Seen at the Theatre: Those Sex and the City girls know how to keep busy off-season. Two of them, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon, are currently starring in major New York theatre productions. Parker is the deluded heroine of David Lindsay-Abaire’s ultra-whimsical comedy Wonder of the World, now at Manhattan Theatre Club, while Nixon presides over the cat-clawing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women.
The title of Wonder of the World refers to Niagara Falls, where Parker goes in search of a new life after abandoning her dullard husband (Alan Tudyk), whose bizarre sexual proclivities will not be divulged here. Along the way, she picks up an alcoholic who plans to go over the falls in a barrel (Kristine Nielsen), a lonely, romantic boat captain (Kevin Chamberlain), and a host of bizarre characters, all of them played by Amy Sedaris. Hot on Parker’s trail is a pair of inept detectives (Marylouise Burke and Bill Raymond).
Wonder of the World is a silly, rambling piece of work and Lindsay-Abaire’s sense of humor is often too precious for words; the climax, in which the characters play the Newlywed Game in a motel room, with a clown/psychiatrist as the emcee, beggars description. Still there are many hilarious moments from Nielsen and Sedaris, and Parker does a stunning job of putting across a basically selfish and unsympathetic character, making us care about her through sheer force of will.
Christopher Ashley’s slick production also features another riotously clever set design by David Gallo. There are dozens of locations in the play, most of them rendered in wagons that crisscross the stage to hilarious effect. Probably only Gallo could give us a scene set in two helicopters at once, or one featuring two characters in a barrel headed over the falls. His absolute triumph is a sequence set simultaneously in three themed restaurants, with Sedaris as all three waitresses: an Indian squaw, a lusty medieval wench, and a Transylvanian temptress.
The production also features first-rate work from costume designer David C. Woolard, lighting designer Ken Billington, and sound designer Mark Bennett. If Wonder of the World is a triumph of production over play—well, that’s not the worst thing in the world, is it?
Although The Women tends to make a lot of people nervous, Luce’s comedy remains as sharp as a hatpin. It’s not anti-feminist, but a scorching satire of pampered, upper-middle-class wives whose world extends from Park Avenue salons to Reno divorce ranches. (If you’ve only seen the 1939 film, a treat in itself, you’re likely to be shocked by the play’s bluntly unsentimental point of view). It’s a daunting piece of work, with 12 locations and 36 speaking parts, which means few theatres can afford to stage it these days.
All of which makes the Roundabout production that much more disappointing. Director Scott Elliot has encouraged his cast to scream, mug, and generally camp it up; these women are dangerously close to being drag queens. Elliot has missed the essence of 1930s stage comedy, which is based on the fine art of throwing lines away. Here everything is over-emphasized to the point of exhaustion. Tasteless and vulgar gags are inserted into the action, including the now-infamous nude scene featuring Jennifer Tilly.
Even worse are Isaac Mizrahi’s frequently hideous and inappropriate costumes. Nixon’s mother, played by Mary Louise Wilson, is written as a bastion of conservative wisdom; here she’s dressed in a wildly dotted print that makes her look like a beach ball. Rue McClanahan, as the much-married Countess, makes her first entrance in an unflatteringly short bathing suit, with white cowboy boots and a sombrero (she’s in Reno—get it?). Kristen Johnson and Jennifer Coolidge, as the most malicious of the ladies, are dressed as unflatteringly as possible. We will draw a veil over the curtain call, in which all are forced to take their bows in foundation garments.
Derek McLane’s setting has a number of amusing and imaginative touches, especially the opening sequence, in which a number of Manhattan skyscrapers open up to reveal the heroine’s living room. Then again, there are some questionable scenic touches as well, including a rose-covered show curtain, and a Reno setting covered with cattle skulls right out of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Lighting is by Brian MacDevitt and the sound design, including the recording of “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy, is by Douglas J. Cuomo.
Nixon, by the way, is the best thing in the production, using her considerable skill to underplay the heroine. She may be one of the most skillful practitioners of light comedy currently at work in New York. But the rest of this production is a vulgar disappointment. It’ll probably be years before someone will take a chance on this play again—too bad, because it’s the closest thing the American stage has to Restoration comedy.
Seen at Lincoln Center: The New York City Opera's production of Lilith, a new work with music by Deborah Drattell, met with mixed success when it premiered this month. Personally, I think Drattell takes her subject matter too seriously, which does not make for lively opera. In fact, the score for Lilith sounds too much like a funeral dirge throughout (except for one passage sung in Hebrew which is quite moving).
That said, the production was beautifully staged by director Anne Bogart, who successfully used members of her SITI Company as the chorus, blending them nicely with the soloists. Based on the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and Lilith, the opera was set in the 20th century, giving the story a sense of timelessness and universality. Costume designer James Schuette dressed the men in dark suits and hats, with white shirts and ties, and the women in black knee-length dresses. Eve and Lilith eventually appear in full slips as they attempt to merge their tormented souls. Set designer John Conklin and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind gave the production a handsome look, setting it on a raked yellow platform in the center of the stage. The back wall was white, and then black, as a scrim moved into place, creating a black box around the yellow floor. Red apples, representing temptation, added the only other color to the evening. I wish Drattell herself had been tempted to be as bold as the designers in her approach.
Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, Santo Loquasto and Duane Schuler have created a beautiful new production of Verdi's Luisa Miller, a story of innocence destroyed by evil forces. Loquasto's sets are highly realistic interpretations of a small northern English village (which could have also been a similar riverside town in France or Italy). The exterior set of a town square juxtaposes the wall of a church with a gated wall and stairs, with a bench and pump in the center. The two interior sets contrast the opulent home of the evil Count and the rustic interior of a village school.
Although the story was originally set in Germany, director Elijah Moshinsky felt that the characters related more to early 19th-century English novels, such as those of the Bronte sisters. "We actually set it in the 1830s, and liked the romance of that period," says Loquasto, who took his cues from the director, and also was inspired by the early photographs that English photographer Frank Meadows Sutcliffe took of his village. The color palette for sets and costumes remains wrapped in warm earth tones, with the townspeople in browns and grays with shades of lilac, while an unhappy Duchess appears in black with gold trim. "She is in mourning," notes Loquasto, "and the black is also a good way to pull her out of the crowd. The other characters were more complicated color-wise."
One of the design challenges in this opera is how to focus the intimate scenes between two or three people in a large space, and then have the chorus appear as if from nowhere. In the Count's home, the chorus appears as soldiers on the staircase and as townspeople in the doorway. A bit more confusing is the two-level space in which Luisa and her father apparently live. It is meant to be a school, but could have just as easily been an inn or tavern, so one wonders why Luisa is wearing a nightgown in public. But Sondra Radvanovsky sang the role of Luisa so beautifully, one ultimately didn't care where she was living, and overall the production does justice to Verdi's score.
Seen Off Broadway: The Glory of Living, a new play about the wonderful world of trailer trash by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anna Paquin and Jeffrey Donovan star as doomed codependents in a downward crime spiral in this production at the MCC Theatre. Of course it's set in the South, although you could find these characters anywhere trailer parks exist.
Scenic designer Michelle Malavet captures the dinginess of low-rent motels, a cramped trailer, and various jail locales with one changeable set; plastic plywood and cinderblocks abound in this all-too-real version of low-rent hell. James Vermeulen's low, dim lighting worked well with the script and the set. A particularly strong moment came when Paquin's character Lisa is first incarcerated: a low pane of light reveals her crouching stage right. The ceilings and walls seem to be bearing down on her, boxing her in.
My companion commented that many of Mimi O'Donnell's costumes looked like "five-year-old crusty K-Mart underwear," and that that was perfect. Paquin and the other female characters sport a lot of bikini bottoms, cropped tops, and crummy jeans. It's Paquin's tangled, matted hair that really caught my attention, though: who did that to her? Nobody takes credit for it in the program. Her hair, Donovan's facial hair, even the tattoos and bruises on Lisa are spot-on.
Former TCI Award winner David Van Tieghem contributed crackling original music and sound design; his associate is Jill DuBoff, who, along with O'Donnell, was one of ED'spicks for Young Designers to Watch (see the October 2001 issue). Although I found the play painful and tedious in parts, the design, direction, and acting all coalesced to push the horrible violent world of The Glory of Living right in your face.
Seen at the Movies: If you've already seen it or are simply not interested in braving the underaged crowds for Harry Potter over the Thanksgiving holiday, there are other options. Spy Game, for example, is one of the few recent star-driven studio action movies that doesn't insult your intelligence. If that sounds like faint praise, let me hasten to add that though I'm not a fan of director Tony Scott's often meaninglessly pyrotechnic style, I was thoroughly engrossed by the movie. It stars Robert Redford as a CIA veteran whose last day on the job is dedicated to the case of a rogue agent (Brad Pitt) he recruited years before, and who is now detained in a Chinese prison. This is Redford's best role and performance in years—his enigmatic, hard-to-penetrate surface, which can be so infuriating in a movie like The Horse Whisperer, is perfectly suited to his wily character here.
Despite Scott's flashy self-indulgence—the time of day is periodically pounded out on the screen, with hysterical percussive accompaniment; a rooftop scene between the stars is broken into a succession of swirling helicopter shots--Spy Game is beautifully produced. The framing scenes are set at CIA headquarters in 1991, with extensive flashbacks to 1975 Vietnam, 1976 Berlin, and 1985 Beirut. Director of photography Dan Mindel gives each setting a distinct look through what looks like a combination of film stock and lab processing, and production designer Norris Spencer's work is outstanding in its evocative detail. Budapest stood in for 1970s-era Berlin, while both Vietnam and Beirut were simulated in Morocco. The main, "inner sanctum" CIA sets were constructed at Shepperton Studios, while a London pharmaceutical company was used for the some of the exteriors and common corridors. The overall impression in these scenes is one of a setting labyrinthine enough for one to hide in plain sight.
Opening Friday is In the Bedroom, a strikingly accomplished first feature from Todd Field, better known as an actor in such films as Eyes Wide Shut and The Haunting. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson star as a middle-aged Maine couple visited by tragedy in this adaptation of a story by Andre Dubus; also cast are Nick Stahl as the couple's teenaged son and Marisa Tomei as his older lover. Working with DP Antonio Calvache, Field, a Maine native, gives the movie a look attendant on the seasonal changes of the coastal locations, with the lulling sunshine of summer segueing into autumn mists that by the end of the film carry tragic metaphoric weight.
Other new movies to help you digest your turkey include Black Knight, the Martin Lawrence take on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with a medieval castle set designed by Leslie Dilley and built at North Carolina's Wilmington Studios. Hmmm…did I mention Martin Lawrence and the word "digest" in the same sentence? Snowboarding and Lee Majors enthusiasts may want to take in Out Cold, while those in the mood for Edward Burns' latest indie movie lite can go see Sidewalks of New York. Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War, does have atmosphere to spare—the remote boarding school setting is photographed in alternating, equally spooky green (for night) and orange (for day) tones by Guillermo Navarro. For holiday uplift, there's always Jean Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, the whimsical, paper-thin, and very stylish French hit that Miramax recently opened stateside.
Heard on the Street: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers held its annual meeting in New York City in November, at which time they designated the world-renowned stage at Radio City Music Hall as a historic mechanical engineering landmark, in recognition of the innovative hydraulics system technology that operates one of the world's largest moveable stages. A bronze plaque, presented to Radio City in a special ceremony on November 12, will be displayed along the route for the backstage tours offered by the theatre. And when the legendary toe-tapping Rockettes appear in this year's version of the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular, they'll be tapping away on a rather famous landmark.