Seen Off Off Broadway:

You have to sympathize with the eponymous hero of Transparency of Val, which concludes a short run this weekend at the Clemente Soto Cultural Center. Val’s mother is growing younger by the minute. His girlfriend is turning into a hermaphrodite. His beloved teacher turns out to be a notorious pedophile. He’s jailed as a conscientious objector for refusing to take part in something called The Love War (against the Marshall Islands, no less), then kills one of his fellow prisoners. In other words, he’s a bundle of contradictions, but then so is Transparency of Val. In many ways, it’s the kind of play they’ve been doing downtown since there was a downtown—a wild, Candide-like attack on every value society holds dear. (Oddly, Belber’s last play, Tape, which had one naturalistic set, three characters, and nearly took place in real time, seemed far more avant-garde).

Transparency of Val

Yet, line by line, the writing is very strong, and Sam Helfrich’s disciplined direction gets the most out of his talented cast. David Newell’s set, a sinister surround of graffiti-filled chalkboard, ideally matches the tone of the text. Thom Weaver’s lighting effectively reconfigures the space from scene to scene, alternating between sharply cut geometric looks and creepy footlight effects. David A. Gilman’s sound design makes use of various types of music and cues—I particularly liked his wicked use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in a battle scene, a gag that, one assumes, would not amuse Oliver Stone. The costumes are by Jennifer Halpern. Staged on what is clearly the most minute of budgets, Transparency of Val is not perfect, but it makes clear that limited resources do not necessarily mean limited creativity.--David Barbour

Seen on Broadway: I’m Not Rappaport had a substantial Broadway run in the late 80s, so a revival, particularly with its original star, Judd Hirsch, director, Dan Sullivan, and at least two of its designers (Tony Walton and Pat Collins) might not seem to be absolutely necessary. In fact, it’s doing very shaky business. Nevertheless, this comedy about a pair of geezers passing the time on a Central Park bench has always been a crowd pleaser (it won the Tony Award for Best Play). Under Sullivan’s direction, Hirsch and Vereen score heavily as Nat, an old Jewish Socialist, and Midge, an aging superintendent about to lose his job. Together, they tangle with tenants' committees, exasperated offspring, muggers, and drug dealers. This kind of laughter-and-tears cocktail usually leaves me with a hangover, and this is no exception. Nat is something of a con artist and so is Herb Gardner, hustling the audience with easy laughs about the elderly while crudely planting more serious points about aging, the city’s quality of life, and the superficial values of 1980s America.

However, I must admit that the audience was clearly delighted; it is true that the production is enormously skillful. Walton’s set is a pleasantly old-fashioned slice of Central Park, although I’d lose the tacky nighttime skyline drop. Pat Collin’s lighting adds a tasteful patina of autumn colors. As in Proof and A Moon for the Misbegotten, though, I find her nighttime scenes to be disconcertingly bright; let’s just say that with Pat Collins, you get serious moonlight. Teresa Snider-Stein’s costumes firmly root the action in 1982, and Peter Fitzgerald's sound design adds the atmospheric music of the Central Park carousel. I’m Not Rappaport is the kind of show that makes a lot of people happy. As for me, I find it to be thoroughly amusing, thoroughly professional, and thoroughly false.--DB

Seen at the Movies: Though I could do without its air of religious portent, I think M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is a first-rate thriller, written with wit and intelligence, and directed with subtlety and a superb control of craft. As you probably know, the film deals with the aftermath of some crop circles that appear not only in Pennsylvania farmer (and former priest) Mel Gibson's cornfields, but in similar formations across the world. Yes, Virginia, there are space aliens, and sorry, but they're probably not benevolent. Anyway, like Shyamalan's earlier films The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Signs proceeds at its own pace, which provokes Jeffrey Lyons-style TV talking heads to proclaim it "slow." Repeat after me: slow is not always a bad thing. It sometimes means that you can sit there and soak in a thoughtful filmmaker's carefully planted clues and motifs, the better to enjoy their eventual payoff. And in Signs, pay off they do.

Crop circles in Signs

Shyamalan has said that his primary inspirations for the film include Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which has a similarly deliberate setup, as well Night of the Living Dead and War of the Worlds (the latter especially in his treatment of the extraterrestrial claws that come creeping into the frame). The way in which Gibson, younger brother Joaquin Phoenix, and motherless children Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin (both of whom are almost as effective as Haley Joel Osment in Sixth Sense) batten down the hatches against the intruders is very reminiscent of The Birds, though Shyamalan's coda is far less ambiguous, and for me, less satisfying, than Hitchcock's. But somehow, the portrait of one family isolated from news of what's happening in the outside world, defending their little patch of earth from invasion, is far more terrifying than the kind of global cataclysm portrayed in Independence Day.

It helps that Shyamalan is a great devotee of suggestion and shadow, and that he employs the simpatico talents of DP Tak Fujimoto, production designer Larry Fulton, and sound designer Richard King, none of whom resort to flash and trash. The understated costumes are by Ann Roth, who probably didn't have far to drive to the Bucks County set, and the visual effects supervisors (whose work is nearly invisible) are Eric Brevig and Stefen Fangmeier. Rounding out the cast are the always welcome Cherry Jones, and in a key role, Shyamalan himself. Signs is one of the best reasons to visit a movie theatre this summer.--John Calhoun

Heard Around Town: In what must be one of the most ambitious cultural construction projects in many years, the Dodgers, best-known for producing musical revivals on Broadway (Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, Into the Woods) have leased 55,000-plus sq. ft. of the Worldwide Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, once the home of the much-mourned Cineplex Odeon $2 Cinema. The Dodgers plan to renovate the space and create five live-performance theatres, with an opening scheduled for mid-2003. This news comes as Theatre Row, on 42nd Street, has reopened with several new and attractive Off Broadway theatres; another trio of mid-sized spaces is planned for 39th Street and Tenth Avenue. While I applaud these developments, I also wonder who exactly is going to use all these venues. There are several commercial Off Broadway theatres going empty right now; in fact, the smart money seems to think that Off Broadway, with its limited opportunity for a financial return is, in some ways, riskier than Broadway these days. It will surely be interesting to see what happens…

The producers of the revisal of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song have finally announced that production’s creative team. Robin Wagner and Gregg Barnes will provide scenery and costumes, respectively; the two designers did the Los Angeles tryout last year. Joining them will be lighting designer Natasha Katz and sound designers Acme Sound Partners. I shamelessly admit to being thrilled about this production, as the score is one of the great guilty pleasures among musical fans. There’s an entirely new book by David Henry Hwang, which means, I guess, we won’t be hearing that immortal line, “Send over some 1,000 year-old eggs—and make sure they’re fresh!” (There’s a reason they don’t make them like they used to.)--DB

Heard on the Production Front: Continuing a trend exemplified by Road to Perdition and last year's From Hell, production has started on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on the graphic "serial strips" by From Hell author Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. The filming location is Prague, standing in for Victorian England; the cast is headed by Sean Connery; the director is Stephen Norrington, who guided the comic book Blade to the screen. The film is being shot by Dan Lausten, with production design by David Cronenberg regular Carol Spier and costume design by Quillls Oscar nominee Jacqueline West. Matrix Oscar winner Janek Sirrs is in charge of visual effects, and Steve Johnson and his company Edge FX will execute makeup effects and creature designs. Twentieth Century Fox will release the movie sometime in June 2003.--JC

Heard on Canal Street: Plans are afoot for the next edition of the Big Apple Institute, a series of free seminars of interest to the lighting industry, and presented by Big Apple Lights ( Organizers Patrick O'Rourke and Jason Livingston have announced that this fall's series will be centered around "Designers on Design," with lighting designers focusing on such topics as Using Moving Lights, Perception and Light, Designing with Color, Dance Design, and Opera vs. Musicals. Four sessions are planned for this fall, dates to be announced.--Ellen Lampert Gréaux

Signs photos: Touchstone Pictures.