Seen on Broadway:

Enchanted April

has been once a book and twice a film, so I suppose a stage version was inevitable. In the hands of American playwright Matthew Barber, this tale, taken from Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1992 novel, of four English ladies who find love and happiness in a rented Italian castle, comes across as the kind of mild British comedy favored by elderly female audiences looking to fill the hours between lunch and teatime. It’s sweet and amusing, but it’s also the thinnest tale imaginable, with a second act that wraps itself up before it ever gets going. However, as an opportunity for a cast of pros to ham it up in amiable fashion, it has its pleasures. Jayne Atkinson is superb as the desperately bored housewife looking to brighten her life with wisteria and sunshine, and Molly Ringwald is remarkably fine as a young woman whose marriage has been filled with disappointment. Elizabeth Ashley devours whole scenes as the resident dragon, harumphing her disapproval of everyone else onstage, and Dagmara Dominczyk lounges fetchingly as a bright young thing with a melancholy secret. Among the supporting players, Patricia Connolly commits grand larceny--officially defined in the New York State legal code as stealing scenes from Elizabeth Ashley--as an Italian housekeeper whose English isn’t good enough to be called broken. The men are fine, too--even Michael Cumpsty manages to carry off a silly bit of farce action requiring him to accidentally bare himself in front of the ladies. (Clearly, director Michael Wilson has a sure hand with light comedy.) Tony Straiges’ first-act setting, a small arrangement of furniture in front of a black drop, is far too skimpy for a Broadway show, but his second-act villa setting is a beauty. Rui Rita’s lighting is sharp and angular in Act I and provides lovely, subtly detailed washes of sunlight in Act II. Jess Goldstein’s costumes range from monumental Victorian horrors for Ashley to pastel Noel Coward-style lounging pajamas for Dominczyk. John Gromada’s sound design provides a solid job of amplification for his lovely incidental music. Enchanted April is the perfect entertainment if your grandmother is in town--it will be interesting to see if this pleasant but mild entertainment can survive the harsh Broadway climate.


Enchanted April photo: Carol Rosegg

Seen Off Broadway: Those of you who thought Hedwig and the Angry Inch was the last word on transgendered East Germans will be surprised to hear of I Am My Own Wife, now at Playwrights Horizons. (Note: the production just extended until July 20 and there is talk of a commercial transfer.) The central character of Doug Wright’s fact-based solo show is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, née Lothar Berfelde, a transvestite who managed to survive the Nazi and Communist regimes, in drag. For decades, van Mahlsdorf curated a museum devoted to late 19th-century German furniture and industrial design, simultaneously running "the last Weimar cabaret" for gays and lesbians in the basement. The play tracks Charlotte’s life, as well as Wright’s growing fascination with her, but this is not a sentimental portrait. Among other things, Charlotte admits to killing her brutal father. Later, when state records reveal her cooperation with the Stasi, the East German secret police, Charlotte loses her status as a gay role model in the unified Germany. In fact, the more one knows about Charlotte, the harder she is to pin down. Is she a heroic survivor? An opportunist? One of history’s sad leftovers? You’ll be asking yourself these questions long after the play is over. Under Moises Kaufman’s finely calibrated direction, Jefferson Mays is simply extraordinary as Charlotte, Wright, and a variety of supporting characters. Derek McLane’s setting, a small, nearly empty room backed by a Cornell-box arrangement of period furniture pieces, is an elegant concept, vividly illustrating the insular quality of Charlotte’s life. David Lander makes strong use of sidelight to carve Mays out of the setting; he also creates beautifully spooky effects by highlighting certain details of the setting. The impeccable sound design by Andre J. Pluess and Ben Sussman vividly creates a number of effects, including the sounds of war, music from a gramophone, and the roar of applause. Janice Pytel’s main costume, a black, mid-length skirt with matching stockings, shoes, and a headscarf, plus pearls, has the odd effect of making Mays look like a postulant in a convent, but it may very well be authentic. I Am My Own Wife is a fascinating document, showing how one extremely singular life mirrors the dark contradictions of modern history. --David Barbour


I Am My Own Wife photo: Joan Marcus

I am usually pretty excited about transfers of plays from London to New York, but in the case of Humble Boy at Manhattan Theatre Club I think something got lost on the way across the pond. To begin with, Charlotte Jones’ play does not fare too well upon second viewing; as the viewer you anticipate the jokes and know the secrets of her rather contrived plot structure. And while the American cast was very good, I liked the British cast better (Diana Rigg and Simon Russell Beale as mother and son in London; Blair Brown and Jared Harris in New York). The story centers around a young astrophysicist, Felix Humble, aka "humble boy," who is struggling for his "Eureka!" moment, and struggling against his very self-centered mother, Flora. For Felix, things start to fall apart the day of his father’s funeral and only get worse as the play progresses. His father was a beekeeper, (should he be called "bumble boy?"), which is a good excuse for setting the entire play in a garden with a large beehive upstage center in the midst of some very tall grass and flowers. Set and costume designer Tim Hatley created a perfectly lovely English garden, which in the London production was very vertical, with steps in the garden leading to the beehive. Manhattan Theatre Club’s venue has a very low ceiling and is very wide, giving the set a much more horizontal look. The willowy grass in this case stretched way beyond the playing area, pulling the audience into the garden, with green paving stones coming right off the stage and out to the theatre entrance while running across the front row of seats. The overall effect is very dramatic, but it is a shame that the low ceiling puts the lighting fixtures right in the garden, as it were. But LD Paul Pyant’s lighting is magical, lighting the grass as if from within, and changing the mood in the garden from full morning sun to a cloudy afternoon. At the end, tiny lights throughout the grass sparkle, and as the lighting fades out, the grass disappears, allowing the points of light to create a galaxy of stars; the perfect setting for our young humble boy to reflect upon his own existence. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen at the Movies: After bombing so badly in The Majestic, Jim Carrey must have decided that a return to his wacky roots was in order. Bruce Almighty gives the comedian ample opportunity to show off his rubber-jawed and pivot-legged gifts--never has a live-action performer seemed so much like an escapee from a Warner Bros. cartoon. His character in the latest film, directed by Tom Shadyac, is actually a fairly dislikable guy, a self-centered Buffalo TV reporter whose obsession with landing an anchor position overshadows everything, including his relationship with girlfriend Jennifer Aniston. Bruce’s bitter railing at God provokes a visitation from the Big Guy (Morgan Freeman), who endows our protagonist with almighty powers, just to see what it’s like. Naturally, global (albeit comic) disaster ensues.

The middle portion of Bruce Almighty--that is, the part where Bruce is testing his omnipotent legs, parting the waters in a bowl of tomato soup, and conjuring a monkey out of a menacing thug’s ass--is often hilarious. One scene, in which Bruce makes verbal mincemeat out of a rival anchor’s on-camera delivery, is undoubtedly the funniest thing to be seen onscreen so far this year. But the movie is weighed down by its insistence on making this situation a character-building experience for the hero, and by a rather distasteful display of piety, which is the last thing I want from a broad comedy. The film is also slackly made, with flat and overly grainy images courtesy of DP Dean Semler and surprisingly obvious bluescreen effects by Bill Taylor of Illusion Arts. Production designer Linda DeScenna works under the handicap of trying to sell what is clearly the Universal backlot as Buffalo, but she does contribute at least one great set, a room covered in prayer Post-Its. Judy Ruskin is costume designer.


Bruce Almighty photos: Illusion Arts/Universal Pictures

In a season of remakes, The Italian Job has possibly the most obscure source, a 1969 caper starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward. I’ve never seen the film, so I don’t know how closely F. Gary Gray’s 2003 version adheres, but Mark Wahlberg has the same character name, Charlie Croker, as Caine, and Donald Sutherland appears to take on Coward’s role of John Bridger. Sutherland’s double-cross and murder during the movie’s opening heist is the catalyst for the rest of the action, which finds Wahlberg joining forces with the deceased’s daughter (Charlize Theron) and several cohorts (Seth Green, Jason Statham, Mos Def) to track down and dispose of the double-crosser, played on autopilot by Edward Norton (who apparently had a contractual obligation to fulfill). Actually, the whole movie seems to be on autopilot, and feels more typical of a February or April release than one occupying a prime position in May. There are car chases galore, slick cinematography by Wally Pfister and production design by Charles Wood, and natty costumes by Mark Bridges. More about the significance of the movie I could not tell you.


The Italian Job photo: Bruce Talamon/Paramount Pictures

Not to be confused with the exceptional Swedish film of several years ago, Chen Kaige’s new movie Together is about Xiaochun, a violin prodigy who comes to Beijing from the sticks with his determined, if deferential, stage father. Chen plots the son’s course to success among a series of entertaining vignettes, populated by Lili, a whorish and eventually golden-hearted young woman (deliciously played by the director’s wife, Chen Hong), an eccentric teacher who collects stray cats, and a more orthodox teacher who puts the boy on the road to acclaim. And then, abruptly, Xiaochun--a quiet and fairly inexpressive 13-year-old played by newcomer Tang Yun--seems to have a change of heart.


Together photo: Zhao Hong Yang/United Artists

Observing the western classical music milieu in the context of China is fascinating, but Together is, like most of Chen’s movies, a rather lumpen affair. It is also, like all of the director’s work, absolutely ravishing to look at (and listen to, courtesy of Juilliard violinist Tang Rong). This time, the saturated, shimmering cinematography is by Kim Hyung-koo, the production design is by Cao Juiping (who does a smashing job with the eccentric professor’s ramshackle house), and the costumes--most notably, the dressed-to-the-nines outfits for design-conscious Lili--are by Hah Yongsoo. --John Calhoun