CultureJew:From “Pose” to “RBG” Great Stuff to See

Haven’t posted anything in a while, mostly because travel interfered (a week in northern California and a long weekend down the Jersey shore) and also because the summer is lean season for grownup movies. That makes it a good time to go to the theater though, and catch up on all the great TV we have nowadays.

To my surprise, I enjoyed “Pose,” the new Ryan Murphy drama on FX. Set in the 1980’s, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the show follows participants in the ballroom scene, clubs where African-American and Latino drag queens and transsexuals walk the runway in something that’s essentially performance art. I was wary of the show, mostly because Murphy can be too melodramatic for my taste, and also because I worried that it might be camp. Instead, Murphy has given the characters depth and humanity, and the show is often moving and even inspiring. A wonderful performance by Billy Porter as the ballroom’s DJ lifts every scene he’s in, and the other actors are equally good. Of course, the costumes are amazing and the score adds energy as well.

I’ve been watching “Dietland” too, a new show by Marti Noxon, with some ambivalence. This is a zany, paranoid concoction about a female terrorist cell that is waging war on bad men, a media empire headed by one of those men and the bad woman who wants to take it over, and an insecure fat woman who somehow gets caught in the middle. There are about a half dozen other plot threads that I’m not going to get into just for brevity’s sake. A lot of the dialogue is too bad to repeat, and the acting isn’t so great either. (An exception is Julianna Margulies who plays a ruthless magazine editor with so much over-the-top venom that she’s a joy to watch. Her ridiculous outfits are a hoot too.) But I found myself wanting to know what happens next and that’s not nothing. The show is clearly exploiting this #MeToo moment, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When’s the last time you watched a TV show that took women’s complaints about the fashion/beauty/wellness industry seriously?

For a less confused and confusing, much more traditional mystery, check out “Safe” on Netflix. Set in an English suburb, the story revolves around the disappearance of a teenage girl about a year after her mother dies of cancer. The girl’s surgeon father is played by Michael C. Hall, who is as wooden as he was as Dexter, but this time with a ludicrous English accent. The story was written by Harlan Coben, who knows how to create crime thrillers, and it is satisfyingly twisty. You’ll forget it ten minutes after you’ve finished, but it’s entertaining while you’re watching.

What’s at the Theater?

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two Jewish kids who met in Los Angeles, went on to write more than seventy hits in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s for Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters, and many more performers. Their songs are the soundtrack of the hit musical revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which is being revived off-Broadway. This production is 90 minutes of pure pleasure, with an energetic cast that can sing and dance and connect with the audience. Not all the songs are great, but most of them are as good as pop songs get, and people of a certain age will remember almost all the words. I usually dislike jukebox musicals, but since there is no book here, this isn’t a musical, which is all to the good. You can just enjoy the songs, without the sappy story and dialogue. Really fun.

Sholem Aleichem’s beloved character Tevye the Dairyman is having a moment. In addition to the Folksbiene’s current Yiddish adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which I haven’t seen, the Congress for Jewish Culture is presenting a selection of skits based on Sholem Aleichem’s other writings, including some Tevye stories not in the musical. This funny and poignant show depends entirely on the exceptional talents of the three performers–Shane Baker, Yelena Shmulenson, and Allen Lewis Rickman–who bring real acting chops as well as a superb command of the language to this work.

The play opens with a skit called “Strange Jews on a Train,” with Baker and Shmulenson playing two travelers who fall to gossiping about one of their hometowns. Rickman stands between them, translating their conversation into slangy, pungent English at top speed. As the travelers chat, we get a portrait of small town backbiting and envy.  Sholem Aleichem spent much of his time on the road, traveling across the Pale of Settlement to give lectures and readings. He must have listened to many conversations, which gave rise to dialogues like this one.

Several of the skits are about Tevye, played by Rickman, and his youngest daughter Chava, the one who falls in love with a gentile. Rickman and Baker drew these pieces from Sholem Aleichem’s own theatrical dramatization of the Tevye stories, which formed the basis for the film by the great actor/director Maurice Schwartz, who founded the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York City.

Tevye Served Raw” is running on Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesdays evenings through August 14 at the Playroom Theater, 151 West 46th Street.  

Joshua Harmon’s latest play, “Skintight,” is about as far from Tevye’s world as the new West Village is from the old Lower East Side. Populated by wealthy secular Jews, the play is ostensibly about the endless demands of beauty and youthfulness on contemporary gay and straight Jews, but like “Significant Other,” another Harmon play, it seemed underbaked to me, as if it had come out of the oven too soon.  The dialogue is witty, the characters are recognizable, the direction and set design is excellent, but the play never seems to congeal.

An angry, recently divorced Jodi (Idina Menzel) comes to visit her rich father Elliot to surprise him for his seventieth birthday. Elliot hates surprises, however, and doesn’t want to remember how old he is. Jodi is the one who is surprised when she meets Elliotr’s twenty-something lover, a dim hillbilly from Oklahoma. It’s a painful reminder that her ex-husband has just married an aerobics instructor a few years older than their son. That son, Benjamin, a queer-studies major, arrives for the birthday celebration and seems too interested in the new love interest for his grandfather’s comfort. These people quip and parry, and there is some attempt at meaningful investigation of the meaning of beauty and desirability, but it doesn’t go anywhere definitive. Not nearly as good as Harmon’s last play “Admissions.

And Now to the Movies

The most enjoyable films I’ve seen in the past two months have been documentaries: “RBG,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and “Three Identical Strangers.”  Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of the admiring doc “RBG,” and there is a lot to admire. A ferocious worker, Ginsburg puts in 18-hour days even in her 80’s, and her workout schedule is legendary. I was unfamiliar with her early life and career and it was a surprise to see that she was a beauty as a young woman growing up in Brooklyn. Her legal work before she joined the court became the foundation for many of the gains of the women’s movement. She recently announced that she planned to work another five years, which is great news. Till 120.

My children didn’t watch Mr. Rogers, but I still found the biodoc about Fred Rogers to be deeply affecting. The intentional low production values of the show and the transparent decency of Fred Rogers made the program stand out from other children’s programming of its time, and is in such stark contrast to today’s hyper-frantic media environment–for both children and adults–that it’s somewhat breathtaking. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” examines Rogers’ advocacy of civil rights and his belief that children’s fears and worries should be recognized and acknowledged. It touches delicately on Rogers’ own personality and hints at some underlying depression, but treats him and his show with the same care that he showed the children in his audience.

“Three Identical Strangers” tells a wild story about a set of triplets who were adopted by three different Jewish families in the 1960s and serendipitously found each other when they were college students. They quickly became media darlings and were all over the newspapers and television. Handsome and fun-loving, the three guys made the most of their twenties and even opened a restaurant together, called “Triplets” of course. (I’m sure I ate there once.) There’s another side to the story, however, and the film delves into how and why the boys were unknown to each other for all of their childhoods. Like most documentary films, this one works by withholding information until critical moments, but the story it tells is interesting enough that you overlook the mechanics.


About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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