Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Intermission Talk

Intermission Talk: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Brief Encounter & Time Stands Still
by Tony Vellela

What time IS it? It's time for war, the people who cause it, report on it, and have their lives trampled on when it's just around the corner. In other words, time stands still for a bloody bloody brief encounter.

What do 'Brief Encounter' and 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' happen to have in common? Each one has chosen a hyper-presentational, entertainment-first style, lathered onto elements of their eras, a cheery haze of giddiness filtering the dark parts. Regrettably, over-indulgence on the flourishes and flounces that can please a crowd moment to moment, can cumulatively grow wearisome. And, it would seem, that in both instances, this proclivity is the result of an unnecessary lack of confidence in the overall production.

Like the local news, if it bleeds, it leads, so . . . 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' at the Jacobs, blasted its way uptown from last spring's almost bombastic showing at the Public, a kind of Rite of Spring. One part 'Fela,' one part 'Passing Strange' and one part 'Fiorello,' it melds the music and lyrics of Michael Friedman, the choreography of Danny Mefford and the book and direction of Alex Timbers into a high-intensity telling of the life and times of our controversial seventh president. He is known for such disparate plot points as marrying a married woman, nearly doubling the land mass of the United States, exiling Indian tribes through forced marches in which the refugees were swaddled in pox-infested blankets, winning the presidency using a populist strategy instead of relying on power politics, fathering what became the country's first true political party [the Democratic], and in rare moments of self-doubt, indulging in cutting - a backwoods, Oval Office, rock star kind of guy.

The Jacobs Theatre interior, bathed in a zillion kilowatts of red lights, looks like a 3-D diorama created by a middle school American history class on acid [this is not a criticism]. The anachronisms, if/when you spot them, will make you smile instead of wince [i.e. an 'oil painting' of Hugh Hefner, plastic orange pill bottles, a pack of Parliaments]. Probably the most relevant stage piece is a reproduction of the 1872 John Gast painting titled 'Manifest Destiny.' The concept of European settlers doing God's will by claiming the North American continent, rescuing it from its native savages, was beautifully depicted in that classic work of art, and this concept forms the cornerstone of both the historical era Jackson dominated, and the musical's story line. That story line, however, is not a line, but a series of dots and dashes, which connect by way of emo-musical theatre numbers, peppy jittery dance moves, book scenes that play like sketch comedy and a very impressive output of zealous performers pumping out zealous performances. The theme song, so to speak, called 'Yea Yea Populism,' ricochets off the walls, thanks to this exuberant cast, and along with its other virtues, 'Bloody Bloody' provides another Main Stem platform for super-sized downtown talent.

Chief among them, despite his good showings in 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' and ''Inherit the Wind,' is Benjamin Walker in this Broadway break-out title role. In appearance, he looks like he could depict a Neil LaBute misogynist with ease, all shoulders and hips, scowl and sneer. Facially, he owes a debt to Bill Murray's comic ego-inflated macho-obsessed men. When Walker opens his throat, though, a big big and mighty solid voice booms out. This part should do for him what the lead in 'The Who's Tommy' did for Michael Cerveris.

A majority of the sight gags, physical comedy, vaudeville mannerisms and general padding could use a frontiersman's axe. Audience members more comfortable with two-dollar words rather than four-letter ones were observed politely fleeing. Serious-minded folk hoping that the potential political messages promised in the bally-hoo about this show's renegade approach to the American condition will be disappointed in much the same way that 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' did. But like 'Urinetown,' 'Spring Awakening,' 'Rent,' 'Passing Strange' and 'American Idiot' among others, 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' jolts Broadway with new energy, fresh ideas and a whole lotta slap-in-the-face bravura.

Like the blood show, 'Brief Encounter' mixes styles, forms, media, music, movements and intentions, to riff on the iconic 1945 British film of the same name. That classic romance weeper was adapted by Noel Coward from his 1936 one-act play 'Still Life,' and starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, directed by David Lean. The Roundabout Theatre's Studio 54 entry, imported from London's Kneehigh Theatre [must everything that runs for more than a week in London take up residence in a Broadway house? I'm just sayin'...], uh - Kneehigh Theatre, keeps the original material all too brief, which means we encounter a hefty helping of director-itis, since the helmer and the adaptor are one and the same, Emma Rice. Theatrical gimmicks abound, and many impress, such as having the principals step into the screen projections of their destinations, a 'Purple Rose of Cairo' in reverse.

Bored, reasonably well-heeled housewife Laura [an appealing Hannah Yelland] and a conscientious doctor Alec [the solid Tristan Sturrock] "meet commute" in a train station, internally rhapsodize about each other, and finally give in to their emotions, but not their carnal longing. The film honored the genuine conflicts that burden any ill-fated pair, and that relationship ends with each one returning to their respective and respectable spouses.

With genuine emotions and heartfelt romance confined these days to Hallmark movies and the occasional foreign film, Kneehigh's Rice has slathered her 'Brief Encounter' with enough Music Hall grease to feed bubble and squeak to the entire East End. Nine Coward songs are cut into the already slight story, with the majority of these giggly romps allotted to the secondary characters who populate the train station. Like 'Bloody Bloody,' it's entertainment first, but this time, the stage seems like it's being powered by hot air balloons. One stand-out, Gabriel Ebert as a goony snacks peddler, channels the long-forgotten but charmingly talented Carleton Carpenter, who appeared alongside the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland in a few early 1950s M-G-M Arthur Freed vehicles. Would that this creative team had the confidence to keep the proceedings centered on the original story - with music, fine; with some sophisticated wink-wink, fine - rather than feeling the need to manufacture their own stage version of 'Mystery Science Theatre 3000.'

After you've seen the current production of 'Time Stands Still,' write letters, send e-mails, scroll off texts, tweet tweets and slip notes under the door to the American Theatre Wing asking them to include it as a candidate for best play revival. Originally presented last spring with almost the same cast, and the same director, it presents a deepening level of skill on the part of playwright David Margulies. [The play was skunked out of winning the Best Play Tony Award by the British import 'Red.'] This twenty-first century nod to the mid twentieth-century kitchen sink drama shows us three people in mid-life, grappling with the reality that time, in fact, does not take a time-out, so you can catch up with your perpetual unfinished business, rework your life plan, read more books or replay those liaisons and make them come out right.

World-class photojournalist Laura Linney has returned from chronicling the Iraq war, following her partial recovery from a roadside bomb that killed her translator/guide. Free-lance reporter and writer Brian d'Arcy James, her frequent partner in the war zones and live-in partner between excursions, has escorted her back from Germany, and at rise, she shows her independent spirit by curtly shrugging off his attempts to assist her into the room and onto a chair. Her leg and arm are bound up, her face is pocked with shrapnel scars, and her eyes have the dull expression of someone whose mind is somewhere else. And, of course, it is.

The details of their professional lives, interwoven with best friend and magazine photo editor Eric Bogosian, soon mirror their personal lives in several unsettling parallels. Linney's reputation for the unflinching starkness of the horrors she sees and captures is her strength. And d'Arcy James chases after the dual dream of producing Pulitzer-level reporting on the world's atrocities, while escaping into less demanding pseudo-psychological features that could be called the Easy Listening version of journalism. She is willing, almost driven, to challenge conventions and confront realities. He is eager, almost obsessed with crafting a domestic harmony that would require both of them to sacrifice the recognition that she has and he seeks.

Their long-standing, live-in relationship has been damaged by Linney's acknowledgment that she had a romantic affair with the translator who died in her arms next to their burned-out jeep. And when Bogosian brings along his new love, a perky much younger event-planner who at first seems to be a refugee from a sixties Neil Simon comedy, that couple's easy displays of affection elicit squirms when they visit the older couple's small, basics-only Brooklyn loft.

Margulies has chosen to create a couple whose lives and choices seem obviously compatible, but upon closer examination, rely on opposite means of expression. Photographers only need to succeed once to fulfill their assignment, one perfectly composed and content-rich image that tells its story. Writers need to assemble just the right strings and batches and pairings and constructs of adjectives, commas, proper and common nouns, lengths of sentences, quotes, references, adverbs and metaphors to tell theirs. His approach to his work, and now to the most critical decision about their shared lives - to reshape them or separate - begs for compromises, negotiations, justifications and settling. Her approach has no room for any of these. The fissures have been exposed. Their paths crossed, their time together so far has been fulfilling, but ultimately, they cannot proceed in the same direction. In her professional life, she freezes time, preserves a moment, however representative or not it is of its context. In their real lives, time, for them, and all of us, does not stand still.

And if ever there was a production that speaks to the need for a Tony Award category for Best Ensemble Acting in a drama, like other organizations bestow, this is it. Daniel Sullivan's direction is clean and insightful, Donald Margulies' choices are strong, and all the performances are crisp when required, and when necessary, brutally frank.

On Book

Speaking of time [or as the Brits say, 'talking of time'], it has been exceptionally good to Eli Wallach. The veteran actor will mark his 95th birthday on December 7th, and a few weeks from now, the Motion Picture Academy will award him with a special lifetime achievement Oscar. Sixty years ago, he was appearing in the Tennessee Williams classic 'The Rose Tattoo,' with Maureen Stapleton - they both won Tony Awards. And his autobiography chuckles its way through most of his seventy-five year career, and is titled 'The Good, the Bad, and Me.' Get it? He was the 'Ugly,' in the Clint Eastwood picture, the 'Good, the ...'

Time has also been civil to the plays of Noel Coward, even though the basics of the plots may seem a tad dusty. One of the more interesting collections is 'Noel Coward - Collected Plays: Three,' because it includes three of the one-acts that made up his 'Tonight at 8:30' outings, including 'Still Life,' along with an amusing intro by Sheridan Morley.

And if you're wondering where some of the precedent for 'Bloody Bloody' may have come from, look no further than backward in time, to the master of raucous, provocative, symbolic, iconic and sense-assaulting theatre, Berthold Brecht. 'Mother Courage,' anyone? Check out his 'Brecht on Theatre - The Development of an Aesthetic,' edited and translated by John Willett.

wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, 'Character Studies.' Among his plays is the award-winning 'Admissions,' directed by Austin Pendleton, published by Playscripts. He has taught at HB Studio, Columbia University and cultural arts centers around the country. His theatre articles have appeared in dozens of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Theatre Week, Parade and The Robb Report. He also conducts limited-size intensive workshops, private coaching sessions and classes from home.

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