A Complicated Affair

Two years ago, in January 2012, I had the pleasure of viewing and reviewing an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. The film, A Separation, went on to win 70 major awards around the world, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. Apparently the whole world loved it as much as I did. Now Farhadi has done it again. His newest release, The Past, is another complicated and heart-rending drama of a family in crisis. Berenice Bejo, a cool and elegant beauty, is the mother of a troubled 16-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage and a seven or eight-year old daughter (by the same husband or somebody else—her second husband? a lover? It’s not clear.) She and her daughters live in Paris with her boyfriend and his five-year-old son. It’s her apartment, tiny and crowded and stuffed with too much furniture, right next to the railroad tracks. It takes a few minutes to sort out the relationships and who belongs to whom, but it soon becomes clear that Marie (Bejo) has sent for her second husband, Ahmad, (a compelling Ali Mosaffa) to come from Tehran to sign divorce papers so she can marry her current boyfriend, Samir (a dark and brooding Tahar Rahim). Marie and Ahmad have been apart for four years, but it is obvious that there is a great residue of feeling left between them. Will they continue to fight with each other, or will they get back together? And what is the story with Samir’s wife? She has been hospitalized for eight months, in a coma, after having attempted suicide. And why is Marie’s older daughter, Lucie (an exquisite Pauline Burlet), so troubled and angry? The entire film is unremittingly intense, but absolutely gripping. The writing

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is extraordinarily good and you really come to care for these screwed-up people. They all have their reasons for angst and they are doing the best they can in circumstances that are overwhelming and continually shifting. Ahmad, especially, goes out of his way to be helpful, especially with the three children. He plays with them and draws them out and listens to their concerns and, trying to help, finds himself in the middle of everyone’s tangled perceptions. Farhadi directs with a steady beat and great sensitivity, and the production qualities of the film are first-rate. Especially the English subtitles, which for once leave you feeling assured that everything that is said in the film appears on the screen. The Past opened in L.A. on December 20th and is currently playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles. Photo: Tahar Rahim and Berenice Bejo

Who the dickens is Dickens?

Because we in America are so fixated on Mark Twain, our “premier storyteller,” we sometimes tend to conflate his personal history with that of England’s “premier storyteller,” Charles Dickens. As writers, public storytellers, and lecturers they had much in common, especially when it came to humor, satire, and impatience with social hypocrisies. In Twain’s case, however, his impatience seemed to manifest itself as grumpiness, especially in his later writings. He often appeared crotchety, quirky and inordinately self-absorbed. Whereas Dickens followed up on his writings by taking on the moral, and often the financial burdens of the poor, the orphaned, and the “fallen” that he wrote about. At least, that’s how Dickens is depicted by writer Abi Morgan and director (and star) Ralph Fiennes. In the new film The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name, Dickens is seen as a warm and charming bon vivant, the life of every party and the center of every adoring mob. He reveled in his notoriety, to the extent that his wife could say “You’ll never know whom

he loves more: his public or you.” The woman that this remark is addressed to is the young Nelly Ternan, played by a luminous Felicity Jones, with whom the 45-year-old Dickens has fallen in love. Nelly is 18 at the time, and Dickens is married and the father of 10 children. But his wife “knows nothing,” he says, while Nelly is understanding, intelligent, and able to discuss his writing and his philosophical concerns with him. They are discreet, but there are rumors. And so, in accepting his love, Nelly agrees to become “invisible.” He leaves his wife, but at that time divorce was unthinkable, especially for someone as prominent as he. And so for 13 years, until his death, she remained his secret lover, their relationship invisible to the world around them. It’s a lovely love story, and beautifully told. Fiennes, who looks astonishingly like the photos of Dickens, is sensitive, gentle, and caring, and protective of Nelly’s reputation. Fiennes, who also directs, ranges far and wide through England’s lush countryside and London’s squalid slums. He is aided by the elaborate costumes designed by Michael O’Connor and the fussy interiors of the 19th century homes designed by Maria Djurkovic. But the final triumph belongs to Rob Hardy, whose cinematography absolutely glows. In one scene, especially, at the racetrack, the photography is so brilliant and sharp that it almost hurts your eyes to watch it. Fiennes has also surrounded his character with exceptionally fine actors: the earnest Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother; Tom Hollander as Dickens’ friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins; Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ pathetic wife Catherine; and Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale as Nelly’s older sisters. So, for anyone who is a fan of English period films, sentimental love stories, or Charles Dickens, this film is a must see. It opens in Los Angeles next week. Photo: Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

To Greenwich Village, South Africa, Ireland and Back

It’s been a mixed bag this week. One perfect film. One good film. And one perfectly dreadful play.

Greenwich Village

The perfect film is the Coen Brothers’ latest: Inside Llewyn Davis, and unless you’ve been in hibernation for the season, you’ve had to have seen the critics’ rave reviews of this beautiful film.

The film is especially nostalgic if you can remember that wonderful time of folk songs played in coffee houses….and the melancholy voices that sang them. And it’s the Coen Brothers’ special emotional genius to focus on the music: each song is sung in full, and the action stops to give it room.

The hero with attitude, Llewyn Davis, is a lost wanderer living from gig to gig, scrounging bits of money, a meal, or an empty couch from anyone who will provide them, and then biting the hand that feeds him. His insulated world, Greenwich Village in mid-century, is filled with the quirky characters that habitually populate the Coen films, and Davis drifts among them, a sad and moody loner. But as played by brilliant newcomer Oscar Isaac, you can’t help loving him and wishing he would get a life.

South Africa

The “good” film is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Released just before Nelson Mandela’s death, it is slightly hampered by its timing, since every aspect of Mandela’s life was concurrently being reviewed 24/7 on television.

The film, however, presents him as an extraordinary human being: first as a warts-and-all warrior and womanizer, and then, after 27 years in prison, as a virtual saint. Idris Elba plays him with dignity, gravitas, and humor. And the woman who plays his wife Winnie, Naomie Harris, is not only a fine actress, but as beautiful as Halle Berry.

I lived in Johannesburg for five years, beginning just after the massacre at Sharpeville, at a time when any white who had a place to go was fleeing South Africa. But in a year or two most of them came back. As Mandela said, “If they kill us, who will take care of their children? Who will wash their clothes?”

In retrospect, it’s amazing to remember how relatively oblivious we were to the political confrontations of the day. South Africa did not have television—it was not allowed into the country until 1976—and so the struggle, as it was reported sporadically, always felt like it was “somewhere else.”


The “perfectly dreadful” play is The Steward of Christendom, which opened this past Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.

Brian Dennehy, considered one of the finest stage actors of his generation (he’s won two Tony Awards), plays Thomas Dunne, a
real historical character who served as Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923.

In this play, written by Dunne’s great-grandson, Sebastian Barry, the old man is retired and locked away in a mental asylum, reliving delusively the events of his life.

It apparently was an interesting life, according to the notes in the Playbill, but you certainly wouldn’t learn that from Dennehy’s performance. His delivery was so mushy and his acting so histrionic that I didn’t understand a word he said, and I left at intermission.

So did much of the rest of the audience, but I was told by a friend who stayed that it picked up a bit in the second act. After the first act, which dragged on for an hour and a half, however, I was finished. So this commentary is definitely not a review; it’s just the report of my experience and you’re not obliged to take my word for it. After all, you might like it!

Photo: Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis

A Ramble through 16th Century Spain

In the new film Saving Mr. Banks Walt Disney devotes 20 years to trying to persuade P.L. Travers to let him make a movie of her classic children’s book Mary Poppins. She finally does, but with the proviso that she work with the writers and have complete control over every word. It seems to me that the same sort of proviso must have been granted to Barbara Mujica, who

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wrote the book Sister Teresa and is credited with collaborating with playwright Coco Blignaut in adapting the book to the stage. The Blignaut/Mujica play, now having its world premiere at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, is called God’s Gypsy. One gets the impression that not a single word has been edited out of the script as it rambles on for three hours.

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I think it might be quicker to read the book. Sister Teresa of Avila, as played by Coco Blignaut, goes in and out of trances, has two rapturous orgasms on stage, and decides that God is everywhere, as she wends her erratic way to sainthood. She travels all over 16th century Spain setting up convents where her mystical view of a possible personal relationship with God, as described in her books, is strived for. Denounced by a priest as “being seduced by Lucifer,” she insists that the vision providing her orgasmic ecstasies is Christ. Meanwhile, her devoted acolyte, Sister Angelica (Tsulan Cooper) undergoes two violent onstage rapes by that same priest, Father Braulio (Daniel deWeldon). In addition, she undergoes intense torture by the Inquisitor (David Haverty), who attempts to force her to acknowledge that Sister Teresa is a heretic. It does not help Teresa’s case that her grandfather was a converso—a Jew who had converted to Christianity—and her Catholic faith is questioned and attacked by those who do not share

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her views. To emphasize that, God’s Gypsy ends with Teresa’s death and an offstage Cantor singing the Shema, the most important prayer of the Jewish people. In addition to the repetitiveness of the script and the obscurity of the religious philosophy, there are too many extraneous scenes that are meant to demonstrate the frivolous attitudes of 16th century Spain and the playful eccentricities of Sister Teresa herself. They are largely unnecessary and, unfortunately, tedious and boring. The same might be said of the innumerable set changes in which black-robed cast members bumble around in the dark moving a couple of benches and tables back and forth across the stage. The stage itself, however, is another of set designer Joel Daavid’s habitual triumphs. It consists of simulated stone archways connected by diaphanous drapes behind which nuns can be seen walking from time to time, traversing the corridors of the convent. And suspended from the rafters, a large simulated stone wheel resembling a stained glass rosette window. Joel Daavid, in addition to designing the set, directed the play. But it wasn’t his direction that was at fault. It was the script. If it were cut to 90 minutes the play might be worth seeing. Mostly, though, the “worth seeing” part is confined to Lili Haydn, a spectacular violinist and composer whose introductory overture and musical score raises the play almost to the level of opera. But not quite. God’s Gypsy will continue at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, in Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 through January 12th. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.godsgypsy.com for tickets. Photo: The ladies of 16th century Spain, Jeanne Witczak, Carole Weyers, and Abbe Rowlins Photo by Silvia Spross

Reliving the Irish wars

“It just doesn’t happen that you get to work with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Angela Lansbury all at the same time. I was incredibly fortunate.” So says Mary-Pat Green of her role in the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1979. She played Mrs. Mooney, the pie shop owner who ”put pussies in her pies.” Not to be confused with her pie shop rival, Mrs. Lovett, played by Lansbury, who put chunks of Sweeney Todd’s victims in her pies. In her current role as Mrs. O’Dea in The Steward of Christendom, Green moves from the 19th century England of Sweeney Todd to the 20th century turmoil of revolutionary Ireland. Mrs. O’Dea is a compassionate widow, a seamstress in the mental asylum where Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy) is spending his declining years reliving the vivid adventures of his youth. “Brian is a force of nature,” Green says. “It’s an amazing honor to work with him.” The character Dennehy plays in The Steward of Christendom, Thomas Dunne, was a real historical character actually named James Dunne. He was Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and a Catholic loyal to the British crown at a time when Irish Protestants were fighting for their independence from British rule. Among other duties, he was responsible for maintaining order in Dublin Castle, the headquarters of the British government in Ireland for more than 700 years. To make things even more difficult, he and his family lived there and were part of the “Castle Catholics” regarded with contempt by the revolutionaries. In 1922 the outgoing British handed Dublin Castle over to Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish Republican Army during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and subsequent leader of the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. Collins was assassinated in the late summer of 1922. The Steward of Christendom begins in 1932, a decade after Dunne’s last days in office when, as playwright Sebastian Barry, his great- grandson, describes him, he was “boggy in the head and thinner and unpredictable enough to have his grandchildren kept away from him.” But apparently he is not frightening to Mrs. O’Dea, according to Mary-Pat Green. “He tells wonderful stories,” she says, “and reminds her of her late husband.” Green, who is Irish herself, through her father’s side, was born in Kansas City to “incredible parents” who supported her decision to leave the University of Kansas at 20 to “follow my passion for musical theater” to New York. Once there, she studied at the Herbert Berghof Studios. But her “amazing education” took off when she answered a non-Equity casting call and won a part in Godspell in 1971. “We toured for a year, changing venues every one or two nights,” she says. “We played in civic centers and universities and other public places, and everywhere we went the stage was different and we had to reinvent the blocking and try not to trip over the set.” She also spent a year and a half in Hal Prince’s 1974 Broadway revival of Candide, and has performed the role of Mother Superior in Nunsense more than 1500 times in off-Broadway and multiple regional productions. She was the second person to play that part in a series that has been running for decades. In 1991 she moved to Los Angeles because she wanted to try TV and films and since then she has worked steadily in both mediums. “The ‘90s were a great time for sitcoms,” she says, “and my theater skills turned out to be very helpful.” “But now,” she laments, “reality shows have made it a dark time for actors on TV.” She notes that she plays “either prison inmates or judges, police women or murderers” but is most often recognized for the bathroom scene in the film My Best Friend’s Wedding where she calls Julia Roberts a tramp. “People come up to me on the street and holler ‘Tramp!’” she laughs. And she still loves musical theater. In 1995 she was nominated for an Ovation award for her role in the musical Chess. And in 2002 she played journalist Lorena Hickok, purported to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover, in Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite. Both plays were produced by the Blank Theatre Company. Though the rumor about the Hickok-Roosevelt relationship was not directly alluded to in the play, Green hinted at it as she sang the song “Eleanor’s Hand”, and she had to display her jealousy when Amelia Earhart invited Eleanor for a ride in her airplane. Another musical she was cast in was Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, a show that was meant to be a “continuation” of the earlier megahit Annie. Dorothy Loudon, the original Miss Hannigan, was set to reprise that role, but the misbegotten plot had her escaping from prison and plotting to murder Annie. “Previews began on December 22nd at the Kennedy Center in Washington,” Green explains, “and everyone brought their little girls to see it.” (According to reports, there were 700 children in the audience for that first preview.) “And it was a disaster. Nobody wanted to see a musical in which the child star gets kidnapped and possibly murdered!” Annie 2 opened in Washington on January 4th and closed on January 15th after 36 performances. It had been revised and rewritten countless times during its brief run, but nothing could save it. Green is confident that no such fate will befall The Steward of Christendom. “Steven Robman is directing if, and Sebastian Barry’s script is so gorgeous,” she says. “It’s poetic writing and it just works.” In this play she delivers her lines with an Irish accent, which is a switch from the Cockney accent she used in her last play: Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels,which ran at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Laguna Playhouse earlier this year. “For The Steward of Christendom we have Carla Meyer, one of the top dialogue coaches in the country working with us,” Green notes. “And we have the additional help of Smith, cast member James Lancaster, who is from Ireland himself. So we’re in good hands.” She notes that Brian Dennehy, who lives primarily in his memories, has “10 huge, long monologues and six or seven shorter ones. It’s a bear of a role, which is why not many actors play it.” As for which roles she herself would most like to play at some future time, she mentions Mama Rose in Gypsy and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Then, asked what actor, living or dead, she would most like to act with, she responds immediately. “Angela Lansbury,” she says. “She is the quintessential Broadway musical star. It’s hard to get any better than that.” She stops and thinks, and a bright smile settles on her face. “Well,” she says, “I guess I’ve already had my dream.” The Steward of Christendom<. Mark Taper

Forum. 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles. Opens Sunday, Dec. 8 at 7pm. Runs Tues-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30 and 8pm, Sun 1 and 6:30pm through January 5, 2014. Additional performances Mon. Dec. 23 and 30 at 8pm. No performances Dec.24 and 25 and Jan.1. Tickets: $20-$70. www,CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213.628.2772. Photo: Mary-Pat Green, Brian Dennehy, and James Lancaster Photo by Craig Schwartz