Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Month: November 2014

Film Note | The Theory of Everything (2014)

With Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, directed by James Marshal

The Theory of Everything is a “must see” but not a “rave.”

The true story of physicist Stephen Hawking is powerful and inspiring:  he has overcome gruesome physical obstacles and beat seemingly impossible odds to lead a productive and creative career as a physicist, while enjoying a rich personal life and having three children. And Eddie Redmayne’s characterization of Hawking, a man brutally robbed by illness of motor control and speech, is beyond belief great. The disease that felled Hawking as a young man in college is ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Lou Gherig’s disease: at the time he was stricken he was told he had two years to live but he’s alive today and in his early 70’s (which made me wonder about the diagnosis although I’m sure he’s been tested and re-tested and they must know).

The acting is magnificent but the script doesn’t convey the intellectual dimensions of Hawking’s work well, and also shows Hawking as a one-man creator of contemporary physics as if nobody else did anything.  Science doesn’t work that way (while Hawking currently has more “name recognition” than any other contemporary physicist,brilliant physicists have won the Nobel Prize through the years, but not Hawking, though of course that’s just one gauge of significance).  In his youth, his fellow physics students at Cambridge, who must have been quite smart, are shown in the film as dummies when it comes to answering test questions that only Hawking can solve.  Whatever happened to them? one wonders.  Did they make contributions to science?  Did anybody, beside Stephen Hawking?  

This, along with a lot of romance (from a funny looking Cambridge nerd through helpless in a wheelchair, he attracts women) and the constant references to Hawking’s fame without clarity about his ideas, make the film seem something of a puff piece.  This may be because it’s based upon his first wife’s book, Travelling to Infinity:  My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking.

And it is possible to convey physics in a film more successfully than in The Theory of Everything.  A classic example is Madame Curie of 1943, with Greer Garson as Marie Curie and and Walter Pidgeon as her husband Pierre Curie — it gives a much better sense of what their physics meant, of how they did it, and of their intellectual activity and strength, as well as their family life and mutual love.  In recent theater, see also Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA, and Isaac’s Eye about an experiment by Newton.  

But back to Redmayne’s characterization:  you see the distortions of  Hawking’s body caused by his disastrous neurological disease, the contracted fingers, his head falling sideways, and you see him peering up from this distorted position -– teasing, knowing, enjoying, thinking, catching on — whether to intimate interactions or cosmic mysteries.  I found the joie de vivre of this man suffering from such profound physical limitations totally believable and something to think about.

Redmayne’s Hawking ranks among some unforgettable dramatic impersonations in film including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth.*  I expect he’ll win the Academy Award.  Stephen Hawking said on facebook that watching Redmayne, he felt he was watching himself, and I believe it.

Yvonne Korshak

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (2005),  Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady (2011) and as Julia Child, Julie & Julia (2009), David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, The Queen (2006). 

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Review | You Can’t Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

With James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne, directed by Scott Ellis, The Longacre Theatre

Living in a townhouse on the upper West side of NYC is a wacky but lovable family  guided by the idea that life is to be enjoyed and gaining money shouldn’t be a focus because, after all, you can’t take it with you:  everyone should freely do their own thing  — and so they do, with very funny results.   

Grandpa Martin Vanderhof attends commencements, his daughter Penny writes plays about monasteries and sex slaves while her husband Paul and friend build fireworks in the basement, as granddaughter Essie earnestly practices ballet and so it goes, with other emphatic personalities who find themselves part of the household.

When granddaughter Alice, a working girl, is ardently courted by Tony, the son of her Wall Street millionaire boss, having a zany family becomes a problem — at least that’s how Alice sees it.  She loves Tony, he loves her, but she’s sure the differences between his upper crust family and her own batch of eccentrics makes their marriage impossible:  he ardently disagrees but the catastrophic collisions and explosions (literally) when his fancy mother and father come to dinner — on the wrong night — don’t make their union any easier.  Still, comedies end in marriage and this is decidedly a comedy so — go figure.   

One of my friends said of this production of You Can’t Take It With You, ““Seemed awfully forced and pretty dated.  Silly maybe.”   Another said, “I thought it was dated and silly too.  But I enjoyed it anyway.  Thought it was fun.”  I’m with the second.  It’s a lot of fun — laughter is so good, and there’s such a lot of it, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! 

But yet, why this sense of “silly?”

The reason is that the main conflict is under-motivated:  Alice’s certainty that the differences between their families makes their marriage impossible is not fully credible, from the start it doesn’t make sense  but seems invented to keep the play going:  conflict’s weakness can give rise to that word “silly,” for the otherwise beautifully conceived, written and performed comedy,   

Evidently the film director Robert Capra also thought the central conflict needed strengthening, as I found when I looked more deeply into the play’s history.  The play was first produced on Broadway in 1936, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and ran for 838 performances.  Still, when Capra made the movie  in 1938, he  substantially raised the stakes. 

Capra made Mr. Kirby, instead of just a Wall Street millionaire, a munitions manufacturer with a big government contract who intends to buy the Vanderhof’s decrepit house out from under him, as part of his plan to vanquish his business competitor.  So, in the film, it’s not just an overblown romantic conflict: the house itself is threatened by the business designs of Tony’s father, and with it the very way of life of our lovable, independent-minded Vanderhof family.    

I’m waiting to see the movie which I’ve ordered but I’d bet it won’t seem “silly”.  Capra’s film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  (I’ll report back here on the film with a P.S.)

But there’s nothing like seeing the play with live actors and this production — wishy-washy conflict or not — is a delight.  James Earl Jones seemed not to work very hard but he’s such a great actor that he moved me deeply.  This is a large cast of brilliant comedic actors — Annaleigh Ashford as Essie, for example, who erupts into ballet at every cue like a cuckoo clock, but with less predictability.  Elizabeth Ashley was perfect as the aristocratic fugitive  from the Russian revolution working at Child’s restaurant and ready to deliver blintzes for any number.  And Julie Halston as the vodka-besotted actress Gay Wellington takes the cake for bringing laughter:  you just have to see how (in a bit I didn’t find in reading the play) she made it up the stairs reeling off “There once was a man from Nantucket …. “ it was … well, this production is near the end of its run — but if you can see You Can’t Take It With You , you’re in for a good time.

You Can’t Take It With You  plays on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre through November 30, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.  

Yvonne Korshak

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Review | I See You, by Kate Robin

Directed by Jim Simpson, The Flea Theater

This play is a compendium of current topical concerns about the

ISeeYou13_HunterCanning

Danielle Slavick and Stephen Barker Turner. Photo Hunter Canning.

environment, junk food and junk in our food, etc., built around a romance between a man and a woman, each with children and each married to someone else.  

Nina, a successful writer, and Jesse, a sculptor who doesn’t exhibit his work and a take-care-of-the-child dad, meet while keeping an eye on their young children at the playground.  Nina’s the big talker and who takes up those topical concerns with apocalyptic pessimism.  Jesse, who’s into meditation,  tends to see good possibilities in problems (he’s such a dull personality I didn’t notice this about him but that’s what Nina says). 

Their flirtation rumbles along through conversation, punctuated by a couple of dramatic incidents, one involving Jesse’s child and another a big hurricane, dramatized with multi-colored lighting effects.  There are two possible endings but a lack of suspense.       

Nina’s articulateness and answer-for-everything personality is well conveyed by Danielle Slavick — her responses and emphases in gestures are sharp and fun to watch for awhile though by the end of the play they seemed repetitive.  There’s no chemistry felt between her and Stephen Barker Turner  in the role of Jesse, though, and in any case it’s hard to know what she sees in him.  

The play seems to “hope” in a sense that people will respond to it through recognition of current situations and buzz words — ecological problems, stay-at-home-dads (and alleged lowered testosterone levels, Science Times sorts of things), women who make more money than men,  pollution of seafood, vegans, inter-religious relationships, meditation. The romance  seems no more than a synthetic framework for voicing these familiar  contemporary issues.   

I See You plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through December 21, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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Review | Major Barbara, written by Bernard Shaw in 1905

Directed by David Staller, The Pearl Theatre Company and Gingold Theatrical Group

 which side was it you said you’re on? …

The audience — myself included — stood and applauded with pleasure at the end of Major Barbara, but the applause was more for the laughter and sheer theatrical delight that came earlier in the play than for the confusing ending.  First, toward the end, you think you’re missing something and then you realize it’s not quite making sense.  No fault of the performers who were perfect throughout, but Shaw just did not fully resolve this play.  But he gives you much to enjoy and think about. 

Barbara Undershaft is an idealistic major in the Salvation Army, committed to saving souls while, on the other hand,  her rich, estranged father, Andrew Undershaft is the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons for real armies to kill people — bigger than the government, he is the government .  Mrs. Undershaft, his wife with whom he’s totally out of touch, is concerned that their two now grown two daughters are about to marry poor men and, since her son’s useless for making money, she invites the great weapons maker over to solicit appropriate fatherly involvement — money.

Andrew Undershaft hasn’t seen his children for so long he can’t tell which is which but he takes a liking to the feisty, idealistic Barbara.  Salvation Army Major that she is, she determines to save his soul.  They strike a deal:  he’ll visit her Salvation Army shelter and in return she’ll visit his munitions establishment.  She’ll convert him, she thinks.  Only that’s not what happens. 

Next day he visits and she learns through the events of the day that, even in the lofty enterprise of feeding the hungry while saving their souls, money talks.  In fact, with the shelter faced with the possibility of closing down for lack of resources, it’s  essential, even if the donors are manufacturers of the hard liquor that keeps the down-and-outers at the shelter drunk, or of weapons.  Her Salvation Army fellow workers go with the flow, glad to be able to continue their work of doing good wherever the money comes from.  Barbara’s moral compass, however, doesn’t include compromise of any kind.  She is disillusioned.  She faces despair. 

What’s funny about that?

How can the playwright continue the play which has the tenor of a comedy when he has his heroine lose all that means most to her?

At this point, Shaw pulls Barbara, his strong main character, out of the main action.  She merely goes along on the promised family excursion to the weapons factory which, improbably, turns out to be an idyllic workers’ socialist paradise, though one at risk of exploding. 

Here, since  Barbara’s abdicated, her intelligent but poor Greek scholar fiancé, Adolphus, takes on the job of arguing with  — to the extent there’s any disagreement — Andrew Undershaft, as Barbara had done earlier:  With specious rationales on all sides, Adolphus is readily persuaded to the point of view of his wealthy father-in-law to be.  For those who share Adolphus’ knowledge of  Greek literature,  it’s as if Antigone stepped away from arguing with Creon and left it up to Ismene.  Why does Shaw let the weapons maker off the hook so easily?   The upshot of the argument is that Adolphus is co-opted, and what looks like cynicism hastily and fuzzily becomes “realism.”  What was that?  How did that happen?  I wasn’t the only person in the audience trying to figure it out.  As Barbara is left to stare wordlessly into space, I wondered if her disillusionment is too tragic for Shaw’s comedy. 

The character of Barbara, at the heart of the play, is iconic:  she’s strong, willful, intelligent, but with an ideological rigidity that runs smack into reality and lost illusions — and Hannah Cabell captures the determination, vulnerability and charm of the lovely young woman.

Dan Daily plays the weapons manufacturer like a robust, twinkling Santa Claus, as Shaw perversely wrote him — the man who solves problems, brings happiness and makes wishes come true.  Huh?  That’s right, this is not the devious and culpable weapons manufacturer of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons

The cast is all-over excellent and Shaw’s clever turns and wit sparkle.  The glossy, black set is dazzling:  it doesn’t suggest the venues where the episodes take place — The library of the Undershaft’s home, the Salvation Army shelter, or among the high-explosive sheds of Undershaft’s weapons arsenal — but its stunning irrelevance is in harmony with the absurd humor of improbable events with which Shaw digs himself out of his playwright’s dilemma. 

Major Barbara  plays at The Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 14, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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Review | Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Jo Bonney, The Public Theater and American Repertory Theater

… when Emancipation was proclaimed … 

The master of a modest sized Texas plantation has been called to fight for the Confederates and wants his slave, Hero, to come along, promising he’ll free Hero when it’s over, a promise the master has reneged on previously.  Will he follow the master to war on what he knows is the wrong side, chasing the carrot of his personal freedom?  Or will he stay back on the plantation and remain a slave?  The master has given Hero the choice.

 As his fellow slaves discuss the option and bet on which way Hero will go, we get to know them, particularly, the old man who’s like a father to Hero, Penny his wife, and Homer , a fellow slave whose foot has been amputated in punishment for an earlier attempt at running away.   On our journey toward learning that ethically Hero falls somewhere between a man of ordinary human frailties and an anti-hero, we learn that Hero, at the master’s insistence, was the one who actually did the deed — cut off Homer’s foot.  Part 1 is called “The Measure of a Man” and Hero isn’t measuring up well.

Driven by the desire for freedom, and more decisively, to escape his fellows’ scorn, Hero follows his master to war.  In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the raw co-mingling of hate, love, loyalty and cruelty between the master, now a Colonel, and Hero, and the overriding terror of one gun at the ready, is intense.  The episode is a dramatically exciting reflection of the war, known through distant gunfire, and of the struggle between slavery and freedom as it affects three men:  the master, now a Colonel in the rebel army, Hero, and a captured, wounded Union soldier the Colonel holds in a small slatted cage.  Hero earns his name — for once — and the play reaches its highpoint of moral clarity:  freedom is unambiguously good.  Almost. 

Part 3,  “The Union of my Confederate Parts,” brings Hero back to the plantation.  As an assertion of personal freedom, he’s chosen a new name for himself, Ulysses, referring to the classical epic wanderer and to the head of the Union army.  It happens, though, it’s also his dog’s name, Odyssey — Homer’s Greek hero Odysseus is named Ulysses in Latin.  In a brilliant monolog by the talking dog, Odyssey lets us know that loyalty is intrinsic to dogs but that with humans it’s an add-on.  But is it a virtue?  Hero’s loyalties are misapplied and he’s back to morally slack — it’s up to others to make the break. 

A great strength of this play lies in the complexity of its main characters and the importance of the issues they face.  Motivations are ambiguous and conflicts are moral in the largest sense, and resonant in terms of race relations and American history.  The equivocal emotional and risky intimacy that could arise between masters and slaves, often described within the slave system as among women, and women and children, is here explored in a male relationship, between the master and Hero. 

Scenes are filled with dramatic tension and stimulating turns.  And — things seldom being  as they seem — the main characters are full of surprises.   The episode “in the wilderness” with Hero, the Colonel, and the Union soldier has an iconic strength and lingers in the mind. 

While the play generally pulls one into its world, the artifice doesn’t always work.  The lofty and often poetic language is at odds with the realism — I know that some people were able to accept the unrealistic language and the actors’ generalized — and not southern — accents that went with it but for me thoughts like these people would never talk this way pushed in on my belief.  Fantasy is one thing — and the talking dog is wonderful — but the tension between brutal realism and tony language was, for me, not integrated.  My suspended disbelief kept getting unsuspended!

As to Hero’s following the master to war or staying back on the plantation, the question taking up the whole first part — did the master really say to his slave, “you decide”?  I don’t think so.

Hero observes, in Part 2, that a slave has a selling price but there’s no price put on a free man, so, he asks, focusing on himself who would fetch a hefty price, is a man worth more as a slave than free?  This  meditation is too naïve for the highly articulate language written for the character and also underestimates his intelligence since with two free men in plain sight, it’s obvious that freedom is worth just about everything, as he himself demonstrates in the same scene.  In Shaw’s play Candida, and Thomas Hardy’s  novel Jude The Obscure the idea of the auction price of a woman occurs without any forced or cute play with words.      

So, I don’t think this play is the “masterpiece” some have called it but I think it’s compelling, and illuminates in a serious way aspects of the psychology of slavery,  a moment in the Civil War and a moment of transition in American history: Hero comes home with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his pocket —  he just forgets to read it to the other slaves, before they run away.  It’s well acted and beautifully produced:  small note — the slave cabin which is the focus of the set in Parts 1 and 3 is based on the genuine slave cabin in the Smithsonian Museum, a moving touch of realism.  Parts 4 through 9 are anticipated:  I’m looking forward to them. 

Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3 plays at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 7, 2014.  Fore more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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