Seen at the Movies: Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter is meant to be a thinking-person’s thriller, along the lines of the director’s 1975 Three Days of the Condor. Back then, Condor was just another in a decade-long line of paranoid suspense films that may not have all been great, but which had some connection to the real world’s issues and concerns, and certainly didn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. Now, The Interpreter, which engages with the subject of African politics and America’s relationship to the international community, and does so in a fashion that isn’t punctuated by figurative comic-book frames, seems like a rare Hollywood studio bird indeed. Nicole Kidman plays a United Nations interpreter who overhears an assassination being plotted over her headphones: the target is the corrupt ruler of the fictional Matobo, where Kidman’s character also hails from; the language being spoken is an African dialect devised for the film, and which Kidman seems to deliver admirably; and the site for the proposed assassination is the U.N.’s General Assembly room.
Perhaps you’ve heard that The Interpreter is the first movie to be granted shooting access to the United Nations. The film, which also stars Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent dispatched to check out the alleged threat, exploits its rare opportunity well, without making a big deal about it. Production designer Jon Hutman has seamlessly blended shots of the General Assembly, lobby, and other spaces with partial recreations and mockups, and DP Darius Khondji photographs the location with a great sense of its sweeping spatial organization and flooding light. Pollack is a contemporary director who continues to favor anamorphic lenses while many others opt for Super 35 as a widescreen format, and Khondji uses anamorphic’s special qualities, like shallow depth of field, to give The Interpreter something of an old-style feel. As good as it is to peruse the U.N. on screen, it’s just as satisfying to study the movie-star close-ups on Kidman and Penn, whose characters here are too morose and secretive to strike many sparks, but who hold our interest with the barely contained intensity of their expressions. So intent on their faces is the camera that I barely noticed the costumes, which are designed by Sarah Edwards. The film completely falls apart at the end, but for most of its length, it’s intriguing enough, and it boasts a good bomb-on-a-bus sequence.
For those who never quite understood the whole Enron debacle, a new documentary, Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room provides a thrilling (if perhaps slightly overreaching in the Michael Moore manner) explication. Gibney is not out only to indict one misbehaving company, but also the seemingly inherent aspects of capitalist culture that lead to such escalations of greed and corruption, and he does a bang-up job. He finds Nixon-style smoking guns in the form of audio- and videotapes of Enron trading-floor shenanigans with California power supplies and company meetings at which employees are urged to invest their retirement accounts entirely in Enron stock. The movie is very handsomely shot on HD by Maryse Alberti, who captures the company’s now-empty Houston headquarters in all its shiny, hollow splendor.--John Calhoun
The gay press has recently been heralding the rebirth of gay cinema via such films as Adam & Steve, Mysterious Skin, D.E.B.S., Heights, My Summer of Love, and Eating Out, which recently opened at Manhattan’s cramped Quad Cinema. D.E.B.S. has already received scathing reviews of the Why-was-this-movie-made? variety. Written and directed by Q. Allan Brocka, Eating Out has the potential to be a hilarious gay bedroom farce with sexual identities thrown to the wind by a threesome of boy toys in Arizona. But that’s not what happens. Gay jazz student Kyle (played by the only openly gay [so far] American Idol finalist, Jim Verraros) has the hots for Marc (Ryan Carnes), a hottie classical pianist who, of course, doesn’t know Kyle is alive, but he sure notices Caleb (Scott Lunsford), Kyle’s straight roommate who wants to get closer to Marc’s female roommate Gwen (Emily Stiles). The plan is that since Gwen likes to "convert" gay boys, Caleb will pretend he’s gay and even goes on a date with Marc in order to let Gwen get her hooks into him. You can imagine what ensues as the tangled web gets woven into a tightly wound mess. Is anyone who they say they are? Maybe. Did I laugh once at this romantic comedy? Nope.
Despite some very nice performances from the above-mentioned players—except for the annoying shrew, Gwen, who is too unappealing to have pretty boys, gay or straight, fall for her--Eating Out plays like a randier version of Three’s Company if Showtime had optioned it. The standouts in this cast are Carnes, who is currently another beguiling gardener on TV’s Desperate Housewives, and Verraros whose unrequited love will tug at the heartstrings of anyone who’s been there, done that. Lunsford was likable as the clueless Caleb who means well. The rest of the cast was painfully unappealing and some of the acting from the secondary characters was amateur dinner theatre bad. There were some very funny lines that fell flat due to the flaccid delivery.
DP Keith J. Duggan helped keep the film in the low budget category as most of the scenes, from a lighting point of view anyway, were uninteresting. Exterior shots at night were especially bad. Production designer Melissa Fischer was obviously drawing on the life she knows all too well since she is still an undergrad at the University of Arizona. The sets look exactly like any college kid’s home through the ages and were perfectly suited to the action at hand. There was no costumer credited on Eating Out since all the costumes were off the rack, but wardrobe consultant Darren Clark did a fine job of dressing Marc in hot boy attire direct from the pages of International Male or off the racks of Universal Gear. All of the clothes were certainly viable for these characters.–Mark A. Newman
Seen at Joe’s Pub: Every time I go to Joe’s Pub I am struck by how lucky we are in New York to have such a great venue that draws such phenomenal talent. While much of Joe’s talent menu consists of Broadway performers on their nights off, I had the pleasure to see singer/songwriter Michael Penn perform. Penn’s last big hit was 1989’s "No Myth" but he has quite a following and rightly so. Penn’s lyrics and music hark back to another time when songwriting was king. He is arguably one of the best at what he does and it’s just fine with me that Joe’s wasn’t SRO. Playing an acoustic guitar and only accompanied by a pianist, Penn’s 80-minute set was sublime as he performed songs from past albums but also treated his fans to tunes from an upcoming CD. Penn is no Liberace and he will never be accused of being too showy. His patter with the audience between tunes is succinct and standoffish, other than his political comments—he’s no fan of Dubya. He’s also addicted to tuning his guitar, which he did between every single song.
Handling the lighting board for Penn was LD Anna Peterson who kept the troubadour in subdued tones throughout the evening. Although the simple rig contained—by my count—four moving fixtures, Peterson kept the light fairly subtle with each song getting its own set of cool, moody colors with the white beam from a conventional the evening’s most consistent fixture. Towards the end of the set, one of the moving lights seamlessly brushed the wall behind Penn with a purplish, patterned glow and it moved ever so gently, adding even more texture to the wall. The walls behind the stage are affixed with acoustic panels that give even the most basic lighting scheme an added rich texture when thrown in that direction. The sound was handled by Jeff Somoya who filled the space with Penn’s music without distorting his gentle guitar strumming. Making sure the entire room can hear the profound lyrics and the accompaniment without one overpowering the other was a delicate balancing act that Samoya mastered well. Good lighting, good sound, and exceptionally good music make for a great night out in my book.–Mark A. Newman
Seen Off Broadway: Before the final flurry of Broadway openings this season I took in two of the winter’s Off Broadway hits, both of which are scheduled to run into the summer months. My only prior acquaintance with David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, an Off-to-on Broadway success in 1984, was through its pedestrian 1998 film version, which despite a starry cast that included Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and Meg Ryan was so dull I resisted seeing the play in revival. As it happens, it was the playwright’s fault; I estimate Rabe cut about 80 minutes out of his show to make it filmable, which despite the Hollywood milieu it really isn’t. For the show to work, you need to feel the full force of what one character calls its "goddamn semantic insanity"; with wholesale omissions and streamlining forced on the text, what’s meant to be a hurlyburly can only add up to a few squalls at best. This New Group production, exceedingly well-directed by Scott Elliott, gives us the entire show, and it emerges—maybe for the first time—as one of the best plays of its period.
I suspect that Mike Nichols’ original staging, and the already compromised film version, were let down by the constellations of actors gathered. Hurlyburly is about Tinseltown climbers and hangers-on, but with the gilded likes of William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Sean Penn in the parts it’s distractingly difficult to see the forest from the trees. The revival gets it right: The cast is made up of sometime A-listers (Ethan Hawke and Parker Posey, both outstanding and from what I hear from a friend who saw the 84 production, both outstandingly different from their predecessors), up-and-comers (a snide Josh Hamilton, the explosive Bobby Cannavale, and Catherine Kellner, she seeming to have an off night when I saw the show), a fresh face (Halley Wegryn Gross, as the teenaged "CARE package" the men pass around), and—Wallace Shawn, in an alarming wig concocted by consultant Peter Butler. The men, self-absorbed, self-protective, and self-loathing, on diets of cocaine and Hostess Sno Balls, knock around the self-deluded women, either physically or psychically; like punching bags, they swing back for more. No one can stop verbalizing long enough to mend the various body blows to the mind and spirit they inflict on one another, and the cycle, horrifying and hilarious by turns, continues. LA: A nice place to visit, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there.
Hurlyburly has just transferred from the Acorn on 42nd St. to the new 37 Arts, the one notable building on a somewhat bleak stretch of West 37th St. near 10th Avenue. Set designer Derek McLane, a specialist in order, lets the Hollywood crash pad the men live in go to seed; the broken-down couch, the cheap wooden cabinets, and the thick windows that allow only minimal amounts of light in are perfectly degraded. Jason Lyons’ lighting follows suit, with a sallow, illumination-less texture that builds to a possibly revelatory spotlight on one character at the show’s close. I probably have some of Jeff Mahshie’s well-chosen period threads in the back of my closet; what is it about the "cool" clothes of yesteryear that make them look like the bowling shirts of today? [Posey’s jet-black rocker chic is, however, timeless.] And I definitely have the greatest hits music that sound designer Ken Travis cranks on the speakers between scenes and acts, like the Talking Heads’ "Once in a Lifetime," which helps make Hurlyburly a blast from the past. [One for which Tom Carroll Scenery constructed the set, GSD Lighting supplied the lights, and Masque Sound the audio equipment.]
Hurlyburly runs three and a half hours, and they go down smoothly, thanks in no small part to the pleasingly spacious seats at the 37 Arts. For some audiences, Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), a mere slip of a show at 70 minutes, will feel like three times as long. The couple sitting next to me had a severe case of the fidgets as solo actor James Urbaniak started, stopped, and stumbled his way through his tortured monologue, and they very nearly bolted during a lengthy silence. I sympathized a little, recounting how many short, sleepy shows I’ve nearly nodded off during (nowadays, press invites to off and off off Broadway shows come with the show lengths stamped all over them, promising just a brief interval of our time, but experienced theatergoers know that the absence of an intermission doesn’t equal a gain in quality). On the other hand, did they not read the reviews, which equate this Pulitzer Prize finalist with Beckett and Albee (for whom Eno has cat-sit, according to one interview), or did they just read the enthusiastic pull quotes? Buyer beware.
But I digress, which is entirely in keeping with the show, which is at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square. A gray man in a gray suit, Pain tells us about a childhood trauma and a failed relationship, or, rather, talks around his angst in his precise, prolix way, faultlessly communicated by Urbaniak in the character’s strangely robotic manner. He promises us "theatre"—a raffle, magic tricks, audience participation—but none of it really comes off, or happens satisfactorily. "It is a great joy for me to be here, and I know it is a great joy for you to be here," he says, in a joyless monotone. [Anticipating potential audience response, the director, Hal Brooks, has a plant in the seats leave after 10 minutes—or was it a plant?] Still, this Thom Pain’s scrambled take on the "Common Sense" and "Rights of Man" pamphlets of his namesake (I can only assume they were an inspiration of a kind, notwithstanding the title) does have a hypnotic quality about it if you surrender yourself to the recitation of the language, and his final words to the audience are as touching as can be given his mordant, withdrawn demeanor.
This is black box, black curtains from the word go, and scenic consultant David Korins follows suit, with only a wooden folding chair and table, plus a pitcher of water, as props. Pain has some fun trying to get the lighting to do his bidding, but LD Mark Barton stands firm, with occasional rises in the illumination level offering some relief from the starkness of the performance. [There are no other designer credits.] Not for all tastes, Thom Pain (based on nothing) is nevertheless quietly absorbing, and Urbaniak well and truly incarnates a stunted, intellectual type we’ve all known—and avoided.–Robert Cashill
Seen in New Jersey: There seems to be a resurgence of forgotten Stephen Schwartz musicals over the past couple of years—the family-friendly production of Children of Eden in Washington DC last year; the Pippin concert at the end of 2004—which can likely be linked to the success of Wicked. But trumping all these other productions is the Papermill Playhouse’s current production of The Baker’s Wife now playing until May 15. This charming show was announced for Broadway back in the 1970s starring Paul Sorvino but it never quite made it. Neither did a 1990 London production. Yet, Broadway gets Dracula and Good Vibrations. Go figure.
I have to admit that I was not familiar with any of the songs from this show other than the cabaret standard "Meadowlark" which has made it to a number of vocalists’ CDs. This show is one of the most charming musicals I have seen in a long time. Papermill has a long tradition of presenting shows with Broadway quality and this one is no exception. The show is blessed with Broadway favorite Alice Ripley in the title role of the duplicitous wife. She sends a small French village into an uproar with her antics with a rogue local played by another Broadway favorite, Max Von Essen. The baker is played by Lenny Wolpe, an actor I had never heard of, but who gave an outstanding turn as the cuckolded husband in denial about his wife’s deeds. All three actors turn in top-notch performances and are aided and abetted by a supporting cast as strong as any I’ve ever seen on the Great White Way. Each was blessed with the ability to create fully developed characters to the point that nobody in the cast was simply in the chorus. I left Millburn, NJ amazed as to why such a gem of show has not made it across the river yet.
As invaluable as the cast is, the team of designers gives its own star turn. Most notably is Anna Louizos, whose sets are reminiscent of classic paintings of French storefronts. The quaint buildings she has created will have you calling your travel agent to book passage to Provence, France in no time. Accentuating the village is the dappled lighting by Jeff Croiter who was charged with making the set feel even more welcoming as the sun rose and set, perfectly capturing the feel of a lazy mid-day or the slowly awakening rural morning. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were top notch and perfectly captured the different characters—stuffy spinster, loud café owner, arrogant mayor, etc. Randy Hansen’s sound design ably captured the feel of the romantic derring-do on stage.
This charmer of a show would be right at home in one of the smaller Broadway theatres and I look forward to seeing it finally make its Broadway debut one day. Besides, why should Jersey get all the great shows?–Mark A. Newman