Seen on Broadway: In the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Molière’s Tartuffe, director Joe Dowling goes easy on the laughs. This is not entirely unwelcome; most recent Tartuffes have been exercises in grotesque mugging. In some ways, Dowling’s approach, which aims for emotional truthfulness, is a relief; still, I wanted it to be funnier. The ingredients are there: In the title role, Henry Goodman is amusingly duplicitous (his split-second switches from piety to lust are something to see) and Brian Bedford provides another fine portrait of fatuity as Tartuffe’s far-too-adoring host. There’s also good work from Kathryn Meisle as the object of Tartuffe’s desires and J. Smith-Cameron as a straight-talking maid. Still, the overall effect is becalmed. Scene after scene threatens to become hilarious, then stops short. The sparse audience laughter on the night I attended was notable; I’ve never seen a Tartuffe that got less of a reaction. Even the famous seduction scene, with Goodman trying to bed Meisle on a table, unaware that Bedford is hidden below, fails to ignite. Anyway, the production is reasonably handsome, thanks to the production’s blue-chip design team. John Lee Beatty’s settings—a front hall, a dining room, and a house exterior—are fairly lavish for the Roundabout; Beatty’s celebrated eye for scenic detail has not been totally cramped by the company’s budget constraints. Jane Greenwood’s lineup of 17th-century outfits makes sure that every bow, ruffle, stocking, and underskirt is present and accounted for (Paul Huntley’s wigs are typically accomplished). Brian MacDevitt’s lighting adds a painterly burnish to the scenery and costumes. Mark Bennett’s music and sound design provides a fairly constant underscoring of period-sounding melodies. Truth to tell, there’s nothing really missing from this Tartuffe but that little something extra; as a placeholder in the Roundabout subscription season, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But another so-so Tartuffe is nothing to be proud of, either. --David Barbour

Seen Off Broadway: Trevor Griffith’s 1975 play Comedians is tough going for an American audience in 2003, because its action is rooted in the lost worlds of British music hall comedy and class tensions in pre-Margaret Thatcher England. Still, anyone can relate to the sheer terror of going onstage, so a first-class production can still be a gripping experience. Fortunately, the New Group revival, directed by Scott Elliott, fits the bill. Jim Dale makes a welcome return as a retired star who runs a comedy class for working stiffs aiming to get out of their dead-end lives. Dale has trained them to be truthful and humane in their work, but a performance at a local social hall, in front of a powerful manager, is marked by a series of grisly onstage meltdowns, capped by a carefully choreographed explosion of rage from the enigmatic teacher’s pet (Raul Esparza, in the role that a made star of Jonathan Pryce). Under Eliot’s direction, every moment is filled with tension and telling moments of character revelation. Some reviewers have dismissed the play, and it is true that Griffith’s writing can be a little preachy. He also has trouble wrapping up the final scene, even dragging in a gratuitous discussion of the Holocaust. But overall this is a harrowing study in desperation. Dale and Esparza create a tense, emotionally fraught teacher-student relationship and David McCallum is also fine as the creepy hack who can make or break these embryonic careers. Derek McLane’s superbly detailed classroom setting is a marvel of seedy institutional design; you can practically inhale the chalk dust. Mimi O’Donnell has dressed the all-male cast in the dowdiest clothing the 70s had to offer (One carp: Dale’s contemporary haircut is a bit jarring). The lighting by Jason Lyons and sound by Ken Travis are both solidly professional. Only the New Group would consider a revival of Comedians; only the New Group could make such a fine job of it. We’re lucky to have this company in New York. --DB

Comedians photo: Carol Rosegg

Seen at the Movies: Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, a front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a very impressive, at times gut-wrenching, piece of work. Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, it chronicles life across three decades (1960s-80s) in the Rio de Janeiro housing project of the title, where teenage drug lords become de facto rulers and violent crime (and early death) are commonplace. The film’s large cast of characters, ranging from the cold-blooded baby gangster Lil Ze to the aspiring photographer Rocket, are played by non-professionals, and the locations are real favelas, or slums, where the crew obtained permission to shoot from the local reigning drug lord.

City of God follows in the tradition of earlier movie treatments of the relationship between children, poverty, and crime—films like Buñuel’s Los Olvidados and Hector Babenco’s Pixote, also set in Rio. But Mereilles’ approach is also influenced by the cinematic pyrotechnics of such recent filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Amores Perros helmer Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, and by his own work in commercials. Split screen, jump cuts, frame rate shifts, and "whiplash" pans abound; DP Cesar Charlone certainly earned his paycheck, and went the extra mile with what looks like extensive postproduction fiddling. The film’s color scheme is striking—a blossoming into vibrancy followed by a leeching of color to virtual monochrome for the 1980s section. (Color timer Sergio Pasqualino and visual effects artist Renato Batata get prominent enough placement in the credits to suggest the importance of their contributions.) Unfortunately, all of this technique tips City of God over into an area that feels like exploitation, especially since Meirelles doesn’t inspire much sympathy or even interest in his characters. The impression City of God leaves is of a troublingly aestheticized portrait of brutality, hard to watch and all too easy to forget. --John Calhoun

City of God photos: Miramax Films

Heard on the Awards Front: The Art Directors Guild announced its 2002 nominees for excellence in production design Tuesday. The ADG splits films into two categories: period/fantasy, and contemporary. Nominees for the former are John Myrhe for Chicago, Dante Ferretti for Gangs of New York, Grant Major for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Alex McDowell for Minority Report, and Dennis Gassner for Road to Perdition. Contemporary nominees are Dan Weil for The Bourne Identity, Jeannine Oppewall for Catch Me If You Can (which is primarily set in the 1960s but counted as contemporary by the guild), Maria Djurkovic for The Hours (again, set in the 20s and 50s as well as modern day), Tom Foden for One Hour Photo, and Arthur Max for Panic Room. Notable omissions include Mark Friedberg’s design for Far from Heaven and Allan Starski’s work in The Pianist.

The ADG also named nominees in several television categories. For TV movies or miniseries the nominees are Richard Hoover for Live From Baghdad, Roy Forge Smith for Martin and Lewis, Michael Baugh for Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, Waldemar Kalinowski for Path to War, and Chris Gorak for Taken. In the category covering variety and music shows, the nominees are Bob Keene for the 44th Annual Grammy Awards, J. Michael Riva for The 74th Annual Academy Awards, Bruce Ryan for Cedric the Entertainer Presents, John Sabato for MadTV, and Jeremy Railton for the Opening Ceremony of the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games.

For single-camera TV series the nominees are Scott Chambliss for Alias, Curtis A. Schnell for Crossing Jordan, Philip Toolin for American Dreams, Edward T. McAvoy for Push, Nevada, and James William Newport for The Shield. Multicamera series nominees are Jay Pelissier for 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, John Shaffner for Friends, Robert Strohmaier for Life with Bonnie, Steve Olson for Titus, and Roy Christopher for Bram and Alice. --JC

Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and the New York City Ballet have been named the first winners of the Jerome Robbins Prize for excellence in the dance arts. The awards of $100,000 each from the Jerome Robbins Foundation were presented Thursday evening, January 16, at a ceremony at the New York State Theater. Following the ceremony was an all-Robbins evening of repertory by New York City Ballet featuring In G Major, Fancy Free, and In the Night, with lighting by Tipton. --Michael S. Eddy