Seen On Broadway:
The best thing about The Violet Hour is the theatre housing it. Cheers to Manhattan Theatre Club for its renovation of the old Biltmore on 47th Street, a lost Broadway house that closed in the 80s after hosting a series of flops like Doonesbury, Honky Tonk Nights and A Woman of Independent Means. Thanks to MTC, we now have an intimate, gloriously designed Broadway house, an excellent venue for straight plays. The only hitch is the play in residence, The Violet Hour, by Richard Greenberg, who, clearly, has seen one too many episodes of The Twilight Zone. Robert Sean Leonard stars as John Pace Seavering, a young WASP of independent means who, in 1919, launches a fledgling publishing company. His main dilemma is whether to first publish the new novel, an epic of Thomas Wolfe proportions, by his F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish best friend, Denis, or the memoirs of Jessie Brewster, a Josephine Baker-type chanteuse. Then a mysterious delivery is made to the office: a printing press that reveals the future Greenberg is always a clever writer, but this time his wit has gotten the better of him. He’s so busy nailing down the plot that he never creates believable or interesting characters. Seavering is having an affair with Jessie and, in a notably incredible moment, he tries to take her on a worktable, in his office, in broad daylight, with no curtains and an excellent view from nearby buildings (In 1919, sex in public would have caused trouble; public interracial sex would have provoked a riot). In Evan Yionoulis’ uncertainly cast production, Mario Cantone, as Seavering’s gay assistant, keeps intruding, getting big, campy laughs that damage the play’s prevailing mood of regret and loss. This is Greenberg’s weakest play in years.
The Violet Hour. Photo: Joan Marcus
Christopher Barreca’s set, a slightly askew vision of an empty office, is extremely evocative and Donald Holder’s lighting vividly provides the effect alluded to in the title, which refers to that moment between daytime and sunset. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are generally period-perfect, though, in one or two cases, they’re surprisingly unattractive: Jessie’s first-act ensemble is a riot of clashing patterns, and the second-act dress worn by Denis’ wife has an oddly unfinished quality. Scott Myers’ sound design is limited to a one or two effects opening and closing each act. Still, even if this production doesn’t work, I look forward to many happy hours at the Biltmore Theatre.
If two roles in a three-character play are miscast, you’re probably in trouble. That’s the case with the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, which is dutiful rather than disturbing. Patrick Stewart is far too charming and well-spoken to play Davies, the scrofulous tramp who finds himself the object of mysterious power plays by a pair of brothers. Davies should be terrifying, a filthy, menacing figure, but Stewart can’t resist deploying that twinkle in his eye; he domesticates the character, thus robbing him of any power or menace. Still, he has his moments, which is more than you can say about Kyle McLachlan, as Astin, the older brother; more than one skilled film actor has come a cropper onstage in Pinter’s plays—Peter Riegert and David Strathairn come to mind—and, sadly, that’s the case here. Instead of percolating with unspoken feelings, McLachlan's Astin comes across as a blank. Not so with Aiden Gillen as Mick, the younger brother; in his biliously witty performance, every speech is laced with alarmingly violent undertones. Under David Jones’ direction, the idea of the play does come across—and it’s not like we get revivals of The Caretaker every day—but it is, nevertheless, a grave disappointment.
The Caretaker. Photo: Joan Marcus
John Lee Beatty’s attic setting is a riot of distressed textures, even if the junk that fills it often arrange in rather too-neat piles. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are generally fine, even though she could have gone further in distressing Davies’ clothing. Scott Lehrer’s sound design gets sinister effects from the sounds of water dropping in a bucket. Best of all is Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, which adds a sickly yellow sheen to everything.--David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: Even a confirmed landlubber like me can recognize Peter Weir’s astounding achievement in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Based on elements from two of Patrick O’Brian’s renowned historical novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, the film matches the books’ fanaticism about period authenticity and detail. It is also refreshingly free of formulaic convention, paced with expert modulation, and quaintly fascinating in its adherence to an early 19th-century sensibility. The two main characters are “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, Captain of the British navy’s HMS Surprise, and Dr. Stephen Maturin, ship’s physician, passionate naturalist, and close friend yet diametrical opposite of Jack. As Aubrey, Russell Crowe is the ideal humanized action hero, both virile and cultivated in a manner it is difficult to imagine any other contemporary star conveying. Paul Bettany’s Dr. Maturin is his perfect counterpoint, the gentle man of ideas through whose eyes we see. In the adventure crafted by Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee, the year is 1805, and the Surprise is pursuing the larger French naval vessel Acheron through the waters off South America, from the coast of Brazil, through the raging storms of Cape Horn, and on to the Galapagos Islands, where the movie’s sole alighting on land takes place.
Master and Commander. Photo: Stephen Vaughn/20th Century Fox
With the exception of the Lord of the Rings films, Master and Commander is the most technically challenging and accomplished movie of the last few years. The key to its success is a quality of seamlessness. Thus, sequences shot on the open sea on the three-masted tall ship replica Rose are invisibly blended with footage captured on another replica built in the Titanic tank at Fox Studios Baja, with miniatures built by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop in New Zealand, and with digital models created by the visual effects house Asylum. For what is unquestionably the most impressive storm-at-sea sequence ever filmed, actual footage of a Cape Horn tempest blends with one created in the Fox Studios Baja tank, where the Surprise replica was tossed on what is reportedly the largest gimbal ever built for a film. Digital shots contributed by Asylum, ILM, and Pacific Title help complete the effect in this and in the film’s battle scenes.
Overseeing both the grand effect and the detail in Master and Commander’s shipboard sets is production designer William Sandell, veteran of another sea saga, The Perfect Storm. DP Russell Boyd does a superlative job of making the film all of a visual piece, and creating something hauntingly beautiful out of moments like the Acheron’s emergence from the fog. Costume designer Wendy Stites, overseeing construction of 2,000 uniforms for the film (only one woman, a South American native glimpsed briefly from the Surprise deck, appears on camera), may seem to have had the most thankless job. But her painstakingly researched designs, which have a marvelous tactile quality, are crucial to selling the world of the film. Other contributions that should not go unmentioned are those of makeup supervisor Edouard Henriques, whose responsibilities cover the gamut of period styles, weathering, and a few fairly gruesome surgical sequences, and sound designer Richard King’s work on those thunderous waves.
Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass is similarly enmeshed in a rule-laden work environment, that of contemporary journalism. The movie tells the story of Stephen Glass, reporter for the New Republic magazine during the 1990s whose whole-cloth fabrications made Jayson Blair’s more recent mischief seem amateurish in comparison. It’s a compelling tale, although finally too small of one to carry a feature film. The movie is also marred by an embarrassing late sequence of journalistic self-congratulation (note to filmmakers: refrain at all costs from on-camera applause in anything but a theatre setting), and by a seemingly unwitting indictment of the New Republic’s fact-checking process. As Glass, Hayden Christiansen is sweet, whiny, and ingratiating in perfect proportion, and Peter Sarsgaard is outstanding as editor Chuck Lane. It is difficult for me to assess Mandy Walker cinematography, since I saw a digitally projected print that flattened out the actors’ skin tones. Production designer Francois Seguin does an OK job of selling Montréal for Washington, DC, though Shattered Glass probably would have benefited from more authentic atmosphere.
Shattered Glass. Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Lions Gate Films
The Matrix Revolutions is certainly no worse than its immediate predecessor, The Matrix Reloaded, but as the final chapter in the trilogy it needed to be a lot better. This time, after about 15 minutes of listening to the Wachowski brothers' humorless mumbo-jumbo, I started wanting to draw moustaches on the movie. There's nothing much to say about the film technically, since it's all of a piece with the previous two films. The climax, which basically boils down to a fistfight between Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving, is spectacular, I guess, but by then the overall visual ugliness and juvenilia had left me checking my watch and talking back to the screen. Most notable detail: Mary Alice has replaced the late Gloria Foster as the Oracle. This is accounted for in some manner that I couldn't follow. But please don't explain it to me. --John Calhoun
The Matrix. Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.
Seen Off Broadway: The stage musical version of the 1980 movie Fame has played virtually everywhere on the globe, short of Uzbekistan—and New York. Now retitled Fame on 42nd Street, it’s at the Little Shubert. Like the movie, it’s a slick package of B-movie clichés, detailing the lives of students at New York’s Performing Arts High School (the time frame is 1980-84, so they’re matriculating at the old PA High, on 46th Street). Jose Fernandez’ book is a very loosely constructed series of vignettes, dealing with all the usual adolescent issue (romance, drugs, sexual identity, overeating, dyslexia). One scene officially breaks the record for clichés per minute (“You want everything too fast. Instant fame. But that only happens in fairy tales. We could have really been something”). The jokes are on the following level: “I’m on the seafood diet. I see food, I eat it.” Among the songs, there’s “Can’t Keep it Down,” about one student’s constant erections; a teacher’s alarmingly overwrought lament, “These Are My Children;” and “In L.A,” which delivers the breaking news that Hollywood is a boulevard of broken dreams. Finally, most of the kids graduate, which leads to a finale in which that famous yellow taxi rises up from beneath the stage for a reprise of that title tune (which, by the way, outclasses everything in the score by Steve Margoshes and Jacques Levy). The film of Fame was ridiculous, but it had a certain pop glamour; the show is just ridiculous. Anyway, it may serve as an adequate time-passer for restless, musical-loving teenagers who have already seen Rent, Aida, and Wicked. Norbert U. Kolb’s unit set is a loving tribute to the dilapidated PA of yore and Ken Billington’s lighting uses every trick in the book to pace and build the musical numbers. Paul Tazewell’s costumes provide a fairly intensive inventory of 1980s fashion crimes and Christopher K. Bond’s sound design is a smooth mix of solid amplification and effects—I particularly liked his surround-sound evocation of New York street noises before the show.
Fame on 42nd Street. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s all too appropriate that Bright Ideas, produced by MCC Theatre, is being staged at the home of Classic Stage Company, as playwright Eric Coble’s black comedy is a modern suburban variant of Macbeth, with the throne of Scotland replaced by a first-class preschool as the object of homicidal aspiration. Seana Kofoed and Paul Fitzgerald are Generva and Joshua Bradley, a pair of upper-middle-class strivers who are riddled with anxiety about their three-year-old son. They’re all but desperate to get him into a top preschool, named Bright Ideas, and thereby get him on the track to the Ivy League and a lifetime of success. So, when one of Ginerva’s overprivileged colleagues stands in their way, a plate of poisoned pasta pesto provides their solution. Unfortunately, Ginerva’s ambitions are not easily subdued and soon the faculty at Bright Ideas are dropping like flies. Coble has an acute ear for the absurdity in the language of modern child rearing (at one point, a teacher informs the Bradleys that their son “is doing outstandingly well in all 39 developmental areas”) and he gets plenty of laughs with the Shakespearean parallels (Ginerva, in her kitchen whipping up a plate of killer pasta, hallucinates, saying “Is that a mortar and pestle I see before me?"). John Rando’s wittly stylized production keeps the laughs coming as the bodies pile up. Kofoed and Fitzgerald are very funny as the stressed-out murderers and they get excellent support from Linda Marie Lawson, Orlagh Cassidy, and Colman Domingo as everyone else. Rob Odorisio’s two-level setting is a clever, functional piece of work, and Gregory A. Gale’s costumes are full of amusing touches. Fabian Obispo’s sound makes hilarious use of Kenny G. as the backdrop for murder; Obispo also wrote the score, which gives some classic nursery rhyme tunes a smooth-jazz spin. James Vermeulen’s lighting is a solid professional job. Bright Ideas is a bright surprise.
Bright Ideas. Photo: Dixie Sheridan.
In American Storage, now at the Kirk Theatre, playwright Edward Allen Baker would have us believe that Rollie, a rather desperate-looking young man, has moved, after his mother’s death, into the storage center built on the spot where his family home once existed. He would further have us believe that Howard, Rollie’s foster brother, is the toast of Providence, Rhode Island’s theatre community, writing thinly disguised accounts of his childhood which feature scurrilous portraits of Rollie and two more foster siblings, Allie and Bry. Howard blackmails all three, offering them information about their origins if they will reveal who murdered their father. They comply, but Howard gets far more than he bargained for, as revelations of childhood sexual abuse come tumbling out. You’ve probably guessed by now that American Storage is both unpleasant and unbelievable, using a thoroughly manufactured situation to stir up 80 minutes of ersatz psychodrama. Anyway, J. Wiese’s setting, depicting the storage center, is a strong piece of naturalistic design. Christien Methot’s lighting is a little heavy on moody cue changes, but Jito Lee’s costumes and Derek Holbrook’s sound are appropriate. But these characters all belong in long-term storage.--DB
American Storage. Photo: Double Wide.