Thursday, November 30, 2006


"Sometimes I see him looking, and looking. I just look right back."

We saw the new revival of Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY the other night. There's been a lot of buzz about this production, as it is directed by John Doyle, who gave us last year's revival of SWEENEY TODD in which the cast doubled as the orchestra, and features Raul Esparza who recently came out in the New York Times as being not entirely gay or straight or even particularly bisexual, but kind of ambivisexual, which is supposed to mean that he can relate to Bobby, the commitment-phobic hero of COMPANY. Mr. Esparza's Bobby is particularly effective, a lost soul navigating around a series of married Scyllas and Charybdeses. His final outburst, the song "Being Alive," is one of the more moving things you'll see in a theatre this year. He manages to be funny, sexy, charming, and yet still believably lonely. The cast plays their instruments ably, and they sing and act their assorted roles very well.

Maybe a little too well. The big problem with the show is the book by George Furth, which is basically a series of sketches of apparently unhappy or endearingly quirky married couples (including one married couple-to-be) as they interact unhappily or endearingly quirkily, while Bobby watches and wonders, "What do you get out of this whole marriage thing?" As my partner Bob said afterward, the problem with sketches is that they are sketchy. The book is never quite as good as it wants to be and thinks it is, and is often just plain dated. One scene involving Bobby and his scene partners getting sitcomishly giggly after smoking pot is right out of Love American Style, and there is an unironic use of the term "generation gap." The actors (under Doyle's direction) do their considerable best, but they may be working too hard, aiming for a "seriousness" that the material just can't bear. For example, the sketch ending Act One centers on Amy and Paul, who are just about to get married. The great comic song "Getting Married Today" is the highlight of the scene, and is pulled off gorgeously, but the scene soon turns very sour, as Amy displays more than sitcom-level nerves, finally calling off the wedding altogether, causing Paul to leave very near tears. Of course, in true sketch-comedy fashion, Amy comes to her senses and runs off to find Paul and go through with the wedding, but it just doesn't wash. Amy's terror-turning-into-rage and Paul's bemused tolerance-turning-into-despair are so vividly and painfully realized that I found it impossible to believe that the wedding would go on. Who on earth would marry Amy after that? There's "good and crazy" and there's "flat-out stupid."

That caveat aside, though, the production works beautifully, fluid and exciting during the musical numbers if significantly less so during the frankly underwritten dialogue scenes. (at least we're not treated to any visits from ghosts of the past) The set and costumes and lighting are excellent. The score is just amazing. I don't see how anyone with a functioning nervous system can fail to get goosebumps during that opening number, especially as staged by Mr. Doyle and performed by this cast. And the songs keep coming, "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and "Barcelona" and "Another Hundred People" and "Side By Side By Side" and on and on, all inventively staged and perfectly performed.

Bottom line: see it. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself waiting rather impatiently for the next song.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


"You're not a fool, you're a poet. A dangerous poet."

Film Forum is currently showing a new 35mm print of Jean Renoir's film. I've seen it three times in the past couple of weeks, and will probably squeeze in at least one one more trip.

I've been wracking my brain trying to put words to what it is that makes that movie so special, and I can't do it. I've tried to find writing on the film, and haven't been particularly successful. There's supposed to be a little BFI monograph by V.F.Perkins on RULES that has been delayed again and again and again. I know the usual line is to portray the film as a picture of French society just before WWII, and it certainly is that, but it isn't really that at all. At no time is anything as trivial as politics or current events ever mentioned in the film (which is very likely the point, of course). It's a picture of a bunch of people (of all classes) leading rather silly trivial lives with rather silly trivial mores. The series of ever-so-civilized affairs and social proprieties reveal how shallow the upper classes are, and the lower classes are not much better: at one point a chef mentions how he respects his boss for being angry that potato salad was improperly prepared, for having a palate sensitive enough to realize that the white wine was added after the potatoes had cooled instead of when they were piping hot. That's the sign of a real gentleman! And there are later events that show the real brutality lurking under the civilized veneer, too, and I don't mean just the still-horrifying hunt sequence.

The film isn't just a hatchet job, either. It is clear that Renoir, as director and screenwriter and actor, really loves these people even as he shows us how bloody awful they are. There are no out and out villains, and no out and out heroes. One character, the aviator Jurieu, is repeatedly referred to as a 'hero,' but the character is so unappealing in comparison with his opposite, the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye, that the term doesn't really carry a lot of weight. And Robert is a fascinating character: an accomplished rake who has just cut off a long term affair because he wants to be worthy of his wife, and who has to deal with the fact that his ex-mistress wants him back and his wife isn't happy when she finds out about the affair that was common knowledge to everyone but her. What makes the film special is the way that Renoir is able to show me so thoroughly that, as his own character Octave says, "Everyone has his reasons."

The acting is pretty well perfect. Roland Toutain can't quite make me interested in Andre Jurieu, but this is more than made up for by Marcel Dalio's endlessly fascinating Robert de la Chesnaye. He puts a fascinating twist on his words that makes me wish my French was better so that I could really understand what he's doing.

One thing that keeps coming up, both in print and in the commentaries on the Criterion DVD, is the use of deep focus, which seems to have been revolutionary in France at the time the film was made, or at least which Renoir uses in a way that had not been typical in French films up to that point. And it is marvelous: repeat viewings show all kinds of things going on in all those rooms that can be glimpsed off in the distance, sometimes very important things.

There are lots of incredibly complex shots, with lots of very carefully laid out choreography of actors/characters. One in particular begins as a closeup of Christine, who begins to tell her assembled guests/the audience about her relationship with Andre. As she speaks, her husband Robert (Dalio) and Octave (Renoir) move into view behind her, reacting to her description of her friendship with Andre, clearly mocking her statments that she and Andre are just friends. As her speech ends, Dalio thanks her for her speech, and describes the upcoming delights of the week in the country, the camera moves to include the other guests, and there is a good deal of carefully worked out activity as the shot comes to an end. I'd be here all day if I described all of it, and worked out all of the ramifications of each move and gesture. An amazing shot, only one of dozens of similar virtuosity throughout the film. And Renoir's technique is never obtrusive, never calling attention to itself.

One more important thing. Part of the danger of reading/writing about RULES OF THE GAME is the impression that the film is a humorless solemn monster. Make no mistake: RULES OF THE GAME is one of the most entertaining of the films usually considered as "classics." See it. See it often. It repays repeat viewings like few movies I know.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


We saw Douglas Carter Beane’s play this week. It provides an interesting counterpoint to the other big theatrical experience we’ve had lately. GREY GARDENS was a huge success Off-Broadway, much of the fuss centering on the female lead performance. If I can’t say I quite understand what the big deal is over Christine Ebersole’s performance in GREY GARDENS, I can certainly understand why people are so excited over Julie White’s performance as Diane, the Machiavellian Mephistophelian Agent From Hell. And similarly to GREY GARDENS, there’s not much else to make too much fuss over.

The play concerns Mitchell, a rising leading man with what Diane describes as a recurring case of homosexuality. In NYC to collect a rather improbable-seeming NY Film Critics Award for Best Actor, Mitchell hooks up with Alex, a young hustler. Alex and Mitchell hit it off, much to Diane’s dismay. Mitchell is clearly her star client, and if his gayness gets around he’ll be stuck in boutique projects for life.

The play is well-written enough. Beane can certainly get off good lines, and keeps the action rather lively. Unfortunately, none of the actors is operating at the same kind of near-operatic level of sheer outrageousness as White. She’s a grand Dickensian Giant, tearing into that role like a shark with a swimmer, great fun to watch even as you thank God in heaven that she’s safely on a stage rather than anywhere near your real life. But no one else quite comes alive on stage as completely as she does. The stage shouldn’t feel quite so empty when White isn’t around.

And later, on the way home, you'll probably find yourself wondering certain things. Like why the agent of a rising young actor who has just won the NY Film Critics Award never shows any concern about ensuring him an Oscar nomination. Or more importantly how we're supposed to feel about the elaborately happy ending arranged so beautifully by Diane: how happy is it really supposed to be? I found myself feeling rather queasy about the whole thing, and that may be the point. Or is it? I can't quite escape the feeling that a stronger set of actors being directed to get their characters across might have clarified a good deal.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


A new musical based on GREY GARDENS, the film about a mother and daughter who live in squalor in the titular collapsing mansion in East Hampton has opened. The women are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (they are referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively). The film is an unscripted snapshot of their lives, as the two women worry over their cats, fight, worry over the city of East Hampton taking legal action to get them out of their cat and raccoon infested crumbling house, and fight. Little Edie is always complaining about the sorry mess her life has become. She wants more than anything (she says) to get away from Grey Gardens and have her own life. There are some epic battles, most of which have clearly been fought and fought and fought any number of times over the years. The film is not to everybody's taste. One good friend says that he thinks the film exploits mental illness, and I've known others who just can't stand all the bitching. The film never answers assorted questions, the most basic of which is quite simply: what the hell is wrong with these two women?

The musical is split into two acts. Act One takes place in 1941, before the big party to announce Little Edie's engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Act Two is set in 1973, the year of the release of the film, and is based more specifically on the film itself. I personally preferred Act One, as it felt less like some kind of imitation. Christine Ebersole is getting a lot of worshipful attention for ther work as Big Edie in Act One and the now middle-aged Little Edie in Act Two. Elizabeth Wilson does a splendid job as Act Two's Big Edie. The rest of the cast is able enough, especially the actress who plays Young Little Edie in Act One. Her temper tantrums and budding neurosis set a very fine foundation for Ebersole to capitalize on in Act Two.

The score is fine, occasionally memorable. The book, especially in Act Two, hits on all the important bits from the movie, maybe too many of them. Big chunks of dialogue are repeated verbatim, and turned into song lyrics, to the point where I started to feel that some kind of co-author/lyricist credit for the Beales, to say nothing of the creators of the film, is in order. The emotional rollercoaster ride that Act Two's Little Edie takes is sincerely performed, but I couldn't escape the feeling that just a few too many lines and moments were lifted straight from the film, content and context be damned, just to make sure that the fans were satisfied.

There seems to be a cult around the film. I can't decide whether it is the kind of cult that surrounds ERASERHEAD, where people seem to appreciate an underappreciated but interesting and original work of art for its own merits, or the kind of cult that surrounds WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and MOMMIE DEAREST, where the doings of madwomen are "camp." The musical seems to be trying to have it both ways. They want the show to be a serious examination of the lives of these two women, but they can't resist the temptation to add that most transparent of current Broadway devices: the late second act gospel number.

I'm not the kind of person who demands that adapters maintain absolute fidelity to an original work. I don't really care what they do, as long as it works. The team behind GREY GARDENS manage somehow to hit all the bases. There are moments lifted right from the film that work beautifully, there are moments lifted right from the film that don't work at all, and the same goes for the new material. Most of Act One works beautifully, to my mind, while the big second act number "Entering Grey Gardens" hits bold new lows of sheer theatrical BULLSHIT, as the ghosts of the past (I kid you not) appear wandering around the now-ruined estate. It looks like a community theatre production of Disney's Haunted Mansion. I'd expect something like this in DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and GOOD VIBRATIONS, to say nothing of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL, but not in a widely respected and well-reviewed piece of musical theatre. I was so appalled by this number that I sat there in shock for much of the rest of the show, dreading what fresh horrors they might have waiting. Mercifully, nothing else quite sank to that level, but there was nothing quite good enough to entirely remove that bad taste from my mouth.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul

So it is Sunday. I went to see RULES OF THE GAME at Film Forum (gorgeous new print) and unfortunately couldn't quite unwind enough to enjoy it. There was an annoying static sound throughout the opening scenes, and then the obligatory fat bastard stuffing his face with candy bars and rattling each and every candy bar for maximum irritation. To be fair, the fat bastard did make an effort to be quiet after I politely asked him to keep the wrappers quiet. Mercifully the rest of the screening went off very well. I managed to get a lot of enjoyment out of the film, and will almost certainly see it again in the next week or so that it is there.

We're seeing BORAT tonight. I'll let you know.

I'm rather liking the new job. It isn't the busiest position ever. I basically answer the occasional phone, send the occasional fax, and forward the occasional bit of paper elsewhere. I'm veering back and forth between exhiliration and concern. On the one hand, I can't believe I'm getting paid what I'm getting paid for not doing a hell of a lot all day. On the other, I can't believe they're going to continue paying me fornot doing a hell of a lot all day. I've got enough of a work ethic to want to be busy, to not be ripping this firm off. But I don't get too worried. See, it goes like this:

I am 43 years old. I've been working in one job or another since I was 17, which means I've been a member of the workforce for 26 years. I've had very busy positions, for which I've been paid very little, and over the last 5 years there's been a good deal of HORROR in the two most recent jobs I've held. The first involved working for a boss popularly known as the Fat Disgusting Bitch (when not called the Fat Heifer, the Fat Sow, or my own favorite the Fat Disgusting Cunt). After almost five years of performing wonders for them (if I do say so myself, and I bloody well do) I left the job with the Fat Disgusting Bitch (long story, harassment on FaDiBi's end, threatened lawsuit on my end, I'll tell you if you're really interested and I can't imagine anyone really is) for a very interesting job with a very demanding boss (Control Freak hereafter). On my first day working for Control Freak, I was congratulated on returning from my first lunch hour: more than one of my predecessors had not. Working for Control Freak was certainly better than working for FaDiBi, but still with a disproportionate amount of stress. Control Freak has the kind of faith in ORGANIZATION and EFFICIENCY that only the deeply dis-organized and wildly in-efficient ever really have. My co-worker and I were effectively crippled by an unbelievable set of Processes and Procedures that wound up more of an impediment than anything else. Example: my To-Do list was (I'm not kidding) 75 pages long. When Control Freak laid me off I didn't exactly cry myself to sleep. By this time I was so emotionally drained by just the work I was doing every day that the prospect of temping was actually tempting.

I am going on here, aren't I? Long story short: I'm now getting paid 25% more than I've ever made for doing 75% less work than I've ever had to do. The occasional twinge of guilt remains both occasional and twinge-level; never more than a quick itch of guilt, easily scratched. I've earned a breather, and if a big firm wants to give me what amounts to an extended paid vacation, well, I'm not gonna say them nay.

Sue me.

I'll post on BORAT and RULES OF THE GAME later this week (RULES will require another viewing uncursed by static and candy wrappers). Bob and I are also seeing the musical of GREY GARDENS this week, which I'm simultaneously looking forward to and dreading terribly.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


"Trouble for you, fun for me."

The word "fun" keeps popping up in Simon Gray's BUTLEY, but not in a good way. Ben Butley's idea of "fun" is rather like George W. Bush's idea of "democracy." Butley goes through the play abusing pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. The problem with the current revival of the play starring Nathan Lane is that the abuse comes through loud and clear, but there isn't much in the way of "fun."

The plot is pretty simple. Ben Butley (Nathan Lane) is having a bad day.His ex-student/roommate/colleague and probable boyfriend (the play is irritatingly vague on the exact extent of their sexual relationship) has found another man, and it isn't long before Butley's estranged wife shows up to announce that she's found someone else too. Butley's dazzling verbal assaults make it pretty clear why people are deserting him right and left. The only real questions are why they've stayed so long, and why they showed up in the first place.

And things go from bad to worse to worse still. Lane works very hard to show Ben Butley as a man teetering on the brink of an Abyss, about to descend into his Emotional Maelstrom, having his Dark Day Of The Soul. Butley's twice-repeated line that "our ends never know our beginnings" certainly doesn't apply to this production; Lane's Butley is a miserable wreck when he walks onstage, and he's a miserable wreck at play's end. To be fair, Lane delivers an occasionally exciting performance, showing us numerous shades of misery and anger and bitterness. He's never more effective than when he's being really really really nasty.

If there's anything missing, it is the excited wicked glee that animated Alan Bates' original performance of the role, which has been preserved in a very good film. Bates' Butley is, on some level, having the time of his life: he's never happier than when he's getting a rise out of someone, and his joy in being so naughty is infectious without ever obscuring the real pain the man is feeling. Bates' Butley is "fun" in a way that Lane's Butley never is, and Lane's performance suffers as a result. When they even go so far as to play the song Mad World ("I think it's kind of funny,I think it's kind of sad, that the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had.") to underline poor Butley's MISERY it is hard not to feel that they've just laid it on a bit too goddamn thick.