“The Father”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Father” (MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: May, 2016)

 

Frank Langella weaves a tantalizing theatrical tapestry as Andre, an 80 year-old man who is declining into the debilitating dementia, rapidly losing cognitive function.

As the play begins, Andre’s exasperated daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is explaining to him that she needs to find a new “helper,” since the previous one quit after he physically threatened her with a curtain rod and called her “a little bitch.”

Not surprisingly, Andre denies this but then dismisses it, saying he’s perfectly capable of caring for himself.  Which, obviously, he isn’t since – in the next scene – he doesn’t recognize her. Nor does the audience, actually, since the character of Anne is played by another actress.

While that’s eventually explained, Andre’s misperceptions continue. Is Anne married to Pierre, or is she preparing to go to London to live with a new lover?

Andre’s confusion continues as a strange man slaps him across the face, his watch gets stolen, and the elegant furniture he’s accustomed to disappears, replaced by a hospital bed.

Expressing the terror that is growing within his consciousness, Langella is a consummate actor, whether he’s oozing charm or claiming that he once was an engineer – or, perhaps, a clown – or tap dancer. His original irritation, manifesting itself in arrogance, becomes a pathetic cry of despair as he descends into helpless dependency.

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has been translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Doug Hughes, who stages 15 short scenes, punctuated by blinding flashes of light that seem indicate Andre’s cerebral synapses. Scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting expert Donald Holder have created a stunning Paris apartment, augmented by music/sound by Fitz Patton and Catherine Zuber’s costumes.

But what exactly is the audience experiencing?

Is it “a tragic farce,” which is what it was dubbed when it opened in Paris in 2012?  Tragic, yes, but I found nothing farcical about Andre’s dilemma.

I believe that Florian Zeller is depicting the various stages of the growing plague of Alzheimer’s, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that has affected and will touch most of us during our lifetime. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than five million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.

“Art”

Susan Granger’s review of “Art” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

 

The psychological and emotional dynamics of friendship are examined in French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning comedy, which is playing in tandem with “Red” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

When Serge (John Skelly) buys an expensive abstract painting, he invites his two best friends, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan), to view it.

Measuring about 4’x5,’ the stark painting is monochromatic white-on-white; although a fictional artist is cited, it’s obviously meant to be the work of Robert Ryman.

Marc arrives first – and he is stunned that Serge, who is a successful dermatologist but by no means wealthy, spent 200 Euros on it. Smug and sardonic, Marc is dismissive of the artist and his vision.

Amiable Ivan’s reaction is far more diplomatic and less denigrating, perhaps because he’s far more concerned with the invitations for his upcoming wedding.

But neither are as understanding and compassionate as Serge had hoped after his huge expenditure, basically questioning his sensitivity and aesthetic taste.

Admirably structured by director Mark Lamos, the three accomplished actors display solid comic timing, make it superficially amusing, utilizing vigorous language. But below the surface, this play is filled with provocative ideas and observations.

Most of all, it’s revelatory about our appreciation of art which, in turn, is a reflection of our often-confusing culture in which the art world is propelled by money and power.

The audience is asked to ponder, “What is art”? Is it the universal legibility, which abstractionists strive for, or should it be more familiar and representational?

Does Serge really adore the painting? Or did he purchase it as a status symbol?

Unfortunately, since the personalities of the three men seem so diverse, it’s difficult to imagine why they became friends in the first place. Since no cohesive connective tissue among them is ever revealed, it’s difficult to invest any emotional energy in the viability of their relationship.

This month, “Art” will be performed on even-numbered days; “Red” on the odd-numbered days. For more information and tickets, go to www.playhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

“Red”

Susan Granger’s review of “Red” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

The Westport Country Playhouse opened the season with two Tony Award-winning plays – “Red” and “Art” – staged in repertory. Intellectually provocative, they’re about creating and owning paintings.

Set in 1958 in a studio in New York City, John Logan’s “Red” delves into the relationship between acclaimed artist Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and his eager, young assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews).

Rothko’s potent first words are “What do you see?” as Ken stares out into the darkened theater, transforming the fourth wall into a canvas worth analyzing.

As mentor, Rothko pontificates, often utilizing the imagery and language of academia. He’s part of a generation of “serious” artists who rebelled against cubism, replacing it with abstract expressionism.

Commissioned by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Rothko is working on a series of murals intended to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. According to patron Nelson Rockefeller, their intent was to match fine cuisine with magnificent art.

Each painting has a deep reddish-brown base color over which Rothko places a window-like form in red or black or orange. Rothko’s color palate suggests dried blood, evoking in Ken painful childhood memories of the grisly murder of his parents.

Significantly, Rothko was so enraged by the idea of his murals hanging in a trendy restaurant that he cancelled his contract. Nine were donated to London’s Tate Gallery and seven went to the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of art. Others are on display in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Written by John Logan and directed by Mark Lamos, it’s a verbal sparring match between mentor and acolyte with Stephen Rowe (who understudied Alfred Molina on Broadway) propelling the play and Patrick Andrews effective as his foil – although I would have loved to see Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) in this role.

According to Artistic Director Mark Lamos, “Red” and “Art” have never been programmed together before and, while each stands on its own, seeing them together creates a new appreciation not only for the artist’s dilemma but also the spectator’s. I just wish they were more emotionally engaging.

For a schedule and ticket information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

“Captain America: Civil War”

Susan Granger’s review of “Captain America: Civil War” (Disney/Marvel)

 

POW! Crammed with action, this installment should really be dubbed “Avengers 2.5,” since it features a plethora of superheroes in conflict with one another.

Responding to public protests after an alarming amount of casualties…a.k.a. collateral damage…caused by their derring-do, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) proposes the Sokovia Accords, which would limit the vigilantes’ autonomy under international law.

Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) opposes this threat to their independence, joined by his buddy Falcon (Anthony Mackie), plus Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

Somewhat surprisingly, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) accedes to Ross’ proposal, along with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany) and a newcomer, African Prince T’Challa (Chadwich Boseman)…a.k.a. Black Panther, who will get his own feature film.

The star of their team turns out to be Stark’s youngest recruit, an eager-to-please, adolescent Spider-Man (newcomer Tom Holland) from Queens, who dazzles with an “Empire Strikes Back” maneuver during a climactic clash at an airport.

As for villains, there’s sneering, scheming Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), along with their old S.H.I.E.L.D. adversary Crossbones (Frank Grillo).

And if you didn’t see “Captain America: First Avenger” & “Winter Soldier,” you won’t appreciate the pivotal backstory between Steve Rogers and his W.W.II buddy James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

Laboriously scripted by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony & Joe Russo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), it’s obviously a sobering commentary on repercussions from the carnage accidentally inflicted by the U.S. in the Middle East.

But it’s repetitive, crammed with far too much of everything, including cameos by Alfre Woodard, Hope Davis, Marisa Tomei and cartoonist Stan Lee. Absentees include Thor and the Hulk.

Post-credit sequences? There are two: one about Bucky Barnes and, at the very end, one about Spidey.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Captain America: Civil War” is an over-stuffed 7. It’s a superhero slog as the Marvel Cinematic Universe marches on.

07

“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”

Susan Granger’s review of “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” (Yari Film Group)

 

Since Ernest Hemingway is my favorite novelist and this is the first Hollywood movie to be filmed in his beloved Cuba since the 1959 revolution, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, they were dashed almost from the getgo.

Supposedly based on a true story, it’s about the friendship that develops after Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), a young, idealistic Miami Herald reporter wrote a fan letter to Hemingway in the late 1950s.

“I got your letter,” Hemingway gruffly replied by phone, adding, “It’s a good letter. You like to fish?”

So that’s how Myers eagerly arrived at Finca Vigia (“lookout house”), the hacienda just outside of Havana belonging to Hemingway (Adrien Sparks) and his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), who share a penchant for nude swimming.

“This is how God made me” is the explanation.

Gamely bar-hopping around the island, Myers learns about life, love and literature – along with brewing political unrest, as Castro-led rebels battle government forces, while Papa’s suspected of gunrunning.

“They only value we have as human beings is the risks we’re willing to take,” Papa intones.

Autobiographically written by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006, it’s filled with exposition and unconvincingly directed by producer Bob Yari (“Crash”), who was able to capture Finca Vigia (now a museum), along with other authentic Cuban vistas, including Hemingway’s fishing boat, the Pilar, under the aegis of the Cuban Film Institute.

While Adrian Sparks physically resembles then-59 year-old Hemingway, he’s never convincing as the charismatic, if quixotic adventurer whose reckless exploits ignited novels like “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “A Movable Feast” and “”The Old Man and the Sea.”

As the journalist juggling a relationship with his co-worker/girlfriend (Minka Kelly), Giovani Ribisi grows increasingly disillusioned by Hemingway’s depression, drunken rages, self-loathing and abusive behavior. While Joely Richardson does a wicked Marlene Dietrich imitation, she’s not believable, either.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” is an uneven, tedious 3. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t heed Hemingway’s dictum about “the power of less.”

03

 

 

 

“Tuck Everlasting”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tuck Everlasting” (Broadhurst Theatre: April, 2016)

 

Based on Natalie Babbitt’s beloved fantasy, this poignant, family-friendly musical poses the question: If you could live forever, would you?

High-spirited 11 year-old Winnie Foster (precociously talented Sarah Charles Lewis) has been sheltered by her over-protective mother (Valerie Wright) and tart-tongued Nana (Pippa Pearthree) ever since her father died – and she’s yearning for adventure. Or, at least, to go to the fair.

Sneaking out into the woods behind their home, curious Winnie discovers the Tucks, a mysterious family that inadvertently drank from the fountain-of-youth almost 100 years ago – and, as a result, have never aged.

There’s Angus (Michael Park), the philosophical patriarch; lonely Mother Mae (Carolee Carmello), who always yearned for a daughter; 21 year-old Miles (Robert Lenz), who has suffered painful loss; and exuberant, 17 year-old Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), who first befriends Winnie, swears her to secrecy, and proposes that they meet again in six years so she can drink from the magical spring and be with him forever.

Every fable needs a villain, so there’s the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann), who is determined to find the Tucks and profit from their enchanted elixir. As Nana notes, he’s “an evil banana.”

So – will Winnie succumb to the lure of immortality?

Sweetly adapted by Claudia Shear (“Dirty Blonde”) & Tim Federle with somewhat repetitive country/folk music by Chris Miller & Nathan Tysen (“The Burnt Park Boys”) and directed by Casey Nicholaw (“Aladdin,” “Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten!”), it oozes gentle warmth and folksy sentimentality, culminating in a subtly beautiful ballet sequence, superbly choreographed by Nicholaw. Walt Spangler’s rustic, forested set is stunning, basking in Kenneth Posner’s undulating lighting.

Problem is: Broadway ticket prices are so high that it’s a difficult ‘sell’ for families yearning for something that’s, honestly, a bit more memorable.

If you loved the book and are determined to see its musical adaptation, buy tickets now – because I doubt that it’s going to stick around too long on the Great White Way. Perhaps a less-expensive regional theater production will fare better….

 

“Ratchet & Clank”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ratchet & Clank” (Gramercy Pictures)

 

Based on the popular PlayStation video game, this CG-animated feature from Rainmaker Entertainment basically reprises “Escape From Planet Earth” and/or “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” revolving around galactic heroes, a menacing mega-weapon and a bunch of aliens voiced by celebrities.

Rocket mechanic Ratchet (James Arnold Taylor) is a Lombax, a sort of feline/squirrel with a tail similar to a lion, while his brainy, pint-sized buddy is Clank (voiced by David Kaye), a mellifluous, good-hearted robot from Orxon whom Ratchet saved from the junkyard. (Think WALL-E or R2D2).

Ratchet yearns to join an elite group called the Galactic Rangers (voiced by Rosario Dawson, Jim Ward, Bella Thorne, Dean Redman), led by egotistical, lantern-jawed Captain Qwark (voiced by Jim Ward).

His chance comes when he’s forced to defend his home, along with all the other planets in the Solana Galaxy, from destruction by a sinister Blarg, Chairman Drek (voiced by Paul Giamatti), and his cohorts: ruthless Victor Von Ion (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) and ex-Ranger mad scientist sidekick, Dr. Nefarious (voiced by Armin Shimerman).

Scripted by the game’s writer T.J. Fixman, along with Kevin Munroe and Gerry Swallow, it’s frantically directed by Munroe and Jericca Cleland, who try to use blaring sound and blinding color to distract from the unassailable conclusion that the media-melding, underdog plot is stale, the dialogue is blandly generic and, despite the pop culture hashtags, there’s no audience interaction.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ratchet & Clank” is a derivative, tacky 3. Don’t bother.

03

“Waitress”

Susan Granger’s review of “Waitress” (Brooks Atkinson Theater: April, 2016)

The intoxicating aroma of a freshly baked pie envelops you the moment you enter the Brooks Atkinson Theater – and that cinnamon/nutmeg scent is as irresistible as this new musical.

When the cherry pie-crust-adorned curtain goes up, it reveals a small-town diner where Jenna (Jessie Mueller) discovers to her dismay she’s pregnant and realizes that, perhaps, her astonishing pie-baking skill can finance an escape from her menacing, abusive husband, Earl (Nick Cordero).

As this unexpectedly romantic feminist fable unfolds, spirited Jenna dallies with her married gynecologist (Drew Gehling) while her friends/fellow waitresses (Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn) concoct their own recipes for happiness while serving up slices of creatively named “Blueberry Bacon,” “Betrayed By My Eggs,” and “My Husband is a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie.”

Based on Adrienne Shelly’s quirky 2007 movie, starring Keri Russell, it’s been adapted by Jessie Nelson with an original score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. Director Diane Paulus (“Pippin”) developed this sweet-and-savory project at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, which also spawned “Once” and “Finding Neverland.”

Vibrant, Tony Award-winning Jessie Mueller, who played Carole King in “Beautiful,” surpasses herself, aided and abetted by a strong supporting cast that also includes outrageously comedic Christopher Fitzgerald and curmudgeonly Dakin Matthews in the avuncular Andy Griffith role.

To complete the soulful confection, toss in the talents of choreographer Lorin Latarro, set designer Scott Pask, costumer Suttirat Anne Larlab, sound by Jonathan Deans and lighting by Christopher Akerlind. And the band that’s discreetly visible on-stage.

As for the delicious, deep-dish pies-in-jars sold by hawkers in the aisles and lobby – they’re created by Stacy Donnelly, who runs Cute as Cake bakery in nearby Hell’s Kitchen.

Bottom line: Never say ‘no’ to a freshly baked pie – or underestimate the earthy, empowering poignancy of Jessie Mueller’s warbling “She Used to be Mine.”

 

“Keanu”

Susan Granger’s review of “Keanu” (Warner Bros.)

 

Voiced by “The Matrix” star, Keanu is the tiny gray-and-white kitten that serves as the linchpin in an extended sketch by TV’s Comedy Central favorites Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

As Keanu’s story begins, he’s scooting out of a drug-lab shootout, miraculously winding up on the doorstep of pot-puffing slacker Rell Williams (Peele), who’s depressed after being dumped by his girl-friend. With the approval of his uptight best friend/cousin Clarence (Key), Rell adopts the fluffy feline, naming him Keanu, which he thinks is Hawaiian for “cool breeze.”

When Keanu disappears after a break-in, Rell’s stoner neighbor Hulka (Will Forte) steers them to a seedy Los Angeles strip club, Hot Party Vixens, the headquarters of the notorious 17th Street Blips (“the ones who got kicked out of the Bloods and Crips”), run by kingpin Cheddar (rapper Method Man), who has not only abducted Keanu but also re-named him New Jack, decking him out in a do-rag and bling.

In order to ingratiate themselves with Cheddar, nerdy, soft-spoken Rell and Clarence pass themselves off as street thugs called Tectonic and Shark Tank – and their gangsta impersonations poke fun at racial stereotypes.

To get their cat back, they’re sent on a mission to deliver drugs to the Hollywood home of a maniacal movie star (Anna Faris), accompanied by Cheddar’s surly accomplice Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish). Not surprisingly, there are unexpected complications – with a nod to Clarence’s giddy passion for pop singer George Michael.

Lackadaisically scripted by Jordan Peele with his longtime TV writing partner Alex Rubens, it’s episodically directed by “Key & Peele” show veteran Peter Atencio. And credit the cat-wranglers who juggled seven different tabbies in the title role.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Keanu” is a subtly absurdist 6, purring with subversive satire.

06

“Mother’s Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mother’s Day” (Open Road)

 

Perhaps the best that can be said about this cringe-worthy rom-com is that octogenarian Garry Marshall has assured his continuing Academy membership by staying ‘active’ in an industry that could all-too-soon forget he once directed hits like “Pretty Woman,” “Runaway Bride,” “Beaches” and “The Princess Diaries,” not to mention creating TV’s “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley.”

Following “Valentine’s Day” (2010) and “New Year’s Eve” (2011), Marshall’s star-studded holiday franchise now includes this treacly ensemble tribute to motherhood in its various suburban permutations.

Perennially perky Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) is a divorcee with two sons whose ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) has just married his much-younger girlfriend (Shay Mitchell). It’s a foregone conclusion that Sandy will end up with widower Bradley (Jason Sudeikis), father of teenage daughters, whose military wife (Jennifer Garner) died in combat in Afghanistan.

Jesse (Kate Hudson) and her sister are estranged from their prejudiced/homophobic mother (Margo Martindale) and father (Robert Pine). Unbeknownst to their parents, Jesse’s married to Russell (Aasif Mandvi), whose family came from India, while Gabi (Sarah Vhalke) has a lesbian spouse (Cameron Esposito).

Then there’s Kristin (Britt Robertson), who discovers that her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption a newborn, is super-successful Miranda (Julia Roberts, wearing a bizarre red wig), who hawks ‘mood pendants’ on the Home Shopping Network.

Scripted by Tom Hines, Anya Kochoff-Romano and Matthew Walker from a story by Lily Hollander, the sappy, sentimental, intertwining narratives are disjointed and the various vignettes are not only formulaic but utterly predictable, including an excursion to the ER and the runaway RV.

While it’s fun to see Hector Elizondo again (he’s always in Garry Marshall’s movies), the most spontaneous moments occur during the ‘blooper’ credits, as Jennifer Aniston calls Julia Roberts “Julia,” not “Miranda,” and Roberts stares vacantly out a train window.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mother’s Day” is a confectionary 4. Mom deserves better.

04