Seen at the Movies: Jonas Akerlund’s Spun is the latest druggie movie to try to duplicate the experience of being high in cinematic terms. The substance of choice for most of the film’s characters is crystal meth, and Swedish commercial vet Akerlund shoots and edits the film as if on a super-speed binge; in fact, the Guinness Book of World Records says that with 5,435 cuts, Spun rates as the most spliced movie of all time. This can all get very wearyingly obvious, and I would never call Spun anything but a bad movie. But there is some novelty to seeing cast members Jason Schwartzman, Mena Suvari, John Leguizamo, Brittany Murphy, and Patrick Fugit give their strung-out all, with performers like Mickey Rourke (as The Cook), Deborah Harry (as The Lesbian Neighbor), and Eric Roberts (as The Man) on the sidelines providing more seasoned color. Though their work is mostly not to my taste, the behind-the-scenes talent on the film is clearly prodigious. DP Eric Broms, another Swede, who works exclusively with Akerlund, used high-speed 16mm film and bizarre lenses to convey the washed-out world of the meth addict, and he’s matched every step of the way by Eric Thorsell’s sound design, which interweaves music by Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and other headache-inducing audio elements. Production designer Richard Lassalle has the decayed North Valley tract look down pat, and costume designer B. enshrines Rourke in outré cowboy garb that somehow misses looking ridiculous by about one centimeter. Special kudos to whoever did the makeup, which renders most of the performers about as skanky-looking as seems possible.


Spun photo: Newmarket Films

Bringing Down the House should have been a lot funnier. Steve Martin plays the divorced tax attorney corresponding via e-mail with a potential soulmate who turns out to be Queen Latifah, an ex-con who boned up on her law textbooks in prison. The ensuing culture clash has a surprisingly frank racial component (Martin’s country club chums are clear about where they think Latifah’s place is, which is nowhere near them unless she’s going to freshen their cocktails). But the script is comically challenged and director Adam Shankman’s pacing is deadly. It’s particularly sad to see Martin reduced to just another flailing, frantic comedian. Nothing of interest technically to report here--Julio Macat’s cinematography is soft-edged and murky, though costume designer Pamela Withers and production designer Linda DeScenna try to brighten things up. DeScenna used to be a set decorator, which shows in the impeccable furnishings gracing Martin’s ranch house, exteriors for which were shot in Pasadena.


Bringing Down the House photo: Sam Emerson/Touchstone Pictures

The Safety of Objects is set in a similar-looking city suburb, but this time it’s Toronto, Hollywood’s home away from home. The film, written and directed by Rose Troche (Go Fish), and based on a book of A.M. Homes stories, is a familiar-feeling indie tale that weaves together the lives of four neighborhood families. Because of actors like Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson, Mary Kay Place, and Dermot Mulroney, the movie holds our interest, though it’s overlong and rather slackly assembled. DP Enrique Chediak does good, textured work, and the serviceable production design and costumes are by Andrea Stanley and Laura Jean Shannon. --John Calhoun


The Safety of Objects photo: IFC Films

Seen in Princeton: Director Emily Mann took a big risk (successfully, I might add) in her recent production of The Tempest at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, where she serves as artistic director. The risk was in transposing the central role of Prospero to Prospera, with actress Blair Brown carrying it off splendidly as a deposed duchess and single mother raising her only daughter on a deserted isle. Richard Hoover designed a single, elegant set with white parchment-looking walls and a sweeping staircase stage right. The upper level walls were punctuated by a large circular opening that at times served as an entrance for Prospera or her spirit, Ariel, and at other times shone like a luminous moon on the magical proceedings. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting design included washes of color that changed the look of the set as the action shifted from one locale on the island to another. Costume designer Jess Goldstein put the shipwrecked royal retinue in elegant black and gold embroidered doublets and jackets, with Prospera in a slightly shabby red damask-like gown, retaining her former royal stature yet showing the wear of 12 years without a seamstress to make new frocks. The monster Caliban is dressed in ragged pants with chains around his neck, chest, and arms. Goldstein must have had the most fun of all, playing along with the Bard's humor, as the comics in the show, Trinculo and Stephano, end up in their underwear after a trek through the wilds of the island, and the love-struck Ferdinand appears dressed as Caliban whilst carrying logs to prove his love for Miranda. The 15-year-old Miranda, Prospera's daughter, wears what must have originally been her mother's slip, now frayed at the hem, as she came to the island at the age of three. The conceit--a deposed duchess rather than a duke--is carried through to the character of Alonsa, giving a new reading to one of the most popular Shakespearean classics.


The Tempest

Seen at Lincoln Center: The recent Stephen Sondheim "revival" continues with a 30th-anniversary production of A Little Night Music at New York City Opera, which of course leads to the discussion as to whether the piece is indeed a musical or an operetta. This handsome production is a bit of both, in fact, with a mixed cast of actors and singers (the fact that Jeremy Irons and Juliet Stevenson can’t really sing doesn’t matter much, they are both quite good anyway). This game of all’s fair in love and romance is directed by Scott Ellis with choreography by Susan Stroman, sets by Michael Anania, costumes by Lindsay W. Davis, lighting by Kenneth Posner, and much-discussed sound design by Abe Jacob (the use of body mics sent some of the opera fans into a faint-hearted tizzy). Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, the plot takes us from a theatrical dressing room to a Swedish estate for a weekend in the country. This is also the name of one of the best songs in this classic score that includes one of Sondheim’s best known songs, "Send in the Clowns," sung here by Stevenson on the edge of her bed. Anania designed a set with sliding panels augmented with sofas, beds, dressing tables, divans, and statues as needed. But the entire stage can also be left open for two period motorcars that arrive for the infamous weekend. The country house is indicated by a cutout of white pillars and porticos that flies in to say "stately mansion." Davis did a great job with the costumes, with sumptuous beaded dresses alluding to the flapper era, top hats and tailcoats, silk dressing gowns, and even a white nightshirt. Other dresses are more conservative, in pastel shades or white with large feathered hats and parasols as accents. Some of the clothes come undone or are removed as this sexy little romp rolls along. Posner’s lighting bathes the proceedings with a languid light in the land of the midnight sun.


A Little Night Music

Seen at the Met: When set and costume designer Maria Bjornson passed away at the age of 53 last December, she left a legacy of designs. Some, including her Tony Award-winning designs for Phantom of the Opera, are theatrical benchmarks. Others were yet to be seen. Among the latter are the sets for a just completed revival of the Berlioz opera, Les Troyens, at the Metropolitan Opera. Directed by Francesca Zambello, with costumes by Anita Yavich and lighting by James F. Ingalls, the production can only be called monumental, with Bjornson’s sets filling the stage majestically. Acts I and II take place in ancient Troy at the end of 10 years of siege by the Greeks. The stage is covered with multilevel platforms at various rakes and surrounded by a sweeping semicircular construction that towers over the stage. At times it looks like a giant bird’s nest set on its side, or a fence of interlocking slats. A large circular opening in the middle is filled with a metallic web that looks rather menacing. A mid-height walkway behind the set allows processions above the action, such as the moment when the Trojan Horse is paraded into Troy bearing the war-mongering Greeks. In Acts III, IV, and V the set remains in place but shimmers in a much softer light and the center circle has been replaced with a field of wheat that changes color in the light as well, moving from rich amber to purple. To make these scenes more inimate, Bjornson added a shorter wall unit that is transparent and a bit Asian-looking with trees inside. This unit adds a more human scale to the set, as well as adornment, like a painting in a huge loft. The costumes evoke the period with the Greeks in battle mode, the Trojans (well, the principals anyway) in an attractive fabric of wide burgundy, green, and gold stripes with gold trim. Queen Dido and her court at Carthage in Acts III, IV, and V wear draped white robes and dresses, almost like togas and tunics with a modern slant. As far as the singers were concerned, I thought that Ben Heppner was a standout as Aeneas and I liked both Deborah Voigt as Cassandra and Michelle DeYoung as Dido, two women unlucky in love. The Met must be congratulated for productions like this. They are bold and a bit risky in the face of cutbacks in public and private funding, but might also be a way to woo new audiences. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux


Les Troyens photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Seen Off Broadway: Anyone searching for the pure electric jolt of a fresh theatrical voice must check out Our Lady of 121st Street. Be prepared, however; the action begins when the body of a nun disappears from an uptown funeral home and it doesn’t get any more genteel after that. As the police conduct their search, the assembled mourners tear into numerous bottles of booze and each other. In Stephen Adly Guirgis’ elegant structure, a round robin of confrontations reveals a group portrait of the many lives affected, for better or worse, by charismatic, alcoholic, tragic Sister Rose. Guirgis’ characters are as tough as they come and his dialogue sizzles with hilarious invective and searing home truths. Under Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s masterful direction, the entire cast shines: My favorites include Ron Cephas Jones as a Los Angeles DJ, whose vivid account, in the confessional, of a life of epic dissipation is a comic high point; Russell G. Jones as a closeted businessman; Mark Hammer as the wheelchair-bound priest who delivers his own unsentimental brand of tough love, and Lisa Colon-Zayas as the most sharp-tongued of the mourners. Narelle Sisson has provided one fully detailed set, of a waiting room at the funeral home, and has left it to lighting designer James Vermeulen to suggest the other locations required by the script. It’s an interesting concept that’s similar to the work of Michelle Malavet in Dirty Story (reviewed last week); for what it’s worth, both plays are products of the LAByrinth Theatre Company. I’m of two minds about it, but Sisson’s setting is vividly rendered and Vermeluen’s lighting ably transforms the space using a variety colors, angles, and looks. Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes provide subtle observations about the characters’ status and Eric DeArmon’s sound design draws on a wide range of music to bridge scenes and provide mood shifts. Our Lady of 121st Street contains some of the strongest writing and acting to be seen in New York this season.


Our Lady of 121st Street photo: Joan Marcus

Bexley, OH (!), or Two Tales of One City, now at New York Theatre Workshop, is a pair of linked monologues by Prudence Wright Holmes about her childhood in a hidebound, Protestant, racist enclave of the Midwest in the 1950s and 60s. The first half details her father’s obsession with the Sam Shepard murder case (which gripped Ohio in the 50s), even as his own life unravels spectacularly. The second half recounts her mother’s involvement in the local African Violet Society, an intrigue-riddled organization that undergoes more revolutions than any three banana republics. Holmes’ writing is certainly evocative for this Ohio native but I found the production more disconcerting than amusing. This is essentially ugly material, filled with tales of child abuse, adultery, alcoholism, and madness, and Holmes’ attempt to play everything for laughs left me slightly queasy. In addition, her onstage persona, which is best described as that of a middle-aged pixie, is off-putting; she’s mean and cutesy at the same time. Lisa Peterson’s staging is certainly professional and the design is rather sleek: Riccardo Hernandez’s simple setting---a deck and one revolving backdrop--is ideal, and Ben Stanton’s lighting provides the star with stellar support. Also onboard are costume designer Gabriel Berry and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz. This one may be for Ohioans only, however.

Richard Nelson, acclaimed for his musical adaptation (with Rusty Magee) of James Joyce’s The Dead is back with My Life With Albertine, a new musical taken from Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. A deadlier evening cannot be imagined; Nelson takes two and a half hours to tell his tiny story, about a youthful romance gone wrong, and the songs, by Ricky Ian Gordon, all bleed into one long, melody-free, puddle of harmonies. Proust’s work is famed for its narrative voice, its language, its insights, qualities that are virtually impossible to retain in a stage adaptation. You’re left with a rather banal tale of love, stretched to a nearly unendurable length. Even a first-class cast, led by Brent Carver, can do little to help. However, this is one of the season’s most exquisite designs. The peculiar concept is that the narrator is presenting a play in his drawing room, and Thomas Lynch has provided a gorgeously detailed toy proscenium, with beautifully painted drops and a to-die-for blue curtain. James F. Ingalls’ lighting is a marvel of subtle modulations and mood changes. Susan Hilferty’s costumes include a number of meticulously detailed men’s suits and a smashing evening gown for Emily Skinner, cast as a lesbian chanteuse. It’s unclear to me why a small Off Broadway musical with a tiny band needs reinforcement, but Scott Lehrer manages to preserve a clear, transparent sound. This is the first production in Playwrights Horizons new 42nd Street space, and it’s dandy. I look forward to seeing many other productions there.


My Life with Albertine photo: Joan Marcus

Tea at Five, at the Promenade, is the latest entry in the dead-celebrity genre of solo shows, in which a lesser star impersonates a greater one. In this case the subject is Katharine Hepburn, who is, of course, alive, but who has been removed from the public eye by old age and infirmity. Otherwise, it’s business as usual, with a first act filled with mildly amusing observations, followed by a second act of tearful revelations. As Hepburn, Kate Mulgrew deploys her mannerisms in battalions; she’s reasonably amusing, in a drag-queen way, in Act I, set in 1938, in which she prowls the stage, nervously waiting to find out if she has been cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. In Act II, Mulgrew’s determined rendition of the older Hepburn’s Parkinson’s symptoms is distracting; she moves around so jerkily she resembles one of those audio-animatronic characters at Disney World. Anyway, high marks go to Jess Goldstein and Paul Huntley for their accurate renditions of Hepburn’s wardrobe and hair. The rest of the design work--scenery by Tony Straiges, lighting by Kevin Adams, and sound by John Gromada--is far less interesting. Tea at Five got a standing ovation on the night I attended; personally, I’d be happier with a video of The Philadelphia Story or The Lion in Winter. --David Barbour