The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
March 30, 2021 Update
With more and more people fully vaccinated, it remained the better part of wisdom not to rush into an "old normal" way of living. That meant Passover still called for fewer family members gathered arouncd the Seder table and sticking to masks and social distancing. It was only by being as strict about observing safety rules as the characters of Shtisel are about adhering to ultra-orthodox Jewish customs, that the hit series' creators were able to bring us a much awaited third season. Per my just posted review, it was worth waiting for.
I'm not a foodie and don't usually watch cooking documentaries. However, Stanley Tucci is one of my favorite stage and film actors, so the chance to follow him on his trip to Italy in search of meals to sample was irresistible — especially during this long and lonely year when the only trips most of us took were to the grocery store. Obviously enough other people have enjoyed their armchaiir trips to six different regions for a follow-up season to be on the horizon. The six episodes may be watched in any order and are available at CNN-on demand.
With documentaries flooding our screens, there are some recent ones that have struck me as unnecessary additional public airings of scandals already excessively covered in the media. Two cases in point: Allen vs. Farrow at Netflix, and The College Admission Scandal at HBO. I didn't make it through more than one episode of each. On the other hand, Joan Didion, The Center Will Not Hold that I stumbled across in my search for hidden Netflix gems turned out to be so— so is Everything is Copy- Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted at HBO.
Finally, a reminder, that Yours Unfaithfully, one of the plays archived by the invaluable Mint Theater Company is now available for streaming thrugh May 16th. I was fortunate enough to see the play live. To read my review go here.
March 12, 2021 Update.
A royal interview triggers the reality show's comeback. . . Season 3 of Shtisel coming to Netflix. . . the return of live musical theater will include The Queen's Gambit. . .
Bingeing series after series of The Crown has been one of the most popular ways to forget about COVID and follow the season-to-sesson shifts ofa actors playing the British royals who have fascinated people all over the world, and enriched the tabloid press. But with fifth sesson still as uncertain as our return to normalcy, two of the real live royals have brought back tell-all reality courtesy of a 2-hour interiew with the queen of tell-all interview hosting, Oprah Winfrey. Popular as the series has been for Netflix, I doubt it's matched the audience it attracted initially and continues to nab thrugh the extensive media coverage. That said, as Netflix doesn't share its exact clik numbers, neither can the network ratings know whether the person tuned in is actually paying attention or might be eating or sleeping.
In the meantime, a Netflix hit series that has another season ready for subscribers to view is Shtisel. I reviewed the first two seasons of this series about an ultra-orthodox family in Jerusalem together with The Marvelous Mrs. Maizel about another Jewish family — but this one American — and its focus on the failed marriage and successful stand-up comic career of its the titular charscter. Given the name recognition of the Maisel series cast and t he more relatable plot, I opted to review the Shtisel family saga mainly to see how a show with with Hebrew dialogue and about characters and a lifestyle most of us know little about was likely to be a strong clickbait at Netflix.
But surprise, surprise: While I failed to find Mrs. Maisel all that marvelous, I couldn't stop watching the Shistel family's doing. Despite those awful side curls and beard, Michael Alon's Akiva proved to have matinee idol charm. The religious backround added texture and authenticity to what is essentially a soap opera, but one with depth and meaning.
Not only did Shtisel become a global hit on Netflix but so did their 4-episode drama with a quite different take on ultra-orthodox Jewish life, Unorthodox. If you haven't seen Shtisel or want a refresher before Season 3 becomes available on March 25th, it's still available to stream, and so is Unorthodox.
Though we're hardly out of the woods in terms of the return to normalcy, inluding a chance to attend live rather than watching on on screen, there are plans to adapt The Queen's Gambit, another atypcal hit series at Netflix, as a stage musical. Actually, this wouldn't be the first time to turn those chess moves into song and dance numbers, though unlike The Queen's Gambit, the show wasn't a winner. (a href="chessdc.html"> a link ro production we reviewed).
Until theaters can once again fill all their seats and present coventionally staged shows with stories told by more than one or two actors, with costumes and scenery — the Daryl Roth Theatre at Union Square is presenting Blindness to a live audience as of next week. It's an audio adaptation by noted playwright Simon Stephens of Nobel laureate José Saramago's novel in which a Storyteller/Doctor's wife describes a world changed forever in the blink of an eye by an unimaginable global pandemic. The response to the initial Donmar Warehouse poduction was strong enough to bring it to New York. Now as then, strict pandemic protocols will be followed and tickets starting at $45 must be bought in pairs. Here's the link for more details and ticket reservations: http://www.darylroththeatre.com/productions/blindness/.
February 24,2021 Update. The pandemic has brought two atypical new stars to the Netflix lineup of originals to make their ten most watched list — the handsome 31-year old British-Zimbabwean actor, Regé-Jean Page and Fran Liebowitz, the 70-year-old caustic wit. In Brdgerton, based on romance writer Julia Quin’s novels, brings a romantic lead of color to the usually all-white romantic costume drama. In Pretend it's a City, Liebowitz just ambles around the streets of New York and schmoozes with her friend and the series producer, Martin Scorsese, making no secret of her age, sexual identity and anti-internet life style.
Liebowitz, unlike Page, has been a fixture on the New York cultural scene. Since writing two books as well as a column for Andy Warhol's magazine she's claimed to suffer from writer's block and instead supported herself as a well-paid guest on countless TV interview shows, as occasional acting gigs. Now, Pretend It's a City has endeared her to the social media crowd whose communications devices she's shunned.
Even though Liebowitz tends to pretty much return to her basic theme song — her New Jersey childhood, and love affair with New York — I found the seven half-hour episodes of the Netflix series amusing enough to watch all in just two evenings. On the other hand, neither the lavish production values, generous servings of sex, or the woke casting of Page, Bridgerton struck me as a second-rate, wannabe Jane Austen entertainment. I gave up in the middle of the second episode.
Obviously, the Netflix viewers who have elevated Bridgerton to the ten most watched category don't agree with me. However, quite a number of readers of my blogs and streaming features have sent emails about their own quickly aborted viewings. Unlike series like The Queen's Gambit and The Dig, which appealed to all ages and tastes, Bridgerton didn't hit home for that huge an audience.
Though Pretend It's a City is a far less complicated production than Bridgerton it does have a spectacular scenic element — the city of New York with its busy streets that Liebowitz still roamed without the need for a mask. Therefore, aa she and Scorsese needed no add-on coda to explain that the show was filmed pre-pandemic. Watching it almost a year since the offices in Manhattan's high rise landscape emptied out and theaters shut down did have me wondering if Liebowitz could wrest any amusing bon mots from the changes in her beloved city and whether dealing with surviving the lockdown had her finally cave in and get a cell phone.
Like the rest of us, Liebowitz has been forced to spend more time at home and observe safety protocols. But she's still doing interviews to promote Pretend It's a City. However, she neither zooms or texts but remains devoted to her landline. And she hasn't given up on her belief that New York is a tough but great place. As she sees it, cities never stay the same. Sometimes they change for the worse.
And that brings me to what a comeback to a more normal life will mean once all of us are vaccinated. For many of us the most important return to normalcy will mean that we can meet with family and friends and see their whole facea. But when it comes to large gatherings, masks and other safety measures will be with us for a long time. As for the theater, the financial losses will make one-and- two person shows and modest production values the norm for a long time.
To get back to Liebowitz's observation that cities always change, this is as true for small towns as well. The closing of factories have devastated many small towns for years. Some manage to reinvent themselves as North Adams, Massachusetts did by converting its closed factories into MASS MoCA. Not so for Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, about how shameful pollution of the town's natural resources led to the decline of a small town in Maine. That brings me back to my disappointment with the BBC series adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicles. The failure to capture all the books's characters and plots into the series made for s finale that was too abrupt and not true to the power of the entire epic. Since Russo tackled the page to screen series himself, the mini-series provides as rich an experience as reading Empire Falls did. And the actors portraying the novel's panorama of characters are all A-list. Fortunately the two parts, divided into 5 chapters each, is still available to stream at Amazon Prime.
Finally, even as we're still processing the incredible number of lives lost during the past year, the latest tragedy that befell one man — the sports world icon Tiger Woods — suddenly became The story dominating every news outlet. You don't have to be a golf enthusiast to be moved to tears by the recent HBO documentary about Tiger's life, which makes his latest trauma yet another chapter in a story at once inspiring and incredibly tragic.
For me, the news of Tiger's accident reminded me of my husband's never forgotten golf experience at the time of another tragic moment in history. He and a friend were out golfing when someone came to the hole they were at and told them that President Kennedy had been shot. When this was followed with the news that Kennedy was dead, my husband put down his clubs, left and came home. His friend and a priest who was playing with them stayed and finished the game. His golfing buddy and other golfers to whom he mentioned how my husband had walked out on the game all said, "well, he's not a real golfer."
Eventually, my husband did go back to golfing -- just as, hopefully, all of us will go back to many of the activities probably on hold for some time to come.
January 16, 2021 Update — When our already surreal lives take a climactic turn . . . .
The drama of the real life horror show unfolding, not at a theater or streaming platform but in the hallowed halls of our Capitol, has undone even my efforts to add some meaningful content to CurtainUp — at least until Joe Biden and Kamala Harris assume the posts to which they were legally elected.
Since March my online theater outings were geared to search out the massive content on platforms like Netflix for new stageworthy content as well as older gems worth getting to know or revisit. Sure, this kind of onscreen rather than live entertainment was always a way to deal with this suddenly isolated lifestyle. But with the Trump presidency in its horrific final act has made it hard to stay focused on anything but the efforts to hold onto power by Trump and his enablers. And so, instead of treating the "play button" as if it were the same as the houselights dimming, I've surfed from channel to channel, often fast forwarding and no longer taking notes as has been my habit as a critic.
Fran Lebowitz's half-hour ramblings around Manhattan when its streets were still busy had me actually chuckling a few times. Between the day I watched the first of the 7 episodes of Pretend It's a City on Netfilx and the last (and my favorite) about books and bookstores, the city of Washington turned from mayhem into a fortress and Trump was impeached for the second time..
Martim Scorsese, her companion during the interludes at The Players' Club and the show's producer, hasn't added a coda for him and Lebowitz to comment on how New York has changed since they filmed this. Probably wisely so, since even the always witty Lebowitz would have a hard time wrestling any laughs from today's New York scene. I suspect she would have to cave in on her "no cell phone" mantra today so this new relationship with technology might just seed some funny observations. Lebowitz did do an interview after 2016 (available at YouTube) when she, who claimed to always be right, owned up to being totally wrong about the likelihood of Trump's being elected.
As the rollout of the vaccine added to the difficulties of life in a deadly pandemic, Netflix added a fourth season of Last Tango in Halifax, which takes its senior lovebirds into a 7-year-itch stage of their marriage. With Derek Jacoby, one of Great Britain's greatest actors, and Anne Reid as the better-late-than-never marrieds, the quiet charm their story, and that of the rest of their family members proved a respite from the chaos all around us. That said, Images of them wearing masks and being at high risk kept getting in the way of relaxing into the nostalgic pleasure of the current season.
The online outing that probably took my mind off current events most completely was my revisit to Kenneth Lonergan's long-in-the-making movie, Margaret. And that's not because because it was a fast-paced, action-packed entertainment that made me laugh as Fran Lebowitz did. In fact it's slow-moving, talky tragedy inspired and named for a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about a youg girl's early intimations of mortality. The tragic encounter with death by Lonergan's central character gives Margaret an all too real, punch-in-the-heart timeliness. For theater buffs it's also a chance to see some of their favorite Broadway and Off-Broadway actors (including Anna Paquin in her breakout role and Lonergan himself as her character's father).
The list of shows whose lives were cut short by the pandemic now includes Mean Girls, Frozen, Hangmen and the latest Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? And as if trying to survive weren't enough, one of New Yorks jewels for all who love musical theater, the York Theater Company in St. Peter's Church on Lexington Avenue, has suffered extensive damage and lost equipment and archived scripts from a severe flood. If you type York Theater in the enhanced with Google box, you'll see links to the many memorable shows we've covered there. Here's wishing them luck in saving their distinguished history.
December 24. 2020 Update
In my review of the wonderful new filmed version of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom I said that I thought that if the playwright were still alive he might approve of what George C. Wolfe and Ruben Sandiego-Hudson did with it . According to David Gordon's interview with Wilson's widow, she agrees. that what they did accentuated their understanding of his language and that his message was always about Black lives matter.
I doubt if Jonathan Bank would ever take the liberties Wolfe and Santiago Hudson did since the plays he's been presenting to the Mint Theater's many fans for years are not revered masterpieces by a playwright who's named a theater after him. Instead the Mint's mission is to provide a platform for overlooked works and talent. The Mint is now presenting another season of past plays filmed during their live runs and now available for limited, FREE virtual runs. Since all were reviewed before the Curtainup freeze, following is a list of what he has lined up through next spring with links to the reviews.
Women Without Men2/02 to 3/21
Days to Come2/04 to 2/21
Yours Unfaithfully 3/22 to 5/ 16
A Picture of Autumn329 to 5/29
Fatal Weakness5/19 to 6/13
A great holiday present for all of us is, of course, the arrival of the first doses of . COVID vaccine to make the return to a more normal life style possible. Normal, yes. . .but it won't ever be the same in terms of how we'll consume and appreciate entertainment. I've always loved the movies but these many months of going to the theater via my ipad have not only been a life saver, but doubled and trippled my appreciation of the close-up, the convenience and a really well-made stage to screen work.
Naturally, those creating entertainment — whethr for streaming platforms, TV or live live theater — will make only gems like the stage-to-screen Ma Rainey or the stunning page-to-screen The Queen's Gambit. Greed and economic necessity are unlikely to put an end to celebrity casting and less than newly relevatory replays of proven favorites.
Bridgerton, a new period drama series debuting Christmas day at Netflix is using the work of a living novelist Julia quinn rather than the done to death Jane Austin. But then, perhaps someone is concocting a series about a living Austen who's grinding out so many historical romances that she needs to publish some with a pseudonym.
For March thrugh December 202- blog entries go here