where she began singing Satie’s masterly Socrate—originally written for four female voices—and she simply mesmerized everyone in the room, acting out the quartet of characters, including Socrates, in this astonishing 40-minute work.

Hannigan’s dramatic intensity was evident throughout the performance; she stalked, walked, climbed all over the stage, even turning the pianist’s music pages, and it was impossible to look away from her, whatever she was doing. Too bad some of her most memorable moments while on the balcony were missed by audience members seated with their back to her.

If you’ve never seen Hannigan live, a Blu-ray release of her 2015 performance with the London Symphony Orchestra is available on the LSO Live label. Hannigan’s typical focus—encompassing richly detailed singing and magnetic stage presence—as she performs Berg’s Fragments from “Wozzeck” and Ligeti’s spectacularly nonsensical Mysteries of the Macabre (the latter she sings in a ridiculously silly/sexy get-up) shows off the soprano at her bewitching best, complemented by the LSO and conductor Simon Rattle, who also play Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky.

Hannigan's Crazy Girl Crazy CD
Hannigan herself is conductor on her latest CD, Crazy Girl Crazy, on the Alpha Classics label, in which she collaborates with the Ludwig Orchestra on a new arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy suite, Berg’s suite from his opera Lulu (I’d love to have the chance to see Hannigan take on that challenging role), and Berio’s wordless pyrotechnic exercise, Sequenza III. Hannigan of course easily traverses this wide-ranging program, her impassioned takes on Gershwin and Berg as impressive as her coughing, whispering, shrieking Berio gymnastics. A great bonus is a DVD of French actor Mathieu Amalric’s short film about Hannigan at work, Music is Music, which provides a further visual component to Hannigan’s dazzling artistry.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

November '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Animal Factory 
Actor Steve Buscemi directed this gritty 2000 drama based on the exploits of convict Eddie Bunker (called Ron Decker in the film, and played by an intense Edward Furlong), who gets a 10-year sentence at San Quentin and finds himself under the watchful eye of veteran prisoner Earl Copen (a fine Willem Dafoe). Even if his film breaks no new ground in the prison genre, Buscemi has made a credible, even sympathetic look at what men behind bars will do to survive. The Blu-ray transfer is quite good; extras include a commentary and featurette on Bunker.

Battle Cry
Hell on Frisco Bay 
(Warner Archive)
In 1955’s Battle Cry, young men are seen moving from boot camp to the Pacific WWII battlefield, and if Raoul Walsh’s war epic isn’t as disturbing or as honest as Full Metal Jacket, it does have indelible sequences and a cast that includes standouts Van Heflin, Aldo Ray, Mona Freeman and Nancy Olson (the latter two as the suffering women of soldiers). Also made in 1955, Hell on Frisco Bay pits former cop and ex-con Alan Ladd against crime boss Edward G. Robinson in an inevitable showdown after Ladd tracks down who really committed the murder he was framed for. Always photogenic San Francisco locations are the real star of Frank Tuttle’s tidy but colorful film noir. Both films have superior hi-def transfers.

La Bohème 
(C Major)
New productions of the two most reliable warhorses in opera are distinguished by their leading ladies’ star-making performances. The title role in Carmen is played by the darkly smoldering French mezzo Gaelle Arquez, who burns up the outdoor Bregenz Festival stage whenever she’s front and center. In La Bohème, Irina Lungu plays the pitifully sickly Mimi with immense strength and sympathy. Both productions also have top-notch hi-def video and audio; Carmen extras are director and set designer interviews.

(Opus Arte)
This late Shakespeare romance is infrequently staged, so seeing Melly Still’s Royal Shakespeare Company production go off the rails is disheartening, since the cast is mostly effective, especially Bethan Cullinane’s powerful Innogen (Imogen for those who don’t think her name was misspelled in the first folio). The music and dance interludes seem less organic than tacked on, which drags down the rest into an unfortunate mess of dramatic and poetic stumbling. The hi-def images are excellent.

(BelAir Classiques)
The anti-heroine of Alban Berg’s unfinished opera has as its best and most prominent assayer German soprano Marlis Petersen, who gives Dmitri Tcherniakov’s tricked-out, fitfully pointed 2015 Munich staging its dramatic and musical allure. Petersen does no wrong, whether splayed half-naked on the floor or being ruthlessly abused before running into Jack the Ripper. Kirill Petrenko conducts the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra in an incisive reading of Berg’s masterly score. The hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

Night School 
(Warner Archive)
This turgid 1981 thriller—coming on the heels of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Phantasm, among others—spends its originality at the beginning, with the hideous murder of a victim on a playground mercilessly teased by her attacker before beheading her. After that, the movie has two things going for it: a very pretty and poised Rachel Ward in her film debut, and the offhand unmasking of the killer. There’s a decent hi-def transfer.

The Nutcracker 
(Opus Arte)
The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday ballet, gets a lovely Royal Opera production in honor of choreographer Peter Wright’s 90th birthday, brilliantly danced by talented soloists and corps de ballet, and sparklingly played by the orchestra under conductor Boris Gruzin. The Royal Opera’s Anastasia, about the fabled Russian princess—and one of legendary choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s most audacious works—scores superbly with the mesmerizing Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova in the lead, McMillan’s expressive movement, and the adroitly chosen music by Tchaikovsky and Martinů. Extras include interviews and featurettes.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Broadway Review—John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons”

Latin History for Morons
Written and performed by John Leguizamo; directed by Tony Taccone
Performances through February 25, 2018
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

John Leguizamo in Latin History for Morons (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Despite TV and movie success, John Leguizamo cut his teeth with solo shows that began in small downtown theaters and gradually moved uptown after he became a known commodity. His latest Broadway performance, Latin History for Morons, takes the form of a lecture to his audience about the mostly unknown (or forgotten) history of Latinos in America. It’s his usual combination of dead-on impressions, penetrating observations, juvenile humor and unabashed sentimentality.

When his 8th grade son came home from school one day and told him that he had a difficult history assignment—pick a Latin hero—Leguizamo realized that, in most textbooks, Latinos were basically written out of history. So he made it his business to discover someone heroic for his son, and that became the springboard for the show, as Leguizamo speaks informally but intelligently how Latino culture has been systematically erased, from the Aztecs and Incas to the present day.

With a chalkboard at center stage to visualize the teaching concept (Tony Taccone’s direction is happily haphazard), Leguizamo blends his one-of-a-kind riffing, caricature and vocal impersonation into an offbeat lecture to discuss a scaled-down timeline of history, from the destruction of the Aztec and Inca civilizations by colonizing Spaniards to unknown Latinos (and Latinas) who fought in the American Revolution and Civil War.

All the while, though, he keeps returning to his family, and that’s what makes the new show particularly satisfying. His funniest lines come from his interactions with his wife, daughter and son—he gets hilarious mileage out of telling his kids that, back in the day, if someone wanted to steal music, one had to actually go to a store and shoplift—as well as the most heart-on-the-sleeve moments, especially the ending, when his son reveals the hero he finally teased out of his father’s sometimes inept but always well-meaning attempts to teach his son his own history, which is anything but moronic.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—Billy Crudup in “Harry Clarke”

Harry Clarke
Written by David Cale; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through December 10, 2017
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY

Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke (photo: Carol Rosegg)
One of our most accomplished stage actors, Billy Crudup delivers a tour de force performance in Harry Clarke, a solo play by David Cale. Crudup effortlessly portrays Philip Brugglestein, an American who takes on the identity of a Britisher he names Harry Clarke to escape his small-town Midwest upbringing and moves to Manhattan, where he meets Mark Schmidt, a strapping young WASP from Connecticut, and his heavy-drinking family—all of whom he dupes into believing that “Harry” was once pop singer Sade’s personal assistant. He soon beds Mark, Mark’s sister Stephanie, and even their mother Ruth, making his own life (as Philip and Harry) complicated indeed.

The conceit of Cale’s clever if misogynistic and ultimately misanthropic one-acter is that the actor is onstage alone for entire 80 minutes, not only speaking as Philip but also as Harry, whose voice fluctuates between a standard (to American ears) British accent and more outlandish Cockney one. He also speaks the parts of Mark, Stephanie and Ruth, among others. The glory of Crudup’s bravura acting is his shifting gears among all of these differing and at times competing accents while narrating this initially amusing then deeply troubling story about how this nondescript kid from Indiana fooled several people—including himself—into thinking him a big shot from London, a place that Philip has never been to. (Crudup even credibly sings a couple of Cale’s sly songs.)

Crudup, who from his first Broadway forays (in the original production of Arcadia and opposite Mary Louise Parker in Bus Stop) has been a talent to be reckoned with, has gone from strength to strength onstage, from Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and Arcadia revival to Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But his prestidigitation in Harry Clarke, juggling so many different accents and, even more impressively, disparate characterizations, is what makes this flawed play—disturbing in its implications of how a man can so cavalierly ignore others’ well-being, whether his lover or his lover’s vulnerable sister or even more vulnerable mother—worth attending.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Broadway Review—Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk”

Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Doug Hughes
Performances through January 7, 2018
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, NY, NY

Steven Pasquale in Junk (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, a critical self-examination of how Islam’s tenets fit into 21st century culture, and The Invisible Hand, which provocatively demonstrated how Islamic terrorism and today’s money-obsessed world converge, Ayad Akhtar returns with Junk, a sprawling but meticulously structured dramatization of the roots of our current financial predicament.

Set in 1985, Junk centers on Robert Merkin—based on the infamous Michael Milken, jailed for insider trading—wunderkind of the Reagan-era financial world, an L.A.-based whiz kid at the forefront of the new junk bond industry. Planning a hostile takeover of a successful family-owned steel company—his intended target, CEO Thomas Everson, doesn’t stand a chance against Merkin’s updated playbook—Merkin simply doesn’t care how he wins, as long as he wins.

That plot outline is just the tip of the iceberg, as Akhtar and his shrewd director Doug Hughes make Junk a wide-ranging, epically-scaled exploration of what money means in America and how we got to this point. With some two dozen characters and many plot strands intersecting, the play is unafraid to be complicated, even if it’s fairly easy to follow it through the crannies without having any insider Wall Street knowledge. A lively ensemble, John Lee Beatty’s imposing two-tiered set and Ben Stanton’s magisterial lighting contribute to that all-important fluidity.

Akhtar also shows how money infests everything: everyone is dragged down to Merkin’s level, even enterprising journalist Judy Chen (the poised Teresa Avia Lim), who is asked by Merkin’s crooked lawyer Raul Rivera (a perfectly slimy Matthew Saldivar) to junk the manuscript of a tell-all book she’s writing for a pile of hush money, or veteran financier Leo Tresler (a blustery, bellowing Michael Siberry), who sees what junk bonds will end up doing to Wall Street but who realizes he may have to play Merkin’s game himself to survive.

Admittedly, since Akhtar wrote Junk with the benefit of hindsight, there are moments that ring false or obvious. When Merkin (the roguish charming Steven Pasquale) asserts that the Dow might someday hit 15 or 20 thousand, an incredulous Chen retorts, “Yesterday’s close was 1300. The Dow at 20000 sounds absurd,” which is greeted with wink-wink nudge-nudge responses from the audience. And the Giuliani-like D.A. going after Merkin for insider trading, Giuseppi Addesso (a properly Rudy-esque Charlie Semine), says “nobody understands this shit—and nobody cares,” which elicits giggles of approval. Then there’s the entire dramatic arc of Merkin getting his comeuppance, which plays out as one would expect, with little suspense or even schadenfreude.

That said, Akhtar nails the persona of Merkin as a charismatic, unscrupulous “master of the universe”—he even lies to his financial whiz of a wife (a sober Amy Silverman) about a shady character he’s using for suspect trades, Boris Pronsky (a bedraggled Joey Slotnick), who’s eventually his Achilles’ heel. And Merkin is allowed to speak uncomfortable truths about American exceptionalism and how other countries are surpassing us, crystallized in a rousing act two speech that climaxes thus: “Let’s just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let’s stick with the facts. Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can’t change. When you can’t change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now.”

Junk ends with a sly zinger about the possible cause of the 2008 mortgage crisis that Akhtar smartly doesn’t telegraph; it’s a deliciously satisfying wrap-up to a bracingly serious play.