Seen on Broadway:
A Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors always seemed unnecessary, but, after having seen some of this season’s mixed-up new musicals, I found much to appreciate in Jerry Zaks’ production, now at the Virginia Theatre. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s adaptation of Roger Corman’s Grade-Z comedy-horror film cheapie is still a remarkable, hilarious invention, and Zaks has populated the stage with some first-rate clowns. As Seymour, the nerdy, lovelorn florist who accidentally unleashes a man-eating plant on the world, Hunter Foster confirms his status as a top-flight musical leading man, with a sterling voice and impeccable comic timing. That delightfully shameless ham Douglas Sill sinks his teeth into the role of Oren, the sadistic dentist who is the first of Seymour’s victims; Sills also plays several other characters, including, incredibly, a fox-fur wielding Clare Booth Luce. Rob Bartlett provides a super-sized helping of fun as Mushnick, Seymour’s greedy, overbearing employer. The only real disappointment is Kerry Butler, as Audrey, the baby-talking pushover who drives Seymour wild. Butler is a skilled performer—she was a riot in Hairspray--but the role belongs, now and forever, to Ellen Greene, whose combination of vulnerability and a stunning vocal belt is preserved in the film. (It’s an oddity of Jerry Zaks’ shows that, with one or two exceptions, the female leads are less-than-expertly cast; he has a passion for male character actors that doesn’t translate to the ladies.) Scott Pask’s amusing set design is rooted in those lurid horror comics that upset parents so in the 1950s, and Donald Holder’s lighting adds touches of lurid color. William Ivey Long clearly had fun coming up with tasteless outfits for Butler. T. Richard Fitzgerald’s sound design starts out muddy—I couldn’t hear the lyrics of the first number—and improves as it goes. The real design thrills come from the realization of the carnivorous plant Audrey II by The Jim Henson Group and Martin P. Robinson; the plant’s final appearance is a real stunner. There’s nothing wildly original about this revival, but it’s professionalism is a constant pleasure.
Golda’s Balcony has made the trip to Broadway‘s Helen Hayes Theatre, with Tovah Feldshuh giving the performance of her career as Golda Meir, reviewing the events of her life as she decides whether to opt for the unthinkable and use nuclear weapons against the Arab nations during the Yom Kippur war of 1973. It’s still a model of design for a one-person show, as well. Anna Louizos’ set, a collage of wood and stone, opens up to reveal a stunning view of the sky. Jess Goldstein’s costumes, in partnership with Paul Huntley’s wig, and John Caglione Jr’s makeup totally transform Feldshuh into the 75-yeard old Meir. Howell Binkley’s lighting works in tandem with the projections by Batwin and Robin Production; again, however, as happened Off Broadway, the Catalyst digital-image-delivery system is not perfect. When the unit repositions itself, you can see a faint white halo moving across the stage. Mark Bennett’s sound design creates nerve-wracking surround-sound effects of machine guns and bombs; on the other hand, there’s a slight delay in the amplification of Feldshuh’s voice that was noticeable through the show. Still, this is an unmissable performance.
Golda's Balcony Photo: Aaron Epstein
Funny thing about Broadway: Everyone complains that it’s full of nothing but the frivolous. Then a really serious play comes along and it gets dismissed for being too dour. So it is with The Retreat From Moscow, in which William Nicholson probes the remains of a dying marriage. Edward (John Lithgow) and Alice (Eileen Atkins) have spent 33 years in a kind of armed truce—Alice’s weapons are sarcasm and rage, Edward’s is his ability to retreat behind a book, a crossword puzzle, another cup of tea. Their amiable, slightly blank son Jamie (Ben Chaplin) helps keep their equilibrium with his frequent visits. Then the unthinkable happens: Edward walks out, moving in with a younger woman and her son. A death couldn’t have more impact—Edward suddenly discovers happiness while the deeply eccentric Alice enters into a tailspin that stops just short of madness. Caught between them is Jamie, who becomes their messenger and confessor. Nicholoson is unafraid to examine the most painful, telling details of his story; how Alice’s devout Catholicism leaves her thoroughly unprepared to face these events, how Edward must come to terms with his actions, how Jamie’s inner emptiness may be result of his relationship with his parents. (At times, the production reminded me of one of those emotional autopsies that Ingmar Bergman used to make in the 60s). Daniel Sullivan’s sensitively directed production features excellent work from the cast of three: Eileen Atkins strips Alice of any sentimentality — her account of the fate that befalls all divorced, middle-aged women is delivered is simple, matter-of-fact fashion and is all the more devastating for it. Lithgow reveals the deep emotional changes inside Edward without changing an expression. Ben Chaplin may the most alert listener on Broadway; his reactions indicate the effect that his parents’ problems are having his own unspoken dramas. John Lee Beatty’s setting is not, unfortunately, his most distinguished work. It’s a series of scrims covered with bare branches — an interesting idea, but the overall effect is sterile and drab. It is sensitively lit, however, by Brian MacDevitt. Jane Greenwood’s simple costumes run to woolens and tweeds in a gray-black palette. John Gromada’s sound design consists mostly of music cues between scenes, plus a few dog barks. The Retreat From Moscow certainly leaves a bitter aftertaste, but that, of course, is the point: it is certainly the most adult Broadway play so far this year.--David Barbour
The Retreat From Moscow Photo: Joan Marcus.
Seen Off Broadway: Memo to Playwrights Horizons: Enough with the memory musicals, already! Last year, there was the sleep-inducing My Life With Albertine, based on a section of Remembrance of Things Past. This year, it’s Wilder, by Erin Cressida Wilson, Mike Craver, and Jack Herrick. This sliver of preciousness stars John Cullum as an aging writer who recalls his youth living in the attic of a Denver bordello. It’s the Depression: his father is in jail for selling the same car five times in one day and his mother has run off. Wilder is in love with Melora, who calls herself "a soiled dove," employing the pseudo-poetic argot that infects these characters like a bad cold: "If I were your man, I’d turn you into juice," Wilder says, wooing Melora. Later, he tells her he has "a moon pail full of love" for her then recalls for the audience "The night she poured all the boyhood out of me." (This, by the way, is rather heady stuff coming from an adolescent who can’t figure out why all the bedsprings in the house squeak so much at night). There are sexual fantasies, and bizarre references to "the wetting of the carrots" (you have to guess what that means; I’m not helping you out). Things get really squirrelly when Wilder tells Melora that he’d like her to be his "wife-mother," then discovers that his mother is working as a streetwalker nearby. Wilder is 80 minutes of agony, a child’s garden of bad verse. Anyway, G. W. Mercier’s attic setting is appropriately cold and distressed and he’s created some lovely outfits for Lacey Kohl to wear as Melora and as Wilder’s mother. Jane Cox’s lucid lighting design always makes clear where we are — in the attic, in Melora’s room, or somewhere in the elder Wilder’s memory. Tom Morse’s sound includes some nice effects although I can’t understand why the actors are miked in the tiny upstars space at Playwrights Horizons.
Wilder Photo:Joan Marcus
Just in time for the Yankees’ ignoble performance in the World Series is Nobody Don’t Like Yogi, starring Ben Gazzara as the beloved baseball figure Yogi Berra. Given his reputation for entertaining malapropisms ("I’m not inwardly outgoing"), I suppose it was inevitable that he would become a stage character (he got a huge laugh at my performance by ordering "pie a la mode—-with ice cream"). To be sure, Gazzara is a convincing, appealing Berra, deadpanning the crazy remarks and delivering Berra’s philosophy of life with touching humility (The play is all about Berra as philosopher; you could call it The Tao of Yogi. Unfortunately, Berra’s life, which mostly consisted of getting everything he ever wanted, isn’t the stuff of drama — what little action there is consists of his tiffs with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner – and I quickly grew bored. I must add that an audience full of baseball (or Gazzara) fans ate it all up. Anyway, Tony Walton’s locker-room setting also provides a dizzying, diamond-level view of Yankee Stadium and Ken Billington’s lighting is full of graceful transitions. There’s also some nice ballpark sound effects by Tony Melfa. Let’s amend the title; even though I don’t like Yogi, there are clearly plenty of people who do. --DB
Nobody Don't Like Yogi Photo: Alex Ottaviano
Seen at the Movies: This Halloween, moviegoers have a choice between the old and the new/old. The latter category includes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a remake of Tobe Hooper’s great 1970s B-shocker. The new version is directed by Marcus Nispel, a German whose most recent credit seems to be a Janet Jackson video. It’s set in 1973, is filmed, like the original, in Austin, and even boasts the same cinematographer, Daniel Pearl. Since I haven’t seen it, I have to rely on the word of my sources, who assure me that the new film is far more garish and far less effective than its renowned ancestor. Certainly the special effects makeup has been given a comparatively expensive treatment, since it’s partly credited to Gregory Nicotero of KNB EFX Group Inc.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: New Line Cinema
A film I have seen, much to my chagrin, is Scary Movie 3, a PG-13-rated follow-up to its R-rated predecessors. This time, Airplane! and Naked Gun co-creator David Zucker takes over in the director’s seat for Keenen Ivory Wayans, and tones down the raunch. The movie mostly gives a parodic spin to recent horror hits Signs and The Ring, with little bows to The Matrix and 8 Mile. There are a few laughs, but it’s not enough for a feature-length movie. Is it ever? DP Steven Bernstein and production designer Cynthia Charrette do their best to evoke the particulars if not the overall atmosphere of the aforementioned films.
Scary Movie 3: Peter Sorel/Dimension Films
If it’s a genuine fright you want, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien is back, with some digital enhancements, new footage, and trims. I always thought this movie was a nasty piece of work, but it’s undeniably gripping, with superb cinematography by Derek Vanlint and art direction by Roger Christian and Leslie Dilley, and Oscar-winning visual effects by H. R. Giger, Carlo Rambaldi, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, and Denys Ayling. It also has, of course, Sigourney Weaver, in the kick-ass role that made her a star.
Alien: Robert Penn/20th Century Fox
But my vote for the best horror film around right now—at least if you’re somewhere in the vicinity of New York’s Film Forum—is Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face. I first saw this black and white film 35 years ago on TV, in a dubbed version nonsensically titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and it scared the bejesus out of me then. It’s the seriously creepy story of a surgeon who kidnaps women and attempts to graft their faces onto his daughter, whose visage was ruined in a car accident. In the meantime, the daughter wears a blank-faced mask that is possibly more disturbing than anything else in the movie. Franju had a gift for surreal imagery, and with the aid of the great cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, he delivered one of the horror genre’s most visually poetic films in Eyes Without a Face. Rent it if it’s not playing in a theatre near you.
If you’re ready to move right onto Thanksgiving cinematically, Peter Hedges’ indie film Pieces of April has a lot to recommend it. Katie Holmes stars as April, a ne’er-do-well daughter determined to cook turkey dinner for her family in her tiny East Village apartment. The problem is, April’s oven has decided to stop working, so she wanders the halls in search of an unoccupied stove, getting to know her neighbors in the process. This is intercut with scenes of her suburban family reluctantly making their way to the city. Mom (the ever-fabulous Patricia Clarkson), we discover, is dying of cancer, but this is not played for easy pathos. The movie, which also stars Oliver Platt, Derek Luke, and Sean Hayes, is funny and, finally, quite touching. The major caveat: Pieces of April is shot in DVCam, and it’s one of the gummier looking digital movies I’ve seen. The DP is Tami Reiker, who did such a good job with High Art; perhaps video is just not her thing. If so, I’m with her.--John Calhoun
Pieces of April: MGM