Seen at the Movies:

After some trepidation, I finally caught up with The Matrix Reloaded, at a theatre that was showing the monster sequel on all six of its screens. The trepidation was caused by the fact that I wasn’t that crazy about the first Matrix, and I’d heard that this one was a letdown even for fans of its predecessor. What can I say? The quasi-Eastern, obsessed-with-cool world of filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski, in which fear of and fascination with technology are inextricably linked, just doesn’t speak to me. The possibility that what we experience as the real world may just be a devious computer program isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of worries, and both Matrix movies gum up whatever fun they offer with a lot of humorless philosophical mumbo-jumbo and incoherent plotting.

Which is my way of getting around to saying that despite its technical splendor and elegant design, I pretty much hated The Matrix Reloaded. Though the 1,000 effects shots, supervised as before by John Gaeta, and completed by in-house shop ESC as well as such vendors as Sony Pictures Imageworks, Tippett Studios, Giant Killer Robots, and Animal Logic are objectively astonishing, they lack the novelty of the first film’s. Bullet time has been parodied so much that it’s starting to look ridiculous even in this context. Other highlights include an army of Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smiths and a freeway chase that goes on so long that my eyelids became droopy--all that visceral stimulation can get wearying. Among the less effective effects are the simulation of humanity by an alarmingly hollowed-out-looking Keanu Reeves. He and costars Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne seem exhausted by their martial arts prep for the film (or is it the dialogue that gives them tired blood?). Maybe it’s the ever-present sunglasses that makes everyone act like zombies. There must be a reason other than style for the shades, though it’s a detail I’ve forgotten. Certainly there can’t be any practical reason for Keanu et al. to engage in combat, virtual or otherwise, wearing heavy black overcoats, never matter how cool they look.

The Matrix Reloaded photos: Warner Bros.

Be that as it may, costume designer Kym Barrett’s work was as important in establishing the Matrix aesthetic as bullet time. In The Matrix Reloaded, she doesn’t really show anything new, just much more of the same. Ditto production designer Owen Paterson. The exception is the deep-earth community of Zion, where humans escaping the Matrix have burrowed to hide from the controlling machines. But the setting is really just a big cave, and for some reason, movies have never done caves well. They always look fake, even when they’re not--it must be the lighting. Paterson also supervised construction of a mile-and-a-half stretch of highway in Alameda, CA, for the chase sequence (though much of the movie was shot at Fox Studios in Australia). One artist whose contributions can’t be faulted is DP Bill Pope; his work is kinetic and stunningly lit, often bringing just the right touch of surreality to the proceedings. But I’m not going to be holding my breath until November, when The Matrix Revolutions will be released.

The In-Laws photo: George Graychyk/Warner Bros.

Then there’s The In-Laws, a depressingly unfunny remake of the 1979 comedy, with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks taking on the roles originated by Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. Director Andrew Fleming is one of many perpetrators; another is DP Alexander Gruszynski, who gives us what is probably the ugliest-looking movie so far this year. With this and View from the Top under her belt recently, Candice Bergen is starting to look like a major flop indicator. . . . Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, on the other hand, is almost as devastating a treatment of tragic adolescence as Lilya 4Ever. This time the setting is subtitled working-class Glasgow, and the main character is a budding gangster played by Martin Compston. Loach’s longtime DP Barry Ackroyd brings a customary rawness to this no-holds-barred tale of neglect and teen violence. --John Calhoun

Sweet Sixteen photo: Lions Gate Films

Seen Off Broadway: Writer’s Block, at the Atlantic Theatre, is a pair of one-act comedies by none other than Woody Allen (who also makes his debut here as a stage director). In "Riverside Drive," a successful, adulterous screenwriter (Paul Reiser) has a fateful encounter with an eerily omniscient homeless man (Skip Sudduth). The script starts slowly and builds to a very funny midsection, but Allen can’t manage the transition to the macabre ending (involving murder) and "Riverside Drive" concludes on a sour, unsatisfying note. "Old Saybrook" is a farce in which two sisters (Bebe Neuwirth, Heather Burns) and their husbands (Jay Thomas, Grant Shaud) are enjoying cocktails before a barbecue. Another couple (Christopher Evan Welch, Clea Lewis) shows up and accidentally exposes an affair between in-laws Thomas and Burns. At this point, the action takes a turn reminiscent of Allen’s literary sketches for The New Yorker; let’s just say that at least four of these six characters are in search of an author. It’s an idea that’s hard to realize onstage and "Old Saybrook" meanders to a forced conclusion. Both plays have their moments, but they’re loaded with the stale, my-wife-hates-sex-so-much jokes that could have come from Allen’s act at the Duplex, circa 1963. The louder-faster-funnier direction isn’t helpful, either; there are several moments where laughs are lost through bad timing. The cast tries hard, but some of them, especially that master wisecracker Bebe Neuwirth, are criminally underused. However, Writer’s Block benefits from a nifty production design by Santo Loquasto. The first play features a lovely little study of the walkway in Riverside Park, with a stone stairway and a backdrop depicting fogbound New Jersey. The audience gasps when the curtain rises on the Act II Connecticut summer house setting, which Loquasto has furnished down to the last detail. Laura Bauer’s costumes often make witty observations about the characters. James F. Ingalls’ lighting is essentially two different kinds of white light washes, but they are well done and Scott Myers' sound provides the kind of incidental music that could come only from a Woody Allen film. Writer’s Block has the look of a show planning a commercial transfer; if so, some rewriting and restaging is in order.

Old Saybrook photo: Carol Rosegg

In Rain Dance, at Signature Theatre Company, Lanford Wilson puts four people down in a cantina at Los Alamos, on the night of the first atom bomb test, and lets them make small talk for 90 minutes. The playwright is famous for his quirky characters and oddball insights, but this bunch is a convention of stereotypes. James van der Beek is the idealistic American physicist who shies away from the implications of his work, insisting the US will never use the bomb. Harris Yulin and Suzanne Regan are the world-weary Europeans (complete with a sophisticated marital arrangement) who know better. Randolph Mantooth is the Native American soldier who possesses a serenity that lies beyond the reach of these neurotic Caucasians (He has the most interesting speeches, recalling a youth spent performing as an Indian dancer in Parisian nightclubs). All the familiar arguments for and against the bomb are aired, but to no dramatic effect; well-known bits of history, such as the Hitler rallies and the US reliance on Indian code talkers in WWII, are presented as if they were fresh revelations. Guy Sanville’s static direction doesn’t help, especially with van der Beek, who isn’t really able to evoke his character’s inner conflicts. On the plus side, Christine Jones’ box setting and James Vermeulen’s lighting (check out that searingly red sunset) are first-rate, conveying a sense of time and place that is missing in the script. Kurt Kellenberger’s sound design, consisting of some incidental music and thunderstorm effects, is also effective. I’m less sure about Daryl A. Stone’s costumes--why is Regan wearing a nearly floor-length skirt in 1945, when wartime conditions dictated short hemlines? It’s quite an achievement to make one of the most momentous events of recent history into a bore, but that’s what happens here. Rain Dance is a big disappointment from one our most notable playwrights.

Rain Dance photo: Joan Marcus

The comic potboiler Peg o’ My Heart was written in 1912 by J. Hartley Manners as a vehicle for his wife, the great star Laurette Taylor. (Decades later, alone and nearly ruined by alcohol, Taylor made theatre history as the original Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.) Peg o’ My Heart ran over 600 performances--an astonishing figure for the era, but its charms have sadly faded; all that remains are the grinding gears of Manners’ plot, about a suddenly broke English family forced (by the terms one of those wills that turn up only in vintage plays) to take in a lower-class Irish cousin, who upsets them all with her plain-spoken ways. The conflict, between the highfalutin English and the scrappy Hibernians, was long ago mined for all available humor. In order to liven up the Irish Repertory Theatre revival, director Charlotte Moore has composed a dozen or so songs, but they are strange, formless things, filled with elementary rhymes, which do nothing to advance the action of the play or illuminate the characters. The entire cast tries hard, but there is nothing remotely amusing about this Peg. (Oddly enough, I saw another musical version of Manners’ play, called Peg, in London in 1984, with a cast that included Sian Phillips and the American Ann Morrison; it, too, was a failure.) At least Peg here has a charming production design: James Morgan’s set cunningly combines all the details of an English country house (bric-a-brac, antimacassars, Oriental rugs), with a lovely painted view of the surrounding countryside. David Toser’s costumes are gorgeously detailed, with the ladies in tiered skirts of the period and the men in remarkably detailed suits. Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting gives the stage pictures the pleasant tint of a sepia-toned photograph. Zachary Williamson’s sound design is limited to a few thunderstorm noises. It was brave of Moore and company to take a flyer on a lost play like Peg o’ My Heart, but this one is better left on the shelf.

Zanna, Don't! photo: Joan Marcus

Zanna, Don’t!, at the John Houseman Theatre, is a sweet, peppy, and not-too-bright musical set in an alternative universe where homosexuality is the norm and straights are forced to kiss in the shadows. The title character is a kind of fairy godfather who presides over the matchmaking activities at Heartsville High School, matching boy with boy and girl with girl. Everything is peachy until the captain of the football team falls in love with, yes, a member of the opposite sex, and scandal erupts. There are a few mildly amusing remarks ("What kind of high school would this be if the captain of the football team didn’t want to be in the school musical?"); I also liked the said school show, which explores the controversial topic of straights in the military, paying tribute to the great military heroes--including Alexander the Great and Yukio Mishima. Still, Tim Acito’s book works its single joke to death, and his songs are, for the most part, rather wan bubble-gum concoctions. The scenery by Wade Laboissonniere and Tobin Obst, in its use of eye-searing Pop Art colors and severely angled set pieces, looks like a budget revival of Hairspray; their costumes, all bright colors and sequins, are of a piece with the scenery. Jeff Nellis' lighting works well with the music, although his saturated color palette is tad overmuch in these circumstances. Robert J. Killenberger’s sound design provides pretty good amplification. I should add that Zanna, Don’t! got many good reviews and awards nominations, but it left me with a bad case of sugar shock.

American Dreams: Lost and Found photo: Carol Rosegg

American Dreams: Lost and Found is adapted from the Studs Terkel book, in which a cross-section of Americans discuss what they want out of life. Playwright Peter Frisch selected a generous number of monologues to create a wide-angle of view of American aspiration. However, there’s a tired quality to The Acting Company’s touring production that has nothing to do with the work of the highly skilled ensemble. Perhaps it’s the dated quality of the material--the interviews were conducted in the late 1970s--but nobody ever offers a surprising or original observation. A Native American woman details the crimes against her people. A ghetto mother recalls her struggle out of poverty. A Hollywood refugee (the novelist Jill Robinson) laments the falseness of Tinseltown life. None of this is front-page news and none of it is rendered vividly enough to grab one’s interest. The cast is uniformly excellent--I particularly liked Christen Simon as a very reluctant Miss Universe contestant--and, at times, they make the material seem more urgent than it really is. The production--scenery by Narelle Sissons, costumes by Christianne Myers, lighting by Jeremy Kumin, and sound by Jeffrey Yoshi Lee--is a simple affair, designed for touring. American Dreams: Lost and Found may play better with school audiences, but I’d like to see this talented ensemble deal with more challenging material. --David Barbour