Women of Character

Nicola Walker, Stellan Skarsgård: “River”

As a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” I’ve often thought Nicola Walker, who plays messed-up Gillian, was stuck with the short end of the stick. She plays a totally non-glamorous farmer who’s been through one life disaster after another. It’s no wonder Gillian’s perpetual expression seems to be “When and where will I be kicked next?”

While the character’s problems seem never-ending, the actor is certainly enjoying a break from all that—two, in fact. Nicola Walker stars in “River” and “Unforgotten,” two new and absorbing British television series. She plays a detective in both, but these shows couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is a solid police procedural; the other a psychological drama (to put it mildly) with elements of fantasy. Both are well worth your time.

“River,” now streaming on Netflix, has an intriguing opening that introduces us to DI John River (Stellan Skarsgård) and DS “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker). While on duty they bicker over her addiction to fast food and she sings along to Tina Charles’ disco anthem “I Love to Love” as it plays on the radio (Warning: That song will end up stuck in your head for days). They spot a car they’ve evidently been looking for, and it’s not until River has chased the driver on foot to his death that you see that Stevie’s equally dead. River’s been talking to a ghost, or, as he prefers to say, a “manifest.” It seems he’s had experiences like this since he was a boy; his manifests appear to be the victims in his unsolved cases. There’s one outlier, however—Thomas Cream, a 19th century mass murderer, whose spirit dogs him, goads him and simply won’t leave him alone.

“River” is the type of show that people are sure to either love or hate. The tone of the first episode is very uncertain—it’s like “Topper” meets “Law and Order.” The pace is slow and there’s a lot of Scandinavian brooding by the Swedish-born River, whose future as a police detective hinges on clearance by the department’s psychologist. Fortunately things start to pick up noticeably by the second episode when River solves an open case and begins to spend most of his time on Stevie’s murder to the irritation of D.C.I. Chrissie Reid (the excellent Lesley Manville), his superior officer. He’s joined by a new partner, D.I. Ira King (a very winning Adeel Akhtar), who, in response to River’s noting the Hebrew derivation of his name, states “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Jewish. I’m the original Gaza Strip.” King turns out to be as sharp as River who, despite (or because of?) his manifests, excels at his job.

But Stevie is there at every turn. We meet her twisted family, including the brother newly released from prison whom she had sent up for murder years before. Some potentially incriminating evidence comes to light: Stevie’s hefty withdrawal of funds on the day of her murder; her possession and use of a second, non-official mobile; her affectionately greeting an unknown man as revealed in some CCTV footage. You begin to wonder how accurate River’s manifest of her really is. Was she the morally upright cop with the fortitude to send her own brother to jail, or was she a crooked officer on the take?

The ambiguity is only intensified by the CCTV footage that we repeatedly view of River and Stevie leaving the Chinese restaurant on the night of her murder. They appear to be arguing, she hands him something and begins to walk across the street. She stops in the middle, turns and says something to him, only to be shot in the head by someone in a passing car. The ultimate reveal of what happened during that last encounter is heartbreaking; Skarsgård’s and Walker’s performances in that scene will stay with you for quite some time.

Nicola Walker, Sanjeev Bhaskar: “Unforgotten”

Unlike “River,” Ms. Walker’s other police drama, “Unforgotten,” is thoroughly grounded in reality. We begin with the discovery of a skeleton buried in the basement of a house undergoing demolition. It’s quickly established that this was a male murder victim, and the questions of who he was, whom he knew, why and when he was murdered and by whom are up to DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), her partner DS Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and her squad to solve.

There’s a lot of forensic razzle-dazzle to keep us entertained, as well as the introduction of several characters who seem to be miles removed from the discovery in the basement. These include a business mogul on the verge of an appointment to an important government post, a vicar, a woman married to a soccer coach, and a disabled man whose wife is evidently suffering from dementia. Out of such elements is a mystery made, and this one is spun out like vintage Agatha Christie. The reveals, especially in the first episode, are particularly enjoyable, and when you see DCI Stuart smile in awe at what the forensics team eventually uncovers, you’ll find yourself grinning in appreciation.

In addition to unraveling the whodunit, “Unforgotten” treats us to a display of some good old-fashioned dogged police work. DCI Stuart and DS Khan are terrific cops, but better still, she’s an excellent boss. Some of the best scenes in “Unforgotten” involve her skull sessions with her squad, and the praise and encouragement she gives out is heartwarming (Frankly I would like to work for her). She knows how to bring out the best in people, and this is no more evident than in her relationship with her partner. She considers his opinions at length—he’s not just her sounding board or a sidekick. Both are totally unflappable. When they interview business mogul Sir Philip Cross, whose angry condescension is designed to cow them into silence, Stuart and Khan nevertheless keep at him until he has no alternative but to show them the door.

While I enjoyed both shows, I preferred “River.” It’s certainly different from your standard cop show, and the chemistry of the two leads overcame the slow pacing and various plot twists that even I, who rarely figures out a whodunit, guessed correctly long before the reveals. In contrast “Unforgotten” spends perhaps too much time on those apparently unrelated characters I referred to, but to me the bigger issue is that I don’t buy the identity of the murderer. Your mileage may vary, however–opinion on various discussion boards seems to be split on this topic.

While “Unforgotten” has already been renewed, there’s no news yet concerning “River.” While I’d love to see more of River and Stevie, there would have to be significant changes in the premise of the show if it were to continue. At one point River tells his psychologist that a manifest disappears when he solves the case. Keeping Stevie around as Marion Kirby to River’s Cosmo Topper would undermine the excellence of what we’ve seen, plus some important characters would be missing, given their fate in what has transpired so far.

Sometimes it’s better not to tamper with success.

‘Til Next Year…


What is there left to say?

Enough of the blaming, the hash and re-hash of dead bats, fielding bloopers, a feeble bull pen and questionable managerial decisions.

Thank you, my Mets, for a glorious August and September, an astonishing march to the World Series and the promise of many good things to come.

So let’s fire up that hot stove, debate who should stay, who should go and who we need to make it back to October baseball.

Let’s Go Mets!

Brain Bits for October’s End

Mets postseason

November looms and here we are, playing the summer game into mid-autumn. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

Don’t get me wrong—I so dearly love my Mets, and I’m thrilled they made it to the World Series. It’s “pinch me” time. Whoever would have believed back in early July that The Team That Couldn’t Score Runs would beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and go on to take four straight from the Cubs for the pennant?

But certain thoughts still nag. By the time the World Series rolled around, I was exhausted. And it wasn’t just because I had tuned into almost every regular season Mets game and was somewhat worn out emotionally by the postseason. Ever since Major League Baseball added the second wild card, thus creating three rounds of postseason playoffs, the World Series has become almost anti-climactic. With inter-league play throughout the regular season, we’ve lost some of that “Wow!” factor in seeing an American League team face off against the National League champ. I suppose you could argue that differences in team composition—traditionally, bat-heavy American League vs. the pitching and speed of the National League teams—always make for interesting match-ups, but by the time the leaves begin to fall, the novelty is gone.

The hype also bothers me. Baseball is a day-in, day-out game over a six-month regular season. It’s not an Event like Sunday (now Monday and Thursday, too) pro football, though Fox Sports dearly want it to be so. Every time I hear what I’ve come to identify as “football music” during World Series telecasts, I want to scream (And for the record, I’m a New York Giants fan as well as a Mets fan—Go Big Blue!). The graphics, the tenor of the coverage (though the extra slo-mo cameras are superb), special guest appearances by two ace cheaters masquerading as commentators—Pete Rose on the pre-game show and Alex Rodriguez, during—and worst of all, Joe Buck, Mr. Vapid, who seems to be paid by the uttered word.

The World Series is now aimed less at the die-hard fan than at newbies hopping on the bandwagon. It’s somewhat like the current state of New York’s Broadway theater district—a pricey haven for tourists. But the true beauty of the game lies in watching a team grind it out during an entire 162-game season, seeing unheralded players become heroes while others end up in the doghouse and in general, witnessing what seems to be a lifetime of successes and failures, all between April and October.

The current postseason set-up undermines the nature of what has made baseball the game it is. It seems to serve one purpose only, and that’s to line the pockets of the select few. Major League Baseball and Fox Sports, certainly, but also the manufacturers and retailers of sports attire and memorabilia. Each stage of the Mets’ trip to the World Series has been marked by the Modell’s sporting goods chain’s promotion of new team t-shirts, hoodies, caps and what-have-you in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes, all bearing legends such as:

“We Take the East”

“New York Wants It More”

“The Pennant Rises”

“World Series!”

Enough already. As the late George Carlin observed, “Baseball is pastoral. It’s a 19th century game.”

[But I can assure you I’ll be first in line at “Gotta Go To Mo’s!” to buy my 21st century “World Series Champs” sweatshirt when the Mets win!]

Homeland Carrie and Quinn
Brunette Carrie and Quinn on the Run

“Homeland” is back in a big way.

Season 5 may prove to be its best yet. The showrunners have wisely opted for a change of locale, departing the Middle East for intrigue in Berlin, two years post-Season 4. Having left the CIA, Carrie Mathison is surprisingly settled down with her German attorney boyfriend and her daughter Franny and working as head of security for Otto Düring, industrialist, philanthropist and, I suspect, something a bit more sinister. Because it’s Carrie, events go off the rails rather early on. An assassination attempt is made, seemingly on Düring, when he visits a refugee camp in Beirut on a humanitarian mission; in short order the true target is revealed to have been Carrie, who earlier had warned her boss against making the trip. She’s frighteningly on her own; Saul Berenson, her mentor, has disowned her for leaving the CIA.

But there’s so much more going on with “Homeland” this season: hackers inadvertently breaching the CIA database and downloading key documents; one altruistic hacker looking to play Edward Snowden by giving the documents gratis to a journalist, the other wanting to get rich by offering to sell the information to the Russians; Allison Carr, the CIA’s Bureau Chief in Berlin, on the hot seat for the data breach; Saul Berenson, now head of CIA operations in Europe, directing a one-man assassination bureau on behalf of the agency with Peter Quinn as the dedicated hit man; Dar Adal, now in Saul’s old slot at the CIA, pulling strings all the way from Washington to persuade a Syrian general to overthrow President Assad; and—surprise, surprise—Carrie going off her meds once more, this time to try to figure out who’s gunning for her.

It’s quite a stew.

All of this makes for a very tasty dish indeed. It’s wonderful to have Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) back. Oh, Quinn—how do I love thee? Having been blackmailed pressed back into service by Dar Adal only to endure two years in Syria, he’s a hollow shell of himself during the first few episodes of this season, as he robotically goes about his business eliminating enemies designated by the CIA. It’s not until he draws Carrie’s name as his next target that he returns to being the Peter Quinn we knew. Severely damaged? Yes, but still devastating—in a good way.

“Homeland” has a major genius for casting, and this season is no different. Miranda Otto, a stellar Elizabeth Bishop in “Reaching for the Moon,” expertly plays Allison Carr as one part ambitious CIA lifer, one part seductress (Oh, Saul, you dog!) and one part very shady lady. Each supporting actor is better than the next: Igal Naor as General Youssef, Allan Corduner as the Israeli ambassador, Atheer Adel as Numan, the idealistic hacker, Sarah Sokolovic as the reporter, Laura Sutton (it’s a measure of how effective her performance is that you want to throttle her) and Nina Hoss as Astrid, the sarcastic German security agent, whom I hope returns.

The storytelling is as taut as it can get. The wheels never stop turning. How “Homeland” was it to reveal two major plot twists in the last 30 seconds of the most recent episode? If you didn’t fall over when Allison Carr answered Quinn’s call on the dead assassin’s cell phone (and in Russian yet), the explosion of the plane carrying the CIA’s candidate to replace Assad should have made you do so.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Whose Opinion?

Groucho on “Il Trovatore”: “Boogie, Boogie, Boogie”

Ever feel out of step, critic-wise? How frequently have you seen an acclaimed movie or play that makes you regret the time lost as you suffered through it? And what about that film the critics universally slammed which has you talking about for days?

Yeah, me too. The most recent works at issue? “Il Trovatore,” the first Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” telecast of the season, and the movie “Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. The New York Times loved the first and hated the second; I, on the other hand, was disappointed at a certain level by the former but found a great deal to admire in the latter despite its flaws.

“Il Trovatore” starred Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee, Dolora Zajick and, in his triumphal return in the midst of treatment for a brain tumor, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Vocal riches galore to be sure, and especially amazing since Mr. Hvorostovsky never sounded better as Count di Luna, or in any other role for that matter. But here’s the thing: I’ll sometimes take fewer vocal fireworks if a singer can really act the role. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but there’s more to “Il Trovatore” than its voices, despite Enrico Caruso’s oft-quoted view that all you need for a successful performance is the four greatest singers in the world. Actually that should be five anyway, because without a dynamic bass as Ferrando, the opera stalls getting off the blocks (Štefan Kocán, who also plays the amusingly sinister Sparafucile in the company’s production of “Rigoletto,” filled the bill quite nicely).

The Marx Brothers’ shenanigans in “A Night at the Opera” notwithstanding (and for years after seeing it I couldn’t hear any phrase from “Il Trovatore” without bursting into uncontrollable laughter), there’s a lot of great drama to be mined here. Yes, the plot is famously absurd and there’s more action taking place off-stage than on, but performers committed to acting the roles as well singing them will make all the difference. The last time I saw “Il Trovatore” at the Met, Patricia Racette was an incredibly nuanced, vulnerable Leonora. Although the role was not a great fit for her in vocal terms, I couldn’t have asked for a better dramatic performance. In the HD telecast only Yonghoon Lee’s “Ah, sì ben mio” rose to that level of sensitivity. This was a rare event indeed—usually you can see the wheels turning in the tenor’s head while he sings this aria because he’s already gearing up for “Di quella pira.” But Mr. Lee delivered both his best singing and acting of the afternoon in that moment.

I love Anna Netrebko. Her dark sound is amazing and though this isn’t apparent in an HD telecast which tends to homogenize singers’ volume, her voice is enormous. She’s a terrific actor—a tremendous Lady MacBeth and a helplessly vulnerable Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” among other roles— but in “Il Trovatore” she gave a diva performance. Vocally she was thrilling. Dramatically she was so “take charge” you wondered why she needed Manrico—she could have disposed of di Luna with one hand tied behind her back. Much has been made of her desperately climbing the jail gate during the “Miserere.” To me this seemed a stunt on par with her ripping open des Grieux’s cassock during the seduction scene in “Manon” several seasons ago (the audience tittered at this maneuver during the performance I saw). While I would have liked more dramatic awareness from her Leonora, her singing was extraordinary—it made me long to hear her as Tosca. She’d burn the house down.

There are still some issues with the Met HD telecasts in general. The (lack of) sound quality really grated on me this time, no doubt because the level of vocal quality in this performance was so high. And there’s still too much emphasis on close-ups, to the extent I felt very claustrophobic while watching. The set for this opera is no disaster, so why rely so heavily on the “nostril shot” camera that rides the lip of the stage?

“Il Trovatore” in HD? It left me wanting something a bit more. Maybe it’s too much to ask for perfection?

freeheld (1)
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page: “Freeheld”

As a New Jersey resident I clearly remember following the real events behind the film “Freeheld.” To summarize: Laurel Hester, a 23-year veteran police officer in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As legally required in 2005, she formally requested the county’s governing body, the Board of Freeholders, to grant her registered domestic partner, Stacee Andree, survivor benefits via a transfer of her pension, as her heterosexual married colleagues were entitled to without question. The Board, which by law had the discretion to grant her application, said no. And subsequently said it several times. It wasn’t until a boatload of bad publicity, centered on the freeholders’ sheer mean-spiritedness, especially in view of the quality and length of Ms. Hester’s service, was brought to bear that they finally reversed their position and granted her request. She died soon after, but her pension financially enabled her partner to remain in the house they had bought together and shared for several years, thus fulfilling the ultimate purpose of her fight.

Manohla Dargis, chief movie critic of the New York Times, called “Freeheld” a “television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong” and went on to slam it six ways to Sunday. Surprise, surprise—I liked it. While it certainly has its faults, they’re more than compensated for.

“Freeheld,” based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same title, features excellent performances all around, though dramatically speaking it’s really Ellen Page’s movie. As the much younger partner of the dying Laurel Hester (a very moving Julianne Moore), she’s likely to get an Oscar nomination out of this—she’s beautifully subtle in how she conveys Stacee’s emotions. Fortunately the supporting actors are on a par with the two leading ladies. Michael Shannon is simply terrific as Dane Wells, Laurel’s police partner; one of the best scenes in the film is his unexpected drop-in on the closeted Laurel, finally learning after many years of working together that she’s a lesbian. He does a tremendous job depicting Wells’ anger and disappointment—not that she’s gay, but because she didn’t trust him enough to tell him about her life. As he did on “Boardwalk Empire,” he gets maximum mileage out of that unusual face of his. Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, who becomes Laurel’s chief advocate, is a welcome presence–he’s like the dash of paprika that makes a dish interesting. And Josh Charles is excellent as the freeholder who questions the resounding “no” of his fellows on the board.

Are there problems with this film? Of course. In chronological order, I found the first few minutes covering Laurel’s involvement in a drug bust and subsequent cracking of a murder case somewhat confusing—I couldn’t tell the perps from the snitch, which had some bearing on a later scene when the filmmakers want to convey Laurel’s expertise at her job. More importantly, I wish scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner, who also authored the film “Philadelphia,” had given more context to how the state, in contrast to the intransigence of Ocean County, was beginning to recognize inequality in the treatment of its gay citizens. In 2005, as shown in the film, New Jersey had legally recognized domestic partnerships, but more than that, had seen the introduction of legislation that would afford more benefits via civil unions; the bill would be enacted a few months after Laurel Hester’s death. Same-sex marriage finally became law in New Jersey via court decision in 2013, following several years of failed legislation and a veto (you expected something different?) by Governor Christie..

Ultimately I was surprised that the film placed so much emphasis on the seeming secrecy that several freeholders were collecting two and perhaps three government pensions each while denying Laurel Hester’s request. Every newspaper in New Jersey has constantly been on the issue of double-dipping for as long as I can remember; a liberal paper like the Asbury Park Press, Ocean County’s home paper, would have featured this hypocrisy front and center. And if they didn’t, the film should have said so.

Unlike Ms. Dargis, I would have preferred more “didactic” context rather than less, particularly since people to tend to forget the early stages of social change. But “Freeheld” is definitely worth anyone’s time on the strength of its acting and the light it shines on what constitutes true equality. In this case “good intentions” do indeed carry the day.

Fun Home

Not One Big Happy Family
“We’re a typical family quintet” “And yet….”

On Thursday night I saw “Fun Home.” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical. I think it’ll be a while before the mulling over stops.

Based on Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, “Fun Home” plays on a specific as well as a universal level. While it’s her story—her childhood and her coming out—it also appeals to a fairly widespread desire: to know what our parents are really like, to solve a mystery that no child really can. We want to know them not as parents, but as people, particularly people our age. Is it any wonder films like “Back to the Future,” in which this wish plays out, are so popular? But “Fun Home” is about an even greater enigma: Alison’s father, Bruce, married, father of three—and gay. And who evidently committed suicide by stepping into the path of a truck not long after his daughter came out.

Shortly To Be Changing Her Major
Shortly To Be Changing Her Major

“Fun Home,” the musical, features 43-year-old Alison looking back on her childhood and adolescence, and trying to understand her father’s life and death (It’s no accident she’s doing this at almost the same age he was when he died. Take it from one who’s been there—realizing you’ve surpassed your parents’ ages certainly makes you reassess your life). Alison is aided and abetted by two younger selves: Small Alison, who’s about 9 or 10, and Middle Alison, in her freshman year at Oberlin. Her father Bruce is a high school English teacher who also runs the Bechdel Funeral Home, the family business he inherited which his kids call “Fun Home.” But Bruce’s real passion is historic restoration, an avocation he takes to an extreme. As the adult Alison notes, “The real object of his affection was his house.” The family residence closely resembles a museum in which Bruce insists everything must be in its place. With his private life in chaos it’s not surprising he’s something of a control freak capable of raging over minutiae.

Even discounting the subject matter, this is definitely not your daddy’s musical theater. The show is played in the round, so that fourth wall feels practically non-existent. There’s no intermission so there’s never a loss of momentum in the story. It’s non-linear—what we experience is the adult Alison’s looking back and trying to make sense of a jumble of memories and impressions. But what ultimately makes “Fun Home” so refreshing is that this is a quiet show, both literally and figuratively. Seven musicians accompany the characters as they express themselves in language, both musical and lyrical, that seems made to measure. Composer Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, book author and lyricist, have produced a wonderfully honest work—there’s no grandiosity of expression or hyper-intellectualism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Small Alison’s number, “Ring of Keys,” which Sydney Lucas performed so memorably at the Tony Awards. The character expresses herself as a child would, albeit one with a growing realization of who she is. Similarly she and her two brothers hilariously stay within their own frame of reference when they belt out their commercial for the family business (“Come to the Fun Home”), Jackson 5-style. Both songs bring the house down in performance.

All five principals of “Fun Home” were nominated for Tony Awards, and rightly so (Michael Cerveris won for Best Actor in a Musical). Emily Skeggs gives a lovely performance as Middle Alison; she’s adorable singing “Changing My Major” in her tighty-whities and soccer socks after that first night with Joan (Speaking of whom, Roberta Colindrez lends a welcome tang to her portrayal of Alison’s first). And the audience is brought to its virtual knees by Judy Kuhn’s rendition of “Days and Days,” as Alison’s mother Helen describes what it’s cost her to be married to the closeted Bruce. “Heart-wrenching” doesn’t begin to do actor or song justice. When Ms. Kuhn ended by singing to Middle Alison, “Don’t come back here\I didn’t raise you\To give away your days\Like me” at the performance I saw, I could feel the audience collectively draw a startled breath at the rawness of that emotion.

“I Wanna Play Airplane”

Michael Cerveris as Bruce and Beth Malone as Alison give stellar performances in the two most complex roles in “Fun Home.” By turns avuncular, rigid, gentle and angry, Mr. Cerveris shows us a man incapable of listening to others because of the noise in his own head. One moment he can sing a gentle lullaby to his daughter; the next he can leave his kids asleep in a borrowed apartment in New York to go out cruising. Yet the torment of living a double life is never gone for him. There are few scenes in musicals that show a character’s desperation as plainly as the conclusion of “Raincoat of Love,” a Partridge Family-like number, in which Bruce stands alone, singing the refrain “Everything’s all right,” over and over, a capella. The man is just falling apart.

Beth Malone may have the smallest role of the three Alisons, but it’s the most crucial. As the narrator of “Fun Home,” she’s the prism through which we see the story (Her embarrassment at Middle Alison’s gaucherie is predictable but hilarious). At first she’s ambivalent about her father (“My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike”). But as memories return and are reexamined from her now-adult viewpoint, her sympathies begin to shift. Perhaps for the first time she appreciates how closed his life was; as she sings in “Maps,” “I can draw a circle—you live your life inside.” Longing to understand him, she recreates their final conversation (“Telephone Wire”), in which she promises herself over and over that she’ll broach the subject of their gayness at the next traffic light as they go for a drive. But the adolescent Alison can’t make contact, to the adult’s frustration (“I had no way of knowing my beginning would be your end”). Like Jay Gatsby, she wants to change the past to ensure a different present. However, there is reconciliation. As the adult Alison, looking back at how she and her father played “airplane,” concludes: “Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”

If you can’t make it to the Public Theater to see “Fun Home,” by all means buy the original cast recording. It has a great deal of the dialogue along with the music, and the performances are full tilt—the four ladies and Michael Cerveris have some serious chops. Skip the MP3 version and spring for the CD—it’s accompanied by a terrific booklet with all the lyrics and an insightful essay by Jesse Green, theater critic of “New York” magazine.

Savor it.

Beth Malone, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris and Emily Skeggs

Brain Bits for a Golden September

September always reminds me of that staple of old movies—pages falling from a calendar, dramatizing the passage of time. Today’s the first day I could really feel autumn in the air. It’s not just because the cooler temperature made me change from shorts to jeans, or because the rain from a passing shower no longer smelled like summer. The angle of the sun now turns the air golden in late afternoon, a sight you can only see in September.


After slogging through Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” I can only say Tay Hohoff, her editor on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Go_Set_a_Watchmanwas a genius. It was Ms. Hohoff of J.B. Lippincott Company who evidently convinced the young Ms. Lee to refocus her story on the few passages in “Watchman” that come alive, all of which consist of Jean Louise (we know her as Scout) reminiscing about her childhood. Even more impressive is how two throw-away references to Atticus Finch’s defense of an unnamed black man were fished out of the manuscript, only to become the tragic story of Tom Robinson’s trial and its aftermath.

I was never a huge of fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I didn’t not like it—as a novel it just didn’t seem to deserve the reverence in which it was generally held (The movie didn’t impress me either, except when Boo Radley was finally revealed. The young Robert Duvall is so otherwordly in the role that he stayed with me far longer than any other character in the film). Yet “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so far beyond “Go Set a Watchman” that the former’s reputation can only be burnished by its origins.

“Go Set a Watchman” primarily consists of its characters lecturing each other about race, politics, compassion, understanding and other matters of import. As has been widely reported, the heroine is an adult version of Scout, the central character of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The only carryover, so to speak, is Atticus Finch, now a somewhat infirm 70-year-old; Dill makes a cameo appearance in flashback, but Jem, sadly, is absent, having died young of a heart attack. When Jean Louise recounts a story from her childhood or adolescence, the narrative finally becomes vibrant; otherwise, it’s truly D.O.A. And matters are not helped one iota by the sort-of engagement of Jean Louise and Hank Clinton, the attorney who works with her father. Their relationship never rings true for a moment; you have to believe this was the first plot point that Editor Hohoff made it her business to toss.

There is some historical value in “Go Set a Watchman” in its expression of various Southern viewpoints of race during the early 1950’s. To that extent it serves the same purpose as Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” and “Babbit,” the literary value of which have far been outshone by their documentary-style depiction of middle class values in the early 20th century. But “Go Set a Watchman” fails as a novel; it’s not even interesting as a blueprint in the way that “Trimalcchio,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early version of “The Great Gatsby,” is.

This is one manuscript that should have remained buried.


The Heart of
The Heart of “The Fosters”

A few words about a show I still watch: When “The Fosters” is good, it’s great. When it cranks up the teen angst, it’s time to head for the hills.

What I admire about “The Fosters” is its insistence on dealing with situations that other shows won’t touch. This past season featured a budding romance (kiss included) between Jude and his now-more-than-best-friend Connor, both of whom are 15, if memory serves. The show continues to explore the many problems of the foster care system and matters of race, heritage, homophobia and sexuality.

Yet the show loses so many points by continuing to dwell on the “Will they or won’t they?” of foster-brother and sister, Brandon and Callie (Well, they finally did, so now what?). He’s the dreariest wet blanket around and while she means well, the girl can’t stop screwing up. The twins Marianna and Jesus aren’t that much more interesting, but at least he’s been away on scholarship at an exclusive school for most of the season.

But fundamentally there’s a distinct imbalance in this show and it has to do with talent. Among the kids, Hayden Byerly as Jude is a standout; there’s honesty in his performance though the actors who play his brothers and sisters can be as mannered as Bette Davis (whom I love incidentally, but on her it looks good). And every time Teri Polo and Sheri Saum, as moms Stef and Lena, have a scene together, they make you want to yell “Zip it!” at the kids. The ladies have such great chemistry that you wish Stef and Lena would ditch that brood (except for Jude), desert ABC Family and just head on over to Showtime.


Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta: “Written on Skin”

I finally found the time to watch the DVD of George Benjamin’s opera, “Written on Skin,” and I have to say it stands up to (almost) all of the hype it has received. On the one hand, there’s no denying that the work has benefitted enormously from two extraordinary performances, those of Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves, who originated the roles of Agnès and the Protector, and whose appearances in each subsequent production of the opera only increase its stature (While Bejun Mehta, who appears on the DVD, created the role of The Boy, other countertenors have succeeded him). But “Written on Skin” is more than sheer theatrical razzle-dazzle, even with its “Let’s put on a show” framing device (with angels, yet). After you watch the DVD, listen to the recording of the work. The score is intriguing in its reliance on unearthly sounds: the intertwining of soprano and countertenor voices, a countertenor aria accompanied by glass armonica and the prominence of contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, all aided and abetted by a huge range of percussion instruments.

Is it the masterpiece some critics proclaim? Well, it’s definitely a great story. Though based on a 13th century tale, “Written on Skin” is timeless in its clash of a tyrannical husband, an unsatisfied wife and the artist hired to write an illustrated family history on “skin,” or parchment. It’s got a shocker of an ending that’s greatly enhanced by some terrific stagecraft. Above all, its music not only serves the story well, it makes you want to listen. Whether “Written on Skin” will live beyond the moment is yet to be determined, but I for one hope it does.


Same for Us, Captain!
Same for Us, Captain!

As a die-hard Mets fan, I can’t tell you how much I’m relishing their stretch run to a pennant. After an incredible April, only to be followed by David Wright’s spinal stenosis and a slew of injuries to Travis d’Arnaud and others, not to mention the ineptitude of the “not ready for prime time” minor leaguers the Mets were subsequently forced to play, we finally saw hope in July with the acquisition of Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, true pros who know how to play the game. Then, wonder of wonders, that Big Bat, which we’d been screaming for, finally arrived in the form of Yoenis Cespedes, aka Superman. With the return of David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud, the Mets took off like a rocket. As of this writing they’re 10 games up on the Washington Nationals, whose coming off-season I wouldn’t wish on a dog.

But much as I’m looking forward to the post-season, there’s something I want more. Even if they have to float a bond issue, the Mets have got to sign Yoenis Cespedes to a long-term contract. They haven’t had a big bopper since Mike Piazza, and it’s high time to end the lean years. They’ve got to support that young staff of pitching phenoms that’ll be working at CitiField for the next several years (Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler and Steven Matz), but more than that, we fans need him. The past few years have been excruciating—it was bad enough to see things come to naught in 2006 and (ouch) 2007, not to mention what came after. We’ve waited long enough.

So Let’s Go Mets!

Line of Duty

Honest, that’s Keeley Hawes (with Martin Compston and Vicky McClure)

I’ve just spent six hours watching the best suspense drama I’ve seen in a very long time. Series 2 of “Line of Duty,” a BBC product now available in the U.S. on DVD, is certainly not your average procedural. Its inner engine is an uncanny combination of outstanding writing by Jed Mercurio and a superb performance by Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton. To see television acting and writing so intertwined and executed at such a high level is a rarity.

The series opens with a tense sequence that you’ll need to replay later on, probably more than once. Denton is the replacement duty officer on the night she catches an emergency call from another officer in charge of a witness in protective custody. The witness has been threatened and must be relocated that night. But things take a horrific twist when the two-car convoy transferring the witness is ambushed, Lindsay’s car is sideswiped into a tree and the vehicle carrying the witness and three police officers is sprayed by automatic weapon fire, doused with gasoline and set alight. Only Lindsay and the horribly burned witness survive.

Because this botched operation screams “inside job,” Lindsay comes under the scrutiny of AC-12, a police anti-corruption unit. Lindsay is initially interviewed by Police Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). She comes across as a drab, put-upon drudge (If Ms. Hawes’ name weren’t on the DVD case, I never would have recognized her minus makeup and sporting what must be the ugliest brunette wig ever created). Unmarried, she’s had to downsize in order to afford her mother’s nursing home care. As the story unfolds, the members of the AC-12 team variously suspect her of incompetence, recklessness and outright corruption. Her finances are scrutinized for bribes. DC Kate Fleming (Vicki McClure), another member of the AC-12 team, goes undercover to serve as her aide in investigating missing persons cases while keeping a close eye on her. There’s never a moment when Lindsay is not under scrutiny.

It’s the “Is she or isn’t she?” that makes this vehicle go. You’re never sure of Lindsay. On the one hand you feel sorry for her. When she protests at one point “Being a police officer is the only thing left to me and now you want to take it away,” it seems AC-12, and Kate Fleming in particular, have gone off the deep end with their suspicions. And yet there are times when Lindsay seems far too glib, too ready with an explanation or excuse when an investigator points out an inconsistency in her story. And in fact, when you go back to the rapidly unfolding events of that first episode, there are certain points at which her reactions and responses seem somewhat off. Even more damning is the fact that she’s got a mean streak–at one point she smashes a bottle into the face of a noisy neighbor and bangs her head into the ground. So don’t be surprised to find yourself siding with the doubters in AC-12 on more than one occasion.

As Keeley Hawes notes in a special features interview in the DVD set, “When I first read through the scripts to the end of Episode 5, I still couldn’t tell whether she was a goodie or a baddie.” That’s what makes this series of “Line of Duty” so extraordinary—the ability of Jed Mercurio and Ms. Hawes to sustain that ambiguity over six hours without faltering for a moment. Ultimately all is revealed, but it’s to the credit of Mr. Mercurio that he never flinches in telling this story. There are a number of brutal events that occur—the murder of yet another police officer, Lindsay’s treatment by her fellow officers and her arrest and imprisonment, all of which are shocking in their unexpectedness. But the resolution—if you can call it that—while not necessarily a happy one, is not unexpected in a drama that treats its audience like adults.

Kudos all around.