Saturday, March 8, 2014

All the Way With LBJ

The new play, All the Way, opened Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theater, West 52nd St., New York and we were lucky enough to get to see it last night, Friday, the second night of what is advertised as a limited run, after about a month of previews. Bryan Cranston, best known now as the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealerWalter White in Breaking Bad on cable.

It's a rousing evening. Cranston delivers a magnificent performance as Lyndon Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's exciting play.  He's backed by a solid cast filled with fine performers who play multiple roles. In one particular, I go along with the mostly excellent review in yesterday's Times: the first act is incredibly strong. It covers Johnson's acceding to the presidency on Kennedy's assassination and then focuses on all his maneuvering to get the bill passed that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Major characters are Senators, from Hubert Humphrey to Strom Thurmond, Congressmen from Howard "Judge" Smith to Katherine St. George of Tuxedo Park, Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, Stokeley Carmichael, and J. Edgar Hoover. John McMartin, an old Broadway hand,comes in strong as Johnson's friend and wiliest opponent, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia.

But it is Cranston who pulls the whole thing off. He captures--as of course does Schenkkan's play--all the aspects of LBJ's outsized personality. The man had as many resentments as did Nixon, whom he despised, but in this instance, he channelled those feelings into doing something for people who had been mistreated for decades, if not centuries. Brandon Dirden also puts in a good performance as Dr. King.

Cranston storms, cajoles, and of course demonstrates the famous Johnson treatment when he uses all his skills to attain the goal. You see him play with Hubert Humphrey, who cannot begin to realize what is necessary, even in a more conducive environment than we now have, to make things happen.

It's an exciting show and Cranston keeps up the fervor. He's not on stage all the stage, just most of the time. You almost miss him when he's not. The audience burst into applause after the amazing first act. The second was fine and then the theatre rose to its collective give Cranston and the whole cast a well-deserved standing ovation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Watching the Oscars

Last night I actually starting asking myself why I always watch the Oscars. The show is tedious and this year's host, Ellen de Generes, who despite being better than some of the others of recent vintage, such as Seth MacFarlane or Hugh Jackman, still emphasized silliness rather than anything the slightest bit sophisticated. Don't get me wrong, I actually usually like her.

Unlike my wife, who manages by hook or crook--lately, she orders up pictures on demand on our home television--to see most of the nominees for Best Picture, I usually see a few of the likely winners. I always get ticked off when one picture tends to grab lots of the lesser awards over pictures that may only have been nominated for one or two and get none. But lately the Academy voters--average age, 62--have been doing that and then voting in another picture entirely for the top prize.

This year I saw American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Both were good--the former was excellent and a lo of fun. It turns out that neither had a prayer of winning any thing much. Why? Who knows?

Maybe it was that Martin Scorsese,who directed the Wolf, finally won sometime in the last few years so they didn't owe him anything. Yes,that's the way the Academy voters appear to think. And American Hustle's best hope was Jennifer Lawrence, put up for Best Supporting Actress and supposedly a favorite did win last year,and that apparently is enough to blow your chances.

Cate Blanchett won Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, which I liked. And apparently she didn't get tarnished by the popular denigration of director Woody Allen,who finally realized two weeks ago that he needed to respond to the attacks made against him by former wife Mia Farrow's progeny.  She was good but I'm not sure she was as electrifying as Amy Adams was in Hustle. In fact--she wasn't.

I didn't see Dallas Buyers Club, so I can't say whether the Best Actor and Supporting Actor awards were good choices. But I did see Gravity, which won for Best Director and a bagful of lesser awards. Once you agree that George Clooney (not nominated) and Sandra Bullock were as charming in this space epic as they always are, you've stated the strong point. It was a short picture that seemed longer. 

I also have not yet seen 12 Years a Slave, which was awarded Best Picture. It had about as much attraction for me as Shoah did some years ago. You have to be in exactly the right mood for that kind of picture. 

The show itself is more insipid than ever. When they chronicled the year's tribute to the late departed, and Sid Caesar's name popped up, I would have given anything to see him walk out as if it were still 1955 and he was in a routine with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howie Morris. And of course I felt bad about seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on that list. If my dad had still been around these last years, he would have told me we were somehow related to him, as he had told me, fairly confidently, about Dustin.

But I missed any spark of cleverness in the proceedings. Remember when Billy Crystal would have fun with the nominated pictures? And Johnny Carson brought his easy ability to get a laugh out of either a good joke or his amazing talent at recovery from a bad one. To give you an idea of how desperate I am, I would have preferred seeing Bob Hope, who in reality slipped in more jokes making fun of Democrats, just as Jay Leno has been doing for years--both jesters of and for the rich. But Hope was still funny.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Importance of Being Earnest

If you've somehow to make it to an advanced age without managing to see Oscar Wilde's greatest and most renowned play, The Importance of Being Earnest, you need to see it at the Lansburgh in Washington, where the Shakespeare Theatre Company is staging this masterpiece.  The play is one of those almost unbreakable stalwarts of the theatre, filled as it is with Wilde's fantastic wit that may even serve to make you think twice about things you've always assumed.

The cast is perfect--Americans yes, but they have both the Brit accents and the articulation down just right, so the production proceeds in what seems like effortless style. The only recognizable name and only British cast member so far as I know is Sian Phillips.  She of course is Lady Bracknell, described quite accurately by one of the characters as a true Gorgon--though the same character immediately concedes that he's not really are just what a Gorgon is. (For those who never read their Bulfinch's Mythology or Edith Hamilton, the Gorgons were three sisters turned into monsters by one Greek god or another, with snakes as hair and faces that literally turned you to stone should you gaze upon them. The hero Perseus slew Medusa, the only vulnerable one of the terrible trio, by focusing on her only through a mirror aided by his shield so he never looked directly at her.)

Ms. Phillips has starred and played in many shows mostly in London and is best known here for playing Claudius's mother on the series, I, Claudius.  I remember her fondly for her cameo role at the very end of the last episode of the wonderful British TV series drawn from Le Carre's Smiley's People, when she turns up as Smiley's unfaithful but constant wife, Anne, as to whom Smiley is taunted throughout the series with the line, "Love to Anne, everyone's love to Anne." She has just the right tone of dowager's definiteness to utter some of Wilde's best lines, although those are spread round the cast.

I believe Wendy Hiller played the role in a movie made in the UK long ago, and that Dame Edith Evans was possibly the most outstanding player who took on the role. It's even been done on Broadway by the male classical comedy star Brian Bedford.  If you never saw Edith Evans in anything else, catch her sometime as Susannah York's (Sophie Western) guardian in the great Tom Jones.

The leading men are excellent, as are their two intended female partners, along with the requisite servant roles. There's music before the curtain rises on each act, which at least does no harm to this well-conceived production. One strength is the Lansburgh theater, which is small enough so you can easily hear each well-spoken and often brilliantly-written line. In the end, you leave the theater delighted and filled with the right spirit. You also now know what great theatrical comedy is. I do think this play stops short of ever becoming what some have called it, farce, and I am not knocking farce, mainly because there are no slamming doors and other effects that define farce.  This is comedy based solely on wit and it was Wilde's last but surely greatest play, written sadly, before he managed to ruin both his career and shorten his life after its success in 1895.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mother Courage

Bertholt Brecht's greatest play, Mother Courage and Her Children, has been regarded as a tough show to put on successfully. It is set during the Thirty Years' War in the 1600s when Catholics fought Protestants all across Central Europe and even into Sweden.  It, of course, is a famous anti-war play, since it shows how a stalwart woman strives to make her sorry living from providing victuals and supplies from her cart to soldiers but suffers tragedy in the process.

The current production, at D.C.'s respected regional theater, Arena Stage, features Kathleen Turner in the leading role, and she does a bang-up job as the rough, tough Mother Courage,who in the end, beneath her hard-bargaining exterior, has a soft spot for soldiers and just about everyone else she encounters in the treks across warring Europe.

The play has been augmented with a series of songs, many seeming similar to the sprechstimme style that Brecht introduced in Berlin in the '20s with his great musical collaborator, Kurt Weill, most notably in Der Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera. The songs worked, and gave the play an added asset.

By the end of the two-and-one-half-hour-plus performance, you feel almost as exhausted as Turner must be from her exertions. Yet it is a wonderful experience and worth seeing for its drama and excellent performances as well as its message. Though sometimes regarded as a polemicist, Brecht did know how to entertain as well.  This was a marvelous evening at the theatre.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


For many years, I thought Pete Seeger might go on forever.  Yes, the voice--the once piercing tenor--had become as scraggly as his beard but when you saw him up in front of the Lincoln Memorial with Springsteen at the Obama inaugural concert in 2009, he still had that amazing power to lift a crowd into song.  I can't even imagine "We Shall Overcome" without hearing him shout out the next line in between the singing multitude.

And when at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 1994, President Bill Clinton described him as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them", I could only think that I'd never seen anyone who looked more uncomfortable in black tie.  Most of all, he managed to outlast most of his tormentors--all the small-minded reactionaries who despised the words "peace" and "freedom" until they suddenly decided to appropriate them.   

He was a living exemplar of the folk tradition--the way songs evolved by being sung over the years.  Rarely was the origin of any of his most famous ones clear.  This was as true of "We Shall Overcome" as it was of "Good Night, Irene."  And it was heartening to hear on the wonderful NPR obit this morning that his favorite written work was a pamphlet on how to play the five-string banjo, an instrument he carried to new heights.

The sad thing was that so few people had the courage he showed all his life, but especially in the 50s, when McCarthyism had him thrown off TV and made it impossible for him to play major venues. His fans stuck with him, no matter where he played. I remember a friend in college who didn't begin to share Pete's politics but admired the Weavers for getting away with repeating half the songs on every album they released on the next one.

And he encouraged younger performers, including Dylan and Springsteen.  I never realized that "If I Had a Hammer" never became a hit until Peter, Paul and Mary did it. (We won't mention Trini Lopez's version--except that it showed how Pete's songs became totally part of the culture.) It's also amazing, but probably not surprising, to learn that he abandoned a privileged background--prep school in Connecticut and Harvard, where he dropped out after two years to travel the country with the likes of Woody Guthrie, clambering aboard trains and picking up folk music first-hand.

So many things about his life and career were chancey, but he made the best out of them all.  I always think of that wonderful recording of "Wimoweh" when he led three tenors and the other three members of the quartet in the South African song that it turns out he mistitled by mishearing Solomon Linda, the originator, call it "Mbube".

It was even surprising yet somehow gratifying that unlike his enemies, he had the grace to admit error, as when he told the Washington Post in 1994, “I apologize for once believing Stalin was just a hard driver, not a supremely cruel dictator." And beyond the music, which he personified, and the causes, and the sheer technical brilliance, there's that lingering wistfulness -- the recollection that his death induced that once, there was a real left in the U.S.

Monday, December 30, 2013

On--or near--Broadway

It was the closest you get to anticipating a sure thing--Mark Rylance and his Shakespeare's Globe company from London doing Richard III--their alternating Twelfth Night was even more joyfully received in New York by the critics. When last in London a couple of years ago, I managed to see Rylance in an English play called Jerusalem: it was only a fair vehicle, and I was very surprised when it was brought to New York, where it was welcomed by critics and only mildly by audiences. But Rylance stood out. He's a fantastic actor, capable of assuming all kinds of roles.

His company adheres to Elizabethan practice--with men in the women's roles, actually in every role. Rylance moves from playing Richard III to Olivia in Twelfth Night. His Richard starts out subdued in the famous opening soliloquy and he continues the low-keyed approach with an occasional whimsical wink to the audience as he proceeds to eliminate everyone standing between him and the throne. You can readily see from Rylance's brilliant performance and concept of the title role how all the other players in the great game to determine who would rule England in the 1480s would not give much thought to Richard--or the danger in being perceived to be an opponent of his ambition--until it was too late. Too late for them to keep their heads--literally.

After that, everything else could have seemed anticlimactic, but Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, a memoir with a good deal of comedy and some sadness, comes out as a winner and Bruce Norris's Domesticated, a drama about a couple breaking up, was worth seeing to catch two fine performers, Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf, in the leading roles.  Norris won a Pulitzer and Tony for a play about race I haven't seen, Clybourne Park, but this one apparently hasn't hit that level.

Living in a second-tier movie distribution town, it was also worthwhile to catch a few films on or near their opening dates.  The most fun was one playing near me here in D.C., American Hustle. I do confess a weakness for this kind of picture, as one of my all-time favorites was The Grifters, with Annette Bening, Anjelica Huston, and Peter Cusack, drawn from a Jim Thompson novel. Hustle is a bigger-deal production, and the outstanding performers were Christian Bale, hitherto not well known to me, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence. There were plenty of other cinematic vets who helped make the picture the winner it is. I particularly liked Adams's performance--based on some good work I'd seen her do before, I figured she'd be good but she rose to a higher degree of acting here.

Another bravura production was The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's latest, which does a nice job tackling a promoter of penny stocks as a device to relieve working-class folks of their bank accounts. De Caprio is on screen the whole time and contributes a powerful depiction of a superb salesman. The always reliable sidekick expert, Jonah Hill, is enjoyable in that role, too. But as much fun as the pic can be--especially DeCaprio's sales pitches to the trading floor crowd and the subsequent bacchanals at the same venue--the fine editor who cut this from four to three hours could have cut another hour. She might have started with a few of the repetitive sales and party scenes.

A major play, August: Osage County, that won prizes aplenty on Broadway a few years ago, comes now to the screen with major stars--Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, supported by real pros like Chris Cooper and rising ingenues a la Abigail Breslin.  The play of course has been opened up, in classic cinematic fashion, and still works nicely as a drama. I found Roberts the strongest of a fine cast and on the whole, thought the picture a success. Streep has probably been more impressive, which allows Roberts to shine this time.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Exhibit Worth Seeing

Until I visited the Frick Collection in New York today, drawn by the current exhibition of great paintings from the newly-renovated Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, I had forgotten what a superb group of paintings the Frick holds in its permanent collection. The visiting exhibit is entitled Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals, and is impressive.  True, there's only one Vermeer but it's the most famous one and one of the world's most renowned paintings, Girl With a Pearl Earring.  The Rembrandts are excellent and the two Hals portraits have another quality in common with those in the permanent Frick group: Hals clearly was not always painting people with smiles or laughing as in the familiar Laughing Cavalier.

But the Frick is worth visiting because its regular set of paintings adhere to an incredibly high standard. First, there are three fine Vermeers, quite an accomplishment since there are only 36 known ones world-wide. Five others are up Fifth Ave. at the Metropolitan. One of the Frick's, Officer and Laughing Girl, is in my view equal to its pearl-earring relative.

There are also an amazing group of El Grecos, Turners, Rembrandts, Titians, and a roomful of the great British cadre of Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, and Romney.  Romney's Lady Hamilton shows us how her amazing beauty captivated so many leading Englishmen of the day. The Mauritshuis show also has a wonderful Van Ruisdel landscape, View of Haarlem, and the picture recently made famous by the novel, The Goldfinch, viz., the eponymous Fabritius picture.  It is just a total delight wandering the relatively tight confines of this mansion turned into a museum.

It almost makes you forget that even by the standards of his fellow robber barons, Henry Clay Frick, was a true villain.  He took the lead in bringing in Pinkertons to break the Homestead steel strike, for which admittedly Carnegie likely deserved to be blamed as much as Frick was, but Frick has gone down in history as the principal responsible corporate terrorist of the day.  Even the house video telling the history of the museum concedes that he moved to New York because he was hated in Pittsburgh for his role in violently breaking the strike.

Thus one does feel a sensation comparable to that experienced by those with labor values when contemplating crossing a picket line, any picket line, no matter how unprepossessing the union is which has put the line up.  You face what rarely occurs in or society--you are required to declare which side you are on. Unions, of course, are far from being the factor in our society they once were, and this is a major cause of the lamentable inequality wenow confront in the U.S. The paintings are fantastic and many were acquired personally by Frick himself, but it's still hard to get rid of the sour taste in the mouth that visiting this redoubt of the worst kind of figure in our history produces.