Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Reviews: Enjoyably Offbeat “Regretfully, So the Birds Are” Play Premieres at Playwrights Horizons, While in Arthouse Cinemas, Pakistani Trans-Positive “Joyland” and Kelly Reichardt’s Gentle “Showing Up” With Michelle Williams Are Worth Catching

Regretfully, So the Bird Are (c) Chelcie Perry

Theater: Regretfully, So the Birds Are 
At Playwrights Horizons (Co-Production with WP Theater) 

It’s very hard to successfully convey an absurdist world on stage, unless it’s a severe post-apocalyptic world like that of Beckett. And it’s even harder to pull off if it’s a comedy. My favorite contemporary play of this ilk is “The Pillowman” by Martin McDonough, although its comedy is more black than not. Even Playwrights Horizons has made the attempt with varying levels of success, with plays like “Mr. Burns” and “Mankind.” For the audience, it’s a delicate balance between believing a play’s allegorical world and rejecting it and its more far-reaching imagery. Somehow, “Regretfully, So the Birds Are,” Julia Izumi’s enjoyable, very funny and surprisingly poignant new play keeps everything afloat thanks to a ridiculously talented cast and inventive direction by Jenny Koons. The play centers on the Whistler family of New Jersey, who are at a crossroads as they try to recover from their mentally unstable matriarch Elinore (the invaluable Kristine Nielsen) setting her husband on fire. Her children, all adopted from Asian countries, have different ways of coping: eldest daughter Mora (Shannon Tyo) is finally old enough to try to find her birth mother, while younger sister Illy (Sasha Diamond) and brother Neel (Sky Smith) decide to have an affair (that term is contested throughout the play). So, in-between the incest and the murder, Izumi peppers in a talking snowman, a flock of birds banding together to stop their extinction, many journeys (accompanied by Journey songs) as well as a cowman (don’t call him a cowboy) and a mysterious woman at an airport. All this is conveyed with more sincerity than absurdism by the cast who are all wonderful. Tyo, who has worked seemingly nonstop since her Theater World Award-winning performance in “The Chinese Lady,” is poignant as Mora, while Diamond and Smith are nice discoveries as the young lovers who insist their relationship isn’t incestuous because they’re not blood related. Gibson Frazier and Pearl Sun are also effective in supporting roles, but it’s Nielsen who is the MVP here, utilizing her unique comic delivery to the play’s benefit. See how she milks every last laugh out of a seemingly innocuous line like “I could have sworn this couch had more cushions.” Despite its unwieldly title, Izumi’s script is wonderfully wacky and heartfelt in equal measure and has found a kinship with collaborator Koons that the production never falters even when veering into some outlandish flights of fancy. By the end of this quirky play’s journey, I was surprised by how moved I was. 

Joyland (c) Film Constellation 

Film: Joyland 
In Cinemas 

You would be excused in thinking “Joyland,” a film about contemporary life in Pakistan, is titled ironically, and it’s true, the conservative society isn’t very joyful. And knowing that one of the major characters is a trans performer, and there’s a young man intrigued by her, filled me with dread for the first part of the film. But, what is surprising about Saim Sadiq’s film, which premiered at Cannes, became the first film from Pakistan to be shortlisted for the 2022’s International Feature Oscar and won the Foreign Language Film award at the Independent Spirit Award, is that it’s refreshingly matter of fact about these characters and the whole Pakistan-ness of it all. It’s more a film about an unhappy guy who comes from a conservative family and the small glimmer of hope he is given when he’s temporarily liberated from it all. The guy is Haider (Ali Junejo), who hasn’t found a clear path in his life, even though he is seemingly happily married to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), and he still lives with his family, including his overbearing father and a smug and more successful brother. However important he is in the ecosystem of this household (a convenient helper to his sister-in-law and her new baby), he is forced to find a job, and through happenstance and a bit of plot jiggery, Haider finds himself as a back–up dancer to a club singer named Biba (Alina Khan). Haider is immediately transfixed by Biba as she may be the first trans woman he has ever encountered, and although he is not a good dancer, Biba hires him as a curious distraction and paid lackey running her errands. Their relationship is the heart of the film. Khan is great as the tempestuous artist, but it’s Haider and his journey from dutiful son and husband to a path he has to keep secret that is the most intriguing, and Junejo plays him with a mix of sweet naiveté and discovery that gives what is otherwise a rather traditional “sexually curious” story some real heft. Sadiq’s direction is clear and beautifully realized, coming up with some visually poetic moments with cinematographer Joe Saade, including one in which Haider has to navigate a huge cut-out of Biba while driving his scooter, and a huge emotional moment made by just having one person turn away from another in a devastating way. It may still be early, but this is one of the best movies of the year. 

Showing Up (c) A24

Film: Showing Up 
In Cinemas 

This is not a review. I worked on Kelly Reichardt’s film, “Showing Up,” so I’ve decided not to do a proper review, although I do have some thoughts. The film had its world premiere in official competition at Cannes in 2022. And on Easter weekend of 2023, A24 released the film in New York and Los Angeles at two theaters each, the same weekend in which the “Super Mario Brothers” ruled the box office. This is probably Kelly Reichardt’s most accessible film, although if you haven’t seen any of her earlier films, you might find this pseudo-slow cinema style a bit hard to get into, as Reichardt favors mood over plot. The film focuses on the Portland art scene, mostly taking place at a school based on the now defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft. Lizzie (Michelle Williams) works there but she also has an art show opening (her figurines are created by Portland artist Cynthia Lahti). The movie is the week in the life of the surly and unhappy Lizzie, who is easily distracted from working on her show by focusing on the lack of hot water in her apartment, her unspoken rivalry with fellow artist, Jo (Hong Chau, carefully balancing warmth with a passive-aggressive streak), her concern over her brother Sean (John Magaro) and his mental health, and on top of all that, a wounded pigeon. The wounded pigeon metaphor is a bit heavy-handed since it’s the part of the plot that gets the most action. But the art school setting is fun to watch, with Reichardt exploring all the nooks and crannies of this community at a leisurely pace and the same curiosity she employed with the rural terrain settings of “Meek’s Cutoff” and “First Cow.” The acting is superb from Williams (in her fourth film with Reichardt) and Chau as the leads to supporting roles by Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch (as Lizzie’s divorced parents) to essentially cameos by André Benjamin and Amanda Plummer. This is the most relaxed Kelly Reichardt film of her career and although it might not have the gravitas and resonance of her last film, the breakthrough “First Cow,” it might ultimately be her most successful.

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