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Sloppy scripting and LGBT stereotypes make for a painful “Death Before Cocktails”

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Paul Keany, Ariel Hart, Tom Kearney and Damien Diaz in “Death Before Cocktails.” Photo by Alex Rotaru.

Suicide, as a general rule, is not a funny subject.

In an era when we have gotten better than ever about promoting awareness of depression and other mental health concerns that often underlie the decision to take one’s own life, finding comedy in such a decision – or its aftermath – seems, on the surface, an exercise in poor taste.

Even so, it can theoretically be forgiven that “Death Before Cocktails,” a new play by Laureen Vonnegut now in its World Premiere run at Theatre 68 in NoHo, uses just such a tragedy as the jumping off point for its comedy.

After all, dark humor has its place; while it may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s an important, time-honored tool for facing the harsh realities of our existence.  Handled skillfully, it has the power to make us more resilient, to help us find peace with things we can’t control, and to strengthen us in our struggle to change the things we can.

The key word in that sentence, though, is “skillfully.”

Vonnegut’s grimly comedic piece is set at a Palm Springs cocktail lounge, which has been designated in the suicide note of a famous actress as the location for an impromptu wake with a very limited – and very calculated – guest list.  Her twin, a not-so-famous science fiction writer named Lana (Ariel Hart), arrives as instructed with a boxful of sister’s ashes in hand; meeting her there are two former lovers – a washed-up rock star named Clive (Paul Keany), and the bar’s owner, Will (Tom Kearney).  Rounding out the gathering are Clive’s “friend,” flamboyant dentist Mario (Damien Diaz), and their waitress Ruth (Rose Hunter) – who also happens to be Will’s daughter.  This awkwardly-mixed quintet is forced by circumstance to hash over their unresolved conflicts, as they try to figure out why they have been brought together for this occasion and come to terms with their grief – not just over the loss of their dear departed, but over all the failures and unfulfilled dreams of their own lives.

Given its provocatively ambiguous title – particularly in combination with Argent Lloyd’s “galaxy black” set and its sparse highlights of utilitarian furnishings and garishly neon-esque signage, the production at first invites speculation that we are in for one of those avant-garde, absurdist theatre pieces of a bygone era; we suspect that, much like the characters in Sartre’s “No Exit” or Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the inhabitants of this unnamed, barely formed space are in a kind of limbo.

Though this may be true in a metaphorical sense, Vonnegut’s play is more connected with conventional reality than it is with the esoteric thought-scapes of the surrealist forebears that likely influenced it.  These are not characters trapped in some waiting room of the after-life, doomed to grapple with their egos and their expectations for all eternity.  They are meant to be flesh-and-blood, and they must do their grappling in the real world.

Unfortunately, it still feels like an eternity.

Though Vonnegut’s script is full of interesting ideas and savvy observations, it’s also full of repetition.  The characters discuss the same subjects, albeit in different configurations, over and over; they have the same arguments, they get hung up on the same sticking points, and they come back to the same dysfunctional blend of self-pity and projected recrimination with which they started out.  While it’s no doubt part of the play’s intention to observe this looping behavioral pattern at work, there is a point somewhere past the middle of its 95-minute running time when it becomes more tiresome than illuminating.  That effect is compounded by the characters’ self-absorbedness; clinging to fantasies that never came to fruition, they spend the bulk of the play trying to prevent the bursting of their own respective bubbles while trying to stick pins into each other’s.  They are, for the most part, insufferable.

All of this could be said to be part of the point; but what makes it more unpalatable is that, all too often, the play falls back on cliché.  This is disappointing with regard to its discussions of mental health – an important central theme – which seem to exist without awareness of any current understanding of the issue; but it is especially glaring when the play delves into the subject of sexuality, which it does frequently.  One character claims to be bisexual, another is gay; there are ample opportunities within the show for each of them to give voice to authentic issues and experiences, and there are moments when it almost happens – only to devolve into oft-repeated cultural tropes that are, at best, dated and, at worst, offensive.  The reinforcing of attitudes that contribute to “bi-erasure” is particularly troubling.

Not that the straights are given any fairer treatment; hetero-normative bigotry, middle-American prurience, and the jaded cynicism of the sophisticated intelligentsia all get their moments in the spotlight.  Any good will or empathy that may be generated for these people is quickly squandered, and most of the audience will likely be past caring by the time the show reaches its conclusion – which seems more motivated by running time than any actual developments in the action, and is utterly predictable for anyone who has ever seen a play or movie about people ruminating on death.

Not that any of this is the fault of the actors.  Hart brings a lot of honesty and presence to her performance as Lana; she effectively allows the character’s deep insecurities to show through the well-put-together exterior she presents.  She is at the center of the piece throughout, and she occupies that place with confidence; it’s a shame the twin never appears in the show – it would be a treat to see this actress tackle a double role.  Kearney is appropriately douche-y as Clive, yet still manages to be somewhat endearing; and Diaz, refreshingly theatrical as Mario, provides an over-the-top element to his scenes that almost compensates for the number of stereotypes he is saddled with representing.

Damien Diaz and Rose Hunter in “Death Before Cocktails.” Photo by Alex Rotaru.

Considering its players’ talents, the fact that “Death Before Cocktails” comes off as a one-note affair must be laid at the feet of its directors, Alex Rotaru and Vonnegut herself.  While they have done an admirable job in guiding their actors to honest performances, they seem to have paid insufficient attention to giving shape to the overall piece; by staying rooted “in the moment,” they have left out the necessary rises and falls of action that make a play into a narrative rather than just a series of small moments that bleed into each other.  It’s also likely that Vonnegut, as the playwright, is too close to the material to have been truly objective in the directorial process.  Indeed, many of the play’s flaws could be remedied with judicious cutting; tightened to something around 70 minutes, it could be an entirely different – and much more enjoyable – experience.

Still, editing would not resolve the show’s deeper problems.  Its approach towards the issues of sexuality and mental health would need to be re-examined and brought up to date with contemporary attitudes.  To do so would require considerable rewriting – and in the end, given the underwhelming payoff delivered by the play’s final moments, that much work might be more trouble than it’s worth.

 

“Death Before Cocktails” runs thru May 13th at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA. 91601.  Performances are Friday & Saturday 8:00PM and Sunday 7:00PM. Tickets & info at: http://buytickets.at/deathbeforecocktails/155994

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Vlogger StanChris; My religious mom reacts to Norway’s “gay Santa” ad

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s gay Santa advertisement! Let’s see what she has to say about it.

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Screenshot via YouTube

LOS ANGELES – The twenty-something StanChris, the Out YouTuber who has been building his audience on his YouTube channel by vlogging about the ordinary everyday experiences of his life as a young gay guy is back- this time interviewing his mother.

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s gay Santa advertisement! Let’s see what she has to say about it.

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s “gay Santa” ad

********************

S O C I A L – L I N K S

→Instagram : stanchris https://instagram.com/stanchris

→ Twitter : stanchrisss https://twitter.com/stanchrisss

Subscribe here!!: https://youtube.com/c/stanchris

Watch more: https://youtu.be/rjI4c7nSXkw

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Movies

Verhoeven returns with subversive tale of lesbian nun in ‘Benedetta’

Period drama delivers sex, violence, and horrors of the Black Death

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Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in ‘Benedetta.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

There was a time when Paul Verhoeven was a big deal in Hollywood.

The Dutch filmmaker first attracted international attention during an early career in his homeland, with critically acclaimed movies like “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange,” which found an audience outside of the Netherlands and brought him greater opportunities in America, Once here, he adapted his style to fit a more commercial mold and forged a niche for himself with violent, action-packed sci-fi blockbusters, scoring major hits with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” before reaching a pinnacle with “Basic Instinct” – arguably still his most influential and iconic film.

Then came “Showgirls.” Although the Joe Eszterhas-scripted stripper drama is now revered as a “so-bad-it’s-great” cult classic, it was a box office bomb on its initial release, and its failure, coupled with the less-spectacular but equally definitive flopping of his next film, “Starship Troopers,” effectively put an end to his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

That was not, however, the end of his story. Verhoeven moved back to his native country (where he was hailed as a returning hero) and rebounded with the critically lauded “Black Book” before spending the next two decades developing and producing new projects with other filmmakers. In 2016, he assumed the director’s seat again, this time in France, and the resulting work (“Elle”) put him once more into the international spotlight.

Now, he’s back with another French film, and fans of his signature style – a blend of social satire, psycho-sexual themes, graphic violence, and near-exploitation-level erotic imagery that has prompted some commentators to label him as a provocateur – have every reason to be excited.

“Benedetta,” which receives its long-delayed (due to COVID) release in the U.S. on Dec. 3, is the real-life story of a Renaissance-era Italian nun (Virginie Efira), whose passionate devotion to her faith  – and especially to Jesus – sparks disturbing and dramatic visions. When young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) enters the convent and is assigned to her as a companion, it awakens a different kind of passion, and as their secret relationship escalates, so too do her miraculous episodes, which expand to include the physical manifestation of stigmata. Soon, despite the skepticism of the Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she finds herself heralded as a prophet by the other sisters and the local community, leading to controversy, investigation, and a power struggle that threatens the authority of the church itself.

Inspired by “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” Judith C. Brown’s biography of the real Sister Benedetta, Verhoeven’s latest work is perhaps his most quintessential to date. In his screenplay (co-written with “Elle” collaborator David Birke), the Dutch auteur – who is also a widely recognized, if controversial, religious scholar – gives free reign to his now-familiar obsessions, weaving them all together into a sumptuously realized period drama that delivers copious amounts of nudity and sex, bloody violence, and the horrors of the Black Death while exploring the phenomenon of faith itself. Is Benedetta a saint or a harlot? Is she chosen by God or mentally ill? Are her visions real or is she a fraud, cynically exploiting the beliefs of those around her in a bold-faced grab for power and glory? And if she’s lying, in the larger context of a world held firmly in the grip of a church that treats salvation as transactional and levies its presumed moral authority to unlimited financial and political gain, which is greater evil? Though the film strongly implies the answers lie somewhere between the “either/or” of absolutes, it shrewdly leaves the viewer to contemplate such questions for themselves.

What concerns “Benedetta” more than any esoteric debate is a sly-yet-candid commentary on the various levels of societal hierarchy and the ways in which the flow of power perpetuates itself through their devotion to maintaining the status quo. As Benedetta’s perceived holiness carries her upward through the strata, from unwanted daughter of the merchant class to Mother Superior and beyond, more important than the veracity of her claims of divinity are the shifting and carefully calculated responses of those she encounters along the way. Fearing the loss of their own power, they ally and oppose themselves in whichever direction will help them maintain it. It’s a Machiavellian game of “keep-away” in which those at the top will not hesitate to use economic class, gender, sexuality, and – if all else fails – torture and execution as weapons to repress those they deem unworthy.

Inevitably, the above scenario provides plenty of fodder for Verhoeven’s movie to make points about religious hypocrisy, systemic oppression, and the way white heterosexual cisgender men keep the deck eternally stacked in their own favor – all of which invites us to recognize how little things have changed in the five centuries since Sister Benedetta’s time. That, too, is right in line with the director’s usual agenda.

Ultimately though, the signature touch that makes the movie unmistakably his is the way it revels in the lurid and sensational. Verhoeven delights in presenting imagery designed to shock us, and key elements of the film – from hyper-eroticized religious visions and explicit lesbian sex, to the prominent inclusion of a blasphemous wooden dildo as an important plot point – feel deliberately transgressive. This should be no surprise when one remembers that this is the director who brought us not only “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” but also “The Fourth Man,” a homoerotic psychological thriller from 1983 still capable of making audiences squirm uncomfortably today; and while all this titillation may trigger the most prudish of viewers, it makes “Benedetta” into a deliciously subversive, wild-and-wooly ride for the rest of us. More to the point, it underscores the film’s ultimate observation about the empowering nature of sexual liberation.

Helping Verhoeven make maximum impact with this obscure historical narrative is a cast that clearly relishes the material as much as he does. In the title role, the statuesque Efira successfully creates a compelling and charismatic figure while remaining an enigma, someone we can believe in equal measure might be sincere or corrupt and with whom we can empathize either way; likewise, Patakia exudes savvy and self-possession, transcending moral judgment as the object of her affection, and the two performers have a palpable chemistry, which is made all the more compelling by their thrillingly contemporary approach to the characters. Rounding out the triad of principal roles is Rampling, a cinematic icon who brings prestige and sophistication to the table in a masterful performance as the Abbess; more than just a grounding presence for her younger co-stars, she provides an important counterbalance with a subtle and layered performance as a woman who has devoted her life to a belief in which she has no faith, only to find herself overshadowed by a charlatan.

“Benedetta” is not exactly the kind of film that’s likely to put Verhoeven back on the Hollywood fast track – it’s far too radical in its underpinnings for that. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form from a unique and flamboyant filmmaker we’ve missed for far too long, and his fans – along with anybody with a taste for provocative cinema – should consider it a must-see.

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Books

‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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