“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
  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “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.

_______________________

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.

“Our blackness is the weapon they fear.” The Hate U Give (film review)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A young woman, torn between two worlds, discovers her voice and her resolve and becomes a champion of her people in the face of tyranny. This trope has long-defined a good chunk of young adult fiction from The Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland to Divergent. However, those works use allegorical fantasy to safely distance the reader from the tumult of real-life. Oh, and those works all feature a female protagonist who is white. There may be a sidekick or two of color, but that’s it.

Angie Thomas jettisons the allegory and brings us face-to-face with the racism, sexism, and economic disparity crippling our country in her young adult novel The Hate U Give (title courtesy of a 2Pac lyric), now sure-handedly adapted into film by director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Barbershop, Notorious).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

African-American teen Starr Carter – portrayed in the film with exceptional fire and presence by Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) – is a luminous and high-potential presence at Williamson, her all-white, upper-class high school . Her principled parents (Girls Trip‘s Regina Hall and Fences‘ Russell Hornsby delivering just the right mix of haunted bravery and pragmatic compassion) have kept the family residing in neighboring Garden Heights – a hardscrabble community riddled with gun violence, drug lords, and countless dead ends – to remain close to their roots, but they drive their kids to Williamson to give their progeny a leg up on their education. I suspect there is a lot that could be written about those parenting choices (pro and con), but that is the narrative conceit around which The Hate U Give‘s story revolves.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

One night, after attending a house party in her home town, Starr witnesses one of her dearest and oldest friends (a heartbreakingly charming Algee Smith – Detroit) gunned down in a routine traffic stop. The narrative then tracks her challenges overcoming her own fears and those of her parents – re: taking a stand and testifying – as well as her burgeoning realization that her well-intentioned but myopic classmates don’t know the first thing about the daily dangers Starr faces in her own neighborhood.

Tillman’s film is a gut punch, particularly in its nuanced first hour, as we are introduced to Starr’s world(s) and trace the tricky balancing act she performs every day. If there is a flaw in the film, it is that – due to the time-limitations of film versus novel – the Williamson side of Starr’s life is relatively unexplored and her school chums remain ciphers, chiefly providing the occasional plot complication and little more.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is exceptional: Selma‘s Common as Starr’s loving but arguably hypocritical policeman uncle who collects a paycheck while (sort of) accepting the party line to “shoot first, ask questions later”; Captain America‘s Anthony Mackie as a local drug lord who was once best buds with Starr’s father and whose children remain Starr’s pals; Riverdale‘s KJ Apa wringing his Archie Andrews best from an underwritten role as Starr’s boyfriend; and singer Sabrina Carpenter (“Thumbs“) as one of Starr’s besties who devolves into the junior version of Laura Ingraham before Starr’s very eyes.

Apparently, I will spend this autumn in the multiplex in a puddle of tears. A Star is Born gutted me, and, now, The Hate U Give had the same impact. The latter film grows increasingly predictable as it reaches its climactic moments, but it is so well-executed with such authenticity and is so sensitively relevant to the callous and cruel days in which we are living that I found myself having about 12 ugly cries through its running time. I attribute that, not only to Tillman’s confident and workmanlike direction, but to performances – particularly Stenberg’s, Hall’s, and Hornsby’s – that stubbornly refuse to embrace cinematic escapism. This family is a loving one, rife with disagreements, but ultimately wanting to rise above the fray and simply live.

We all want that. We all need that. We all deserve that. Yet, every day when I read the headlines, that seems to be an increasingly unattainable pipe dream.

____________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.