The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 14, $59-$99
Kate Hamill follows up her inventive, extremely popular reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, a Bedlam production that ran at the Gym at Judson for nearly ten months, with another creative marvel, a twenty-first-century take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, which follows two very different young English women as they graduate from an exclusive girls school and head out into proper society during the Napoleonic Wars. “There are no morals here,” the manager (Zachary Fine), a kind of ringmaster for this anything-goes circus, tells the audience. Standing in front of the six other members of the cast, who are arranged not unlike a police lineup, he adds, “This is Vanity Fair, and it is not a moral place. Nor is it often a merry one, for all of its pageantry and noise.” He then asks the cast, “What do you want?” The answers include “Honor,” “Glory,” “Redemption,” “Love,” “Respect,” and “Money” until the actress playing Becky Sharp (Hamill) declares, “Everything.” And she’s willing to do just about anything to get it. Becky is a devious orphan and “dirty little bird,” a “charity pupil” at the Pinkerton Academy for Young Ladies; meanwhile, her best friend, Emmy Sedley (Joey Parsons), has “the advantage of good birth,” Miss Pinkerton (Ryan Quinn) notes, “possessed of every requisite feminine skill.” Upon graduating, Emmy is set to marry Lt. George Osborne (Debargo Sanyal) and take her preordained prestigious place in Vanity Fair, even though it’s actually George’s best friend, Captain Dobbin (Quinn), who is madly in love with her; Becky, on the other hand, will become governess to the Crawley family, consisting of Sir Pitt Crawley (Brad Heberlee); his son, Lesser Pitt (Sanyal), who is prone to spouting Bible verses; his “better son,” proud soldier Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe); Sir Pitt’s young wife, Lady Rose (Quinn); and Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister, Miss Matilda Crawley (Fine), who is coming to visit. Determined to make something of her life, Becky sets her sights on Emmy’s dandy of a brother, Jos (Heberlee), whose brutally honest father (O’Keefe), who works on the Exchange, continuously belittles him. At the heart of all of the gossip, insinuation, intrigue, jockeying for inheritance, and love matches is Becky’s determination to improve her station. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she announces, and she means it.
Hamill, who has also adapted Pride and Prejudice for Bedlam, takes a decidedly feminist approach to Vanity Fair, which is particularly fitting in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, as discussion of the election rages on, rife with claims of sexism and misogyny and arguments over the socially acceptable character for an ambitious female. Too cold and calculating? Not likable enough? Can a woman be too . . . sharp? Hamill, who played Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, has streamlined Thackeray’s novel into a treatise on judging morality, no matter the era. She plays Becky, a role previously portrayed on film by Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, and Reese Witherspoon, as a strong-minded “Nasty Woman” who believes she is capable of anything, that simply being poor and female is not going to hold her back from taking control of her life. Parsons (The Rivals, The Misanthrope) is terrific as the demure Emmy, who sticks by her friend despite their different views about the world. The five other actors all expertly play multiple roles, both male and female, blurring gender lines while also making fun of them. Sandra Goldmark’s set design, Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes, and Seth Reiser’s lighting turns the Pearl Theatre into a welcoming carnival, with Fine (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Coriolanus) as a fabulous host, interacting with the audience, making sly faces at key plot points, and engaging in a separate little hat-tossing drama of his own. The night I saw the show, Fine playfully teased an older man in the front row, predicting he would be asleep in minutes. At the beginning of the second act, when it became apparent that the man and his wife weren’t coming back, Fine’s improvisation was among the funniest moments of the show, which has plenty of them, without losing focus on its central exploration of what we all want, and just how much it matters, or doesn’t, in the end.
The opening scene of Shady Srour’s Holy Air, making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is utterly charming, as married couple Adam (Srour), a businessman, and Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo), the head of the Sexuality Center, are stuck in ridiculously heavy traffic. Lamia decides to use the extra time to take a pregnancy test, urinating right there in the car. That is shortly followed by one of the film’s most splendid images, of Adam in the bathtub, his heavily bearded face above the back edge, a glass of alcohol at the ready as the camera stays still. Unfortunately, the film is shaky the rest of the way, too repetitive and fussy with subplots that don’t feel natural. Whereas Lamia is pregnant, Adam’s father is a tough old guy, fighting cancer. Adam’s partnership with his friend Mahmoud isn’t going well, so, soon after encountering a priest singing the holy praises of Mount Precipice, Adam decides to bottle the air on the mountain and sell it as a tourist souvenir. The film takes on the Christian faith, capitalism, road rage, local gangsters, and growing old, but it works best when it focuses on Adam and Lamia together; just about everything else is overly sentimental, too goofy, or just plain nonsensical, which is too bad, because Srour (Sense of Need) and Lamia (Cleopatra in The Destiny of Rome) make for a lovable couple, caught up in the travails of modern-day Nazareth.
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $59-$189
The best musical on Broadway — yes, that includes Hamilton — will be going through a major casting change over the next few months involving the rather critical character of Pierre. But there’s no need to worry, as the show has proved since its debut at tiny Ars Nova in 2012 and subsequent move to a Meatpacking District tent before being presented at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard on its way to the current smash Broadway engagement. Superstar crooner Josh Groban will be playing Pierre through July 2, after which Oak Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in Hamilton and plays Afrika Bambaataa in The Get Down, will take over. In addition, Groban’s superb understudy, Scott Stangland, will play Pierre on April 25, and the original Pierre, Dave Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics, and orchestrations, will appear as his complex creation May 4-9 and June 13, 20, and 27. I have seen all three Pierres, and I can unequivocally say that it does not matter who you see as the downtrodden shell of a man who admits, “I never thought that I’d end up like this / I used to be better.” I actually preferred Stangland to Groban, the former more natural in the role of a man caught up in romantic intrigue in early-nineteenth-century Russia, based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace. Malloy was delightful as Pierre in the eighty-seven-seat Ars Nova, where the vodka poured freely. It’s really a no-lose situation, as Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 features such a large and talented ensemble cast and is so spectacularly staged by Rachel Chavkin that you shouldn’t go, or not go, simply based on star power. It’s an extraordinary electro-pop opera no matter who is onstage any given night.
THE INCIDENT (Larry Peerce, 1967)
209 West Houston St.
Sunday, November 3, $7, 11:00 am
One of the ultimate nightmare scenarios of 1960s New York City, Larry Peerce’s gritty black-and-white The Incident takes viewers deep down into the subway as two thugs terrorize a group of helpless passengers. Joe Ferrante (Tony Musante) and Artie Connors (Martin Sheen, in his first movie role) are out for kicks, so after getting some out on the streets, they head underground, where they find a wide-ranging collection of twentieth-century Americans to torture, including Arnold and Joan Robinson (Brock Peters and Ruby Dee), Bill and Helen Wilks (Ed McMahon and Diana Van der Vlis), Sam and Bertha Beckerman (Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter, in her last role), Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill), Muriel and Harry Purvis (Jan Sterling and Mike Kellin), Alice Keenan (Donna Mills), soldiers Felix Teflinger and Phillip Carmatti (Beau Bridges and Robert Bannard), and others, each representing various aspects of contemporary culture and society, all with their own personal problems that come to the surface as the harrowing ride continues. It’s a brutal, claustrophobic, highly theatrical film that captures the fear that haunted the city in the 1960s and well into the ’70s, with an all-star cast tackling such subjects as racism, teen sex, alcoholism, homosexuality, war, and the state of the American family. A DCP restoration of the rarely shown drama, some of which was filmed in the actual subway system against the MTA’s warnings, is screening April 26 at Film Forum, with the Bronx-born Peerce, who made such other films as A Separate Peace, Two-Minute Warning, The Bell Jar, and Goodbye, Columbus, on hand to discuss the work.
Saturday, April 22
“It is with deep honor and humility that I accept this ambassadorship. Rest assured I do not take my duties lightly,” says St. Vincent, the official ambassador for Record Store Day’s tenth anniversary event, taking place on April 22. Record stores all over the city will be participating, offering limited edition discs; the list includes Jazz Record Center, Record Mart, Rock and Soul Records, the various Academy stores, Second Hand Rose Music, Record Runner, Turntable Lab Storefront, Village Music World, Generation Records, In Living Stereo, Good Records NYC, Downtown Music Gallery, A-1 Records, Deadly Dragon Sound, and Record Grouch. Among the special 45s, twelve-inch singles, and LPs to watch out for is tunage by Prince, David Bowie, Sharon Jones, Peter Tosh, Ken Kesey, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt — and some living people as well, like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Drive by Truckers, David Crosby & the Lighthouse, Spoon, Bettie Serveert, Sting, Pokey LaFarge, Crooked Beat, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Mike Peters, and moe., in addition to tributes to Leonard Cohen and the Clash. There are also double-sided singles by Tegan and Sara / the Regrettes, the Flamin’ Groovies / Dylan Gardner, and Talking Heads / Wildling. Record stores keep going the way of the dinosaurs, so support your local music shop and listen to songs the way they were meant to be heard. Oh, and getting back to St. Vincent, who’s following in the footsteps of such previous ambassadors as Dave Grohl, Chuck D, and Iggy Pop, you can check out her preparation for her ambassadorial responsibilities here.
THE PENGUIN COUNTERS (Peter Getzels & Harriet Gordon, 2016)
22 East 12th St. between University Pl. & Fifth Ave.
Opens Friday, April 21
Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon’s The Penguin Counters arrives at Cinema Village just in time for World Penguin Day on April 25, which celebrates the cute and cuddly black-and-white (and often yellow) aquatic birds. However, the tuxedoed animals are facing a major challenge, as climate change threatens their very existence. The film follows Ron Naveen and his small team — Thomas Mueller of Frankfurt’s Biodiversity and Climate Research Center, research ecologist Steve Forrest, Stony Brook assistant professor Heather Lynch, and PhD candidates Mike Polito and Paula Casanovas — as they go from Argentina to Deception Island, tracking three varieties of penguins and following in the footsteps of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led a famously treacherous journey to the Antarctic in the first decade of the nineteenth century aboard the aptly named Discovery. In a bit of serendipitous luck, on a cruise ship he’s essentially hitchhiking on, Naveen meets Angie Butler, the biographer of Shackleton’s right-hand man, Frank Wild, who is transporting Wild’s ashes to South Georgia so they can be buried next to Shackleton’s remains, and Naveen joins her on her mission. Naveen, the founder and president of Oceanites, is gathering information for the Antarctic Site Inventory project, which has been detailing the plight of oceanic birds and the ecosystem for more than twenty years. “We’re not explorers, climbers, or athletes,” Naveen explains in a message about the film. “The weather we face is grueling. The terrain is hostile, and we’re only kitted out with golf-ball-sized tally-whackers and waterproof spiral notebooks. But our data has been instrumental in the formation of policies among polar scientists and the fifty member nations of the Antarctic Treaty Organization.”
“Penguins are my passion!” Naveen declares at the start of the film. “And why? Because penguins are indicators of ocean health, and they’re ultimately going to be sentinels of change.” Of course, penguins are also simply adorable, so the film is loaded with heartwarming shots of the flightless birds, as well as gorgeous panoramas of the Antarctic, lovingly photographed by Getzels and Erik Osterholm. And yes, there are scenes of his dedicated team counting nests in spectacular locations. A former government lawyer, Naveen’s cheerfulness about what he does is infectious, even in the face of dwindling numbers of penguins and the onslaught of climate change. But still, they’re just so darn cute. . . . After screening at film festivals all over the globe, The Penguin Counters opens April 21 at Cinema Village, with Getzels, Gordon, and Naveen participating in Q&As following the 7:15 shows April 21–26.
STREET OF SHAME (AKASEN CHITAI) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1956)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Saturday, April 22, 5:45
Monday, April 24, 3:15 & 9:15
Made the same year Japan passed a major anti-prostitution law, Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, 1956’s Street of Shame, is a brutally honest depiction of the decidedly unglamorous life of a group of courtesans at a Tokyo brothel. “Yoshiwara has been here three hundred years,” the Mamasan (Sadako Sawamura) says early on to a police officer. “Does an unnecessary business last so long?” Originally titled Red-Light District, the black-and-white film features an outstanding cast of women playing desperate geisha with serious family and financial problems that lead them to the embarrassment of trying to physically force men off the dark, dank street and into their rooms. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) has to deal with aging, a baby, and a suicidal husband, Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) doesn’t want her son to know what she does to earn money to attempt to give him a decent life, Yorie (Hiroko Machida) thinks a husband in a faraway village will gain her longed-for freedom, Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) has become a loan shark to her coworkers, and young Mickey (Machiko Kyō) is quick to share her opinions about the other women but not so quick to catch on to the debasement she is lowering herself to. The protofeminist director of such previous works as Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy, Women of the Night, and The Life of Oharu as well as the brilliant two-part samurai epic The 47 Ronin, Mizoguchi spent much of his career — which included more than seventy films in thirty-three years, up to his death in 1956 at the age of fifty-eight — making films about the exploitation of women, partly influenced by having seen his sister sold into prostitution by their father. It’s a shame that Street of Shame, one of Mizoguchi’s best, also turned out to be his last, but what a way to go. Street of Shame is screening April 22 and 24 in the ongoing “Welcome to Metrograph: A to Z” series, which continues in April with such other S films as Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong, and Lech Kowalski’s Story of a Junkie A.K.A. Gringo.