Friday, June 27, 2008

Washing Machine

Last night, my boyfriend Tom and I went to the Sanford Meisner Theatre to see a new play by Jason Stuart. The first show I saw there was “The Starvation of Ruby Nellis” by Jeff Rose, my brother directed, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (pre-fame) was in the cast. So I like that old space, however far west a walk it is (it’s across the street from Chelsea Piers), and however much that neighborhood has changed. Where the WPA Theatre used to be on West 23rd Street (I swear I saw the first preview of “Steel Magnolias” there, though Google doesn’t back me up on that), there’s a luxury condo building.

“Washing Machine” is the kind of theatre that I love- it’s so theatrical, you have difficulty imaging it on TV or as film. Stuart has crafted this mosaic of distinct voices (I counted nine) speaking about one event- the drowning of an unnamed five year old girl in a laundromat washing machine. The characters’ varying points of view are distinct. Some questions raised are answered, some aren’t (which is fine with me- why not a little mystery?). There’s the little girl; her mother; her stepbrother; her best friend; the Polish woman who owns the laundromat; an old man who’s another customer; the spokesman of the company that manufactures the washer; the girl the stepbrother has a crush on; and the insurance claims adjuster, who becomes obsessed with the way the little girl died.

Akiko Kosaka’s set is the abstracted interior of the machine, beautifully realized by Ben Kato’s lighting design. Michael Chamberlin’s direction is a model of clarity, and lets the acting and the text stir our emotions without being sentimental. All the roles are played by Dana Berger. Despite her Ace bandage-wrapped wrist, she brings a distinctly different physicality to each role. Berger is a fearless actress who isn’t afraid to look unattractive if the character requires it. It’s a tour de force for her, and each of the elements of the production (actor, play, director, designs) work together fluidly.

“Washing Machine” is Fist in the Pocket Theater’s first production. I can’t wait to see what comes next. “Washing Machine” runs about an hour, and closes July 19th. Tickets are available through Theatermania.

The photos of Dana Berger are by Michelle Enfield.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lubitsch: “Heaven Can Wait”

"Heaven Can Wait" is Lubitsch’s final completed film. The Warren Beatty version is a remake. The last film Lubitsch began was "That Lady in Ermine" in 1947 (released in 1948), starring Betty Grable. Unfortunately, he died of heart failure at age 55 before the film was finished. Otto Preminger took it over. "Heaven Can Wait" was Lubitsch's first film in Technicolor, and for it he received his final Oscar nomination for Best Director. It starred Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. During the film's shooting, Lubitsch suffered his first heart attack. It is easy to see how Lubitsch, in his way, is attuned to issues of mortality in this film. Via varied settings and characters, Lubitsch's four decades of work explores the push and pull of human relationships, particularly those between spouses and lovers. The universality of these films continue to speak to us today.

Lubitsch: “To Be or not to Be”

Some people think this film oversteps the boundary of good taste. I admit that it makes me a little queasy. It is set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and it's a comedy. This is despite the fact that both its star (Jack Benny) and its director were Jewish. It didn't do well at the box office. It was not helped by the fact it was Carole Lombard's last film; she died in a plane crash on a trip selling war bonds. "To Be or Not to Be" was remade by Mel Brooks. The film concerns an acting troupe, headed by Benny. Benny is married to Lombard, who's his leading lady. The troupe attempts to thwart the Nazi efforts to crush the Polish underground. The screenplay is by Melchior Lengyel. This photo is of Lubitsch on the set.

Lubitsch: “The Shop Around the Corner”

"The Shop Around the Corner" is perhaps the best American romantic movie of the 1940s, if not the 20th century. It was based on Miklos Laszlo's play "Perfume"; the screenplay was written by Samson Raphaelson and the un-credited Ben Hecht (co-writer of the classic comedy, "The Front Page"). The film is preserved in the U.S. Film Registry by the Library of Congress because of its artistic significance. In “The Shop Around the Corner,” Lubitsch takes us to a world that's an idealized Budapest, where two normal working class people are looking for romance. In addition to Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, the cast includes Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz himself) as Mr. Matuschek, the pitch-perfect Josef Schildkraut (later Anne Frank’s dad) as the fop Vadas and a young William Tracy as Pepi the errand boy. This link below is to a site of a reconsideration of "The Shop Around the Corner" as a better Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie than "It's a Wonderful Life."

Lubitsch: “Ninotchka”

"Ninotchka" was shot in May, June and July in 1939 at MGM, and was released in November of that year. The tagline for its advertising was "Garbo Laughs!" as Garbo's first sound film ("Anna Christie") had been touted as "Garbo Talks!" The westernization of a Soviet commissar wasn't a typical subject for Hollywood in that era. The sceenplay was written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, and turned out to be Garbo's second-to-last film.

The musical version of "Ninotchka" was “Silk Stockings.” It had songs by Cole Porter; the Broadway production starred Hildegarde Knef and Don Ameche. The film starred Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, with Joseph Buloff, Jules Munshin and Peter Lorre as three Soviet commissars. The link below is to Frank Nugent’s review in the November 10, 1939 issue of the New York Times.

Lubitsch: “Trouble in Paradise”

Many consider this 1932 film the height of sexual sophistication in pre-Production Code Hollywood. Lubitsch doesn't apologize for his protagonists being thieves and cheats; the audience is rooting for them for precisely those reasons, hoping that they'll get away with their deceptions. Lubitsch famously quipped about this film, which takes place in Venice and Paris: "I've been to Paris, France and I've been to Paris, Paramount. Paris, Paramount is better." The link below goes to the New York Observer, which has an appreciation of Lubitsch by Peter Bogdanovich. He weighs in on Lubitsch's contribution to American cinema, and the style of acting in Lubitsch films.

Lubitsch: “The Love Parade”

Lubitsch was perhaps at the peak of his mastery of the genre of epic, sweeping romance when he made "The Love Parade" in 1929. Once again he worked with Chevalier and MacDonald, with supporting roles played by Lupino Lane, Lillian Roth and Ben Turpin. Jean Harlow plays an extra in the opera house scene, both as an instrumentalist in the orchestra, and as a patron in a box. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including the new that year Best Sound Recording. MacDonald plays a queen, who marries an army officer (Chevalier); the film is a comedy about the queen and her consort adjusting to their new marriage.

This link is to an article in the Boston Globe about Lubitsch musicals:

Lubitsch: “The Marriage Circle”

This film is one of Lubitsch's earliest in the U.S. It's based on the play "Only a Dream" by Lothar Schmidt. “The Marriage Circle” was remade in 1932 as a sound film by Lubitsch and George Cukor. The remake was a musical starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald called “One Hour with You”; the songs were by various composers, including Oscar Strauss ("The Chocolate Soldier"). It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. In both versions, one unhappy married couple seeks solace elsewhere. In the first interpretation, Mizzi (Marie Prevost) tries to be unfaithful to Prof. Stock (Adolph Menjou) with Dr. Braun (Monte Blue). This link goes to an article in Bright Lights Film Journal, which says the film is the first screwball comedy. Well, maybe.

Lubitsch: “Anna Boleyn”

"Anne Boleyn" (aka "Deception," 1920) was Lubitsch's last big film in Berlin. He tried Hollywood out in 1922, having been invited by Mary Pickford to direct a film vehicle for her. The title character is played by Henny Porten not as a seductress, but as a little understood pawn in Tudor court politics. Emil Jannings plays Henry VIII; he's even more menacing here that he is in F.W. Murnau's "Faust" in which he plays Mephistopheles. This link is to a Youtube collage of images from the film. Look at the way he uses shadow- as well as Lang does in “M.”

Lubitsch Recycled

The Dramahound has long been interested in German theatre and film. Recently, I had a freelance gig writing about various subjects that ended months before it was supposed to, so I got stuck with a couple of chunks of prose on a variety of subjects, including Ernst Lubitsch.

Lubitsch's career spanned wide-ranging changes in film. When he began, it was as a high school dropout who was fortunate enough to join the famous Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Around this time, Lubitsch began acting in comedic films, and eventually directed himself. He often played a yokel character, recently moved to a city and unfamiliar with city ways. Out of this broad comedic sense grew Lubitsch's light, erotic touch, which he carried over into some of his lighter silent feature films, like "The Marriage Circle" and "Lady Windemere's Fan." Unlike many German emigres (Bertholt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Reinhardt, etc.), Lubitsch came to Hollywood in the 1920s, where he had an unsuccessful partnership with Mary Pickford that lasted for one film. He went on to direct "Ninotchka," "The Shop Around the Corner," and "The Merry Widow."

By the time of his death in 1947, his films were famous throughout the world, and his distinctive directing style had earned the soubriquet "the Lubitsch touch." Lubitsch's admirers included Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaunt and Billy Wilder.
This site gives a good overview of Lubitsch's life: