Can Paris Save This Marriage?

Have you noticed? They’ve begun making films for people who aren’t 12-yesr-old boys! Le Week-end is one of those. Aimed at Baby Boomers and beyond, it stars Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent (he won for the agonizing Iris) and Lindsay Duncan, winner of two Olivier Awards, a Tony, and a Drama Desk Award (for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Private Lives). She was also named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2009.

In Le Week-end Broadbent and Duncan are a married couple “of a certain age” who have returned to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. It was where they spent their honeymoon, and they are hoping to revive that “honeymoon glow” for a marriage that has grown stale and bitter over the years.

As a couple they appear to be almost cruelly mismatched. He is a meek-mannered, complaisant Philosophy professor; she is a bored, dissatisfied wife whose vicious comments are filled with condemnation and contempt for him. The fact that she is beautiful (she looks like Eva Marie Saint) doesn’t seem to assuage her perpetual malice. Yet he still loves her and is unwilling to acknowledge that the feeling is not mutual. He shrugs off the fact that she rebuffs every attempt he makes toward intimacy, recoiling as if he were attempting to give her a deadly disease. And yet they have their moments. She pushes him to the peak of bewilderment and despair, and then mischievously turns playful and says something to make him laugh. What that is I can’t tell because her delivery is either whispered or mumbled and, when you can hear the words, they are spoken so quickly that they sound like a foreign language. Subtitles would definitely help.

As they bounce around Paris you get a pretty good overview of the city, including an introduction to a plethora of restaurants. If you take notes you can wind up with a pretty good list of places you might want to try for a meal.

While the film is generally well-paced and well presented, it takes a giant leap forward with the entrance of Jeff Goldblum, an old friend of Broadbent’s who is now a successful author living in Paris. He is an unabashed motor-mouth who delivers an intense monologue that is one of the highpoints of the film. The other showstopper is the last few seconds of the film, which is one of the most delightful endings you could ever hope to see. It leaves you smiling, but uncertain. Le Week-end is playing in select theaters around Los Angeles, including the Laemmle Monica.

Photo: Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent

You Won’t Find It On

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a funny film. Not in the LOL sense, but more in the way of a smile of acknowledgment from time to time at the absurdities of the plot. It’s like an old Looney Tunes cartoon. Watch out for that cliff that you’re just about to fall off of! Ralph Fiennes is M. Gustave H., the quintessential concierge at this lavish European hostelry. He is imperious with his staff, obsequious to his guests, and enticing to his cohort of elderly widows who come to him repeatedly for the wooing and the sex. Not surprisingly, many of them leave him chunks of their estates in gratitude for his unwavering charm and meticulous attention. Among these is the extraordinarily wealthy Madame D., played by Tilda Swinton in some of the most ghastly makeup since Dorian Gray. She is virtually unrecognizable in her mountainous white hairdo and glassy eyes. She instigates the film’s action, however, by dying and leaving M. Gustave a priceless painting. When Madame D.’s son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody, looking like Salvador Dali in a threatening black moustache) refuses to acknowledge the bequest, M. Gustave is reduced to stealing it off the wall from the family mansion. M. Gustave is aided in this,

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and all the farcical adventures that follow, by his ardent apostle, Zero (Tony Revelori). You can recognize him by his tight purple uniform and by the fact that the words LOBBY BOY are embroidered in large gold letters on his cap. For some inexplicable reason, the authorities decide Madame D. died under mysterious circumstances and that M. Gustave is her murderer. So, with the devoted Zero at his heels, M. Gustave leaves the hotel and begins a series of adventures that are nearly impossible to follow because they appear to be carefully calibrated non-sequiturs. But not to worry. Even though the film sweeps back and forth between the 1930s and 1968, the abiding mood remains constant: a quirky romantic nostalgia for the decades between the wars. A mood that is only enhanced by the rich photography of the landscapes and the colorful houses and narrow cobblestone streets of the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka. In a short expository film online, the story is told of the search throughout Eastern Europe for just the right hotel to represent the Grand Budapest Hotel. There were many lush hotels and castles in Germany, where the film was shot, but in the end the designers chose an empty department store that they refurbished and furnished from scratch. They constructed the rather seedy “modern” version of the hotel as it looked in 1968 and proceeded to shoot the end of the film first. Then they tore down that set and constructed the elegant lobby of the earlier years, replete with bright red carpets, gleaming woods, and spectacular chandeliers. Wes Anderson, who directed, produced, and wrote the story and screenplay, acknowledges that the film was partially inspired by the works of the Austrian novelist, playwright, and biographer Stefan Zweig, most notably his novels Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl. For me, however, the most delightful elements in the film are the cameos by Anderson’s informal “repertory company” of friends. They pop up unexpectedly for brief moments, sometimes speak only a line or two, and disappear. In addition to Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, and Tilda Swinton, they include Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Tom Wilkinson, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Murray. All of them have appeared in two or more of Anderson’s films, and Bill Murray has appeared in all of them. At any rate, in making this film they all look like they’re having a helluva lot of fun. As Tilda Swinton has described it, “It was one huge rambling house party.” The Grand Budapest Hotel opened on March 7th and is in general release now in Los Angeles. Photo: Tilda Swinton as Madame D.

Six Swinging Singers Take Over the Ahmanson

Three decades before The Temptations erupted out of Motown to wow America with their smooth harmony and their graceful, synchronized dance moves, there were the Comedian Harmonists—six men in Berlin who in the late 1920s and ’30s became the toast of Europe. They had beautiful voices and carefully synchronized moves too, but their moves were herky jerky and designed to amuse their audiences.

These six men are the stars of the musical Harmony, now appearing in a Broadway-sized ensemble of 21 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Barry Manilow, who wrote the music, and his collaborator of 40 years, Bruce Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics, have produced a thoroughly entertaining play. Two plays, in fact.

The first act is concerned with the formation of the group, each of whom respond to an ad from an unemployed actor, Harry Frommerman (Matt Bailey). Harry is soon joined by a Bulgarian singing waiter, Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff (Will Blum); an opera star, “Bobby” Biberti (Douglas Williams); a would-be doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood, Erich Collin (Chris Dwan); a piano-player, Erwin “Chopin” Bootz (Will Taylor); and a former rabbi, Josef Roman Cykowski (Shayne Kennon), who confesses that he joined the group because he wanted to sing something that wasn’t always in a minor key.

These are the men who, Manilow says, were “the Beatles of Germany” in their time. Though it didn’t appear to matter in the beginning, three of the men were Christian and three were Jewish. And so we follow them as they polish their act, move up to classier venues, and fall in love.

Eventually, in the Berlin Synagogue in 1931, Rabbi marries Mary, who isn’t Jewish, and Chopin, who also isn’t Jewish, marries Ruth, who is. Then, after several years of international acclaim, including in New York at Carnegie Hall, the looming terrors emanating from Germany persuade them to return home.

But before we turn to Act Two, we must pause to applaud the delicious choreography of JoAnn M. Hunter. Her contribution makes a triumph out of what would have been a mediocre musical, if the music were all we had to go on. Although Sussman’s lyrics are bright and sophisticated, especially in the hopeful “This is Our Time” number, Manilow’s melodies were immediately forgettable.

In Act Two, however, Harmony becomes a completely different play. In sharp contrast to the over-long plot setup and some atonal songs that weigh down the first act, the second act turns dark instead. The Nazis explode onto the scene, with dire consequences for the group, as well as for the nation. Their fanatic condemnation of what they called “degenerate art” and their methodical elimination of all things Jewish eventually results in the Harmonists being forced to disband and flee the country. Nevertheless, in spite of the darkness of the subject matter, this second act is much superior to the first. It is well-directed by Tony Speciale and is extraordinarily moving, as when Mary sings the Old Testament story of Ruth in a song titled “Where You Go.”

And at the end, when Rabbi, living in California in 1988, tells what became of all the others, the mood is intensified by a huge photo of the original six projected on a screen in the background. Which brings me to the other remarkable feature of this production: Tobin Ost’s sets. They include, among other things, bridges and flashing trains and a complete change of seasons, all imaginative and full of life. The opening night audience loved it, and so, I think, will you.

Harmony can be seen Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through April 13 at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. There are several exceptions in the performance dates and times, so it’s best you call the theater at (213) 972-4400 for clarification as well as tickets.

Photo: (L-R): Douglas Williams, Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey and Will Blum
Photo by Craig Schwartz

An Affair in Cyberspace

What happens when a balding, 47-year-old man with a wife and teen-aged daughter is invaded from cyberspace by an 18-year-old femme fatale who calls herself “Talhotblond”? That’s the question posed by Kathrine Bates in her new play Talhotblond, now having its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.

Thomas Montgomery (Mark Rimer) is bored with his wife of 17 years and his job at a company that creates and distributes computer games. So when Jenny, the tall hot blonde (Erin Elizabeth Patrick) hacks into his computer and begins a conversation with him, he latches onto it as if it were a unique new game. She sends him a pin-up picture of herself and his fantasy takes flight.

He responds with a photo of himself as he used to be: a handsome young Marine, and adopts the screen name “Marine Sniper”. And he imagines scenes between his younger self (played by Ben Gavin) and Jenny as their relationship gets steamier and more intimate.

Although Thomas insists to himself that this cyber affair is just a harmless diversion, he soon becomes obsessed with Jenny and begins to imagine leaving his wife for her. Meanwhile, Jenny’s provocative photo starts turning up on the computers of other men in the company. Most especially the computer of Alan Garrett (John-Paul Lavoisier), who shares an office with the enthralled Thomas.

As Alan pursues a romantic relationship with “Talhotblond” Thomas becomes jealous and irrational and initiates the first of several angry breakups with her. At this point Thomas’ long-suffering wife Cheryl (Kathleen O’Grady) has figured out that something is wrong. (After all, who takes his wife out for a romantic anniversary celebration by taking her bowling?!)

Having discovered his correspondence with Jenny, Cheryl is devastated. She begs him to break off the relationship, and he promises that he will. But he doesn’t. Instead, he succumbs once again to Jenny’s endearments and protestations that he is the one she loves. And in the end, there is a murder.

This domestic tragedy is based on a true story. It was made into a feature documentary by Emmy award-winning journalist Barbara Schroeder and was adapted as a play by Kathrine Bates, who is perhaps best known for The Manor, a mystery inspired by events in the history of Los Angeles’ Greystone Mansion. Bates has done a serviceable job of fleshing out the story of Talhotblond, but in the end there isn’t enough THERE there. Too many repetitive scenes of Thomas either angry or anguishing and Jenny teasing or pleading.

Director Beverly Olevin doesn’t help much by loosely steering a largely unconvincing cast into an emotional morass. And, most disturbing, there were an inordinate number of interminable blackouts. At least when a television drama is interrupted by endless commercials it leaves you free to get up and go to the bathroom, or make yourself a hot fudge sundae. A long blackout in a play just leaves you shut off and sitting in the dark. Worst of all, there were no scene changes; the set remained untouched, so why such long blackouts? How long does it take a player to change his shirt?

Talhotblond can be seen at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue in Santa Monica Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through April 26th. Call (310) 397-3244 for tickets.

It’s Not Raining Violets

It isn’t easy being a cop on the take if you’ve got a partner who isn’t. But for Denny, that behavior is routine, as he knows his partner, Joey, always has his back. The two men have been best friends since childhood. They established their respective roles in their relationship at a very early age. Denny is the dominant one, playfully but forcefully pummeling his hesitant partner into accepting his decisions, excusing his moral lapses, and covering for him. Joey follows because he has nothing else

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in his life that he can depend on except this loving friendship. As playwright Keith Huff notes, this play, A Steady Rain, is not the typical cops-and-robbers, crime-and-punishment story. Instead, it is a story designed to ”probe the obligations and limits of friendship and love.” Denny (Sal Viscuso) is a violent, self-righteous “shoot-first, ask-questions-later” kind of guy. But he is inordinately proud of having acquired a nice home, a supportive wife, and two sons. They mean everything to him, he says, yet he is not above fooling around with the prostitutes he “protects” and accepts money from. Joey (Thomas Vincent Kelly), on the other hand, has nothing and nobody but Denny and his family. A long-time alcoholic, he is grateful to Denny for helping him to quit drinking and spends most of his free time at Denny’s home, eating dinner there nearly every night and sometimes sleeping over. As well as avoiding the many women that Denny is perpetually trying to fix him up with. But Joey has a secret that everyone in the audience can readily guess, but that Denny appears to be oblivious of. It’s that Joey is in love with Denny’s wife, Connie. In the course of their work, the trigger-happy Denny kills two young boys. The first, inadvertently, when he returns a naked, terrified Vietnamese boy to a man who claims to be his “uncle”. The second is a boy that Denny recognizes as the brother of the thug who threw a brick through the window of his home, splattering glass on his family. Even though he is traumatized by the killings, Denny, as always, has a rationale for his behavior. And Joey agrees to take the rap so that Denny’s family won’t be destroyed. It’s an intense play, even though it consists of only two men talking to each other. Under Jeff Perry’s deft direction the two manage to fill up the stage with consistently provocative exchanges and character revelations that leave you wondering who’s the good cop and who’s the bad. Jeff Perry, it must be noted, is the co-founder of Chicago’s celebrated Steppenwolf Theatre and has a string of directing credits that have taken him and his casts to major venues around the world. Currently he is also acting, playing Cyrus Beene, the White House Chief of Staff on the ABC series Scandal. A Steady Rain is also enhanced by the scenic and projection designs of Adam Flemming, winner of the L.A. Weekly Best Projection Design of the Year award for 2013. Flemming has ringed the empty stage with s series of screens that sometimes reflect, in soft pastels, the environment of the two men, and at other times abstract landscapes in misty gray, or an unidentifiable collection of shapes that leave you imagining objects as if they were contained in a sky-full of cumulus clouds. But surprisingly, the activity generated by the projections is largely unobtrusive. You are aware of them, but they don’t interfere with the conversation of the two fine actors on stage. A Steady Rain can be seen Wednesday, March 19 and April 2, and Thursday March 27 and April 17 at 8 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, and Sunday, February 23 at 5 pm at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. The play runs through April 20th, but it’s best to call the theater to confirm the dates. The theater can be reached at (310) 477-2055 x2 or at Photo: Thomas Vincent Kelly and Sal Viscuso Photo by: Enci