Seen at the Movies: David Cronenberg’s Spider is in many ways typical of what we’ve come to expect from the director: a fanatically controlled portrait of severe biological and/or psychological dysfunction. Ralph Fiennes plays the title character, a mentally disturbed London man discharged prematurely from the institution where he has spent the last 20 years, since a childhood incident that the viewer comes to comprehend within the film’s peculiarly fractured framework. The movie, which is based on a novel by Butcher Boy author Patrick McGrath, has a 1980s present tense, with flashbacks to the 60s shaped through Spider’s skewed vision. We see him as a child in an unhappy household, with Gabriel Byrne as the alcoholic father and Miranda Richardson the loving mother. When dad takes up with a lewd, snaggle-toothed strumpet, she’s also enacted by Richardson, who eventually takes on the role of the adult Spider’s landlady, who earlier had been played by Lynn Redgrave. Paging Dr. Freud.

Spider photo ©2002 Spider Films Ltd.

Spider submerges you in its mumbling, disheveled protagonist’s consciousness, which overtakes the film’s brown-on-gray physical setting like the webs that begin enclosing his room. Therefore, even though Cronenberg shot on London locations as well as Toronto soundstages, the streets are cleared of other people, rendering Spider a lone figure on a series of grim blocks. Inside, production designer Andrew Sanders has given serious attention to the bubbling wallpaper covering most of the sets’ neglected surfaces, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky seems to have dipped the film in a solution that left a residue of dinginess. Costume designer Denise Cronenberg clothes Fiennes’ character in layer after layer of shabby shirts and coats, and makeup/special effects artist Stefan Dupuis supplies him with blotchy, nicotine-stained skin; the crowning touch is spiky Samuel Beckett-styled hair. The actor stays far inside character, and gives a very impressive performance which, like the hermetic style of the movie, is not much fun to experience. It’s definitely a matter of taste, but for me, Cronenberg’s films are about as dispiriting as something that seem to be works of art can get. Spider is no exception. —John Calhoun

Kimberly Akimbo photo: Joan Marcus

Seen Off Broadway: David Lindsay-Abaire is Manhattan Theatre Club’s playwright of the moment. Critics, especially Ben Brantley of The New York Times, love his weird blend of gags and grief. His latest, Kimberly Akimbo, features the sixtyish Marylouise Burke as a New Jersey teenager with a rare disease that causes her to age four times as fast as the average person. On her 16th birthday, Kimberly has to face, among other things, her first romance, an enormous family secret, and imminent mortality. There are some laughs here, mostly from Jodie Markell as Kimberly’s titanically self-involved (and very pregnant) mother and Ana Gasteyer as her sociopathic aunt, whose elaborate mail fraud scheme provides the plot’s motor. Burke is totally convincing as an elderly adolescent, and her second-act appearance in old-lady drag is a showstopper. However, to my mind, there’s something too cutesy about Lindsay-Abaire’s work; like his other plays, Kimberly Akimbo is occasionally amusing, rarely touching, and frequently cloying. It’s fairly easy to take, thanks to David Petrarca’s snappy production and a slick design. Robert Brill’s set is covered, from floor to ceiling, in yellow and gray plaid—a character remarks that it’s like living "inside a thermos"—and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting makes good use of spinning patterns to underline the play’s time-in-its-flight theme. Even here, however, I have a reservation: Kimberly’s family is supposed to be on the borderline of poverty, but Brill and MacDevitt’s work is so smart and chic, it’s like a Target ad come to life. Martin Pakledinaz’s believably grungy costumes are much more successful at conveying the reality of the characters’ lives. Bruce Ellman provides a number of inventive sound effects, especially in a scene set in one of those drive-through jungle attractions. Lindsay-Abaire remains a talented writer but his work needs to be a tad less adorable and a bit more truthful.

Dublin Carol photo: Carol Rosegg

Despite its December 24th time frame, Dublin Carol is not going to be any theatre’s Christmas attraction. Conor McPherson’s latest, at the Atlantic Theatre, is a quiet study of John, a Dublin undertaker, a middle-aged alcoholic who has lost mostly everything in life, but who soldiers on nonetheless. The action consists of his encounters with a feckless young assistant as well as his estranged daughter, who is the bearer of bad news. You have to admire McPherson’s technique—nothing much happens, but in less than 80 minutes we learn about a lifetime of sorrows—cancer, booze, broken families, shattered relationships. Nevertheless, in spite of sterling performances by Jim Norton, Keith Nobbs, and Kerry O’Malley, this result is dull. McPherson may be a writer, but he’s not much of a dramatist. Walt Spangler’s basement-office setting is nicely detailed, as are Kaye Voyce’s costumes and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting (although, I must add, if the latter’s work is to be believed, Dublin afternoons are mighty dark). Scott Myers is the sound designer. If you’re looking for smaller-than-life theatre, then Dublin Carol is for you. —David Barbour

Take Me Out

Seen on Broadway: When it comes to Richard Greenberg you can "take me out" to see one of his plays anytime. In fact, I just saw his ode to baseball, Take Me Out, and liked it very much (I also liked Greenberg's Three Days of Rain so I'm not surprised about my feelings for this one in spite of Ben Brantley's mixed review; I'm also a Yankees fan). Now on stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre, following a sold-out run at the Public last year, Take Me Out was directly skillfully by Joe Mantello, with sets by Scott Pask, lighting by Kevin Adams, costumes (or the lack thereof) by Jess Goldstein, and sound by Janet Kalas. Pask's set is basically a collage of a sports stadium with a long row of open lockers under sections of a scoreboard and two large banks of floodlights upstage, and the shower room with real water showers downstage. And yes, it's true, the hunky all-male cast does more than a full monty; they bare all. Other than that the costumes are primarily baseball uniforms for a team called the Empires but loosely based on the Yankees, I would say, with a manager that even looks a bit like Joe Torre. The story follows a strange series of events that ensue when the star player on the team "outs" himself. Along the way, our star meets a financial manager, your typical nebishy accountant who falls in love with baseball, and finds that his life expands in new ways. In lighting the show, Adams saves the big floodlights to illuminate special moments on the ballfield, in fact, making the diamond a hallowed ground. He uses more subtle looks to sculpt the bodies in the shower room, or pools of light to focus our attention on intimate conversations among the characters. His work is as intelligent as the text. Pask, too, avoids clichés, and I bet he had a great time selecting the various men's toiletry articles that appear in each locker. Greenberg weaves an interesting, unpredictable plot, and the set, lighting, and costumes never get in his way; in fact, all the design disciplines, while fairly simple, prove effective in telling the story. —Ellen Lampert-Gréaux