God of Carnage

“God of Carnage.” Yasmina Reza, playwright. Matthew Warchus director. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Broadway.

Yasmina Reza is a French playwright whose works transcend barriers of language and culture to reveal the core of human relationships. She has a gift for lifting the rock of good-mannered stoicism to reveal the baser human emotions squirming just below the surface of our smiles. Her first play, “Conversations After a Burial,” set the theme for most of her other plays, which focus more on conversations than on events or actions.

In her award-winning “Art,” a 15-year friendship among three men unravels when one of them buys an expensive piece of art that is nothing more than a huge white canvas. The purchaser expects his friends to praise his new acquisition, as all good friends should. We all know better than to tell a friend, “That new haircut looks ridiculous.” But here, the conventions are violated.  One friend calls the painting nothing but “white shit,” and the conversation devolves from there. Ensuing conversations center on art, but the play is really about friendship and honesty.Continue reading

The Taking of Pelham 123

“The Taking of Pelham 123.” Tony Scott, director. Sony Pictures, 121 minutes. Rated R for language and violence.

In 1994 a quiet, unassuming, former computer systems analyst for a large investment firm built several gasoline bombs out of mayonnaise jars and alarm clock timers, intending to deposit them in subway trains around New York City and then hold the city hostage until his grievances were heard and ransom was paid. He had successfully detonated one bomb and was on his way to delivering another when it accidentally exploded while he was carrying it, injuring himself and 47 other passengers. He is now serving 94 years in Sing Sing.

I couldn’t help but think about the Subway Bomber while watching the current remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” in which John Travolta plays Ryder, a crazed gunman who obviously knows a lot about securities, commodities, and the stock exchange and doesn’t seem one bit happy about how life has been treating him.  At a time when Wall Street traders have become the nation’s favorite enemy, this additional background adds a new dimension to the villain and gives the story a timely and sassy facelift. (Robert Shaw’s Ryder was a mercenary soldier in the 1974 version of the film.) The new film is also updated with technology that could not have been imagined in 1974, including cell phones, internet coverage, streaming videos, online trading capabilities, and even a laptop conversation on Skype between a young hostage and his girlfriend.

The premise of “The Taking of Pelham 123″ is simple: four criminals have commandeered a subway train, taking a carload of passengers hostage. If their ransom demand ($1 million in the 1974 version, $10 million in 2009) is not met within one hour, they will begin shooting the hostages one by one. What is it about planes, trains, boats and subway cars that fascinates criminals and film directors alike? The built-in claustrophobia and the perpetrator’s total control of the situation create a mixture of horror and thrill. Moreover, the randomness of the victims’ fate–why did these people enter this car on this platform at this time–contributes to the audience’s sense of dread. This could happen to anyone, at any time. We aren’t safe anywhere.

In both films, the mayor, who must authorize payment of the ransom, is portrayed as cynical, uncaring, and ineffectual, motivated not by heroism but by his handlers’ concern for good press. James Gandolfini in the current film bears an uncanny resemblance to Rudy Giuliani, and the film even includes a dig at the mayor’s affair and divorce, although the similarity is unjustified; no one can fault Giuliani’s heroic actions when the Twin Towers were attacked by terrorists. Still, we tend to like movies where the men in authority are misguided fools and the maverick “everyman” saves the day.

In the original “Pelham,” Walter Matthau gives a standout performance in what is a tense, gritty, but fairly routine urban thriller. His Lt. Garber is alternately cool and sardonic, funny without being comedic. The 1974 film is worth watching, if only for that final, enlightened freeze-frame on Matthau’s face before the credits roll. (You can watch the original “One Two Three” free on your computer at fancast.com). As his nemesis, Ryder, Robert Shaw is dignified and calm, an upper-crust criminal with a crisp British accent. He could have been the cop as easily as the criminal.

In the remake, Denzel Washington as Garber and John Travolta as Ryder both deliver masterful performances, and there is no question which one is the criminal. Ryder’s character is more fully developed and played to devilish perfection by Travolta, who remains on the edge of sanity throughout the film. He’s the consummate villain: smart, cool, merciless, and unafraid of death.

Both characters have reasons to be angry at the system: Ryder appears to have a beef against Wall Street or government regulation or both; we are never quite sure what has prompted his assault on the train, but it is clear that he feels justified and vengeful. Garber (in this version an MTA employee, not a cop) seems to have just as compelling a reason for revenge; he has been demoted from management to desk clerk after allegations that he has taken a bribe. But unlike Ryder, Garber is willing to trust the system and have his day in court.

These two adversaries are emotionally connected throughout the film, the yin and yang of guilt, forgiveness and revenge. As if to emphasize this connection, both wear a single earring. Ryder’s is a small black cross while Garber’s is a white diamond, a subtle nod to the old days of film making when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black. In this film the guy with the black earring is white, and the guy wearing white is black, an equally subtle nod to the social issues that surrounded the original “Pelham” in 1974. In that film, Garber tries to cover his astonishment that the chief police inspector is black, the men in the control tower have to “watch [their] language just because they let a few broads in” as employees, Japanese businessmen are mocked mercilessly during a tour, the black passenger is a pimp, and Garber mistakenly calls a long-haired undercover policeman, “Miss.”

These issues of race, gender, and ethnicity are largely behind us now, thanks in part to films that forced us to address our own prejudices within the palliative darkness of a movie theater. Meanwhile, new stereotypes have taken their place–the corrupt politician, greedy businessman, and savvy stock manipulator continue to be fair game in Hollywood. One hopes that future filmmakers will realize that these stereotypes are equally unreasonable and outmoded, and will give conservatism and capitalism the respect they are due, with films that are just as entertaining and intense.

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit

“Blithe Spirit.” Noel Coward, playwright. Michael Blakemore, director. Shubert Theater, Broadway.

Here’s one of my immutable rules of theater enjoyment: If there’s a play by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, or Noel Coward in production, don’t miss it. Wilde and Shaw virtually invented the drawing room “comedy of manners” that exposed hypocrisy and boorishness among the Victorian elite, and Coward perfected it for the Edwardian age. Their plays are witty, quotable, acidic, light hearted, and dead on.  This season the Shubert Theater is presenting Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” and no matter how many times of seen it, it’s always great fun.

One of the reasons so many high school drama clubs choose these veteran playwrights so often is that they are virtually indestructible. The dialogue is so witty that it carries itself, even if the performances are amateurish and wooden. But in the hands of virtuoso performers like the dapper Rupert Everett and the divine Angela Lansbury, the result is sheer perfection.

Charles  (Everett), a mystery writer, is the model for Pierce Brosnan’s “Remington Steele” character–handsome, debonair, utterly at home in a tuxedo, and totally useless in the home. As the play begins, Charles and his wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), an imperious, no-nonsense socialite who rules the house and terrorizes the servants, have invited some friends to join them for a séance. They don’t believe in this stuff of course, but Charles wants to use the experience for a character he is developing in his latest novel.

Enter the star of this show, Angela Lansbury, as the medium Madame Arcati, who very much believes. Dressed incongruously in gypsy velvets and country tweeds, there is nothing “medium” about this larger-than-life Arcati. She sniffs the air for ectoplasm, listens for spirit voices, douses the lights, and prances vigorously around the stage like a hunter after her prey, in a dance that seems to be channeling the art deco poses of early modern dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan. This woman is 83 years old, mind you, dancing about the stage like a 4-year-old, bouncing over furniture and humming tunelessly to summon the spirits of the dearly departed.

And seeming to have the time of her life. Even when she forgets her lines (which happened two or three times at the performance I attended) she makes it part of the character, sputtering like a dotty old woman who can’t think of the proper word until the other character gives it to her, just as you would if you were talking to your own dotty Aunt Ida. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

During the séance, Madame Arcati unwittingly conjures up Charles’s first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), who then sticks around to haunt and torment her widowed husband and his new wife. Ebersole is considered the new Grand Lady of the Stage, modern Broadway’s answer to Helen Hayes or Gertrude Lawrence. She has won two Tony’s and numerous nominations. But for the life of me I can’t understand why.

Ebersole began her acting career in soap operas (“Ryan’s Hope,” “One Life to Live”) and she should have stayed there. She plays every role with a Judy Holiday whine and rushes each line as though she is worried the director will cut to commercial before she is finished. Good actors don’t just act, they react to events and interact with other actors. Not Miss Ebersole, however. I have seen her enter a scene, shout in agony, “You’re hair!” and THEN turn to look at her onstage daughter’s freshly shorn locks (as M’Lynn  in “Steel Magnolias.”) As Elvira, the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Ebersole is lovely to look at but painful to hear.

But as I said up front, you really can’t ruin a play by Coward. The snappy dialogue, the opulent sets, the stage direction, and the story itself carry it along. And then there is the angelic Angela. The title character of “Blithe Spirit” is meant to be Elvira, who normally steals the show with her ghostly tantrums and ectoplasmic pranks. But no one could steal this production from the sprightly  clutches of Angela Lansbury. After more than 70 years onstage and in films, she is truly a blithe spirit–happy, carefree, and, like a spirit, able to transcend her mortal octogenarian body and float across the stage, timeless and endearing.

My second immutable rule of theater enjoyment is this: if Angela Lansbury is in the cast, cross the continent, if necessary, to see it.