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Off-Broadway Play Review—Abe Koogler’s “Staff Meal”

Staff Meal
Written by Abe Koogler
Directed by Morgan Green
Through May 24, 2024
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Susannah Flood and Greg Keller in Staff Meal (photo: Chelcie Parry)
Abe Koogler’s play Staff Meal teases at being many things—surreal adventure, nightmarish parody, quirky rom-com—but ends up being not much of anything, a tasting menu with too many options and not enough flavor. The flimsy, one-act conceit begins with several blackout scenes of a couple, Ben and Mina, meeting cute in a coffee shop while working on their laptops. After some amusing introductory dialogue, Ben finally asks Mina out to dinner; as they walk the streets, they make small talk about where they’re from and discover a posh restaurant that is inexplicably empty. 
After they’re seated, the couple is never served dinner—shades of Luis Bunuel’s own surreal satire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—because the wine they order is in a cellar deep underground. While waiting, Ben discusses his idiosyncratic take on the film Titanic while Mina describes her bizarre belief that she is inextricably linked to fictional characters like the rat in Ratatouille or the whale in Moby-Dick.  
Meanwhile, the waiter who traveled great lengths to fetch their bottle explains in a long speech why the wine cellar is so far away, who the restaurant owner is and why it was difficult to find the exact wine they ordered. Two other servers appear, as does the executive chef: they have their own tales to tell, as does a vagrant who sneaks onstage from the wings a couple times and who turns out to be the restaurant’s owner. (That the vagrant, owner and chef are played by the same actor is another of Koogler’s fuzzy conceits.)
After the play meanders on for awhile, an older woman stands up in the audience and complains about how silly, trite and cliched it has been so far—that she’s not wrong is part of Koogler’s self-puncturing joke, but he also lets her go on too long telling her own story that’s silly, trite and cliched, undercutting his initially amusing and salient point. 
And so it goes for 90 minutes. Ben, Mina and the other characters (include a second vagrant, if you please) are always frustrated in their attempts to make some sort of connection—even more shades of Bunuel’s film—but Koogler’s undercooked play has the feel of an elaborately planned gourmet meal where the diners are instead served microwaved fast-food leftovers. 
What’s supposed to be absurdist is merely absurd; a conversation between Ben and Mina about a beloved pet he had as a kid growing up in Spain is literally a shaggy-dog story. Director Morgan Green does a credible job of maneuvering through the weeds to find some kind of pathway: Masha Tsimring’s expressive lighting, Jian Jung’s subtly witty sets, Kaye Voyce’s clever costumes and Tei Blow’s foreboding sound design create the essence of an unnerving journey that the play doesn’t supply. 
In a game cast, Susannah Flood (Mina) and Greg Keller (Ben) are able to best transcend the script to create a real spark of interest. They are so engaging together that it would be nice to see the pair in a real rom-com—as long as they don’t stop in a place like this for a bite.

May '24 Digital Week III

4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
Queen Rock Montreal/Live Aid 
(Mercury Studios)
When this concert was filmed in 1981, Queen was literally at the top of its game: the tour supported the smash album The Game, the group’s only U.S. number-one album, and Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon were a well-oiled machine cranking out 90 minutes of pure rock’n’roll every night. (I saw Queen in Toronto on this tour and can confirm.) Showcasing the band playing one Queen classic after another, from the opening, punkish “We Will Rock You” to the final celebratory “We Are the Champions,” the film is the most satisfyingly shot of the many Queen concert movies, with excellent camerawork and editing as well as tremendous sound.
There are two 4K discs, one with the film in widescreen, the other in its original 1.33:1 ratio—both look and sound spectacular. Also on the first disc is rehearsal footage for Live Aid; the second disc contains the actual historic Live Aid performance. A commentary by May and Taylor rounds out this essential document of one of the great rock bands at the height of its powers. 
Dune—Part Two 
(Warner Bros)
Frank Herbert’s colossal epic sci-fi novel has been stubbornly resistant to movie adaptation, if David Lynch’s 1984 fatally flawed version (starring a vapid Kyle McLachlan as youthful savior Paul Artreides) and Denis Villenueve’s two long entries (with a less bad but not fully plausible Timothee Chalamet as Paul) are anything to go by. As in his first film, Villeneuve has a visual sense that’s more conventional than Lynch’s, but since there’s vastly superior technology to play with, it looks more imaginative than it is.
The second film is more coherent, but about halfway through it starts to repeat itself visually, narratively and thematically, and the ending is a huge anticlimax. There’s a gorgeous 4K transfer; the accompanying Blu-ray disc includes more than an hour of extras that comprise on-set featurettes and cast, crew and director interviews.
One From the Heart 
Francis Coppola’s 1982 musical bankrupted him and his studio, Zoetrope, even though it was a labor of love: wildly stylized and surreal, the film does have its defenders, but watching it makes one realize that, despite the bold colors, Vittorio Storaro’s stunning photography and Dean Tavoularis’ vivid production design, it’s a botch as a song-and-dance musical (although not as awful as Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love).
This two-disc set tries to resurrect its reputation with the “Reprise” cut, apparently Coppola’s now-preferred version, on one disc and the original 1982 cut on the other. There are also a Coppola commentary and several extras, both old and new, including featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes. At least the film still looks smashing in both versions, especially in 4K. 
In-Theater Release of the Week
Time of the Heathen 
The restoration of this obscure 1960 B movie unearthed the interestingly offbeat talent of director Peter Kass, whose intriguing if crude drama follows Gaunt, a drifter who stumbles on a rape-murder and is forced to flee—along with Jessie, the victim’s young mute son—when those responsible try to frame him.
Even at 76 minutes, the story comes off as thin, while the acting is, to put it politely, very uneven. Still, there’s a kernel of originality here, particularly in Ed Emshwiller’s moody B&W visuals and the relationship between Gaunt and Jessie (played by John Heffernan and Barry Collins), which is never exploitive. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Noryang—Deadly Sea 
(Well Go USA)
In the final film of his trilogy about Korean nautical history, director Kim Han-Min effectively paints on a large canvas to dramatize the pivotal battles in the 16th-century invasions of Korea by Japan, as venerable Korean admiral Yi Sun-Sin’s decisions led to the victorious end of the war.
Imposingly mounted—with eye-popping battle sequences—Kim’s film suffers from gigantism at the characters’ expense: we know precious little more about the admiral at the end as we did at the beginning, when we first see him on his death bed. The hi-def image looks impressive.
Das Rheingold 
Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle opens with the shortest of the four operas, which Wagner titled a “prelude,” a two-hour-plus setup of a long and winding epic that wends its way through many subplots over the following three large-scale works. In director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new Berlin State Opera, the disharmonious setting is an antiseptically modern office building that removes the grandeur from Wagner’s meticulously worked-out conflict among gods and humans.
But there’s first-rate music making—by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Christian Thielemann—and splendid performances by a cast led by Michael Volle’s Wotan, the supreme god, and Rolando Villazón’s mischievous Loge. The opera looks and sounds superb in hi-def.
CD Release of the Week 
Danny Elfman—Percussion Concerto 
(Sony Classical)
Anyone who knows the music of Danny Elfman—especially the title theme from The Simpsons or the soundtracks of various Tim Burton films—will be trodding familiar territory with the trio of works on this disc. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Elfman’s music is always spirited and attractive to the ear; here, in something like the Percussion Concerto, with the peerless Colin Currie as soloist, it gains weight without ponderousness. 
Wunderkammer and Are You Lost? round out this entertaining recording, their choral parts (the musicians themselves on the former and Kantos Chamber Choir on the latter) adding extra layers of interest. It’s all played with verve by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under versatile conductor JoAnn Falletta.

Juilliard Orchestra Are In "Absolute Jest"

Juilliard Orchestra conducted by John Adams. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the night of Monday, April 29th, I had the privilege of attending an excellent concert presented by the precocious members of the Juilliard Orchestra under the assured baton of guest conductor—and eminent composer—John Adams.

The event began auspiciously with a pleasurable account of Ludwig van Beethoven’s marvelous Overture to his opera Fidelio, Op. 72. In her note for the program, Georgeanne Banker—who holds a Master of Music degree in Historical Performance from Juilliard—provides some useful background: “With a libretto derived from Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's 1798 play Léonore, ou L'amour con-jugal, the opera follows its titular heroine, disguised as a man named Fidelio, on her quest to rescue her husband Florestan from the depths of a Spanish prison.” She goes on to quote the composer:

“The affair of the opera is the most troublesome in the world, and there is scarcely one part of it which quite satisfies me now,” Beethoven wrote to Georg Friedrich Treitschke, who edited its libretto in 1814. “But what a difference between this and giving oneself up to freely flowing thought and inspiration!”

And she adds:

The first iteration of the opera premiered in 1805 to a hall of French soldiers in occupied Vienna. After years of revisions (and after composing Symphonies 4 through 8), Fidelio in its final form was revived in May 1814, just weeks after Napoleon Bonaparte was shipped off to Elba. 

In his quest to revise the opera, Beethoven prepared no fewer than four distinct overtures for it.

The ensemble was then joined by the accomplished musicians of the string quartet, The Dolphins—with violinists Luke Henderson and Isaac Park, violist James Preucil, and cellist Ian Maloney—for a rewarding performance of Adams’s own ambitious Absolute Jest from 2012. About the piece, he wrote that its “creation was for me a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design. The ‘jest' of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta': doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest' as indicating an exercising of one's wit by means of imagination and invention.” 

Banker explains, “Composed in six movements, Absolute Jest is scored for a solo string quartet and large orchestra with harp and piano tuned in meantone temperament.” Adams records: “The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the same Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references—of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony, and other archetypal Beethoven motives that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.” 

The composer also said: 

The high-spirited triple-time scherzo to the F-major Opus 135 (Beethoven's final work in that medium) enters about a third of the way through Absolute Jest and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece, interrupted only by a brief slow section that interweaves fragments of the Grosse Fuge with the opening fugue theme of the C-minor quartet. A final furious coda features the solo string quartet charging ahead at full speed over an extended orchestral pedal based on the famous Waldstein Sonata harmonic progressions.

Banker concludes, “The final Prestissimo, running straight out of the preceding Vivacissimo, distills motifs from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, to their elemental state, rallying the orchestral forces in a sort of maximal minimalism that brings Absolute Jest to a close.”

Although certainly distinguished, this is not one of my very favorite pieces by Adams but it does build to a thrilling climax with a quiet ending. Reflection upon the work elicits the thought that much of its effectiveness depends on the rhetorical figure of allusion which, for it to fulfill its purpose, requires recognition of its antecedent—in Absolute Jest, this affords considerable enjoyment.

The second half of the evening would have been extraordinary even if only for what began it, a sterling version of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun from 1894, one of the most glorious compositions in the canon of Western symphonic music. Also admirable was the final selection, a compelling realization of the same composer’s beautifully scored Ibéria from his orchestral work, Images. About the piece, Manuel de Falla recounted:

However, as far as Ibéria is concerned, Claude Debussy expressly said, at the time of its first performance, that he had not intended to make Spanish music, but rather to translate into music the impressions that Spain awakened in him. Let us hasten to add that this was achieved in a magnificent manner. The echoes of the villages, including a kind of sevillana—the work's theme—seem to float in a clear atmosphere of sparkling light; the intoxicating magic of Andalusian nights, the joy of a festive people marching and dancing to the joyous chords of a banda of guitarras and bandurrias ... all this swirls in the air, approaching and receding, and our imagination, constantly on the alert, remains dazzled by the strong virtues of an intensely expressive and richly nuanced music.

The initial movement, entitled “In the Streets and Byways,” is ebullient on the whole, although with some more subdued episodes, while the ensuing movement, “The Fragrances of the Night,” is more meditative, purely impressionistic, and anticipatory. The final movement, “The Morning of a Festival Day,” is propulsive and dance-like, with some gentler interludes; it concludes forcefully. 

The artists were enthusiastically applauded.

The final Juilliard Orchestra concert of the season, which will be conducted by Marin Alsop, will occur on May 23rd at Alice Tully Hall.

Off-Broadway Play Review—World Premiere of “Jordans”

Written by Ife Olujobi; directed by Whitney White
Performances through May 12, 2024
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Kate Walsh, Naomi Lorrain and Toby Onwumere in Jordans (photo: Joan Marcus)

Before it goes completely bonkers in the second act, Ife Olujobi’s Jordans is a bluntly effectively satire about how ingrained American racism affects Blacks, specifically receptionist Jordan, the lone Black employee at Atlas Studios, a Brooklyn event space that’s populated by interchangeable white employees and led by a stereotypically fiery middle-aged white woman named Hailey.
Jordan hopes to move up in the company but is treated like a mere servant (or worse) by the others, for whom she makes coffee or cleans up after when there’s vomit or backed-up sewage. When the company hires a second Black employee, a man also named Jordan (the playwright cheekily names him 1. Jordan, and his last name is, yes, Savage) who’s in a position of supposed power as the new director of culture, our exasperated heroine at first is on her guard, then drops her guard, then…well, that’s all in the second act.
The first half of Jordans moves swimmingly and has some pointed laughs, although there are easy jokes as well, since the targets (clueless whites, office politics) are obvious. Then act two begins, and Olujobi’s play awkwardly moves toward more abstract, surreal lunacy that includes a surprising pregnancy (the two Jordans increasingly become interchangeable, to themselves and the others) and a literally bloody denouement.
Jordans climaxes with its heroine staring hauntedly at the audience, but in this context, the ending makes little sense, either as reality—it’s not as if Jordan is brandishing a gun and can’t be subdued—or as a stark metaphor for unleashing her cumulative anger over her subjugation. 
Whitney White’s brisk production plays out on Matt Saunders’ antiseptically white set, dominated by a large, curved wall that acts as a mocking hulk against Jordan’s aspirations, all cleverly underscored by Cha See’s lighting. The script has Jordan moving around chairs, tables and props between scenes as a way of showing both her subordination and indispensability to all, but since it’s the third straight off-Broadway show where I saw performers move props, it was less than effective. 
The supporting cast provides amusing caricatures, while Toby Onwumere, as 1. Jordan, and Kate Walsh, as Hailey, are better, making Olujobi’s lines far more biting than they are on the page. Best of all is Naomi Lorrain, who as Jordan carries the weight of this serious but stretched-out joke on her shoulders, giving a colossal performance that is funny, sympathetic and even touching. 

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