There’s nothing subtle about the work of Young Jean Lee, which includes the highly praised Untitled Feminist Show, and We’re Gonna Die. In one of her earliest works, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, she examines her own Korean heritage with such characters as Korean 1, Korean 2, White Person 1, White Person 2, and Korean American. “You know what’s awesome?” White Person 2 says to White Person 1. “Being white.” To which White Person 1 says, “I guess I never thought of it. And when I do think of it I feel like an asshole.” In many ways, that exchange can be seen as the starting point for Lee’s latest work, Straight White Men, which opened last night at the Public Theater. As the audience enters Martinson Hall, they are bombarded by thumping, extremely sexually graphic hip-hop songs by black women, mixed DJ style by Chris Giarmo. The ninety-five-minute show, which is broken into three acts without intermission, is set in a typical Midwest living room on Christmas Eve. Gathering together are the widowed patriarch, Ed (Austin Pendleton), his stay-at-home oldest son, Matt (James Stanley), his recently divorced middle boy, financial whiz Jake (Gary Wilmes), and his youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), a teacher and novelist. The three sons revert to juvenile action as they fight over the quality of the tree, needle each other with old stories from their childhood, drink eggnog, eat Chinese food, and play Privilege, an alternate version of Monopoly designed by their apparently radical dead mother. At one point, Jake lands on Excuses and draws a card that he reads out loud: “‘What I said wasn’t sexist / racist / homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.’” Social consciousness is central to the Nortons, so much so that Matt is living at home, taking care of his aging father, and working as a temp for a community organization, something that infuriates his brothers, who expect so much more from him. “Matt was always trying to save the world,” Ed says.
For the first two acts, Lee is at the top of her estimable game, constructing, then deconstructing, this carefully built world of white people celebrating Christmas as she subtly takes on race, religion, social and environmental responsibility, “cowardly macho bullshit,” materialism, checkbook activism, and Broadway show tunes. (The boys’ rendition of “Oklahoma!” is a riot: “OOOO-klahoma / Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the pain / Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets / With our pointy masks upon our heads!”) The lighthearted patter and playful sibling rivalries play out as stereotypically as they can in a white family; Ed even sneaks white tube socks and candy canes into his sons’ Christmas stockings hanging on the mantel. Lee directs the show with a generous hand, allowing for broad comedy choreographed with panache by regular collaborator and fellow Guggenheim Fellow Faye Driscoll. Lee is also commenting on theater itself; in between acts, Public Theater personnel silently clean up the set with the lights on, emphasizing the fiction that is under way onstage. But the story takes a decidedly different turn in the third act, as Ed, Jake, and Drew try to discover what happened to Matt’s long-gone ambitions. The last scenes feel overly workshopped, extended with with role-playing and arguments that feel out of character with the world Lee has established to that point. It’s not merely the mean-spiritedness that’s confusing or that Lee’s usually penetrating insight is so uncomfortable as much as she has boiled the story down to a central issue that goes nowhere, even if that is her point. But that doesn’t take anything away from her outstanding cast. Wilmes (Chinglish, Red Light Winter) channels Otter from Animal House as Jake, who believes in tough love; Simpson is edgy and unpredictable as Drew; Stanley, evoking Peter Fonda, is calm and sensitive as the troubled Matt; and the ubiquitous Pendleton, a theater mainstay as writer, director, and actor ever since his portrayal of the tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof, is tender and gentle as the concerned father.
SVA Theatre, AMC Loews 19th St., Carlton Hotel, Joe’s Pub
November 18-23, $15-$125
The eleventh edition of the South Asian International Film Festival, which was founded by Shilen Amin to present works from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal and from within the Indian Diaspora, takes place November 18-23, consisting of eight feature films, four shorts, after-parties, receptions, and live music. The opening-night selection, X., is one of several festival films dealing with the art of the movies themselves, made by eleven Indian directors sharing in telling the story of a filmmaker by exploring his sexual past. In Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (Cold Heart), a young director tries to make a reality gangster flick (Subbaraj will participate in a Q&A following the November 21 world premiere screening at the SVA Theatre), while a Bollywood writer heads to Hollywood in the centerpiece world premiere of Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.’s Happy Ending. Other films include Shrihari Sathe’s Ek Hazarachi Note, Kanu Behl’s Titli, and Nabeel Qureshi’s closing-night, Karachi-set Na Maloom Afraad, which will also be followed by a Q&A. Wednesday night’s after-party at Joe’s Pub will be highlighted by a live performance by Raveena Aurora, while filmgoers are invited to mingle with the filmmakers at the closing-night cocktail reception on Sunday.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 7, $25
Inspired by several trips to Rwanda, Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall approaches the horror of the 1994 genocide from a different perspective in Our Lady of Kibeho, the second play of her three-work Signature Theatre residency and the follow-up to Hurt Village. Based on actual events, the play, set in 1981-82, tells the story of sixteen-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke (Nneka Okafor), a student at an all-girls Catholic school in the small village of Kibeho in Rwanda. As a choir sings a religious hymn in the Kinyarwanda language, the mean Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford) and the handsome headmaster Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) are arguing over what to do with Alphonsine, who claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Kibeho. While the sister wants to severely punish the girl for telling such obvious lies, the father wants to first find out more about what happened. “I am not lying. I promise. I only speak the truth,” Alphonsine says, desperate for everyone to believe her, for she needs to spread the message Our Lady is imparting to her. Sister Evangelique and student leader Marie-Clare Mukangango (Joaquina Kalukango) conspire to prove Alphonsine wrong, but when more girls begin to see the visions, soon Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) arrives from the Vatican to attempt to validate the claim.
Our Lady of Kibeho takes place on the Signature’s Irene Diamond Stage, with three video projections by Peter Nigrini of the Rwandan mountains around Kibeho set high on the walls; combined with Rachel Hauck’s village set, Emily Rebholz’s costumes, and Michael McElroy’s African music, the design places the audience right in the middle of the action, especially as director Michael Greif (Next to Normal, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…) has members of the cast literally walk through the crowd. It’s as if the audience is being asked to believe just as much as the characters are, especially during a fantastic, otherworldly scene that closes the first act. But Hall (The Mountaintop, Children of Killers) never proselytizes, incorporating the ethnic battle between Hutu and Tutsi as the girls fight among themselves, their relationships changing as more of them believe what Alphonsine is telling them, a call for prayer to prevent a frightening prophecy of Rwanda’s future. The fine cast is led by Okafor, Benford, Odera, and Mandi Masden as Anathalie Mukamazimpaka, the second disciple. Our Lady of Kibeho is a moving, powerful, terrifically staged play about innocence and faith, about prejudice and belief, an involving tale no matter what religion, if any, you might be. (As with all Signature productions, the wall outside the theater is filled with information about the play and the real story, but it’s better to read it all afterward so as not to spoil the narrative surprises as the drama unfolds.)
CINÉSALON: SWIMMING POOL (François Ozon, 2003)
French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Tuesday, November 18, $13, 4:00 & 7:30
Series continues Tuesdays through December 16
Charlotte Rampling is divine in François Ozon’s playfully creepy mystery about a popular British crime novelist taking a break from the big city (London) to recapture her muse at her publisher’s French villa, only to be interrupted by the publisher’s hot-to-trot teenage daughter. Rampling stars as Sarah Morton, a fiftysomething novelist who is jealous of the attention being poured on young writer Terry Long (Sebastian Harcombe) by her longtime publisher, John Bosload (Game of Thrones’s Charles Dance). John sends Sarah off to his elegant country house, where she sets out to complete her next Inspector Dorwell novel in peace and quiet. But the prim and proper — and rather bitter and cynical — Sarah’s working vacation is soon intruded upon by Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), John’s teenage daughter, who likes walking around topless and living life to the fullest, clearly enjoying how Sarah looks at her and judges her. “You’re just a frustrated English writer who writes about dirty things but never does them,” Julie says, and soon Sarah is reevaluating the choices she’s made in her own life. Rampling, who mixes sexuality with a heart-wrenching vulnerability like no other actress (see The Night Porter, The Verdict, and Heading South), more than holds her own as the primpy old maid in the shadow of a young beauty, even tossing in some of nudity to show that she still has it. (Rampling has also posed nude in her sixties in a series of photographs by Juergen Teller alongside twentysomething model Raquel Zimmerman, so such “competition” is nothing to her.)
Rampling has really found her groove working with Ozon, having appeared in four of his films, highlighted by a devastating performance in Under the Sand as a wife dealing with the sudden disappearance of her husband. Sagnier, who has also starred in Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women, is a delight to watch, especially as things turn dark. Swimming Pool is very much about duality; the film opens with a shot of the shimmering Thames river while the title comes onscreen and Philippe Rombi’s score of mystery and danger plays, and later Sarah says, “I absolutely loathe swimming pools,” to which Julie responds, “Pools are boring; there’s no excitement, no feeling of infinity. It’s just a big bathtub.” (“It’s more like a cesspool of living bacteria,” Sarah adds.) Ozon (Time to Leave, Criminal Lovers) explores most of the seven deadly sins as Sarah and Julie get to know each other all too well. Swimming Pool is being shown November 18 at 4:00 and 7:30 as part of the French Institute Alliance Française CinéSalon series “The Art of Sex and Seduction,” with the later screening introduced by filmmaker Ry Russo-Young and followed by a wine reception; the series continues Tuesdays through December 16 with Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake introduced by Alan Brown, Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress introduced by Melissa Anderson, and François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women introduced by Laura Kipnis, all complemented by Jean-Daniel Lorieux’s “Seducing the Lens” photography exhibition.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 14, $75-$95
In 1969, Michael J. Arlen wrote Living-Room War, a seminal book that examined how the Vietnam War was beamed into the homes of American families over the television. “I do know,” he surmised, “that the cumulative effect of all these three- and five-minute film clips . . . is bound to provide these millions of people with an excessively simple, emotional, and military-oriented view of what is, at best, a mighty unsimple situation.” Indeed, there was nothing simple about the Vietnam War, and there’s nothing simple about David Rabe’s 1971 play, Sticks and Bones, which is in the midst of an unsettling, unnerving, yet mesmerizing revival by the New Group in its new home at the Signature Center. Part of Rabe’s war quartet, which also includes The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Streamers, and The Orphan, Sticks and Bones is set in the living room of that most American of families, the lily-white Nelsons from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, who are living in an absurdist alternate reality, cut off from the rest of society, as neither their telephone nor, ironically enough, their rabbit-ear television works very well. Their only connection with the outside world comes in the form of their priest, Father Donald (a smooth and steady Richard Chamberlain), who regularly blesses Harriet (a delightfully madcap Holly Hunter) during his visits, and a hulking black army sergeant major (a commanding Morocco Omari) who delivers their son, David (a bold Ben Schnetzer), who lost his eyesight while fighting in Southeast Asia, back home to them, not quite what he used to be.
Gruff and direct, the sergeant major stays just a few minutes, as he has a convoy of other deliveries, returning more broken bodies and souls to confused parents and siblings. At first the blind David resists his homecoming, arguing that these people are not his family, but eventually everyone tries to make it work, with limited success. The fidgety, wholly uncomfortable Ozzie (a sensational Bill Pullman, his energy at times recalling Robin Williams’s) mutters about his past, a tightly wound Harriet bakes and cleans, confusedly trying to reach her wounded veteran son, and younger son Ricky (a very funny Raviv Ullman) drinks soda, eats fudge, and plays his ever-present guitar, willfully maintaining the fiction that nothing of consequence is going on around them while David hides out in his room with a vision of Zung (the mysterious Nadia Gan), the Vietnamese lover he left behind. Rabe, who served in Vietnam himself, and director Scott Elliott maintain a quirky, disconcerting tension throughout the play’s nearly three hours on Derek McLane’s wonderfully quaint 1960s sitcomlike living-room set, complete with swinging kitchen door and upstairs bedroom where we can see David, no longer a child, sleeping in a room meant for a boy. America had a whole lot of growing up to do during the Vietnam era, and Sticks and Bones depicts just how difficult the change was, rending the social fabric of a country still trying to get over the assassination of a beloved president. Pullman embodies all of that fear and desire, his every motion off-putting and unbalanced as he portrays a man terrified of seeing what’s right in front of him, his sometimes cosmic reflections serving as commentary on the history of twentieth-century American manhood. Hunter is a marvelous bundle of energy as Harriet, flitting about the house, flirting with the priest, and truly believing there are easy answers to every dilemma. Sticks and Bones debuted in 1971 at the Public Theater and won the 1972 Tony for Best Play in a Broadway production that starred David Selby, Tom Aldredge, Elizabeth Wilson, Cliff DeYoung, and Charles Siebert; it was also made into a television movie by Robert Downey Sr. in 1973. The New Group, which previously staged a 2005 revival of Rabe’s Hurlyburly and premiered his An Early History of Fire in 2012, gets to the heart of the matter with Sticks and Bones, even though it’s too long, it’s extremely exacting to watch, and it feels a bit out-of-date, as Americans now experience war, and treat returning soldiers, in very different ways. But it still makes for a gripping and unusual theatrical experience, that more powerful the night we saw it, on Veterans Day.
Named for the U-shaped bend in a river, Ivy Baldwin’s BAM commission, Oxbow, is an evocative five-person dance steeped in the language of Movement Research, where the New York-based choreographer and Guggenheim Fellow is an artist-in-residence (as she also is at the BAM Fisher). With the audience sitting on three sides of the stage, the sixty-minute piece opens with Ryan Tracy, dressed in black, playing an elegiac solo on a piano in one of the near corners of the stage. After finishing his composition, he walks to the back and lies down on his stomach as Eleanor Smith appears, shaking and stretching in a black top and white pants. She is soon joined by Luke Miller (replacing an ill Lawrence Cassella) in all white, Katie Workum in a red dress, the exquisite Anna Carapetyan in red and black (the costumes are by fashion designer Alice Ritter), and Tracy as they move about the stage in front of Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen’s massive horizontal installation of twisted paper, often in silence. The audience can often hear their heavy breathing and every squeak of their feet against the floor; Justin Jones’s live-mixed sound design also includes barely audible background music and unidentifiable crunching sounds, and at one point Smith bangs on the keyboards as well.
I don’t know if Baldwin has ever seen William A. Wellman’s classic 1943 Western, The Ox-Bow Incident, or read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s original novel, but I couldn’t help but see a lot of narrative elements and referents from that famous story about a posse determined to hang three men who might or might not be cattle rustlers who murdered a rancher. Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s sculpture looks like a scorched fallen tree with ropes that could have been nooses, the black-and-white costumes could symbolize good and evil, and the two women in red could represent the potential death of innocent people (as do a series of sudden wailing screams). Regardless, Oxbow is a riveting dance performed by an extremely talented company highlighted by Smith and Carapetyan, who have danced together before in such works as Juliana F. May’s Gutter Gate at New York Live Arts in 2012, in addition to the elegant Workum, the agile Miller, and the surprisingly nimble Tracy. Throughout Oxbow, the performers keep a close watch on one another as they interact in a lovely piece by an imaginative choreographer who is always worth watching as well.