Seen on Broadway:

Comedian Bill Maher has arrived for a short engagement called Victory Begins at Home, based on his recent book, When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden. Maher’s monologue is structured around a series of posters from that book which convey a number of subversive ideas in the manner of World War II propaganda art (among them, a picture of the Statue of Liberty in a burkha, and a picture of Christ and Mohammed in boxing gear, titled "The Real Celebrity Deathmatch"). Over the course of two hours, Maher takes no prisoners, managing to offend members of the left, right, and center. No one is safe from his barbs, certainly not George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Al Gore, Pope John Paul II, and the entirety of Islamic culture--all of which, I suppose, accounts for the number of boos and hisses that accompanied the laughter rocking through the Virginia Theatre. (He’s certainly up-to-date; last Friday’s performance took in Rick Santorum’s gay-baiting activities and President Bush’s photo-op aircraft-carrier landing.) It’s not all politics--he also provides hilarious observations about the fashion choices of movie stars (making them indistinguishable from prostitutes), those prescription drug commercials on television, and what he calls the "feminization" of our culture. I don’t watch Maher on television, but you have to admire his iconoclasm; I wish more Broadway playwrights were capable of stirring up audiences like he can. This is not a design show, but Peter R. Feuchtwanger’s video projections are very well done--he’s also the lighting designer--and Jill B. C. Duboff’s sound has a nice, natural touch, even in the final segment, a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Victory Begins at Home photo: Bruce Glikas

The oddest program credit of the year can be found at The Look of Love: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Four people--David Thompson, Scott Ellis, David Loud, and Ann Reinking--apparently "conceived" this piece, but what can they have possibly done? This is yet another greatest-hits package; any concept is limited to some clumsy and inappropriate staging ideas. Then again, what did Scott Ellis do as director? Clearly, however, Ann Reinking has been busy, providing some of the most pointless and vulgar dances to be currently seen on Broadway. (The show’s low point of tastelessness features Shannon Lewis, Janine La Manna, and Rachelle Rak singing "What’s New Pussycat?" in a monotone while striking suggestive positions on cane chairs--as if they had been recently fired from the Kit Kat Club.) Things go right whenever Capathia Jenkins is onstage, vocalizing like Dionne Warwick (her rendition of the title tune is the show’s highlight), and Liz Callaway brings her signature intensity and vocal power to bear on a couple of ballads. But much of the time is spent in aimless milling about--when Callaway sings "I Don’t Know What to Do With Myself," she could be speaking for the entire cast. This is also another episode of When Good Designers Go Wrong. Derek McLane’s series of curvy units covered in perforated metal looks like the waiting room at a Disney theme park ride. Howell Binkley’s lighting features some gorgeous and subtly worked color washes, but too often he indulges in frantic over-cueing. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are hideously unflattering. Brian Ronan’s sound design has a hollow quality; at times, you can barely tell who is singing and who isn’t. When talents like these produce results like these, you have to blame the director, who clearly lost control of the project. Then again, even if it were 10 times better, is it really part of the Roundabout Theatre’s artistic mission to produce this kind of showroom revue? Is the Roundabout, like the Guggenheim, planning a Las Vegas branch? --David Barbour

The Look of Love photo: Joan Marcus

Seen at the Movies: John Malkovich’s directorial debut The Dancer Upstairs is an atmospheric, elliptical drama about an unspecified Latin American capital under the duress of terror. It’s adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, which was based on the hunt for Abimael Guzma, the leader of Peru’s violent insurgency, Shining Path. The central character in The Dancer Upstairs is police detective Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), whose obsession with catching the film’s Guzman equivalent relates to an incident years earlier when he had let him get away. Most of this has to be inferred, because the movie can be maddeningly evasive about motivation and other dramatic niceties. Fortunately, Malkovich has Bardem, a master of expressive introspection, at his disposal.

The Dancer Upstairs

If only the actor, and the rest of the movie’s cast, had been allowed to speak Spanish, the native language for most (excepting leading lady Laura Morante, who is Italian). The English language track is undoubtedly due to the complications of international financing, yet it’s weird to see a film so steeped in its milieu (the city and surrounding countryside have been masterfully cobbled together from locations in Ecuador, Spain, and Portugal) with a cast of heavily accented actors struggling, at times incoherently, with their dialogue. But The Dancer Upstairs has a languorous, seductive rhythm, and a rich visual palette, courtesy of DP Jose Luis Alcaine and production designer Pierre-François Limbosch. In this world, violence erupts unexpectedly, even casually. Despite the flawed soundtrack, Malkovich conveys a sometimes scary you-are-there sense to the viewer.

The Dancer Upstairs photos: Paola Ardizzoni/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Patrice Leconte’s Man on the Train is a thrown-off trifle that achieves a kind of grace in the chemistry of its two stars, Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday. Rochefort’s retired small-town schoolteacher is a model of Old World elegance, and Hallyday brings his leather-jacketed, cigarette-dangling pop iconography to the role of a career criminal who drops in for a visit. The pair strike up an unlikely friendship, a robbery is planned and carried out, and that’s about it to the movie, which is as handsomely made as all of the director’s works (including Monsieur Hire, Ridicule, and Girl on the Bridge). Leconte is a master of the widescreen image, here employed by DP Jean-Marie Dreujou to underline the film’s deadpan quality with empty space. Production designer Ivan Maussion and costume designer Annie Perier do nice jobs of contrasting the two men’s signifying surroundings and accessories. --John Calhoun

Man on the Train photo: Paramount Classics

Seen Off Broadway: Cavedweller, by Kate Moira Ryan, is based on a novel by Dorothy Allison and its literary roots are showing. This is the story Delia Bird, an alcoholic, scandal-plagued, burnt-out rock singer/songwriter who returns home to Georgia to put back together the pieces of her shattered family’s existence. This involves confronting her dying, abusive husband, assuming control of the local beauty parlor, taking up with two abandoned daughters, and coming to terms with a third child, the "cavedweller" of the title. What happens next will be familiar to any member of Oprah’s Book Club--family secrets are revealed, bitter confrontations end in tears and forgiveness. Ryan’s incident-filled script covers far too much ground to examine any one character or situation in depth, but the sheer narrative pull does have its pleasures. This is a yarn rather than a play, a true theatrical page-turner; even though the story isn’t quite believable, you have to know what happens next. Cavedweller also works as a first-class vehicle for Deirdre O’Connell, who gives a powerhouse performance as Delia. There’s also good work from Adriane Lenox as Delia’s caustic, hard-drinking best friend and Lynne McCullough, who creates an entire gallery of gossipy/bitchy/kindly Southern matrons. Riccardo Hernandez’s setting, in which three flats, depicting a house exterior, constantly refigure themselves, is a nicely flexible design solution, and Jennifer Tipton’s restrained, tasteful lighting seems just right. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are eminently suitable for each character (love those bridesmaid dresses!) and Jerry Yager’s sound design provides both amplification of the original songs by Stephen Trask and Julia Greenberg, and some evocative effects, particularly in the scenes where Delia’s daughter Cissy explores the local caves. All in all, a lively experience; you might not be totally satisfied by Cavedweller, but you won’t be bored. --DB

Cave Dweller photo: Joan Marcus

Seen in Brooklyn: Director Jonathan Miller was back in town with his updated version of Mozart’s comic opera, Cosi fan tutte, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Performed in the Harvey Theatre, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic under the baton of Robert Spano, this production was performed on a stage built for the occasion with the orchestra on the floor in front of the stage. This allowed the original proscenium arch of the Majestic (as the theatre was once called) to serve its intended purpose. The stage was built to the height of the side boxes, with a small table and three cafe chairs preset in the box stage right. During the overture, three male singers (in the roles of Don Alfonso, Ferrando, and Guglielmo) were having snacks and drinks at the table, then made their initial entrances from there onto the stage, setting the casual tone for the proceedings. The casually elegant set, nicely designed by Anne Patterson, was in varying shades of off-white, with textured walls partly draped with fabric, and a large pile of pillows on the floor, as well as a valence topping the set. The furniture added a period air (Mozart’s period, that is) with a white wood frame sofa with pink upholstery peeking out from off-white fabric, and a large chevalier mirror by the upstage door. In fact, the entire set looked as if it could be the family’s 18th-century palazzo that had been updated along with the opera itself. The softly enchanting lighting by Matthew Frey dappled the walls, adding warmth and depth, as well as indicating the time of day. Patterson also designed the costumes and it is here that she had some real fun. The men began in well-cut suits and ties, demonstrating their stature in life, while the two young sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, started out in pantsuits in black and gray, with long jackets and high-heeled shoes. The young men reappeared in their disguises: a rasta wig, skull cap, and black leather pants and coat for one; a blond wig, bandana, jeans, biker chains and bracelets, and a heavy metal T-shirt for the other. The women changed to layered dresses in blue, white, and clay, adding white jackets and feathered hats for the wedding scene. The audience seemed enchanted with the light-heartedness of this production, save for a few naysayers who were hoping for something lushly 18th-century. But the well-sung (Helen Donath as Despina, in her black and terracotta pantsuit and long scarf, was especially appreciated), well-designed production was just the thing in my book for a Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Cosi fan tutte photo: courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music