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June 7, 2021 Update
Signs of a life where we can actually smile and know the person we're smiling at can see it keep gaining momentum. News about New York's comeback from a heartbreaking year include more announcements of opening and reopening dates at Broadway theaters. Hopefully, the theaters off as well as on Broadway will be able to recover from the extended losses and win back former theatergoers as well as those for whom going to a show isn't a regular habit.
The many announcements of opening and reopening dates on Broadway include a bunch I was privileged to see and review before the lockdown. Three of my favorites are Hadestown, re-opening on September 13th; The Lehman Trilogy, originally at the Park Avenue Armory, will begin a 99-performance run at the Nederlander Theatre on September 25th; also getting its Broadway opening is the Bob Dylan Musical Girl from the North Country opening on October 13. Links to my reviews: The Lehman Trilogy Hadestown & Girl From the North Country.
One show that isn't waiting for Fall to play to a full capacity Broadway theater is Pass Over. This contemporary take on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by Antoinette Nwandu. has just three actors and requires no intermission at just 85 minutes and therefore involves none of the difficulties of staging a play with a large cast and complicated scenery. Nwandu's concept also fits the need for more relevant storytelling. The play, which reprises a 2018 production at Lincoln Center Theater, will have a limited run at the 1,190-seat August Wilson Theatre from August 4th until October 10th.
An even earlier new take on an often produced play brings back the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park on July 6th. The Merry Wives of Windsor, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Saheem Ali for an all black cast is the only production on this year's menu. But one is infinitely better than last year's none, and Bloh's Wives will make merry three weeks longer than usual, until September 18th. With the state guidelines for limited seating, social distancing and masking still in effect, the 1,800-seat theater will admit only 428 Shakespeare enthusiasts for each performance.
Wonderful as it will be to have Broadway full of life and vibrancy again, the streaming platforms continue to entice viewers to check out new as well as older theater-centric films, serials, and documentaries.
Since the filmed version of Hamilton was truly satisfying, I have high hopes for the stage-to-screen version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical, In the Heights which on June 10th opens in movie theaters and for 31 days at HBO MAX. (my review of the stage version).
A note about a made-for-screen-watching, The Kominsky Method, an oiiginal series that recently opened its third and final season. It stars Michael Douglas an actor who has always practiced his craft in front of cameras. His portrayal of much married Hollywood acting coach Sandy Kominsky dealing with regrets, aging, and loss of his best friend (Alan Arkin another of filmdom's gems) is a master class of inhabiting a character with depth and humor.
As actors like Douglas exemplify acting for the screen at its best, memorably, so Chuck Lorre, The Kominsky Method's creator proves that a sitcom setup can breathe with rich emotional life. Who except a master of this episodic format could make third and final season at Netflix work even though Arkin left the show at the end of sSeason 2. It's like doing The Odd Couple with Just Felix or Oscar. Yet it works. Lorre has killed off Arkin's character and his memorial service humorously introduces all the characters and then moves into more serious territory. Some of the episodes lose steam when Douglas isn't front and center, and if this were a stage play those segments would be cut with details from the first two seasons also trimmed. But then this isn't a live play, but a lively and original streamed entertainment.
Finally, a less high profile series that ended its third season a decade ago, is back. I'm not a mental health professional so for me the series was all about Gabriel Byrne's interpretation of In Treatment's practitioner of what's often referred to as "The Talking Cure." He managed to make Paul Weston memorably watchable. His patients too were portrayed by some outstanding thespians.
The weekly sessions with each patient were involving enough to work like small plays. That included Paul's own personal problems as revealed during one-on-ones with his own professional mentor (Diane Wiest). As the show played out weekly on TV, it gained enough of a following for a third season that focused on Paul's own traumas with a new therapist (Amy Ryan).
The type of therapy that Paul questioned in that third season is now back, with a brand-new fourth In Session still following the original format, but shorter with African-American actress Uzo Aduba in the listener's seat. But while the three patients certainly have problems, Dr. Brooke Taylor is herself so deeply troubled from the get-go that this is basically her show. While a fresh approach makes sense, this update doesn't add up to a real Wow. And the personal trauma of Aduba's Brooke isn't exactly new enough to win a fan base as Byrne's Dr Weston did. Still, Aduba is an Emmy Award winning actress with enough fans to make this In Treatment clickbait — especially since HBO has now opted to make the whole season available for streaming on June 14th rather than stick with a week-at-a-time release schedule.
May 17, 2021 Update
When the Daryl Roth Theater opened its doors to New Yorkers starved for watching a show facing a stage rather than a screen, Blindness, the play presented, didn't have an actor on that stage. A script delivered by a recorded voice, with light and sound technology instead of scenery, hardly afforded that special something associated with live theater. Yet its opening got as much attention as a star-studded new musical like Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The big news this past week was that the Broadway theaters are back in business now that COVID requirements for opening only with limited audiences have been lifted. My mailbox has been stuffed with announcements of opening and reopened dates as of Sept. 14.
That's not to say that producers can forget the pandemic. Safety measures are still needed to make audiences comfortable enough to accept this new normal. The safety of actors and backstage personnel too will still require caution.
. Even when all these plans for New York to get back its sizzle materialize, the onscreen world willl continue to be more theatrical than ever. As I've noted in past blog entries and sreening features, small as well as large organizations will film productions to tap into larger, more diverse audiences. And I will continue to cover new offerings with sturdy theatrical legs and search out older movies that resonate as much, if not more, today as originally. With that in mind, let's move on to my most recent onscreen outings.
My "most anticipated" new series for 2022: The Gilded Age
This costume drama by Christian Fellowes was filmed in New England for HBO during the pandemic. Its starry cast includes Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara, Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Debra Monk, Cynthia Nixon, and Denée Benton.
More Broadway and off-Broadway onscreen outings
Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest presented by L.A. Theatre Works is another great opportunity to see a top quality production of a classic work. The Roundabout Theatre Company's 2011 production was directed by and starred Brian Bedford. It was filmed live in HD direct from the Broadway stage. One of my favorite actors, David Hyde-Pierce, hosted the presentation and an intermission with Alfred Molina and UCLA School of Television, Film and Theater professor Michael Hackett. Tickets to watch are $15 and available through June 30th. For ordering details
https://www.theatermania.stream/packages/the-importance-of-being-earnest To read my review during its Broadway run go here.
The Niceties is a reprise from Manhattan Theater Club. Featuring just two actors sitting in chairs, it's obviously easier to film live and even adapt especially for virtual viwing. This virtual version will premiere on May 27 and runs through June 13th. Tickets are free and can be reserved at www.manhattantheatreclub.com/mtc-now-showing. To read my 2018 review go here,
Over at the Mint, their archived Silver Lining Streaming Series has now added George Kelly's Fatal Weakness from May 17th to June 27th. It's free with no password required.
Three oldies but goodies at HBO and Amazon
Documentaries are category that the streaming platforms have embraced to the point of overkill. But I've discovered enough that are genuinely interesting and entertainig to make the search worthwhile. My most recent find was Arthur Miller-Writer filmed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of his third and happest marriage to Inge Morath.
I've been fortunate to have seen all of Miller's plays, quite a few several times. I also read his own memoir, Mindbed, but there's something fresh and intimate about this very personal documentary based on years of daughter and father interviews. Besides commentary from his other children, and notables like Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols — who directed the Broadway revival of . .Salesman that starred Philip Hoffman — the hour and twenty minutes features footage from both his Connecticut life and some of the plays. It all adds up to a combination documentary-memoir. For the Miller chapter in CurtainUp's Playwright' Album go here.
I loved Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake but never got around to seeing the movie adaptation. Thanks to HBO's terrific collection of quality films, I was able to play catchup last week. Director Mira Nair has been true to this story of a Bengali-American family that mirrors the stories of immigrants from other countriesc. The movie, like the book, covers some 30 years of a Bengali couple's life. It starts with their arranged marriage in India, then moves on to their life in New York and New England where their relationship blossoms into genuine love. They enjoy the American dream but remain both American and Indian by developing close friendships with other Bengali-Americns. In the second part of the 120 minutes, the focus shifts from Ashima and Ashoke to their totallly Americanized children, especially their son Gogol. His name is a key element of the unique subtlety with which the personaties and relationships were developed by Lahiri, and brought to life by Nair and the actors.
Another gem I caught up with was Cross Creek at Amazon. It follows Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to Florida, where she wrote her 1939 Pulitzer Prize winning The Yearling. While a new biography by Ann McCutchan has been well received and is on my list of books to read, no book can match the vivid cinemetography of the 1982 movie directed by southern setting specialist Martin Ritt and starring Mary Steenburgen. Rawlings' neighbors in the Everglades include the little girl who inspred The Yearling. Like Steenburgen, the actors portrayimg these Floridians add to the the film's pleasures, notably Rick Torn as the little girl's rough but very human father and Peter Coyote as the local store owner who breaks down her resistance to marriage. Steenburgen's real life husband at the time, Malcolm McDowell, makes several appearances as the iconic editor Maxwell Perkins.
Rawlings is no longer taught because of racist refernces and attitudes, but this WAS how Florida was and she was regarded as more broad and fair minded than most Floridians. Even though The Yearling is no longer on school library book shelves, it's still in print and the movie adaptation is available to stream at Amazon.
List of Broadway's first back in business dates
Chicago at the mbassador Theater Sept. 14.
Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theater Sept. 14.
The Lion King at the Minskoff Theater Sept. 14.
Wicked at the Gershwin Theater Sept. 14.
American Utopia at a theater to be announced Sept. 1.
Six at the Brooks Atkinson Theater Sept. 17.
Come From Away at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater Sept. 21.
Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theater Sept. 28.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theater Sept. 24.
Caroline, or Change at Studio 54 Oct. 8; non-subscription tickets on sale July 28 at Roundabouttheatre.org.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater Oct. 8.
Ain’t Too Proud at the Imperial Theater Oct. 16.
Jagged Little Pill at the Broadhurst Theater Oct. 21.
Mrs. Doubtfire at the Stephen Sondheim Theater Oct. 21.
The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater Oct. 22.
Trouble in Mind at the American Airlines Theater Oct. 29; non-subscription tickets on sale July 28 at Roundabouttheatre.org.
Flying Over Sunset at the Vivian Beaumont Theater Nov. 4.
Diana at the Longacre Theater Dec. 1.
MJ at the Neil Simon Theater Dec. 6.
Dear Evan Hansen at the Music Box Theater Dec. 11.
Company at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater Dec. 20.
April 27, 2021 Update
Unsurprisingly, shows I've streamed and written about were a dominant presence at this year's COVID-conscious Oscar ceremony. The 37 Netflix nominees should help the streaming giant to hold on to its status as the top platform. If there was a word that would apply to all the winners, it would be "first" — first for the Black actress Viola Davis to win the most Best Actress nominations (Ma Raney's Black Bottom), yet cede the win to Frances McDormand (Nomadland). That play did make Chloé Zhao, who is Chinese, the first woman of color to win the award for best director.
Ma Rainey also included another almost first, a posthumous Best Actor first for Chadwick Boseman. But Anthony Hopkins, at age 82 became the first octogenarian to do so. (The Father).
Ma Rainey did make Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson the first African-American women to nab the makeup and hairstyling Oscar. However, the ceremony itself did little to win back the audience it's been losing for years.
The long dead playwright who still attracts more new interpretations by directors and actors remains William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, his early star-crossed romance is no exception. Director Simon Goodwin's version filmed at the National Theater and adapted for screening by Emily Burns is now available for streaming as part of PBS's Great Performances (https://www.pbs.org/video/romeo-juliet-eibhz4/). This 90-minute production (half its usual length) will have purists looking in vain for customary scenic bells and whistles, and even parts of its verbal gems. Viewers more accustomed to fast-paced storytelling may actually prefer this very contemporary, filmic take — especially with two Netflix stars, Josh O'Connor (The Crown) and Jessie Buckley (I'm Thinking of Ending Things) playing Romeo and Juliet. Neither is a teenager but then it takes mature talent to tap into the emotions and nuances of their roles. Supported as they are by a diverse cast of more seasoned Shakespeare role inhabiters, this is indeed a great opportunity for even audiences whose only exposure to Shakespeare was in high school (probably a reading assignment or a copy of a film mounted on a classroom screen — most likely Julius Caesar/).
Despite Shakespeare's continued popularity, those not smitten include prominent writers. Leo Tolstoy made no secret of their disdain; neither did George Bernard Shaw who during his three years as a theater critic dismissed some of his plays as "melodramas" and "potboilers." Shaw did give Shakespeare credit for his linguistic versatility and mellowed somewhat during his later years, Perhaps, the new smartly cast, filmed and performed Romeo and Juliet will mellow some in that anti-Shakespeare camp.
While you're over at the THIRTEEN website be sure to check out American Oz, the fascinating addition to their American Experience documentaries. It's a biography of Frank Baum the author of The Wizard of Oz, the all-time best selling children's book that turned into a whole series of Oz book, a play and the famous movie starring Judy Garland. The movie, besides being one of those favorite annual TV revivals, has had many newly interpreted stage spin-offs such the musicals The Wiz and Wicked. If you're not a THIRTEEN Passport subscriber you can rent or buy it at Amazon. This series features many others worth your time. The one about Lorraine Hansberry is still incredibly moving. even more. I There's also the Finding Your Roots series that's in its seventh season. The latest celebrities discovering their roots with historian Henry Louis Gates are Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin (https://www.thirteen.org/).
My search for the wheat hidden beneath the chaff recently turned up a filmed adaptation of Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends at HBO-MAX. While dealing with the end of still new and exciting marriages and friendships may not seem all that critical these days, this tragi-comedy still deals with ever relevant aspects of our lives. The movie cast captures the characters as well as the award-winning cast I saw during its initial run at the long gone Variety Arts Theater.
Another film adaptation of a play by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright that you can now watch onscreen is Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano. This one is newly filmed for streaming by New Normal Rep and available at YouTube until May 23rd. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRekwRiKnxg). It's directed by Cruz and one of the sisters is played by Daphne Rubin-Vega who also starred in the live production I saw at the Public Theater (review).
Speaking of the Public thester, their streamed production of The Line is back in respones to popular demand. You can view it amy time until June 21st, by clicking over to https://publictheater.org/media-center/series/the-line-encore/the-line2/
April 22, 2021 Update
News about reopened theaters continues and will escalate as we keep wrestling COVID towards herd immunity. But theater will continue to reflect the pandemic's inroads on normalcy. Limited seating, strictly observed safety rules aren't going to disappear any time soon, nor are intermissions likely to make a quick comeback even when health protocols can be eased or abandoned. The financial losses resulting from the long shutdown will also keep what's on offer smaller and less expensive to produce. Belt tightening will also apply to big shows, for example, fewer musicians in orchestras for musicals.
Right now, theater is still more virtual than live, with what we see at streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, as well as the websites of theaters that have made filmed versions of past productions available. Next up in the latter category, another freshly filmed revival by the Irish Repertory Company of Elaine Murphy's triple monologue Little Gem. It stars Marsha Mason, Lauren O'Leary & Brenda Meaney and runs from April 27 to May 9. For more information before I post my review, click over to the Rep website at https://irishrep.org/
I look forward to seeing how theater organizations will continue to take advantage of the great value in the digital marketplace that has taken virtual performance as a valuable audience builder and not just a survival tool. While companies like the Irish Repertory Company have been especially innovative in their streamed offerings it will require partnering with filmmakers accustomed to capturing live productions successfully and skilled podcast producers to help use that burgeoning addition to the cultural infrastructure to keep these new audiences coming.
And so, while I don't think anyone can count on a return to theater-as-usual, I do envision a future that crests new opportunities to include more people than ever. Given the flood of movies and series on their home pages, I'll continue to dig out the weeds from the chaff, in hopes of discovering what is best suited to the theatergoer's tastes and expectations.
For sure, the series concept of storytelling is here to stay, as are choices about watching it a week at a time as was once the custom when TV reigned the media landscape. What's more. it seeds further cross-pollination between cultural forms — for example, while waiting for the next season of The Crown series, the real royals have provided plenty of stories thus marrying print and streaming media. The fascination with all things royal has also prompted PBS to produce Atlantic Crossing, a series about the Danish royal family. (Though based on actual events and characters, it's heavily fictionalized.)
The marriage of all storytelling formats at once is currently best exemplified by book and movie versions of Nomadland, a PBS Independent lens documentary and interactive events with the book's author. And speaking of documentary films their popularity is understandable. However, though a worthy format, it's been way too overdone and thus tends to take up much of my wheat-from-chaff separating time.
April 8, 2021 Update
Trees will soon be bursting into blossoms. After more than a year of lives on hold, hope for living more fully once again springs into our hearts. For theater enthusiasts that means that more and more theaters will reopen. So far it's been in baby steps, and audiences have been small — either by requirements for observing strict safety protocols, or nervousness about gathering with strangers before absolute herd immunity.
One of the most high profile baby steps has been taken by producer Daryl Roth at the Union Square venue that bears her name. After a successful trial run at London's Donmar Playhouse a limited, safely distance audience can gather at the theater to experience Simon Stephens' light-and sound-adaptation of Blindness, based on Jose Saramago's dystopian novel.
So far, the theater has had no lack of people eager to get back to live theater even if it's still with only actors' voices and light and sound effects rather than the scenery we expect to see. Naturally everyone who cares about the theater is going to want to support this or any other venture that bolsters hope for a return New York as a the epicenter of cultural life. This is even more true for theater critics, though with the pandemic still lurking like clouds on a sunny day, critics as well as theater goers are still not all ready to put live culture before health officials advice for more caution.
The critics who did go to see — or rather to hear — the actors narrate the story have raved about its pleasures. The only exception has been New York Magazine's Helen Shaw. She did praise it's execution but "not ravishing . . .not worth getting sick for. " As she pointed out, the climbing infections in our city had her wondering it it would not have been wiser to listen to the message of the play which is, after all, about a plague.
Sight and sound unseen, I tend to agree with Shaw. The fact that our Mayor was outside to cheer on the production but too busy to go in was hardly surprising. After all the threater for the De Blasios of this world is politics. And De Blasio has not exactly been a steady presence on or off Broadway As I've never been a huge fan of dystopian narratives, no matter how intriguingly conceived, I'm not sure I'd want to spend time with Blindness, even if Helen Shaw's wish for it to be possible to listen to it in the comfort and safety of my home were realized.
I did quite enjoy having the veteran actor John Cullum visit my home screen to reminisce about his more than half-a-century long career on stage as well as big an small screen. While John Cullum: An Accidental Star was originally intended as a cabaret, he's got enough charm to make it work in the current bare bones film version.
Even as the baby steps get larger and Broadway can be Broadway again, consumer habits have changed and the availability of filmed shows is enough of an audience builder to continue to be an option. That is already the case with Diana, the new musica; that had nine previews on Broadway and was filmed without an audience. Therefore; it will be available to stream on Netflix as of October 1, before resuming live performances on December 1.
March 30, 2021 Update
With more and more people fully vaccinated, it remained the better part of wisdom not to rush into an "old normal" way of living. That meant Passover still called for fewer family members gathered arouncd the Seder table and sticking to masks and social distancing. It was only by being as strict about observing safety rules as the characters of Shtisel are about adhering to ultra-orthodox Jewish customs, that the hit series' creators were able to bring us a much awaited third season. Per my just posted review, it was worth waiting for.
I'm not a foodie and don't usually watch cooking documentaries. However, Stanley Tucci is one of my favorite stage and film actors, so the chance to follow him on his trip to Italy in search of meals to sample was irresistible — especially during this long and lonely year when the only trips most of us took were to the grocery store. Obviously enough other people have enjoyed their armchaiir trips to six different regions for a follow-up season to be on the horizon. The six episodes may be watched in any order and are available at CNN-on demand.
With documentaries flooding our screens, there are some recent ones that have struck me as unnecessary additional public airings of scandals already excessively covered in the media. Two cases in point: Allen vs. Farrow at Netflix, and The College Admission Scandal at HBO. I didn't make it through more than one episode of each. On the other hand, Joan Didion, The Center Will Not Hold that I stumbled across in my search for hidden Netflix gems turned out to be so— so is Everything is Copy- Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted at HBO.
Finally, a reminder, that Yours Unfaithfully, one of the plays archived by the invaluable Mint Theater Company is now available for streaming thrugh May 16th. I was fortunate enough to see the play live. To read my review go here.
March 12, 2021 Update.
A royal interview triggers the reality show's comeback. . . Season 3 of Shtisel coming to Netflix. . . the return of live musical theater will include The Queen's Gambit. . .
Bingeing series after series of The Crown has been one of the most popular ways to forget about COVID and follow the season-to-sesson shifts ofa actors playing the British royals who have fascinated people all over the world, and enriched the tabloid press. But with fifth sesson still as uncertain as our return to normalcy, two of the real live royals have brought back tell-all reality courtesy of a 2-hour interiew with the queen of tell-all interview hosting, Oprah Winfrey. Popular as the series has been for Netflix, I doubt it's matched the audience it attracted initially and continues to nab thrugh the extensive media coverage. That said, as Netflix doesn't share its exact clik numbers, neither can the network ratings know whether the person tuned in is actually paying attention or might be eating or sleeping.
In the meantime, a Netflix hit series that has another season ready for subscribers to view is Shtisel. I reviewed the first two seasons of this series about an ultra-orthodox family in Jerusalem together with The Marvelous Mrs. Maizel about another Jewish family — but this one American — and its focus on the failed marriage and successful stand-up comic career of its the titular charscter. Given the name recognition of the Maisel series cast and t he more relatable plot, I opted to review the Shtisel family saga mainly to see how a show with with Hebrew dialogue and about characters and a lifestyle most of us know little about was likely to be a strong clickbait at Netflix.
But surprise, surprise: While I failed to find Mrs. Maisel all that marvelous, I couldn't stop watching the Shistel family's doing. Despite those awful side curls and beard, Michael Alon's Akiva proved to have matinee idol charm. The religious backround added texture and authenticity to what is essentially a soap opera, but one with depth and meaning.
Not only did Shtisel become a global hit on Netflix but so did their 4-episode drama with a quite different take on ultra-orthodox Jewish life, Unorthodox. If you haven't seen Shtisel or want a refresher before Season 3 becomes available on March 25th, it's still available to stream, and so is Unorthodox.
Though we're hardly out of the woods in terms of the return to normalcy, inluding a chance to attend live rather than watching on on screen, there are plans to adapt The Queen's Gambit, another atypcal hit series at Netflix, as a stage musical. Actually, this wouldn't be the first time to turn those chess moves into song and dance numbers, though unlike The Queen's Gambit, the show wasn't a winner. (a href="chessdc.html"> a link ro production we reviewed).
Until theaters can once again fill all their seats and present coventionally staged shows with stories told by more than one or two actors, with costumes and scenery — the Daryl Roth Theatre at Union Square is presenting Blindness to a live audience as of next week. It's an audio adaptation by noted playwright Simon Stephens of Nobel laureate José Saramago's novel in which a Storyteller/Doctor's wife describes a world changed forever in the blink of an eye by an unimaginable global pandemic. The response to the initial Donmar Warehouse poduction was strong enough to bring it to New York. Now as then, strict pandemic protocols will be followed and tickets starting at $45 must be bought in pairs. Here's the link for more details and ticket reservations: http://www.darylroththeatre.com/productions/blindness/.
February 24,2021 Update. The pandemic has brought two atypical new stars to the Netflix lineup of originals to make their ten most watched list — the handsome 31-year old British-Zimbabwean actor, Regé-Jean Page and Fran Liebowitz, the 70-year-old caustic wit. In Brdgerton, based on romance writer Julia Quin’s novels, brings a romantic lead of color to the usually all-white romantic costume drama. In Pretend it's a City, Liebowitz just ambles around the streets of New York and schmoozes with her friend and the series producer, Martin Scorsese, making no secret of her age, sexual identity and anti-internet life style.
Liebowitz, unlike Page, has been a fixture on the New York cultural scene. Since writing two books as well as a column for Andy Warhol's magazine she's claimed to suffer from writer's block and instead supported herself as a well-paid guest on countless TV interview shows, as occasional acting gigs. Now, Pretend It's a City has endeared her to the social media crowd whose communications devices she's shunned.
Even though Liebowitz tends to pretty much return to her basic theme song — her New Jersey childhood, and love affair with New York — I found the seven half-hour episodes of the Netflix series amusing enough to watch all in just two evenings. On the other hand, neither the lavish production values, generous servings of sex, or the woke casting of Page, Bridgerton struck me as a second-rate, wannabe Jane Austen entertainment. I gave up in the middle of the second episode.
Obviously, the Netflix viewers who have elevated Bridgerton to the ten most watched category don't agree with me. However, quite a number of readers of my blogs and streaming features have sent emails about their own quickly aborted viewings. Unlike series like The Queen's Gambit and The Dig, which appealed to all ages and tastes, Bridgerton didn't hit home for that huge an audience.
Though Pretend It's a City is a far less complicated production than Bridgerton it does have a spectacular scenic element — the city of New York with its busy streets that Liebowitz still roamed without the need for a mask. Therefore, aa she and Scorsese needed no add-on coda to explain that the show was filmed pre-pandemic. Watching it almost a year since the offices in Manhattan's high rise landscape emptied out and theaters shut down did have me wondering if Liebowitz could wrest any amusing bon mots from the changes in her beloved city and whether dealing with surviving the lockdown had her finally cave in and get a cell phone.
Like the rest of us, Liebowitz has been forced to spend more time at home and observe safety protocols. But she's still doing interviews to promote Pretend It's a City. However, she neither zooms or texts but remains devoted to her landline. And she hasn't given up on her belief that New York is a tough but great place. As she sees it, cities never stay the same. Sometimes they change for the worse.
And that brings me to what a comeback to a more normal life will mean once all of us are vaccinated. For many of us the most important return to normalcy will mean that we can meet with family and friends and see their whole facea. But when it comes to large gatherings, masks and other safety measures will be with us for a long time. As for the theater, the financial losses will make one-and- two person shows and modest production values the norm for a long time.
To get back to Liebowitz's observation that cities always change, this is as true for small towns as well. The closing of factories have devastated many small towns for years. Some manage to reinvent themselves as North Adams, Massachusetts did by converting its closed factories into MASS MoCA. Not so for Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, about how shameful pollution of the town's natural resources led to the decline of a small town in Maine. That brings me back to my disappointment with the BBC series adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicles. The failure to capture all the books's characters and plots into the series made for s finale that was too abrupt and not true to the power of the entire epic. Since Russo tackled the page to screen series himself, the mini-series provides as rich an experience as reading Empire Falls did. And the actors portraying the novel's panorama of characters are all A-list. Fortunately the two parts, divided into 5 chapters each, is still available to stream at Amazon Prime.
Finally, even as we're still processing the incredible number of lives lost during the past year, the latest tragedy that befell one man — the sports world icon Tiger Woods — suddenly became The story dominating every news outlet. You don't have to be a golf enthusiast to be moved to tears by the recent HBO documentary about Tiger's life, which makes his latest trauma yet another chapter in a story at once inspiring and incredibly tragic.
For me, the news of Tiger's accident reminded me of my husband's never forgotten golf experience at the time of another tragic moment in history. He and a friend were out golfing when someone came to the hole they were at and told them that President Kennedy had been shot. When this was followed with the news that Kennedy was dead, my husband put down his clubs, left and came home. His friend and a priest who was playing with them stayed and finished the game. His golfing buddy and other golfers to whom he mentioned how my husband had walked out on the game all said, "well, he's not a real golfer."
Eventually, my husband did go back to golfing -- just as, hopefully, all of us will go back to many of the activities probably on hold for some time to come.
January 16, 2021 Update — When our already surreal lives take a climactic turn . . . .
The drama of the real life horror show unfolding, not at a theater or streaming platform but in the hallowed halls of our Capitol, has undone even my efforts to add some meaningful content to CurtainUp — at least until Joe Biden and Kamala Harris assume the posts to which they were legally elected.
Since March my online theater outings were geared to search out the massive content on platforms like Netflix for new stageworthy content as well as older gems worth getting to know or revisit. Sure, this kind of onscreen rather than live entertainment was always a way to deal with this suddenly isolated lifestyle. But with the Trump presidency in its horrific final act has made it hard to stay focused on anything but the efforts to hold onto power by Trump and his enablers. And so, instead of treating the "play button" as if it were the same as the houselights dimming, I've surfed from channel to channel, often fast forwarding and no longer taking notes as has been my habit as a critic.
Fran Lebowitz's half-hour ramblings around Manhattan when its streets were still busy had me actually chuckling a few times. Between the day I watched the first of the 7 episodes of Pretend It's a City on Netfilx and the last (and my favorite) about books and bookstores, the city of Washington turned from mayhem into a fortress and Trump was impeached for the second time..
Martim Scorsese, her companion during the interludes at The Players' Club and the show's producer, hasn't added a coda for him and Lebowitz to comment on how New York has changed since they filmed this. Probably wisely so, since even the always witty Lebowitz would have a hard time wrestling any laughs from today's New York scene. I suspect she would have to cave in on her "no cell phone" mantra today so this new relationship with technology might just seed some funny observations. Lebowitz did do an interview after 2016 (available at YouTube) when she, who claimed to always be right, owned up to being totally wrong about the likelihood of Trump's being elected.
As the rollout of the vaccine added to the difficulties of life in a deadly pandemic, Netflix added a fourth season of Last Tango in Halifax, which takes its senior lovebirds into a 7-year-itch stage of their marriage. With Derek Jacoby, one of Great Britain's greatest actors, and Anne Reid as the better-late-than-never marrieds, the quiet charm their story, and that of the rest of their family members proved a respite from the chaos all around us. That said, Images of them wearing masks and being at high risk kept getting in the way of relaxing into the nostalgic pleasure of the current season.
The online outing that probably took my mind off current events most completely was my revisit to Kenneth Lonergan's long-in-the-making movie, Margaret. And that's not because because it was a fast-paced, action-packed entertainment that made me laugh as Fran Lebowitz did. In fact it's slow-moving, talky tragedy inspired and named for a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about a youg girl's early intimations of mortality. The tragic encounter with death by Lonergan's central character gives Margaret an all too real, punch-in-the-heart timeliness. For theater buffs it's also a chance to see some of their favorite Broadway and Off-Broadway actors (including Anna Paquin in her breakout role and Lonergan himself as her character's father).
The list of shows whose lives were cut short by the pandemic now includes Mean Girls, Frozen, Hangmen and the latest Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? And as if trying to survive weren't enough, one of New Yorks jewels for all who love musical theater, the York Theater Company in St. Peter's Church on Lexington Avenue, has suffered extensive damage and lost equipment and archived scripts from a severe flood. If you type York Theater in the enhanced with Google box, you'll see links to the many memorable shows we've covered there. Here's wishing them luck in saving their distinguished history.
December 24. 2020 Update
In my review of the wonderful new filmed version of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom I said that I thought that if the playwright were still alive he might approve of what George C. Wolfe and Ruben Sandiego-Hudson did with it . According to David Gordon's interview with Wilson's widow, she agrees. that what they did accentuated their understanding of his language and that his message was always about Black lives matter.
I doubt if Jonathan Bank would ever take the liberties Wolfe and Santiago Hudson did since the plays he's been presenting to the Mint Theater's many fans for years are not revered masterpieces by a playwright who's named a theater after him. Instead the Mint's mission is to provide a platform for overlooked works and talent. The Mint is now presenting another season of past plays filmed during their live runs and now available for limited, FREE virtual runs. Since all were reviewed before the Curtainup freeze, following is a list of what he has lined up through next spring with links to the reviews.
Women Without Men2/02 to 3/21
Days to Come2/04 to 2/21
Yours Unfaithfully 3/22 to 5/ 16
A Picture of Autumn329 to 5/29
Fatal Weakness5/19 to 6/13
A great holiday present for all of us is, of course, the arrival of the first doses of . COVID vaccine to make the return to a more normal life style possible. Normal, yes. . .but it won't ever be the same in terms of how we'll consume and appreciate entertainment. I've always loved the movies but these many months of going to the theater via my ipad have not only been a life saver, but doubled and trippled my appreciation of the close-up, the convenience and a really well-made stage to screen work.
Naturally, those creating entertainment — whethr for streaming platforms, TV or live live theater — will make only gems like the stage-to-screen Ma Rainey or the stunning page-to-screen The Queen's Gambit. Greed and economic necessity are unlikely to put an end to celebrity casting and less than newly relevatory replays of proven favorites.
Bridgerton, a new period drama series debuting Christmas day at Netflix is using the work of a living novelist Julia quinn rather than the done to death Jane Austin. But then, perhaps someone is concocting a series about a living Austen who's grinding out so many historical romances that she needs to publish some with a pseudonym.
For March thrugh December 2020 blog entries go here