Seen on Broadway

: Donna Murphy is not an actress. She is a shape-shifter, a chameleon, and, quite possibly, a sorceress. Over the years, she’s turned up as a neurotic Italian spinster, a proper English governess, a sultry prostitute, a Eurasian adventuress, an amnesiac Amelia Earhart, and Helen of Troy. Each role has been accompanied by a total change of appearance. Once again, she is working her magic, this time as that all-American wisecracker Ruth Sherwood in the 1953 musical Wonderful Town, now at the Al Hirschfeld. Ruth and her sister Eileen, an innocent blonde bombshell, have come to New York, circa 1935, from Columbus, OH, to make it big in publishing and the theatre. On their first day, they end up in a ghastly Christopher Street basement apartment, which turns out to be a former brothel resting directly over a subway construction project. And that's just the beginning of their adventures. Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s book, based on their 1941 play My Sister Eileen (and the short stories of Ruth McKenney), supplies plenty of Village eccentrics to complicate the girl’s lives, but the real glory here is the restless, swinging score by Leonard Bernstein and the dryly witty lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

And then there’s Murphy, who lands laugh and after laugh with her deadpan Midwestern delivery. She’s a physical comedian, too: Whether wrestling with a recalcitrant daybed, starring in fantasy sequences as a jaded Hemingway huntress and an ultra-pregnant tenement dweller, or fighting off the attentions a cadre of fun-loving Brazilian naval officers, she offers a master class is sophisticated slapstick. Doling out romance tips in “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” subduing a street full of Village hepcats in “Swing,” getting tossed into the air in “Conga!” and nailing the cockeyed melody of “Wrong Note Rag,” she is the musical comedy girl of the moment. We have plenty of talented people appearing in Broadway musicals these days, but we have precious few clowns. Murphy is one of the best.

Donna Murphy conquers Greenwich Village in Wonderful Town. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Murphy gets fine support from Jennifer Westfeldt as dizzy Eileen, for whom men “are only an escape,” and Gregg Edelman as an editor who could be the man for Ruth. (I also loved Michael McGrath, cracking wise as a sleazy reporter with designs on Eileen.) Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is stylish and amusing throughout, from the organized chaos of the opening number “Christopher Street” to the Riverdance-inspired steps in “Darlin’ Eileen.” As of yet, however, she’s not nearly as skilled a director of book scenes, and the first part of Act I is flatter than it should be; by Act II, Marshall hits her stride. Much has been made of the fact that the production is nothing more than a glorified Encores! presentation, with the orchestra onstage, but, to my mind, the design works. John Lee Beatty’s gilded skyline and transparent drops are gloriously lit by Peter Kaczorowski, whose use of heavily saturated colors turns the stage into a replica of those hand-tinted postcards so typical of the period. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are colorful, detailed, and move beautifully with the dancers. Lew Mead’s crystal-clear sound design is achieved using barely noticeable amplification; he also has lots of fun with the necessary effects, especially the explosions going off under the Sherwood girls’ apartment. After a fall filled will bewildering musicals, Wonderful Town is a reassuring return to basics.

Anna in the Tropics, now at the Royale Theatre, unearths a fascinating piece of social history, but leaves the drama behind. Jimmy Smits is Juan Julian, a Cuban émigré who arrives in Tampa in 1929 to work as a lector at a cigar company, reading to the workers in order to distract them from their tedious, repetitive tasks. The courtly, stunningly handsome Juan Julian proves to be too provocative a presence for his own good, as he stirs up feelings of attraction, jealousy, and anger in women and men alike. Before long, he is deep in an adulterous affair with Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the owner’s daughter, while her sister Marela (Vanessa Aspsillaga) pines for him. Meanwhile, Conchita’s (John Ortiz) husband, Palomo, is both disturbed and aroused by his wife’s affair, and Cheche (David Zayas), the owner’s half-brother, whose wife ran off with the previous lector, wants to get rid of Juan Julian as part of a plan to modernize the factory. It’s a promising dramatic situation, but it takes all of Act I to get going, and, under Emily Mann’s rather austere direction, a palpable atmosphere of pent-up passion is never really achieved. Cruz’s writing strains pretty hard for lyricism with lines with “I detect sad trees in your eyes when we make love.” Offsetting these weaknesses is a strong cast, particularly Priscilla Lopez as the take-charge wife of the owner (Victor Argo).

There have been complaints in the press about Robert Brill’s setting, which is dominated by a wooden wall; I hear that, in its previous engagement at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, Brill’s work was more effectively claustrophobic. At the Royale, it has been opened up, with the addition of a sky drop, a decision that may have diluted the production’s impact (then again, the Royale is three times the size of the McCarter space, so Brill had to do something). Nevertheless, Anita Yavich’s costumes, with their largely white palette and Art Deco touches, are lovely, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting goes a long, long way to developing an atmosphere of heat and haze. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design uses lots of Cuban music and provides an eerily reverberating shotgun noise during the play’s shocking climax. Anna in the Tropics won this year’s Pulitzer Prize; the award may have placed an unfair burden of expectations on a work whose pleasures must be carefully tended to be brought to life. --David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai is a beautifully produced, mixed-up movie about the conflict between Eastern and Western codes of honor in 19th-century Japan. Not surprisingly, the East comes out morally if not literally on top, and also not surprisingly, it takes Tom Cruise to clarify the victory. Cruise plays disillusioned Union soldier and Indian fighter Nathan Algren, who is revived from his drunken debauchery long enough to be dispatched to Tokyo, where he is meant to train the Emperor’s army to vanquish a recalcitrant, archaic samurai warrior force. Instead, Algren is captured by the samurai and taken to their mountain village, where he is held, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-style, until the winter snows melt. At the end of his sojourn, Algren is just as willing a blushing bride as the captives in the earlier film, and trades in his army uniform for a fabulous-looking suit of samurai armor.

A hard day's work in The Last Samurai. Photo: David James/Warner Bros.

The Last Samurai is an easy movie to make fun of, but it’s mainly ridiculous in retrospect rather than in the watching. (The film is also, I’d imagine, going to be a big hit.) There’s a pleasing old-fashioned quality to the moviecraft, with big sets designed by Lilly Kilvert filled out by traditional matte paintings, and lots of lovely kimonos designed by Ngila Dickson in which to luxuriate. The film’s exteriors were largely shot in New Zealand, where a photogenic (and remote) location was found in which to construct the samurai village; side trips to Hollywood and Japan itself fill in the blanks. Zwick directs the battle scenes with as much ruthless effectiveness as he did comparable sequences in Glory, and DP John Toll pulls off some haunting shots, like the first appearance of the samurai out of the fog. Acting honors go to Ken Watanabe, who projects a paradoxically gentle gravity as fierce samurai chief Katsumoto. But by the end, it’s impossible to escape the notion that The Last Samurai’s main reason for being is to give Tom Cruise the opportunity to play samurai dress-up.

Billy Bob Thornton in Santa drag is a more satisfyingly unsavory sight, but that’s not enough cause to recommend Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. I was really pumped for this movie, which promised to be a hilariously profane skewering of a holiday season sacred cow. And except for that key adverbial qualification, indeed it is. Zwigoff, who directed Ghost World and the great documentary Crumb doesn’t have the knack for this kind of rude knockabout comedy; his pacing and timing are listless, which delivers a lethal blow to the film’s humor. Consequently, the relentless nastiness—which includes borderline abusive treatment of a corpulent child actor—is just depressing. Some of Wendy Chuck’s soiled Santa suits, and elfin costumes for Thornton’s diminutive cohort Tony Cox, are amusing. Otherwise, Bad Santa, which is photographed by Jamie Anderson and designed by Sharon Seymour, has a bland look that makes it seem an even glummer experience than it is.

You'd better watch out: It's Bad Santa. Photo: Tracy Bennett/Dimension Filmes.

Those fans yearning for a new Omar Sharif movie should check out Monsieur Ibrahim, in which the 70-something former matinee idol plays a Muslim storekeeper who befriends a motherless Jewish boy in 1960s Paris. This why-can’t-we-all-get-along scenario is predictable but not as sticky as it sounds, and the movie is lovingly crafted and shot by director Francois Dupeyron and DP Rémy Chevrin, while the period and the shabby Paris neighborhood are evocatively represented by production designer Katia Wyszkop and costume designer Catherine Bouchard. A weird bonus: One scene depicts the filming of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, with Isabelle Adjani contributing an unlikely cameo as Brigitte Bardot.--John Calhoun.

Omar Sharif in M. Ibrahim. Photo: Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics.

Seen Off Broadway: Tony Kushner tries a musical in Caroline, or Change, now at the Public Theatre, with results that are nearly indescribable. You know you’re in trouble when the cast list includes characters named The Washing Machine, The Radio, The Dryer, The Moon, and The Bus (The excellent Chuck Cooper has a demanding dual role—he plays both The Dryer and The Bus). Tonya Pinkins is the title character, a black maid working for a Jewish family in Louisiana; the year is 1963. The change of the title is social: Kennedy is dead and Caroline doesn’t want to hear about civil rights marches or Martin Luther King. However, the change of the title is literal, as well: Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad), the family’s eight-year-old son, leaves his change in his clothes, and his stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox), decides that Caroline should be allowed to keep it. That’s pretty much it for plot; Noah misses his late mother, his father Stuart (David Costabile) grieves, Rose worries that she’s failing, and Caroline’s daughter Emmie (Anika Noni Rose) hates her mother’s servile position. And of course, The Washing Machine, The Radio, The Dryer, The Moon, and The Bus all weigh in from time to time. You’ve probably guessed that Caroline, or Change is a terribly earnest, deeply symbolic effort. But everything that’s interesting about this story is pushed to the margins as Jeanine Tesori's score drones on, and Kushner harps on the same point over and over. Furthermore, there’s no real relationship between Noah and Caroline—their only daily contact comes when he lights her single cigarette—and, as a result, the story is dramatically inert. It doesn’t help George C. Wolfe’s staging is so flat, either.

Caroline, or Change Photo: Michael Daniel.

Riccardo Hernandez’ scenery places small units in a black void, with a few changing backdrops; the result is drab and empty-looking, lacking in a specific sense of place. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting is generally solid, and they achieve a few nice effects with the Moon’s set unit, creating some mirrorball effects to back it up. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are typically first rate, including some nice early-60s dresses for a scene at a Hanukah party; he also creates some strikingly original garb for the inanimate objects—as the Washer, Capathia Jenkins is dressed in an evening gown made of wet laundry. Jon Weston’s sound design provides very discreet amplification. Pinkins is excellent throughout, vividly evoking her character’s unspoken feelings and singing as if her life depended on it. Cox works hard and the rest of the cast is totally solid. There’s some rich dramatic material here—until now, only Alfred Uhry has explored the role of the Jews in the South and their relationship to the Civil Rights movement—but it is obscured by the overall pretentiousness. Even as Kushner’s television adaptation of Angels in America has earned so much acclaim, Caroline exposes the high-mindedness that often mars his work; it’s another lengthy, uplifting lecture on social issues.

I’ve never read William Wharton’s acclaimed novel Birdy, so I have no idea how faithful Naomi Wallace’s stage adaptation is. But what comes across in Lisa Peterson's staging at Women’s Project and Productions is how much the script resembles those potboiler psychological melodramas of the 70s and 80s like Equus and Agnes of God. Sargeant Al Columbato is a troubled young army NCO with a hair-trigger temper; it’s right after World War II and he’s been transferred to a military mental hospital—not for his own problems, which are many, but because Doctor White, a psychiatrist, believes that Al can help get through to his boyhood friend, Birdy, who is catatonic. In flashbacks, we learn that Birdy always kept dozens of birds in his bedroom and experimented, none too successfully, with flight. Even as Al talks to Birdy, Dr. White probes Al about his abused childhood and the exact nature of the boys’ friendship. The writing strains for lyricism and Birdy’s avian obsession is hard to understand; after a while, it seems to be just a fancy way of writing about sublimated homosexual feelings. The climax, in which Al apparently talks Birdy out of psychosis, is pretty silly. Anyway, the cast is very strong, especially Zachary Knighton and Peter Stadlen as the young Al and Birdy, and Teagle F. Bougere as a conscientious objector who works as a nurse in the hospital. Riccardo Hernandez’ spare setting cleverly evokes a cage, a set of railroad tracks, and a mental institution by the simplest of means and is beautifully lit by Scott Zielinski using a virtually no color at all. Gabriel Berry’s fine period costumes work well within both of the play’s time frames. Sound designer Jill B. C. DuBoff does some of her best work here, blending music and effects (including bird noises and the flapping of wings) to notable effect. Birdy isn’t dull, but it is both overly sincere and more than a little hokey.--DB

Birdy Photo: Carol Rosegg.