In his latest one-man show, The New One, Mike Birbiglia shares intimate information about his relationship with a piece of furniture. “I love my couch,” he says. “It’s the first big thing I dropped money on in my life.” I love my couch also. It was one of the first “adult” pieces of furniture I shopped for and purchased with my wife. We got it at Bloomingdale’s, and I remember being heartbroken when it turned out that the delivery people couldn’t fit the couch into the elevator in our building (even though they claimed they were sure it would fit when we bought it). They had to take this majestic item apart, then put it back together once inside our apartment. That couch has been with us a long time, through several colonizing cats, but now we might have to get rid of it because it’s too soft and comfortable for my back. Why am I telling you all this? Well, the couch, which Birbiglia calls “a bed that hugs you,” plays an integral role, along with a cat, in the show, which continues at the Cherry Lane through August 26. Like at such previous Birbiglia confessionals as Sleepwalk with Me and Thank God for Jokes, audiences leave the theater feeling the need to share aspects of their own life while still brushing away the tears brought on by Birbiglia’s tales, both from laughing at his perceptive musings on human nature and crying at his deeply personal revelations. He doesn’t hold anything back, getting as graphic as, um, let’s just say he gets pretty graphic. It’s a unique kind of cathartic experience that helps explain why his shows sell out so quickly.
In The New One, the Massachusetts-born Birbiglia, who recently turned forty and, as he states, looks like a cross between Matt Damon and Bill O’Reilly, talks about how, after ten years of marriage, his wife, Jen — whom he regularly refers to as Chlo — suddenly decided she wanted to have a baby, something they had previously agreed they did not want. So Birbiglia spends most of the show discussing his current and past sex life, explaining how babies destroyed his brother’s once-happy life, and delving deep into his various health problems, several of which are extremely serious and quite frightening, including the dangerous sleepwalking that was the focus of his breakthrough performance. “There are details in my life that are both setups and punchlines,” he says after describing what he has to do to prepare for bed in order to try not to sleepwalk. He also lists reasons why he never wanted to have a kid in the first place, including: “I don’t think there should be children anymore.” At one point he also says, “I’m telling you this long, embarrassing story to make the point that I consider myself ‘decent.’”
Birbiglia, who won a Lucille Lortel Award for My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and wrote, directed, and starred in the 2016 film Don’t Think Twice, certainly comes off as decent in The New One, which is executive produced by Ira Glass (This American Life). Birbiglia freely admits his failings, as well as his successes, making us consider our own as well, like soldiers comparing battle scars. He’s just a regular, soft-spoken guy — his delivery grows stronger as the show goes on — with trials and tribulations that we all can relate to. Not that we’d want to have any of his illnesses, which are pretty horrific. Director Seth Barrish (Pentecost, The Tricky Part) and Tony-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt (Act One, Come from Away), who have both worked with Birbiglia before, keep things simple, save for one cool surprise. And the wooden slats, like window blinds, around the Cherry Lane make it feel as if the audience is within Birbiglia’s psyche, which is a comfortable place to be for seventy-five minutes. Kind of like a bed that hugs you.
Gertrude and Irving Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th St. between Union Square East & Irving Pl.
August 9-11, 16-18, $15-$25, 7:00
For nearly twenty years, Developing Artists has helped nurture young actors, providing them with the freedom necessary to share their diverse voices. In 2001, the organization founded Rebel Verses, in which company members stage original works. This year’s Youth Arts Festival takes place August 9-11 and 16-18 at the Vineyard Theatre, with an all-star lineup of special guests working with the young troupe, which consists of thirteen-to-nineteen-year-olds from all five boroughs of New York City and elsewhere. The first week will feature presentations by the Door, the Alumni Theatre Company, and the Brotherhood/Sister Sol, with two-time Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent, Anna in the Tropics) on August 9, poet, singer, and actor Flaco Navaja (East WillyB) on August 10, and Kevin Mambo (Ruined, Fela!) on August 11. The second week includes the MCC Youth Company, Epic Next, 6th Borough Slam, and Girl Be Heard, with Laura Gómez (Orange Is the New Black, The House of the Spirits) on August 16, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon (Hamilton, The Scottsboro Boys) on August 17, and Emmy winner Joe Morton (Scandal, The Brother from Another Planet) on August 18.
“There is a void in our community that Developing Artists fills by establishing a creative home for young people and instilling in them a sense of confidence and freedom of expression. Growing up in the New York public school system, I wished for an artistic outlet that would give voice to my culture and experience,” Developing Artists Advisory Board member Rubin-Vega said in a statement. “The positive impact Developing Artists has on both the performing arts community and our city as a whole is immeasurable. Rebel Verses Youth Arts Festival is a hotbed of new forms of learning through the arts, empowering young people to become successful artists and allowing them to recognize that their stories are a part of the fabric of this world.” Tickets ranging from five to twenty-five dollars are going fast to see this important collaborative program that is an important part of the next generation of theater.
TRAUMA (Lucio A. Rojas, 2017)
United Artists Midway 9
108-22 Queens Blvd.
Friday, August 10, $15, 11:59 pm
Festival continues through August 12
Lucio A. Rojas’s Trauma opens with a brutal, extraordinarily difficult-to-watch scene that is severe torture porn, daring viewers to look away as it goes places I won’t even begin to describe here. If you stick around to see what happens next, you might just feel dirty and shameful and maybe even hate yourself for doing so. That said, Rojas doesn’t hide what he has done; he has made a ferociously savage film that the opening credits say was inspired by real events, initiated by the ruthless barbarity of the Pinochet regime toward its own people in Chile. The trailer itself is NC-17, and the film is described as “extreme horror.” It has been awarded honors at the Mórbido Film Festival (Special Mention), Horrorant Fright Nights (Best Cinematography), and Vancouver Badass Film Festival (Best Actress). And now it’s the Midnight Madness Grindhouse selection on Friday night at the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema. The first scene, which involves a mother and son in a grisly, gruesome situation, takes place in 1978; thirty-three years later, four young women — Andrea (Catalina Martin), her sister, Camila (Macarena Carrere), Camila’s girlfriend, Julia (Ximena del Solar), and Camila and Andrea’s cousin Magdalena (Dominga Bofill) — are going on vacation to a remote house that, little do they know, has quite a history, one that even local cops Pedro (Eduardo Paxeco) and Diego (Claudio Riveros) choose not to share with them. Soon they are at the mercy of Juan (Daniel Antivilo), a monster of a man — the 1978 child grown up — and his son, Mario (Felipe Rios), whose relentless evil knows no bounds.
Evoking such genre favorites as Saw, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Hostel, Rojas outdoes all of them in his depiction of depravity, gore, and mayhem. Rojas (Sendero, Perfidia) is a skillful filmmaker and a brash manipulator; Trauma is not for the mere horror aficionado but for those fans who thirst for more. The movie reaches down dark and deep, showing things that really don’t need to be seen, even if they happened exactly as Rojas depicts, however unlikely that is. (There are numerous flashbacks as the story shifts between 1978 and 2011.) I have no problem with terrifying films filled with lots of blood and guts; however, Rojas’s attempts to relate the destruction and repression wrought by Pinochet get lost in all the abhorrent torment, while his biblical theme concerning the sins of the father gets overplayed. It’s essentially an exploitative women-in-danger flick — yes, there is nudity and sex because, well, you know — taken to another level. There’s a reason the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema advises, “Absolutely no refunds will be given under any circumstances, including walk-outs.” Consider yourself warned.
The Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 9, $69 - $149
Through brilliant bits of added stagecraft, Young Jean Lee and director Anna D. Shapiro have taken Lee’s 2014 Public Theater presentation, Straight White Men, to the next level, transforming it into a more relevant, much funnier Broadway success. The first Asian-American woman to have a play on the Great White Way, Lee, who has previously explored such issues as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and body size and image, chooses the setup of an all-straight, all-white, all-male family gathering to celebrate Christmas together — but this time around she has some key twists. As you enter 2nd Stage’s Hayes Theater, which features a glittering shimmer curtain lit by many colors that instantly makes you question what you’re about to see, two flashily dressed people are walking through the crowd, stopping to talk to audience members, asking them whether they like the loud, female rap music or whether it is making them feel uncomfortable. They are known in the script as Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2, played, respectively, by Kate Bornstein and Ty DeFoe. “In case you were wondering, neither of us is a straight white man,” Bornstein, who identifies as a nonbinary Jew from the Jersey Shore, says. DeFoe explains, “I’m from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means ‘transcending gender’ in the Ojibwe language.” Bornstein and DeFoe form a great comic duo playfully raising issues of comfort and privilege. “Tonight Kate and I are here to try something a little tricky,” DeFoe says. “As foreign as they are to us, we’re gonna try to find some understanding for straight white men. That’s what we wish everyone would do for us.” Lee is not out to skewer straight white men, which has become easy target practice these days, but nor is she out to praise or defend them.
The shimmer curtain parts to reveal a cozy living room with a couch, a small bar, wall-to-wall carpeting, and other standard elements, nothing fancy. Todd Rosenthal’s set is encased in a large frame, at the bottom of which is a gold plaque that reads: “STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.” It’s as if we’re looking at a human environment in a zoo or a modern historical painting. The inhabitants of this residence are widowed patriarch Ed (Stephen Payne) and his oldest son, Matt (Paul Schneider), a Harvard grad now doing part-time office work for a small charitable organization. Joining them for the holiday are sons Jake (Josh Charles), a divorced banker with kids, and Drew (Armie Hammer), a novelist and teacher who flits about from relationship to relationship. Boys will be boys, so they spend much of the ninety-minute intermissionless production acting out childhood rituals, good-naturedly razzing and annoying one another, and playing a board game called Privilege, adapted by their mother from Monopoly to teach them liberal values. When Jake draws an “Excuses” card, he reads, “‘What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay fifty dollars to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.” Drew next picks up a “Denial” card, reading, “‘I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist.’ Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail.” All four men later sing Matt’s high school adaptation of the title song from Oklahoma!, which includes such KKK-related lines as “Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets / with our pointy masks upon our heads!” The song is delightfully choreographed by Faye Driscoll, who has proved she can energize an audience in such works of her own as the Thank You for Coming trilogy and There is so much mad in me as well as Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die.
The narrative makes a sharp turn when Matt suddenly starts crying as the men eat their Chinese-food dinner. His brothers and father debate why the prodigal son has broken down, whether it’s because he is depressed about his personal situation, the state of the world, or something else. Matt even refers to himself as a “loser,” that most Trumpian of words. At the heart of the discussion is whether Matt has failed to live up to his potential, whether he has not taken advantage of everything white privilege had to offer him, although that phrase is not used specifically. Knowing that Broadway audiences are primarily white, Tony winner Shapiro (August: Osage County, This Is Our Youth) and two-time Obie winner Lee (The Shipment, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) don’t skewer the title characters, nor do they ask for any judgment. They just lay it all out there, although the motto for Lee’s theater company (2003-16) was “Destroy the audience.” The manipulations that have been added for the Broadway run are meant to make attendees feel on edge. If an audience member expresses to Bornstein (Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger) or DeFoe (Masculinity Max, Clouds Are Pillows for the Moon) that the entrance music is too loud or offensive, for example, one of the options for them is to be led out to the lobby until the show starts; the music is not going to be changed or lowered for anyone.
In addition, at the start of each of the three acts, Bornstein and DeFoe guide some of the actors onto the stage and put them into place, as if carefully re-creating the past, when white men were at the top of the chain. But now the people in charge are nonbinary, gender fluid, able to identify themselves however they want. It’s almost as if the four white men are pawns in their hands, the power dynamic completely reversed; it might come as no surprise that Lee has been a dollhouse maven since she was a lonely Korean-American child, unable to make friends. The Broadway stage has become her dollhouse, where she can design her own world, word by word, character by character, scene by scene. In their Broadway debuts, Charles (The Antipodes, The Distance from Here), Schneider (Bright Star, Goodbye to All That), and Hammer (Call Me by Your Name, Sorry to Bother You) are fully believable as the siblings, whether goofing around or getting serious, never feeling like stereotypes onstage just to make a sociopolitical point. Payne (Superior Donuts, August: Osage County) is about a half beat behind the others, and the role-playing scene is still awkward. But this iteration of Straight White Men feels right at home on the Great White Way, tenderly looking at how things were, how they are, and perhaps how they will be.
Flying high off his international success with Easy Rider in 1969, cowriter, director, and star Dennis Hopper was given carte blanche by Universal for his next film, 1971’s The Last Movie, a controversial picture that, despite winning the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, led to Hopper’s unofficial exile from Hollywood for nearly a decade. The Last Movie has now been released in a gorgeous 4K digital restoration made by Il Cinema Ritrovata from the original 35mm camera negative, screening at Metrograph through August 8. As documented in Nick Ebeling’s 2017 Along for the Ride and elsewhere, The Last Movie was a longtime labor of love for Hopper and his cowriter, Stewart Stern (who had penned Rebel without a Cause, in which Hopper played a key role), but it ended up being a critical and financial flop. Over the years, there have been occasional rare screenings as the film’s legend grew, and the restoration proves that the mythos was fully justified. Hopper stars as Kansas, a movie wrangler working on a Western about Pat Garrett (Rod Cameron) and Billy the Kid (Dean Stockwell) in Chinchero, Peru, directed by one of the toughest auteurs of them all, the great, cigar-chomping Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor). Kansas is with former prostitute Maria (Stella Garcia), but he is instantly attracted to the fur-wearing Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams), the wife of a wealthy factory owner (Roy Engel). Kansas’s best friend, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), wants Mr. Anderson to invest in his gold mine while both Anderson and Maria become jealous of Kansas’s romantic interest in Mrs. Anderson. In addition, following the accidental death of a stunt man during a dangerous scene, the local community of Chinchero blames Kansas and begins making their own movie directed by the vengeful Tomas Mercado (Daniel Ades), using real violence and fake equipment, creating a kind of passion play with Kansas at the center, much to the chagrin of the concerned priest (Tomas Milian), who was never in favor of Hollywood bringing its decadence to his town. It all leads to a stunning, unforgettable finale that questions much of what has come before.
Hopper, who was also a photographer and painter, said about the film, “The Last Movie is something that I made in Peru. I won the Venice Film Festival with it, and Universal Pictures wouldn’t distribute it. You should think about [Jean-Luc] Godard a little when you watch it. I made it because I’d read him say that movies should have a beginning, a middle, and an end — but not necessarily in that order. I was trying to use film like an Abstract Expressionist would use paint as paint. I’m constantly reminding you that we’re making a movie — I’m constantly making references to the fact that maybe you’re just being silly sitting in an audience, being sucked into a movie and starting to believe it — and then I jar you out of it. It’s not a very pleasant experience for most audiences.” But things have changed significantly over the last half-century, and audiences are now more attuned to watching nonlinear, more unorthodox films that merge fiction and reality and challenge them with purposely confusing plot twists and character development. Some scenes repeat, while others might have been lost — several times a title card identifies that a scene is missing, but it is impossible to know whether that is true or Hopper is playing with the viewer yet again. (The film was edited by David Berlatsky, Antranig Mahakian, and Hopper.) In fact, Tomas and the priest regularly refer to moviemaking as a game. It’s also not always clear when we’re watching the film, the film-within-a-film, or even a different film as Hopper explodes genre tropes to continually defy expectations. At one point the soundtrack features Kris Kristofferson singing “Me and Bobby McGee,” but the camera soon finds Kristofferson himself, guitar in hand, warbling away. Thus, when we later hear a song by John Buck Wilkin, we look for him as well.
Beautifully photographed by László Kovács, The Last Movie turns Kansas into a kind of Jesus figure. Both text and image often reference various stories from the Bible, directly and indirectly, including Jesus being whipped, his relationship with prostitute Mary Magdalene, a celebration around a golden calf, Jesus rising from a cave, and Christ being led to the cross. All seven deadly sins — gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride — enter the narrative. The color red plays a significant role, as if staining the land with blood, from fake movie blood to the color of Kansas’s truck. Everyone ends up guilty of something, with some paying a higher price than others; as the original 1971 production notes explain: “Every character in the film is an innocent. Only as they are tarnished by their participation in the games do they become agents of their own destruction. The dreams that they succumb to are all encompassed in or produced by the American dream. Their sin, however, is the movies.” Hollywood has done them in, as it will Hopper himself, who filled the cast with such nonconventional, mostly non-Hollywood actors as Henry Jaglom, Toni Basil, Severn Darden, Sylvia Miles, Warren Finnerty, Peter Fonda, Clint Kimbrough, John Phillip Law, Russ Tamblyn, and Michelle Phillips, who was married to Hopper for eight days. The two-time Oscar-nominated Hopper went on to direct such films as Out of the Blue, Colors, and The Hot Spot and appear in such works as Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, True Romance, and Speed before passing away in May 2010 at the age of seventy-four. His legacy is now cemented with the restoration of The Last Movie, a masterpiece that should finally get the due it, and Hopper, deserves.
TOKYO SONATA (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center
165 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Aves.
Tuesday, August 7, 6:45
Festival runs through August 9
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes, Tokyo Sonata serves as a parable for modern-day Japan. Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a simple family man, with a wife, Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi), two sons, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and Kenji (Kai Inowaki), and an honest job as an administration director for a major company. When Ryuhei is suddenly let go — he is being replaced by much cheaper Chinese labor — he is so ashamed, he doesn’t tell his family. Instead, he puts on his suit every day and, briefcase in hand, walks out the door, but instead of going to work, he first waits on line at the unemployment agency, then at an outdoor food kitchen for a free lunch with the homeless — and other businessmen in the same boat as he is. Taking out his anger on his family, Ryuhei refuses to allow Kenji to take piano lessons and protests strongly against Takashi’s desire to join the American military. But then, on one crazy night — which includes a shopping mall, a haphazard thief (Koji Yakusho), a convertible, and some unexpected violence — it all comes to a head, leading to a brilliant finale that makes you forget all of the uneven missteps in the middle of the film, which is about a half hour too long anyway.
Kagawa (Sukiyaki Western Django, Tokyo!), is outstanding as the sad-sack husband and father, matched note for note by the wonderful pop star Koizumi (Hanging Garden, Adrift in Tokyo), who searches for strength as everything around her is falling apart. And it’s always great to see Yakusho, the star of such films as Kurosawa’s Cure, Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, seen here as a wild-haired, wild-eyed wannabe burglar. Tokyo Sonata, which is warmly photographed by Akiko Ashizawa, is screening August 7 at 6:45 in the Film Society of Lincoln Center series “The Female Gaze,” consisting of nearly three dozen films shot by women, investigating whether they bring something different to cinematic storytelling than men do. The series continues through August 9 with such other works as Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, photographed by Crystel Fournier; Wim Wenders’s Pina in 3D, photographed by Hélène Louvart; Babette Mangolte’s The Camera: Je or La Camera: I, photographed by Mangolte; and Jacques Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain, photographed by Irina Lubtchansky.