Friday, April 29, 2011

Pompeii the Exhibit and Dallas BBQ

We get to the Times Square theatre district a lot (unsurprisingly usually to attend the theatre). We were there again yesterday but this time on a slightly different quest. We went to attend Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius at the Discovery Center. We should have stuck with the theatre.

The exhibit includes films about Pompeii, both historic and present day; artifacts taken from the site; and – the high point - plaster body casts created from the spaces remaining after the bodies of Pompeii’s victims, covered in volcanic ash, had completely decayed. The films were rather pedestrian and the artifacts not much to write home about but the body casts were relatively impressive (pun intended), sort of a cross between life-size death masks and George Segal statuary commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.

Sue has a particular interest in archaeology and the Pompeii excavations were something of a watershed moment in the history of the science so she was especially eager to see this exhibit. But she ended up sharing my disappointment. Overall, the exhibition was underwhelming and poorly curated. Distinctions between replicas and originals were not always apparent and informational and educational materials were wanting. New York City is home to some of the world’s great museums - the Metropolitan, MOMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History - and a special exhibit outside their purview such as this has to go quite a ways in order to compete effectively. Pompeii the Exhibit didn’t.

Still the day wouldn’t turn out to be a total failure. When we left the Discovery Center at about 5 PM, we strolled two blocks over to 42nd Street, just in time to catch one of the city’s true remaining food bargains: the Early Bird Special at Dallas BBQ (offered until 5:30 PM). Admittedly, this is not gourmet dining, the restaurant is crowded and noisy and if you’re looking for ambience, you won’t find it here. But the chicken is delicious – head and shoulders above what you’ll find in fast food joints – and the price simply can’t be beat.

A dinner consisting of a cup of chicken vegetable soup, half a rotisseried chicken, corn bread, and your choice of baked potato or an enormous portion of French fries or rice costs just $6.99. Bring your spouse or a date or a friend and dinners for both of you are priced at an even steeper bargain price of $10.99 for two! Another good reason – not that I needed any – that I’m glad Sue was with me (just kidding, dear.) Add tax and tip and we still got away with less than $14 for dinner for two. Hard to see how you can beat that.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Off Broadway: The Other Place

Originally scheduled to run only through April 24th at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, The Other Place by Sharr White met with enough positive audience response that its run has been extended to May 1st. Be glad that it was since otherwise you might not have had a chance to see this terrific production. As it is, you’ve only got a few days left until it closes, so get a move on and buy your tickets now.

Juliana Smithton (Laurie Metcalf), a scientist and pharmacological shill who originally was responsible for developing an important new drug for the treatment of dementia and who now is engaged in marketing the drug to the medical profession, ironically finds herself in a position in which such a drug might (or might not) be just what she needs herself. While touting the drug at a medical convention in the Virgin Islands, she is startled to spot a woman in a yellow bikini seated among the business-suited doctors in her audience, a sight which so non-plusses her as to cause her to experience an “episode” or “thingee,” resulting in her loss of speech and mental coherence and leading her to conclude that she is suffering from brain cancer.

But who is the woman in the yellow bikini and why is she there – if she is even there at all? And how does her presence relate to the disappearance of Juliana’s daughter Laurel (Aya Cash) nearly a decade ago and the telephone contacts Juliana recently has been having with Laurel and her husband (John Schiappa), who was at one time Juliana’s research assistant? Moreover, why does Juliana’s husband, Ian (Dennis Boutsikaris), a highly regarded oncologist in his own right, deny that Juliana is suffering from brain cancer when she knows full well that she is? And does he really love her, as he insists, or is he in the process of divorcing her because he is in the midst of an affair with the attractive female “colleague” he sends Juliana to see (the colleague is also played by Aya Cash).

The play is a splendidly complex work, part psychological thriller and part a depiction of the neurological breakdown of an unsuspecting and otherwise strong and competent woman. And as partial truths emerge, culminating in Juliana’s return to “the other place” – a cottage she and Ian once owned on Cape Cod, we come to understand just what it all means.

Laurie Metcalf really steals the show in her star turn as Juliana, a juicy role that gives her an opportunity to change her persona, chameleon-like, from moment to moment. She is sensitive and feeling in one scene, angry, jealous and paranoid in another, bitter, sarcastic and sardonic in yet a third; her personality and mood changes are dramatically effective and the stuff of which great theatre is made. It is worth seeing the play for her performance alone.

Not that the other actors aren’t fully competent themselves. True, John Schiappa doesn’t have much opportunity to do a lot with the minimal role he’s been given as Laurel’s husband and Juliana’s former research assistant but Dennis Boutsikaris is excellent in the much bigger role of Ian, Juliana’s distraught husband, and milks it for all it’s worth. And Aya Cash, who plays three different roles – Juliana’s missing daughter, Laurel; Ian’s attractive medical colleague who examines Juliana; and the woman currently resident in the cottage that Juliana and Ian used to own – does a fine job in all three capacities.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Film: Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Ayn Rand wrote her monumental (1,168 pages) tome, “Atlas Shrugged,” more than a half-century ago and her fans have been waiting for a motion picture version of the book to appear ever since. They finally have been rewarded – or at least partially so – with the limited release of Atlas Shrugged: Part I in movie theatres nationwide on April 15 (appropriately commemorating Income Tax Day). (Parts II and III are expected to be released on April 15, 2012 and April 15, 2013, respectively.)

This has been a difficult book to bring to the screen and, for a long time, it seemed as if it might never get made at all. Albert S. Ruddy’s initial attempt to make a movie out of the book in 1972 fell through when Rand insisted on final script approval. Six years later, Henry and Michael Jaffe cut a deal to make the book into a television mini-series on NBC, but a year later, when Fred Silverman assumed the presidency of that network, he killed the deal.

Subsequently Rand began writing her own screenplay, but she died in 1982 with it still largely incomplete. The film rights then vested in her estate and, a decade after her death, John Aglialoro paid her estate more than $1 million for an option to produce the film. In 1999, under Aglialoro's sponsorship, Ruddy re-appeared, negotiating a deal with Turner Network Television for another mini-series, but that deal also fell through. Enter Lions Gate Entertainment which expressed an interest in funding and distributing the film – should it ever be made. Drafts and screenplays were written and re-written and negotiations were held with a number of A-list Hollywood stars as potential cast members, including Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, but it all came to naught. At which point, in May 2010, with Aglialoro’s option close to expiration, with no star power, and with no Lions Gate backing, Aglialoro bit the bullet, wrote a screenplay himself (with Brian Patrick O’Toole) and began filming. The movie was filmed in five weeks and came in on budget at about $10 million.

And that is the movie that my wife and I, both hoping for the best and fearing the worst, have just seen.

(In the interest of full disclosure, before continuing with my review of the film, let me admit at the outset that I am an enthusiastic libertarian who, even while recognizing Ayn Rand’s shortcomings as both a novelist and as a philosopher, remain a huge fan of her work and share her basic philosophy.)

This adaptation of the first third of the book “Atlas Shrugged” (entitled “Non-Contradiction”) was directed by Paul Johansson and stars Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. It envisions a dystopian America much as Rand described it (although it is set in the year 2016 in the film). Some of the nation’s leading industrialists and most productive members of society have disappeared, their eyes apparently having been opened by the mysterious John Galt to their own exploitation by a government controlled by parasitic second-raters who disdain the value to society of the profit motive.

Dagny Taggart, the chief operating officer of Taggart Transcontinental, and Hank Rearden, who owns Rearden Steel, are aware of society’s collapsing about them, of the degree to which it has been caused by the government itself, and of the evils being perpetrated by that government in the name of altruism and concern for one’s fellow man. Against this backdrop, they do all they can to fight the system while attempting to remain within it but, ironically, it is they, themselves, who thereby indirectly support it.

If you have read “Atlas Shrugged,” there is no point in my outlining the remainder of the plot of the movie: you’re already familiar with it since it hews very closely to that of the book. And if you haven’t read the book, I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you in advance what transpires. Suffice it to say in that latter eventuality, that the book, “Atlas Shrugged,” is an exciting tale, a mystery story, and an important philosophical work all rolled into one and that the movie, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, does make a valiant attempt to bring the book to life on screen.

But does the movie succeed in that attempt?

Sadly, not all that well. The actors are certainly competent but they lack the star quality that Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron would have brought to the production. And for those unfamiliar with the original work, the movie tends to trivialize the important ideas that Rand was seeking to convey. (That, unfortunately, may have been unavoidable since Rand devoted long passages in her book to the philosophical ideas she was attempting to impart and it might well have been impossible to do that in a movie while retaining the audience’s interest.)

So should you see the movie?

Well, that all depends. If you’ve read the book, and if you’re an Ayn Rand fan, by all means yes! The movie will disappoint you in spots but you will be able to fill in the gaps with your own recollections of what Rand actually said in the book and your understanding of what she really meant. And a lot of the movie is good fun.

On the other hand, if, having read the book, you are not a Rand fan, skip the movie. It will only reinforce your reasons for not appreciating Rand in the first place, so why bother?

And if you’ve never read the book? Then it’s about time you read it! Read the book first and then, only after you’ve read it, decide if you want to see the movie. This is, after all, one of the most important books of the twentieth century and one that every educated American should read, movie or not. Rand’s influence has never been greater than it is today (just think of the fact that Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a Rand acolyte, that he urges all his staff members to read this book, and that he likely will be as responsible as anyone else you might think of in determining this nation’s economic future).

Me? I’m looking forward to seeing Atlas Shrugged: Part II next year and Atlas Shrugged: Part III a year after that. Meanwhile I think I’ll re-read the book for the umpteenth time.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ben Brantley on Marie and Bruce as "The Feel-Bad Hit of the Season"

I have great respect for Ben Brantley (which means, I guess, that I find myself agreeing with him more often than not), so when I do find myself disagreeing with him about a particular play, I try to understand why. This recently occurred in regard to the current production of Marie and Bruce at the Acorn Theater (Brantley liked it; I didn’t). But this time, at least, the explanation is easy: Brantley actually provided it himself in a piece he wrote in today’s New York Times entitled “The Feel-Bad Hit of the Season.” Here’s a link to it:

It’s not that Brantley thought more highly of the actors’ performances than I did: we both thought that Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley were excellent in the title roles. Nor did we interpret the play very differently from one another: he viewed it as a “portrait of a festering marriage” that “encourages you to luxuriate in your most negative, misanthropic feelings” and whose performers are “willing to embrace their characters’ deepest unpleasantness.” I found the play to be “banal and boring, a one note composition focusing on the relationship between Bruce (Frank Whaley), a narcissistic,thick-skinned lout and Marie (Marisa Tomei), his dysfunctional, foul mouthed wife.”

No, the difference between us doesn’t relate to the facts of the play nor to its performers. Rather, it relates to what it is that we are looking for when we go to the theatre in the first place. I hope to be entertained or educated or engaged or provoked and, yes, if that requires that I sometimes be made to feel uncomfortable, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. But I’m not willing to be made to feel uncomfortable just for its own sake, whereas Brantley not only is, but seems to revel in it.

Indeed, in the article cited above, Brantley writes:”An acridness hung in the air during the New Group’s revival of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce on a recent night, something I don’t often experience at the theater. It was the thick curdled aura of an audience’s collective discomfort….What I’m talking about is that palpable unhappiness that arises when an audience feels utterly ill at ease with what’s happening onstage.” I fully agree that that was what it felt like. But Brantley seems to think that’s a good thing and I don’t.

Brantley goes on to compare Marie and Bruce to Ibsen’s Ghosts, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, all of which, in Brantley’s words “made audiences and critics squirm.” But it is not the fact that those plays made audiences squirm that made them worth seeing; what made them worth seeing was that they all had something to say and were brilliantly and insightfully written. If “squirming” for a couple of hours was the price that one had to pay to see them, it was well worth it.

But, sad to say, it’s not worth it for Marie and Bruce. Shawn is no Ibsen or Beckett or Osborne or Albee and Marie and Bruce is no Ghosts or Waiting for Godot or Look Back in Anger or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, so far as Marie and Bruce goes, while I should never have phrased it this way myself, I find myself more in agreement with John Simon who once called it “the kind of play that if either our drama critics or our garbage collectors did their work properly, could not have survived one night.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lincoln Center: War Horse

There is no denying the fact that all of the “human” actors in War Horse (now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center) perform wonderfully in their respective roles as the soldiers, farmers, brothers, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and sons who lived, loved, worked and fought in France and Germany during The Great War (World War I). They are all splendid actors and their portrayals are terrific across the board. And yet, they all must take a back seat to the true stars of this spectacular multi-media production, Joey and Topthorn, two larger than life equine puppets (and, of course, Joey and Topthorn’s creators, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, and the several different puppeteers who manipulate them on stage). For it is Joey and Topthorn who dominate this play from beginning to end - and who are the primary reason that you not only should make every effort to see this production yourself but the reason that you should try to bring your whole family with you to see it as well.

War Horse is an epic tale of the lengths to which Albert Narracott (Seth Numrich), a young boy, will go to be with Joey, the horse he loves. When, in the course of World War I, Albert’s father, Ted Narracott (Boris McGiver), betrays his promise to his son by selling Joey to the British Army (which ships the horse to France to serve in the cavalry), Albert runs away from home to join the Army in his quest to recover the animal – which, at one point, is stranded in the no-man's land between the German and British armies.

The story itself is exciting, adventurous and likely to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. But it is also much more than that. It is a story of honor and deceit, of man’s humanity and inhumanity to his fellow man, of children and adults, of mothers, fathers and sons, of envy and petty rivalries, of bravery and cowardice, of the horror and futility of war – in sum, of everything that makes man what he is, for better or for worse. And what makes the play so remarkably expressive is that much of this is depicted through the incredible movements of those larger-than-life equine puppets on stage, interacting with human actors against the backdrop of a creatively designed set incorporating dramatic black and white film, excellent choreography and striking special lighting effects.

The play premiered at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007 before moving to London's West End in 2009 where it is still running. This American production utilizes the same creative team that was responsible for the London production but engages an all new American cast. One may only hope that this production, too, will be fortunate enough to move to Broadway when its limited run at Lincoln Center is over.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Off Broadway: Benefactors (Keen Company)

Since Biblical times, architectural themes have provided talented writers with ample material from which to fashion memorable works of fiction. The Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel. The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. And Michael Frayn’s Benefactors, now in revival by Keen Company at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, the latest offering in the company’s season-long tribute to that playwright’s works.

Benefactors revolves around David (Daniel Jenkins), a well-meaning architect seeking to build new homes to replace the “twilight area” housing of Basuto Road; his wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch), an anthropologist; and their neighbors Colin (Stephen Barker Turner), a journalist and his wife Sheila (Deanne Lorette), a one-time nurse. Set in England between 1968 and 1984, the play is infused with a sense of the political correctness of the time: the liberal establishment knows what is best for the lower socio-economic classes, notwithstanding what the lower classes might think is best for themselves.

The four characters have at least two things in common: (1) the need to seek gratification through the abstract contemplation or management of other people’s lives, rather than in living their own; and (2) their basic contrariness. Thus David exhibits more concern for the residents of Basuto Road and for Colin and Sheila than for his own family. Jane sees the world as an anthropological project, devoting herself to the market research aspects of David’s architectural scheme. Colin reports on the lives of others but fails to come to grips with his own. And Sheila devotes more time to assisting Jane in her household chores than in fulfilling her own familial obligations.

Additionally, all four define themselves only in opposition to others. If David favors something, Jane and Colin instinctively oppose it. But when Colin opposes it, Jane opposes Colin - which aligns her back again with David after all.

Over time, all four change – but in different directions - and it is that evolutionary development that provides the play with its intellectual and emotional depth. David, who truly cares about the residents of Basuto Road, nonetheless eventually comes to conclude, regarding his architectural scheme, that “in the end, it’s not art, it’s mathematics.” Ultimately, the term “progressive collapse,” initially intended to describe an architectural problem of the sort that culminated in the tragedy at the World Trade Center, comes to describe his life. Meanwhile Jane, the erstwhile analytical outsider, becomes emotionally involved in the lives of the people on Basuto Road and her allegiance may (or may not) shift from David to Colin.

Colin, the ultimate outsider, stops reporting the news and begins to make it, first as a squatter attempting to block David’s project and then as an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament. And Sheila evolves from being a timid, needy housewife, barely able to cope with the limited responsibilities of picking her children up from school, to becoming David’s secretary and confidante and, eventually, freeing herself completely from Colin’s dominance and embarking on a course of therapy destined (we hope) to make her whole again.

All four actors turn in good performances and the director, Carl Forsman, has done a creditable job. Overall, this is a clean, sharply delineated production and it provides a satisfying evening’s entertainment. But I was mildly disappointed. The first act drags a bit and it is not really until the second act, an hour into the production, that I truly felt engaged. I have seen other productions of this work that I have enjoyed more including, most recently, Retro Production’s Off Off Broadway revival at the Spoon Theatre last Fall (see my review of November 6, 2010), which I found to be earthier, more gut-wrenching and passionate. But that ought not dissuade you from seeing this one which is still a worthwhile production in its own right.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Off Broadway: Marie and Bruce

In a program note to Marie and Bruce, a throwaway line has it that “Wallace Shawn has been writing plays since the late nineteenth century, and the play you will see tonight, Marie and Bruce, was a personal favorite of Queen Victoria.” Sadly, that line was more amusing than any of the lines in the play itself.

The play wasn’t written in the nineteenth century, of course, but it was written long enough ago (in 1978) to be badly dated (not that it was that good a play when it first appeared). Premiering at The Royal Court in 1979, it had its American debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival (starring Louise Lasser and Bob Balaban in the title roles) in 1980 and, more than two decades later, in 2004, it was made into a motion picture starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick. It is now being revived by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row in a production starring Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley. Lots of star power over the years, to be sure, but to little avail: the play itself is banal and boring, a one note composition focusing on the relationship between Bruce (Frank Whaley), a narcissistic,thick-skinned lout and Marie (Marisa Tomei), his dysfunctional, foul mouthed wife. And the play’s unrealized pretensions to existential insights are just plain embarrassing.

The play takes place at the home of Marie and Bruce, at a friend’s dinner party they attend, and at a cafĂ© they frequent, in all of which situations, Marie insults, demeans and lambastes Bruce and threatens to leave him, while Bruce exhibits his inordinately self-centered insensitivity toward his wife’s feelings. But don’t think that this is another Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s not. Albee’s play was brilliantly written and we were made to believe in, relate to and really care about Martha and George. But we never do really care about Marie and Bruce.

When I first saw Marisa Tomei in her breakout role in My Cousin Vinny in 1992, a role for which she deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she stole my heart. And I was really looking forward to her performance in Marie and Bruce which I hoped would provide her with another showcase for her exceptional talent. Unfortunately, that was not to be – although through no fault of Tomei’s own. She does as well as might be expected with the role she has been given but the role itself isn’t much.

Probably the best performance in the play is that turned in by Frank Whaley as Bruce, who milks his role for all its worth. Similarly, Adam Trese provides a fine performance as Marie’s and Bruce’s friend Frank, their dinner party host. But notwithstanding Tomei’s, Whaley’s and Trese’s performances, the play really wasn’t worth reviving in the first place. You won’t be missing much if you skip it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Brunch at The Irish Rogue

We’ve been spending more and more time in the theatre district lately, what with just having taken in matinee revivals of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce and Michael Frayn’s Benefactors (both of which we’ll be reviewing right after they officially open on April 5) and that has led us to step up our search for restaurants in the area offering good pre-theatre brunches. We recently commented positively on the brunches at Delta Grill and Mont Blanc and we’re now pleased to add another find to our list: The Irish Rogue on West 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

At first blush, The Irish Rogue is little more than your typical Irish sports pub, with its offerings of Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers & Mash and Fish & Chips, its broad array of beers on tap, and its ubiquitous flat screen TVs, each tuned to one or another sporting event. But once settled in, you quickly discover that it’s a lot more than your typical neighborhood pub after all – it’s relatively quiet and congenial, service is exemplary, and, while I cannot comment on the stereotypical Irish grub, having partaken of none of those classic dishes (other than the Full Irish Breakfast) myself, I can tell you that the brunch offerings are terrific and a great bargain to boot.

The pub offers a prix fixe weekend brunch for $11.95 which includes two drinks (bloody marys, mimosas, champagne, juice or selected domestic draft beers) and your choice from a great selection of entrees – not only the traditional Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, Three Egg Omelets, French Toast and Pancakes we’ve all come to expect but Corned Beef Hash and Smoked Salmon Hash, both topped with poached eggs, Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes served with sauteed vegetables, and a Full Irish Breakfast (consisting of Irish bacon, sausage, black and white pudding, baked beans, eggs, French fries and toast). Sue had the Crab Cakes and I had the Full Irish Breakfast and we both were more than satisfied.

The pub is a bit hokey (restrooms are labeled “Rogues” and “Roguettes”) but it’s fun, the food is excellent and the service and prices can’t be beat. Give it a shot, next time you’re looking for a good weekend brunch in the area.