Seen Off Broadway:

The war between the sexes rages on in The Thing About Men, now at the Promenade Theatre. This new musical (book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music by Jimmy Roberts) is based on Men, a 1985 German film that was popular in this country. But where Doris Dorrie’s screenplay offered sly, malicious humor, DiPietro’s book is a tonal mess, a mix of the strenuously wacky and the studiously sincere.

Marc Kudisch stars as Tom, a hard-charging, philandering advertising executive who goes into shock when his wife Lucy (Leah Hocking) announces she has taken a lover and has no intention of giving him up. Before you can say “unbelievable plot twist,” Tom is living with the lover, Sebastian (Ron Bohmer), an over-evolved painter with Jesus hair, whose nickname for Lucy is “Teary Eyes”(!) and who says things like “The first step to healing is sharing.” Before long, Tom and Sebastian (who doesn’t know Tom’s real identity) are best friends, giving a new twist to the eternal triangle. Hijinks ensue, followed by tearful moments of self-recognition. The script suffers from a nearly total lack of emotional reality: it’s hard to believe that Sebastian would take Tom in. It’s harder to believe that they would form an bond of friendship. It’s impossible to believe that Lucy would want anything to do with either of them. Furthermore, the score is one of weakest in recent memory; Roberts in not a strong melodist and the lyrics are generally flat-footed. The three overqualified leads do their best, however, under Mark Clements’ routine direction, and Jennifer Simard and Daniel Reichard are crisply amusing in a variety of supporting roles (although Reichard can do little with one of those mincing, supercilious French maitre’ds, who so often turn up in comedies like this).

Male bonding in The Thing About Men. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Richard Hoover’s setting, a brick wall with windows and a pair of spiral staircases, is a little dreary, but it does provide a showcase for Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, which set the time of each scene and provide key visual details about each location; among her witty effects are a giant wineglass, for a scene set at a celebratory dinner, and the use of video to create the feeling of being inside a speeding taxi. This is some of her cleverest work to date, which is really saying something. Ken Billington’s lighting leans awfully heavily on the saturated colors and strong angles; it’s a little high-powered for what is supposed to be an intimate musical about three people. Gregory Gale’s costumes are filled with amusing little character details; he also dresses Reichard and Simard in a palette of red and black, neatly setting them off from the three leads. Jon Weston’s sound has a nice natural quality and does a fairly good job of dealing with the noise from the moving lights. You’ve probably guessed that I didn’t have a great time at The Thing About Men; however, DiPietro and Roberts have had a multi-year run with the revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; their new show, with its overly familiar jokes about the Mars-Venus orbit, is rather like a narrative version of the latter. There was plenty of laughter in the Promenade Theatre on the night I attended; it’s very possible that The Thing About Men could repeat it’s predecessor’s popularity.--David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: In a summer of movie after movie featuring big-budget, meaningless mayhem, nothing has struck me as more violent and difficult to watch than Thirteen, Catherine Hardwicke’s small-scale study of female teen angst. The film centers on Los Angeles seventh-grader Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), who moves from doll-playing innocence to shoplifting, body-baring, drug-taking and trash-talking adolescence with frightening speed. The catalyst in her transformation is Evie (Nikki Reed, who collaborated with Hardwicke on the script), a popular wreck of a girl who flatters Tracy with her attentions. Looking on ineffectually is Tracy’s hairdresser mom Melanie (Holly Hunter), a recovering alcoholic who’s barely making ends meet, and who has her own issues, including a much younger cokehead boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto).

Female bonding in Thirteen. Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Twentieth Century Fox

The film opens with a brutal scene of Tracy and Evie giddily socking each other into oblivion, and proceeds to make the audience flinch in scene after scene. Close-up depictions of tongue- and navel-piercing are hard enough to look at; much worse, because of the emotional violence involved, are scenes when Tracy, under a percolating volcano of pressure, cuts herself with scissors and a razor. Hardwicke has the bravery and integrity to present such authentic material, but it sure can make Thirteen an unpleasant experience.

The movie is undeniably impressive, though. The performances, especially Wood’s and Hunter’s, are outstanding. And in her directorial debut, Hardwicke—who, by the way, is a top production designer (her credits include Three Kings and Vanilla Sky--uses a restive camera and editing style to powerfully convey her protagonist’s in-the-moment experience. Shooting in Super 16, DP Elliot Davis achieves an appropriately raw, blown-out style, with fields of vibrant color provided by production designer Carol Strober; Melanie’s house, though modest, has been designed to express a stanched creativity, with saturated walls providing a backdrop to the film’s foreground emotional intensity. Costume designer Cindy Evans has a field day with the girls’ provocative clothing and accessories, most of which have been lifted from various boutiques. And, of course, key hair stylist Elaine M. Cascio and key makeup artist Judy Lovell complete the precocious picture.
--John Calhoun