Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews




Film and Theater Reviews

by Harvey Perr

published November 21, 2008


including Doubt (the movie) (opens in limited release December 12)

the Carole Lombard film festival (ends December 2)

Shogun MacBeth (ends December 7)

and Dawn (ends December 6)


picture - DoubtI was thinking about the insult to the artistry of Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch I found The 39 Steps and To Be Or Not To Be to be when it occurred to me to ask again if the reverse is true: how many good plays actually became good movies? This question loomed even larger after seeing John Patrick Shanley’s film version of his play Doubt. The play, which, in its terseness, was a punch in the stomach, was, as well, a tough little look into the soul of a nun bent on destroying a priest of something she can’t prove except in the moral certainty of her intuitions. On the screen, it has been “opened up,” as most plays are, often to their disadvantage, and takes us inside the Catholic school, introduces us to many more characters, and meanders for what seems like an eternity through the film’s atmospheric setting, rummaging for nuggets instead of finding the gold where it always was: in the play itself and in its four central characters. And though playwrights (and critics) like to think that a good play survives the many different interpretations that are potentially possible, it should also be pointed out that the success of a particular play has everything to do with the initial production it has received. I know, for example, that The Glass Menagerie is a masterpiece – how can something so poetically written and so clearly heart-felt not be? – and yet I have never seen (and I can’t count how many actors, great and not-so-great, I’ve seen play the part) a great Amanda Wingfield and so I have to assume that the play’s reputation is as firmly based on the performance Laurette Taylor allegedly gave in it as it is on Tennessee Willams’ eloquence.  And most people who saw Doubt on stage will no doubt attest to the fact that Cherry Jones did not so much play Sister Aloysius as she became Sister Aloysius, an immovable object whose rigor was impossible to fight against. She, for me, at this moment in time, is the one and only Sister Aloysius. Of course, film versions of prize-winning plays, always (but specifically noticeable in these days of dumbing down) require stars, and Meryl Streep, a star as well as a wonderful actress, unfortunately gives a mere performance – a highly watchable one, to be sure – but not only does she never become Sister Aloysius but she has been given permission to “humanize” the role with the result that she moistens and sentimentalizes the character, in much the same way Katherine Hepburn did to every part she played in the last years of her great career……..Hepburn, incidentally, was one of “my” Amandas; she got the poetry of the part, but not the woman…….I invite anyone to write in and tell me which great plays were equally great, or greater, as movies……Does anyone even remember (or want to) Death of a Salesman with Fredric March?.........

picture - Carole LombardTo return to To Be Or Not To Be, the glorious Lubitsch masterpiece, it is one of the films to be included in the three-week tribute to Carole Lombard at the Film Forum. This offers the rare opportunity to see the full spectrum of the incandescent Lombard’s talents. On November 21-22, Howard Hawks’ hilarious Twentieth Century, Lombard’s breakthrough film which featured her delicious comic sparring with a surprisingly effective John Barrymore, is paired with Gregory LaCava’s classic depression comedy My Man Godfrey, in which Lombard gives what is arguably her most perfect and perfectly madcap performance. Of course, one always talks about Lombard being both beautiful and funny, an apparently unlikely combination, but the real reason she was such an extraordinary comedienne was because she took comedy seriously, and because she brought to her serious work a humor and breeziness we don’t always associate with the dramatic. It was, above all, her naturalness that spoke to audiences, and the sense that laughter, to her, was not unlike breathing. On November 28-29, To Be Or Not To Be, which turned out to be Lombard’s swan song, is paired with William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, long considered her best film; the pairing is interesting because Sacred was a big success on its initial release, critically and commercially, while To Be was a critical disaster and something of a commercial flop, while today, To Be looks new-minted and Sacred seems dated; this is definitely a highlight of the series. Also, when it comes to famous screen couples – Astaire and Rogers, Tracy and Hepburn, et al – one hardly ever talks about the inspired teaming of Lombard and Fred MacMurray, but the tribute will afford you the chance to discover them at their best in the underrated Mitchell Leisen’s Hands Across the Table on November 23 (the chemistry between them remains palpable in that day’s companion piece, the otherwise preposterous True Confession, a not very good movie which, nevertheless, was praised in its day by none other than Graham Greene, and which was successful enough for Paramount to remake it as a vehicle for Betty Hutton) and in the mystery-comedy The Princess Comes Across on November 30, in which Lombard does a devastating but not mean-spirited puncturing of the Garbo mystique (this film is paired with Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a film that proves comedy was not Hitchcock’s forte, but which does show more than a few glimmers that Lombard could have been one of Hitchcock’s most interesting blondes).

picture - Lombard and MacMurrayCuriously missing from the series is Leisen’s Swing High, Swing Low, the cream of the Lombard-MacMurray duets. On December 2, soap opera gets raised to a level of intelligence and real feeling, thanks to the directorial guidance of another underrated journeyman from the days when movies were just movies, John Cromwell, and thanks to terrific acting not only from Lombard but from Cary Grant (In Name Only) and James Stewart (Made for Each Other) and the supporting actors in the cast of both these films. A lot of the films in this series are unknown to me, but two look particularly promising, Ladies’ Man on November 27 and Fast and Loose (this one has a screenplay by Preston Sturges) on December 1………When I look back and realize that there was a time when I hadn’t yet seen either City Lights or Modern Times, I can’t really ask whether there is anybody in the world who hasn’t seen them by now. There must be someone - indeed, an entire new generation of moviegoers - who hasn’t seen them. Anyway, the Film Forum is showing a double-bill of Chaplin’s masterworks November 21-December 2, and, honestly, these two are worth seeing, if anything is, again and again and again………….

picture - Shogun MacBethIf I found Hitchcock and Lubitsch were treated unfairly in their transitions from screen to stage, I feel even worse for Akira Kurosawa, when I see what Shogun Macbeth has done to his Throne of Blood, but what is interesting here is that the source of both is, of course, Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Shogun is neither good Shakespeare nor good Kurosawa; as Shakespeare, it is like a “Greatest Hits” version in this weirdly hybrid condensation, while, as Kurosawa, no stage production, especially one on a very limited budget, could recreate the flow of images for which the great Japanese film-maker is justly remembered. The people involved with Shogun have done better work in the past and will no doubt do more in the future, so I don’t want to belabor the point, but just about all that rises above mere competence in this production is Rosanne Ma’s steely but oddly vulnerable Lady MacBeth…….Sitting in a crowd which consisted of many gay men with whom, in age, at least, I could readily identify, I had the uneasy sensation that, since I wasn’t as heartily amused as they seemed to be, the reason I didn’t respond to What’s That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling was that I am missing an essential gay gene. I just think that the extreme fondness for bad musicals is a game queens play at risk of losing any sense of what ultimately is actually good. So I recognize the smartness of David Pittu’s work and I love the casual and nuanced way Pittu has of hiding the strain of failure that motivates his mediocre composer/lyricist Jacob Sterling, but I still felt that eighty minutes of listening to bad songs, no matter how cleverly bad they are, is still eighty minutes of listening to bad songs. I am no longer as attracted to or amused by Peter Bartlett’s patented gay shtick as I was the first time I saw him do it, but that is another gay gene I am apparently living without. I tend to resist caricature and/or stereotype, even if it does emit a whiff of authenticity, and Bartlett is nothing if not authentic. Still, variations on the character would be welcome………..It might have been more fun, in a cabaret, accompanied by a drink or two……I certainly would have enjoyed Sleepwalk With Me a lot more if seen that way. I have been trying to understand why I think Mike Daisey (If You See Something Say Something) is a man of the theater and why Mike Birbiglia, who wrote and performs Sleepwalk With Me, is merely a stand-up comedian. And it has to do with that drink or two. I actually prefer seeing Daisey in a theater rather than at Joe’s Pub; his work has a concentration to it that I find inherently theatrical. Birbiglia is looser, his format less structured, his approach physically more limber, all of it suited to a more convivial atmosphere, like a nightclub, and he is certainly very unique in manner and style, but some of his best jokes seem to exist outside his central theme, which makes one feel, at times, as if the central theme was being shoe-horned in; and then there are the jokes which are too connected to a demographic that can relate to all his pop cultural references, a demographic I clearly didn’t fit into. Still, the man is very funny and I wish him and his show a great future. Audiences clearly love him, and that sort of love cannot be argued away…….

picture - DawnThe disconnect between myself and an audience can be very disconcerting; you can’t always feel that you are right and “they” are wrong. I’ve had enough experiences, over too many years, to know how right some of them were, and how wrong I’ve been. But one does have to trust one’s instincts. I was reminded of this watching Dawn. I know an argument can be made for a unique personal style to be forged out of dialogue that is self-consciously banal, but Thomas Bradshaw, the author of Dawn, even manages to take the air out of a cliché. It is impossible to tell if the flatness of his style, particularly when contrasted with the shocking material he more than hints at, is meant to be horrifying or funny. And the paroxysms of laughter that punctuated the air of the Flea Theater during the play’s early moments – when the play’s main character is going through the desperate final throes of the worst case of alcoholism ever put on stage – seemed either inappropriate or downright moronic and said laughing audience members proved a real turnoff to at least this audience member. Bradshaw has been wildly praised as one of the hopes of the theater’s future, and he may well be, but, on the basis of Dawn, it appears to be another case of the emperor standing before us, naked, and being singled out for the beauty and originality of his clothes. The worst thing about Bradshaw’s play is that, when it moves from alcoholism to incest, he begins to touch on dangerous material that really is worth exploring but just leaves it sitting there, only to resolve it in a manner that is as flat and banal as his style. When he turns, in the end, toward poetry, wouldn’t you know it would be bad poetry? I can’t imagine what Jim Simpson could do to get it properly in focus. Just because a playwright’s work is described as “pitch-black” comedy does not mean that it is easy enough, when the writing itself yields no real purpose, to locate either the humor or the darkness that lurks beneath the humor.  It would have helped a bit if the actors helped to give it a certain uniformity of texture and style. But there are as many acting styles in this production as there are actors. I don’t believe that Laura Esterman and Drew Hildebrand look very much like mother and son, but, at least, they inject a touch of truthfulness into the play that comes from some familial intensity, but even they cannot make the play breathe….. A note to readers: Three of the theatrical events of the season that simply must be seen by all serious theater-goers are in their last weeks: The Seagull and Blasted are scheduled to close on December 21 and Arias With a Twist gives its final performance on New Year’s Eve, a pretty festive way, indeed, to end the year……A word or two about Blasted, which recently extended its run for the second time: If Sarah Kane could have imagined this play at such a young age and if Sarah Benson, who directed the Soho Rep production, could have given it a production that matches it so powerfully every step of the way, then it is the obligation of everyone interested in theater to make sure it is seen. Blasted requires infinitely more space and I will endeavor to write at length about it next week.


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