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Shows Worth Seeing:


Point Blank
By Edit Kaldor
P.S. 122
150 1st Ave.

Box office: (212) 352-3101

This small, quiet, unassuming show by Budapest-born, American-educated Edit Kaldor packs an oddly powerful punch. A petite, short blonde, Kaldor presents herself as a nondescript, 19-year-old Finnish girl named Nada who is unsure what to do with her life and goes tramping around Europe taking pictures of strangers with a powerful zoom lens. She assembles some 70,000 photos, many quite invasive, and has been obsessively categorizing them in the hope that the organization process might help her make some decisions about her future. As she speaks, conducting a sort of quasi-public slide show aided by a friend at a laptop, selected photos are projected onto two large screens behind her, along with the elaborate organizational folder-trees from her computer’s photo storage. Slowly we realize that, her air of ordinariness notwithstanding, this girl is consumed by her categorizing process. It has become a substitute for actual experience. Traveling may teach some people greater worldliness, but with Nada it seems to have exacerbated a profound psychic isolation bordering on autism. She has no apparent ability to feel passionate desire beyond the dry questions of categorization in her folders, and she expresses no emotional connections with actual people, only with the appearance of people in her candid and interesting yet ultimately pseudo-intimate snapshots. The resonance of all this for the rest of us in our screen- and image-obsessed era is deep and troubling. Kaldor's anti-spectacle is also especially forceful due to the crafty understatement of her modest affect. This is a shrewd and perceptive artist from whom we are sure to hear more in years to come.




Opening Night
By John Cassavetes
Adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulten St., Brooklyn

Box office: (718) 636-4100

Ivo Van Hove’s Opening Night is a rare theatrical quantity: a stage adaptation of a celebrated film that is far and away better than the film. John Cassavetes wrote and directed Opening Night in 1977 as a rueful meditation on ageing: a vain and famous actress (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’s wife) deliberately ruins the last previews of a Broadway-bound play with drunken antics and tantrums, then seems to suffer a mental breakdown triggered by the accidental death of a girl seeking her autograph. It was Cassavetes’s most personal film, and to see it today is to recognize how unnecessarily blurred and hobbled it was by tedious indulgences: long slogs through trite alcoholic stupors, important story points muddied by the fixation on monotonous, brooding closeups. At 146 minutes, the film feels an hour too long.

Van Hove says he is a Cassavetes fan. He recognizes the filmmakers’ self-critical “adult” atmosphere as akin to the complex, self-conscious aura he always works to generate onstage. Importantly, though, he never saw this particular film. He worked only from Cassavetes’s screenplay in developing this adaptation with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and that’s no doubt why its story is so clear and engaging. One sees for the first time how strong the subplots were involving the actress’ first husband, the director and his wife, and the dead girl, for they now shine through as penetrating and necessary rather than as histrionic excrescences. The dead girl, always a quintessentially theatrical touch, is now a much more forceful and disturbing presence. The alcoholism is treated with a sense of measure, one of a number of physical excesses that the play shows up as conceits. And most crucially, the story’s multiple locations are folded into a terrifically flexible unit set outfitted as a rehearsal stage. Actors change costume there, actual spectators are seated to one side, and camera operators shoot live video of the action that is projected into large screens above, allowing us to see almost everything in closeup and panorama all at once. Thus technology handles the essential metadramatics of the tale, its all-important self-consciousness about the theater, so the actors are left free to enact the painful story, pushing it unforgettably toward its bittersweet, beautifully indeterminate closure with the prima donna reluctantly regaining reason. This is unquestionably the high point of the BAM season so far: at the same length as the film, it earns every minute and more.



Billy Elliot: the Musical
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John
Imperial Theatre

249 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Curiously enough, this eagerly awaited musical adaptation of the movie Billy Elliot is almost as good as its hype. The story about a boy from a gritty northern English coal-mining town who discovers a passion for ballet was always irresistibly charming—just the sort of triumph-against-the-odds, home-town-boy fairytale Hollywood got rich on. The British adaptors of this show have been unusually clever, though, in giving the tale strong theatrical legs. Elton John’s rousing anthems and ballads pull all the right heartstrings to make the audience cheer for both the boy’s success and the victory of the union in the 1980s miners’ strike that forms the play’s social background. But since that strike ultimately failed—the Thatcher government famously broke the union—the play’s impassioned cries of “solidarity” have decidedly funereal overtones, and the story of the boy’s individual triumph has particular poignancy against the bitter failure of his loved ones’ collective action. This incongruity gives the work a modest political complexity that other Cinderella stories lack. The show is also wonderfully inventive. Director Stephen Daldry (who also directed the movie) has inserted bizarrely fluid choruses of cops and miners, for instance, who spread their good and bad energy willy-nilly while sweeping through windows, gyms and kitchens. At one point, Billy dances a strangely anomalous pas de deux with his imagined older self, who seems to provide the only viable adult role model he can muster. There are half a dozen inspired creations of this kind, as well as superb performances by (among others): Haydn Gwynne, who finds just the right mixture of stoniness and congealed syrup for Billy’s dance teacher; Carole Shelley as his wacked out grandmother; and the three child-actors who play Billy (I saw Kiril Kulish). It feels decidedly odd to endorse a blockbuster London import in this way, but, well, this show deserves to be seen.




By David Rabe
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St.
Box office: (212) 719-1300

What a happy surprise this Roundabout revival of Streamers is. I vaguely remember liking David Rabe’s play when it first appeared more than three decades ago, but I haven’t seen or read it since and who trusts memories that old? Turns out, it does tell a crackling good story, as I remembered. More than that, though, I now see that it’s one of those rare American plays that transcends its strict realism due to the author’s sheer power of concentration, his ability to follow through unflinchingly while tracing out the consequences of his shrewdly drawn, volatile given circumstances. Rabe never blinks in depicting this awful collision between soldiers of different classes, races and sexual orientations, who are thrown together in a Virginia army barracks while awaiting probable orders to Vietnam. The outlines of the play’s scenario, thus described, may easily sound like a yawn, since countless plays and movies have exploited it for tendentious or sentimental ends. No easy bromides or message-billboards for Rabe, though. His people are dauntingly complex and multi-colored, and their terrible showdown has broad allegorical resonance, even an air of tragic inevitability. Scott Ellis’s production is smart, swift and unexpectedly potent given that he keeps it rather cool until the climactic violence. The actors are clear and penetrating, though some are definitely stronger than others: J.D. Williams is dead-on as diplomatic Roger, as is Ato Essandoh as menacing Carlyle, but Brad Fleischer never quite finds the blustery uncertainty that sets Billy up as a sacrificial goat. In any case, the strength of the ensemble makes up for spotty deficiencies, and the people seated around me were visibly shaken by the ending.


Louis Cancelmi and Reed Birney in Sarah Kane's "Blasted," Directed by Sarah Benson, Soho Rep, 2008. Photo: Simon Kane.



By Sarah Kane
Soho Rep
46 Walker St.
Box office: (212) 352-3101








Sarah Kane’s suicide in 1999 was a great loss to the contemporary theater, but until recently it has been very difficult for New York theatergoers to understand why. The willfully unconventional plays Crave and 4:48 Psychosis have been seen here in dreadfully static and morose productions that have left an impression of Kane as basically a documentarian of depression, a psychological basket case with a flair for oratorio. Now there is finally more to talk about, because of the long belated New York premiere of Blasted, the play that made Kane notorious in Britain. Written in 1995, Blasted is, on one level, an over-the-top indulgence in repellent violence. With its mélange of rape, torture, disease, terrorism, cannibalism and more, it outdoes even the most brutal dramas of the “in-yer-face” genre to which it belongs. The difference is that Kane also has deeper political ambitions in this work, and they shine through in both the public and private action, reverberating unforgettably from the war raging outside the hotel room where the play is set to the horrifying personal negotiations inside. Sarah Benson’s lucid and superbly cast production isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it should be seen by anyone interested in clawing for some no-bullshit, redemptive air in the tunnel of ageless human violence. Historically, it is also fascinating, and saddening, to recognize that the violent legacy of Edward Bond and Howard Brenton actually bore nourishing dramatic fruit for a brief moment in the 1990s. Side note: the ingenious, spot-on set design by Louisa Thompson, which must self-destruct halfway through the action, is alone enough reason to see this show.


The cast of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," directed by Simon McBurney, 2008. Photo: Joan Marcus.

All My Sons

By Arthur Miller
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th St.
Box office: 212-439-6200

For obscure reasons, we seem to need the British to show us how to breathe life into America’s most heroic dramatist from the last century. This time it’s the director Simon McBurney who has taken an Arthur Miller play more than 60 years old and made it seem as fresh as a new Tony Kushner work. I’ve seen All My Sons several times before, and it has always seemed to me a rather straightforward nugget of 1930s leftist moralism: the protagonist, Joe Keller, is a heel because he knowingly sold defective airplane parts to the Army Air Force during wartime and blamed his partner for the crime, all (he says) so he could leave his sons a successful business—an extremely moving but also rather tidy and obvious fable demonstrating the necessity to look beyond callous capitalist imperatives to our larger social responsibilities. Refreshingly, McBurney’s production reveals a more complex tale where motives are deeper and more contradictory than the characters’ self-justifying bluster implies. Patrick Wilson’s Chris, for instance, the dutiful war-veteran son whose uncompromising idealism drives Joe to suicide in the end, comes across here not as a hapless naïf but rather as another type of killer, ruthless in moral rigidity where Joe was ruthless in profit-seeking. Diane Wiest as Joe’s wife Kate and Katie Holmes as Ann, the girl Chris wants to marry, are just as multifarious in their nuances. The production is also a visual feast, with sumptuous animated projections against a clapboard back wall and a Midwestern yard sketched with just the right iconic objects (design by Tom Pye). In an interview in the 1990s, Miller said that All My Sons was being produced more than many of his other plays, and he guessed it was because of the high number of public investigations going on into official malfeasance in business and government. Had he lived a little longer, he would have understood another reason: the arrival of apparently endless war, which has made the genre of returning-soldier drama heart-breakingly apt. All My Sons is more than a returning-soldier drama, but that aspect of it is hard to forget as the climax arrives and drives home the pointed question of how basic our civilized values are, and what it really means for a nation to say, reflexively and habitually, that we must win at all costs.



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