Seen Off Broadway:

I experienced deep feelings of nostalgia at Book of Days, Lanford Wilson’s new play, at the Signature Theatre. It reunites Wilson with director Marshall Mason, their old design team, and many acting alumni of the late, great Circle Rep. Fortunately, they’ve all still got the juice: Book of Days is set in Dublin, a small Missouri town noted for both its cheese factory and its excellent community theatre, which is roiled by the mysterious death of a leading citizen. Thanks to the pesky questions of a local bookkeeper (who’s also playing St. Joan at the theatre), the town’s underlying tensions and sins are laid bare, revealing all sorts of business infighting and sexual/political hanky-panky.

Book of Days has been criticized for its crowded plot and talky script; these charges are accurate, but the script is pure, flavorful Wilson and builds to a gripping climax. Futhermore, the author’s portrait of the moral gulf separating Dublin looks a lot like America today--on the one hand are conservatives who prize personal morality (especially in sexual matters) while thinking nothing of abuses of power; on the other hand are libertarians who defend civil liberties but whose personal lives are, to say the least, untidy. It’s the battle between two world views—John Ashcroft versus Bill Clinton, say.

The production is never less than a pleasure: Mason’s sensitive direction draws the gifted cast into a true ensemble: tops on my list are Miriam Shor as the local St. Joan; John Lepard as a minister who has a suave way with a threat; and the great Nancy Snyder as a churchgoing matriarch who is both tough and deluded at the same time. It must be said that John Lee Beatty’s set, which resembles an all-purpose room in a modern high school, is pretty dull to look at and does nothing for Dennis Parichy’s lighting, which runs to subtle gradations of color and intensity. Laura Crow’s summery, pastel-shaded costumes seem perfectly accurate (although Snyder’s costume, a dress with a layered skirt, doesn’t adapt well from scene to scene).

There are two distinctive design moments: first, a tornado sequence, in which the rattling walls, streaks of lighting, and sound effects (the latter by Chuck London and Stewart Werner) come together to spooky effect, and the final scene, in which the back wall opens to reveal a forest setting for the play’s final, ugly confrontation. Overall, Book of Days is one of the stronger new plays of the season, perfect for this unsettling Election Week. (By the way, many critics have compared the piece to Our Town; it’s actually closer to The Rimers of Eldritch, another highly presentational Wilson piece about death in a small southern town.)

The Three Birds, by young British playwright Joanna Laurens, is based on a fragment from Sophocles. The protagonist, Tereus, marries the daughter of an ally in war, but he really wants her sister, and commits rape and mutilation in pursuit of that goal. This being Greek tragedy, the sins of the father are visited on the children, a plot twist that unfortunately brings to mind Medea. Sam Gold’s staging gets a number of convincing performances, and Andrew Lieberman’s setting (with an above-the-stage net that contains the chorus), Kaye Voyce and Lee Harper’s costumes, and Andrew Silverman’s sinister lighting are all distinctive and visually arresting. But Laurens, apparently in an attempt to recall ancient Greek, runs amok with complex adjectives and weird sentence structures that makes everyone on stage sound like Yoda or The Cat in the Hat (“I am bladder-bursting for our vows tomorrow,” says Tereus’ fiancée in a typically unappealing example). As the author herself might put it, word-clotted and description-heavy is her text.--David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven is heaven indeed for film buffs, design mavens, and viewers who can respond to artfully presented emotional content. This 1957-set story takes as its model the melodramatic, studio-bound work of director Douglas Sirk, who set a particularly evocative standard for the Eisenhower-era women's picture in films like The Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. It's his 1955 All That Heaven Allows that Far From Heaven most closely resembles. Julianne Moore has taken on Jane Wyman's just-so mantle of repression in the role of Cathy Whitaker, perfect housewife and mother in suburban Hartford, Connecticut. Husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a successful executive with Magnatech television, there are two well behaved children, as well as beautifully groomed female friends (including, most memorably, Patricia Clarkson, in an approximation of the bitchy Agnes Moorehead role) and a polite black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) to tend the Whitaker's lovely lawn.

It's the perfect family...

Oh, there are a few problems: Frank just happens to be attracted to men; Cathy is a little more familiar with African-Americans—especially the gardener—than even a good suburban liberal can condone; and it seems for once, the most festive holiday decorations on the block are not enough to cheer up the Whitaker household. None of this is presented as cause for mirth, by the way—Far From Heaven scrupulously forgoes easy irony. Haynes imposes the Sirk style as a tight framework through which to explore the elements—race, sexuality--that were suppressed yet persistent in 50s American culture.

...but trouble brews...

The actors manage to sustain a slightly stiff, formal 50s style, yet project considerable emotional potency. And the design, which could seem ridiculously controlled in its color coordination and blemish-free spaces, is wonderfully expressive. The opening shot of brilliant red and orange autumn leaves segues into the warmly hued environment of the Whitaker home, designed by Mark Friedberg as a "colonial ranch" amalgam that somehow perfectly echoes the times. (Interiors for the film are mostly studio, and exteriors were shot in New Jersey.) DP Edward Lachman uses gel like few contemporary cinematographers would dare to, lighting and framing "forbidden" spaces like a gay bar and black restaurant with hot colors and skewed angles. And costume designer Sandy Powell once again demonstrates her genius, making clear that the women's tight bodices and full skirts are at once armor, cocoon, and prison. Bonus item: an authentically lush score by Elmer Bernstein, who was the one major participant around during Sirk's era.

...yet the autumn leaves can always be counted on.

The environs of 8 Mile couldn't be further removed from the world of Far From Heaven. Rap star Eminem's motion picture starring debut casts him as a character similar in many ways to the real Marshall Mathers—poor white boy living on the edge in trailer-park Detroit (with mom Kim Basinger) who makes good in rapping showdowns with rivals, all of whom are black. Curtis Hanson's film is a little hackneyed in outline—it's been consistently compared to Saturday Night Fever and Rocky, but thanks to Hanson, DP Rodrigo Prieto, and production designer Philip Messina's feel for the setting, the movie has an often exciting raw-edged vitality. Eminem has a mesmerizing presence; who knows if he can play anything else?

Romijn-Stamos is Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale, starring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in the title role, is Brian De Palma on auto pilot, but it is half-enjoyable. DP Thierry Arbogast had the daunting task of making Paris look enticing, and Olivier Beriot gets the credit for some truly outlandish costumes—including one that seems to be entirely constructed out of a solid-gold snake.--John Calhoun

Seen on Broadway: Hollywood Arms is a sad affair; it’s a scrapbook of scenes from the childhood of Carol Burnett, assembled by the comedienne, from her memoir One More Time, in collaboration with her daughter, the late Carrie Hamilton. The situation is potentially heartbreaking, with the young Burnett (here called Helen) struggling to grow up in a seedy Hollywood studio apartment, tended by her possessive, sharp-tongued grandmother, with her deluded, alcoholic mother living down the hall. (Her father, plagued by drink and tuberculosis, also shows up occasionally.) Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the script dulls the effect; the first act is overlong by at least 30 minutes and the scenes don’t build on one another. The second act is better, with a couple of affecting moments, but basically the authors never found a dramatic context for their story.

Walt Spangler’s cheap apartment setting, wedged against the Hollywood Hills (and the famous sign) is very evocative, and Judith Dolan’s extensive, meticulous costume design helps us track the ten-year-plus time frame. The lighting, by Howell Binkley, and the sound, by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, are very professional, although the latter are saddled with Robert Lindsay Nassif’s incidental music, which often sounds like it came from a TV sitcom.--DB

Far From Heaven photos: Focus Features

Femme Fatale photo: Etienne George/Warner Bros.