Anspacher Theater, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Tuesday through Sunday through December 22, $85
In October 1987, Tony Kushner’s first play, A Bright Room Called Day, premiered in San Francisco, directed by Oskar Eustis. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 anti-Nazi work The Private Life of the Master Race, Kushner’s play compared the rise of fascism in Germany in 1932–33 with the right-wing Reagan Revolution of the mid-1980s. With fascism and authoritarianism again on the march throughout the world — and, according to many, here in America as well under President Donald J. Trump — Kushner and Eustis are revisiting the drama in an enticing new version continuing at the Public’s Anspacher Theater through December 22. In the original production, the character of Zillah, a young Long Island black woman from the mid-1980s, interrupts the story of a group of bohemians in 1932–33 who are worried where Germany is heading. For this updated iteration, Kushner has drastically rewritten the part of Zillah and has added his alter ego, Xillah, an older white man representing Kushner himself in 2019.
The three-hour play begins with a prologue on January 1, 1932, at a small New Year’s Eve party with actress Agnes Eggling (Nikki M. James), her Hungarian Trotskyite partner, Vealtninc Husz (Michael Esper), opium-smoking actress Paulinka Erdnuss (Grace Gummer), avowed communist Annabella Gotchling (Linda Emond), and the gay Gregor Bazwald (Michael Urie), who may or may not be sleeping with Nazis. Xillah (Jonathan Hadary) first appears in scene two, as Agnes and Paulinka discuss Nazi filmmaking and politics. Xillah walks onto David Rockwell’s cramped, appropriately dingy living room set and says directly to the audience, “Ignore me. I’m not here.” He points at Agnes, who cannot see him, and adds, “She’s about to tell her friend about a meeting she went to, she’s very excited, she — Just watch the scene.” A moment later he explains, “This play, it’s my first play. I wrote it thirty-four years ago. I made this up: the inhabitant of this room, her friends, the room itself, this German room, where it’s 1932 and 1933, and” — he pauses as Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry) enters. “Long time no see,” she says to him. He goes on, “I made her up too. She’s this . . . woman in New York, in Reagan America, 1984, 1985. She interrupts the play, at certain intervals she —.” Zillah then cuts Xillah off and tells the audience, “I’m this author-surrogate interruptive-oppositional someone-or-other to whom the playwright neglected to give even a trace of a backstory or anything oppositional to do, to actually do except creep in between the Berlin scenes.” They keep on bickering about whether the original play worked. “Are you here to fix it? Finally?” asks this more potent Zillah, who does a lot more than just creep around.
The answer, of course, is yes. Although I haven’t seen the play before, this new version feels like it has been fixed — in fact, Kushner might have overplayed his hand, as Xillah and Zillah steal the show. While the Weimar Germany characters discuss how to proceed, joined by communist party representatives Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke), an old ghost from Agnes’s dreams (Estelle Parsons), and the devilish Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis) — you’ll be eagerly awaiting Xillah and Zillah’s next interruption. The 1930s material is okay but needs the thrilling energy that the anachronistic characters bring to break up the narrative, especially as performed by the wonderful, grandfatherly Hadary (Gypsy, As Is), who is wise and gentle as Xillah, and the powerful, unstoppable force that is Lucas-Perry Ain’t No Mo’, Bull in a China Shop), a charismatic dynamo as Zillah, taking over the stage every time she appears, injecting humor and potent insight.
“It’s 1932, and they’re placing power above the rule of law. It’s 1985, and they’re cynically exploiting racism and economic anxiety and fear of change,” she declares. “It’s 1932, it’s 1985, and they’re propagating a
politics of anti-politics, a hatred of the idea of government itself. They’re replacing history with myths of new mornings, dreams of blood purity, of race and gender and sexual purity. It’s 1932, and it’s 1985, and we are in danger.” Left unsaid is that all of that is true again in 2019, and we are in danger once more.
Kushner (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures; Caroline, or Change), who won the Pulitzer and two Tonys for Angels in America, and Eustis, the artistic director of the Public who helmed the world premieres of Angels and Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul in addition to the controversial anti-Trump adaptation of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte in the summer of 2017, keep politics at the forefront of their work, but here they successfully avoid didacticism, allowing the audience to figure out most of the parallels between the 1930s, the 1980s, and today, but they do get their digs in. Early on, Xillah says, “Most likely Donald Trump — and this is the last time his name will be mentioned tonight because it is a name that is hateful to God — most likely when you leave the theater in a reasonably little while, he will still be president and you will go to bed unhappy.” When you wake up the next morning, Trump will indeed still be president, but A Bright Room Called Day is likely to have given you a fresh new perspective.
SHOOTING THE MAFIA (Kim Longinotto, 2019)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Through December 5
Palermo native Letizia Battaglia took a major turn at the midpoint of her life, becoming a photojournalist at the age of forty, concentrating on brutal crime scenes often involving the Mafia. Now, at the age of eighty-four, her engrossing story is being told in the documentary Shooting the Mafia. The first female photographer to work for a daily Italian newspaper, Battaglia is a bold presence, dominating the screen, displaying a series of distinctive hair colors as she talks about her life and career, discussing her love affair with photography. “The camera changed my life. I began to find myself. Before that, I wasn’t a real person,” she tells director Kim Longinotto. But she wasn’t taking pictures of death for the thrill of it, or for sensationalism. She was determined to show everyone what was happening in Sicily, how the mob operated, leaving a bloody trail behind it as the police, the courts, and the local community looked away. “Photographing trauma is embarrassing. You love these people, but you have to take photos. I couldn’t tell them I was doing it with love,” she says while also explaining that people should not be ruled by fear.
At one point, in the town of Corleone, she sets up an outdoor exhibit of her black-and-white photos of Mafia killings and suspected Cosa Nostra leaders; showing such images in public breaks the code of silence and puts her own safety at risk as she receives death threats. She also enters politics as a Green Party councilor. “I wanted to build a better society,” she says. The latter parts of the film focus on the 1986-87 efforts of judges and prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino as they arrest and try a huge group of mafiosos led by Luciano Liggio and Totò Riina. Longinotto (Gaea Girls, Runaway, Dreamcatcher) and editor Ollie Huddleston interweave new interviews with Battaglia, her assistant, Maria Chiara Di Trapani, Battaglia’s former lovers and fellow photographers Santi Caleca, Eduardo Rebulla, and Franco Zecchin, and her current partner, Roberto Timperi, with archival news reports, home movies, family photographs, and clips from Alberto Lattuada’s 1951 film about sin and redemption, Anna. Through it all are Battaglia herself and her stunning photos, haunting pictures that you can’t look away from. “I want to take away the beauty that others see in them,” she says. “I want to destroy them.” Thank goodness she didn’t.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 8, $179 - $799
Just about all you need to know about Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is that, yes, there are two exclamation points in the title. If you thought Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie was over the top and filled to excess, wait till you see the Broadway show. Actually, let me take that back; just trust me and skip it unless you’re looking to toss away between $179 and $799 on a bright red saccharine bonbon. As you enter the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, you’re immersed in the sexy, velvety world of the Moulin Rouge, to great effect. (The set design is by the masterful Derek McLane.) Sultry men and women are there to greet and entice you at the sides of the stage, a large windmill beckons from above (“Moulin Rouge” means “red mill”), but beware the big blue elephant in the room. (Literally.) The opening number shows promise, with Danny Burstein leading the adult circus as nightclub owner and ringleader Harold Zidler, who declares, “Hello, chickens! Yes, it’s me. Your own beloved Harold Zidler. In the flesh. Welcome, you gorgeous collection of reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites, welcome to the Moulin Rouge!” He continues, “No matter your sin, you’re welcome here. No matter your desire, you’re welcome here. For this is more than a nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is a state of mind. It is that part of your soul which throbs and pulses, it is that corner of your mind where your fantasies live.” Well, not my fantasies, at least.
The sails come off the mill quickly after that, as the innocent and penniless Christian (Aaron Tveit) tumbles head over heels in love with Moulin Rouge star Satine (Karen Olivo), whom Zidler has already given to the Duke (Tam Mutu) in exchange for money that will help keep the club open. Meanwhile, French artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) follows along, commenting from a Montmartre café. “Face it, Toulouse. We’re not songwriters,” his friend Santiago (Ricky Rojas) says. Lautrec replies, “How hard can it be, for God sake?! June, spoon, moon — done!” Apparently, it’s pretty darn hard, as Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is stuffed to the gills with snippets of more than seventy hits that are either annoying in their brevity or severely overdramatized; just as in the film, the gimmick grows tired fast, even with familiar tunes by Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lourde, U2, Sia, the Rolling Stones, and Edith Piaf.
Directed by two-time Tony nominee Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love) and with a predictable book by Tony winner and three-time Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Ship), the show is all glitz and glamour (the costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the choreography by Sonya Tayeh) with no chemistry whatsoever between the characters; not only will you not care about what happens to Christian, Satine, and the Duke, you’ll actively root for them to just make up their minds already and put us out of our misery. (The bloviated production runs just over two and a half hours.) And don’t fall for all the tongue-in-cheek self-referential and anachronistic pop-culture blather. Early on, Christian tells Lautrec and Santiago, “So it turns out they were in the midst of writing a theatrical play with some songs in it. They wanted me to go to the Moulin Rouge and sing one of my songs for the star there, sort of an audition. If she liked my music then she’d get the club to put on their show, which they called Bohemian Rhapsody. I swear, they were like two knockabout vaudevillians escaped from the nearest asylum and the whole thing was the single most insane idea I’d ever heard.” Hey, he said it, not me.
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $66-$96
Theresa Rebeck heats up MCC’s Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater with the East Coast premiere of the sizzling hot Seared. The very tasty show is set in the cramped kitchen of a small Park Slope restaurant that is seeing a lightning-fast rise in clientele following a New York magazine rave about its scallop dish. But chef Harry (Raúl Esparza), who co-owns the eatery with his best friend, Mike (David Mason), who handles the front of the house and the business side, refuses to ever make those scallops again, resisting the pressure to become a star linked to just one specific entrée. “All my food is good,” he tells server and sometimes sous chef Rodney (W. Tré Davis). Arguing about the critic’s review, Rodney says, “He called you a hidden jewel, Harry,” to which Harry responds, “What’s a hidden jewel?” Rodney: “You know what a hidden jewel is.” Harry: “I know what an idiot is, too.”
On the heels of their burgeoning success, Harry and Mike are visited by Emily Lowes (Krysta Rodriguez), an impeccably dressed young consultant who wants to work with the restaurant to take it to the next level. While Mike is fully in favor of bringing her in, explaining that a potential rent increase could shut them down, Harry is dead-set against even listening to her initial proposal. “She’d like to help us,” Mike says. “Do we need help?” Harry replies sharply. A moment later, an ever-angrier Harry says, “Wow. You help people get what they want?” Emily answers, “I do.” Harry responds dismissively, “Yeah, but the problem is, I have what I want. So I don’t need anybody to help me get what I want. Sorry.” Then Mike chimes in, “I don’t have what I want. Let me get you a seat, Emily.” Their disagreement grows more heated as Mike begins to implement some of Emily’s ideas and Harry boils over in frustration while still insisting to not make the scallops, as scallop orders roll in from customer after customer.
Despite there being nothing particularly new about the plot itself, which is like standard diner fare, Rebeck (Downstairs, Seminar) and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) transform the top-notch ingredients into a hidden jewel, a thoroughly satisfying and full-bodied two-act meal that incorporates the sights, sounds, and smells of a New York City restaurant — Harry almost always has something cooking on the stove, taunting the audience’s taste buds from Tim Mackabee’s deliciously cramped set. Four-time Tony nominee Esparza (Company, Speed-the-Plow) is robust and spicy as the mercurial and demanding Harry, a masterful chef who has issues with fame and prosperity, while Mason (Rebeck’s The Nest and Dig) has just the right chops as Mike to stand up to the hotheaded Harry. Davis (Carnaval, Zooman and the Sign) is sweet and savory as the Zen-like Rodney, and Rodriguez (Hercules, What We’re Up Against) is tangy and zestful as the piquant Emily. Yes, I might be running out of culinary references, but Seared continues to tempt my palate, for high-quality food as well as high-quality theater.
205 West 46th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 20, $79-$229
Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tina Turner turns eighty today, a major milestone in a complicated, difficult life that is currently under the microscope on Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, continuing through next September at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Adrienne Warren is explosive in the title role, giving a dazzling performance as Tina transforms herself from little Anna Mae Bullock (Skye Dakota Turner) singing in church to joining Ike Turner’s (Daniel J. Watts) band to ultimately carving out a memorable second-half-of-life career after being physically and psychologically abused and supposedly being washed up at the age of forty. Presented in “association with Tina Turner,” it’s an inspiring rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story that is a step above the recent spate of mediocre (or worse) biographical jukebox musicals that includes Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, The Cher Show, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Aint Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
The book is by rising African American playwright Katori Hall (Our Lady of Kibeho, Hurt Village) with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins (Hij Gelooft in Mij), and the show is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has helmed Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady as well as a well-received all-female Shakespeare trilogy. Tina is paced like a concert, with a strong, fast beginning, some slower moments in the middle, and a grand finale. Not all of it works, particularly as the second act drips into Hallmark territory as Tina’s mother, Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), gets sick. Another problem is that instead of the songs appearing more or less in chronological order as the story unfolds, they are squeezed into scenes because of their content, not when they were recorded, so, for example, her 1983 version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is followed, in succession, by 1984’s “Better Be Good to Me,” 1970’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” 1966’s “River Deep — Mountain High,” 1989’s “Be Tender with Me, Baby,” 1971’s “Proud Mary,” and 1993’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.” Tina didn’t write any of these songs, so they don’t relate to her state of mind at the time, and, even more important, the narrative is by then only up to the early 1980s, several years before she meets manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) and starts her comeback with some of the very tunes we’ve now already heard. It might be a great concert setlist but it muddies the waters of a chronological tale. And don’t even get me started on the prominence of “We Don’t Need Another Hero”; did anyone listen to the end of the chorus and wonder where the line “All we want is life beyond Thunderdome” fits into Tina’s life (particularly without mentioning the Mad Max film it’s from)?
That said, Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes shine, Anthony van Laast’s choreography glints and glimmers, and Nicholas Skilbeck’s arrangements and Ethan Popp’s orchestrations, performed by an eleven-piece rock band, do justice to the originals. In addition to Warren’s star turn as Tina — prepare to be awed at how she makes her way up and down the staircase in heels during the encores — Myra Lucretia Taylor is heartwarming as Tina’s grandmother, Gran Georgeanna; Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, and Mars Rucker have fun as the Ikettes; Dakota Turner reveals quite a strong voice as the young Anna Mae; and Watts does not make Ike pure evil, though you still might consider hissing at him at the curtain call. But the show is really all about Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical), who commands the stage with a magnetic presence and instantly wins over the audience with her unceasing energy, flashy movement, and magical voice, just like the woman she is portraying has done for decades. Happy birthday, Tina!
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Aves.
Series continues through December 4
Under elected presidents Kim Young-sam (1993-98) and Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003), freedom in South Korea flourished as military rule ended. Nowhere was that more evident than in movie theaters; while North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il was trying to create his own propaganda film industry in North Korea, such South Korean auteurs as Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sang-soo, and Park Chan-wook began making genre-redefining works that quickly gained international attention. The Film Society of Lincoln Center pays tribute to this artistic revolution in “Relentless Invention: New Korean Cinema, 1996–2003,” a twelve-day, twenty-one-film salute continuing at the Walter Reade Theater through December 4. Below is a look at four of the selections; the festival also includes Bong Joon-ho’s debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, Kim Sang-jin’s Attack the Gas Station, and Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat, among others.
JOINT SECURITY AREA (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
Thursday, November 28, 7:00
Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area takes place at the DMZ Joint Security Area known as Panmunjeom, the dividing line between North and South Korea and where soldiers from each country actually face one another directly. Major Sophie Jean of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (Lee Young-Ae) has arrived to investigate the violent murder of two North Korean officers but discovers during her inquiry that key facts are missing involving South Korean hero Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok’s (Lee Byung-hun) relationship to injured North Korean Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho). Told in a series of flashbacks, the gripping story deals with duty, honor, courage, and brotherhood — as well as the absurdity that war and politics inject into individual behavior and common human decency. As always, Song Kang-ho’s (The Host, Thirst) big, round face dominates the screen, his hulking figure at the center of the controversy.
MEMORIES OF MURDER (SALINUI CHUEOK) (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Thursday, November 28, 2:00
Sunday, December 2, 7:00
Monday, December 3, 1:15
In 2006, South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho burst onto the international cinematic landscape with the sleeper hit The Host, a modern-day monster movie with a lot of heart. He followed that up with the touching segment “Shaking Tokyo” in the compilation film Tokyo!, and Mother, the futuristic thriller Snowpiercer, and Okja, about an extraordinary pig. Inspired by actual events, Bong’s second film, 2003’s Memories of Murder, is a psychological thriller set in a rural South Korean town. With a serial killer on the loose, Seoul sends experienced inspector Suh (Kim Sang-kyung) to help with the case, which is being bungled by local detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roe-ha), who consistently tamper with evidence, bring in the wrong suspects, and torture them in both brutal and ridiculously funny ways. But as the frustration level builds and more victims are found, even Suh starts considering throwing away the book and doing whatever is necessary to catch the killer. Bong’s first major success, earning multiple awards at film festivals around the world, Memories of Murder is a well-paced police procedural that contains just enough surprises to overcome a few too many genre clichés. The film is beautifully shot by Kim Hyung-gu, from wide-open landscapes to a busy, crowded factory. But the film is dominated by Song’s unforgettable face, a physical and emotional wonder whether he’s goofing around with a prisoner or dead-set on catching a criminal.
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
Saturday, December 1, 6:00
Tuesday, December 4, 4:00
Park Chan-wook kicked off his revenge trilogy with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (even though the second film, Oldboy, was the first one released in the States), a creepy, quirky tale that lays low for quite a while before busting loose with a massive splattering of the old ultra-violence. After deaf-mute Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) fails miserably in a desperate, ridiculous attempt to get his dying sister (Lim Ji-eun) a kidney, the recently laid-off Ryu is convinced by his anarchist girlfriend, Youngmin (Bae Doo-na), to kidnap the four-year-old daughter (Han Bo-bae) of Park (Song Kang-ho), the man who owned the factory that kicked him out. But when the plan goes awry, both Ryu and Park become obsessed with avenging their torn-apart lives. Although the first half of the film is too slow and heads off in too many directions, the second half brings everything together, chock full of the kind of violence promised by the title.
OLDBOY (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Tuesday, December 4, 9:00
The second in director Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy (in between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the 2005 New York Film Festival selection Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), Oldboy is a twisted, perverse psychological thriller that won the Grand Prix de Jury at Cannes, among many other international awards. Choi Min-sik (Chihwaseon) stars as Oh Dae-su, a man who has been imprisoned for fifteen years — but he doesn’t know why, or by whom. When he is finally released, his search for the truth becomes part of a conspiracy game, as he can seemingly trust no one. As he gets closer to finding everything out, the gore and terror continue to increase. Choi is outstanding as the wild-haired Dae-su in Park’s awesome rampage of a film, which is not for the faint of heart.