“The Wanderers” by Ann Ziegler (Theater J)

The play opens w/ an almost 40, married couple who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn w/ their two young kids- Abe (a secular Jewish man) and Sophie (from Jewish and African-American heritage). Abe and Sophie talk re: growing up together. We learn that though they are both authors, Abe is more well-known/critically-praised (having won several awards before turning 30). Sophie decides to start writing again, so Abe will have to help out w/ the kids more. Both of them are somewhat dissatisfied w/ their marriage; Abe starts emailing Julia, a famous actress (who recently came to one of his readings). Sophie hears Abe (a man of many words) go on praising Julia, but she doesn’t seem jealous or even concerned. Abe comes off as insecure/neurotic (as one might expect of a writer), Sophie is more grounded and sensible.

Next, we meet a seemingly different pair- Schmuli and Esther- who are a wide-eyed couple in their 20s. They also live in Williamsburg, but as part of an insular/tight-knit community of Satmar Hasidic Jews. They met only once before their wedding; Schmuli was so shy that he just looked at Esther’s shoes. In time, they have two daughters, and the constrained life of a housewife starts getting to Esther. She wonders if she could also have a job, and Schmuli is shocked. Esther recalls the very different life her best friend, Rifka, chose. Esther, pregnant w/ her third child, goes to visit her old friend up in Albany. Rifka has a newborn who will be her last child. Esther is very surprised when Rifka explains to her re: birth control pills. She had always thought that God was the only one who decided re: such matters!

You don’t need to know anything re: Judaism to watch (and enjoy) this play; its themes and situations are universal. It’s not only about marriage, it also has much to say re: being a creative person (writer), connection (or disconnection) from one’s roots/religion, the effects of one’s relationship w/ parents (incl. absent ones), and the allure of celebrity. I think most viewers will find something to relate to in this story. Esther and Abe face the same question- will they stay in their current life or choose another? And will that choice make them happier?

SPOILER-FREE Review: “Marriage Story” starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

This Netflix movie (released also 30 days in theaters) is based in large part on director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences when he divorced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. Jason Leigh (the “Jason” was added as tribute to actor Jason Robards- a close friend of her parents), on whom the character of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was based, had early success in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baumbach and Leigh previously collaborated on movies together; during the 2009 filming of Greenberg, he and actress/director of Little Women– Greta Gerwig- fell in love. Theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in Mishawaka, IN. The toys shown while Nicole plays w/ son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the opening are from Star Wars, a reference to Driver’s connection to that sci-fi franchise. Celeb divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern- now winner of Best Supporting Actress Oscar), is loosely based on Laura Wasser (who represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach) during their divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building.

This film has something for everyone– domestic drama, comedy (arising from realistic situations), music, courtroom drama, etc. Charlie sings Being Alive (which Gerwig admitted Baumbach wouldn’t do), and Nicole sings You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Many of us know that Johansson can tackle challenging roles (having seen her since she was an ingenue at 16 y.o.); here Driver gets a chance to shine (and whoa, is he bright)! Both actors are very comfortable with each other; they play the quiet and intense scenes well. You really don’t see the acting- as it should be. You will see some similarities to Kramer vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; however, in this story- the wife gets an equal voice (which wasn’t given to Streep).

The supporting actors are all well-suited for their parts, no matter how small or meaty. The child actor comes off as very natural. Merritt Wever plays Cassie’s older sis (also an actor); she provides some comic relief, as does the mom (who is a big fan of her son-in-law). Charlie’s theater troupe includes a few familiar faces, such as Wallace Shawn (best know as the villain in The Princess Bride). Alan Alda’s soft-hearted lawyer breaks down what men really go through in a divorce. On the other hand, we see the intimidating/shark-like lawyer (Ray Liotta) who gets results.

Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

Hitchcock in Color: “Rope”(1948) starring James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Grainger

1. The story unravels in typical Hitchcock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessened by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo.

2. The dialogue is natural and flowing. The finest bit of timing involves a swinging kitchen door, the rope, and the fear of discovery.

3. ..it seems to be a very modern film.

4. There’s plenty of black humor throughout.

5. He manages to fit in many of his trademark angles and closeups in, without it seeming forced.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Grainger- later starred in Strangers on a Train) are two young men who share a spacious NYC apt. They consider themselves “intellectually superior” to their friend, David Kentley, and decide to murder him. In the first scene, they strangle David (w/ a rope), place the body in an old chest, and hold a small party. The guests incl. David’s father, his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), and their former prep school housemaster, Rupert Caddell (James Stewart). While Brandon is cocky and keeps joking, Philip is fearful (esp. since Rupert is at the party).

The story was loosely based on the (real-life) case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old boy. They committed the murder (called “the crime of the century”) as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which, they thought, enabled them to carry out a “perfect crime” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions. This movie is very different from Patrick Hamilton’s play which was set in England. Sir Alfred Hitchcock made his own adaptation w/ Hume Cronyn (also a prolific character actor); they created new dialogue and characters for this adaptation.

This is Hitchcock’s first movie filmed in color and also his shortest (w/ a running time near 80 mins). The theatrical trailer features footage shot specifically for the ad that takes place before the beginning of the movie. David (the victim) sits on a park bench and speaks with Janet before leaving to meet Brandon and Phillip. Stewart narrates the sequence, noting that’s the last time Janet (and the audience) would see him alive. This movie, considered the director’s most controversial (at that time), was banned in several American cities b/c of the implied homosexuality of Phillip and Brandon.

Rope was filmed entirely in the studio, except for the opening credits (where we see the street outside the apt). The clouds seen out the window were made out of fiberglass. Hitchcock created a (new) way of editing by making the movie look like one continuous shot. He later said that the 10 min. takes were “a stunt” (a challenge for himself). Most of the props and some of the walls were movable. The cast had to avoid tripping on cables on the floor, b/c of the moving cameras and lighting.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see more than once to appreciate, esp. if you saw it as a teen or young adult. There are undercurrents that less mature viewers may not get, particularly the nature of the relationship between the two killers. Stewart is one of my faves, but some critics/viewers have commented that this “dark” role would’ve suited someone like James Mason better. This was the only movie Stewart made with Hitchcock that he did not like; he felt miscast as the professor. The actor was paid $300,000 (a huge portion of the $1.5M budget). The first choices for Philip and Rupert were Montgomery Clift and Carey Grant, but they both passed (due to the gay subtext).

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!