Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bridge Project winds down with a drumbeat.

There was a delightful performance at the BAM Harvey Theatre the other night, when there ought to have been half a dozen.  Like the last time I saw a star turn in Shakespeare’s Richard III, the rest of the cast was not at the same level as the title character.  One might think Kevin Spacey would have enjoyed better sparring partners, but apparently he and his co-producer of the Bridge Project, director Sam Mendes, preferred safe if disappointing casting.

OK, that’s my grouse.  But I do want to be clear here.  This is a fine production in more ways than it’s not.  I have complaints. I have disappointments.  When have I not?  But the Bridge Project’s production of Richard III is more than worth seeing.  Get thee to the BAM Harvey Theatre between now and March 4th [http://www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=3692].  But get there on time, because this starts at 7:30 sharp, in Brooklyn, and you will not be allowed to interrupt Mr. Spacey’s first soliloquy.  Nor do you want to miss it.

The company is professional.  They are all skilled at speaking verse, they’re all playing the appropriate characters in the play (out of its own time and more or less in ours).  But they’re not taking that final leap of faith; it’s as if their characters are not in life or death situations.  Except they are.

Technically this is a splendid, polished production staged with a cinematographer’s eye.  Scenic design by Tom Piper is deceptively simple, a set of dusty walls of doors allowing for the possibility of French farce.  In the second act those walls of doors open up, angling toward the infinity in which these characters continue to live on over 500 years after the deaths of their originals.  And in case you wonder who those people are, the name of the primary character in a given scene is projected — rather like locations in the television series “Fringe” — on the set.  These projections (among others by Jon Driscoll) are particularly pleasing, telling us who Richard will be speaking to, besides the audience:  The Council, or The Public, or Lady Anne.  Lighting by Paul Pyant is atmospheric.  Sound (Gareth Fry) and music (Mark Bennett, with coordination and direction by Curtis Moore) are excellent, with exciting drumming exactly when needed, building, building to an explosive crescendo in some scenes; alternately subtle, frightening undertones in others.

The production is intellectually satisfying, with many good ideas well executed, while some were not.  I dreaded most the dream sequence of Richmond (the future Henry VII) and Richard III on Bosworth Field.  This was set up to look like an informal dinner party with the present and future kings on opposite ends of the table.  Orchestration good, solos not so good. 

Kevin Spacey is terrific as Richard, funny, snide, clever, deeply damaged, and over the top (sometimes a bit too far over).  His deformed body crabs sideways, a shriveled left arm wrapped in leather, a brace supporting his crooked, in-turned left leg.  His movements are astonishing throughout the play.  He never loses this physical characterization, which takes extraordinary discipline and is doubtless quite painful.  This is a bravura performance before we even talk about his superlative use of language.  His phrasing reaches the heights of Frank Sinatra, his feel for the poetry and prose is flawless.  His asides to us, his gawping amazement of what he can get over on his relations and fellow peers of the rocky realm, he gleefully shares with us in the audience. He's a hoot and a half.

Three hours and close to a half — with an intermission after the first two hours — is a long time, and it almost worked.  However, the unevenness of the casting is the downfall of this, the last of the Bridge Project’s productions.  It’s the first production in this three-year experiment that relies on a single high-quality performer; it’s the only season with just one play instead of two in repertory. It seems poor-spirited of Messrs. Spacey and Mendes to not put blockbuster Shakespearean performers opposite Mr. Spacey. 

Chuk Iwuji is Buckingham, but is he?  Is he a leader of men, a soldier?  No, this Buckingham is just a panderer.  Lords Hastings (Jack Ellis) and Stanley (Michael Rudko), and the Bishop of Ely (Andrew Long), are these the most powerful men in the land?  Do they start in confidence and shrink in fear of the ever-strengthening monster Richard reveals?  Alas, no.  In Richard’s England, losing your position on the Council means losing your head, but these guys behave as if they are at board meetings they don’t really need to care about.

In this production the women had a lot to say — scenes and monologues that Shakespeare wrote but  which are often edited away.  It was interesting to see them, well staged, yet somehow unfinished.  The ages of women in Richard III are well represented:
-         The youngest, Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the late King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth, does not speak and isn’t in the script — some productions include her, some do not.  I still recall a (free) production by the erstwhile Riverside Shakespeare Company that included Jacqueline Lucid as a silent but riveting Lady Elizabeth in a production more years ago than I choose to count.  This production’s Lady Elizabeth is so far upstage we can barely see her, and yet physically she did the job well.
-         Lady Anne, young widow of Prince Edward, is wickedly wooed and won by Richard before he’s king.  Annabel Scholey starts off well in the infamous wooing scene, modern, sexy, sassy, but eventually falls a bit short, particularly in her scenes with the other women. 
-         Queen Elizabeth, King Edward IV’s wife/widow and mother of the princes in the Tower — yes, those Princes — is skillfully played by Haydn Gwynne.  She is the most powerful woman on the stage, and gives Spacey a run for his money.
-         Duchess of York is the mother of King Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard of Gloucester (later Lord Protector, later Richard III).  She has no fond feelings for her son and sings the same sour tune throughout the play.  Maureen Anderman hits the right notes, yet is uninspired.
-         And finally Queen Margaret, intoned by Gemma Jones, is the widow of the late King Henry VI, mother of Prince Edward, and, historically, dead by the time this play takes place.  She does, however, perform the function of personifying the past haunting the present.  And Shakespeare wasn’t concerned with history, just a good story.

Almost every scene of this Richard III is a well-staged picture:  Publicity stills abound.  But too many characters spoke from center and out to us instead of to one another. And no one, including the excellent Ms. Gwynne, was at Mr. Spacey’s level.  Yes, I realize the play is called Richard III, but he did not exist in a vacuum.  Spacey’s Richard had only weak resistance, since none of the actors seemed to understand their own potential power. The danger they were in did not build, it just appeared.  This was too easy a ride for Richard.  

And yet....the beat goes on.  The play still works.  And the drums are great.

Let us be clear.  This is Theatre.  No one should mistake it for history.  Time is compressed and characters do what the dramatic structure requires of them.  Their motivations are as the playwright imagines them.  Plays are plotted, constructed, wrought.  Life (and to a lesser extent, history) just happens.  It may be that the weakness of Shakespeare’s play is surrounding Richard with too many weak players.  There is no need, though, to compound this in productions that use a powerful player as Richard but don’t give him anyone worthwhile to parry with.  The Bridge Project, this great experiment of Mr. Spacey and Mr. Mendes over the past three years, deserved a better closing act.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, sighing for a second play in repertory.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Well-Bred Descendants

To be up front about it, I disagree with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.  The Descendants is a nice movie.  It has nice people and nice sentiments.  It is not, whatever director/co-screenwriter Alexander Payne may hope and opine, destined to be a “classic.”  Do you know what’s a classic?  It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic.  It doesn’t just have nice people.  It has mean people.  It doesn’t have a metaphorical bump in the road, it has actions with tragic consequences, it has real conflict, decisions made and regretted, decisions made and rejoiced, obstacles to overcome with pain — and a little help from friends.  Sorry, Mr. Payne.  Pleasant The Descendants is, classic it’s not.

Most of the people in the film are … pleasant.  There’s minimal conflict that is readily overcome.  Nevertheless, the across-the-board excellent performances, the simple structure, and the ultimate niceness of everybody makes for a nice couple hours at the movies.  If you want drama, complications, belly laughs or truly insurmountable odds, this is not the film for you.

In brief, Matt King has two obstacles to living a quiet yet fulfilled life:  First, that his wife Liz had an accident that has left her comatose with little likelihood of recovery.  This puts him at her hospital bedside trying to do his job (he’s a lawyer) and attempting to take care of their two daughters, teenaged Alexandra and 10 year old Scottie. All the while, of course, imagining how much better he'll make their lives together if only his wife will wake up.  Second, he is a descendant and trustee of a family that goes back to mid 19th century Hawaii when one missionary (a Mr. King) married a Hawaiian princess.  This has left “the Descendants” wealthy, although too many cousins have lived off their inheritance, and it dwindles. There’s one pristine piece of land left that the family holds in trust. Most of Matt’s cousins want to sell to developers; a few want to hang on.  The family vote will happen in a few days.  Matt King (apparently the only responsible adult in the family) as primary trustee has veto power to the vote, so we know how that plot line will turn out from the very beginning. 

George Clooney is lovely as Matt.  This is a balanced performance of an imperfect (read “normal”) man trying to be moral and fair and good.  Matt does well at this, although we wish, for the sake of his future ulcers, he’d let loose a bit more.  Initially Matt’s teenaged daughter Alexandra (a gorgeous performance by Shailene Woodley) appears to be a handful, but once the great revelation of the cause of her anger is made, she settles in as helpful, kind, moral, and a good caregiver to her younger sister Scottie (an affectingly true performance by Amara Miller). Alex also has an odd best friend named Sid, played endearingly by Nick Krause.

It’s not very long before we know Matt’s wife Liz won’t be coming out of her coma.  Matt doesn’t tell anyone this at first — it’s as if he’s punishing himself by carrying the burden alone.  So part of what’s happening here is watching Matt engage in self flagellation as he puts off telling Liz’s many adoring friends and family that she will die soon, and they should go to the hospital to say their goodbyes. 

The great revelation, of course, is shown in trailers, so this is hardly a spoiler.  Daughter Alexandra tells Matt that his wife was having an affair.  This is as destructive to Matt’s world view as his wife’s coma.  And he can never mention it to anyone.

Clooney, Woodley, and Miller (a.k.a. Matt, Alex, and Scottie King)
OK that’s all earth shattering for the people involved, of course.  But it’s all smoothed out in the filming.  Awfully nice people.  All neat, clean, and terribly sweet.  There’s nothing really to overcome here.  Death cannot, after all, be overcome.  Telling people that Liz is going to die is hard, and Matt cannot overcome that without his daughters’ support.  Matt is so adult and mature that he goes out of his way to tell the man with whom the comatose wife was having an affair that he’d best go to say goodbye.  He manages to do this without telling the man’s wife when they all meet, not accidentally.  This quest of discovery about the man his wife loved  affords Matt — under the guise of full disclosure — and his daughters, and the ubiquitous Sid the opportunity to go to the island where they own land, so we see the unadulterated shorefront acres that may be sacrificed to humans in the next few days.
 An annoying coincidence revealed by Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) is that the wife’s lover, Brian Speer, is a realtor who could profit hugely depending on the King family’s choice of what to do with the aforementioned land.

Matthew Lillard is very good in the role of the realtor/adulterous lover, showing fear of discovery and loss of his family, the most emotional depth Speer has. 

These are all excellent performances, from Clooney, from Judy Greer as the wronged wife of Brian Speer, from Lillard himself.  Robert Forster is smackable as a mean SOB, Matt’s bitterly brutal father-in-law, who is redeemed by his loving treatment of his wife, a gentle woman stricken with Alzheimer’s. 

Best of the bunch is the eldest daughter Alexandra — simple, true, smart-alecky and smart.  Plus Ms. Woodley has the unneeded bonus of being lithe and lovely.

The film left me grateful that I don’t have children, then sorry.  Cue Sondheim.  Alexander Payne directs smoothly, and Hawaii needs no assistance in appearing beautiful. The Descendants is polished and shiny.  It’s a pleasant way to while away some time, but does not require a big screen or the expenditures attached thereto.  Feel free to wait for the DVD or cable.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  I think I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life….

Friday, January 6, 2012

Snow Days Ahead -- The MTA Ain't No Post Office

Rain, sleet, uh oh, snow. You will not believe what I read on the bus tonight.  Specifically the Q46 bus in Queens, although I’m sure the notices are on all MTA buses.  No one reads these.  If you’re in the right spot, at the right time, you might see that there is a notice.  It might be six years old.  It might be current.  If you want to read it you’ll be leaning over someone who doubtless won’t appreciate the attention.

My phone’s camera is insufficient for photos of paper in moving buses at night, so I went to the MTA’s web site to grab another form of this notice, which is nowhere near as effective as the paper one I saw on the Q46, the one with the bus information outlined in magic marker.

I have been riding city buses since 1967.  That’s when I started at Robert H. Goddard Junior High School 202 in Ozone Park, Queens. I took the Q41 bus to get there from my home.  For years I took the Q41, the Q11, and/or the Q54 (along Metropolitan Avenue) to get to school.  Come rain or snow or sleet or whatever else.  We had blizzards back then, too.

I have been riding NYC subways since around 1970, when I made friends in high school who didn’t live in my neighborhood but rather rode the M train, the L (then the “double-L”) train, and took the Q55 along Myrtle Avenue.  Then there was the A train to college every day, and there’s a Q39 in memory, too.  That was the bus I followed — once I learned to drive — along its winding route through Ridgewood and Maspeth and wherever else to get to the 59th Street Bridge and (then a precious secret) the multi-level parking garage.  This was so my friends and I could park, then walk over the bridge to get to Manhattan to get to work during the big MTA transit strike in … 1980?  Was that it?  You remember, when women started wearing sneakers and socks over their nylons, carrying their pumps in their shoulder bags.

Anyway, suffice to say I have been riding – and have been a fervent advocate of – public transportation for over 40 years.  All of a sudden, public transportation can’t handle snow.  All of a sudden, if it snows?  You’d better bring your yardstick.  All of a sudden, the A, E, F, G, etc . (see notice) trains may not run properly, may skip stops, if it snows.  BUSES — the magic-marker highlighted section of the poster on my bus tonight implies all caps — BUSES may not function at all if it snows more than 5”.  This would mean, of course, that the snowplows aren’t doing their jobs, or why on earth would suddenly buses not be able to function?

Don’t believe me?  This is the link:  http://mta.info/service/ColdWeather.htm

Does Mayor Bloomberg want us all to drive our own cars around the five boroughs?  Into Manhattan?  In the snow?  Instead of professional drivers?  Instead of taking public transportation, which apparently is no longer able to function in the Mid-Atlantic region, despite the fact that it has functioned for half a century that I know of, and a good deal longer before?  

Manhattan Island has the smallest land mass of the five boroughs.  This is about Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and – goddess help them – Staten Island.  We need public transportation.  We are so totally screwed.

I read the other day that someone caught MTA bus drivers playing chess.  I always knew they were doing something, since it is not a variable that on any given morning, during rush, three buses will arrive at the same bus stop at the same time (which is contrary to the published schedule), and riders will have to wait 20, 25, 30 minutes for another.  And then that bus will be so crowded they have to wait for yet one more.  Apparently the drivers are playing chess.  Today’s notices make me wonder if the MTA put out this news blast so we would blame the unions.  Hmm?  Or is it solely the MTA’s responsibility to transport (Metropolitan Transit Authority, in case you’ve forgotten the meaning of the acronym) the tax-paying and fare-paying citizens of all five boroughs to work, to home, to hospitals, to school, to life, even if it snows?

May we remind the MTA that children get snow days.  Working adults do not. 

I ask you.

~ Grumpy Molly Matera, signing off.  Mouthing off.  Whatever.  Too annoyed to be clever.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tinkering With Cold War Espionage

In 1979, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was produced as a seven-part miniseries based on the novel by John LeCarré.  The story is a tangled web, an intricate tale of spies living compartmentalized lives with interwoven personal histories during the Cold War.  A story of this complexity needs that miniseries format.  So this year’s two-hour film version, despite its extraordinary cast and style, falls a bit short in this condensed view. 
The Poster.  (c) 2011 StudioCanal
Absurd as this may be, I find myself describing this feeling the way I would describe whole wheat pasta.  Apparently whole wheat and multi-grain pastas taste like pasta to those who have never tasted semolina.  If you have tasted semolina, you know the taste and texture of whole wheat and multi-grain pasta is just – not wrong, exactly, but not right.  It’s not pasta, that noun must be preceded by an adjective that shows it’s not the real thing.  That’s how I felt about 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  It has strength, suspense, it is skillfully directed and acted and shot.  But something’s not quite there there.

Accepting the fact that two hours is too short a period in which to tell this labyrinthine tale, I like this film.  It starts slowly — it must be twenty minutes before Smiley even speaks — and shows us 1973 London as a dark and dreary place.  This is the Cold War, something that merely influenced life in the far-off U.S., but pervaded every layer of it in Europe. 

Dreary London, dreary Smiley (C)2011 StudioCanal
 What I remember of Alec Guinness’ George Smiley was a reptilian quality.  I haven’t read a Smiley book in a long time, so I cannot recall if the slightly more human Smiley that Gary Oldman gives us is closer to what LeCarré wrote, or not.  Oldman’s Smiley has a great deal going on behind his eyes, already hidden by large eyeglasses.  He sees all but doesn’t let anyone see that he sees. 

The place and the people of this story are the highest echelons of British intelligence in 1973.  These men of MI6 are the spies who survived World War II and decades of the Cold War.  They are tired, they are bitter, they are cynical, and they don’t trust one another any farther than they could throw a circus elephant; but they are bound together as inexorably as soldiers who fight a horrendous battle together and survive – at least part of them survives.

The tension in this boys’ club builds slowly, with each main character in some way introduced.  To tell a tale of spies betraying one another, let alone their country, one most know who these people are.  One of the weaknesses of this short form is that not all the characters of the Circus are clearly drawn.  The Circus, by the way, is a term LeCarré made up for the headquarters and personnel of the spy world.  There are no acrobats there, no trapeze, and no safety nets.  Just secretive, disguised men sporting the costumes of their class and time.
John Hurt losing "Control."

At the opening of the film, the leader of the group is “Control,” played with surly exhaustion by John Hurt.  He sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret trip to Eastern Europe to bring back a defector.  Secret even from their colleagues at the Circus because Control is sure there’s a mole in their midst selling them out to the Soviet Union.  Already Prideaux’s uncomfortable, and then things go very wrong.  We see Prideaux shot, and soon Control is driven out of the Circus, taking George Smiley into retirement with him.  The remaining members of the Circus are smug, and all of them are hiding something from their closest colleagues. 

Toby Jones plays Percy Alleline, the new leader. He snarls, he’s a ferret of a man, he lashes out fiercely, claws his way to the top of the pile of his erstwhile friends and colleagues.  Jones is great at this, portraying the man with supercilious certainty of his superiority.  Without knowing why, we know better.

Ciarán Hinds plays Roy Bland, the least talkative and least known of the group.  Visually he’s terrific, cold, a British good old boy, and I assume there’s more of him on the cutting room floor.  As it is, Bland is an unsatisfying because undefined character.

Firth as Haydon.  (c)2011 StudioCanal
Colin Firth plays Bill Haydon, cocky, confident, a cuckholding bastard everybody seems to love.  I forecast a Best Supporting Actor Oscar or at least nomination for this portrayal.  He’s so very affable, so very relaxed, so very cunning.

David Dencik plays the odd man out, Toby Esterhase — a man who presumably changed sides whenever necessary to his survival in the turmoil of European politics of the mid-twentieth century.  He is loftily terse with everyone outside the inner circle, yet appears rattled when Control barks at him.

The younger members – not of the inner circle, just the Circus – are Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Giullam in a solid, sweet, and, in one scene, heartbreaking performance.  Tom Hardy is marvelous as Ricki Tarr.  Tarr is a sleazy guy, with perhaps more heart and honor than anyone gives him credit for, and Hardy is really fabulous in this role, fooling me at every turn.

We see Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux several times in a charming snapshot of him with Bill Haydon (Firth), a snapshot that seems to give Haydon pain and Smiley ideas.

Cumberbatch and Oldman (c)2011 StudioCanal
Into this boys’ club Kathy Burke intruded back in the day, forcefully and cheerfully, as Connie Sachs.  She’s been with the boys since the war, and she misses those old days, when, as she saw it, the English had a great deal to be proud of.  Clearly she does not think that of England in 1973, and she is “retired” as unceremoniously as Control and Smiley.

Svetlana Khodchenkova is part of Ricki Tarr’s mission, the abused wife, therefore a potential tool for a spy.  Ms. Khodchenkova is strong and vulnerable, giving a memorable performance.

The smallest roles are well executed, and the cast was what drew me to this film in the first place.  These actors and beautifully framed shots are directed by Tomas Alfredson (who directed Let the Right One In, the original version).  Here he directs the screenplay written by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan.  I think all three did good work translating this layered story into a form too short to do it justice. 
Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is dank, dark, and dismal, but gorgeous, and Dino Jonsäter’s film editing builds tension tersely.

What struck me is that spies live lives of lies, and that therefore the spouses of serial killers can hardly be blamed for not knowing they were living with murderers – surely there are more spies than serial killers in the world, and it’s doubtful their spouses know what those people do, either.

Why did this occur to me?  I think you’ll know if you see the film, which, despite some flaws, I recommend.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, and putting the 1979 Alec Guinness miniseries into my Netflix queue and LeCarre’s novel onto my library list.