Seen at the Movies: Mike Nichols’ film version of Patrick Marber’s play Closer is designed as a venomous snake of a movie, sinuous and deadly. It means to seduce you with the elegance of its craft and the beauty of its four stars—Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman—and then sink in its fangs. The actors are cast as Londoners playing romantic musical chairs, a collection of alternately selfish, self-hating, shallow, and bitter creatures whose favorite pastime is sexual betrayal. Just as when I saw the play, watching the movie I found myself thinking, Who are these gargoyles? The credibility problem is worsened by the film, because you become acutely aware of the lack of life going on around the four central figures (who are the only real characters on hand), and of the absence of humdrum existence filling in the weeks, months, and years between the big confrontations.
Still, Nichols keeps you watching, and Marber’s dialogue does periodically have a zing. Closer also benefits greatly from a ferocious performance by Owen, who makes you feel that his character’s bad behavior comes from a place of authentic pain and anger—next to his burly fury, Law is made to look particularly wan and insubstantial. I also found Roberts’ performance to be surprisingly effective, and costume designer Ann Roth does the star the great service of for once dressing her properly: mostly, in tailored white shirts and black slacks that both emphasize and flatter her lanky figure, rather than in expensive gowns that try to fight against and disguise it. Portman, who is touching and almost unbelievably gorgeous, seems miscast as the stripper/waif and chief victim of the others’ machinations; her big bare-all scene with Owen is discomfiting in ways not intended, even though full nudity is kept off-camera.
Closer is first-rate in all technical and design departments. DP Stephen Goldblatt casts in the film in varied shades of chilly light—London gray for exteriors, brilliant white for Roberts’ photography studio, deep blue for an aquarium scene, Day-Glo hues for the strip club. In his first movie production design assignment, Tim Hatley, Tony winner for Private Lives, does his best to conceal the material’s stage origins, using multiple levels and deep spaces to give the actors freedom to move around during the mostly two-character sequences. Nichols also varies the action by intercutting scenes. The movie is well made, but I emerged from it unscathed, and that’s not the intention.--John Calhoun
Seen on Broadway: The Hanukkah season is upon us and the tummlers are out in force. [That’s Yiddish for "funmaker." This goy has learned a few things.] Billy Crystal’s solo show, 700 Sundays, is breaking records at the Broadhurst, and it’s not hard to see why; his comic insights about family, mortality, and the "good old days" of the late 1950s and early 60s are as cozy as a warm old pair of slippers, even if you feel the showbiz sell underlying them. The production has the appeal of a favorite funny uncle showing home movies and narrating them, which is pretty much all it is, actually: The clips, taken by his dad, are neatly, legibly, and quietly projected (by Michael Clark) on the three picture windows of David F. Weiner’s nostalgia-tinged set, the exterior of the Long Beach, Long Island, home where the comedian grew up. Crystal reckons he spent just 700 Sundays with his father, a concert producer and a driving force behind the influential, family-run Manhattan jazz albums store and record label, Commodore. The elder Crystal died when his son was 15, and Billy hits all the highlights of their short but sweet relationship; his reluctant birth and even more reluctant bris, for openers, to outings to Yankee Stadium and the Catskills, and (my favorite comic-poignant vignette) a memorable first excursion to the movies with family friend Billie Holiday. The movie was Shane, and its famous final scene is shown. "I wanted Shane to come back, come back," he relates, "but I heard that famous voice in the chair besides me, ‘He ain’t never comin’ back, nevercomin’ back.’"
There’s some funny stuff here (like Crystal’s imitation of his formidable Aunt Sheila, discussing her daughter’s "lesbyterian" wedding in San Francisco over the phone) but once the 700 Sundays with dad are up at the top of Act II Crystal runs through the 7,000 or so remaining Sundays with his more recently deceased mom, and a slacker, slicker sentimentality takes over (complete with a wraparound, at-peace-with-the-universe starcloth at the end of the show). The comic, contributing writer Alan Zweibel, and director Des McAnuff should have taken an axe to Crystal’s less-than-Waterford quality material (such as his conversations with God, imagined as a heavenly blue sky with clouds on the projection screens) and kept the rather long show to an intermissionless 95 minutes or so, which is the length du jour of a production of this type. Still, the audience, suitably worked over, gets its money’s worth, and I can’t say I was left clamoring for more.
Besides the pro contributions from Weiner and Clark, 700 Sundays has some deft lighting touches, from David Lee Cuthbert, including an enjoyable strobing effect when Crystal "becomes" one of the home movies and mimes the gestures of an exasperated barbecuer, and crisp sound design from Steve Canyon Kennedy and John Shivers, who pipe in some light jazz and a few comic sounds for accompaniment. [The vendors are PRG Scenic Technologies, scenery; Fourth Phase, lighting equipment; Masque Sound, sound equipment; and Scharff Weisberg, projection equipment.] David C. Woolard is credited as the "clothing stylist," which must have meant a trip to Banana Republic for Crystal’s maroon sweater, and black corduroys and sneakers. Dame Edna, he’s not.
Seen Off Broadway: Hershel (Jason Biggs), the combustible lead character of Daniel Goldfarb’s farcical Modern Orthodox, would have no idea what to make of the fully secularized Crystal, who calls Yiddish "a combination of German and phlegm." A down-on-his-luck diamond peddler, he’s having a hard enough time as it is coping with Ben (Craig Bierko), a buttoned-down, bottled-up financial consultant who’s come to buy a stone for his obstetrician girlfriend Hannah (Molly Ringwald). Both Ben and Hannah feel some tug toward the traditional values Hershel represents, but their engagement celebration is disrupted when the "cursed" schlemiel shows up at their apartment, unable to leave till they find him a wife. It’s Punch-and-Judaism time as the couple, obliged to dump their "unclean" dishes in Riverside Park by the neurotically observant Hershel and otherwise adopt a more stringent lifestyle, scout "Jewdate.com" for a "conservadox" candidate with a "thin but zaftig" profile. To the audience’s delight, they actually find one: Rachel (the Carol Kane-like Jenn Harris), a love loser who’s willing to bend a little for her Talmud-tied boyfriend.
This is a likable piece, distinguished by four crackerjack performances. Bierko has some of Dick Van Dyke’s exquisite timing for funny facial expressions; Ringwald holds her own as the quavering voice of reason; and Biggs, perfectly attired (by Dona Granata, who uses Zegna and Miyake for the more worldly couple) in a Yankees yarmulke and prayer shawl, is ideally cast and continues to be a talent to watch. There are some good exchanges. [Ben: "What’s the Yiddish word for ‘thin’?" Hershel, gravely: "There is no Yiddish word for ‘thin.’"] And Harris is explosively funny. Goldfarb, alas, sticks to the surface; the resentment between Hershel (who carries a gun) and Ben (with his hair-trigger contemptuousness) is never explored, and I can’t figure out why the two couples never meet, an easy opportunity for comic fireworks completely missed by the playwright and director James Lapine.
Still, what surfaces. In an elegant design solution, Derek McLane’s richly stylized flats, of New York City landmarks like the Empire State, Flatiron, and Chrysler Buildings, are simply turned around to reveal the doorway, cabinets, and bookcases of Ben and Hannah’s Upper West Side apartment, a neatly executed idea that delighted the audience with its simplicity. David Lander has lit the pieces with a fetching assortment of pinks, and blues, and reds, the way Manhattan would look if it were magic hour all the time. Fitz Patton’s unobtrusive sound design keeps the jokes, and the bar mitzvah and wedding music that bookend the show, clear. Tom Carroll Scenery built the scenery, GSD Productions supplied the lights, and One Dream Sound handled the audio gear.
Modern Orthodox was, however, the second of two shows I saw this week, in newer theaters, that was disrupted by flawed stage design. Dodger Stages is a sleekly modern space that looks like a seductively industrial set from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but Stage 3 is awfully cramped, with tiny seats, an inadequately raked stage, and resultant dubious sightlines (I’m 6’ 5" and I shouldn’t have to crane my neck to see what’s going on). While not the unmitigated disaster of Studio 54, a terrible place to see anything but an environmental staging like Cabaret and a real impediment to enjoying the detailed work on Pacific Overtures (what with the "theater’s" jutting balconies and truly awful seating arrangement; its chairs, which may have passed for comfortable during the Inquisition, should be junked posthaste), I still felt like I was being treated like a schmendrickby whomever conceived, approved, and executed the design. Does anyone care to rise to their defense, or offer corrective criticism? --Robert Cashill
Seen at the Metropolitan Opera: Rodelinda is considered one of Handel’s “lost” operas, but the Met has certainly “found” it in a big way. Composed in 1725, the opera had yet to be performed at the Met, but a renewed interest in Handel and 18th-century opera sparked this revival. The plot is rather convoluted with a dead king who isn’t really dead, his widow who isn’t really a widow, their son—the royal heir, and the usurper of the thrown who is after the young widow, until her husband reappears. The villain has a change of heart, relinquishes his stolen power, and all live happily ever after. The action takes place in and around an Italian palace in Milan, with sumptuous rooms, gardens, a graveyard, and stables (complete with a handsome brown horse that one of the singers actually mounts and rides off stage!). The exteriors are in true Italian style with red tile roofs and ocher walls. The sets were designed by Thomas Lynch who found a very clever way of transitioning from scene to scene without long, cumbersome set changes. In fact, the sets seem to silently glide offstage right as if on a long conveyor belt, to the delight of the audience. In act I, a full-stage bedroom slides to the side revealing part of a garden. The garden moves on, revealing the graveyard, then the stables. In act II, the bedroom is replaced by an ornate, double-story library with decorative ceiling and books galore. But the real surprise is (if I tell you now it won’t be a surprise, will it?) when the villain is languishing in the graveyard near the memorial for the king we now know is not actually dead. This is the moment he realizing the tyranny and hate he has caused and struggles to right his ways. As he does this, the set rises and reveals the dark dungeon where the king has been imprisoned. The real question is how lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski (in his Met debut) managed to get light into or onto these large sets. Yet of course he did, very successfully, from sunlight filtering into the bedroom as the shutters and curtains are opened, to the bright sunlight of the gardens, to the dimness of the dungeon. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are quite elaborate, with great period detail on the gowns for the women, Rodelinda, queen of Milan, (sung flawlessly by Renee Fleming) and her sister-in-law, Eduige: two women who present a contrast in size and coloring. Fleming wears shades of claret, teal, and black, all of which complement her red hair. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth, the smartly conceived four-hour production proves the wisdom of reviving Rodelinda for contemporary opera audiences.
Seen in Brooklyn: The final dance event in this fall’s Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is California by choreographer John Jasperse. The star of this terse, 60-minute piece is the set, a hanging sculpture by Ammar Eloueini. Looking a bit like a piece of Frank Gehry architecture (thus the name California, perhaps?) the sculpture hangs over most of the stage at the Harvey Theatre, where four baby grand pianos frame the dance floor. The live musicians include four pianists and four sound-effects artists who create an ethereal soundscape environment (score by Jonathan Bepler) for five dancers. They eventually attack the sculpture, after swaying it with leaf blowers, pulling it into pieces (Gehry deconstructed?). The lighting, by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur favors the sculpture, bathing it lovingly. Low side light illuminates the dancers’ feet and the overall rig looks rather spare and European, with a few large solo sources in the upstage corners for backlight. The costumes by Jasperse and Katy Pyle are navy blue jumpsuits that eventually are zipped open by the dancers who then wriggle out of them to reveal ragged underwear of sorts, in lumps of gray and beige cotton. The landscape here is harsh. As if the beauty of the sculpture cannot be allowed to exist, the dancers destroy it. Yet it hangs as a reminder of other times. The pace is slow, but there are occasional flashes of very intriguing choreography. Popular in France, it looks like American audiences are on the brink of discovering Jasperse as well.---Ellen Lampert-Gréaux