Seen Off Broadway:

Franny’s Way

(Playwrights Horizons at the Atlantic Theatre) is Richard Nelson’s new play (he also directed) about kissing cousins in Greenwich Village, circa 1957, and it certainly has a feel for the time and place: We hear much about J. D. Salinger, The New Yorker, jazz, diaphragms, and Edmund Wilson (Scott Lehrer’s sound design, blending traffic noises and jazz riffs, adds to the authenticity). But the overloaded plot, which takes in divorce, adultery, crib death, and premarital sex, is a little too much like daytime drama. Nelson has written two gripping pieces about adolescent sexuality (Goodnight Children, Everywhere; Madame Melville); maybe it’s time for new subject matter. Thomas Lynch’s cramped, seedy, Village apartment setting is thoroughly convincing, but it sits uncomfortably in the rather large, open Atlantic Theatre space. Susan Hilferty and Linda Ross have provided a full complement of authentic 1950s day dresses for the ladies. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting pulls off a couple of daring scenes staged in semi-darkness

In Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views, at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, a forgery of an 11th-century Japanese pillow book creates havoc in the world of art dealers and academics. However, in Mark Wing-Davey’s production, plot and characters take a back seat to an extraordinary physical production, including scenery by Douglas Stein, costumes by Myung Hee Cho, lighting by David Weiner, sound by Matthew Spiro, and most of all, projections by Ruppert Bohle. In Iizuka’s script, art forgery is a metaphor for our continuing inability to know anything for sure, but the arbitrary plotting and stilted dialogue rob her arguments of any interest. Still, the production is something to see.

The Carpetbagger’s Children, at the Lincoln Center Theatre, is a trio of interlocking monologues by Horton Foote, Texas’ unofficial dramatic laureate. Jean Stapleton, Roberta Maxwell, and Hallie Foote are three sisters bound together by their father’s last will and testament, yet torn apart by marriages, romances, and deaths. (For good reason, Foote’s character repeatedly sings a hymn called "Oh, Those Clanging Bells of Time"). Horton Foote’s plays are a matter of taste. Some appreciate the massive accumulation of literary details; others yearn for some dramatic action. I’m in the latter camp, though there are touching moments and the ladies are grand. Nice design work from Jeff Cowie (scenery), costumes (David C. Woolard), Rui Rita (lighting), and John Gromada (sound). --David Barbour

Seen on Broadway: The Smell of the Kill, by Michele Lowe, gives us Claudia Shear, Lisa Emery, and Jessica Stone as a trio of miserable housewives whose husbands end up accidentally locked inside a meat freezer. Suffice to say that nobody is rushing to call 911. Instead, they sit around, boozing it up, stripping, and making crass wisecracks. The Smell of the Kill is one of the inexplicable events that seem to happen sooner or later to everyone in the theatre, like death and taxes; the best news is that the curtain comes down at 9:15, surely some sort of Broadway record. David Gallo’s forced-perspective kitchen set is the only amusing thing onstage. David C. Woolard’s costumes (this is his week for female trios) are notable for the varied bra styles he has found for the leading ladies, each of whom strips at one point or another. Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound are highly professional. If, as I do, you have a perverse fascination for bizarre Broadway flops, this is a real collectible. --David Barbour

Seen and Heard at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: A panel discussion titled "Kurt Weill and the Golden Age of the American Musical Theatre," presented in conjunction with the exhibition Kurt Weill: Making Music Theatre, on view through May 4 in the Library's Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery. Click here for more information about the exhibition.

Panelists included Rob Fisher, music director of City Center's Encores! series; theatre historian and biographer Foster Hirsch; music historian Kim H. Kowalke; and composer/lyricist Maury Yeston. Kowalke, who is a professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music, chair of the music department in the College of the University of Rochester, and president of the Kurt Weill Foundation (a co-sponsor of the exhibition—click here for more info) was the panel's moderator. In his opening remarks he discussed the Weill vs. Rodgers imbroglio, comparing Street Scene to Carousel and Lost in the Stars to South Pacific. and pointed out that Weill was unusual in that he orchestrated his own shows.

Fisher took up the orchestration theme when he spoke as well, saying that a show has a "more pungent aroma" when the composer orchestrates it, but time and budget constraints make it difficult for modern-day composers to do so. He went on to discuss his work conducting the Broadway run of Three-Penny Opera and Weill's "non-sentimental" use of strings, among other topics.

Hirsch began his remarks by strongly urging Fisher to revive Love Life for Encores!, then mentioned some people he considered Weill's heirs--Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Yeston among them. He then read short excerpts from his newly published book, Kurt Weill on Stage From Berlin to Broadway, which was published by Alfred Knopf this spring.

Yeston, who won a Best Score Tony for Titanic, very nearly stole the show. Among other topics, he discussed how many Broadway composers, including Weill, Berlin, and himself, had cantors in the family. He also joked about so-called "concept" musicals, saying every musical has a concept—recoup the investment. He was most entertaining and informative when he sat down at the piano to demonstrate Weill's dissonant-chord sound and his use of the sixth step of the scale. He also pointed out what is notpart of Weill's "musical DNA": African-American rhythm and syncopation. Yeston's performance of seven Weill songs was so infectious I'm still humming "Mack the Knife" and "Surabaya Johnny."--Liz French

Seen at the Movies: Last weekend's big box-office winner, David Fincher's Panic Room, is an efficiently made thriller about the perils of pricey real estate on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Jodie Foster, looking amazingly lithe and fit (even though she was pregnant during filming), plays the recently separated wealthy wife and mother who moves into what must be the most giant multi-story townhouse in Manhattan. The location includes the refuge of the title, a fortified space supposedly impermeable to intruders. Its effectiveness is tested, naturally enough, on Foster and 14-year-old daughter Kristen Stewart's very first night in the house, as goons Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto (looking and acting very unfortunate in cornrows and overplayed grimaces), and a ski-masked Dwight Yoakam invade the property.

The movie, which is written by David Koepp, is periodically tense, but overall rather pointless. I read one review that linked its premise to audiences' post-9/11 fear of terrorism, but that strikes me as a ludicrous. It's simply too difficult to relate to these privileged characters' plight on anything but the most basic level of thriller mechanics. But Fincher is a distinctive craftsman, and he keeps you watching the creepily blue-toned images, as the fluorescent glare in the panic room seems to suffuse the whole house. The camerawork is often aggressively lively in the Coen Bros. manner—lots of curlicues and bursting of fourth-wall barriers—and is further complicated by the panic room video screens that view the many rooms. Both Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji are credited as directors or photography; apparently, Khondji, who shot Seven for Fincher, had a creative parting of the ways with the director during filming, and was replaced by Hall, son of Conrad L. The elaborate production design is by Arthur Max, whose work is virtuosic, even if most of us have never seen the inside of such a New York address. The contrast between the imposing architecture of the interiors and the barrenness of the set dressing (justified by the fact that the tenants have just moved in) is particularly well conveyed.--John Calhoun

Heard From Hollywood: The TV pilot season is in full swing, as orders for as many as 100 new shows are being filled in time for the networks' fall schedule announcements in early May. Certain production designers, like John Shaffner, seem almost insanely busy right now; in addition to finishing up the season on Friends and The Drew Carey Show, Shaffner is overseeing the designs of four new multi-camera shows at Warner Bros. Studios. These include St. Sass, starring Delta Burke, and set in a New England school; Wanda, a Washington, DC-set vehicle for comedian Wanda Sykes; Romeo's Fire, set in a small-town firehouse; and an untitled Jennie Garth comedy about two sisters living together in New York. Over at Studio City, Garvin Eddy's days are calmer. The designer of Carsey Werner sitcoms That 70s Show and That 80s Show is preparing just one pilot, for an untitled show about the mayor of an Eastern town. One interesting element here: it's being shot on videotape, which has fallen out of favor for sitcoms in the last few years. Alan Walker is LD. Eddy, by the way, is also finishing up his masters in theatre design at UCLA.

Frasier designer Roy Christopher has two pilots at Paramount: The In-Laws, starring Dennis Farina and Jean Smart, and set in a Westchester County suburban house; and an untitled Alfred Molina show set in New York City. Christopher did the initial design for Nathan Lane's new sitcom, Life of the Party, and then handed it off to Steve Olson, who supervised the show's set design and construction at Fox Studios. For his latest attempt at a series paycheck, Lane plays an openly gay former TV star who gets elected to Congress. Christopher, by the way, is also designing a reworked Odd Couple, titled Felix and Oscar, which will be produced at the Geffen Playhouse, under playwright Neil Simon's direction.

The new Joss Whedon show Firefly, which is rumored to be the leading contender for The X-Files' coveted time slot, is being produced on two feature stages at Fox. This single-camera science-fiction show is designed by Carey Meyer, who has six seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer under his belt. The spaceship of the title is a grungy scavenger vehicle, shaped more like a wasp than a firefly, but featuring a glowing bulbous engine core. The set is quirkily dressed with old tattered armchairs and a rustic wooden table, and the crew carry Western-style sidearms rather than lasers…Like Firefly, the John Wells-produced Presidio Med has a 13-episode order, which means that unlike many other pilots, we'll definitely see it on air in fall. The CBS medical show, starring Dana Delany and Blythe Danner, is set in San Francisco, but it's being mostly shot on location in Long Beach and on stages at Warner Bros. Maxine Shepard, production designer of short-lived series like City of Angels and Citizen Baines, is hoping for a hit, of course, but like all designers, she knows she is at the mercy of fickle TV executives and audiences. For a more comprehensive look at the business of TV pilot design, watch for a report in the pages of Entertainment Design next fall.--John Calhoun