A revival of Harold Pinter’s play, The Caretaker, is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Harvey Theater through June 17th. The three-character drama unfolds in a single cluttered and dingy London room.
The BAM website summarizes the plot:
“A pair of working-class brothers allows a homeless man to stay in their decrepit London flat, an act of compassion that sparks a cycle of cruelties, delusions, and shifting loyalties in a desperate struggle over territory. Pinter’s first great success, this work powerfully displays his sharp intelligence, masterful and spare use of language, and uncompromising exploration of life’s menace and comedy.”
The brothers are mirror images of each other. The quiet, sweater-vested older brother (Aston) shows unusual generosity to the homeless man. The younger brother (Mick) bursts into the scene in a leather jacket and cuffed jeans. First, I thought the younger brother was crazy and the older one sane; then the reverse appeared to be true. Ultimately, I decided they were both insane in different ways.
The homeless man gives his name as Bernard Jenkins, but admits that name is an alias; his real name is Mac Davies. Despite the focus on the man’s names (The Caretaker/Jenkins/Davies), the brothers are never identified by name.
Initially, Jenkins is grateful for a bed to sleep in, but like most people, his gratitude doesn’t last. Soon he is complaining about the draft from the window and about the broken stove sitting too close to his bed. Right off, he pesters Aston to find him a decent pair of shoes. Bernard is pretty fussy about the shoes it turns out, and he is ungrateful for the attempts that Aston makes to get him a pair.
Jenkins gets on his roommate’s nerves by nightly groaning in his sleep. In this respect, Jenkins and Aston could be any pair of roommates on the globe.
Jenkins and Aston have a common personality flaw. Both talk about what they need to do, how to “get fixed up.” Aston talks and talks about starting to build a shed, the first step in the remodeling project he must do. Jenkins must travel to Sidcup to get “his papers,” documents that were entrusted to someone fifteen years before. Each man is paralyzed and cannot take the first step to achieve his primary goal.
Mick, the younger brother, is an emotional rollercoaster—first angry, then friendly, then angry again. Both brothers offer Jenkins a position as caretaker of the premises, a vague position with unclear duties. With offers from both brothers, Jenkins attempts to play one brother off the other, a dangerous game when he has nothing of his own.
Jenkins shows a righteous anger that he isn’t entitled to, but his anger is wrapped in the universal dignity humans try to preserve in face of all adversity. When Bernard alienates both brothers, he tosses away his dignity and pleads to stay.
Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), as Jenkins/Davies, owns the show with subtle humor as he portrays a man and his dignity at the lowest rung of society.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure, but the play’s action and subtleties will linger in my mind for some time.
BAM’s Harvey Theater with its cozy intimacy, enhances the set, a cluttered flat with a dirty skylight and the never-ending rain. The theater walls remind me of antique parchment paper partially stripped away exposing piping and cinder blocks. I felt I was watching great theater in an old sacred space.
Bessie Smith sang the blues or “the devil’s music,” as some called it. She rose to fame during the bluesiest of eras, the 1920’s. Toughened by a poor childhood, Bessie’s hardscrabble life was interrupted by a few brief years in the sun.
During the 1920’s, Bessie signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and earned more money than any other black entertainer in America—in the world for that matter.
She lost her contract during The Depression, when musical tastes swung away from the blues. People were living the blues; they didn’t want to hear them, Bessie said. In 1937, with a comeback in her crosshairs, Bessie died in an auto accident on the dark, two-lane road from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The Blues Off-Broadway
Few people remember Bessie Smith now. Many never heard of her; some recall her name but can only recollect the ubiquitous sound of tinny recordings.
Get to know who Bessie Smith was at the Off-Broadway show, “The Devil’s Music: the Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” at St Luke’s Theater (308 W 46th St).
Bessie is played by Miche Braden, herself a big girl, who makes a powerful impression. Braden wears a sweeping purple gown accessorized with diamonds and a fur stole. When she sings, she throws her hands back and her hips forward, a gesture that says “this is me and I am real.” Her voice makes a powerful impression too, but she doesn’t sound like the real Bessie. Maybe it’s the tin that’s missing.
The show takes place in a “buffet flat,” a gathering place where black musicians and friends hung out. Bessie’s loyal musicians are behind her as they party together on the last night of her life.
Between swigs of hooch and bluesy songs, Bessie tells a life’s worth of stories in bits and pieces. She makes no excuses or apologies for her drinking, her temper, or her love of both men and women.
Tough Bessie chokes up only when she speaks of her adopted son and how she lost custody of the boy. Bessie accepts her no-good husband Johnny Gee’s greed, violence and philandering as that‘s the way love is. But the boy’s love meant everything to her, even if she wasn’t around much to care for him.
Every time Bessie utters the word “death” during the course of the show, she cramps up in pain. Ms. Smith knew she wouldn’t see a ripe old age, but her physical reaction to the word made me wince at the obvious device.
St. Louis Blues
Bessie asks the audience (mostly rhetorically) if they’ve ever seen her movie. She answers “Yeah, well, neither did anyone else.” The movie she’s referring to is the 1929 Paramount classic, “St. Louis Blues.” In the film, her man Jimmy leaves her alone and broke. It then transitions to Bessie at a bar singing a beautiful version of the W.C. Handy song.
In this performance, recorded live on a soundstage, Bessie is joined by a band and a Grecian chorus of extras portraying customers at the bar. The result is unique and fascinating. This is the only recorded version of this particular arrangement, and it is hauntingly beautiful.
Braden’s reference to the long-forgotten film is followed by her excellent rendition of “St. Louis Blues,” performed mostly a few feet away from us (she moved among the audience frequently throughout the show).
We immersed ourselves in The Silence of the Lambs this weekend. We watched the movie twice straight through, then watched the outtakes, then the documentary and then the movie straight through again.
All this watching was preparation for Silence! The Musical, a parody of the 1991 movie playing Off-Broadway at PS 122 (150 1st Ave). A Greek chorus of dancing “lambs” dressed in black with floppy white ears, white fuzzy gloves and black plastic “hoof” cups opened the show.
Jenn Harris as Clarice Starling nailed Jodie Foster’s West Virginia accent and slight lisp that escaped my notice when watching the movie. David Garrison played a remarkable Hannibal Lecter, not an easy task considering Anthony Hopkins’ classic blue-eyed glare is burned into the public memory.
The Silence! cast acted out the entire movie with sped-up dialogue, pouncing on the many lines in the film that are ripe for parody. (“It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”)
Some of the most memorable songs are Buffalo Bill’s “Are You About a Size 14?” and “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket” and of course, the song I can’t get out of my mind, “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.”
The production did so much with so little–just a bare set save three rolling racks of patchwork-sewn “skin.” The dance numbers were choreographed cleverly, especially the dream dance sequence with Clarice and Hannibal. Glitter Hannibal spun Glitter Clarice whose legs split parallel from floor to ceiling, adding extra dimension to the production’s most memorable song.
I highly recommend that you see the movie before you see Silence! Some of the funniest bits in the musical require the audience to remember details of the movie. Well, Clarice, maybe the lambs have stopped screaming, but they are still dancing.
Attitudes about race from both sides of the fence expose themselves in Race, David Mamet’s play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.
The structure is simple: a single set with four characters and an unseen fifth character, a red-sequined dress that the audience only sees on the cover of their Playbill.
The action takes place in an austere, book-lined room in a law firm. The law partners, one black, one white, played by Dennis Haysbert and Eddie Izzard, are deciding whether to take the case of Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), a rich, white man accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room.
The lawyers’ approach is rational: can they win? What isn’t the client telling? Why did he dismiss his first lawyer? Or did the first lawyer dismiss him? Then back to the question, can they win?
The young and pretty junior lawyer who witnesses their debate interferes in the action making a seemingly novice mistake. Susan’s actions take the play from the surface racial questions to unmasking the deep prejudices within all four characters.
Afton Williamson gives a powerful performance as Susan, the role originated by Kerry Washington. The demure Susan of Act 1 morphs into an angry, vengeful, yet naive, character at the play’s end.
Henry Brown (Dennis Haysbert), is a world-weary realist yet commands the stage in a way his partner should have but couldn’t. Partner Jack Lawson (Eddie Izzard of whom I am a big fan), performed well as the hyper, type-A, star lawyer but didn’t have the presence of the other three actors.
Finally, Richard Thomas (Charles Strickland) will forever be John-Boy Walton to me and I apologize to Mr. Thomas for that. But John-Boy has made good on Broadway and doesn’t give away his guilt or innocence.
Like all Mamet’s work, the play is powerful and lingers in your mind long after the curtain has gone down.
I saw the play The Diary of a Teenage Girl Sunday night. The teenager, Minnie, has a lot to tell dear diary—far more than the typical teenager. That is, I hope she has far more material than the typical teenager. After sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend, what worse choices could she make? Quite a few, it turns out.
Minnie dives into the seedy side of 1976 San Francisco with confused exuberance. She lacks boundaries; her mother, just an old teenager herself, lives to party. In her own way, mom worries about Minnie, but not enough to take action.
Based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the play’s tagline is “a story of female sexuality and unabashed optimism”. I don’t know about unabashed optimism, but Minnie’s optimism is certainly rebounds time after time.
The play, staged at the Three Legged Dog, an ultra-modern space in Tribeca, literally happens all around you. The audience sits on carpeted steps and leans back on green cushions in the bowl-shaped theater. Center stage is only one step down from where I sat. At times, the actors performed only inches away from me. The five-actor team used the raised perimeter of the room and the multiple entrances to create a surreal effect.
The warm brown theater “walls” with painted cream-colored arrows and flowers were the screen for the video and images that played through most of the show. Video appearing on all four walls added to the sense of being inside cartoon pages. Videos of the actors made you feel like you were seeing their home movies. The images, sometimes a pencil drawing, sometimes abstractions like water, added to the sense of a diary.
The play is engrossing and well worth seeing. Even if you were a different kind of kid, this show will take you back to those wonderful, horrible years of being a teenager.
C., my colleague and source of theater info, said the current production of A Chorus Line is nearly identical to the original Broadway classic of the mid 1970s. C. viewed this as a minor negative; I didn’t. Since I never saw the show before, my theater experience last night was a class in remedial theater.
My friend G. and I sat in the mezzanine, great seats for a full stage view. The set was simple, just a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling mirrors that pivoted around for a 360 view of the dance numbers. There was nothing else but a white line on the dance floor.
Three or four of the songs had permeated my brain sometime during the 80s and I got a little thrill when I recognized the first notes of a familiar tune. The show dragged for me only once when dancer Paul went on a bit too long with his childhood tale. Diana, my favorite cast member, was the smoothest dancer. She sang the vocal solo in What I did for Love.
Unfortunately, someone in my row kept coughing and worse, it was me. I tried hard to cough only during the applause, but I would feel the tickle in my throat rising every few minutes. I could stave off the cough for a bit with a sip of water, aware that I was capable of ruining the experience of the ardent woman next to me.
She softly tapped every beat on her thigh and mouthed every word of every song. She often led the applause and I wondered how many times she had seen the show.