Dilettante's Diary

March 24/09

Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
NOVEMBER 3, 2023
Aug 2, 2023
July 4, 2023
Apr 21, 2023
Feb 10, 2023
Jan 24, 2023
Jan 11, 2023
Dec 2, 2022
July 26, 2022
July 4, 2022
June 2, 2022
March 25, 2022
March 11, 2022
Feb 14, 2022
Nov 19, 2021
Oct 2021
Sept 16, 2021
July 21, 2021
July 15, 2021
June 11, 2021
Apr 23, 2021
March 12, 2021
Feb 13, 2021
Jan 5, 2021
December 2020
Autumn Mysteries 2020
Aug 12/20
May 25/20
Apr 30/20
March 12/20
Dec 6/19
Jan 29/20
Nov 10/19
Oct 24/19
Sept 30/19
Aug 2/19
June 22/19
May 26/19
Apr 22/19
Feb 23/19
Jan 15/19
Dec 20/18
Dec 3/18
Oct 3/18
Sept 9/18
Aug 9/18
July 19/18
June 2/18
May 14/18
Apr 23/18
Feb 22/18
Dec 13/17
Nov 22/17
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.
Reviewed here: Shirley Valentine (Play); The Magic Flute (Movie of the Opera); Playwrights of Spring (Festival of New Plays); One Week (Movie); I Love You, Man (Movie); La Sonnambula (Opera)

Shirley Valentine (Play) by Willy Russell; directed by Roy Surette; starring Nicola Cavendish; Canadian Stage, Toronto; to April 18

This play isn’t exactly what you’d call cutting edge theatre. After a London West End production in 1988, it soon became a staple of theatres everywhere, both professional and community-based. A 1989 movie featured Pauline Collins, the star of the London production. By now, it’s been seen by everybody – except me.

So it seemed that, instead of complaining about Canadian Stage’s foisting recycled material on us, I should check it out. Besides, given that Nicola Cavendish pleased me so much in Glorious! (Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 11/06), I was curious to see what she’d do with this contemporary chestnut. (This is actually her second outing for Canadian Stage in this piece, the first being in 1992).

You probably know the story, so there isn’t much point in holding back any plot details. Shirley, a forty-six year-old Manchester housewife and mother of two, potters around her kitchen while making chips and eggs for her hubby Joe’s tea, all the while getting pleasantly sloshed on white wine. In her stultifying, house-bound life, she’s accustomed to directing long monologues at the kitchen wall, so she simply includes us as listeners.

For the first half hour, I wasn’t much impressed by Shirley’s stream of one-liners, although the (mostly) elderly members of the audience were laughing predictably on cue. It wasn’t until Shirley backed off from the gags and started to talk about some hurts and defeats in her past life that the play began to grab me. And that’s due in no small measure to the skill of Nicola Cavendish. She can bring an audience from laughter to the point of tears with lightning-quick speed.

But it’s comedy that rules here and Ms. Cavendish’s prowess in that department eventually overcame my resistance. The word that keeps coming to mind to describe her approach to the genre is ‘generous’. She gives so much of herself whether in mime, mugging, clowning, doing voices or simply exhibiting perfect comic timing. This Shirley – as Ms. Cavendish incarnates her – is fiendishly funny at mimicking people she knows – everybody from Joe to her feminist friend, her two kids, the lady next door, the snooty headmistress of her old school and an Indian taxi driver. With the result that, even though this is a one-actor play, we feel the presence in Shirley’s kitchen of many of the people in her world.

But the danger with a play in which one actor tells us all about her life is that, no matter how skilfull the performer, the piece might lack forward-moving drama. In this case, though, the thread running through Shirley’s comments about all and sundry is the fact that a girlfriend has given her a ticket to Greece for a two-week holiday. Shirley imagines the thrill of such an adventure but quails at the prospect of trying to escape from Joe. We keep wondering what’s going to happen. (Assuming we can pretend to forget everything we’ve heard about the play.) Is she going to get away? How’s Joe going to react? Those questions create a tension that carries us through the act.

In the second act, though, there’s no such tension. Shirley’s just relaxing on the beach, telling us how her holiday has gone so far. It isn’t until the last few minutes of the play that some questions arise about what will happen next. As a whole, then, this act falls flat as drama. An even greater problem, from the point of view of this audience member, is that the resolution of the play is trite and sentimental. I don’t believe that repressed women can throw off their shackles and become new people just by having a fling in an exotic spot. That may have been a pleasant fantasy that some people in the 1980s entertained – and one that the travel industry still wants to nurture in us – but I think most of us know that life’s a bit more complicated.


The Magic Flute (Movie of the Opera); by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder; adapted for the screen and directed by Kenneth Branagh; English libretto by Stephen Fry; conducted by James Conlon; starring Joseph Kaiser, Amy Carson, Ren Pape, Lyubov Petrova, Benjamin Jay Davis, Silvia Moi, Tom Randle, Tetua Koo, Louise Callinan, Kim-Marie Woodhouse; with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

As you know, I try to avoid reviews of arts events before seeing them. In this case, though, it came to my attention that NOW Magazine had given this movie a very bad review. But I didn’t let that deter me. I’m willing to take a chance on almost any production of a Mozart opera; as long as you get the sublime music, it can’t be a complete disaster. Besides, there was a time when I thought Kenneth Branagh was the most brilliant young genius working in movies. So I wanted to see what he made of this opera, regardless of the naysayers.

Mr. Branagh’s big idea is to set the opera in the context of trench warfare, as in the Great War. The opposing sides aren’t clearly identified – unless you take some meaning (but I don't) from the fact that English is being sung, rather than the German of the original libretto. The opera opens with Tamino, in a trench, reeling from a concussion. In his dazed state, he seems to imagine the dragon threatening him. The three ladies who rescue him are garbed as nurse-nuns. When they punish Papageno for lying, the muzzle they slap on him is a gas mask.

Too weird?

Let’s face it, the original libretto of this fantastical, convoluted opera doesn’t make much sense at the best of times. And this production makes about as much sense of it as any, perhaps more. The free play of imagination teams up with the marvels of cinematography to create a wonderful spectacle.

We get the Queen of the Night, in a long leather coat, arriving triumphantly on top of an armoured tank. During the fiendish coloratura of her second big aria, she’s whirling around the sky like a witch. (Why not?) The three boys whisk in and out like truly magical spirits (up a chimney, for instance). When Pamina decides that she’s going to join Tamino in his trials, she gallops to him on a steed across a bleak no-man’s-land in a torrential storm.

One of the most delightful imaginative touches comes with Tamino’s falling instantly in love on seeing Pamina’s picture. It’s a wrinkled, well-worn photo, such as might turn up in the context of trench warfare. As he stares at it, the Pamina figure begins to turn and move, appearing to invite him into the picture. Gradually, Tamino is drawn into a full-blown fantasy of himself and Pamina dancing in one of those old black and white movies with the women in billowing gowns and the men in tails, chandeliers dangling overhead. (Joseph Kaiser has the long, lean jaw and the slicked back hair to suit the Fred Astaire role.) For me, this filmic elaboration conveys the effect of Tamino’s coup de foudre much better than any presentation on stage could.

But sometimes, the most striking touches come in ways that play against what the music leads you to expect: Sarastro’s majestic entrance, for instance. Instead of arriving with the usual grandeur, he appears on the scene almost before we realize it. He’s that guy strolling through the crowd, shaking people’s hands, slapping friends on the back. It’s the reception of a well-loved leader, a man of the people, rather than the lofty ruler.

Largely through this character, as played by Ren Pape, the movie makes a powerful anti-war statement. A tall, hefty man whose boyish good looks have begun to turn a little fleshy, he radiates kindness and warmth rather than the formidable solemnity that’s usually conveyed. He even gives Tamino a wink at one point. While singing to Pamina about healing the afflicted, he’s giving her a tour of a tent hospital, at the end of which, he bends and kisses a wounded soldier on the forehead. At the beginning of Sarastro's first inspiring, hymn-like aria, he is standing at a memorial wall where the names of many deceased are inscribed in various languages and alphabets. Gradually, the camera pulls back and we see mourners in the national costumes of many different peoples among the white grave stones. The camera keeps pulling back until we see nothing but a vast expanse of white and green – the well-known and sad vista of a war cemetery – while the heavenly music soars.

I can only think that anybody who doesn’t like this production must be incapable of being moved by Mozart’s score. Admittedly, it might all look like a lot of nonsense if you weren’t carried away by the music. James Conlon’s conducting of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe guaranteed that I was.

The singing is consistently excellent, although perhaps not every singer might rank in the absolute top echelon of the profession. The one that struck me as perfect, from his first phrases, was Ren Pape. His smooth, resonant bass was exactly right all the way through. I found Amy Carson’s voice (Pamina) a little thin on top, as was Lyubov Petrova’s (the Queen of the Night), although her coloratura was splendid. Joseph Kaiser’s voice (Tamino) didn’t strike me as the sweetest of Mozart tenors but he sang the music very well. Nothing wrong with the singing of Benjamin Jay Davis as Papageno, but he didn’t convey much of the charm of a loveable doofus. If you don’t have that, I’m not sure what the point of the role is. This Papageno seemed to be a sort of ‘fraidy cat’ but not one that made you care much about him. On the other hand, Silvia Moi, in her brief appearance as Papagena, had charm busting out all over.

At some points, the English adaptation of the libretto by Stephen Fry sounded a bit corny, e.g. Papageno’s line, "Nobody gives a hoot about me." But I must admit, it was nice to be able to follow nearly everything without having to rely on subtitles. And there certainly were some clever linguistic touches. When Pamina grabs a knife to ward off Papageno, he cautions her, "That’s for opening messages, not messengers."

Does this production, in the end, make the tangled story coherent? Not in terms of clearly delineated logic. That would be impossible. But some strong messages come through: the path of true love can be rough but courage and fidelity will see you through, and remember that it’s better to make love than war.

Rating: A (i.e. "Absolutely fabulous")


Playwrights of Spring (New Play Festival, Theatre Aurora, March 19-April 4)

Just three years ago, Theatre Aurora, a community theatre just north of Toronto, conceived the great idea of holding an annual festival of new plays. Playwrights are invited to submit scripts and the winning plays are given a professional (but non-Equity) production. Jurors this year were Ron Cameron-Lewis, Solange De Santis and Caroline Smith. Executive Director of the Festival was Sean Houghton. The following three plays were produced.

[Disclosure: A play of mine was chosen as a finalist for workshop discussion, although not produced. But we all know that wouldn’t affect my judgement of the winning plays, don’t we?]

Willow Quartet by Joan Burrows; directed by Jessie Fraser; starring Jillian Rees-Brown, Roxann Lee, Joe Mottola, Benny Min.

This touching and poignant full-length play focuses on a woman who has come back to live at the family farm where she grew up. Her estranged husband, who still lives nearby, keeps dropping by to tinker with the tractor. The woman’s mother, who has moved to a condo in town, also manages to be on hand much of the time. An element of intrigue is introduced by the presence a distinguished violinist who is boarding at the farmhouse while appearing in a music festival in town. Eventually, we find out about some really bad stuff that went down during the marriage of the estranged couple. Some lessons about letting go of the past are learned.

A quiet, thoughtful play like this (think Chekhov) needs absolutely top-notch acting and directing to show it at its best. If this production didn’t quite reach that level of sophistication, everyone involved did very good work. As the senior woman, Jillian Rees-Brown conveyed an attractive mix of wry skepticism and warm good humour. Roxann Lee caught all aspects of the younger woman’s edgy character. Joe Mottola made a suitably brooding presence as the estranged husband and Benny Min certainly introduced an element of the wider world of arts and culture.


Horizon by Claire BonEnfant; directed by Jaclyn Scobie; starring Steve Wolfer, Natalie Colalillo, Andrea Lui

In this one-act play, set at a cottage, a divorced, middle-aged man tries to cope with his unhappy adult daughter. She has never been able to establish a worthwhile career and her relationships always founder. The dad’s relentless cheerfulness (he has his eye on a new woman) constantly collides with the daughter’s negativity. What makes things especially awkward is the presence next door of a feisty teenage girl who's a better friend to the man than his daughter is. Steve Wolfer gave a very solid performance as the dad and Natalie Colalillo effectively spread a gloom that was much lightened by Andrea Lui’s high spirits.

This slice-of-life play reminded me of those dramas that the BBC used to produce (maybe they still do). You sometimes catch one on TV Ontario. Not much happens but you get a glimpse into the inner lives of some people. In my opinion, this kind of thing works better on tv or in a movie than on stage. To establish the mood, you need close-ups of the actors and lingering views of the scene outside  – the kinds of film devices that aren't available to a theatre production. Still, the company gave a good sense of the essence of the piece.


Just For You by Lynda Martens; directed by Carey Nicholson; starring Kay Valentine and Frank Johnston

This one-act play opens with Grace, a woman in late middle-age, arriving home with her groceries, to find that her husband Walter has been preparing a surprise for her. To say any more would spoil the effect of this robust comedy for anyone who might ever have a chance to see it. (And it certainly should be seen again!) Great hilarity ensues but, in the end, the playwright, with tremendous skill, brings to the fore some important matters about the spousal relationship. Deep truths surface in spite of all the laughter. Kay Valentine and Frank Johnston made the perfect pair to present this piece. The chemistry between the two of them – Walter’s ebullience versus Grace’s fussiness – worked splendidly.


One Week (Movie) written and directed by Michael McGowan; starring Joshua Jackson and Liane Balaban; with Chuck Shamata, Marc Strange, Fiona Reid, Gordon Downie, Emm Gryner, Joel Plaskett, Campbell Scott

Here’s the problem: is my negative reaction to this movie due to its flaws or to the fact that it includes aspects of movie genres that I simply don’t like?

Road movies, for instance. Somebody should remind me, before I plunk down my cash, that I’m less than enamoured with movies about somebody who heads out on the open road for a series of random adventures. Assorted characters crop up, provide an incident or two, then fade out of the picture. Our hero movies on to the next episode. For me, it’s all too open-ended and unstructured. Call me retentive, but I prefer a movie where somebody stays put and tries to solve some problems through inter-acting with a limited cast of characters.

This movie is a classic example of the opposite. Ben (Joshua Jackson), a young Toronto teacher, has learned that there’s a deadly cancer raging in his body. Doctors want to start aggressive treatment immediately. Instead, Ben abandons his classroom and his fiance (at least temporarily) and heads west on a motorcycle.

All of which might be tolerable if it weren’t for an annoying voice-over narration. If I want somebody to read stories while showing me pictures, I’ll attend the kiddies’ hour on Saturday mornings at our neighbourhood library. In a movie, I’m willing to put up with voice-over narration for, say, the first ten minutes, provided it’s necessary to establish some facts and back story. After that, any movie should, if you ask me, be able to go it alone. If the writing is any good, you should find out everything you need to know from the action and the dialogue, without requiring a tutor at your shoulder to explain everything.

This tutor (Campbell Scott) is particularly annoying. An arch, pseudo-literary tone is adopted. I think it’s supposed to be droll and amusing but, to me, it’s a lot of blather. For instance, the narrator tells us that Ben was born in Toronto on an "unseasonably" cold January day when the temperature was thirteen below zero. What’s "unseasonable" about that? This is January in Toronto, for godsakes. Later, the narrator notes Ben’s disappointment with a huge structure of metal poles billed as the World’s Largest Teepee. What person with half a brain wouldn’t be disappointed? Are we to assume that Ben might actually have been hoping that such a tourist trap would be awesomely inspiring?

Another of the narrator’s fatuous quirks is his tendency to take us down side paths for details about the fates of people whose lives have intersected with Ben’s. For instance: the couple who, when plagued with problems in later life, will be helped by the photo that Ben took of them; or the woman ranch owner who found the love of her life after saying goodbye to Ben. Then there’s the nurse who just missed a train crash because she got out of work early when Ben skipped his appointment. I suspect this sort of coincidence is meant to have cosmic implications of the "If-a-buttterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-the-Amazon" variety. Fine, if you’re impressed by that kind of pseudo intellectuality.

For the most part, you’re better off not thinking about what goes down. A lot of it doesn’t bear close scrutiny. In flashbacks, we get incidents from Ben’s childhood involving a mean baseball coach and a crabby teacher. Are these incidents supposed to make us sympathetic to Ben? The pathos is exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. Worried about his fiance’s accusation that his feet stink, Ben screws up his courage to ask a pharmacist he encounters in his travels to sniff his (Ben’s) boots. Guess what? No odour. So what’s the point? Ben's private moment with the Stanley Cup is apparently supposed to give any red-blooded Canadian guy a visceral thrill but I found the incident improbable and embarrassingly mawkish.

To the movie’s credit, though, it doesn’t get mawkish about Ben’s impending doom. In fact, little is said about it. It’s just there in the background (not very plausibly, but never mind). Gradually, it becomes apparent that the movie isn’t so much about Ben’s running away as it is about unresolved issues in his life. To give the movie the best possible interpretation, then, you could say that it’s not so much a drama as a meditation, or an essay, on certain things whirling around in Ben’s mind. For that, I suppose, you’d have to admit that the voice-over narration is necessary.

The on-going conflict that provides a bit of the drama that I expect in a movie or play is Ben’s relationship with his fiance. They’re often in touch by cell phone while he’s away. It’s only in a scene where she catches up with him on the road that Ben interacts with anybody in any significant way. The rest of the time, he strolls around with a bland, bemused expression on his mug. It’s not one of those faces in which a camera can see a lot of emotion or thought. In fact, his pudgy-faced good looks kept making me want to see him in a Mountie’s dress uniform. That would make him a fine symbol of a Canadian guy.

On the other hand, Liane Balaban, who plays his girlfriend, has a face that a camera reads a lot into. I found every shot of her interesting. She could be accused, perhaps, of playing the part within a very narrow emotional range: slightly pissed-off most of the time. (Who wouldn’t be?) With her gaunt face and her long black hair, she can be quite beautiful but she seems like the kind of person who can’t believe that she is – in other words, a young woman you know, rather than a movie star.

With many scenic wonders of Canada on display, this movie attracted lots of Canadian backing. (But we could have done without a German tourist’s offering the platitude that Ben lives in "von of the most beautiful countries in the vorld".) I’m glad that this project has provided work for lots of Canadian actors and others involved in the film business. And good on Michael McGowan for pulling off the remarkable coup of getting his self-written and self-directed project up there on the screen. For all the Canadian chauvinism in the air, however, I have a problem with the fact that Ben travels only from Toronto to Vancouver Island. How can we celebrate this movie as a great tribute to our home and native land when the eastern third of the country is ignored?

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "eh?" i.e. "iffy")


I Love You, Man (Movie) written by John Hamburg and Larry Levin; directed by John Hamburg; starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones; with Sarah Burns, Rob Huebel, Jaime Pressly, Jane Curtin, J.K. Simmons, Andy Samberg

Peter (Paul Rudd) works for a glitzy real estate company. When he makes an ultra-romantic proposal to his live-in sweetheart, wedding bells start tuning up. Only trouble is, Peter doesn’t have any buddies to act as groomsmen. Realizing how pathetic that is, he sets out to do something about it.

The main trouble with the first part of this movie is that most of the people act like they learned how to be human from tv. The women have scrubbed, shiny faces, frozen in perpetual smiles to show off their million-dollar teeth. The guys that Peter tries to bond with over poker games look like leftovers from an old episode of  The Odd Couple. Worst of all, the two sweethearts have one of those relationships which requires them to end every conversation, no matter how trivial, with a cloying, "I love you".

No wonder Jason Segel makes such a strong impression when he arrives on the scene as Sidney. This guy is jaw-droppingly real, compared to the others. He and the Rudd character first meet at a real estate open house. The Segel character attends such events for the free food and the chance of meeting a divorce. As he becomes friends with the Rudd character, the chemistry between them works wonders. It’s great fun watching Sidney teach Peter how to loosen up, to talk about sex, to express anger and aggression. The teens sitting near me were hysterical with laughter at Peter’s geeky attempts to be cool.

Of course, the theme of a repressed character getting liberated by a wild and free spirit is hardly original. What makes it fresh here is Jason Segel. He seems like someone you’ve never seen on screen before, except for his appearance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Mr. Segal has a laid-back emotional honesty that you don’t often see in male stars of Hollywood movies. His exposed, let-it-all-hang-out quality disarms you. He’s intelligent and sensitive, but he comes off as something of a boor most of the time because he cuts through much of the crap that people accept as normal in human inter-action.

And yet, when forced to behave nicely, he can – as, for instance, when he says that a movie he previously dissed as artsty-fartsy fluff is a "delightful film". He says it with a smile that tells you he’s lying but makes you admire him for doing it. That’s one of the most impressive of an actor’s skills: to be able to show you that what he’s thinking and what he’s saying don’t match. You recognize somebody who’s as complex – and duplicitous – as yourself.

But the script-writers let Mr. Segal down at one point. We’re willing to accept his character as a slob, maybe even a jerk in some ways, but one who is basically honourable. Most of his faux pas are forgivable. In my view, however, he makes a serious mis-step at one point. It’s hard work for the actor to win back our trust in the character – with the result that Mr. Segel’s performance isn’t as secure as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Working with his own writing in that case, he obviously had a better handle on the character than the script-writers of this movie have on Sidney.

Intriguing though the relationship between Peter and Sidney is, it doesn’t ultimately get developed as much as the movie’s edgy title might lead you to expect. You come away with a somewhat empty feeling because things have worked out in the superficial way of most Hollywood comedies.

Rating: D+ (Where D = "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)


La Sonnambula (Opera) by Vincenzo Bellini; conducted by Evelino Pid; production by Mary Zimmerman; starring Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Florez, Michele Pertusi, Jennifer Black, Jane Bunnell and Jeremy Galyon; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. (Met Opera HD Live Broadcast to Theatres, March 21)

According to the scuttlebutt, something rare happened at the Met on the opening night of this production: boos were heard during the curtain calls. Apparently, the disapproval was aimed at the production team. Seems some of the patrons didn’t like Mary Zimmerman’s concept for the staging of this opera as a rehearsal in a cavernous rehearsal room.

It’s beyond me how anybody with enough smarts to want to attend the Met (and with the money to turn that wish into reality) could be so lacking in good taste as regards this production. For me, it’s one of the best opera productions ever.

Granted, we’ve all seen too many productions where the director seems to be trying to prove his or her cleverness, distorting the piece according to wild imaginings, as if the work wasn’t good enough to stand on its own. But that’s exactly the case with this opera. We’ve got this dorky story about an innocent girl who’s found in a stranger’s bedroom on the night before her wedding. Her fianc goes ballistic. But guess what? Turns out she’s afflicted with this disease nobody ever heard of: sleepwalking! Makes Naughty Marietta look like Strindberg.

But it so happens that Donizetti’s score is sublime. So why not give us the glorious music, while showing that you don’t take the story too seriously?

That’s what this production does. You get the impression that everybody’s having fun with the piece. Nobody’s trying to pretend it’s real. Not at first, anyway. Gradually, they do seem to get caught up in the emotions being stirred up but the initial casualness on the part of the cast helps to get us sucked in too.

As the overture plays, people stroll in wearing jeans and sweaters, carrying bicycle helmets and coffee. The prima donna arrives wearing sun glasses and chatting on her cell phone. During a love scene between the two stars, one of the chorus members can be glimpsed in the background reading the New Yorker. When an objectionable suitor grabs the hand of a soprano, she goes for a gob of hand-sanitizer from a dispenser that happens to be sitting on the table. A reluctant stagehand gets pressed into service to stand in for the Count in a scene where the chorus is rehearsing their song to him.

One of the great benefits of this approach is that this production works as an ensemble much better than most operas do. For a change, we  get to see  the chorus members as real, individual people. That's because, instead of posing in some fakey tableau, they mill around, watching the proceedings, looking like people we know. They're expressing  reactions very like the ones we ourselves would probably feel in similar situations.

The production’s crowning moment – and its justification, should any be needed – comes at the climax of the first act. Things are spinning out of control, so the chorus members decide to trash the place. They start throwing props around and ripping up their music. The prompter climbs out of the prompt box and runs around trying to save pages of the score. Meanwhile, the two stars are singing their hearts out at each other while standing on a bed that a couple of chorus members are spinning around and around. A true coup de theatre!

Just one thing might have improved on the concept for me. I wish we had seen a little more of the two sides of the prima donna. For the most part, Natalie Dessay plays along with the role of the sweet ingenue in a kind of bemused way but I would have liked to see her occasionally revert to her other role – as the opera singer who might be in quite another mood. We did get a bit of that when she was seen rejecting various shoes and wigs offered by the costumes department but I would like to have seen more role-switching on her part.

The only aspect of the rehearsal concept that didn’t quite work for me was the casting of the Lisa character (Jennifer Black) as a kind of stage manager. This didn’t make sense to me, given that none of the other principals was required to play a member of the support staff. Maybe the intention was to show that the person playing Liza wasn’t a real star and was jealous of the prima donna but that could have been done without putting Liza in the implausible role of – literally, at one point – a broom-pusher.

Ms. Black did, however, look lovely and sang accordingly. Jane Burrell, in the role of the mother, and Jeremy Galyon, as the rejected suitor, also sang splendidly. I particularly liked the singing and performance of Michele Pertusi as the Count. He has a glorious bass voice and he conveyed the impression of a very contemporary person: a VIP who’s somewhat full of himself but a decent guy all the same.

And what can we say of the two stars – Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez – except that they were perfection? Their pianissimo farewell to each other at the end of the first scene was some of the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard.

More specifically about Ms. Dessay’s performance, it can be reported that she stopped me from thinking about Joan Sutherland in the role, so I won’t even mention Dame Joan here. Ms. Dessay made all the beautiful melodies float just as they should and she has a genuine trill, something you don’t always get from sopranos these days. On top of which, the self-deprecating humour of her acting is irresistible.

Signor Florez is nothing short of a phenomenon. It defies belief the way he keeps pumping out the ringing, clear high notes as if there’s no end to them. We can only hope that, thanks to some supernatural prowess in his constitution, there never will be.

This was the last HD Live broadcast that we had tickets for this year. I had been wondering whether or not to bother next season. Between the time you buy the tickets in the fall and the time the individual operas come around, so many other things crop up that you want to do. Plus, it can be such a schlepp having to get to the theatre an hour and a half before curtain time in order to get a decent spot in the non-reserved seats.

But if the Met can promise us more productions like this, I’ll be first in line when the tickets come on sale and I’ll camp on the street outside the theatre on the nights before the performances.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com