Sunday, May 29, 2016


Khaled Nabawy, Richard Thomas, and Ned Eisenberg
in the Old Globe's "Camp David". All photos by Jim Cox

Contrary to what our current Congress seems of incapable of doing what it should be doing when it comes to compromise or, to put it in Washington DC vernacular, to practice ‘the art of the deal’ so loved by our politicians and others who seek public office these days.

Bringing disparate parties and points of view to a resolution in any situation is not an easy task. In international diplomacy it’s especially difficult and frustrating when it appears that the stars are beginning to align with an agreement in sight, only to have the negotiations breakdown once again by entrenched positions where nobody wants to appear as having ‘given in’.

Richard Thomas as President Jimmy
Carter in "Camp David" at the Old Globe
Back in 1978 then U.S. President Jimmy Carter took on the role of being a peace-maker and broker, bringing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat together at Camp David in Maryland, for discussions on how to craft a peace accord between the two sworn enemies that fought four wars over their differences. It was an ambitious and daunting undertaking.

“Camp David” is a riveting and informative play, written by Lawrence Wright, that is insightfully directed by Washington’s Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith starring four gifted actors: Richard Thomas as President Jimmy Carter, Broadway’s Ned Eisenberg as Menachem Begin, Hallie Foote as Rosalyn Carter, and Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat. Bryan Banville and Jon Maxwell play Marines assigned to the guard the participants.

In Wright’s stage play we are like flies on the wall who pierce the veil of high level international diplomatic chess-like verbal games played by two world leaders who are reluctant to give an inch when the discussions begin. Wright’s premise of what takes place over 13 days allows the audience to view the human side of each player, the same way the characters learn to interact with each other. Each day the characters of Begin and Sadat slowly change their rigid and frozen ideologically-held positions as they get to “know each other”.

Ned Eisenberg as Menachem Begin and Khaled Nabawy
as Anwar Sadat flank Richard Thomas as President Jimmy
Carter in the Old Globe production of "Camp David"

Conflict in all its forms is the stuff of great drama. When the outcome is known, as in this production, it falls to the actors to perform the heavy lifting of sweeping the audience along with Wright’s brilliant narrative. Great writing makes the work of actors a pleasure. It presents each actor the luxury of being able to create a fully developed, interesting character.

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter
and Hallie Foote as Rosalyn
Carter in "Camp David"
Richard Thomas’ winning performance as President Carter shows the former, self-effacing President to possess more skills and qualities than just being a peanut farmer from Georgia. Thomas’ performance allows the audience to peek into the private and pressure-driven life of a spiritual American President who has his doubts about the success of the audacious project he has undertaken. Hallie Foote as Rosalyn Carter delivers not only charm, support, and respect for her husband as the leader of the free world, she is an important partner-player in the negotiations taking place at Camp David. Both are finely crafted performances.

The portrayal of Eisenberg’s Begin, who once was listed as a terrorist, renders the Israeli Prime Minister as not only a strong leader, but also as a man who can be warm and one with a sense of humor who understands what’s a stake in any peace accord with the Egyptians. The Arab Middle East for years has vowed to drive the Jewish people into the sea, along with their ancient homeland Israel. Eisenberg’s Begin is a highly nuanced and compelling performance.

Ned Eisenberg as Menachem Begin
Khaled Nawaby as Anwar Sadat

Nabawy’s characterization of Anwar Sadat presents a man who realizes that any decision made at Camp David will affect millions of people, and in the process, will label him as being a traitor to the Arab cause (Sadat was assassinated three years later by fundamentalist army officers for his part in the 1978 Peace Accord). It should be noted that the Carter-brokered Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt has been in place for almost forty years with no wars. However, the Middle East of today remains in chaos. Diplomacy should always trump (no pun intended) war in most cases.

“Camp David” is a stellar ensemble effort on the part of the company. It is also a credit to the skill and vision of director Smith who previously staged the play at the Arena Stage in Washington DC in 2014 and, as the director, continues to find fresh nuances in the material and the ensemble performances.

The Old Globe has few equals when it comes to the technical elements, and this production is no exception. Director Smith heads a richly inventive creative team led by Scenic Designer Walt Spangler who recreates the woodsy setting of Maryland’s Camp David presidential retreat. Lighting by Designer Pat Collins serves up many mood-inducing moments and allows the audience to see the costumes of Designer Paul Tazewell. The projection designs of Jeff Sugg, and the sound design and original music by David Van Tieghem further compliment this splendid overall production.

Roslyn Carter (Hallie Foote), Jimmy Carter (Richard
Thomas) and Anwar Sadat (Khaled Nabawy) say their
farewells as Marines Bryan Banville and Jon Maxwell
stand watch in Old Globe's "Camp David"

Artistic Director Barry Edelstein continues to provide San Diego audiences with first rate theatrical entertainment. “Camp David” performs on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage through June 19, 2016.

Monday, May 23, 2016


Jeff Marlow (c) and members of the cast of "Hollywood" 
All photos by Jim Carmody
The La Jolla Playhouse has the best track record of any West Coast theatre when it comes to sending their original theatrical productions to Broadway (over 30 of them to date). Their 2008 musical production “Memphis”, written by Joe Di Pietro and directed by Christopher Ashley, went on to Broadway winning a 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical.

The just-opened world premiere noir musical thriller “Hollywood”, again written by Di Pietro and helmed by Ashley, is looking to pull off a Tony Award-winning ‘Daily Double’ coup, as the punters say at nearby Del Mar Racetrack.  In this critic’s opinion “Hollywood” has excellent odds to encore the feat in the 2017 Broadway season.

How could it miss? It’s a perfect fit! There is no love lost between the movie and TV industry 'Titans of Hollywood' and the guardians of the legitimate stage theatres of New York The Broadway Theatre League.
Broadway regularly disses all things Hollywood, especially actor/movie stars trying to burnish his or her acting chops by doing a turn on the Broadway stage. Perhaps it’s a form of payback for the flight of their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers who bolted for the Shangri-La weather of Southern California back in 1956. Who knows?  But, I digress.

The story is set in 1922 and is based on a real life event that shocked the silent movie industry. America embraced the motion picture and the actors performing in them almost immediately. People then, as today, couldn’t get enough of even the smallest bit of gossip concerning their favorite celebrity. Hollywood was a magnet for star-struck young girls with their mothers in tow, descending on the fledgling industry that was making movies operating in a small section of Los Angeles called Hollywood, hoping to become part of this exciting and excess-oriented life style.

Scott Drummond (William Desmond Taylor
 and Talene Monohon (Mary Miles Minter)
Handsome and famous real life movie actor-director William Desmond Taylor was in the vanguard of male and female celebrities that drank, used drugs, went to sex orgies and seduced their leading ladies and vice versa. It was during this period that the term ‘casting couch’ came into use. Prohibition was repealed, and to borrow the title from a Cole Porter musical, it really was, for a time, a place where “Anything Goes” and very few complained.

Jeff Marlow as D.A. Woodwine and
Patrick Kerr as Will Hays
When the famed director Taylor (Scott Drummond) is found murdered in his home, the celebrity suspects mount as the headlines explode with lurid reports of love triangles, hush money, infidelities, drug use and cover-ups. Enter Indiana’s favorite son Will Hays (Patrick Kerr), Hollywood’s newly-appointed moral watchdog, determined to silence the scandal and “purify this increasingly corrupt city.” Boy, does he have his work cut out for him.

Harriet Harris as Charlotte Shelby and
Talene Monohon as Mary Miles Minter

The production stars Tony Award-winner Harriet Harris as a strong Charlotte Shelby, one of many suspects along with her daughter Mary Miles Minter played by Talene Monohon, Taylor’s youthful leading lady.

The cast also includes Maththew Amendt, Jacob Bruce, Shaun T. Evans, Katherine Ko, Martin Meccouri, Kate Rockwell, Lee Sellars, Caroline Siewert and Terrance White.

Martin Meccouri and Harriet Harris
“Hollywood” is a ‘who dunnit’ murder mystery, which at times delivers intentional over-the-top performances. This is a cast who knows how to deliver the goods. It’s steamy, sexy, and funny, despite the murder that no one really wants to solve (including the police).

“Audiences are in for a fantastic night at the Playhouse with Joe’s smart and sexy new play. Though set in the Golden Age of movies, “Hollywood” depicts a time and territory that is uncannily like our own, both politically and culturally,” said Ashley in an earlier press statement and he ought to know. He’s one of the most savvy and inventive directors working today. I still remember his inspired direction of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Playhouse several seasons back.

Talene Monohon as Mary Miles Minter
and KateRockwell as Mabel Normand 
The creative team led by Ashley delivers a wonderfully nuanced set design by Wilson Chin that draws in the audience into the story. The lighting design by Howell Binkley, who also designed the lights for the blockbuster New York production “Hamilton”, allows just the right amount of light to capture the noir feel yet see the period-perfect costumes of Paul Tazewell. The sound design by Chris Luessmann, the projection design by Tara Knight and the musical accompaniment by composer and piano player Wayne Barker are also first rate.
Kate Rockwell as Mabel Norman and Scott Drummond
as William Desmond Taylor in "Hollywood"
“Hollywood” is a splendid noir musical thriller that rings every bell and toots every horn and whistle. It’s a show that not only entertains big time, it also sports the trappings and technical elements that fit the profile reserved for large and glitzy Broadway productions. The richly creative and inventive team of Di Pietro and Ashley make a strong case for lightning to strike once again when Tony Award time comes around in 2017 or 2018.

Naturally, there will be pruning, tightening, crafting and shaping the production to fit the Broadway profile.There will no doubt be rewrites, even new songs and numbers either added or deleted. But when the production opens, I believe both coasts will be pleased on opening night. I’ve already transferred this production to Broadway.

“Hollywood” performs at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre and runs through June 12, 2016.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel star in IFC's new drama
"The Man Who Knew Infinity"
In “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, the world of 1914 eerily resonates with thorny issues still plaguing the 21st century, especially when it comes to culture, ethnicity, diversity and the meritorious acceptance of individuals.

Most Americans don’t really understand or comprehend the English and their “tight little island” mentality. If one wants to irritate an Englishman, just call him a European but be prepared to duck if you happen to be in a pub just before closing.

England is a small county geographically. In 1914, about 60 million souls lived on an island where no one was, and still is, never more than seventy-five miles from the sea. As colonizers, they brought their culture, language, and the English point-of-view to whatever land they came to. In the India of 1914, the British Raj had been embedded in power and running of the Indian government for almost 150 years.

The intriguing story of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, insightfully written and deftly directed by Matthew Brown, historically echoes some of the mathematics themes that are present in such award winning films as “The Theory of Everything” starring Eddie Redmayne who walked away with a Best Actor statuette as astrophysicist Steven Hawking, and “Good Will Hunting” where Matt Damon nabbed a Best Supporting Oscar.

Once again, mathematics is the backdrop for this engaging, finely crafted, and nicely acted Anglo/Indian biopic based on the real life experience of Indian mathematics scholar Srinivasa Ramanujan. His field of expertise was in solving the “prime numbers” conundrum, vexing the world’s mathematicians.

The superb Jeremy Irons stars as the brilliant, eccentric and passionate Cambridge University mathematics professor G. H. Hardy. When Hardy is confronted with the mathematics genius of a twenty five year-old, completely self-educated Indian student from Madras named S. Ramanujan (stoically and poignantly played by Dev Patel), Hardy’s faith and passion for his chosen profession is put to the test.

Dev Patel as S. Ramanujan in IFC's "The Man Who Knew Infinity"

Hardy agrees to sponsor and mentor Ramanujan at the behest of an old Indian friend, convincing the admissions and faculty at Trinity College, Cambridge that another budding genius should be given an opportunity. After all, one its more famous students, Isaac Newton, discovered ‘gravity’ while sitting under an on-campus apple tree one afternoon, altering the world of science forever. Who knows where genius comes from?  When Hardy, an avowed atheist, asks Ramanujan where he gets his mathematical ideas and formulas from, he sincerely replies  “I get them from God”.

The beauty and simplicity of the film will appeal to viewers who don’t give a fig for analysis of story points and/or whether they need to have a degree in mathematics to appreciate the give and take that Ramanujan endures from his erudite, but boorish and snobbish colleagues concerning his theorems and lack of “proofs” to back up his claims.

This is a feel-good movie that that celebrates the victory of an outsider over the insiders. It is the clashing of the Titans of East-West cultures; India was the symbol of Eastern thought, and England (at that time the reigning power intellectually as well as militarily) was the guardian of Western thought. When one contemplates today’s world and its problems, the movie is a welcome and enjoyable respite.

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is another one of those quintessential British movies in the vein of Merchant/Ivory films whose verisimilitude of the film’s period setting immediately envelops the viewer. If you enjoy rain and glowering scenery in the winter and the eagerly awaited English spring with its flowers and fleeting sunshine, then you’ll feel right at home. Now you know why actors in early English films never seemed to take off their coats, even while eating: It’s bloody cold!  I know, I lived there for three years.

Director Brown scored a major coup when he asked if he could bring his cinematographer Larry Smith and the crew along with the cast to Trinity College, Cambridge to film many of the scenes in the movie.

The supporting cast of characters consisting of academics, believers and skeptics are solidly performed by professional actors: Toby Smith (a believer) as Professor Littlewood; Jeremy Northam, as Bertrand Russell (a believer) who tells Hardy to forget protocol and let Ramanujan soar with his theories; Richard Johnson as Vice Master Henry Jackson (a skeptic) and the lovely Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s loyal young wife Janaka, who remains in Madras while her young husband pursues his academic studies. The film moves slowly at first, allowing the audience to settle in, but picks up speed in the middle section and continues to unfold to its inevitable conclusion. We Yanks are an impatient lot, however there’s no hurry. We should re-learn to slow down and smell the roses along the way. The results are usually worth waiting for.

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” opens at the Camelot Theatres, Palm Springs, and at The River Theatre complex in Palm Desert on May 20, 2016.