Thursday, May 05, 2005

Toni! Tony!

Sorry, couldn't think of a Toné to round it all out.

First up, I am excited that Toni Morrison has been included as one of the jury members for this year's Cannes Film Festival, where the roster of films looks deliciously strong. New stuff from David Cronenberg (a Nick's Flick Picks favorite), Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Atom Egoyan, Jim Jarmusch (will it be as good as Ghost Dog?), the Dardenne brothers, Amos Gitaï, Gus Van Sant, Hong Sang-soo, and a bunch of other reputable folk. Even Hou Hsiao-hsien will be represented—a lionized master whose films often (I cannot tell a lie) put me to sleep. But you never know when I'll finally turn that magic corner of comprehension, right? And speaking of turning corners, the new Woody Allen film Match Point (yes, even newer than Melinda and Melinda) will be screening out of competition, and it's the first Allen film in eons that has legitimately strong buzz from people who have espied it. I can imagine Toni Morrison being into Egoyan, given his recurring obsessions with incest, local history, racial politics, and dense memory collages. Still, I'm sure the film everyone will ask her about is Manderlay, Von Trier's follow-up to Dogville, set on a slave-owning plantation in the American South. More about Cannes later, especially once the Festival starts, on May 11.

The day before that, on May 10, the Tony nominations will be announced. (It doesn't seem right that so many distracting arts-related awards and events are happening right when I'm wrapping up my dissertation, but we endure, do we not.) Nick's Flick Picks isn't much for musicals, partly because it's so hard to experience them if you can't actually trek down to NYC (or wherever) to see one. Thankfully, you can still read a play even when you can't see it performed—a different experience to be sure, but a complete kind of experience in itself once you're practiced at it. I suppose you could strike an analogy to listening to cast albums for shows you haven't seen, but I don't know s*** about music, many CDs still don't include the "book" passages between songs, and in general, that just isn't my bag, man.

Only five new plays debuted on Broadway last year, which will now compete for the four slots in the Best Play category. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a parable—which all but swept the off-Broadway Lortel Awards the other day, and was just published in paperback on April 26—has been a front-runner for a while. Winning the Pulitzer didn't hurt, and nor has the solid box-office. I'm glad to learn that the script is such a corker, with finely wrought dialogue, sharp ironies, and structural smarts. Shanley offers a tightly shaped piece that still leaves all kinds of leeway for actors to create hugely independent takes on these characters. Certainly Doubt is my favorite Pulitzer winner since Wit, even if it's not on a par with the various plays Suzan-Lori Parks should have been honored for. (Let it be said, too, that Will Eno's runner-up script for Thom Pain (based on nothing) would also have been a deserving winner.) If Shanley winds up in the winner's circle, as many people are predicting, I'll be pleased as punch for him.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, though I haven't read August Wilson's unpublished Gem of the Ocean, I still feel comfortable believing that Donald Margulies' stolid, same-old same-old Brooklyn Boy has got to be the dog of this bunch, and I hope it gets edged out of a nod. Margulies can turn a phrase, at least enough of the time, but there isn't a single moment in Brooklyn Boy that feels new, in theme, story, or character. Indeed, the closer we get to the conclusion, which I guarantee you've seen in a dozen other scripts, the play's utter conventionality only becomes more obvious. I wouldn't be surprised if the talented cast and director brought something to this, but honey, it ain't on the page.

Michael Frayn's Democracy hasn't a prayer of winning, but its serious subject and esteemed author should guarantee a nomination. The play deserves it. Frayn doesn't exactly break any ground with Democracy, but unlike Brooklyn Boy, the play uses fairly standard devices to specific and unique effect. As scripted, the depth and crowdedness of the multi-level stage offer a succinct portrait of a political machinery that is both vast and incestuously interbred. Willy Brandt remains a little remote, but the play does a good job anatomizing that remoteness, and explaining how and why a certain kind of bland charisma can get a politician quite a long way and also, inevitably, stoke a powerful backlash of disappointment. Frayn encourages us to think through the connections among ambivalence, ambition, and espionage from the beginning, instead of playing the "spy" card as a standard-issue plot twist the way I Am My Own Wife did last year. As a result (and for other reasons, surely), his play isn't the rare curio that Wife was, but that's why I like it so much better—it fits the proportions of its subject, and it teaches us something without getting precious.

All of which brings us to Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, the fearsome and thrilling dark horse of the category. Here's a play you will not forget, even in print (though you may need to be near a university library, or at least near, in order to read it). I read it three weekends ago, and everything about it gets so intense—story, structure, setting, and stakes—that the script practically crackled every time I turned the page. This is a fierce piece, as brave in its unforeseeable humor as in its soul-deep scares and intellectual punch. Doubt is electric but The Pillowman is nuclear, at least in terms of immediate visceral effect. In terms of layering and implications, the plays strike me as roughly equivalent, and I have a sense that both will age just fine. Sure is nice to feel like Tony voters have two thoroughbred Broadway plays to pick from in a single season; many is the year when they have none.

Incidentally, two of my all-time favorite American plays will almost certainly be competing in the revival category: David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It says everything about these ingenious writers that Mamet and Albee have both written plays I like even better—that would be The Cryptogram in Mamet's case and A Delicate Balance in Albee's (maybe All Over, too). Now, if I could only make it down to New York City and see some of these flaming goddam masterpieces—and, let's not forget, if I could only afford to see them—I'd really have something to be psyched about.

P.S.: If you know anything about me, you know more Tony nomination predictions will be offered in due course.

P.P.S.: If you already know The Pillowman, you'll definitely want to check out painter Paula Rego's triptych of canvases inspired by the show. Creeeeeeeeepy...

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home