Seen Off Broadway:

In A Bad Friend, at Lincoln Center Theatre, playwright Jules Feiffer has created a magnificent character: Naomi, a middle-aged, Jewish-American true believer in the Stalinist party line. It’s New York in the 1950s--newspapers are filled with ugly stories about the Soviet Union, while Red-baiters and federal agents are everywhere, but Naomi rules her family with Stalinist efficiency, squashing dissent, denouncing the "fascist" press, and turning every conversation into verbal armed combat. As played by Jan Maxwell, Naomi is hateful, compelling, and funny all at once. Her ideological contortions at each new revelation of Soviet crimes are brilliantly rendered by the playwright When Shelly, Naomi’s weak-willed husband (Jonathan Hadary) dares to questions Party orthodoxy, his wife’s torrent of rage ends in tears, heartbreak, and something like terror; it’s a remarkable scene, remarkably performed. However, A Bad Friend is less about Naomi than her daughter Rose, a rebellious teenager. ("Do you think it’s easy being the only one in my family who’s not in love with Stalin?" she asks.) Fed up with her family’s anxious, insular existence, Rose begins confiding her troubles to Emil (Larry Bryggman), a Sunday painter she meets on the Brooklyn Esplanade. This is the first in a chain of events that will result in disaster for the family. As long as Feiffer is exploring Rose’s family predicament, A Bad Friend is a funny and fascinating slice of American social history. But his construction leaves much to be desired and this short play’s closing 20 minutes is filled with a rush of unbelievable and poorly plotted events. Even before then, certain things don’t really make sense: Why is Rose so friendly with the creepy FBI agent (David Harbour) tailing her? Why does she trust Emil so much? It doesn’t help that Kala Savage's Rose is a bit shrill; then again, director Jerry Zaks has gotten fine performances from the rest of the cast, including Mark Feuerstein as Naomi’s brother Morty, a Hollywood screenwriter who pens "ideological" Westerns.

A Bad Friend photo: Joan Marcus

There are other problems: The production’s design isn’t well-adapted to the circular thrust space of the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Douglas Stein’s setting features a lovely, monochromatic New York skyline, taken from one of Emil’s paintings. However, a raised deck in the center of the stage isn’t well-used; in fact, many scenes are forced to the sidelines. Jan Hartley’s projections, of period newspapers, posters, and renderings of Stalin, are evocative; there are three projection screens, however, and I had the light from one of the projectors in my face all night long. Much better are William Ivey Long’s costumes; Long is so often rewarded for campy excesses (such as his work on Hairspray) that it’s easy to forget that he can do fine work with everyday period wear. The difference between Naomi’s drab housedress, complete with woolen sweater, and Morty’s Hollywood-ready double-breasted suit, tells volumes about these two people. The sound design by Aural Fixation is a period-perfect lineup of folk songs: "Which Side Are You On?" asks one of them, a question that becomes more urgent as the play unfolds. A Bad Friend is a disappointment, but it’s a stimulating one; it’s good to have Feiffer back as a playwright after a decade’s hiatus.

Bad Dates photo: Carol Rosegg

Similarly, Bad Dates, at Playwrights Horizons, coasts on the appeal of one character. Then again, Bad Dates only has one character, but she’s a real winner. Julie White, late of the dreadful Barbra’s Wedding, is delightful as Haley, a divorcee in her late 30s who rejoins the dating game after several inactive years. As written by Theresa Rebeck and played by White, Haley is a funny, flirty, hilariously observant storyteller, a Texas gal who flees an abusive marriage, moves to New York with her daughter, and finds a good job managing a chic restaurant. Haley’s adventures aren’t wildly original but her point of view certainly is--just listen to her account of attending a thunderstorm-plagued Buddhist fundraiser or how she struggles with the fear that her life uncannily mirrors the plot of Mildred Pierce. She’s also blessed with plenty of common sense: "If you’re siding with the guy’s ex-girlfriend," she confides, "it’s not a good date." As long as Bad Dates sticks to the title topic, it’s breezy fun. However, Rebeck throws some wild curveballs in the play’s last third, with a subplot involving tax evasion, embezzlement, and the Romanian mob, that seems to come from another play altogether. This extra plot weight drags the play down and you leave feeling disappointed. Nevertheless, White is a treat throughout and John Benjamin Hickey makes a strong directing debut. Derek McLane’s setting, depicting Haley’s bedroom, is filled with amusing details--check out the many places where she has squirreled away her massive shoe collection. Mattie Ullrich has lots of fun with the many outfits Haley tries on and discards before each date. Lighting designer Frances Aronson provides a bright wash of comedy lighting. Bruce Ellman’s sound design includes some swingy tunes for the scene breaks, with excerpts from Avril Lavigne’s new album emanating from Haley’s daughter’s bedroom. Bad Dates fails to satisfy, but it’s good for laughs, and White is the real thing.

The Daughter-in-Law

Unproduced in his lifetime, D.H. Lawrence’s play The Daughter-in-Law has been acclaimed in recent years by British reviewers. In the new Mint Theatre production, this tale of sons and lovers only comes to life intermittently. Gareth Saxe is Luther, a coal miner newly married to Minnie (Angela Reed), who, after years of service in a well-off household, feels ready for better things. A few months in, things are already rocky between them--then a neighbor woman, Mrs. Purdy, announces that Luther has impregnated her daughter. Can this marriage be saved? As long as the action focuses on Luther and Minnie, the stage crackles with tension. Saxe is just right, powerfully conveying Luther’s inarticulate rage and yearning for love; and Reed is both infuriating and sad as Minnie. An argument between them, late in the second act, climaxes in a shocking act that left me dumbstruck with surprise. However, based on the evidence here, Lawrence was not a skilled playwright. The unbelievably tedious first scene features three supporting characters doling out the exposition at a far too leisurely pace. The action also bogs down in the later scenes, and, overall, director Martin L. Platt doesn’t have a firm grip on the material; the tone shifts from comedy to melodrama and back again with little assurance (Kudos, however, for those Northern England accents). Bill Clarke’s settings, a pair of kitchens, are not at all bad for Off Off Broadway, and Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes are nicely detailed, especially for the men. However, Jeff Nellis’ lighting is simply too dark--I’m all for authenticity, but it’s important to see the actors’ faces, too. There is no credited sound designer, but somebody created the folk music cues that play between scenes. Overall, this is best for drama students and those with a strong interest in Lawrence.

Eight Days (Backwards) photo: Carol Rosegg

The title of Eight Days (Backwards), currently at the Vineyard Theatre, tells you all need to know about Jeremy Dobrish’s rueful new comedy. Beginning on a Friday, with a woman telling her best friend about the sexual revolution in her marriage, the action tracks backwards, following the (mis)fortunes of several related characters (most of whom don’t know about each other). I suspect that Dobrish has been taking in those French destiny comedies (like Amélie and Happenstance) or their American counterparts (such as 13 Conversations About One Thing) that have been playing at his local cinema. There’s no grand overarching theme here--the playwright is mostly interested in the tricks that fate plays on his character--but, under Mark Brokaw’s brisk, pacy direction, most of the scenes have pungency and bite. Furthermore, the actors make a fine meal of their roles. Among them I most liked Randy Danson as a housewife who learns to enjoy life as a dominatrix, David Garrison as a middle-aged man in love with a much younger woman, and Christopher Innvar as a corporate shark who takes revenge on this wife by sleeping with the maid (The scene between Innvar and his wife, Barbara Garrick, is a nearly perfect decoding of the secret language of a troubled marriage). One or two scenes don’t play too well, but, overall, this is a smart diversion. Less admirable is Mark Wendland’s drab set design, a series of black screens, with minimal furniture; Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting is also fairly basic. (Why do I feel that the Vineyard spent its budget on its last production, the Broadway-bound Avenue Q?) Michael Krass’ costumes are nicely observant, and the fetish slave outfit worn by Bill Buell is a real eye-opener. Janet Kalas’ sound design provides nice amplification for Lewis Flinn’s appealing incidental music. --David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: The Eye, directed by the Hong Kong brother team of Oxide Pang and Danny Pang, is a visual and aural tour de force; it’s also pretty darned scary. The story is of Mun (Angelica Lee), a young woman, blind from early childhood, who receives a cornea transplant. Her newfound sight is at first shadowy and out of focus, so she doesn’t make much of the strange figures the viewer glimpses in the background. That is, until they start addressing her aggressively, making demands, asking questions, expressing their physical needs with a frightening urgency. A pale elderly woman will be in the distance plaintively moaning that she’s freezing; in an instant she’s right behind Mun, and the plaint has become an ear-shattering wail that seems to come at the spectator from the next seat. The film’s multilayered soundtrack, credited to Oxide Pang, is outstanding, and Dechi Srimantra’s cinematography, aided by some excellent digital effects, does an uncommonly evocative job with Mun’s skewed point of view. The ghosts she sees are truly ghostly. It’s too bad that the resolution of the story, as Mun and her doctor boyfriend track down the identity of the cornea donor, is so hokey and predictable.

The Eye photo: Palm Pictures

The Legend of Suriyothai is fascinating, since it’s a Thai national epic, made by Thailand, and obviously of great import to the Thai people. (The film was an enormous hit in its native country.) It arrives in the United States in rather choppy form--the 142-minute version American audiences will see is almost an hour shorter than the original cut. The editing (done in part by Francis Ford Coppola) makes it difficult to follow the story, which is set in the 16th century and centers on the princess of the title, who leads her people against invading Burmese legions. Unlike, say, Joan of Arc, Suriyothai also has love problems, which gives the tale a valuable sexy component. In any case, the production, directed by Chatri Chalerm Yukol, is massively impressive, featuring battle scenes with a cast of thousands (along with 160 elephants), beautiful locations, and authentic props and weapons. There are three credited DPs--Igor Luther, Stanislav Dorsic, and Anupap Boachan--with a camera primarily staffed by Czechs and Poles. There are also three credited art directors: Prasopcok Thanasetvirai, Prasert Posrirat, and Chetsada Prunarakard. The sumptuous costumes are designed by Kamol Panitpan, while the sound mix was completed at Coppola’s American Zoetrope post facility.

The Legend of Suriyothai photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Tycoon: A New Russian is a different kind of national epic. It’s billed as a modern Russian equivalent to The Godfather, examining as it does the rise and fall of a post-Soviet gangster kingpin (played by Vladimir Mashkov). I was psyched for this movie, especially since I liked director Pavel Lounguine’s film Taxi Blues. But I found it to be long, confusing, and deadly dull. It manages to make crime look as boring as any other business, which perhaps is the point. The cinematography, by Alexey Fedorov and Oleg Dobronravov is proficient if a bit drab, and the film is certainly well made. Maybe it loses something in the translation. --John Calhoun

The Light in the Piazza photo: Chris Bennion

Heard from Seattle: The next new musical to keep your eye on is The Light in the Piazza, which just opened at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, to good reviews. The production heads next to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, with New York as the rumored final destination. Based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer (there’s also a 1962 film version), the story centers on an American woman in Florence whose troubled daughter falls in with a young Italian man. Seattle critics found much to praise in Craig Lucas’ book and Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics. In the Seattle Times, Misha Berson called it "a beguiling tale retold with humor, poignancy, and musical interludes of shivery loveliness." Lynn Jacobson, in Variety, called it "small, simple, and occasionally sublime." On the other hand, Joe Adcock, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that the show "is precious in both the complimentary and derogatory sense." Speaking of the design, he noted, "scenery by Loy Arcenas and lighting by Christopher Akerlind create a non-detailed but vivid sense of the Florence of myth and legend, shimmery, shadowy, gold-flecked, and enhanced with representation of those Renaissance infant angels that, appropriately enough, resemble cupids. Completing the jewel-box effect are the women’s costumes by Catherine Zuber. They document the post-war exuberance of the 1950s. The fabrics are colorful. The dresses are intricately sculpted. The high-heeled shoes are busy little triumphs of cruel architecture." On the other hand, Jacobson wrote, "Guettel’s lyrics can be rapturous, so it’s a shame they can’t be heard better. Throughout the show, sung monologues and dialogues--many critical to the plot--are lost. Sometimes they’re overpowered by the musicians; other times the performers seem to be struggling with the vocal range of the songs and simply cannot be understood"--comments that suggest sound designers Acme Sound Partners may have problems not of their own making on their hands. Also, Berson complains, "Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is often more suited to a show titled The Darkness in the Piazza." Well, that’s why shows go out of town. We’ll be hearing more from this one as the season progresses. --DB