Seen at the Movies:

Maybe it's a function of just being worn down by the popular, but I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets more than its predecessor. Despite his voice cracking, Daniel Radcliffe seems to have taken on new heft and substance in the role of Harry, and the film overall is more absorbingly dark-toned. At 160 minutes, it's way too long in a manner that feels like directorial dawdling (the culprit is Chris Columbus). But I didn't get nearly as restless during this installment as during Sorcerer's Stone. (Kids may be another matter, but given the sanctity of J.K. Rowling's books, I doubt it.)

Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets

Technically, the film--shot like the first at Leavesden Studios in the UK--is really top-drawer. Under DP Roger Pratt's guidance, the images alternately have more sparkle and mood than they did when John Seale was at the helm. Stuart Craig's production design of the Hogwarts school expands on the first film's into some very atmospheric nether regions, including the titular chamber, which at 250' x 120' is the biggest Harry Potter set yet created. Lindy Hemming's costumes are delightfully wizardly, peaked caps and all. Most spectacular of all are the 950 effects shots, completed mostly at Industrial Light and Magic under Jim Mitchell and Nick Davis' supervision. The movie is packed with likable and/or scary creatures, such as Dobby the House Elf (compared by some to Jar-Jar Binks, but not nearly as annoying), Fawkes the Phoenix, the giant spider Aragog, and the Basilisk, a truly fearsome serpent. Credit creature and makeup effects supervisor Nick Dudman for the latter two, in particular.

Dobby the House Elf

Though it's better executed than in the first film, I could still do without the requisite Quidditch match, which—call me vanilla—is just too frantic and violent for my taste. And Kenneth Branagh, cast as the dandyish Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, the most prominent new character, strains for vaguely campy effects and falls flat. Other actors, like Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman, aren't given enough to do, and Richard Harris, repeating his role as Hogwarts headmaster Professor Dumbledore, looks alarmingly frail. Harris, who recently died, will have to be replaced in the next chapter, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which won't be out until summer 2004. Director Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien) takes over the reins from Columbus, which is a good thing—maybe he can carve some of the franchise's fat.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: You can describe the Classic Stage Company revival of Ghosts in two words: monochromatic and speedy. This is the fastest Ghosts ever--it barely runs 90 minutes. It’s an unhelpful approach; the actors are forced into making lightning-quick emotional shifts, which earn unwanted laughter from the audience. Also unhelpful is Lanford Wilson’s overly colloquial translation, which has these 19th-century characters using words like "supportive." The cast is accomplished, including Amy Irving as Mrs. Alving, Daniel Gerroll as Pastor Manders, and David Patrick Kelly, as eccentric as ever as Engstrand, but nobody does his or her best work here.

Grayish on grayish in Ghosts

As for the design—well, everything matches, I guess. The costumes are grayish, the walls are grayish, the lighting is grayish. Christine Jones’s oppressive setting consists of a deck and a wall; the latter has a window through which we see constantly pouring rain, with a bright burst of sunlight for the final moments. Scott Zielinski’s lighting does nothing to ease the pallor onstage. Kaye Voce’s costumes are both handsome (for Irving, Gerroll, and Kelly) and more than a little bizarre; Irving’s bohemian son appears to get his clothes from the Banana Republic Scandinavian collection. Eric Shim provided music and sound. In my memory, there’s never been a successful production of Ghosts in New York. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

Bewilderness is a glorified comedy act starring Bill Bailey, who is apparently quite popular on the BBC. This self-described "1984 Michael Bolton look-alike regional finalist" has a remarkably light touch and, when he is busy observing Anglo-American cultural contrasts, can be very funny. Highlights include his take on the oddness of American visa applications, his concept of heavy-metal children’s theatre, and his definition of what it means to be British, or as he puts it, "conditioned for a life just short of pleasure." Nevertheless, Bailey overstays his welcome, wasting time on more mundane topics—such as George Bush’s boneheadedness—which have been worked to death by Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, et. al. Furthermore, one hour and 45 minutes is far too long for what is only an evening of random observations. Matt Maraffi’s set, an arrangement of sails and picture frames, is almost laughably generic, but Josh Monroe’s lighting and Gregory Kostroff’s sound get the job done. I must add that people all around me were delighted from beginning to end, so you may count this as a minority report.--David Barbour

Seen in Orlando: Anyone wondering why Mike Collins of Stage Equipment and Lighting in Orlando was not seen at LDI this year might be interested to know that he was performing the role of The Boy's Father in the Mad Cow Theatre Company's production of The Fantasticks. Stepping on the other side of the lights was something Collins enjoyed doing; in fact, the Orlando Weekly wrote, "In the hands of lesser actors, the parts of The Boy's Father and The Girl's Father can come off as mere caricatures. But Mike Collins and Sam Hazell bring subtle nuances to the foolish old men." And the Orlando Sentinel said, "Mike Collins and Sam Hazell make a sidesplittingly funny pair of fathers." Hats off to Collins!--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Heard Around Town: Architectural/theatrical lighting designer Ted Mather has a new address: Ted Mather Lighting Design, LLC, 1650 Broadway, Suite 405, New York, NY 10019. Phone: 212-977-2611. Fax: 212-820-9765. Mobile: 201-362-1069. Email: Ted adds that he expects to have his new website up by the New Year.--DB

Harry Potter photo: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.

Dobby photo: courtesy ILM