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A CurtainUp Feature
Notes From a Sidelined Theater Critic
Part Two: Lively If Not Live Theater on my IPad--House of Cards via Netflix and Margaret, at HBO

By Elyse Sommer
To see the genesis of this 3-part feature, see Part One: Katie Roche Made Me Do It

It's not hard to find familiar faces from live theater to settle down with in the stay-at-home version of a seat on the aisle. Two standouts of my couch potato viewing were heavily populated by outstanding stage actors doing terrific work. Both were indeed lively even if not live entertainment : House of Cards, a Netflix original BBC mini series, HBO's Margaret, playwright-actor-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan's long-in-the-making film.

House of Cards
As part of my Netflixing, a new verb I was introduced to while reading the script of Annie Baker's movie-smitten new play The Flick (more on this in the next part of my Notes From a Sidelined Critic), I caught up with Netflix's first venture into creating original content — a 13-part Americanized version of the BBC series House of Cards. which itself was based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, a British politician and author.

Contrary to the usual practice of doling out episodes week by week, Netflix offered up their entire riveting, addictively watchable political drama available in one fell swoop, making it especially appealing to New York theatergoers who have proved their love of marathons time and again. They happily gave up a day of their lives to see Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, another whole day to see Elevator Repair Service's word-for-word theatrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatz, and Alan Ayckbourne's triptych, The Norman Conquests. I could go on, but while my boot-encased leg wouldn't let me sit through even less epic offerings this month, I did have a terrific marathon experience comfortably stretched out on my couch watching the theater stuffed cast, headed by Kevin Spacey.

Spacey is very much the pivotal character dominating And so I gobbled up all thirteen episodes in three big bites. No matter that it wasn't live theater and that my screen of choice was small. House of Cards proved to be first rate entertainment with plenty of opportunity for the cast to show off their acting chops to a larger audience than they would have even in a hugely successful stage production.

Spacey's United States Congressman named Frank" J. Underwood, from South Carolina whose ambitions far exceed his powerful House Majority Whip post. His good ole Southern boy will bring back memories of his manipulative, ruthless Richard III at BAM last year. The fact that Underwood frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience intensifies the kinship between Spacey's interpretation of the DC-based bottled spider and Shakespeare's.

While the scheming Underwood is House of Cards's key character, he is supported by a big cast of major and minor players. Too many to mention all, so I'll focus on the actors familiar to me from my live theater going.

One of Richard-- I mean Frank's-- chief victims is a another Congressman, Peter Russo a wonderful portrait of a basically good guy with a weakness for booze and drugs by Corey Stoll This fine actor who's demonstrated his versatility playing a sensitive Jewish Merchant in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and an illegal immigrant in Arthur Miller's View from the Bridge.

The President whose job is, unsurprisingly our villain-in-chief's ultimate goal, is played by Michael Gill. His wife Jayne Atkinson is aboard as Secretary of State Catherine Durant (I last saw this attractive and talented couple in several plays in the Berkshires).

Robin Wright plays Spacey's equally ambitious if not quite as ruthless wife. I only know her as a screen actor but I have enjoyed Ben Daniels, who here plays her occasional lover, in several plays, most notably as the nasty seducer Le Vicompte de Valmont in a Broadway production of Les Liaison Dangereuses.

Other actors frequently encountered on stage who show up in several episodes are Boris McGiver as the editor-in-chief for a fictional version of The Washington Post, Kathleen Chalfant as his boss (oviously modelled on that paper's former owner) and Reg E. Cathey as the proprietor of a hole-in-the wall BBQ eatery that's a frequent down-home relaxer for Underwood (shades of ex-President Bill Clinton's pre-heart attack junk food indulgences).

Like so many in the cast, Beau Willimon, the writer of this fast-paced political thriller, is also a theater man. His first play, Farragut North, named for a Washington D.C. subway station near which many former hot shots now work as lobbyists, was written after working as a volunteer in Senator Charles Schumer's 1998 campaign against Alfonse D'Amato and four months as an advance man before the Iowa caucuses for Vermont Governor Dean's campaign.

I will be out of my klunky but not kinky boot and back on the aisle at least three times a week by the time the next episodes come out. But I'm going to make time to see what happens to this modern day Richard the III.

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan's Film at HBO

At 2 1/2 hours, Kenneth Lonergan's years-in-the-making film seems short compared to the 13-hour (and more to come) House of Cards. Yet it too plays out on a large canvas and is as much a New York story as House of Cards is a Washington story.

The main plot line revolves around a New York high school senior Lisa Cohen (the film's title refers to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: to a young child. about a young girl contemplating death through the falling of leaves). The intense emotional fallout from her involvement of a bus accident caused by the victim's dying in her arms, guilt that she may have caused it by distracting the bus driver, and more guilt about inexplicably giving testimony that cleared the driver of responsibility.

That's the basic plot. But Lonergan frames Lisa's journey through shock, horror, guilt, anger and frustrated acting out in class her personal life, within the context of a city filled with people unable to connect and communicate. It doesn't hook you in instantly as House of Cards does, but give it a chance, and it draws you in with its sprawling images of the city, the at times choppy transitions from scene to scene and some seemingly unrelated incidents (like an English teacher's dead-ended interchange with a student refusing to accept the scholars' interpretation of a Shakespeare play).

And is it ever theater-centric!

For starters, there's Anna Paquin's remarkable performance as Lisa. The writer-director who has penned a number excellent and much produced plays (This is Our Youth, The Waverly Gallery, Lobby Hero, Medieval Plays) once again shows up as he did in his more successful and less problem dogged other film, You Can Count On Me. He this time plays Lisa's well-meaning but ineffectual long-distance father.

Except for film star Matt Damon, the entire cast is dominated by stage actors, many closely connected to Lonergan. His wife J. Smith-Cameron plays Lisa's divorcee mother an actress appearing in an off-Broadway play . . . Mark Ruffalo who co-starred in You Can Count on Me plays the bus driver. . . Josh Hamilton who starred in the initial production of This Is Our Youth and also The Waverly Gallery is on board for a minor role. . .and close friend Matthew Broderick, who provided financial support during Margaret's troubled production period and is currently dancing up a storm in Nice Work If You Can Get It is the Shakespeare spouting English teacher.

Here are some others with solid stage credentials you'll meet:

Allison Janney, who's literally dead on arrival, but that death scene is quite something. . . Jeannie Berlin as her friend with whom Lisa tries to connect . . Betsy Aydem as the dead woman's greedy cousin. . . John Gallagher Jr. as a class mate who adores her (speaking of six degrees of separation, Gallagher starred in Beau Willimon's play Farragut North). . . Kieran Culkin as a slacker who obligingly fulfills Lisa's request to relieve her of her virginity. Other small role players include Jonathan Hadari, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Enid Graham and T. Scott Cunningham.

Oh, and for Lonergan's night at the opera, there's a real deal opera scene with Renée Fleming.

Ultimately, this film seen on a small screen was a more satisfying theatrical experience than his most recent theater piece, Medieval Play. Here's hoping the pause between films or plays will not be as long as the pauses in Annie Baker's new play Flicks -- more of which I'll comment on in Notes From a Sidelined Theater Critic, Part Three: Plays On the Page but Not the Stage
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