What makes for a great revival? Sometimes it’s a simple adjustment to well-trodden material. Take the superlative Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which reverses the emotional polarity of the text by making George the aggrieved husband the aggressor and Martha the shrewish wife the more resigned party. Consequently you see these two iconic characters in a whole new light–and a Martha who is a more of a functioning alcoholic is much more comprehensible one. (Maybe a Martha who isn’t Kathleen Turner, who slurred her way through the last Broadway revival, is automatically more comprehensible, not that Turner wasn’t riveting in the part.) Of course this switch could easily go awry; thankfully, Steppenwolf veterans Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, an old married couple in a sense, have been cast (she was a Tony nominee for Letts’ August: Osage County) and under Pam MacKinnon’s direction they are sensational, drawing blood, eliciting laughs, and getting right to the heart of this classic dysfunctional marriage. Not to be missed. (Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version, no slouch itself, airs Feb. 4 on Turner Classic Movies.)
Has Picnic ever been musicalized? It should be–every character in William Inge’s Pulitzer winner, which raised a few eyebrows in 1953, expresses himself or herself in “I want” song form. It’s Labor Day in a small Kansas town, and pretty Madge (Maggie Grace) wants to be taken seriously, and respected for who she is, not that she has much idea. Mother Flo (Mare Winningham, in her Broadway debut following a variety of Off Broadway assignments) wants Madge to settle down with wealthy scion Alan (Ben Rappaport), who wants to maintain the status quo. Younger sister Millie (Madeleine Martin) wants to ditch small-town life and write provocative books in New York City. Spinster boarder Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) wants not to be a spinster boarder and wants her longtime beau Howard (Reed Birney) to marry her. (Howard isn’t sure he wants that.). Next door neighbor Helen (Ellen Burstyn) just wants someone to pay attention to her besides her invalid mother. Really, you can see exactly where the songs might go. Into a dynamic festering with frustrated longings drifts the ab-alicious Hal (Sebastian Stan), former frat boy friend of Alan’s and Hollywood washout–who decides that he wants Madge. Fireworks ensue, and not of the picnic kind.
Or they would, if Hal and Madge were played not by debuting sort-of movie and TV stars but performers with greater chemistry. (Past couplings include Paul Newman and Janice Rule in the original production, William Holden and Kim Novak in the 1955 film, airing March 6 on TCM, and Ashley Judd and Kyle Chandler in the most recent Broadway revival.) They look the parts–Crunch gyms should sponsor this production, as Stan is all but wolf-whistled by the audience as he walks about shirtless with a rather un-period physique–without feeling then in their beautifully sculpted bones. The rest of the cast does better by Inge’s airtight dramatics, with the flustered Birney and the troika of elder actresses giving it their all (and Marvel, as always, going beyond that; you may recall her as the grownup Mattie at the end of True Grit). Sam Gold directs lucidly, and Andrew Lieberman’s set, largely a full-size exterior of a house that can be looked into, fills the large stage of the American Airlines Theatre without overwhelming the company. In all a fairly typical Roundabout revival, not entirely a feast but not a washout, either.
A loss, alas, is what we have at the Richard Rodgers, where Scarlett Johansson is clawing her way through Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. A highly variable film actress, Johansson surprised everyone with a Tony-winning performance in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge–not that she was any better than the late Brittany Murphy, who had the part in the last Broadway revival in the late 90s, but her determination to succeed on stage and not coast on her Hollywood cred was unexpected and admirable. To show that she was no one-hit wonder the actress has chosen Williams’ favorite of his plays for her second visit, and I can see him rolling his eyes in the afterlife.
She and director Rob Ashford have decided to focus on Maggie the Cat’s survival instincts, so she’s all sticks, no carrots in trying to get husband Brick (Benjamin Walker, imbibing as much as George and Martha combined) to pull himself together on the critical evening that will determine their place in his rich family’s pecking order. Nag, nag, nag, with little in the way of softness or feminine wiles to woo him to their bed; no wonder he’s repulsed by her, lovely figure and almost-costume be damned. With Maggie retracted for the second act the production improves a bit as Brick and Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds, with a strange mullet) spar over “mendacity,” yet neither actor makes much of an impression–Hinds isn’t big enough (nor is a too-restrained Debra Monk, as Big Mama) and Walker is obliged to lean too heavily on his ideal looks, muscular yet soft. (He came in second to Stan in a Wall Street Journal “beef-off,” not for lack of trying.)
Then again I have yet to see a fully satisfying staging of the play, which has maybe had too many lives in close proximity to each other on Broadway–Ashley Judd, in 2003, and Anika Noni Rose, in 2008, didn’t click, either. (Elizabeth Taylor is strong and sexy in the 1958 movie, which airs on TCM Feb. 17, but it strays from its source; the best all-around casting is in a 1984 Showtime adaptation that has pretty much vanished since VHS, though I have fond memories of Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, and Kim Stanley tearing it up.) With giant billowing curtains that overhang the set, fireworks, thunderstorms, Negro spirituals, and orange-ish first act lighting that makes everyone look like John Boehner, Ashford has given us a Cirque du Cat--”all hawk and no spit,” as Big Daddy observes. Next time–and there will be a next time, sooner than I might wish–let’s hope for a ringmistress better suited to the task.
In an astonishing burst of creativity at age 26, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh wrote the bulk of the plays that would go on to delight and horrify audiences on and Off Broadway for the next decade. Following the extraordinary Broadway production of The Pillowman in 2005, McDonagh turned his attention to filmmaking, and again made it all look easy, as his short film Six Shooter (2005) won an Oscar and his feature debut In Bruges (2008) received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. He returned to Broadway with A Behanding in Spokane (2010) and to Hollywood with Seven Psychopaths, with that show’s stars, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, as two, or maybe more, of the title characters. (With those guys in the cast, saying that they’re both playing a little touched in the head isn’t really a spoiler.)
Behanding was a somewhat rusty affair, lacking the shocking, wipe-the-slate-clean freshness of his prior plays (you have got to see The Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and A Skull in Connemara). Cluttered with characters and incidents, the new film takes some time to build, then accelerates to a wild finish. Colin Farrell is “Marty,” a Hollywood screenwriter whose latest script, a “life-affirming” tale about serial killers, isn’t quite gelling. Offering assistance is his actor friend Billy (Rockwell), who makes ends meet via a dubious dognapping enterprise with Hans (Walken). Their abduction of a Shih Tzu beloved by the unhinged gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) is the tipping point of a storyline that comes to involve a Quaker hit man (played, silently, by Harry Dean Stanton), a “serial killer killer” played by Tom Waits, Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Silence), peyote hallucinations, and a protracted shootout in the desert.
Lest you think this sounds like a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie knockoff, know that the emphases are different, as they were in the atypical hit man story In Bruges, where Farrell, a solid anchor here, was the psychopath. Whereas Tarantino thrives on movie love, an obsession that only gets him so far in Django Unchained (which palls after a delightful first hour), McDonagh asks a few questions. Why do we love serial killer movies? Why can’t movies get beyond violence? Why are the female leads so one note in so many movies? (In the spirit of inquiry, Abbie Cornish plays Marty’s annoyed girlfriend.) McDonagh, a born storyteller, doesn’t get up on a soapbox to address any of this as the film toys with our expectations (one explosive development so startled my wife she spilled a glass of white wine on our cat); the issues, however, keep the film nicely cerebral, and from getting too “laddish.” (That said, a “fat black girl” played by Gabourey Sidibe doesn’t prompt any useful commentary as she’s humiliated. Behanding plowed into the same uncomfortable racial territory for shock effects, when there’s more he might say on the subject.)
Graced with a doomy Carter Burwell score and an excellent song selection, Seven Psychopaths makes for stimulating, surprising viewing, and is an attractive, if uninterestingly supplemented, Blu-ray. What’s next for McDonagh? Apparently a musical, in collaboration with Waits. That I look forward to.