“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
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    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“We don’t grow children like that here.” The Ringwald’s production of The Laramie Project – plus, quick notes on Crazy Rich Asians, Blaine Fowler’s America, and yours truly being interviewed on Freeman Means Business

Laramie Project review originally published by Encore Michigan here.

[Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook page]

The Ringwald Theatre’s 2018-19 season opener The Laramie Project is not a production that needs to be reviewed. It is a production that needs to be viewed. It is a production that essentially illustrates (beyond question) that the most impactful theatre requires very little: words, voice, people, movement. Storytelling in its truest form. As an audience member, I haven’t cried like I did opening night of Laramie Project in years (if ever).

 

At the end of act one, I was a puddle, with two acts to go, and, by the time the performance wrapped, I was red-eyed, gutted, mad-as-hell, and cautiously hopeful. It’s that good. I suppose some projection was involved on my part. I was roughly Matthew Shepard’s age when he was savagely brutalized and murdered. I grew up and attended college in Indiana, which, as Mike Pence’s political ascent will attest, is a state not unlike Wyoming – more Handmaid’s Tale than Moulin Rouge.

That notwithstanding, The Ringwald’s production of Laramie Project is a slow-burn powerhouse.

The play written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project assembles first-person narratives from hundreds of interviews with Laramie townspeople, University of Wyoming faculty members, friends of Matthew’s, and the Tectonic Theater’s actors themselves. The narrative roughly follows this arc: defining Shepard’s humanity and upbringing, detailing the incidents of that tragic evening, and assessing its aftermath, all in the words of narrators both reliable and not. It is up to the audience to sort the wheat from the chaff and to make sense of a society where such irrational cruelty can occur. The approach is as journalistic as it is theatrical, and the topic is (sadly) as timely today as it was when the piece was written in 2000.

Director Brandy Joe Plambeck has assembled an empathetic, deep-feeling, yet commanding cast to perform dozens of roles: Joe Bailey, Greg Eldridge, Kelly Komlen, Sydney Lepora, Joel Mitchell, Taylor Morrow, Gretchen Schock, and Mike Suchyta. Rarely does this stellar group miss a beat, and Plambeck wisely eschews distractingly overt theatricality for a stripped down readers’ theatre approach. The emphasis is quite literally on the words on the page, and, as the details mount, both performers and audience are swept into a hurricane of emotion, of indignation, and of heartbreak.

As for those tears of mine? Well, Lepora and Bailey are the chief culprits, tasked to deliver some of the more devastating speeches and historical detail. They resist the temptation to indulge their characters’ raw emotions in a broad, selfish, “actorly” way. Rather, they quite realistically and subtly show their characters desperately trying (and failing) to stifle and contain their confusion, their anguish, their rage. And that damming of emotion, only to see the floodgates fail, is what cuts an audience to the quick.

Suchyta is quite effective as a series of “Wyoming” alpha men, from a star theatre student to a local bar owner to Shepard’s tormentors Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Mitchell is a sparkplug, breathing bold strokes life into the play’s few comic moments as a surprisingly insightful cab driver, and Morrow does a fine job balancing characters both reprehensible (local “mean girls” who basically imply Shepard deserved his fate) and painfully noble (one of the very few out-and-proud lesbian faculty members at the University of Wyoming).

That said, I hate to single out any performances, because this is an ensemble show in the truest sense of the word, and everyone is excellent. Plambeck paces the show in a measured but never ponderous way. The costuming is minimal, stage directions and character names are read by Plambeck, and scene changes/location names are projected on the back wall of the space. This approach results in a production that places the emphasis squarely where it belongs – on the voices of the people who experienced this tragedy and on a nation that both evolved and devolved as a result. Don’t miss this production.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’m so Chinese I’m an economics professor with lactose intolerance.” – Crazy Rich Asians

 

The other week we saw the film Crazy Rich Asians. Somehow life got in the way of me writing anything at length about the film, which is a shame because it is quite exceptional. Let me say this: while it was marketed as a wall-to-wall laugh riot a la Bridesmaids, it shares more with that film’s DNA than just riotous shenanigans.

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians has its fair share of zaniness, chiefly supplied by sparkling comedienne Awkwafina, but like Bridesmaids, that tomfoolery belies a gentler, sweeter, yet exceptionally subversive core. It’s been 20-some years since Hollywood produced a film starring an all-Asian cast (the far inferior Joy Luck Club), and the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians will hopefully inspire a bit of sea change where Asian representation in Tinseltown is concerned. Money matters (sadly).

Crazy Rich Asians is part fair tale fantasy, part light comedy, part soap opera, all heart. Luminous Constance Wu arrives a fully formed movie star as Rachel Wu, a whip-smart economics professor in New York whose life is turned upside down when she learns her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (a dashing Henry Golding) is in actuality Singapore real estate royalty. As Rachel runs the gauntlet of Henry’s wackadoo family members – including a sympathetically subtle turn by Michelle Yeoh as Henry’s fearful and controlling mother Eleanor – Wu reveals varied layers of heartache and resilience. It’s a thoughtful performance, understated and thereby likely to be unfairly overlooked come awards season, but nonetheless an exceptional depiction of female frustration and agency in this maddening modern era.

Catch this film while still in theaters or on home video shortly.

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[Yes, a window into my musical taste.]

Blaine Fowler’s AmericaMy friend Blaine Fowler is a brilliant, witty, and delightful radio DJ here in metro Detroit on WDVD 96.3 FM. His morning show is a top-rated listen in this market. He and his wife Colleen are also among the kindest people you’ll have the chance to meet with two lovely and successful children. But one of his greatest loves is music. I wrote a bit about his last iTunes album 49783 here.

 

His latest release America was just posted on iTunes and Amazon for download.The whole album is divine. More cohesive sonically and rawer lyrically than the prior one, with an almost “song cycle” effect and an evocative moodiness. I liked it very much. Highlights include “Love Is” (a trippy throwback to Prince at his Minneapolis peak), “Reach,” “Oval Beach,” and “Best Friend.” This is an impressive evolution, which is saying something as I very much enjoyed Blaine’s previous effort. Keep it up. And keep experimenting. My two cents.

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Freeman Means Business

This week, my friend and fellow legal marketer Susan Freeman interviewed me for her podcast. She writes, “Check out the latest great conversation about the life of a legal marketer from our ‘Peer Pod’ podcast featuring Roy Sexton, a real dynamo — and a reel dynamo too!” Click here or here.

“Be patient. Listen to those with experience in areas that are new or foreign to you. Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. People WILL respond.” Thank you, Susan!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.