Seen on Broadway: In the wake of ecstatic reviews and awards in London, Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton has arrived at the Golden Theatre (it’s a Lincoln Center Theatre production). The acclaim is a bit mysterious for a play that is in fact a high-toned potboiler full of platitudes about art and life. It’s a speculation about a little-known slice of Vincent Van Gogh’s youth, when he lived in London, learning to be an art dealer. Wright has concocted a romance between the young Van Gogh and his middle-aged landlady, an affair that does not go well. He’s tempestuous, temperamental, and still in the grip of his oppressively religious family; she’s depressive, searching for a reason to live. Unlike Van Gogh’s paintings, which are streaked with passion and madness, Vincent in Brixton is respectable and dull, a conversation piece that suffers from an excess of tastefulness. Under Richard Eyre’s direction, the leads, Jochum ten Haaf and Clare Higgins seem ridiculously mismatched; one waits in vain for evidence of chemistry between them. Tim Hatley’s waist-high setting, depicting the kitchen of the house is dominated by acres of black masking; it looks like somebody forgot to install the top half. However, his costumes are quite good and Peter Mumford’s lighting, which bathes the stage in warm sidelight, is the single most expressive element in the show. There’s also some atmospheric projection work by Wendall K. Harrington and an effective sound design by Neil Alexander. Between this production and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Lincoln Center Theatre has apparently cornered the market on dull, high-minded English drama. I hope this is a passing phase.


Vincent in Brixton photo: Joan Marcus

Seen Off Broadway: Would you buy a new car from this man? In the diabolically clever opening scene of Buicks, produced by the Underwood Theatre at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, Bill, a real smoothie, weans a customer away from his sports-car dreams and seals a deal on a solid, powerful, glamourless Buick; his technique is something to behold, and, brought to adrenaline-fueled life by Norbert Leo Butz, the sales pitch is hard to resist. The rest of Bill’s life is in disarray, however, and, when his wife and children vanish, he sets out to find them, accompanied by Naranja, his bewildered, illegal-immigrant secretary. The journey of self-discovery that follows is, perhaps, a little too easy, but playwright Julian Sheppard has populated the stage with vivid dialogue and any number of gabby, contrary, angry, fascinating characters. Sheppard is particularly good at depicting ordinary social occasions that slip out of control, such as a visit to Bill’s invalid father, in which the old man unleashes a torrent of invective, or a dinner for Bill and his wife, which is a minefield of veiled hostility and conversational dead ends. Aside from Butz, who, amazingly, exposes all of Bill’s ugly qualities and still makes us care about him, there’s excellent work from Lucia Brawley as Naranja (her audition automobile sales pitch is a mini-tour-de-force) and Bill Buell as several characters, especially Bill’s dyspeptic father. Walt Spangler’s spare, abstract setting, dominated by a curved wall, converts instantly from one location to another, and also evokes the shiny impersonality of the play’s many settings (car dealership, motel, old-age home). Michael Chybowski's lighting completes the changes with a series of bright color washes. Linda Ross’ costumes feel authentic, and Darron L. West’s sound designs combines numerous effects--car doors, washroom sinks, hand driers, ticking clocks--with evocative scene-change music. Director Brian Kulick has given this talented new writer a top-notch introduction; Buicks is a very classy vehicle.


Buicks photo: Joan Marcus

Would you buy a used car from this man? Meet Russell, another car dealer, this time in 1950s San Francisco. He’s an operator, too, and in the first scene of Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California, at 29th Street Rep, he has picked up Alyce, a rather sad young woman who keeps cats in cages, takes in wounded stray dogs, and nurses her much older husband, a punch-drunk ex-prizefighter. Russell doesn’t even get to first base with Alyce but decides she's girlfriend material anyway, and he goes to brutal lengths to cement the relationship. Willeford, who had an extensive career as a pulp novelist, clearly intended to write a hard-boiled melodrama but, under Leo Farley’s direction, the production suffers from a fatal lack of suspense and sexual tension. It’s never clear what Russell sees in Alyce, and actors David Mogentale and Carol Sirugo have no real chemistry between them. Mogentale is an effective psychopath--you’re never quite sure if you can believe anything he says--and Sirugo does all right by a monologue in which Alyce explains how she got married to her pathetic, childish spouse. But this is a slow-moving, dramatically inert piece. Set designer Mark Symczak effectively renders Alyce’s shabby-genteel apartment, with his well-worn furniture, mud-colored walls, and forlorn displays of Alyce’s ceramic projects. Also good are Michele Metcalf’s period costumes, especially Russell’s suits and a mourning dress, worn by Alyce’s earthy cousin, that’s also suitable for cocktail parties. In Stewart Wagner’s lighting design, it’s always midnight even when the script says it's 2pm; it’s not clear if that was an aesthetic decision or not. Tim Cramer’s sound design includes a boxing match, a rain storm, and the unnerving shattering of glass in a climactic scene. Overall, High Priest of California, which earned a rave from The Times, may be of interest to literary types who know Willleford’s novels; maybe they can explain that title.


High Priest of California photo: Fouad Salloum

In O Jerusalem, at the Flea Theatre, playwright A.R. Gurney wants to assess the current state of the Middle East and the role of the US in world affairs, assign blame for the events of September 11th, and solve his protagonist’s spiritual crisis--all in 90 minutes and without losing his usual suave, high-comedy manner. Needless to say, it’s an impossible task, although he does deliver some memorable scenes along the way. Stephen Rowe is not quite convincing as Harwell Clark, a liberal, SUV-hating oil executive(!) who gets a diplomatic post in the Middle East and has a rendezvous with Amira, the Palestinian activist he loved as a young man. Warned about a terrorist attack on the US, Hartwell becomes an activist after the destruction of the Twin Towers. He also engages in what you might call shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between Amira and Sally, the all-American government official who carries a torch for him. Gurney’s dialogue is always witty, but he never dramatizes Hartwell’s change of heart, and too many issues are dragged onstage and left there--Gurney ought to know that naming an issue isn’t the same thing as exploring it. (Jim Simpson’s otherwise confident staging begins to fail in these cluttered climactic scenes.) The supporting cast is excellent, however, especially Priscilla Shanks as Sally, whose sly wit and unflappable composure are no help in her love life; her acidly polite encounter with an FBI agent (Mercedes Herrero, oozing disapproval) is sharply amusing. Kyle Chepulis’ set and lighting design is dominated by a pair of giant light boxes at stage right and left; it’s an innovative concept that doesn’t totally pay off, resulting in some fairly washed-out looking stage pictures. Sarah Beers' costumes are thoroughly believable and Lindsay Jones' sound design uses a constant flow of effects to evoke various locations. This is the second exploration of the events of 9/11--the first was Anne Nelson’s The Guys--to be seen at the Flea. Even if this one doesn’t quite work, it’s exciting to see a company explore contemporary political issues.


O Jerusalem photo: Peter Jacobsen

There’s not much to say about Barbra’s Wedding, a dismal little comedy at the Westside Theatre, by Daniel Stern, about Ms. Streisand’s next-door neighbors in Malibu, who are being driven crazy on the day of her nuptials to James Brolin. John Pankow and Julie White do their considerable best to enliven the proceedings, but in vain. This is one of those productions where the design is punchier than the play. Neil Patel’s amusingly detailed, downmarket Malibu residence, Jeff Crotier’s gorgeous sunset, and Fitz Patton’s barrage of sound effects, especially those wall-rattling helicopters, are all very skillful. (This is not the most challenging costume assignment for David C. Woolard, although his work is perfectly fine). David Warren directed. There are half a dozen TV sitcoms currently available on network TV that offer more laughs in half an hour than does Barbra’s Wedding 90 minutes. Why not stay home and relax? --David Barbour


Barbra's Wedding photo: Joan Marcus

Seen at the Movies: Dreamcatcher, from a novel by Stephen King, has enough plot strands to fill out one of those mammoth TV miniseries periodically drawn from the author’s work. It’s the story of four men granted extrasensory powers by a disabled friend. . . . No, wait, it’s about nasty aliens infecting earth with a human-eradicating virus. . . . Oops, wrong again, it’s really about a maniacal military man (portrayed, none too convincingly, by Morgan Freeman) herding up and exterminating civilians. Co-written by director Lawrence Kasdan and William Goldman, Dreamcatcher crams all these elements into its 131-minute running time, which at least helps ensure the movie isn’t boring. The four magically endowed men are played by Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, and Damian Lewis, who gather in a remote cabin in the woods to celebrate 20 years of friendship; soon, hunters with strange red welts are turning up, animals are fleeing through the snow, and helicopters are hovering overhead.


Dreamcatcher photo: Warner Bros.

I found Dreamcatcher to be diverting for much of its length, though the longer it goes on the more nonsensical it becomes. It’s a very handsomely mounted production, with DP John Seale providing some beautiful wintry images--there’s an unmistakable celluloid look to the film, which is heavy on grain. The muted production design is by Jon Hutman, who does a particularly notable job with a set representing one character’s interior state; the serviceable costumes are by Molly Maginnis. The visual effects are up to Industrial Light and Magic and supervisor Stefen Fangmeier’s high standards. Creature designer Crash McCreery owes the customary debt to Alien, though these human incubants at least emerge in a novel manner--not for nothing are they dubbed shit monsters. The enjoyably gross prosthetic and animatronic effects are by Steve Johnson’s Edge FX.


View from the Top photo: Darren Michaels/Miramax Films

How bad is the long-delayed and apparently much-edited View from the Top? Well, it’s a sign of Miramax’s confidence in the film that I could detect no original music: just an ultimately infuriating parade of pop tunes, one for every awkward shift of tone. Watching the trailer for this Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, I was under the impression it was a wacky comedy about a 1960s girl living out her stewardess dreams. Instead, it’s a contemporary story, though Mary Zophres’ colorful costumes and uniforms seem fairly confused about what era they’re occupying. As for the comedy part--I suppose the film, which is directed by Bruno Barreto, fits the generic category, though precious few laughs could be heard at the screening I attended (perhaps people were just distracted by thoughts of the war that was about to start). A sappy love story between Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo leads the movie to a perplexingly retro conclusion. There’s a cheap look to the overall production, with unattractively kitschy sets by Dan Davis and soft, washed-out cinematography by Affonso Beato.


Nowhere in Africa photo: Zeitgeist Films

German director Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa is supposed to be the front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which is not surprising, given its scope and scenic attributes. The film is based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel about a childhood spent in Kenya, where the lead character’s Jewish family emigrates just in time to escape World War II and the Holocaust. DP Gernot Roll doesn’t overdo the travelogue stuff in his sharp, clear widescreen lensing, though the natural beauty of the setting is impossible to overlook. Barbara Grupp’s costumes and Susann Bieling and Uwe Szielasko’s production design expertly place the viewer in the time and place. But the problem with the film starts with the script, which never makes the characters very compelling or their development believable, and continues with the plodding direction and colorless acting. Nowhere in Africa won’t be the first snooze to win an Oscar, and it won’t be the last.

For those of you who, like me, could never sit still for any of the five chapters of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle in a movie theatre, a visit to New York’s Guggenheim Museum might be in order. The museum’s rotunda and side galleries have been fairly thoroughly taken over by Barney’s organically-inspired sculptures in plastic, salt, petroleum jelly, and other elements, by monitors running his films--most prominently, the Cremaster 3 segment shot on the Guggenheim’s ramps--and by installation-specific carpeting and padding. It’s a fascinating show, though, for me, Barney’s obsessions, which cover everything from anatomy to Masonic rites to Gary Gilmore, never coalesce into a coherent vision. The Cremaster Cycle runs through June 11 at the Guggenheim. The Cremaster films are also being shown in the museum’s Peter B. Lewis Theater, and will be revived at the Film Forum April 25 to May 7. --John Calhoun