Seen Off Broadway:

Tape

has arrived Off Broadway rather belatedly, having first been seen at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville then made into a film starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman. In this production, anyway, it’s a tightly wound, mordantly comic little thriller. Vince and Jon were best friends in high school. Ten years later, Jon is an up-and-coming filmmaker and Jon is a burnout and a drug dealer. The two are reunited in their hometown of Lansing, MI, when Jon returns for a film festival. However, Vince has an agenda: to tape his best friend confessing to date rape during their senior year. The plot is uncovered, but things don’t get really sticky until the alleged victim, Amy, shows up, with plans of her own.

Writer Stephen Belber has a talent, unusual in a young writer, for spinning out a single dramatic situation without cutting from one location to the other. He also appears to be an authority on male cluelessness regarding women. The production’s major weakness is a pair of coda scenes, set years in the future, that add little to the story. Nevertheless, the production is tense and funny, and is blessed by two strong performances by Dominic Fumusa and Josh Stamberg. George Xenos’ set is a realistic depiction of the kind of motel room you want to avoid, and Sarah Beers’ costumes are particularly telling. The lighting is by Greg MacPherson and sound by Roger Raines.

Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate), by Sarah Schulman, is a near-camp-classic bio-drama about the famed Southern Gothic author. Schulman presents a slow procession of scenes from McCullers’ life, each of which presents yet another example of her bad behavior. We’re supposed to see McCullers as a tragic victim, obsessed with a painful sense of yearning, mostly after young women, but in fact she comes off as a great big baby. She throws constant temper tantrums; she marries her suitor Reeves McCullers, then refuses to have sex with him; she continues to abuse her body with cigarettes and alcohol after she begins having crippling strokes. Some scenes stick closely to the facts of her life; others, particularly those involving the Broadway production of The Member of the Wedding are bizarrely reimagined: McCullers falls in love with the leading lady, here named “Sandy,” and characterized as a near-psychotic—what would Julie Harris say?

Other scenes are unintentionally hilarious: Carson gearing up for sex with her husband by fantasizing about being abused and humiliated in front of literary critic Louis Untermeryer, or Carson discussing the meaning of love, as embodied by Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, with Gypsy Rose Lee in her dressing room. The supporting cast is a parade of literary celebrities, including Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright, each of who is given a pallid characterization. Neil Patel’s setting is dominated by a clapboard wall with built-in Tivoli bulbs, which is present in every single scene. Don Holder’s moody, incandescent lighting and Toni-Leslie James’ smart costumes are a big help. Janet Kalas provided the sound design. On balance, the play should be titled Carson McCullers (Dramatically Inert).--David Barbour

Seen Uptown: The cult of another New York transplant and woman author, Dawn Powell, is once again on the rise: a six-week Dawn Powell Festival kicked off last weekend with a discussion between Powell biographer Tim Page and Library of America editor James Gibbons at the Museum of the City of New York, and two plays opening at the 78th Street Theatre Lab. The Powell festival, titled "Permanent Visitor: A Festival Celebrating Dawn Powell in New York," is cosponsored by Sightlines Theater Company www.sightlinestheater.com, 78th Street Theatre Lab, New Georges www.newgeorges.org, the Library of America, and corporate sponsors, including The Village Voice. Festival offerings will include plays written by Powell as well as interpretations of her work by modern authors, readings, a gala kick-off fundraiser, even a few free events.

Currently playing at 78th Street Theatre Lab, a tiny space on New York's Upper West Side, is Kira Obolensky's An Artist's Life and Other Cautionary Tales About the Theatre. It's a feather-light trio of short plays adapted from Powell's stories. Director Will Pomerantz also did the sound design for the playlets; sets were by Troy Hourie, costumes by Gary Osborne, and lighting by Joel Moritz. The stellar ensemble cast moved what few scenic pieces were needed on- and offstage for each segment of the show; certain elements, like a lightbox with a New York cityscape and a typewriter/manicurist table, stayed on throughout.

But the stage floor was the main thing: Hourie captured the Art Deco/Art Drecko period perfectly with a complicated green and brown geometric pattern on linoleum. Osborne's costumes followed the period silhouette very well and included period-correct shoes and hats on what looks to be an extremely modest budget. I suspect some grandmother's jewelry box was raided for the bracelets, beaded trim, and necklaces the characters wore. Duke Ellington and other terrific jazzy razzmatazzy music was used to good effect (mostly between acts), but the sound design was hampered by what appeared to be overloaded equipment--you could hear the monitor hum during some of the voiceovers.

An Artist's Life runs through Tuesday, January 29 at 78th St. Theatre Labs. Upstairs at the same venue, they're showing Jig Saw by Powell, directed by Donna Lindermann, which I'll be reviewing next week. For more information about the gala kick-off on Monday, January 29, at the Atlantic Theatre, call SmartTix, (212) 206-1515 or go to: www.SMARTTIX.com.--Liz French

(Not) Seen at the Movies: This Friday, Hollywood finally gets started with the New Year as far as movie releases go. Unfortunately, your inveterate movie watcher has been unusually slack in his duties, so all I can do is report what's opening. From a design point of view, the most notable should be The Count of Monte Cristo, the umpteenth film version of Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckler, this time directed by Kevin Reynolds (of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld fame), and starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. The early 19th-century production design, created in Ireland's Ardmore Studios and on location in Malta (subbing, in part, for Marseilles), is by Mark Geraghty; costumes are by Tom Rand. Cinematographer is Andrew Dunn, who shot Gosford Park. Those, like me, who are always on the lookout for a good fright fest, will want to look in on The Mothman Prophecies, Mark Pellington's vaguely fact-based, West Virginia-set thriller about a mysterious creature scaring the wits out of Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Fred Murphy is DP of the shadowy proceedings; Richard Hoover is production designer; costumes are by Susan Lyall.--John Calhoun