Posted in Television

The Journey, Not the Destination

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Sparring With a Witness: Crown Counsel Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp) and Instructing Solicitor Lina Badir (Andrea Demetriades)

I love mysteries, specifically the hardboiled and procedural varieties with private eyes, cops and especially lawyers. They so consistently produce great character-driven stories. Where would Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” be without Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and Miss Wonderly Miss LeBlanc Bridget O’Shaughnessy? Not to mention that most inscrutable of P.I.’s, Sam Spade?

While the genre has been a television staple for decades, variations on the theme keep it refreshing. English television has definitely outpaced its American cousin in this regard: “Happy Valley” and “The Fall” feature female leads, and while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the iconic “Prime Suspect.” Although the co-leads of “Broadchurch” consist of a mixed doubles detective partnership, romance is definitely not in the air (and please, may it never come to that). Two more shows on which I recently binged easily match these for quality—the Australian series, “Janet King,” available on Acorn TV, and its predecessor, “Crownies,” all 22 episodes of which are up on YouTube.

Though they feature the same characters, these two series couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. “Crownies,” centering on five junior solicitors in the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has more than a passing resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” in its depiction of eager (in all senses of the word) young professionals mentored by the presumably older and wiser. It’s very much a dramedy—the genuinely funny moments far outnumber the cringeworthy, but both are outweighed by the seriousness of the cases the DPP handles. On full view are the Attorney General who drugged and raped the women who worked for him, the sisters who beat to death the man who’d seemingly been abusing them, the convenience store murderer whose crime is caught on surveillance video in gruesome detail, the 11 year-old boy who may or may not have murdered his younger brother—the list goes on.

What makes “Crownies” somewhat unusual is that the gray areas of these cases, especially the kiddie and domestic violence killings, are explored in such depth. It’s the DPP’s responsibility to determine whether to prosecute, and the show doesn’t stint on discussions (and frequent arguments) regarding the legal merits of these cases. It’s refreshing to see such thought put into a television series. And I have to admit I’m more than a little envious of my brothers and sisters at the bar who can cross-examine a witness with “I put it to you that…” instead of the far more passive-aggressive “Isn’t it true that…?” we’re forced to use.

Although the acting is uniformly excellent, not all the juniors are equally enjoyable. Three are flat-out terrific no matter their flaws: Erin (Ella Scott Lynch), whose fondness for wine leads her to make some really bad choices in the male department; Lina (Andrea Demetriades), of Palestinian background, who stubbornly sees no future in her relationship with Andy, a police detective; and Richard (Hamish Michael), the classic genius who’s classically inept away from his books. Rounding out the quintet are Tatum (Indiana Evans), an irritating princess type whose father evidently became rich by stepping over if not causing a few dead bodies, and Ben (Todd Lasance), the spoiled rich kid with the barrister father (When Erin, exasperated, asks him at one point, “Don’t you ever get tired of you?,” you’ll find yourself yelling back at your TV, “I sure do!”). All five are instructing solicitors who prepare cases for trial by their superiors and appear on behalf of the state on petty matters. And each is an excellent lawyer, regardless of personality.

In contrast, “Janet King” is very much a procedural, featuring a dark story of mercy killing (maybe), child abuse, kiddie porn and corruption in high places. It discards the ensemble show concept in favor of a leading character, and for good reason. Superbly played by Marta Dusseldorp, Janet King is a senior crown counsel who seems at first glance to be a staple of the genre: the unflappable stoic hero(ine). Naturally, appearances couldn’t be more deceiving. She cares about the junior solicitors in the DPP; she’s an excellent mentor, giving praise and challenging them to do their best (We see a subtle change in the later series—the professor/student dynamic that prevailed in “Crownies” has been replaced by a greater sense of collegiality). There’s an underlying kindness as she advises the bumbling Richard to pace himself when he’s about to work all night to prepare a case (not hers) for trial, and she doesn’t hesitate to read Erin the riot act for letting a very promising future slip away because of her affair with the wine bottle. Although she tells Richard she doesn’t let the horror of her cases get to her (“It sounds weird but it just doesn’t touch me at all”), we later see her break down, sobbing, over the deaths of two young boys drugged and suffocated by their mother.

Fortunately, Janet’s professional life is well-balanced by a rich personal life. While we know in “Crownies” that she’s trying to get pregnant, it’s not revealed until a number of episodes later via an amusing bit of misdirection that her partner, Ash, is a woman; later on we find out that Janet is carrying twins. Pregnant lady humor may seem clichéd, but given what these characters do for a living, it’s a  welcome break (The scene in which Erin attempts to district her when she goes into labor is classic. “Wait–you’re telling me lawyer jokes?”).  Another of my favorite sequences in “Crownies” involves Ben, Mr. Suave himself, getting so rattled in court by a senior counsel’s alcoholic meltdown, that he can’t even spell his own name correctly for the court stenographer when he’s forced to take over. A later scene, in which he and Richard compare their respective idiocies over a shared sandwich, is a great bit of comic timing. Bravo, gents.

Acorn TV will be adding Season 2 of “Janet King” starting August 29. (It’s currently available on YouTube, but the quality is not the best). No fools they, Acorn will only be adding one new episode a week, so no binging, at least not yet. No sense giving it all away during the one-month free trial period, right?

UPDATE: I just checked Acorn TV’s site, and all episodes of “Janet King,” Season 2 are up and running. So binge to your heart’s content!

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Sound of Broadway

Two recent events have once again proven there are few performances more iconic than those given in Broadway musicals. The death of John McMartin, an actor who graced the original Broadway productions of “Sweet Charity” and the landmark”Follies,” reminded me that the original cast albums of these shows are among my favorite listening experiences. And the sheer joy and exuberance that Zachary Levy brings to the recording of the recent “She Loves Me” revival are the perfect antidote to a down-in-the-dumps day.

Whether on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm disks, vinyl, cassette tape or CD, the original cast album has always served a dual purpose: as advertising for the show and its score and as souvenir for those lucky enough to have seen it on Broadway or on tour. But before we go any further, let’s get one of my pet peeves out of the way. A cast album of a theatrical production is not a “soundtrack,” no matter what retailers, web sites and streaming services may tell you. A soundtrack is what you hear when you see a movie; in CD form it’s the music and/or vocal score of a film. And the differences between a cast album and a soundtrack in terms of performers’ energy and the quality of sound involved can be amazing.

I’ve written before about the cast albums of “Parade,” “LoveMusik,” and “A Little Night Music,” but these are by no means my only favorites. One of my most listened-to recordings is of a show I’ve never seen on stage: “Sweet Charity,” which absolutely crackles with its Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score; in its original form, it far outstrips the score of the film version starring Shirley MacLaine (surprise, surprise). Had the movie kept Sweet Charity“Baby, Dream Your Dream” and the Broadway version of the title song as sung by John McMartin, not to mention the guitars and mariachi of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” it might not have been the flop that it was. The sizzle of “Big Spender” (dum dum da-dum dum-dum) and the contrapuntal chorus in “The Rhythm of Life” are just icing on the cake. I can’t leave “Sweet Charity,” though, without singling out Gwen Verdon as one of the best in the original cast album universe. I only saw her on stage once, in the original production of “Chicago,” but the albums of her shows are among the most energetic and fun to hear.

Another Cy Coleman score, “Little Me,” is another great listen. Among its assets is an absolute knock-out performance by Swen Swenson of “I’ve Got Your Number” with the sexiest come-on baritone imaginable. For this show Mr. Coleman’s lyricist was Carolyn Leigh; one of the choruses of “Real Live Girl,” sung by World War I doughboys, never fails to make me smile in its fashion accuracy:

Girls were like fellas was once my belief
What a reversal and what a relief
I’ll take the flowering hat and the towering heel
And the squeal
Of a real live girl.

Follies PapermillThe late Mr. McMartin was Ben Stone in the legendary original production of “Follies.” It’s one of the biggest cheats in the history of Broadway musicals that Capitol Records, which produced the cast album, couldn’t or wouldn’t release it on two disks. Suffice it to say there’s a ton of missing Sondheim; verses, choruses, reprises and entire numbers vanished. Nevertheless, despite its truncated state this album is still a keeper. Every original cast recording is a direct expression of the composer’s and lyricist’s intentions—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (This is perfectly apparent in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary of the recording of the “Company” cast album). Given the fall and rise of “Follies” since its 1971 premiere, not to mention the various revisions to the show during these years, it’s always fun to return to the blueprint.

However, I’m equally fascinated by the songs written for “Follies” that never made it to opening night. Although they’ve popped up on various recordings of lost show tunes and in reviews based on Sondheim scores, you can hear all of them sung in character on the recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production that set the bar for all “Follies” revivals. Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts may not totally measure up vocally as Sally and Buddy, but Dee Hoty and Lawrence Guittard certainly do as Phyllis and Ben. This two-disk version of “Follies” contains every song ever written for the show, among which are some of Sondheim’s finest work. You’ll wonder why these songs were cut, especially “Bring on the Girls,” which, with its emphatically descending bass line, is a perfect accompaniment to show girls making their entrance (In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim admits that he should never have replaced it with “Beautiful Girls”). However, the cut song that remains in memory the longest is the original version of the double duet in the “Follies” section of the show, in this instance sung by the younger versions of Ben and Phyllis: “Who Could Be Blue/Little White House.” Its haunting melody and the wistful innocence of its expression are lovely; the contrast with “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” is particularly poignant. By the way, this recording includes all three versions of Phyllis’ “Follies” number: “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” “Uptown, Downtown,” and “Ah, But Underneath.” For my money, the first of these remains the best; who else but Sondheim would write the line “That’s the sorrowful précis”?

Other cast albums bring standout moments: Kelli O’Hara’s successive astonishment, wonderment and delight as she sings “I’m in love!” at the climax of “A Wonderful Guy” in the revival of “South Pacific;” Beth Malone’s desperation, singing “Telephone Wire” in “Fun Home,” as her character so longsKismet for a different past; Ms. O’Hara again, this time with Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael McKean, in the revival of “Pajama Game,” doing a bang-up job on “I’m Not at All in Love” (As a devoted fan of 50’s pop, I love this score).  There’s an entire series of recordings from the revivals produced by the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s; I frequently play the disk of “Kismet” to hear soprano Lee Venora as Marsinah sing a tremendous”Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (and Alfred Drake’s “Olive Tree” ain’t too shabby either).

Which brings me to the recent revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” Its excellent recording comes with a substantial bonus: the performance of Zachary Levi as Georg. I saw the show in June (thanks again, Jane!), and while the four principals were well matched, it was Jane Krakowski as Ilona who was just a bit more memorable. On disk, however, it’s Mr. Levi who takes the honors; it’s impossible to hear him sing the show’s title song without grinning from ear to ear. Here’s hoping he comes back to Broadway to do another musical soon.

And your favorites are?

Posted in Television

Onward

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Now that was…satisfying.

I meant that as a compliment. “Winds of Winter,” the season finale of “Game of Thrones” brought at least two story arcs to an end, initiated several more, and continued to tease another like a veteran stripper twirling her tassels at an audience. Nicely done, show runners.

Courtesy of Cersei, the Sparrows and their followers, along with Ser Loras, Margaery and their father, were all blown to Kingdom Come. While I’m certain the faithful wanted to get there eventually, it’s a safe bet that wildfire, King’s Landing’s variety of napalm, would never have been their vehicle of choice. I have to confess I’m going to miss that little schemer Margaery who was such a great foil for Cersei. I can’t say the same for the High Sparrow or Tommen, whose suicide seemingly earned little sympathy from the mother he had condemned to the Sparrows. Thus is fulfilled the prophesy that Cersei would see the deaths of all her children.

She certainly wasted no time weeping. Having seized the Iron Throne after years of marginalization by the men in her life, she now rules a kingdom that’s about to come under siege. Is she up to the task? I have to say her own brother looked none too happy about Queen Cersei’s power grab. Falling out of love at long last, perhaps?

Contrast their situation with that of the third Lannister sibling. Tyrion has done quite well for himself. He’s a Hand once more, this time to Queen Danaerys, and on his own merit, not as a plant by his father. Bravo.

Even better was Arya’s avenging the Red Wedding. Before we get there though, I have to wonder what would have happened had Jamie bedded her in her serving wrench disguise. No doubt he would have met the same fate as Walder Frey, but without the benefit of special baked goods (Nice wink at Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” there, show runners). Before this episode aired, the rumor on the interwebs was that Arya would do the deed in Lady Stoneheart disguise. Though the Lady is still MIA, the sight of Walder Frey’s slit throat and Arya’s smile made for lovely viewing.

In other Stark news, Jon Snow’s identity as Lyanna’s son was finally confirmed, though you had to know from Season 1 that Ned Stark was not his father (Ned would get all moody and distant when the subject of Jon’s mother came up, so it didn’t take much brainpower to put two and two together. Starks are not Lannisters, after all). However it seems we’re still being teased about his paternity. OK, Lyanna was abducted, but is this conclusive? What did she whisper in Ned’s ear before she died? Lip readers to the fore, please!

Bastard or no, Jon Snow is now King of the North, courtesy of Itty Bitty Lady Mormont’s calling out the slackers and Sister Sansa’s rebuff of Lord Baelish. Speaking of which, Sansa’s certainly got his number by now: “Anyone who trusts Littlefinger is a fool.” On the other hand, it may prove wiser in the long run for her to have observed the adage: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” I would think Littlefinger, always drawn to power, may shortly be hightailing it back to King’s Queen’s Landing to join forces with Cersei. And with Melisandre having been turned out of Winterfell and now freelancing, who knows what will happen?

[By the way, have you noticed how tall Sophie Turner has gotten? It’s somewhat amusing that she can now literally look down on both Aiden Gillen and Kit Harrington. Foreshadowing?]

So we end Season 6 with the Tyrells (Lady Olenna never misses a step), Martells, Iron Born and Targaeryan/Dothraki forces sailing to Westeros to install Dany as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Varys succeeded in his mission, the dragons are flying and Dany is at the helm. But winter has arrived—will she still prevail? Other wildcards include Arya, now making her way to Winterfell, the Hound and the Brotherhood Without Banners, Brienne and Gendry (Remember him? Robert Baratheon’s bastard).

Plenty to go around in the future, though it seems only two shortened seasons remain. I’ll miss the show after it’s gone, but I have to say the projected end date seems right. We’ve been through the initial “Shock of the Week” phase during the show’s first few seasons; this season has been one of satisfaction, as many plot expectations have been fulfilled. Every show has a “use by” date; it would be horrible to see GoT become a “What? That again?” show in predictability.

Knowing when to leave is prime TV wisdom. Let’s hope “Game of Thrones” wraps up in style.

Posted in Television

Reckoning

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If ever a television episode spoke for itself, “Battle of the Bastards,” last night’s “Game of Thrones” offering, certainly did. There’s very little I can add except to ask, “How many Emmys do you think it’ll win?”

I think the image of Rickon and Jon futilely racing toward each other across the battlefield will stay with me for a very long time. We instinctively knew Sansa’s prior assessment that Rickon was a dead man would hold true, yet the beauty of desperation and longing made us believe for just an instant until the arrow struck.  And Jon’s unsheathing his sword to face what seemed certain death was the gallant gesture of a king. He’s pure Stark, through and through.

[Before we leave the battlefield, though, I have to say that if you didn’t expect Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale to save the day, you haven’t been paying attention this season. In addition to her letter writing skills, our girl Sansa sure knows her way around ravens.]

I’m curious as to how successful this new Targaryan/Iron Islands alliance is going to be. Despite all the flirting, political and otherwise, between the two ladies, I can’t believe the followers of the Drowned God will so readily give up their nasty ways. They’re been pillagers and pirates for centuries. They’re not like the Dothraki who worship Daenerys as the Mother of Dragons, so I imagine our Ms. Stormborn and trusted advisor Tyrion are going to have their hands full before long.

Finally, at long last, Ramsay Bolton got his by becoming doggie dinner. It was tremendously thoughtful and brotherly of Jon to stop whaling on him so that Sansa could deliver the coup de grâce. But was it really enough as far as the Boltons are concerned? Instead of Ramsay dispatching his old man, I would have liked Arya to have stuck Roose Bolton with Needle and rummaged around his insides for a bit. I’m certain I’m not alone in thinking that Lady Sansa’s goodbye smirk to her erstwhile hubby, while satisfying, wasn’t truly commensurate with the torture Ramsay put her and Theon (not to mention the audience) through. At least his three seasons of sadism are over, though the GoT showrunners keep upping the ante in that department (See “Shireen, Death of”).

Nevertheless, we may finally have Red Wedding vengeance if the season’s finale promo is any hint. It looks like banquet time chez Frey, and here’s hoping they end up skewered. Also on tap are Cersei and Loras’ Trials by Sparrow—will House Tyrell rescue them? And what of Bran and Uncle Benjen? How’s Varys doing? The Hound? Did Brienne return to Tarth? Will Arya make it back to Winterfell for a Stark reunion?

Be there on Sunday to (hopefully) find out.

Posted in Television

A Stark At Last

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A girl came into her own last night.

Grey Worm smiled.

Khaleesi didn’t even bother to park her dragon.

All this and so much more in “No One,” Episode 8, Season 6 of “Game of Thrones.” Such a tasty dish. Which ingredient should we start with?

I never thought I’d feel sorry for Cersei, but wow, that’s gotta hurt (if not now, then definitely in the future). With Tommen’s abolition of trial by combat, we’ll be sadly deprived of any Mountain mayhem on Cersei’s behalf. And here we all thought Joffrey was the rotten kid in that family. Speculation: That verification of a rumor Cersei’s weasly advisor was whispering about? I suspect it’s that Sansa is alive, and the little bird that cheeped it was Petyr Baelish. Alliances do nothing but shift on this show, especially with Littlefinger being such a mercenary toad.

I’m really enjoying the saga of the returned Hound and his exploits. Unlike the Ironborn and Sam Tarly, he holds my interest and rates every minute of screen time he gets. His relationship with Arya made him human, and now that he’s joined the Brotherhood Without Banners, I see some intriguing twists ahead. With the continually resurrected Beric Dondarrion and especially Thoros of Myr back in the picture, can Lady Stoneheart be far behind?

Jamie Lannister has always reminded me of Angel of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame. You never know which side of the character you’re going to see in any given week. Last night we were treated to both. He was wonderfully knight-to-knight with Brienne, though there’s obviously a lot more going on there—and it’s definitely not one-sided. Did anyone else want to yell during his rhapsodic discussion of Cersei, “Dummy, she ain’t all that. Check the woman standing right in front of you!” Their mutual angst at the prospect of fighting each other and their poignant farewell waves as Brienne made her getaway from Riverrun spoke volumes. Forget the Tormund ‘ship. I’d bet good money that GoT is going to end with the two of them duelling to the death and dying in each other’s arms.

On the other hand, a Lannister-Tarth politically arranged marriage before the show ends would be a nice alternative. After all, being dismissed from the King’s Guard makes Jamie the most eligible bachelor in town, and she’d bring money, territory and her old man’s army to the alliance. It’s a match made in heaven. Besides, that was one heavy anvil that dropped when Jamie said he’d never betray his house. As my mother was wont to say, “We’ll see.”

Bad Angel Jamie emerged in his conversation with Edmure Tully, with whom he was at his most condescending and tyrannical. Despite Edmure’s prisoner status, can you blame Jamie? Prior to the Red Wedding Edmure was petulant and a bit of a wuss; it was clear sister Caitlyn was somewhat exasperated with him. And now he’s betrayed his name and the men who were willing to die for him. A sad end to House Tully.

Fortunately Arya redeemed all that with the sweetest payoff GoT has seen in a long time. I’m sorry we lost Lady Crane along the way—it would have made for a better story arc to see Arya spend some time as an actress (I agree that she’d be good at it), instead of two seasons in the House of the Dead. On balance, though, it was worth it to have Arya finally dispatch the Waif and proclaim to Jaqu’an: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell. And I am going home.”

YES!!!!!

Next week: It’s the penultimate episode of the season, which means it’s time for The Big Battle. In this corner, Ramsay Bolton. In that corner, Jon Snow. It’s Bastard vs. Bastard, and the prize is Winterfell. Good times ahead.

Posted in Theater

Indecent

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in INDECENT written by Paula Vogel, created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015.
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in “Indecent” (Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015)

One of the joys—or woes—of live theater is its variability. An actor may be slightly off, the audience could be restless or something else may break the mood (Curse those cellphones!). On the other hand if you’re lucky all can fall into place and you’re treated to a wonderful performance. Fortunately that was the case when I saw “Indecent” last weekend at the Vineyard Theater in New York.

Created by Paula Vogel (author) and Rebecca Taichman (director), “Indecent” is a play about another play: Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” as well as the actors who perform it in its various incarnations. Written in 1907, “God of Vengeance” is the story of a Jew who runs a brothel in the basement of his home. Married to a former prostitute he seeks redemption through an arranged marriage between his innocent teen-aged daughter and a prized Talmudic scholar. He’s even commissioned a handwritten Torah to present to his future son-in-law as another mitzvah to wash away his sins. All comes to naught when Papa discovers daughter Rivkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of the girls downstairs, with whom she has spent the night. Enraged, he hurls the Torah to the floor and drags his daughter to the basement to work with his other girls. Curtain.

Although the play had been performed to great acclaim in Europe and in Yiddish theater in America, an English translation of “God of Vengeance” that opened on Broadway in 1923 was shut down, its cast and producers arrested and convicted of obscenity. Why? Because of the love scene between Rivkele and Manke, by turns lyrical and erotic, though most of it had been cut so as not to offend American sensibilities (The leading blue nose was a prominent Manhattan rabbi who denounced “God of Vengeance” from the pulpit as “bad for the Jews,” flying as this does in the face of Asch’s stated opinion: “Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?”). Ultimately the actors’ convictions were overturned on appeal and the producers paid small fines, but not before the trial judge excoriated the play from the bench in a speech quoted in “Indecent” that just drips with the barely veiled antisemitism of that era.

But “Indecent” goes beyond that; it traces “God of Vengeance” from its inception to 1952 when Sholem Asch departed his adopted America for England. It’s not strictly biography or history but a cultural kaleidoscope. Presented by a company of seven actors and three musicians,  “Indecent” sounds some essential themes: the power of theater, the beauty of love, the harshness of censorship, the homogenization of culture and ultimately the survivorship of the human spirit through art. And it does so with a deft touch.

Six of the actors play multiple roles in “Indecent;” the one constant is Lemml (Richard Topol), a Polish tailor drafted to participate in the first reading of “God of Vengeance,” who acts as stage manager for both plays. As is evident from his introductory remarks, the fulcrum of “Indecent” is the love scene in “God of Vengeance” between Rivkele and Manke, referred to as “the rain scene.” One aspect of what makes “Indecent” extraordinary theater is the way Ms. Vogel and Ms. Taichman use this throughout their play and the manner in which it ultimately unfolds—twice. We see bits, pieces and other allusions at various times, but experiencing the rain scene in full is the emotional high point of the evening, as it also is in “God of Vengeance.”

Along the way there’s musical commentary by the actors and musicians: a naughty Berlin cabaret song, klezmer, a “Goodbye, God, I’m off to America” number (in which Orthodox payess, or sidelocks, become a flapper’s curls), some Charleston and—you guessed it—an Andrews Sisters-style “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein” (Yiddish meets ’30’s swing). There’s also a cameo by Eugene O’Neill, who was set to testify in defense of the 1923 production of “God of Vengeance” before the judge disallowed his appearance. It should come as no surprise that his favorite aspect of the play is Asch’s take-down of the selling of religion.

It’s somehow fitting that the full performance of the rain scene is presented by a troupe in hiding from the Nazis in the wartime Lodz Ghetto. As Lemml announces, “We’re performing Act II tonight, and God willing, if we’re still here, Act III next week.” And Katrina Lenk (Manke) and Adina Verson (Rivkele) do so, with a perfect blend of tenderness and sensuality. You think “nothing can top this” until these actors perform the scene once more, this time in Yiddish, after a disillusioned Sholem Asch leaves America. But this time it really rains—on stage—so that Manke’s stated desire, to wash Rivkele’s hair in the May rain, can become as real as Asch intended. It’s a magical sight.

The cast of “Indecent” is uniformly excellent. They’ve stayed with the play through its various stages of development, and their experience shows. Likewise the expertise of Paula Vogel in writing playwright to playwright, as it were. “Indecent” is one remarkable achievement.

Unfortunately the play’s New York run is currently set to end on June 19. Here’s hoping it’s taped by PBS—both play and production have earned it.

Posted in Television

No Surprises

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Never Get Between a Khaleesi and Her Dragon

“Game of Thrones” Episode 6, “Blood of My Blood,” certainly brought a bushel basket of new developments. In no particular order:

Benjen Stark, Ned’s brother, whom everyone thought dead, appeared out of the mist and snow to rescue Bran and Meera from one angry band of wights;

Sam Tarly’s father ridiculed his first- born for being fat, insulted Gilly for being a wildling and otherwise acted like a total jerk;

Edmure Tully, Caitlyn Stark’s brother and bridegroom at the Red Wedding, showed up alive, if most likely not entirely well, as a captive of Walder Frey;

Tommen drank the Sparrows’ Kool-Aid and declared politics and religion to be the twin stanchions of King’s Landing;

Drogon found Dany (see above); and (finally)

Arya reclaimed Needle and presumably her identity as a Stark.

However, with the exception of this last, which I’ll get to in a moment, none of these were really surprising. All were variously foreshadowed, hinted at, and had their seeds planted at various times over previous seasons of the show (Keep in mind this is coming from soneone who never gets the murderer right in mysteries). I don’t intend this as criticism—actually it’s a relief to be freed of mayhem for a week to focus on storytelling,

For a number of viewers I’m certain the reappearance of Benjen Stark was the most surprising, at least after they got over their initial “Who in the world is that?” Given that we last saw Benjen in Season 1, this reaction was predictable. If you recall, our last view of Benjen was his departure from Castle Black to scout north of the Wall, at which point he seemingly disappeared into oblivion. However, if you’ve read or even glanced at the George R.R.Martin novels, you’ll notice that Benjen, as listed in the Stark family tree, is described as (I’m paraphrasing here) “missing and presumed dead.” Based on this ambiguity alone I never bought his demise, and since a body never turned up, I expected a living Benjen to appear at some point. And so he did—at the most fortuitous moment.

Sam Tarly’s father isn’t worth discussing, so we won’t linger. Nevertheless, while foreshadowing is a major theme this week, I fully expect the sword Heartsbane to be put to use before this season ends, and by the budding maester himself.

Edmure Tully? The last we saw of him he was being hustled out of the Frey banquet hall as the slaughter began at the Red Wedding. Edmure was always more valuable to Walder Frey as a live captive as opposed to a dead Stark in-law, so again, no surprise there. But am I looking forward to the eventual hellish torture of Walder Frey? You better believe it.

While GoT has obviously been pointing toward Tommen’s getting religion, it feels like there’s a great deal more to come. I can’t help but think his conversion was Step One in a Margaery game plan, no matter how demure she appeared when Tommen announced the alliance of church and state. That girl is still Olenna Tyrell’s granddaughter, and has she ever learned her lessons well. With no love lost between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least that she sees a Tommen-High Sparrow partnership as the best way to permanently render the Lannisters politically as well as militarily impotent, what with Jamie ordered off to Riverrun for Lannisters vs. Starks, Round Two.

Despite all this, the most intriguing development—and for me the one real surprise of the episode—was Arya’s refusal to go through with the assigned murder of Lady Crane. One of the more distressing arcs of GoT has been Arya’s transformation from a lovable girl with a strong moral sense into a killer with a hit list. Not that she doesn’t have cause—betrayal and witnessing your father’s public beheading will do that, not to mention seeing your brother’s corpse paraded about topped by Grey Wolf’s head. A real turning point came when she abandoned a dying Hound. While she later voiced some ambivalence about it, the act was perhaps more shocking than her butchering of Merwyn Trent.

Why did Arya knock the cup of poisoned rum out of Lady Crane’s hand? Was she so awed by Lady Crane’s skills as an actress? More likely she was swayed by the actress’ interest and unexpected warmth. Arya hasn’t had any mothering in a very long time, and Lord knows, Jaquen and the Waif aren’t exactly nurturing types. Nor are they any fun, and it was wonderful to see Arya enjoying the troupe’s ribald performance. It would be fitting indeed for Arya to fulfill the Faceless’ mission by becoming an actress and wearing many faces.

So after two seasons in The House of Black and White she finally retrieves Needle and presumably reclaims her identity as a Stark. While she couldn’t beat the Waif as a Girl Who Has No Name, my money’s on her to do so as her father’s daughter.

One final note: I’m not spoiled, but there was a huge anvil dropped when Cersei, in her usual “I always win” manner, told Jamie not to worry about her upcoming trial by combat to be conducted by the Sparrows—the Mountain will be her champion. Guess what, honey? I think the Hound is alive and well and in the employ of the Sparrows. The Clegane Brothers still have a lot of issues to settle, for sure.

To be continued.