Monday, August 30, 2010

Baryshnikov He's Not

Mao’s Last Dancer is heavy handed and sentimental. That said, I got teary where I was supposed to and particularly enjoyed certain performances. The depiction of Communist China was in gray shades of brown -- we’ve seen every scene in movies and television programs during the Cold War. The Communist Chinese village and school of the 1970s resembled a village in the American West in the 1870s. When a very young man from a restrictive background experiences the contrast between his gray institutional home and the Houston, Texas, of the early 1980s, small wonder that capitalism trumps communism.

My initial draw to this film was Bruce Greenwood, who did not disappoint. He is transcendent in his portrayal of Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet Company. Greenwood is splendid in his quiet passion for the art and artists, his mentorship of the stranger in a strange land. His every movement has the grace of a dancer, his face betraying love, peevishness, patience, impatience. Ben Stevenson himself is still around, now running the Texas Ballet Theatre. I can just imagine Mr. Greenwood meeting with him, watching, listening, and finally becoming the character. A truly beautiful, complete performance. It is worth the price of admission.

Cunxin Li is the sixth son (of seven) and is continually referred to as such in his home village. While Li appears ordinary, he is chosen to compete with thousands of other children for an unknown honor. The children are twisted and turned and stretched, and the limber Li is chosen to spend years at the Beijing Dance Academy, where eventually he excels. We see him as an adolescent, a teenager, and finally a young adult, striving to perfect his physical form, his strength, to become a great dancer. The institutional life appears harsh, with a few soft points and moments. The life of a dancer appears to be painful and torturous around the world.

In any story, people speaking the party line (whatever party, communist, fundamentalist Christian, Glenn Beck followers, etc.) become caricatures -- a symbol, a plot element, instead of a character. Mr. Li Cunxin’s autobiography is the source for the story of the film, and he appeared to be quite dramatic in his recollections. I found myself taking all of the depictions of Communist China with a grain of salt. Presumably that was not the intent of Li Cunxin or director Bruce Beresford.

The majority of Communist Chinese people in this film were written to perform functions in a propaganda piece rather than living as people in a story. Despite this, some sensitive performances are given by:
  • Ferdinand Hoang as Consul Zhang in the Chinese Embassy in Houston. While he explains and exemplifies the party line, he is not without humanity.
  • Su Zhang as Teacher Chan, the stereotypically nice teacher who loves classical (therefore not Revolutionary and politicized) ballet. An important aspect of Teacher Chan is that he is disappeared at one point for not being rabidly Communist.
  • Gang Jiao as Teacher Gao, the ‘mean’ teacher. Initially he’s quite negative, but his harshness has purpose and gradations. It is his recommendation of the strength and courage of Li that gives the boy the opportunity to visit America.
  • Chengwu Guo as teenaged Li, sensitive, cute, athletic.
  • Wen Bin Huang as child Li, afraid, brave, strong, weak. A child in a strange place.

Unfortunately I do not know the character names of certain others in Communist China, so cannot praise the actors as I’d like (the IMDB listing does not include photographs of the majority of the performers in this film, nor does the film’s own web site).

Li is played rather stiffly by Chi Cao (apparently he was recommended by the real Li for the role). He appears to be a fine dancer, his jetés are gorgeous, as are his pirouettes – his physique is magnificent. However, Chi Cao stands outside the young man he plays, doing what is correct without being this talented but confused young man. During Li’s time as an exchange student at the Houston Ballet, he falls for an all-American strawberry blonde named Liz (played by Amanda Schull). The two go to Kung Fu movies, Chinese restaurants, discos, and fall in love as only teenagers can. All of this behind the back of Li’s mentor and sponsor, Ben Stevenson.

Joan Chen is almost but not quite unrecognizable as Li’s mother. She’s a powerful presence on the screen, strong, steadfast, and radiant through the hardship of poverty of Mao’s China. She creates my favorite scene most believably. Once Li decided to stay in America, his family was bound to be taken to task. As expected, Li’s parents are harassed by local party members, busybodies, neighbors. These neighbors accuse Chen of bringing up her son badly, of raising a traitor. The mother of the sixth son initially stands appalled, but then lashes out shrilly at people, reminding them that the government took her son away years before. "Bring back my son," she cries. Now that felt like a real person.

Kyle MacLachlan is Dorian Gray, really. As Charles Foster, the attorney of international law assisting and advising Li when the young man decides he wants to stay in America, MacLachlan was erudite and classy. His quiet, confident delivery was attractive and avoided stereotypes one might expect from the combination of rich/powerful/Texas/lawyer.

Bruce Beresford directs the actors effectively for the most part, but he was limited by the script by Jan Sardi (based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin), which is obvious and contrived. Li Cunxin’s story appears to be the recollection of a scary childhood from a fairy tale, and perhaps that’s what his childhood was. But this story told of a young man – not a Baryshnikov, not a Nureyev, not, in fact, an adult – seems less about dance than a lack of emotional development of the child placed in an institutional setting without parental figures. Physical development was all that was taught at the Beiing academy. Small wonder that Li’s seduction to the American way of life was accomplished (without anyone actually trying) in three months flat. Despite my opposition to Communism as a political or economic system, I had to agree with Consul Zhang when he said that Li was too young to make his irrevocable decision to marry Liz to stay in America. This decision resulted in his country disowning him, forbidding him to visit his country or his family.

The film includes contrived scenes marking time and making points. A few scenes show the steps of young love, a few set up the disintegration of Li’s first marriage, but they lack depth -- they feel descriptive rather than lived. Whereas a scene in which Ben Stevenson defines the word “chink” to Li is delightful while not responsive to the context in which Li heard the word.

The Chinese government initially made Li a man without a country. The final scene showed the government softening their policy by allowing Li and his wife to visit his hometown. This was a rather fantastical sequence to me – oh, I’m sure the town did turn out as shown. What made it fiction was the appearance of disappeared Teacher Chan (he’s from Beijing, not Li’s hometown). At his stated wish to see Li dance, of course Li and his wife perform on the dirt square. Freeze frame on the Chinese man and white woman dancing with the People’s Republic of China’s red flag in the background. A symbol of Sino-US relations succeeding after all? Well no -- Li’s wife was Australian.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending this film only for die-hard Bruce Greenwood fans.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grumpy in Rhode Island

The hell that has been the summer of 2010 with its persistent and recurring heat waves stopped short this week, requiring the wearing of a jacket. Heaven.

Except that I’m on a beach vacation with no beach, just swamp. No sun-and-sand, just rain and mud. The stormy weather even canceled the Block Island Ferry. And here I sit, grumpy that finally the awful heat wave has been broken by days and days and days of much needed rain…. and ruined my vacation. And guess what! Those 90-degree days will be back as soon as I start driving home!

I know, I know, every day that I’ve been here I’ve not been at work, and that’s undeniably good. But sheesh, I walk more every day in Manhattan than I have here – when the woman at the hotel said it was a mile from the beach, she meant as the crow flies. You gotta drive everywhere here. Grumble grumble.

What I’ve learned this week:

  1. While the view from the Port Jeff/ Bridgeport ferry is best from the top level, the winds are also highest there. Lesson: Wearing a skirt for the ferry ride is not a good plan.
  2. Never ever take vacation in the latter half of August.

The sun has come out. I’m going to take a dip in the pool before the storm starts again.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, donning a swimsuit for the last day of vacation.......

Monday, August 9, 2010

A 2-Movie Weekend

In 2010 a two-movie weekend does not mean a double feature unless you’re at Film Forum. Friday I walked from my lower-Tribeca office up to the Village, stopping at the Angelika to see what they had to offer (seriousness, for which I was not in the mood), then up to the Regal multiplex in its happy location between the Strand and Union Square. There I chose from a plethora of offerings based on the time of the next showings.

I chose Despicable Me. Not surprisingly, the majority of the audience was adult (such as we are), but the few children in the audience screeched their enjoyment. We adults, of course, did not screech.

For the first third of the movie, I worried about all the violence, as if I hadn’t watched cartoons and live action comedies with excessive violence throughout my childhood. The story, the art, the laughs forced me to become one of the children in the audience, enjoying the movie and its characters for what they were. What they were was well drawn, well acted, performing their parts in a fairly predictable story that appeared less so for its clever use of what might otherwise have been a timeworn shrinking ray gun. The main character is Gru, the most evil villain in the world. Or is he? Competition rears its head when someone else steals a pyramid. Gru is getting older, maybe he’s past his prime, says the evil banker who handles loans at the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers). Ageism in banking? Impossible.

Gru has a mad scientist sidekick, Dr. Nefario, and many, many minions, little one- or two-eyed creatures that sound like residents of South Park (and yes, there is a “Kenny”). Gru’s meanness was explained by his flashbacks to his mean mother, although her meanness was never explained. No double flashbacks allowed. Of course Mr. Gru’s heart is touched by three little orphan girls, who throw his life and plans awry.

These kids had worries – the mean lady at the orphanage; the “Shame” box that serves as public solitary at said orphanage; the prospect of never being adopted; the prospect of being returned after adoption; and then being used as tools and hostages by the even more dastardly, heartless villain, “Vector.” The orphans are wily and funny -- the oldest is Margo, sadly wise beyond her years; the brat is pink-hatted Edith; and Agnes is the too cute one that we can't help liking despite her predictability.

The artwork is marvelous -- the facial expressions, body movements, all excellent animation. The voices are all marvelous:
Steve Carell as Gru
Jason Segel as “Vector”
Russell Brand as “Dr. Nefario”
Julie Andrews as Gru’s mean mom
Kristin Wiig as the mean lady at the orphanage
Will Arnett as the evil banker
The 3 orphans:
Miranda Cosgrove as Margo
Dana Gaier as Edith
Elsie Fisher as Agnes
 And directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, along with Jermaine Clement, as all the Minions.

Direction (Coffin & Renaud), writing (Ken Daurio, Sergio Pablos, Cinco Paul), art direction, production design, it all worked well and kept us all, big and little children, engaged and involved throughout. A fun movie.

The next night I saw The Kids Are All Right, directed and co-written by Lisa Cholodenko with Stuart Blumberg.

The story of The Kids Are All Right does not follow any set path or pattern. Happily, I managed to miss any reviews all these weeks after its opening, so all I knew was the basic premise of the film – the teenage children of a gay couple reach out to their mothers’ sperm donor of 19 years before. The moms: Annette Bening as Nic, a doctor, type "A" personality, the professional, and birth mother to 18-year-old daughter Joni played by Mia Wasikowska. Julianne Moore is Jules, the stay-at-home mom who’s had a few career attempts, and birth mother of the younger child, 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson).

Mark Ruffalo is that sperm donor Paul, younger than the two women, an organic gardener and chef, a freethinking, freewheeling, free loving, single man who’s nonplussed and then pleased to meet the children his sperm helped create. Nearing 40, he’s still the 19-year-old who donated sperm because it was more fun than donating blood.

The two women and their two children are the nuclear family, an ordinary, dysfunctional family made that little bit crazier for having teenagers. Ruffalo is the fifth wheel, and of course his appearance throws the family off balance at a precarious time. Daughter Joni is soon to leave for college, and her 15-year-old brother is yearning for a father figure. The film has a great deal of humor to it, but the story, its characters, and their emotions are serious and truthful. The script is well structured, clever, heartfelt, and smart. The performances are uniformly excellent, these relationships are real, and the story is engrossing.

Like I said, this script does not follow an expected path, and I’m not about to tell you where it goes -- I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you. I will just tell you that that the kids are indeed all right.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, hoping you go to the movies this week.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Walking in NYC

New York is hard, New York is expensive, lately New York is overheated, New York is a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And yet, New York City gives such gifts that…. who? One? That indeterminate someone that might be the writer, might be some exemplar? Or I? For the moment let’s say I.

New York City gives such gifts that I cannot leave her. I think about it. I think, what if I found a job that was just perfect and it required me moving to Oshkosh Bigosh. Or, gulp, Texas. Well, jobs aren’t everything. San Francisco, Vancouver, these are possibilities. Or what if I want a dog? I can never have a dog here, he’d be home alone too much of the time, I couldn’t handle the guilt, so it’s time for that little house in the country, that small house in a small town, quaint, picaresque, where all the natives surreptitiously stare at me with suspicion….Never mind.

But New York City. Walking New York City -- as my father instructed me is the only way to get to know a city, and being from Duluth, he’d done a lot of walking between there and here -- lifts my spirits, lightens the anger that follows me into the subway from my present job. Walking shows New York City’s neighborhoods -- the shopkeepers that put bowls of water outside their doors for the local dogs, people gathering at any outdoor space that even suggests seating, New Yorkers meeting and greeting, with and without plans. Walking in New York late at night and seeing artists still drawing passersby, vendors as entrepreneurs, these are the scenes of a home town that convinces one not to leave home.

And oh the people you’ll see, the places, the sounds, the smells. The music, the storytellers, the poets, the pipers, the people dressed oddly even for NYC, the food cooking on outdoor grills, the aromas deliberately piped out of restaurants onto the streets, a lone flute from somewhere, a few stories up, there, that open window. The classical guitarist in the alley and the saxophonists everywhere. Children laughing, children crying, people talking too loud, dogs barking, brakes squealing, tires tearing.

My favorites are the surprises. Walking along and bumping into my friend Jane on Park Avenue South, or Alexis on West Houston. Even more remarkable, going to a Broadway show and bumping into friends from the old neighborhood whom I hadn’t seen in thirty years.

Walking in New York, the perfect segue from the work week to the weekend. Try it sometime.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, putting on my walking shoes.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lend Me a Tenor -- at the Music Box -- only until August 15th!

What is it with Justin Bartha? His bio in the Playbill for Lend Me a Tenor is dreadful, citing only films, not a hint of any stage experience or training, and there his name is above the title, sharing top billing with Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia.

Who is this guy?

OK, one of the films cited was “The Hangover,” of which I have heard many great things and I really, really will get around to renting it. Still, the first 36 words of Bartha’s Playbill bio -- after saying this is his Broadway debut -- are about this movie. I was totally prepared to despise him and all of Broadway for succumbing to the Hollywood invasion.

Strike one on me.

Bartha was fabulous. Hilarious, a rubber-bodied everyman with multiple voices, he more than held his own with the Monk-free Shalhoub and had utterly delightful scenes with LaPaglia.

Lend Me a Tenor takes place in a hotel suite in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1934. Many a 1930s movie opened with the cast (a head or ¾ shot + character name + actor name) then ended with, “A good cast is worth repeating.” The cast of Lend Me a Tenor is worth lauding.

Tony Shalhoub as Saunders, a would-be impresario of Cleveland opera, full of himself, a wannabe mogul. Shalhoub is suave, temperamental, physically loose and tough and funny.
Anthony LaPaglia as Tito Merelli, a world-renowned tenor, a nice Italian boy who loves wine, women, and song in any order. LaPaglia is warm, strong, and impervious to pain -- I mean that Aussie is tough -- and hilarious and sweet and winning.
Justin Bartha as Max, a wimpy assistant to the would-be impresario, stumbling over his dreams of operatic greatness and love. Bartha was the surprise for me, irrepressible energy, physical and vocal control, and fun fun fun. So Thirties, as he ought to be. His transformation from dweeb to sophisticated opera star and back was remarkable.
Mary Catherine Garrison as Maggie, the impresario’s daughter with a bird in hand in Max, while she yearns for a romantic “fling” with an Italian opera star who’d kissed her palm and made her faint. Garrison was charming, delirious sweetness.
Jennifer Laura Thompson as Diana, the Desdemona, a sultry seductress prepared to do anything to garner Merelli’s favor, using her favors to get him to do her a favor and get her out of Cleveland and on to New York. Thompson slinks around the stage in fabulous dresses or a towel, singing just the right lines. A strong, sexy, funny, and really likeable characterization.
Jan Maxwell as Maria, a traditional Italian wife. This was great casting, since one would be hard-pressed to find a woman who looked less like a long-suffering Italian wife than leggy, blonde, glamorous Jan Maxwell. The bitter wrangling between Tito and Maria is perfection.
Brooke Adams as Julia, that society lady in Thirties movies, who runs charitable events all over town, presides over committees, and is the driving force behind the Cleveland Opera. Initially present only over the phone, Adams makes a fabulous entrance in a glittering silver spangled gown and tiara. Many a woman might kill for that gown.
Jay Klaitz as the Bellhop. A damn good tenor himself, he pushes himself into the hotel suite where all the action occurs, and made me sure I knew where the play was going.

Strike two on me.

This is a wonderful cast, pitch perfect, energetic (on a Wednesday evening performance after an equally strenuous matinee). The prowess of these performers inspires, the elasticity of the actors’ bodies and voices is a joy. This is stagecraft.

Ken Ludwig’s script is sharp, speedy, sometimes breathless, always funny, terribly clever, and didn’t go where this skeptic expected it to go. Cheers.

Precise yet freeing direction by Stanley Tucci allowed this cast to fly -- this must have been fun and torture, to maintain immediacy along with the mathematical precision that farce requires. Cheers. Only one or two moments in the two-and-a-half hour play slowed down for me, and then a clever repetition would make the pause worthwhile.

The deceptively simple set by John Lee Beatty sets the stage for an American brand of PG-rated bedroom farce with five doors slamming away.

Martin Pakledinaz designed swinging cloaks and skirts and evening togs, perfect period costumes worn with aplomb by a grateful cast.

Paul Huntley designed perfect hair and wigs.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design was simple then clever; Peter Hylenski’s sound design clear and inconspicuous as it ought to be.

This is Broadway. Lend Me a Tenor is well put together and more than the sum of its parts.

And I like the Music Box Theatre better than the Walter Kerr.

[Ridiculous note – from a character point of view, I should think Othello would be a baritone. Maybe even a bass baritone. Why is he a tenor? I know this doesn’t matter, I just don’t get it. No wonder I don’t like opera.]

[Grumpy note -- The only flaw of the evening was the audience. Yes, they laughed, they enjoyed the show (when certain people behind me and to my right weren’t talking). But when did people become incapable of spending 15 minutes without a backlit screen? From my seat in the first mezz, I watched a woman play a video game on her iPad during intermission. And the fellow next to me just could not live without reading his e-mail on his PDA during the play. Not during the intermission. During the PLAY. Some people should just stay home in their trailers.]

~ Molly Matera signing off, hoping everyone gets to enjoy this exciting evening before the play closes a week from Sunday.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Do I Hear A Waltz?

Why do I so love the score of A Little Night Music? Is it because I love a waltz? Well, I do. In the olden days, waltzing backstage was my way of loosening up before going onstage.

The other reason I love Stephen Sondheim’s score to A Little Night Music is that -- I believe -- the structure of a waltz throughout the play freed him to write creative melodies and lyrics in this his most heartfelt play. Yes, the lyrics and characters are terribly clever and witty, but they are also utterly ruled by their feelings, not their minds. In a Sondheim play. It’s marvelous.

I did not see the original cast of this production earlier this year, so no comparisons would be appropriate. The only comparison I can make is to the original cast recording I’ve been listening to and singing along with for decades.

I miss the orchestra.

This is not to say that the tiny group of musicians led by Music Director Rob Bowman isn’t a good deal more than competent, but that lush sound the glamorous life deserves is missing.

Moving on: The Quintet as Overture (and later Greek Chorus, except much funnier) is just marvelous:

  • Stephen R. Buntrock
  • Sara Jean Ford
  • Betsy Morgan
  • Jane Paterson
  • Kevin David Thomas

And of course we look at them and imagine who’s understudying whom. The opening is clever, explaining how this single set will serve all scenes equally, and it does. It’s efficient and discreetly attractive, parts of it opening and closing and expanding and reflecting as needed. No need to try to sing this set, it gave all focus to the humans onstage – who were rather drably attired (with the obvious exception of Desirée), but this was of no consequence to me. Set, lights, costumes, sound design, all of this was inconspicuous enough to make sure our focus was entirely on the story being told, the hearts being stolen, the hearts being broken, and those smiles of a summer night – as explained by Madame Armfeldt, first a smile for the very young, who know nothing; next, a smile for fools, who know too little; and finally a smile for the old, those who know too much.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1956 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the play is set in the turn of the last century (that is, 1800s into 1900s) in Sweden, where the summer nights last either much too long or never long enough. Hugh Wheeler fashioned a straightforward and farcical story and book of love missed, love lost, love mistaken; the foibles and foolishness of men and women; and the wisdom of little girls and very old women.

A Little Night Music is a delightful musical play. Trevor Nunn’s production in this its second incarnation moves surely through three hours only marred by the uncomfortable seats at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

This production is an import from the Menier Chocolate Factory, but the only actor from across the Pond is Alexander Hanson as Frederik Egerman, lawyer, lover, and foolish husband of a child bride. This actor is a gift. His voice is true and clear and lovely, his timing hilarious, his face expressive -- he’s having a wonderful time and so are we. His Frederik is charming, and his child bride a nitwit.

Ramona Mallory sings Anne Egerman (wait, Mallory? The original cast included Victoria Mallory as Anne. Hmm.). She’s adorable, she’s a coquette, she’s a ninny, taunting Henrik and Frederik unknowingly. Her voice is sweet and clear and her journey totally believable.

And Henrik, Frederik’s son from a previous marriage, smitten with God, sex, and his stepmother. Ah, choices, choices. Henrik’s essence is expressed in his line about the music he plays – “It isn’t gloomy. It’s profound.” He is sorrowfully played by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who bows the cello competently, and makes the third in one of my favorite numbers ever – that is, the combination of Frederik’s “Now,” Anne’s “Soon,” and his own hilarious “Later.” Each song alone is brilliant, revelatory of character and setting up the story of the Egerman family. The joining of the three monologues in counterpoint has always delighted me.

A few years back I had the good fortune to see Patty Lupone as Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” and the extra bit of luck to see Leigh Ann Larkin as “Dainty June.” Well Dainty June is all growed up here as Petra, the raunchy serving girl to the Egerman household, and totally inappropriate confidante to Anne. She’s quite delightful in Act I’s closer, “A Weekend in the Country,” but her second act should-be-showstopper, “The Miller’s Son,” was rather disappointing. Larkin and the musicians were not in sync, and she appeared to be doing an overly choreographed (rather puerile, really) act instead of singing the song to us.

Katherine McNamara played little Frederika on the night I saw the play. A marvelous voice came out of this little girl, although I could hear her “Acting” most of the time. She’ll grow out of that, won’t she?

The absurd Dragoon, lover of Desirée Armfeldt, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm could be a tin soldier, but happily Aaron Lazar not only sings beautifully, he’s funny. He plays the chauvinist fool awfully well, singing “In Praise of Women” marvelously, then fools us into a laugh. Delightful.

Then came Erin Davie as Countess Charlotte Malcolm, the Dragoon’s long-suffering wife, who happens to have a sister who was the classmate of Anne….which lead us to the brilliant duet, “Every Day a Little Death.” Davie’s voice is resonant and deep, her acting sensitive, her characterization of this pained, loving/hating woman is gorgeous. I quite adored her. In fact, hers was my favorite performance in the play.

Say what?

I didn’t actually know that until I wrote it. She was certainly my favorite female performance. Davie had not a single wrong note, literally or figuratively. She delighted me every moment she was on stage. Joy.

The great Elaine Stritch is … Elaine Stritch. I saw her some nonsensical number of years ago in “Company,” and she has always been a kick, a scream, a hearty laugh, a tough cookie, a real broad. Adoration is fair to state. As Madame Armfeldt, she’s hilarious. She makes the musicians follow her in “Liaisons,” during which I could not tell if she was acting forgetful or couldn’t quite recall what the next line was. Her presence onstage is riveting, her comic timing perfection. My only issue is that she was not and never will be in the same universe or century as the Egermans, the Malcolms, or the other Armfeldts. Therefore she pulls the audience out of the play, out of the story, totally dispelling the suspension of disbelief. The place she takes us is a hoot, it’s fabulous, but it disrupts the play. In my humble opinion.

At last, Desirée. Desirée Armfeldt who must have a distinct public persona and a distinct private persona. Desirée whose signature song has been sung by everybody in the last 30-odd years. Bernadette Peters is a goddess of the American stage. What we saw onstage with the great Ms. Peters was a star who connected with all around her. A brief moment during the “Night Waltz” overture, the traveling actress in “The Glamorous Life,” and that woman who responded to Frederik when he entered her room in Act I. By the time we get to her private moment with Frederik in Act II, her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is beautiful and riveting. She is broken, she is cynical, she is sweet, she is loving, she is wise. Peters’ way of singing that song is the right way.

My only issues with Ms. Peters came in the first Act, in her public persona – of course the “Famous Actress Desirée Armfeldt” behaves differently than the woman alone with her daughter, her mother, her former lover. But it felt forced, more like Ms. Peters did not entirely trust us, her loving audience, to recognize subtler differences in her public and private behavior.

In short: I was a touch disappointed in a few scenes with Desirée or Petra, and I never for a moment mistook Elaine Stritch for Madame Armfeldt, but totally adored Frederik, Charlotte, Carl-Magnus, and the Quintet. Most importantly, I love this play and this score. I reveled in the lustily drawn human beings loving life and each other and singing out about it with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim.

A Little Night Music is a Joy.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, still listening to the decades old recording of the score…

Monday, August 2, 2010

Two Readings = Two Plays in Need of Producers

Last week was a busy one. Lucky me, I had friends involved in two readings at the beginning and end of the week. In addition, I had tickets to A Little Night Music (2nd set of leading ladies) in between, so I had a bit of scurrying about to do. Every scurry was well worth it.

Tto open the week, on Monday evening the Abingdon Theatre put on a reading of a play I’d heard read an absurdly long time ago. Some years back Bill McCarty surprised his friends by surfacing with a two act play, complete, without anyone knowing he’d been writing one. Those of you who know writers know how odd that is!

McCarty’s HELLGIG clearly draws on his own experience in the glamorous world of stand-up comedy, the thrill of the road, oh the sights you’ll see. In said play is a terrific role for Bill (that’s fair) that fits like a glove, but also one for his remarkable wife, Patricia Randell. Monday night was a very unusual joy, to see these two fine and funny actors working together, and to hear the play read extremely well in its entirety, crisply directed by Daniela Varon. The play takes place in a Florida condo I never want to see or smell, a dump masquerading as housing for three stand-up comics with a week-long gig at a dive. Only two of these comics have any experience – Georgie Rancor, of which he has much (Mr. McCarty), and Bobbie Sheffield (Ms. Randell). These two have too much experience; these two know each other and neither is happy about it. The third is their opener, a contest winner named Fred, brilliantly and heartbreakingly played by David Gelles-Hurwitz.

Not only does this play have a story, every character in this play has a story, every character has a journey, and while some learn a thing or two, others just refuse. Some things never change. Each character is written sharply, and was played on the edge by Alfredo Narciso (as Lucky, the skeavy owner of the club), Lori Gardner (hilarious both as Panama, an exotic heckler, and a TV reporter with more wit than one expects), and Michael Cullen (as a hood in a nervously hilarious then horrifying scene).

One can only hope someone heard the standing ovation this cast received at the Abingdon for offering its audience this funny, sad, forlorn, frank play. HELLGIG deserves a full production, and New York deserves and needs it. Is any body listening?? HELLGIG’s time has come.


To close the week, I trekked way west to EST where Meir Ribalow directed a first-time-ever-heard reading of Hilary Bettis’ play, Mexico. Mexico is as unpleasant as reality TV, and funnier. Very darkly funny. It, too, offered fabulous characterizations. Since its leading female role was read by Patricia Randell, one could wonder if it was just her -- but listening to the script, it’s not just Ms. Randell. She is that good, but it’s also the writing.

Hilary Bettis’ characters are frighteningly real; they, like the play that frames them, build in a realistic, believable manner. These characters’ journey not necessarily where we’d like to see them go -- rather, their destinations are inevitable as those of flawed heroes in Greek tragedy. Scene by scene, Ms. Bettis draws us into a real world we don’t want to acknowledge. Surely no one can live like this, think like this, behave like this. Alas, even when the father, disburbinglly well played by Randell Haynes, says “We’re not that kind of people,” the audience knows that in fact they are. Mexico is not fun. It is, however, searingly good, and was extremely well done by all players (including Ean Sheehy and Kira Sternbach).

So there you are – two plays, two fine readings thereof, two stories well told -- someone should put these into full production.

~ Molly Matera signing off, calling all producers.