Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wife to James Whelan

Today's review of an unexpected gem at the Mint. Teresa Deevy's Wife to James Whelan isn't experimental or brash; it's a wonderfully appealing 1930s drama about people who make bad choices. Not even bad bad, just not the best for them under the circumstances. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Brain in a jar

A few days after grandly announcing my retirement from Scandi crime and here I am again, reading Arnaldur Indriðason's Hypothermia and watching Jar City, a movie adaptation of one of his early books.

Indriðason is definitely up there when it comes to utter bleakness. His books revolve around detective Erlandur, from Reykjavik, who is just an incredibly sad sack: divorced with two dysfunctional grown children, and a seeming inability to ever enjoy himself. Mostly this goes back to a youthful trauma: Erlandur's brother disappeared in a snow blizzard and never resurfaced. All of Indriðason's book involve flashbacks, and the key to the mystery always lays in history.

This makes sense for Iceland-set novels, since the country seems to have an intense relationship with its history and itself, as illustrated by the project in which the entire population's DNA is recorded in a database. Jar City is a good illustration of Indriðason's m.o. — the database plays a big role and the action hinges on 30-year-old events — plus the movie offers an excellent visual adaptation of the books' very specific mood. Typical is a scene in which Erlendur stops by a fast-food place and orders sheep's head from the drive-through window. Then we see him eating his take-out back home, on the 16th floor of a grim high rise. He absent-mindedly extracts an eyeball and munches on it, then breaks the sheep's skull in two. It's a good deal, too: the meal comes with a side of mashed potatoes. Also noteworthy: Erlandur coming up to a key character while carrying a brain in a bowling bag.

Iceland being small, I haven't seen many noir novels from there. I enjoyed Árni Þórarinsson's Le Dresseur d'insectes (unavailable in English, as far as I know), because it has a sense of humor that breaks with the genre and because its hero isn't a cop or a lawyer but a journalist. As with other Nordic noir authors, he's quite popular in France, where I randomly picked up the aforementioned novel.

As I'm departing for vacation in Australia in a couple of days, I'm researching local authors so I can pick up some paperbacks while there. Shane Maloney looks intriguing, for instance, as well as Leigh Redhead (I may be influenced by her name) and Kel Robertson. Any other recommendations? (Other than Peter Temple and Garry Disher, whose work I'm already familiar with.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Burning in China

Another day, another Fringe show, another review. This time, it's Burning in China, a solo piece about ten months in Shanghai around the Tiananmen riots. It's a hot topic, and a boring play.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Picking Palin

Another review in today's paper: Picking Palin, at the Fringe. Yeah, the Fringe Festival is on here in New York. I'll actually be away -- very away, in Australia -- for most of it and I can't say I'm feeling bad about that.

Next to Normal redux

Last week I revisited Next to Normal since it has two new leads, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. I'm no fan of the show but its dynamic has evolved in a way that sustained my interest. Review here.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Perky Sutton Foster as a professional dominatrix: She's a long way from Millie. Too bad Paul Weitz's new play, Trust, is so jumbled. Also, I love Bobby Cannavale but can he stop playing brawny jerks? I know he's really good at it but come on! My review's here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party

One of the perks of my job is being able to bring friends to the theater. But sometimes that blessing is a curse, as when I have to apologize to said friends for a bad show. That's exactly what happened at the lame Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party (my review's here). To his credit my pal stuck it out to the bitter end, but I was mortified. Good thing he had brought some scones from Amy's Bread, so we were able to fortify ourselves at the second intermission -- yes, the show lasted two and a half hours.


"Your boyfriend's on Leno," the Sheila has just yelled from the living room.

Yep, I'm in love with Jason Statham. Will that be enough to make me pay for The Expendables?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Run away from The Runaways

This weekend I finally got around to watching Floria Sigismondi's movie The Runaways. I've been a huge fan of the band since I discovered their Live in Japan album when I was 13 or 14. In a rare fit of fandom, I even got Joan Jett to sign my vinyl copy of it 15 or so years ago (I brought it to a Bikini Kill show that I'd been tipped off she would attend). I read Cherie Currie's memoir, Neon Angel, when it first came out. I watched Edgeplay, the doc about the band directed by one-time bassist Victory Tischler-Blue, aka Vicki Blue.

All this to explain why I carefully kept my expectations low in order to thwart disappointment. Epic fail: The new movie really bugged me.

Not only did Jett not contribute to Edgeplay, but she prevented Tischler-Blue from using the band's music. No doubt because she wanted to focus on a more high-profile biopic. And in fact Jett exec-produced The Runaways, which is based on Currie's book. Needless to say, Jett comes across very well in the new movie — she even does the DVD commentary with Kristen Stewart (who plays her) and Dakota Fanning (Currie). What a cool rebel she was! It was only about rock & roll for her! She was the driving force in the band!

Except I doubt anybody would remember the Runaways if they hadn't been, you know, a band, and not a Joan Jett vehicle with special contributions from Cherie Currie. But those two completely dominate the movie, and the only other person to be fleshed out is Kim Fowley (played by Michael Shannon, who really looks like Eddie Izzard in the role). We get a lot more Fowley than any of the other Runaways.

Fine, so apparently Jackie Fox (the longest-serving bassist) didn't authorize the filmmakers to use her in the movie, so we get a composite bassist named "Robin" instead. I understand, legal stuff, etc. (Fun reading: Fox's blog about Runaways reminiscences.)

But what about drummer and cowbell master Sandy West, or guitarist Lita Ford? West gets some lines and air time. Ford gets to pick a brief fight with Currie. Weird, I heard that the animosity was between Ford and Jett.

And then there's the lame music-video aesthetics. Too many hazy, dreamy shots of girls walking lost in deep thoughts — because that's what girls do, even the ones in a rock band. Okay, I exaggerate here because we do get snapshots of life on the road. But the live music scenes have no zest, and Stewart applies her usual indolent slouch to everything. Typical is Stewart and Fanning's underwhelming version of "Dead End Justice." The Runaways' own "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," the song requires dramatic singing for its completely over-the-top "girls in juvie" storyline; in the movie, it's not half as intense as on the record. Where is the rage? Where is the desperate energy? Currie has a great snarl when she sings this song, you can just hear it. So awesome.

To add insult to injury, the movie ends with the obligatory "what happened to them" info. But we only hear about Jett, Currie and Fowley! I seem to remember Lita having quite a career as a hair-metal guitar goddess in the 80s. Rings a bell? West died of cancer in 2006 — that didn't warrant a note? Perhaps it went by so fast that I missed it. This is especially galling since West had a really rocky post-Runaways life and was the one former member who really wanted the band to get back together, something she poignantly expressed in Edgeplay.

Oh well, we'll always have this.

Secrets of the Trade

I liked Jonathan Tolins' Secrets of the Trade a lot -- though most of my colleagues are less impressed. At least my positive review of this comedy should put an end to the rumor that I only like dark and twisty fare!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Monday, August 09, 2010

Interview with Leslye Headland

My profile of rising playwright Leslye Headland is in today's paper. If you haven't seen her off-Broadway play Bachelorette at Second Stage Uptown — what are you waiting for?


Today's review is Wolves by Delaney Britt Brewer, at 59E59. I've been spending a lot of time at that theater lately: I was there three nights in a row last week and am returning Wednesday. Which isn't a problem per se — the problem is that there isn't a decent place to have dinner in that neck of the woods. I pity upper midtown east, or whatever that part of NY is called.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Crime, Italian style

I realize that Scandi crime is super-hot right now, what with Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy being a phenomenon and all — every day I see at least one person reading one of those books on the subway. It's so huge that it even made the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and when was the last time that mag had a book on the cover? I've seen quite a few "If you like Millennium, you'll like these Scandi noirs" sidebars too, and of course they're kinda funny. If you like Stieg Larsson's proto-feminist thrillers you'll like Henning Mankell's dry procedurals? These writers have little in common — it's like saying, If you like Mary Higging Clark, you'll like Patricia Highsmith, just because they're both American women writing thrillers. But then I myself enjoy both Larsson and Mankell so who am I to say?


I've been beating the drum for Scandi crime for a while (like here for instance), but I may now be officially tired of it. Okay, I know I've said this before (as in this 2007 entry) and I keep going back to the trough, but this time I mean it!

What to replace Scandi crime with though? Sticking to the geographical angle, Italy looks like my next goldmine. What makes Italian noir novels particularly interesting is that Italy itself is such a mess. In Scandinavia, there's a sense of a strong, ordered civil society, which makes violent transgressions particularly glaring. That, of course, is the appeal of noir books from northern countries.

But the borders are a lot more blurred in Italy — after all, this is a country where the underground, off-the-book economy is almost as big as the regular one. The criminal enterprises known as the Camorra, the Mafia or the 'Ndrangheta originated in Italy, not Sweden or Denmark.

I read several novels by Sicily's Leonardo Sciascia when I was in my twenties and thirties. NYRB Classics has published quiet a few of them, and I cannot recommend them enough. Sciascia wrote a lot about the impact of the Cosa Nostra on Sicilian society but in a kind of literary way. Don't look for hardboiled stuff or tight procedurals — it's no coincidence these books are often described as metaphysical crime. Sciascia is depressing because he shows how the Mafia thrives in a dysfunctional society and political system; in fact, how both sides of the legal divide feed on each other, need each other. To Each His Own and Equal Danger are particularly good novels, while The Moro Affair is an account of the killing of politician Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in the 1970s.

Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series is also set in Sicily but casts a much lighter look at that region. Camilleri's book are very funny — by contrast, I can't think of any Scandi procedural being funny.

Europa Editions
has put out a few good volumes too. I enjoyed Massimo Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss, which was particularly brutal. Even better is Carlo Lucarelli, whose Commissario De Luca trilogy is a great read. The action is set immediately after WWII, when there was great confusion as to who the "good guys" were. The lead character was a police officer under Mussolini: Did that make him an active participant in fascism or was he just one of those obeying public servant who nevertheless kept the fascist state going? The power struggles between Communists and Christian Democrats in the post-war period are also quite fun to read about.

My latest discovery is Giorgio Scerbanenco, who was recommended at the used bookstore L'Amour du Noir in Paris. The book the owner picked for me as an entry point is Les Enfants du massacre (1968), even though it's the third in the Duca Lamberti series. Wow! Scerbanenco set his books in Milan and reading about that city as it was in the 1960s is bracing. Scerbanenco's most famous creation is Lamberti, a doctor who does time for euthanasia then starts working for the police since he can't practice medicine anymore. The level of amoral brutality in Les Enfants du massacre is staggering, especially since the ones performing it are teenagers, and young ones at that. Of course Scerbanenco betrays some hang-ups of his time, notably in the way he refers to an "inverted" boy not being a "real man" (a lesbian secondary character doesn't do much better). But I find it hard to let this bother me since the worldview is so jaundiced towards everybody.

Scerbanenco has been compared to Simenon, and I can see why. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be easily available in English. Perhaps NYRB Classics — my favorite American publisher — will rise to the challenge?

The Capeman in Central Park

Today in the Post, a preview of next week's staged concert of the 1998 musical The Capeman — yes, I actually praise something by Paul Simon!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Summer Shorts A

A quartet of one-act plays is collected in Summer Shorts (Series A) at 59E59. My favorite is Neil LaBute's Romance, which may surprise some of my readers but isn't all that unexpected when you think about it. Review here.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Hedda on the town

In today's Post, I preview a new production of Hedda Gabler that takes place in an East Village townhouse, and will play to only 25 people at a time.

I don't know how I managed not to succumb to a fit of envy when I saw the building, let me tell you. It ties with Richard Price's Gramercy Park abode for New York Place I Most Want to Live In. Ah, Richard Price...what a great interview that was...

Monday, August 02, 2010

A Little Night Music redux

Last week I revisited A Little Night Music, the Sondheim revival that didn't woo me back in December. The reason: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch have stepped in the roles played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury a few months ago. Lansbury was my favorite part of the show, and I was disappointed by both CZJ and the production as a whole. But lo and behold, Bernie and Elaine have turned the whole ship around, and I can now wholeheartedly recommend ALNM. My rave is in today's Post.