Theater Review: Just for Us, Black No More, The Merchant of Venice
Just for Us (c) Monique Carboni
Theater: Just For Us Soho Playhouse (reopening on March 14)
Alex Edelman is a young comedian who thinks he can make the leap to comedic monologist, a la Mike Birbiglia, Hannah Gadsby and Sandra Bernhard. It’s not an easy leap. Being funny is one thing, but a successful solo play has to skillfully incorporate the jokes to create an arc around a central narrative, while also making the audience think a little. Edelman has a few hiccups along the way, but his newest show, “Just For Us,” is a delightful home run (having Birbiglia as your mentor doesn’t hurt). I didn’t see his earlier shows, “Millennial” or “Everything Handed to You,” but the reason this show will be his calling card from here on out is because he has a gem of a hook: What if a Manhattan Jew attended a white supremacist meeting in Queens? Edelman’s delicious variation on the plot of Spike Lee film “BlacKkKlansman,” however, doesn’t really come into play until the second half. For the first half, he gives us a pretty succinct autobiography of his Orthodox Jewish upbringings in Boston with his Olympic athlete brother (in skeleton sledding of all things) before launching into how he saw a tweet about the meeting and why he decided to go. I’m specifically not divulging too many details because you should experience Edelman’s easygoing storytelling yourself. I wish he trusted his material enough to not have some audience participation moments (although I did guess the singer of a recording and yelled it out the night I went), and the story about that recording could have used more parallels to the main story about being an outsider in a homogenized group. But he and director Adam Brace do a wonderful job creating this world with only a mic stand, three stools and a surprise prop in Edelman’s pants. But I may have said too much already.
Premise: It is 2011 and Caleb (Troye Sivan) is working at a mini-mart in Florida the summer after high school. His summer is overshadowed by the fact that when he had sex with a man he just met at a bar, the condom broke. His doctor (Javier Muñoz) tells him he has to wait three months in order to know if he has HIV, so over the course of the summer, we follow the ups and downs of Caleb’s chaotic life. His father is dead and his mother (Amy Landecker) has re-married an Orthodox man who doesn’t approve of his gay life, so he now lives with his doting grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and her surly paramour (Louis Gossett, Jr.). He works at the mart with his best friend, Dora (Brianne Tju), who enjoys flirting with their boss (Judy Greer). Caleb also meets Estha (Viveik Kalra) at an LGBT support group. Their puppy dog flirtation could lead to something, but Caleb can’t seem to shake the looming results of his HIV status. Estha is also from India and closeted, which complicates things even more.
The Power of the Dog, Flee, Passing and West Side Story Dominate Dorian Award Nominations
Adding some zest to the film awards season, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics has announced its Dorian Award nominations for the best in movies, mainstream to LGBTQ. Jane Campion’s volatile period drama "The Power of the Dog" leads the pack with nine nods, including for best film, LGBTQ film, director and three for acting. Coming in a few rungs lower with five nominations each: The 1920s-set racial drama "Passing," the unusual animated refugee documentary "Flee," and Steven Spielberg’s vibrant reimagining of "West Side Story." "Dog" and "Story" contend for Best Film along with three films that received four Dorian nominations each in all: The bittersweet Japanese relationship drama "Drive My Car," Norway’s acerbic romantic comedy "The Worst Person in the World" and "Tick, Tick. . .Boom!," the poignant musical about the too-short life of Rent creator Jonathan Larson.
The Interested Bystander's Oscar Predictions (Ranked)
The Power of the Dog (c) Netflix
After a couple of weeks of sitting with the nominations, here are my rankings of who I think is going to win, before the other awards (SAG, CRITICS CHOICE, DGA, PGA) are announced. And while Timothee Chalamet was in two of the nominated Best Pictures, so was Bradley Cooper. So you can call these the Timmys or the Coops.
The Power of the Dog Belfast CODA Dune West Side Story King Richard Licorice Pizza Don’t Look Up Nightmare Alley Drive My Car
Pablo Larraín had two films released in 2021 in the U.S. “Spencer” is probably his most high-profile, but “Ema” might just be the most experimental of his career. The movie made its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, and after opening in most of the world since, it finally made its post-pandemic debut in U.S. cinemas last fall. Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer in her husband Gaston’s (Gael Garcia Bernal, in his most mature role to date) dance company in Chile. But at the start of the movie, she is being shunned by everyone for deciding to abandon her adopted son Polo and return him to the foster care system after a tragic accident. The movie’s tone feels like a poetic mix of directors Lynne Ramsey and Gapser Noe. Everything feels surreal, even though the central theme of guilt and placing blame is very real and permeates the film. Is Ema becoming unhinged in the aftermath of giving up Polo? Her relationship with Gaston borders on emotional sadomasochism and her sexual experimentations wouldn’t feel out of place in the movie “Titane” (to be fair, Ema doesn’t go so far as to sleep with a car). Most of the time I didn’t understand what was going on in this bizarre landscape that represents Ema’s emotional state, but Larraín kept me on my toes, so I couldn’t look away, whether from the fire imagery or random dance interludes that punctuate scenes. It all sort of gets explained by the film’s end, and whether it’s satisfying or not depends on if you are on Ema and Larraín’s wavelength.
It occurred to me around the middle of Act One as to why the story of “A Class Act” felt so familiar to me. Yes, I saw both the original 2000 Manhattan Theatre Club production and the Broadway transfer in 2001, but I haven’t really thought about the show since. And then it hit me, “A Class Act” is to songwriter Edward Kleban what “tick, tick…Boom!” is to Jonathan Larsen. The one difference is that Kleban actually enjoyed the success of his biggest musical, “A Chorus Line,” while Larsen never basked in the triumph that was “Rent.” Both “A Class Act” and “tick, tick…Boom!” used existing songs from each composer to create a sort of composite musical biography. I was interested to see The J2 Spotlight’s production of “A Class Act” to see if it held up after 20 years, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” This production, creatively directed by J2’s Artistic Director Robert W. Schneider, is a powerful reminder of how wonderful the musical is. First of all, it rightly refocuses the show on Kleban, himself as opposed to framing the show as the guy who wrote the lyrics to “A Chorus Line.”
Theater Reviews: Intimate Apparel, Prayer for the French Republic, The Tap Dance Kid
Intimate Apparel (c) T. Charles Erickson and Julieta Cervantes
Theater: Intimate Apparel At Lincoln Center Theater
Once you try to pigeonhole playwright Lynn Nottage, she goes in a totally different direction. Her latest show is a chamber opera, adapted from her successful play of the same name (which starred a young Viola Davis in its 2004 premiere) with composer Ricky Ian Gordon. The result is an engrossing and dramatic re-interpretation of the story that centers around a not-so-young-anymore seamstress named Esther (a wonderful Kearstin Piper Brown) who lives in a boarding house for colored women in 1905, saving her money to open her own beauty parlor, with or without a husband. The supporting characters are all interesting archetypes, from the rich, bored, white wife who hires Esther (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) to make her sexy outfits to wear for her husband to the protective mother figure who runs the boarding house (a powerful Adrienne Danrich) to the Jewish fabric salesman (a sympathetic Arnold Livingston Geis) who may be the only bright light in Esther’s life, despite always wearing black. One day, Esther gets a letter from a stranger (Justin Austin) working in Cuba. He wants to be her pen pal – and maybe more. This is a lot of plot for such a delicate opera, but director Bartlett Sher moves the action quickly on Michael Yeargan’s turntable set. Sher, who is also represented at Lincoln Center with the Met Opera’s current production of “Don Giovanni,” proves he can do large- and small-scale shows with equal care. Instead of a full Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, “Intimate Apparel” has only two pianos, which gives the many emotions expressed a sort of sameness. Maybe a string instrument would have livened up the songs. But that’s just a minor quibble for an exquisite production that gives a strong voice to a class of women we rarely hear from. Don’t miss.
Reviews: Give or Take, Rifkin’s Festival, The House
Give or Take (c) Obscured Pictures
Film: Give or Take In Cinemas (Quad Cinemas in NY on Friday)
Stage actor Norbert Leo Butz finally gets a film role that spotlights the talents we theatergoers have known since he stole the Broadway production of “Thou Shall Not” from star Harry Connick Jr. Butz has always played slightly flighty characters in musicals, like the lead in the musical adaptation of “Big Fish” – and in “Give or Take” he plays Ted, an equally free spirit, who has to deal with the death of longtime partner, Kenneth, as well as Kenneth’s estranged son, Martin (Jamie Effros). The big dilemma is the Cape Cod house the couple shared, but since they weren’t married, Martin has to decide if he wants to sell the house, with prodding by real estate agent Patty King (Cheri Oteri) or continue to let Ted live there. Director Paul Riccio and Effros wrote the script, and while there are touching moments of heart-to-heart conversations, the actual plot of the story feels rather contrived just to ramp up the drama, which all could have been solved with one frank conversation. Ted is the loose cannon here as his grief makes his unpredictable reactions both nonsensical and yet totally believable thanks to Butz’s itchy but sympathetic performance. Effros also has some fine moments as the conflicted son, especially when he hears about a kinder side to his father he never witnessed growing up. Although the story may take some questionable detours, the resolution feels right and just. The performances elevate the movie into a worthwhile, emotional and funny family drama.
Dune (c) Warner Bros / The French Dispatch (c) Focus Feature / Don't Look Up (Netflix)
This year, the Oscars will be subtitled the Timmys as Timothée Chalamet is the actor will be in the most Best Picture nominees. Of course, I do think there’s going to be a big surprise of “The French Dispatch” sneaking into the Best Picture category. But even if three Best Picture nominees may be a reach, he is the only performer with a significant role in two: “Dune” (lead) and “Don’t Look Up” (supporting). The sad news is poor Timmy himself won't be nominated.
So, here are my final predictions for the Oscar Nominations, coming out in tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb 8.
Reviews: Red Rocket, Benedetta, Pig, Titane, Dear Evan Hansen
Titane (c) Neon
Film: Titane On Streaming
One of the most visually stunning and disgusting movies of the year certainly grabbed headlines when it won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “Titane,” Julia Ducournau’s second feature (after 2016’s “Raw”), is daring and not like anything you’ve ever seen. But it begs the question, is explicit body horror in film just a way to distract you that there isn’t much of a story. Ducournau has found a willing and daring participant in Agathe Rousselle, who plays Alexia, a woman who has a titanium plate in her head after a car crash injury when she was a kid. This may explain her obsession with cars and why, as an adult, she works as a model, dancing and writhing on cars at car shows. And yes, she does, in between being a serial killer, have sex with one car (to be fair, it is the sexiest cinematic car since “Christine”). But, why this car and why at this moment in her life? How has Alexis survived up to now if her life is always ramped up to 10? Ducournau doesn’t give us answers as much as clues that don’t add up. The movie does calm down in the second half as Alexia meets Vincent (Vincent Lindon), the most sympathetic character of the film. The shift in story is welcomed (no spoilers here) but is Alexis now no longer fixated on cars or murder? Or is it just convenient for what little plot there is? A lot of “Titane” doesn’t make much sense, but again, is your brain registering anything besides the crazy visuals on display? I’m sure the answer may become apparent after another viewing, but like a lot of early David Cronenberg or David Lynch films, I don’t ever need to see “Titane” again.
Premise: Well, I’ll try. Taylor Mac plays Socrates as a sort of mermaid King Lear hybrid channeling the spirit of Madeline Kahn. Socrates is sentenced to death for, among many things, his homosexuality and questioning of societal norms. At first, we think it’s a party to celebrate his life as Ryan Chittaphong, playing Plato, is documenting the event, which will ultimately become a piece about Socrates called “Apology.” Socrates shames Plato for this and pleads with him to “put down that device,” which in this production is a typewriter he wears around his neck (but we get the modern reference). Themes such as virtue and the value of the plays of Aristophanes (specifically his play “The Clouds,” which was about Socrates) are debated at this party as each guest, as well as each member of the band, gets to take center stage to sing, play or celebrate. But what we soon realize is that the gathering might all be in Socrates’ mind as he is slowly being poisoned by the hemlock he has ingested.