Seen Off Broadway:
I finally caught up with The Guys, Anne Nelson’s drama about the aftermath of 9/11, at the Flea Theatre downtown. By now the story is familiar: How the Flea, coming off its best year ever, was nearly shut down when audiences were unable to go below Canal Street after the destruction of the World Trade Center; how Jim Simpson, the Flea’s artistic director, commissioned a play from Nelson about those horrible events; how Nelson wrote the script in record time; how the play opened with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, was a hit, won awards, and has continued ever since, with a rotating cast of stars. Nelson’s play, based on her own experience, is about an editor who helps a fire captain write eulogies for several of his men. Simpson conceived of it as a kind of reader’s theatre production, although, on the night I attended, stars Marlo Thomas and Stephen Lang were about as off-book as you could get.
Nelson is not an experienced playwright and The Guys is an awkward piece of writing. There’s little dramatic development and a clumsily planted fantasy sequence doesn’t help vary the dramatic action. At times, the dialogue is clunky. And yet it is also a heartfelt, gripping piece of theatrical journalism and, under Simpson’s direction, Thomas and Lang gave beautifully understated performances. As Lang, his eyes vacant with grief, recounted the events of the day, an unearthly silence prevailed in the theatre. Thomas was equally convincing as a funny, feisty New Yorker who can’t stop asking herself painful, unanswerable questions, looking for meaning where none can be found. Out of a series of hushed exchanges, sudden pauses, and matter-of-fact line readings, they created a compact portrait of grief that was far more moving than all the newspaper and television reports that have been expended on the subject. The Guys is not a play for the ages, but it is most certainly a play for right now.
The production has minimal scenery and lighting by Kyle Chepulis, the design/technology genius at the Flea, and costumes by Claudia Brown. It’s a little ironic that the Flea, which usually houses rather more difficult and challenging works, has had its greatest success with a naturalistic, two-character drama featuring a pair of stars. But if The Guys is more notable as an act of citizenship than as a work of theatre, it nevertheless is a piece of great impact. There have been other productions in Los Angeles and elsewhere; I hear London will be seeing it soon. Weaver will perform it on Lincoln Center on September 11th. A film version, with Weaver and Anthony La Paglia, will open at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Meanwhile, the Flea production closed this week and will reopen in September after a brief hiatus with a new cast.--David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: A few films you might want to catch up with over Labor Day weekend. Top of the list is The Good Girl, writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta's dark comedy-drama about Justine (Jennifer Aniston), a 30-year-old small-town Texas woman who decides that everything about her life—especially her marriage to unimaginative schlub John C. Reilly and her deadening job at Retail Rodeo, a kind of Wal-Mart knockoff—is bad and heading nowhere but worse. She gets involved with younger co-worker Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose real name is Tom but who fancies himself a latter-day Salinger hero. From this point, it seems to me that nothing predictable happens in The Good Girl, which manages to be both funny and disturbing up to the very end. This is a breakout performance for Aniston, who is still recognizable as Rachel from Friends, but Rachel with a world of weariness on her shoulders. DP Enrique Chediak, production designer Daniel Bradford, and costume designer Nancy Steiner, working entirely in southern California, bring this middle American milieu to life without condescension—we can tell why Justine hates her house and the Retail Rodeo, without the locations being lampooned.
Blue Crush is a considerably more cartoonish slice of Americana, Hawaiian style, but if you like cool, non-digitized surfing photography, this is probably the movie for you. Director John Stockwell, whose last movie was Crazy/Beautiful, does manage to bring a little pizzazz to the hackneyed scenes, even if star Kate Bosworth is a bland blondie whose fate in the big surfing contest at the end doesn't exactly inspire goosebumps. David Hennings' gorgeous cinematography does raise a few, however.
Neil LaBute's Possession is a polished version of A.S. Byatt's time-shifting English novel, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart in the modern scenes, with Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam as the participants in the parallel 19th-century romance they're investigating. Unlike LaBute's American movies (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty), Possession is pretty toothless, and the passions being portrayed don't really come to life. But it's a handsome piece of work, with cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier and production and costume design by Merchant Ivory regulars Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan.
If you're in New York, you could go down to Film Forum and have your pick this weekend of two great Akira Kurosawa films starring Toshiro Mifune: The Seven Samurai, and the less well known High and Low, an incredibly rich 1963 kidnapping drama. This series has been a big sellout for Film Forum, so if you want to make sure to get tickets, go to the theatre's website to buy online.--John Calhoun
Heard From Toronto: Mark Fisher, Willie Williams and Patrick Woodroffe are all in Toronto putting the finishing touches on the designs for "Licks," the Rolling Stones' world tour that kicks off on September 3 in Boston, MA (a full list of tour dates can be found at www.rollingstones.com). So we know Mark Fisher is the architect for the Stones' set designs, but what are two great rock and roll lighting designers doing side by side? In fact, Patrick Woodroffe, as usual, is lighting the Stones, with Willie Williams taking care of the video side of things. "I've known Patrick for 20 years but never get to work with him directly," says Williams, on a break from rehearsals. "And the whole Rolling Stones experience is worth the price of admission."--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux