Seen Off Broadway

: Music From a Sparkling Planet, the new production at Off Broadway’s Drama Dept., is the latest comedy from Douglas Carter Beane, the company’s artistic director. Beane gave the company its biggest hit, As Bees in Honey Drown, but don’t expect a second instance of theatrical lightning. Planet is a sometimes funny but generally implausible comedy about three 30something losers who bail out of their troubled lives and go in search of the actress who once held them spellbound as a TV hostess named Tamara Tomorrow. It takes two acts for these guys to find out they can’t go home again, although it’s a painless trip relieved by some welcome humor. Drama Dept. productions have gotten better looking in the last year or two, and this one continues that trend. Allen Moyer’s clever set features a proscenium ringed with TV sets, five of which are practical. This allows projection designer Michael Clark to create video sequences that let us see Tamara (played by Drama Dept.’s resident diva, J. Smith-Cameron), in action. Michael Krass’ costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and Janet Kalas’ sound are similarly professional. Music From a Sparkling Planet generally got a pass from the critics and is scheduled to run through August 12.

They don’t come any stranger than Mr. President. This little-known Irving Berlin musical was a bomb in 1962, bringing an end to the composer's Broadway career. Critics complained about the show’s toothless book, which focused on the domestic problems of a fictional First Family, and bland songs. Now Gerard Alessandrini, the resident genius behind the Forbidden Broadway revues, has revived the show—with a twist. He’s authored an entirely new book, spoofing the Bushes and the Clintons, with songs from Mr. President plus a few other Berlin standards, to which new lyrics have been added. You’ll get a good idea of the show’s quality when I tell you that a character based on Katherine Harris sings, “Shakin’ the Chads Away.” And so it goes—costume designer Alvin Colt, aided by his associate Joe McFate, does have fun with the signature looks of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Denise Rich, et. al. Otherwise, the usual Forbidden Broadway gang—Bryan Johnson on scenery and EDDY Award winner Marc Janowitz on lighting--provide understated work.

It’s tough to get a ticket to Topdog/Underdog, the two-hander at the Public Theater starring movie names Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright, and indeed they’re the whole show. Suzan-Lori Parks’ play, about a pair of brothers named Lincoln and Booth, is a sometimes very funny but generally aimless exercise that is terminated by a spate of utterly unearned violence. It’s quite a lesson in acting, though, and the critics have been very kind indeed. Riccardo Hernandez has designed an elegantly seedy one-room apartment, with lots of peeling wallpaper and dry rot. Scott Zielinski’s lighting makes good use of shadows in the final scenes. Emilio Sosa’s costumes provide the show with its funniest sight gag, when Cheadle enters wearing two full suits of clothing that he has just shoplifted. The sometimes disconcerting sound design—with extra loud hip-hop music—is by Dan Moses Schreier. Topdog/Underdog has been extended through September 2, so visit www.publictheater.org to find out how to get tickets.

A scene from Amadeus at the Guthrie Theater: Scenery is by Patrick Clark, costumes are by Paul Tazewell, lighting is by Chris Akerlind, sound is by Scott Edwards. Photo credit: Michal Daniel.

David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Ghost World. Idiosyncratic director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) once again enters the world of underground comic books and misfits with this adaptation of Daniel Clowes' graphic novel. The film stars Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as Enid and Rebecca, teenaged weirdos just out of high school and lost in the land of strip malls and convenience stores. Enid and Rebecca hang out, cause trouble, get horrid dead-end jobs, endure make-up art classes presided over by an earnest hippie type (Ileanna Douglas), and then insinuate themselves into the lonely life of Seymour (played by indie king Steve Buscemi). Seymour is a middle-aged malcontent and collector of jazz and blues 78s whom Enid becomes a little obsessed with.

Production designer Edward T. McAvoy does Mall America very well; juxtaposed with this are Enid and Seymour's kitschy and quirky home bases, which have a similar feel, only from different decades (Enid's environment has a more poppy, 50s and 70s look, while Seymour's lair is more 20s and 40s). McAvoy makes an appearance in the film as an alleged satanist. Enid also wears an amazing array of eyeglasses, funky vintage and vintage-inspired wear, even a rubber cat mask from a sex shop. Costume designer Mary Zophres perfectly captures Enid's extroverted misfit character. Affonso Beato was the DP; cartoonist Sophie Crumb, daughter of R. Crumb, supplied the drawings for Enid's sketchbook.

Liz French

Heard on the Street: Costume designer Carrie Robbins is going back to her roots in scenery design, doing the sets and costumes for the aptly named Scenery, a two-actor play opening in September at East Hampton's John Drew Theatre. Robbins, who originally studied set design at Yale, then migrated to costumes, reports that one of the play's scenic elements is a large drop she designed on a computer. The drop will be printed onto canvas by a print shop instead of painted by stagehands. Frank Dunlop, former head of the Edinburgh Festival, will direct the play; the playwright is Ed Dixon; Marilyn Sokol and Clive Reville star. Scenery is scheduled for a three-week run starting September 20…TNT's biopic James Dean, premiering Sunday at 8pm EST (for a complete schedule, go to www.tnt.tv), is generating some buzz. Much of it centers on James Franco, the actor cast in the title role, but the production, which is directed by Mark Rydell, should have a nice polish. DP is Robbie Greenberg, Emmy winner for his work on the HBO films Winchell and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.The production designer is Robert Pearson, whose upcoming feature credit is John Dahl's Joy Ride.