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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ives Is a Saint When It Comes to Writing Entertaining Plays

Experience and Shakespereans. That's just one of the clever rhymes in David Ives' rollicking Heir Apparent at the Shakespeare Theatre. I've been an Ives fan ever since I saw All in the Timing many years ago; that's the evening of one-acts which includes the now-classic, first-date vignette where the bell rings any time someone says something off-putting to the other. Studio had a huge hit earlier this year with Ives' Venus in Fur, an intense play about an actress auditioning for a part. The play is now headed for Broadway. Meanwhile, Ives, Michael Kahn and Shakespeare Theatre have found a new cottage industry in obscure French comedies that Ives restores with rhyming dialogue. Last year was The Liar and Heir Apparent is equally funny and clever. The other revelation here is Carson Elrod as the servant Crispin. Where has he been? His energy and ability to play off of the always-great Floyd King give Heir Apparent its enormous energy. Along with Habit of Art, we are truly lucky to have two very entertaining plays in DC right now.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Moneyball May Actually Appeal More to Non-Baseball Types

When screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin (Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindlers List) - credited with the screenplay of Moneyball - have a good story to tell, watch out. We're in for something special, because they can certainly write exceptional dialogue. Just rerun that first scene of Social Network over and over where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is talking to his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). (Zaillian apparently wrote the script for the upcoming - is it really much-anticipated? - Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which stars Mara.) After seeing Moneyball yesterday, I just don't know if this was a great story to tell. It certainly is a quality film. We get lots of zippy, slyly poignant dialogue, impressive acting (Brad Pitt is incredibly likeable here, Jonah Hill has become the king of that "Who me?" kind of acting and Philip Seymour Hoffman Has the deadpanning down) and very competent directing from Bennett Miller (Capote). And there's a scene with a 12-year-old girl singing that just kills. But the film drags a bit towards the end, and as a baseball movie that's not really about baseball, it just doesn't get enough right for me.
I believe many of the good reviews have come from critics who don't know baseball. If you do, there's just so much that doesn't figure well. And I don't mean little details like a Washington DC movie where the Metro comes up in Georgetown. The team at the center of this story, the Oakland Athletics, really didn't achieve anything and haven't since Billy Beane has been in charge. So the film tries to key on a record winning streak, but those don't matter that much in sports unless they lead to a title. For the sake of the story, the film focuses on 2 or 3 moves that Beane made and ignores so much else. It's just hard to buy into this knowing that the foundation is flimsy. I'm not saying that it's not true; it's more that probably the analyses and theories that worked for the book just don't carry the gravitas to make a great film. Robin Wright is totally wasted as his ex-wife. (Didn't even realize that was her. Will she or Maria Bello ever show age?)
So I'll probably watch Bull Durham for the 10th time the next time it's on. For Moneyball, even though I admire the dialogue and performances, once was fine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Habit of Art Gives Us Another Pleasurable Encounter With the Great Alan Bennett

Anyone who saw The History Boys or The Madness of King George (both successful plays turned into movies) knows the singular sensation that is playwright Alan Bennett. We are lucky that the Studio Theater, which put on a wonderful History Boys with Floyd King a couple years ago, has become the theater that brings Bennett to us. They have borrowed from The Shakespeare Theatre again in the person of wonderful veteran actor Ted van Griethuysen - as well as the great Paxton Whitehead from Broadway and Hollywood - to put on a very intricate and engaging production of Bennett's latest, The Habit of Art. Bennett has taken a little from Michael Frayn's classic Noises Off to give us a play-within-the-play scenario to tell the story of the friendship between poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Where Noises Off gave us different looks at the rehearsal process, Habit of Art gives us one run-through of it with quirky actors and a mothering stage manager. Bennett has a lot to say here about actors and artists. Do we care who they really are? Or should we just pay attention to the art? There's one line at the end where Auden falls asleep and the question is raised if this is Auden, the actor playing Auden, or in our minds van Griethuysen himself. The others decide that it's appropriate for any of them really. Actors break out of role to ask questions about their characters or just talk about themselves. Cameron Folmar will be nominated for a supporting actor award for his portrayal of the BBC interviewer who imagines the make-believe re-encounter of Auden and Britten. (They were friends early in their lives before a falling out.) The much anticipated "music" he opens the second act with is worth the price of admission. It's nice to see the Studio Theater rebound after a so-so season with a first-rate production.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Widow of Photographer Leonard Freed Lends Photos for an Incredible Show at German Historical Institute. Lecture to follow at DCJCC on Oct. 6.

I have always wanted to visit the German Historical Institute on New Hampshire and 16th St., NW, for a lecture (and reception, of course), but never found the time.  I'm very glad I did find the time last night. Brigitte Freed was the guest and the photos taken by her late husband Leonard Freed were the stars - Berlin when the Wall went up; Berlin when the Wall came down ("I told Leonard that he had to be there for that," Brigitte said); and various other photos from postwar Germany.  Freed was an American Jew, born in Brooklyn, who ventured to Europe in 1952, settling in Amsterdam until moving back to New York in 1970. As the literature handed out at the exhibit explains: "Postwar Europe was a puzzle for Freed: a land of great artistic civilization, familial aura, Jewish trauma, postwar destruction and potential redemption. In his mind, Germany was the central and most jagged piece." His photo of the Wall coming down, in black and white, spotlights the faces of the people against the backdrop of a classical building. It's brilliant. The exhibit is called An American in Deutschland (on exhibit until Nov. 15), and two other institutions are showing Freed's prints: the DC Jewish Community Center where there will be a talk on Thursday, Oct. 6 about Freed by co-curator Paul Farber (Farber's friend, Septime Webre, head of the Washington Ballet, was on hand last night); and the Goethe Institut. Farber encourages people to visit the GHI to see the photos (as do I) and said he would even give a tour if a group could be arranged. He's a very interesting young guy, who was on his way to New York to speak about a book he worked on about the television show, The Wire. Brigitte Freed lives in the Hudson River Valley with her daughter. She surprised the large crowd by pointing to one of the photos and saying, "I took that."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fela and Bill T. Jones Both Make Quite an Impression

So there I was last night at intermission of the first preview performance of the stand-up-and-shout Fela - the Tony Award-winning musical conceived, directed and choreographed by 2010 Kennedy Center honoree Bill T. Jones - when who should walk in front of me but Mr. Jones himself. He is incredibly friendly, taking congratulatory handshakes from some and advising others the best way to get in touch with him. I guess he is ironing out the kinks as the musical takes over the Harman Theater for the next month or so. But as long as long as Tony and Olivier Award nominee Sahr Ngaujah is center stage as Fela Kuti, the kinks are pretty negligible. Ngaujah has us at hello, or at least at "Say Yeah Yeah." When the first uninspired response comes back, he starts to go to work. The man can sing, dance, make us laugh, play the saxophone and trumpet, AND make the ladies swoon when he takes off his shirt. There are incredible dancers, musicians, singers and actors surrounding him, all adding to a night of utter enjoyment. It's a clever piece as well. (Jim Lewis wrote the book with Mr. Jones.) To bridge to a story about going to jail, Ngaujah asks the audience who has been to jail. It's a very funny episode that can swerve many even funnier ways depending on the response. (One pretty woman in the audience just waved her hands furiously to each question. Jail? Holding cell? Handcuffs? He had a good time with her.) That bridge adds much more than if they had just gone right into that story. A friend named Mark asked me at intermission if I had ever seen Fela himself at the 9:30 Club. Apparently, he performed there a couple times. He died in 1997, I believe. Unfortunately, I did not see him but after seeing this show - which centers on a place in Lagos, Nigeria called The Shrine - I sure wish I did. I highly recommend Fela. After the reviews come out, tickets will be scarce. So be quick. Rarely does Washington get to see a performer like Mr. Ngaujah - who took both London and New York by gale force. Don't miss out.