Seen at Manhattan Theatre Club:

House

and Garden. John Lee Beatty has done it again. His sets for Alan Ayckbourn's pair of simultaneously performed plays are simply delicious, and exactly the kind of house and garden you'd move into tomorrow. (I'd trade my West Village walk-up in a heartbeat!) House, which takes place on the larger stage at MTC, is set in an elegant English country house. Doors from the living room lead to the dining room, where some of the action takes place; and to the garden, where Garden, the other play, is taking place in the smaller MTC venue next door (the actors are actually running back and forth from one set to the other, in a case of impeccable timing).

For inspiration, Beatty looked at books about English country houses, as well as watercolors, "not to be so literal, and to get the lightness and comic tone," he says. He also looked at the work of Edward Luytens, an English architect, and Gertrude Jekyll, a famous English landscape artist of the early 1900s. "In England the gardens have that slightly decayed look, and you don't know if it's intentional or not," says Beatty, who designed his garden floor with non-slip padding, since it rains during the play. (After all, this is England). "Because of the water shortage, we are recycling the water," he notes. In the House set, there is almost a complete dining room, which due to sightline problems contains a large mirror, so that the entire audience can see the action taking place there. The color palette for the country house is based on a warm yellow. "It's a little warmer than I might have ordinarily used," says Beatty, "but the director, John Tillinger, liked it and Jane Greenwood, the costume designer, liked it as well, so I had support from my collaborators. And Jane, being English, has the proper cultural instincts." --Ellen Lampert-Greaux

Seen at the Movies: Insomnia is an intelligent, above-average thriller, featuring a magnificently nuanced performance from Al Pacino and atmospheric handling by director Christopher Nolan, of Memento fame. Pacino is LAPD detective Will Dormer, who is sent with his partner (Martin Donovan) to small-town Alaska to help with a brutal murder investigation. While tracking the murderer through the fog, Donovan's character is killed, and ambiguity surrounding the circumstances becomes a source of torment for the older cop. Adding to his anguish is the condition of the title, which is aggravated by the setting's summertime midnight sun; night after sleepless night, Dormer fruitlessly attempts to blot out every bit of light making its way into his hotel room.

DP Wally Pfister shot the movie in what can be described as daylight noir mode: lots of darkness, but with light always encroaching, peeping through somewhere in Nathan Crowley's carefully designed sets. (See the cinematography story on the film in the June issue of Lighting Dimensions.) Insomnia, which is based on a 1997 Norwegian film, is consistently engrossing, and also boasts a creepy supporting turn by Robin Williams. It's good enough that I couldn't help being disappointed that it wasn't better, that it didn't come through with a knockout final act or ever fully match the depth of Pacino's performance. Still, it's a good alternative to numbskull offerings like Enough.

The Importance of Being Earnest should also be a perfect antidote to summer blockbuster fever, but Oliver Parker's film version of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece of frivolity is an unmitigated catastrophe. Parker, who directed an acceptable movie of An Ideal Husband three years ago, had the brilliant notion of "cinematically" opening up Wilde's play, showing Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), for example, being chased through the streets of London by creditors, and giving banal visualization to the romantic fantasies of young Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon).

The movie is hectically directed, with an aggressively cutesy score by Charlie Mole, and, with a few exceptions, is maladroitly performed by an estimable cast. Colin Firth and Frances O'Connor are a dull pair of leads as Jack Worthing and Gwendolen Fairfax, and Everett underplays to the point of sullenness. And of all the Dames of the British Empire, is there any less suited to the role of Lady Bracknell than Judi Dench? Dame Judi plays the part realistically, with her trademarked level-headedness, and it's all wrong. She and the other women also wear a series of ugly, overelaborate costumes by Maurizio Millenotti that seem to hail, like the rest of the movie (Luciana Arrighi is production designer), from a later period than the play's 1895 date. (At one point, Gwendolen is shown driving a car.) The film's overall visual darkness is a surprise, coming from master cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, but it fits the movie's dimwittedness well.--John Calhoun

Heard From the Cote d'Azur: Word is that this year's Cannes Film Festival, which ends Sunday with an awards ceremony and Closing Night feature And Now...Ladies and Gentlemen, has been unusually packed with good movies. Vying for top honors are such acclaimed offerings as David Cronenberg's Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a mentally disturbed Londoner, with cinematography by Peter Suschitzky and production design by Andrew Sanders; Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past, shot by Timo Salminen, who reportedly contributed a stunningly heightened color scheme; and Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, with Adam Sandler in restrained mode, and with supposedly ace work by regular Anderson collaborators like DP Robert Elswit and production designer William Arnold. Also in strong contention for the Golden Palm and acting awards are Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (which is said to have a career-highlight performance by Jack Nicholson), and Mike Leigh's All or Nothing.

Everyone seems to agree that the Prix Technique should go to cinematographer/Steadicam operator Tilman Buttner, who shot Russian director Alexander Sokurov's high-definition entry Russian Ark in a single 95-minute take. This singular-sounding film, described by Variety as "a dreamlike journey through Russian and European culture over the last three centuries," was shot inside St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum, and includes 2,000 costumed extras. The costumes were designed by Lidiya Kriukova, Tamara Seferyan, and Maria Grishanova, and production design is by Yelena Zhukova and Natalia Kochergina.

There are more digital-video features than ever in competition this year, including Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke's Unknown Pleasures, with camerawork by Yu Lik Wai, and Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, with highly praised cinematography by the great Robby Muller. Party People is the true story of the Manchester, England punk rock scene circa 1976-92, with lovingly detailed production design by Mark Tildesley and costume design by Natalie Ward and Stephen Noble. Back in the world of 35mm, Demonlover is French director Olivier Assayas' take on Japanese anime and 3D porn production and international corporate dealings. Francois Renaud Labarthe is production designer, and the widescreen handheld camerawork is by Denis Lenoir.--JC

Seen Off Broadway: Smelling a Rat is made up of the following elements: one bedroom, six closet doors, one gun, and five characters, each with something to hide. But Mike Leigh’s so-called “anti-farce” willfully avoids anything like a plot, preferring instead to let his unpleasant characters talk our ears off. (Leigh relies relentlessly on conversational tics; the repeated use of the word “inasmuch” drove me to the edge of distraction). The talk itself consists of far too much information about gastric and digestive problems, among other things. (I must add that the sullen youth played by Eddie Kaye Thomas speaks virtually not at all; he was my hero for the evening). Like several other Leigh plays that have been produced by The New Group, Smelling a Rat has gotten mighty nice reviews from The New York Times and Variety. I can only report that for me it was two hours of sheer agony, Leigh’s overpowering contempt for his characters canceling out any interest they might have had.

It must be said, however, that director Scott Elliott has gotten strong, consistent performances from his cast, which includes Michelle Williams (of Dawson’s Creek) and Brian F. O’Byrne. It must also be said that the design is first-rate, especially Kevin Price’s astonishingly detailed bedroom setting, in a mauve color scheme that can only be found in England. Eric Becker’s grotesquely accurate 80s clothing is very well done, too. Jason Lyon’s lighting often relies on architectural units built into the set, a challenging approach that he pulls off with seeming ease. There’s a lot of talent on display at the Beckett; I wish it had been put to better uses. (On the other hand, the new Samuel Beckett Theatre, part of the new Theatre Row, is an excellent venue; expect more coverage of this project in a future issue of Entertainment Design.)

Room is a new theatre piece, created by Anne Bogart and the SITI Company and currently at Classic Stage Company, taken from the writings of Virginia Woolf. As is typical of Bogart/SITI productions, the presentation is very theatrical. Neil Patel’s white scrim box set is covered from all angles by Christopher Akerlind’s fluid, beautiful lighting, while Darron L. West’s battery of sound effects give the piece the strangeness of a dream. It’s all perfectly executed and I don’t see the point of it at all. Bogart and the SITI troupe have done fine work investigating cultural figures, including Andy Warhol and the silent film pioneers, each of whom had strong public personas. But Woolf was, essentially, a private woman; she’s famous for her ideas, not for the force of her personality. All you need are her words, as Eileen Atkins demonstrated so triumphantly a decade ago with her solo performance of A Room of One’s Own. It doesn’t help that Ellen Lauren has been instructed to leap around the stage like a refugee from the Martha Graham Troupe. I left the theatre thinking about lights and sound, not Virginia Woolf.--David Barbour

Heard in the City of Brotherly Love: Architectural lighting designer Michael A. Barber, IALD, has been named an associate at The Lighting Practice in Philadelphia. He has been with the firm since 1995, and has worked on numerous projects around the world. He is active with the IALD, and the Philadelphia chapter of the IES, where he is publication committee chair. He can be reached at (215) 238-1664.