Dance of the Vampires. Photo: Alan Toft
The design is more or less indescribable, a combination of the insanely grandiose and the riotously tacky; the parties involved are David Gallo (scenery), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes); Ken Billington (lighting), and Richard Ryan (sound). There was a time when every Broadway designer had one or two of these on his or her resume; shows like this are black holes that suck everyone in, leaving them (temporarily) trashed. I expect to see all of them doing good work again, and soon (Gallo and Hould-Ward already have new stage projects in the works). Anyway, Dance of the Vampires is truly, madly, deeply terrible, and I had a fabulous time. Connosieurs of musical flops—those of you who loved Carrie, Dance a Little Closer, and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public--should make haste to the Minskoff. Everyone else should wait until they’ve cleaned up the garlic.
Imaginary Friends, now at the Barrymore, isn’t really a success; then again, it’s more entertaining than a number of more fully realized works. Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones are cast as Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarty, who, inhabiting their own, red-draped corner of Hell, eternally relive their decades-long vendetta, particularly the lawsuit that more or less killed Hellman and bankrupted McCarthy. Taken as a version of The Women for readers of The New York Review of Books, it’s rather fun; playwright Nora Ephron has given the ladies plenty of zingers (McCarthy on Hellman: “Pentimento is Italian for 'I couldn’t remember all that much, so I just made it all up!’”) There are many treasurable moments, including a re-enactment of the Dick Cavett broadcast that led to the litigation, as well as the ladies’ wildly differing versions of the encounter, at Sarah Lawrence College, that made them the best of enemies. But Ephron has conceived the piece a kind of semi-musical revue and the songs, by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia aren’t helpful. Why must we see Dirk Lumbard and Peter Marx, cast as Fact and Fiction, take part in a challenge tap? Why does a scene depicting Hellman’s New Orleans childhood begin with the supporting cast making like the chorus of Ragtime? Ephron has described the songs as palate-cleansers, designed to prepare the audience for the next vodka-and-vinegar-spiked verbal battle, but, on some level, she doesn’t trust her material and it’s a shame.
The best of enemies: Kurtz and Jones. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Nevertheless, the stars are divine: Kurtz swaggering, wisecracking, and breaking into highly theatrical tears when the cameras are on, Jones using her Cheshire-cat smile to reveal the peculiar mix of propriety, ambition, and malice at McCarthy’s core. There’s also good work from Harry Groener as several great men of literature, and Anne Pitoniak as Act II’s plot-resolving mystery guest. There’s a lot to like also, about Jack O’Brien’s typically elegant direction, Michael Levine’s swanky red Hades, Robert Morgan’s century-spanning costumes, Kenneth Posner’s glamorous lighting, and sound designer Jon Weston’s skillful mix of amplification and effects. Special mention goes to Jan Hartley's video projections--I especially like the way Cherry Jones has been edited into the original Dick Cavett broadcast. You may not be totally satisfied by Imaginary Friends, but you’d be a fool to miss it.
Seen at the Movies: Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, probably 2002’s most eagerly awaited movie, has to be counted as the year’s biggest disappointment. The epic-scaled film, set in mid-19th-century Manhattan, and entirely filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, is inspired by Herbert Asbury’s book, a folkloric 1928 chronicle of the history of crime in the city. The movie’s biggest problem is that Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan never figured out a way to extract a story from Asbury’s work—what we get here is a hackneyed account of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), an Irish immigrant who has secretly vowed vengeance against his father’s murderer, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), Nativist kingpin of the Lower East Side’s squalid, violent Five Points region.
Production designer Dante Ferretti has done an impressive job recreating the neighborhood, which encompasses the Old Brewery’s ramshackle mazes, a Chinese pagoda housing a brothel/opium den, and Satan’s Circus, yet another center of vice, operated by Bill the Butcher, where one can glimpse the film’s infamous jar of ears. One oddity of Gangs of New York is that traces of so few of the film’s settings remain that we seem to be in some weird medieval village rather than in Manhattan. Digital mattes by ILM help to give the action some context, but it doesn’t help that Scorsese flounders in bringing the setting to life: one is always aware of extras milling and roistering around a huge backlot. At the end, the director lets us down further by anticlimactically enacting the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots, which are presented in tiny fragments intercut with the activities of characters he hasn’t worked up much interest in.
Day-Lewis, clad in costume designer Sandy Powell’s colorful plaids and stovepipe hats, and speaking in an engaging 150-year-old New York argot, is sensationally effective. The rest of the cast, including Cameron Diaz as a pretty pickpocket who gets into steamy clenches with DiCaprio, is OK but nothing special. Michael Ballhaus is the able DP, though his work in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence was much more evocative.
The 25th Hour Photo: David Lee/Touchstone Pictures.
I found another New York movie opening this week, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, to be far superior. The story, adapted by David Benioff from his novel, is simple: a young drug dealer (Edward Norton) has one day left before beginning to serve a long prison sentence; he spends it with girlfriend Rosario Dawson, boyhood friends Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper, and father Brian Cox, and in soul-searching reveries about his past and future. But by the end, what Lee and Benioff have achieved—at times, heavy-handedly--is a large-scale vision of post-9/11 New York, a city of immigrants, natives, hopes, and anxieties. The opening credits play over images of last spring’s Towers of Light, which sets the tone perfectly. The cinematography, by Mexican DP Rodrigo Prieto, ranks with the year’s best: it finds beauty in grainy texture and harsh light. James Chinlund’s production design and Sandra Hernandez’s costumes are scrupulously naturalistic.
The Two Towers Photo: New Line Cinema.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers takes up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off, with a nary an opportunity for catching one’s breath. This middle installment in Peter Jackson’s version of the Tolkien trilogy is action-packed, with much of the last hour devoted to the massive battle at Helm’s Deep. Once again, Andrew Lesnie is the Oscar-winning director of photography, Grant Major is production designer, and Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor are the costume designers. Taylor is also the artist responsible for the film’s special makeup—check out the rotting look of Bernard Hill’s King Theoden—and creature design, while the staff at Weta Digital brought such wonders as the Ent character Treebeard to life. The film’s most astounding accomplishment: the character of Gollum, voiced and enacted by Andy Serkis, whose movements were motion captured and digitally transformed into the ugly, tormented creature on screen. Kudos also to visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel and the film’s amazing sound effects editors, supervised by Ethan Van Der Ryn.
In brief, other movies opening this week include Marc Lawrence’s agreeable romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice, in which Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant play well together, and New York is given the sparkling glamour treatment by DP Laszlo Kovacs, production designer Peter Larkin, and costume designer Gary Jones; Joe Carnahan’s Narc, a standard police melodrama with Jason Patric and Ray Liotta, enlivened somewhat by Alex Nepomniaschy’s kinetic camerawork and bleached-out images; and Antwone Fisher, a mediocre inspirational drama that marks Denzel Washington’s directorial debut. Derek Luke is impressive as the title character, but the movie is possibly the most visually undistinguished work on DP Philippe Rousselot’s credit list.
Seen Off Broadway: Bartenders, at the John Houseman, is a fairly standard six-pack of monologues about the men who serve you your Scotch, as written and personified by Louis Mustillo. They’re a diverse bunch, including the hardened professional with an arcane personal code; the boozing loser, who’s girlfriend dumped him for lack of ambition; the guy being sued by a customer; the entrepreneur who blew his money on drugs and now struggles with AIDS. It’s all typical acting-class stuff; the livelier moments include a hilarious story about a bizarre accident involving hot coffee on a plane and an amusing deconstruction of the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. Mustillo has a way of winning over the audience, even though he can be a little overbearing, especially in an intimate space like the Houseman’s studio; still, he certainly creates six distinct characters. Also, his writing wins points for its finely observed details, even if the monologues themselves are generally headed in the most obvious direction. The design—scenery by Josh Iacovelli, lighting by Michael O’Connor, and sound by Bill Atwood, is fairly minimal but that’s probably the right approach. Bartenders is, in its way, accomplished work, but I wanted it to accomplish more.