Tag Archives: comedy


Winnie Holzman, who wrote the libretto for the blockbuster Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked and the 1990s television show My So-Called Life is back on tv co-producing with her daughter, Savannah Dooley, ABC Family’s summer show, Huge. The story, based on Sasha Paley’s book of the same name, is set in a summer camp for overweight kids (what used to be called disdainfully a “fat farm”), run by a bi-racial woman who has eating issues of her own.

At first glance, the premise seems vaguely offensive. The advertisement, which shows series star Nikki Blonsky (of John Waters’ 2007 Hairspray remake) in a teal one-piece bathing suit looking embarrassed, signals everything that could stink about a show like this. But instead, after watching the first two episodes, I think Holzman and Dooley are doing something much more subversive: creating a television series about overweight teens that’s utterly sympathetic to their self-image issues and at the same time critical of a culture that peddles extreme thinness as a way to sell products and impossible dreams of oxymoronic skinny healthiness to young women.

Blonsky is largely responsible for delivering the show’s critique. She plays Willamina, a teenaged girl furious with her disapproving parents for sending her off to this camp in the first place. She prefers to be called “Will,” signaling both her defiant gender-blurring and her determination not to cave in to public pressure to be thin. She’s proud of being an “angry feminist,” as she calls herself, and decorates her bunk with cut-outs from magazines, using their impossible images of thin women to form letters into words that spell “stop body fascism” and other anti-weight loss messages. That she’s the voice of resistance in a machine trying to help kids conform makes Will one of the most interesting teenage characters I think I’ve ever seen on television.

Gina Torres (I Think I Love My Wife) plays the camp’s biracial owner, Dr. Dorothy Rand, who employs her once estranged white father as the camp’s cook. Although the backstory for their revived relationship and Dorothy’s anxious rapport with her mother has only been hinted at, strain is apparent in Dorothy’s inability to tell her mother about her father’s new presence in her life. The second episode reveals Dorothy’s own eating issues, as her father makes her a “healthy” blueberry muffin that she at first resists, and then unwittingly devours as she’s trying to type out a truthful email to her mother, which she continually deletes.

Already, one of the summer’s residents has been expelled for throwing up (no bulimics allowed here), and her replacement, too, has departed, after suffering extreme anxiety when she’s removed from the gauzy over-protection of her over-weight parents and younger sister. But the remaining kids—especially the girls, on whom the series focuses—are all fairly well-adjusted and insistently “normal,” which makes their weight just another issue to address on their way to adulthood.

Typical kid stuff ensues. Chloe Delgado (Ashley Holliday) keeps secret that her brother, Alistair (Harry Guillen), is also a camper. She hangs with the cool kids, while he seems rather fey. In a nod to Holzman’s musical theatre hit, Alistair wears a Shiz University t-shirt, product placement for Wicked but also perhaps a signal that he’s a budding musical theatre queen.

Alistair and Chloe meet alone in the woods to share news of home and the care packages their mom sends. He tolerates the pretense with a bit of sarcasm, while she feels separating from her brother is necessary to secure her role in the girls’ hierarchy. At night, though, she wears a braces retainer with a harness that circles her head and makes her talk with a lisp, hardly a sign of “mean girl” status.

Most of the girls pop in their teeth-straightening devices at the day’s end, a reminder that despite what sometimes seems their sophistication, they’re still kids. And they’re all staunchly middle class, though fairly diverse racially. One of the lead characters is Will’s best friend, Becca, who’s African-American and wonderfully played by Raven Goodwin, who made her screen debut at eight-years-old as the wise-beyond-her-years kid in the film Lovely and Amazing. One of the boys, Ian Schonfeld (Ari Stidham), wears a big Jewish star around his neck, and several of the campers look racially and ethnically mixed. This, along with the size of the actors, provides a refreshing change from the all-white, svelte profile of most situation comedies.

In fact, Huge really isn’t just a comedy. Although the writing sometimes falls into cliché, with the kids responding to one another’s crises with predictable, wince-inducing platitudes, the show also takes seriously the angst of growing up in a body that doesn’t conform to impossible cultural standards. Will’s refusal to acquiesce to conventional body image offers a refreshing perspective on a wider range of young women’s desires.

The fit, athletic physical profiles of the camp counselors and staff, however, secures the model to which the campers are supposed to aspire. But these characters, so far, are all a bit daft, which undercuts what might be the mocking hegemony of their thinness. The girl’s counselor is well-meant but sweetly clueless, sweeping trauma under a very heavy rug and donning very rosy glasses to cheer her girls on their way to weightlessness.

The hot, deaf-in-one-ear male counselor, George (Zander Eckhouse), is good at sports but diffident and shy instead of more predictably macho. The female athletic director wears sports bras and tight-fitting capris that show off her muscly frame, but her enthusiasm for games is played way over the top. She shrieks her encouragement with such vigor, George could soon be deaf in both ears. And even Dr. Rand, who’s supposed to be in charge, mostly wrings her hands, evidence of her own anxiety about doing the right thing.

Camp, in other words, is full of imperfect people, regardless of their weight. The producers take care not to make fun of them, but to instead encourage empathy among them and from spectators toward the characters. They also differentiate empathy from pity, careful to clarify that nothing is necessarily out of these kids’ reach because of their weight. The move to lose is mostly about health.

The show’s web site includes this admonishment to viewers:

At ABC Family, we believe that healthy living means living life to the fullest. In order to live your best life, it’s important to take care of yourself — physically, mentally and emotionally. Here you’ll be given tips on how to eat nutritious snacks and meals, add exercise into your busy life, and build a stronger, more positive sense of self — because living a healthy life means having healthy self-esteem too!

Ask The Panel Huge questions and get Huge answers as they share with you important information about health and provide you with ways you can get healthy today! Reach out to our self-esteem specialist and discover how to appreciate yourself even more!

Love Huge, Think Huge, Act Huge. Whatever you do, do it to the fullest – LIVE HUGE!

Cool message, one that also runs between commercials when the show is broadcast. “Healthy living” is code for “losing weight”; will Huge never be mistaken as an infomercial for fat liberation. Nonetheless, the effort to program for kids in ways that might offer them agency and more reasonable role models to emulate around body image can’t be bad.

I worry, though, about how Huge already psychologizes weight as a result of family dysfunction. For example, a camper who’s good at sports lives with his father, since his mother died when he was young. But when he’s lonely and sad, he writes her letters about how much he misses her, since he and his father only communicate about teams and statistics. Will’s parents seem to disapprove of everything Will does, which heightens the alienation her weight could be meant to manifest. Ian says his parents don’t get along. The alpha girl, Amber, lives alone with a mother who seems oppressively co-dependent on her daughter.

Only the quickly departed camper who suffers from panic attacks has supportive, warm parents. They even adopt Will in their short time at camp, encouraging her to play basketball until she realizes to her surprise that she likes the game. That these parents are overweight, too, suggests that feeling good about yourself despite your body might be the healthiest option.

I worry, too, over Will’s quick concern that she’s been mistaken for “queer” when Ian implies he thinks she is. Becca is uncomfortable with the idea that Will could be queer, and says she’s never met any lesbians her own age (although the easy way she says “lesbians” belies her discomfort). Becca vindicates them both by quickly announcing to Ian that Will is straight and the issue is dropped. But fishing out a lavender herring this early in the series to reassure viewers that Will might be fat and feminist but she’s a normal heterosexual seems cheap.

I also worry that Amber, the one character who’s already heading toward a romance with the hard-of-hearing counselor, George, is the thinnest girl at camp. Played by Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of David, who was a plus-size teen model before she turned to acting, Amber is beautiful and even a bit soulful, but at least 50 pounds lighter than the other girls. Against the prevailing effort of the show, her character telegraphs that thinness and beauty do bring rewards.

Still, Huge has potential as a summer series. Blonsky is terrific as Will. Proud of her weight and her intellect, full of sarcastic comebacks but vulnerable underneath, as observant about the other kids as she is about herself, Blonsky plays the character with subtle understatement and a healthy empathy of her own. She’s not afraid to make Will loud, aggressive, hostile, and unappealing. She’s also able to temper Will’s anger without making the character appear to capitulate or sell-out her own firm beliefs. Blonsky’s intelligence as an actor reads powerfully on television. Her performance alone is enough reason to check in on Huge.

The Feminist Spectator

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Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker’s play, in a wonderful production directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons, takes place in the familiar, anonymous sterility of an all-purpose room at a community center, the kind of room that so often doubles as a crucible for community theatre and other arts. Exercise equipment clutters the floor, alongside the detritus of other objects useful for other kinds of groups. All become extraneous to the do-it-yourself creativity and faux self-help spiritualism-cum-acting lessons offered by the well-meant but self-involved would-be theatre guru, Marty.

As the oblivious leader of the four-member class, the middle-aged woman (played with a perfect balance of empathy and tone-deaf self-involvement by Deirdre O’Connell) tries to inspire her tiny band of followers to explore their inner psychology as a prerequisite to emotionally honest acting. But as Lauren (Tracee Chimo), the socially maladroit but emotionally acute teenager who’s the youngest person in the mismatched group of players notes plaintively, it’s not at all clear how any of this is going to help anyone learn how to be an actor.

Still, for Marty, the self-exploration and pseudo-psychologizing that are her stock in trade provide their own reward. It’s not at all clear that Marty has ever acted professionally; she’s one of those so-called artists who hang out a shingle on the basis of a happy fantasy rather than real life experience. Clearly, she’s cajoled her husband, James (Peter Friedman), to be part of the group, and he tries his best to go with the flow until the psychobabble gets the better of him and he takes the trust exercises a bit too far.

Schultz, Marty’s other male student, is a hapless divorcee with pent-up anger issues.Schultz is still not over the fact that his wife has left him, but he falls hard for Theresa, the supposedly “real” actor who’s moved to this remote hamlet of Shirley, Vermont, to escape her own relationship issues, as well as her own failed career. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, an older man who controlled her jealously, a rather masochistic involvement that Theresa seems to have enjoyed more than she’s willing to admit.

Marty hurls herself into grooming this ragtag group, putting them through the ridiculous emotional recall, storytelling, and trust exercises familiar to any one who’s taken a community acting class at their local high school or playhouse. She asks the students to interview one another and then perform the narratives they collect, stories that Baker uses to structure the play’s cumulative revelations. Telling personal stories borrowed from their partners in a first-person form provides a rather sweet, halting demonstration of how the students get to know one another.

Since it’s impossible for them to perform one another without the barest hint of editorializing, we come to know the characters through how they describe and observe one another’s flaws and discrepancies during their interviews. As the six weeks of the class tick by, announced by slides projected between each scene, the characters’ back-stories are filled in a bit more, in tales that the students eventually use against one another as the trust exercises back-fire.

Each of the characters becomes likable in their own slightly askew way, as Baker gradually reveals their humor, their pain, and their sorrow. Several times, they lie on their backs on the studio floor trying to count collectively but consecutively to ten without stepping on one another’s numbers. The exercise is meant to foster trust and good listening skills. That the small ensemble can’t actually get to ten until near the play’s end marks both their failure and, at last, the ways in which they have indeed grown closer, more attune to one another’s presences and habits, their desires and frustrations.

O’Connell, as Marty, does an excellent job creating the pseudo-sincere care and attention of the not very talented acting teacher. She carefully watches each improvised moment she sets up among her pupils, positioning herself for optimal observation in a contrived, “artistic” pose, never explaining why she’s putting them through these emotional paces and never articulating what exactly they’ve done well or poorly. That each of the students simply follows her lead, rarely questioning her motives or their acting education, rings too true. I could hear who among my fellow spectators had taken such a class by the knowing laughter we shared at those familiar moments.

Marty’s husband, James, tries hard to be supportive of his flaky artistic wife. Marty shares the story of their meeting, a romantic moment at a friend’s wedding that depends on the kind of kismet in which only an aging hippy bohemian could continue to invest. But it becomes clear over the course of the play that their happiness is frayed, the romance fading. Their daughter, Erin, has stopped speaking to her father because Marty revealed to her a meaningless indiscretion James committed during his first marriage. James is devastated by his daughter’s silence and her sudden allegiance with Marty against him.

Friedman conveys James’s perplexed confusion over these sudden turns in his life, finding emotional candor in a character without a whole lot to say. James’s vulnerability makes him prey to the sultry charms of Theresa, the failed New York actress who’s here in the middle of nowhere to heal her own emotional wounds, and winds up seducing both men (and the teenaged Lauren) with her comfort in her body and her apparently open, if facile, vulnerability.

The versatile Reed Birney (whose raw performance in Blasted at Soho Rep was one of last season’s best) is excellent here as the wounded Schultz, who quickly falls in love with Theresa and is just as quickly and violently devastated when their brief affair doesn’t last. His need is palpable, even before clueless Marty makes the unsuccessful couple act out a scene in which his need becomes his only dialogue. Birney plays Schultz’s mercurial mood swings convincingly; even his sudden, menacing aggression seems justified when his rage boils up out of nowhere in the midst of his “objective” exercise with Theresa.

The play’s humor keeps it entertaining and holds at bay what could be more maudlin moments. As the baleful Lauren, Chimo is superb at physical humor; her expressions, as she reacts to the sometimes peculiar interactions of the adults, are priceless. Chimo can raise an eyebrow, widen her eyes, clench her fists, or raise her shoulders and communicate an entire paragraph of response to the absurdities of what she sees.When in the penultimate scene Marty asks her students to write down, distribute anonymously, and then read out loud something about themselves that they’ve never told another soul, it’s obviously Lauren’s slip of paper that says she secretly believes she’s smarter than everybody else in the world.

Even though she’s been an awkward, comically withdrawn presence through much of the play, that personal secret is clearly true. Lauren knows that her parents aren’t happy; knows that Marty and James’s marriage is headed for its end; sees through Theresa’s seductions while she’s also attracted to them; and is the only character in the play who expresses well-founded doubt that Marty’s ministrations are really going to make them better actors.

The shared secrets—meant to open the students emotionally and bind them psychologically—also reveal (if the characters are telling the truth) that Schultz has a secret addiction to internet porn; that James is in love with Theresa; and that Marty thinks she was molested by her father. These carefully held truths, when shared, seem at once virtuous and pathetic, and set in motion the play’s final bittersweet revelations.

As the orchestrator of what become emotionally acute confessions, Marty is as devastated as the others at what she hears. But she persists, like the soulful artist she believes herself to be, and ends the six-week class by asking Lauren and Schultz to act out one final improvisation, in which they meet one another 10 years later and share news of their lives.

The scene is both hilarious and poignant, as Schultz takes the opportunity to say out loud how Theresa “messed with my mind,” and for Lauren to predict that Marty and James will divorce, along with her parents. While Schultz asks the probing questions, playwright Baker clarifies that it’s Lauren who’s been prescient and wise all along, as she sees clearly into their collective futures.

Lauren enrolled in the class because she wants to be an actress, but realizes as she improvises her view of the future that she’ll be better off as a veterinarian, and sees herself 10 years out happily mated with a boyfriend in the same field. She’s kept in touch with Marty, who it turns out really does care for the odd young woman, predicting that at least one of the relationships so cavalierly dissected by the acting class has been established “for real” and will last. That final moment is both sad and hopeful, as Lauren’s improvised vision brings each character to a rueful but useful understanding of who they really are.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a lovely evening of theatre: fun and funny, smart and knowing, and hugely generous about the imperfect characters Baker portrays so simply and clearly. The play might not change your life, but like the acting class Marty wants so much to offer, it does offer insights into what our lives are and might be about, and demonstrates that the artistic impulse to see something about the human condition really can be felt, even in those tired, empty, all purpose rooms.

The production’s run has been extended to November 21.

The Feminist Spectator

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Hung on HBO

HBO’s new summer series about a man whose anatomy becomes his professional destiny is not the first place I’d look for feminist television programming. And yet Hung turns out to be a wonderfully smart, funny, and indeed feminist story of a down-on-his-luck middle-class white history teacher-basketball coach whose wife divorces him, whose house burns nearly to the ground because of an electrical short in an overloaded extension chord, and who can’t get his life together, financially, emotionally, or pragmatically.

Ray Decker, played by the handsome, valiant Thomas Jane, is an otherwise ordinary man, beset with all the problems of someone whose best years are well behind him. He was a high school baseball star, who married his high school sweetheart, never left the Detroit suburb where he was raised, and in fact lives in a tent in the backyard of the house he inherited from his parents, which burns in a catastrophic fire in the series opener. He’s an average white guy stuck in his own history, who never progressed beyond his teenage success.

His wife, Jessica, the now-faded cheerleader, played by Anne Heche in parodic high dudgeon, has left him for Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), a high school geek who grew up to be a plastic surgeon (he gives Jessica shots of Botox after their morning coffee). Ronnie is short, blinkered, and socially clueless; it’s clear Jessica is more attracted to his money than to his body. Ironically, mid-way through the season, as the economic downturn hits, Ronnie announces that they aren’t rich anymore, leading Jessica’s busy-body mother (who looks like Dr. Ruth and speaks with an inexplicable Eastern European accent) to ask Jessica if she has to keep “giving him sex.” While Jessica dismisses her mother’s concern, in a later scene, as Ronnie rolls her way to nuzzle her ear in their marital bed, Jessica summarily announces that she’s not in the mood, predicting a lot of bad sexual luck in Ronnie’s future.

In an effort to improve his odds financially, Ray enrolls in a how-to-get-rich-quick seminar led by Floyd Gerber (Steve Hytner), whose large teeth, bad haircut, and empty inspiration reads as big-L loser immediately. In the seminar, Ray reconnects with Tanya (Jane Adams), a goofy poet with writer’s block with whom he had and has again a one-night stand. When their second tryst derails emotionally, Tanya’s accusation that all Ray has going for him is a “big dick” begins an entrepreneurial opportunity for both of them. The unlikely couple embarks on an even more unlikely business venture called “Happiness Consultants,” in which Tanya pimps Ray out to various sexually frustrated (or curious) middle-class suburban housewives.

If Ray is hobbled by his own stasis, Tanya’s earnest ambitions are enough to motivate them both. Although she’s a bohemian writer trying to be a vegetarian, she takes her work as Ray’s pimp very seriously. Part of the series’ comedy comes from watching Tanya navigate in the very unfamiliar waters of sexual capitalism. She’s been unable to write for years and works as a permanent temp as a copy editor in a law firm. But starting this business on the side with Ray let’s her aspire to the personal, intellectual, and especially financial freedom that she hopes will enable her creativity. Tanya’s “alternative” values are never belittled by the show’s writers, but her self-taught cutthroat business sense makes for a comic comparison with her otherwise progressive ethics. Tanya has a nasty mother who dismisses her (played by Rhea Perlman) and isn’t particularly pretty (in fact, in most scenes, Adam’s face is made up with a kind of oily sheen), but she’s vital and lively and cares about things in a way that Ray can’t fathom.

The unlikely affection between Tanya and Ray is utterly appealing as they begin to develop a friendship based on their business partnership. Thomas Jane and Jane Adams have great chemistry and work well off each other. The whole cast, in fact, has a nice bead on the show’s quirky humor, which treads a fine line between satirical and sincere. Heche’s Jessica, for example, who still has feelings for Ray, is surprised but generous when Tanya comes to see him coach a basketball game. Tanya joins the strange family easily, befriending Jessica as she cheers awkwardly (for the wrong team).

Ray’s twin kids, Damon (Charlie Saxton) and Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), are disheveled teenage misfits with weird dyed hair and soft, puffy bodies. But their peculiar relationship to both parents, neither of whom knows exactly what to do with them, gives Ray and Jessica something to bond over. When Charlie pierces his tongue, for example, both parents are horrified. Jessica, maintaining her forced cheerleader cheerfulness, doesn’t understand a thing about her alienated, goth-leaning children, but her attempts to reach them prove funny parodies of the over-sharing, trying-too-hard parent. Saxton and Smit-McPhee do a nice job performing the kids’ incredulity at their parents’ stupidity. The kids’ allegiances shift depending on which parent has more money and the most comfortable place to house them.

Hung seems to be a story about failure, about the losers with whom people associate or who they inadvertently become, but the series’ pleasure comes from the small ways in which the characters succeed in each episode, whether sexually or financially, and the little ways in which their kindness toward one another makes their lives worthwhile.

The series also demonstrates perfectly how people perform what they think others want them to be. Ray’s role as the star of Happiness Consultants isn’t natural to his personality.He might be well endowed, but he needs to be tutored by Tanya in how to play the suave, debonair male prostitute they think their clients expect. The writers regularly prove that no one’s interested in his social performance; only his sexual performance matters, and in that, he always succeeds the way he and Tanya promise.

But in each assignation, Ray learns something about himself and about women. Early in their endeavor, on his first visit to a client, Ray balks at her middle-age, plump body, begging off with a cold. After Tanya scolds him about judging people on their appearances, Ray returns, only to find the woman now skittish about following through. She admits she’s sick of her husband’s inability to please her, but only when Ray shows her the goods is she persuaded (and eagerly excited) to complete the transaction.

In fact, none of the women Ray services are conventionally attractive or behave “normally.”Tanya persuades a sexually frustrated, homely proofreader colleague from work that she’d enjoy employing Ray. Their scene together in a hotel room is a gem, as the woman unmasks their meeting as only a fantasy in which she knows Ray is playing a role, but then happily goes along with it by letting go of her own inhibitions and gleefully repeating, “Let’s fuck” until they do. In all of these instances, Ray is happy to comply, and seems vaguely moved at what he sees in these women.

At the same time, although it’s Ray’s anatomy that provides their income, Ray is the objectified sex worker, a nice role-reversal in the cosmic scheme of conventional prostitution or pornography. Ray is not the agent of his own destiny; it’s Tanya who sets up his meetings, and who scolds him when he tries to arrange dates on his own. Tanya interviews potential clients, assessing their needs and how Ray can meet them. If their business is at all successful, it’s because Tanya understands the emotions that drive their clients’ sexual desires and talks Ray through how to satisfy each customer.

In another neat foiling of presumption, Ray falls in love with Jemma (Natalie Zea), a particularly complicated client with a host of unusual demands. When he tries to date her and begins refusing her payments, she purposefully hurts him. A contrite Tanya realizes too late that Jemma’s game is to construct Ray as the victim in their relationship, to avenge her own victimhood in past relationships. But the scenario upends the assumption that for men, sex is only physical, while for women, it’s emotional, since here the roles are exactly reversed. Ray’s hapless naiveté is partly what makes him so appealing. His masculinity isn’t built to handle the situations in which he’s called on to act. He needs Tanya’s help to navigate the emotional currents of his trick’s needs. But he’s charming in part because he rises to each occasion (literally, of course, and figuratively).

Hung is a really a family drama, with a twist that makes it interesting and a perspective that makes it feminist. No one here is starry-eyed about the American Dream; everyone knows that it’s precarious at best, diseased and desiccated at worse. But the series finds something sweet and poignant, rather than resigned and bitter, about the prevailing state of affairs, drawing the characters’ humanity against the odds. In the last episode, Ray, devastated by Jemma’s betrayal, gets drunk in a bar where he’s recognized by an old rival, a man who pitched against him when he was a senior in a high school and still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Ray, who was a freshman, batted his pitch out of the park. In pouring rain, the men head to a baseball field to relive the moment. The older man throws Ray a duffel bag full of balls one by one, and one at a time, Ray hits them away, saying, “Contact,” after he manages to connect with each pitch. The other man’s middle-aged body is paunchy and sagging as he winds up to throw, the outlines of his mortality palpable against his wet shirt. Ray looks only marginally better as he sways over home plate. The men barely speak, but the scene is a wonderful, soggy illustration of lives stuck in place.

Happily, it’s the proto-feminist Tanya who gives them all hope, who swats away references to her own inferior looks (a constructed claim, since Adams is actually very cute), who glows with newly found confidence, who schemes about ways to increase their business, and who engages her clients with tough pragmatism and no-nonsense business ethics. Adams plays beautifully the blooming power of the underdog who comes into her own. In the last episode, as Ray stumbles back to his tent wet and drunk to find Tanya waiting for him with a wad of cash from Jemma, Adams and Jane perform a sweet scene of friendly intimacy, need, and pleasure that portrays one of the most moving, innovative, insightful relationships on television.

Watch Hung.

The Feminist Spectator

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Nurse Jackie

This new Showtime series stars Edie Falco as a wry, knowing, harried emergency room nurse. The show offers a terrific vehicle for the versatile actor, as a well-written, smart and funny situation-based character study that takes advantage of Falco’s intelligent, restrained emotional presence and her quirky humor. Unlike network doctor dramas like ER, women characters propel Nurse Jackie’s narratives. Jackie begins each episode with a brief voice-over remark, and then the story continues from her perspective.

Jackie’s best friend at work is Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), an elegant Brit whose arrogance is matched by her intelligence and wit. The upstairs/downstairs aspect of their friendship provides lots of comic fuel—O’Hara often refers casually to how much she spent on various items of clothing, from her $1,200 scarf to her almost as expensive silk stockings.Jackie and her bar-owning husband clearly pinch pennies to make it through their week.Jackie rolls her eyes at her friend’s profligacy, but her indulgence of O’Hara’s class idiosyncrasies emphasizes their bond as women in a professional environment skewed to favor men.

Pompous and powerful male doctors are represented here by Dr. “Coop” Cooper (Peter Facinelli), an Ivy League grad who struts into the ER with a blimp-size ego that Jackie promptly deflates when Coop’s misdiagnosis—against Jackie’s instincts—causes a young patient’s death. After the first few episodes, Jackie’s frequent corrections seem to be bringing Coop into line; he’s cultivating his human side and considering his patients’ emotional needs. In a recent episode he lavished rather sweet attention on an elderly woman on one of her regular trips to the ER from a nursing home. Coop adjusts her wig and compliments her vanity while writing her scrips, even though when she soon expires, he’s out by the nurses’ station boasting of how skillfully he handled his first gunshot wound patient a few curtains down.

Facinelli plays Coop with a dollop of humility and lots of magnanimity, although even he seems uncomfortable with the character’s odd, unconscious tendency to grab women’s breasts when he’s anxious (a completely gratuitous quirk that says more about the producers’ anxiety about the women characters’ strength than Coop’s). This week’s episode revealed that Coop is the son of lesbian parents (deliciously played by Swoozie Kurtz and Blythe Danner), a plot twist that also particularizes and humanizes a character who could be a too stereotypically thoughtless and self-involved heel. O’Hara, in fact, looks at Coop differently once she realizes he has two mothers; the information makes him more than a run-of-the-mill, ambitious male doc.

Nurse Jackie draws all of Jackie’s relationships with men in refreshing, slightly off-beat ways. She’s married to a sweet guy who cares for their two young daughters while he runs the bar they own in Queens. But at work, Jackie removes her wedding band, closets her family life, and carries on a regular sexual liaison with the hospital’s pharmacist, Eddie (Paul Schulze). He not only services her physically (with Jackie always literally on top) but keeps her stocked in the painkillers that make long days of walking hard floors possible. Jackie’s back seems seriously compromised, but the painkillers come with an addiction problem. She snorts Percocet and other opiates in doses small enough to let her function, but regularly enough that her drug use has to become an issue down the narrative line.

Jackie’s secrets, though, keep the character complicated. She never slides into the self-abnegating golden-hearted-but-gruff nurse stereotype that lurks just around the corner of this story. So far, the show avoids that pitfall, gilding Jackie’s essential goodness with enough sardonic cynicism to keep her from being a simple saint. Her first-year student nurse, Zoey (Merritt Wever), offers her a useful foil, as Zoey delivers the platitudes about wanting to help people that drives some idealistic young women and men into nursing in the first place.

Put up against Jackie’s unsentimental pragmatism, Zoey’s enthusiasm plays as funny but not quite ridiculous. The character could easily be the butt of facile jokes—Zoey is a bit chunky, not conventionally beautiful, and too open and cuddly for what proves the ER’s more cut-throat environment. But instead, she gets her own sharp edges. Wever’s loose physicality gives Zoey embodied, character-driven humor; for instance, when O’Hara blithely walks off with Zoey’s new stethoscope, the young nurse’s attempts to retrieve it provide Wever with moments of stuttering explanation and stealthy borrowings that show off Zoey’s agency and nascent power, instead of belittling her as inept.

Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman), Jackie’s nursing colleague, unfortunately bears the burden of race and sexuality in the narrative, a load too heavy for any one actor to carry easily. Sleiman’s features are ethnically ambiguous (his character’s full name is Mohammed de la Cruz), allowing him fill the “colored” slot in the character list, and his slightly fey, gentle presence and willingness to give Zoey fashion advice betray his gayness. Although his easy relationship with Jackie gives Sleiman and Falco some nice moments, so far, Mo-Mo represents still another gay person of color serving the development of the far more centralized white characters, a narrative strategy we could by now all do without.

On the other hand, Anna Deveare Smith makes regular appearances as Mrs. Akalitus, a nurse-turned-hospital administrator now charged with guarding the bottom line. The character is a hard-assed factotum, but Smith brings her, too, subtle off-beat humor. When she borrows what she thinks is a packet of Jackie’s sugar, and unknowingly gets high on the painkillers Jackie has ground up and put into the packet instead, Smith’s performance as the suddenly high and goofy administrator is priceless.

In another episode, Akalitus finds a taser gun lying in the corridor. After she shouts with anger to no one in particular about how irresponsible it is to leave such things lying around, she gets on an elevator and prompting stuns herself with the gun. Her electrified pratfall is hilarious. Watching Smith, who usually plays the steely, powerful, alpha female roles in films and television shows, play a comic character role makes me admire her acting even more.

Many terrific New York-based actors play the ER’s patients and visitors, offering keenly observed turns as the sick and dying and their families. The situations into which they’re written, however, are often predictable and run to stereotypes. For example, in Episode #3, Lynn Cohen is on hand as an elderly Jewish woman who tends to her dying husband’s heart disease with chicken soup. Their scenes are saccharine and lachrymose, their Jewish accents wearying echoes of vaudeville sketches about Jews and their magic ministrations that should be put to rest soon.

Likewise, the Latina mother whose son’s lung collapsed in a playground accident speaks with a thick accent, and her other son is excessively emotionally expressive; the elderly white woman who’s regularly delivered to the ER from her nursing home is vain about her appearance; the tourists from the Mid-West are white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and apologize for everything (even though the woman turns out to be an opium addict, offering a neat mirror for Jackie’s developing habit); and an international diplomat savagely murders a prostitute but can’t be touched, thanks to his legislated immunity. Jackie navigates these characters and their issues deftly, always looking out for the well-deserving underdog and wreaking what vengeance she can on the powerful and evil. But they still remain vehicles in which to drive her character, rather than truly interesting people of their own.

Nurse Jackie swivels from wistful and wry to parodic and satirical fairly quickly. For instance, when Jackie and her husband Kevin attend a meeting at their daughter Grace’s school, the teacher, the school psychologist, and the school nurse are played in high farce and shot from camera angles that make them appear large and confrontational to the prosaic, confused Jackie and Kevin. But the small family’s scenes at home are wistfully realist, as the girls cuddle with Kevin on their parents’ bed watching television while they wait for Jackie to come home at night. The combination of exaggerated and earnest works, asNurse Jackie’s sharp humor oscillates between its poignant observations about the proximity of death to life and its insights about how we navigate all those moments in between.

The Feminist Spectator

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God of Carnage

Yazmina Reza writes crowd-pleasers, plays that appear to give the audience something meaty on which to chew, but essentially put her characters on a predictable collision course, a highway of lite moral complexities in which they find themselves unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly debating ethical issues that finally sound a bit hollow.

But Carnage’s farce kept me from taking it too seriously. Instead, I enjoyed the four fine actors volley Reza’s dialogue (translated by Christopher Hampton) back and forth with superb timing and physical comedy. Although many critics find Carnage a pale imitation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I thought the play too farcical to accept that comparison.

Sure, God of Carnage concerns two couples who begin their evening with polite, decorous banter, trying to come to terms with a school yard altercation that’s left one of their sons “disfigured” by the other’s aggression. And sure, the evening ends with both couples drunk and disheveled, their secrets and pretensions summarily revealed, and all of them crumpled in defeated heaps around a living room that’s been trashed by their exploits. But this superficial resemblance to Albee’s classic domestic conflagration makes the comparison unfair to a comedy that wants to bite, but ultimately patches up any breaks it leaves in the skin.

Reza concocts a delightful, short evening of smart comedy by four actors (Tony Award nominees all) who’ve definitely got game. God of Carnage’s confectionary pleasures derive mostly from its actors’ obvious pleasure in zinging one-liners back and forth for a quick 90 minutes under the smooth, confident, and well-paced direction of Matthew Warchus. The actors perform with comic élan and style, delivering this light parody of contemporary parental mores through the social, class-based competition it stages between two white, heterosexual, upper-middle class couples that feels to them much more serious than it appears to us.

In Reza’s conceit, Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis) visit Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) to resolve the crisis precipitated by Alan and Annette’s son’s “disfiguring” attack on Michael and Veronica’s boy. The playground conflict has left Michael and Veronica’s boy missing two of his teeth, a crisis apparently severe enough in the bourgeois cosmology Reza depicts that their parents’ draw up what sounds much like an official legal agreement about what’s happened and how they’ve all agreed to respond.

The boys’ skirmish occasions what escalates into their parents’ all out battle to maintain their shredded self-respect and dignity. In a predictable but nonetheless enjoyable trajectory, their awkward and contrite meeting turns into a scathing indictment of neglectful child-rearing, corrupt pharmaceutical practices, pretentious art venerating, and bourgeois propriety that barely covers the quickly melting icy veneer on which these two marriages skate.

The meeting, at Michael and Veronica’s faux-modern co-op, begins with the superficial chatter of two couples who don’t know one another reluctantly thrust together to work out their boys’ conflict. But as their conversation continues past the point at which Alan and Annette should have said their good-byes, they begin to recognize in one another the mirror images of their own failures and falsities.

Jeff Daniels, as Alan, performs a perfectly pompous, self-congratulatory high-powered lawyer with a cell phone glued to his ear. Every time it rings, he announces, “I have to take this,” loudly imposing his pretentious conversations on the gathering then appearing indignant when the other three overhear his business. Daniels delivers a sharp, wry performance as a man puffed up by his own self-importance.

A land line phone also rings constantly throughout the play, as Michael’s mother checks in with her son while she’s at a doctor’s appointment. Gandolfini, as Michael, gets the timing just right, switching from the heat of battle with his guests to an enforced calm to speak with his aging, unwell mother, whose plaintive calls regularly interrupt the couples’ engagement. In one of Reza’s too convenient, calculated but perfectly funny coincidences (mild spoiler alert), Michael’s mother is told she’ll be treated with the toxic medicine whose effects Alan has been coaching his client to deny in his cell phone exchanges.

As their meeting devolves into a wonderfully physical brawl full of alcohol, ruined art books, projectile vomiting, and a pretentiously proffered cake, the actors rise to the comic occasion with impeccable style. Each character has his or her own meltdown, following an arc that requires the actor to move from faked, attentive concern into high umbrage, up to a physical crisis that dishevels their clothing and overturns some furniture, then down into resigned indifference to the revelation of their common and essential imperfections. Each character is unmasked as much less than he or she first appeared–more ordinary, whiny, and unhappy than the accomplished, socially exceptional people they first present.

To Reza’s credit, the characters’ devolutions occur without regard to gender. Alan and Michael reveal themselves to be as shallow and unhappy as Annette and Veronica. No one is more responsible than another for their mutually destructive encounter. Gender alliances shift throughout the play. Halfway through, the men share cigars and bourbon and a bitter understanding of the silliness of their lives, and the women pair off to commiserate by ridiculing their husbands.

At other moments, the couples rearrange themselves to express at least a superficial empathy, Alan for Veronica and Annette for Michael. When the couples inadvertently reveal their pet names for one another (Alan and Annette call each other “Woof Woof”), their intimacies seem childish and reductive, no more meaningful than the names their sons called each other on the playground.

Gandolfini’s presence inspired the audience to applaud at the play’s opening the night I attended (5-2-09). As the actors waited for the clapping to die down, I saw Hope Davis wink at Gandolfini, a lovely, warm tribute to his fandom before the actors began to chew the scenery. The affection the actors clearly feel for one another shows in their beautifully orchestrated performances.

In fact, what might at first seem a cynical casting choice calculated to boost box office turns out to be a coup for Gandolfini in his post-Tony Soprano era. Watching him transform Michael from a husband trying his best to conform to the overly polite customs of upper-middle-class behavior to a man who can’t stand the suit coat he wears, and happily rips his shirt out of his pants when the going gets rough, is one of the production’s many pleasures.

Likewise, Marcia Gay Harden, whom I followed on television in her stand-out performance as the Iago-like lawyer for the corrupt corporation on Damages this season, offers a grounded and hysterical turn as Veronica. Her horror when her precious art books are accidentally covered with vomit is a high point of the evening.

Hope Davis is also terrific as Annette, the character whose movement from good to bad is the least predictable. Perhaps because of Davis’s inherently sympathetic presence, and her slight fragility, even when she’s performing indignation, Annette becomes the fulcrum of the couples’ full-pitch battle. When she indulges in alcohol and quickly gets drunk, Davis captures the pleasure, exasperation, and fear of a woman unaccustomed to losing social and emotional control. She’s also very funny.

All in all, Reza satirizes the wreckage of heterosexual marriage in God of Carnage, the petty bitterness that courses under what are carefully calculated to look like successful, luxe upper-middle class relationships sailing into their pre-destined futures without a ripple on the glassy waters of their lives. She satirizes how children become possessions, simple pawns for adults who at best treat them indifferently, and at worse, actually despise them.

While the comedy lets the audience laugh, Reza sneaks in recognitions that balance the evening’s affects. Somewhere in the uproarious meeting, the playwright comments on how people who no doubt mirror many in the Broadway audience live their lives. Under the humor, she urges spectators to consider what matters and what doesn’t, what we can control and what we can’t. By continually shifting the allegiances across couples and between the men and the women, Reza clarifies that no one wins, and that the stakes are equally high or low for all.

The production’s vivid realism and impeccable acting make it easy to swallow and probably mitigates whatever gentle punch to the gut Reza might intend. Watching actors more often seen in serious roles exercise their comic chops is entirely enjoyable. That God of Carnage concerns squarely middle-aged people also makes it a refreshing antidote to the many contemporary plays that address the angst of 20-something white characters figuring out how to live.

Reza examines the superficially comfortable, apparently successful lives of white upper-middle-class heterosexuals at the point when they’re supposed to be reveling in their achievements. God of Carnage demonstrates that the façade of their marriages and their families are already weakened and could be destroyed by the devastating moral emptiness and social pretension that’s chewed into their relationships like termites into the family house.

God of Carnage isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it’s a great deal of fun.

The Feminist Spectator

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