Friday, August 29, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Trying for Greatness

Few still living are knowledgeable about American attorney and judge Francis Biddle, who passed away himself in 1968. Biddle became a household name in the 1940’s as both US Attorney General under President Roosevelt and the presiding American judge at the Nuremberg trials after World War II ended, where he helped convict a number of Nazi war criminals. He was also a descendant of founding father and former president James Madison as well as a relation of Anthony Drexel Biddle, Jr., subject of the play and Disney movie musical The Happiest Millionaire (1967).

Judge Biddle is now having his own time in the theatrical spotlight in International City Theatre (ICT) of Long Beach’s production of Trying, running now through September 14th. The play was written by Joanna McClelland Glass, who actually served as Biddle’s secretary during his final months, and was first staged in Chicago ten years ago. For someone largely unaware of Biddle’s life (such as myself), ICT’s Trying serves as both a fascinating lesson in 20th century American history and as excellent, emotionally engaging theatre.

Sarah (based on playwright Glass) is a naïve, 25-year old newlywed when she is hired by Biddle’s wife to serve as the 81-year old retired judge’s secretary. Partly crippled by arthritis but still sharp and cantankerous, Biddle has already run off three previous secretaries and is initially doubtful of Sarah’s abilities. What begins as something of a battle of wills between the pair gradually becomes, scene by scene over five months’ time, a devoted partnership. Sarah finds Biddle’s wisdom and worldly experience particularly helpful once she discovers herself pregnant in the midst of some marital strife.

Trying is a literate, beautifully written two-hander. Dramatically, one can argue that it goes into too much detail on some minor biographical points (i.e., Biddle’s disappointment in a grand-nephew who has apparently become a hippie) while not going into enough detail on Sarah’s largely unspecified problems with her husband. So long as the playwright and director John Henry Davis keep the focus on the increasingly personal relationship between Sarah and Biddle, brought to life via delectable performances by Paige Lindsey White and Tony Abatemarco, this production soars. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit the ICT website.

A decidedly more contemporary, and arguably less noble, work is on display in actor-turned-director Joe Manganiello’s documentary La Bare. Now available on VOD from FilmBuff, Manganiello was inspired by his turn as a stripper in 2012’s Magic Mike to further explore the lives of men who strip for a living. He chose club La Bare in Dallas, Texas, which has been operating since the 1970’s, as his base of operations.

“Men want to see naked women; women want the show, the cabaret,” the establishment’s manager reveals in the film. We also learn the La Bare cast members have otherwise led fairly routine lives. They are former high school dancers, military, athletes, surfers and bouncers. One “all-American kid” newcomer names himself “Channing” after Magic Mike star Channing Tatum and states without hesitation “I love attention” when asked what drew him to stripping. Manganiello also includes footage from La Bare’s monthly amateur night, where even more average, everyday guys get the chance to strut their stuff.

Disappointingly but somewhat understandably, the doc doesn’t delve into most of the dancers’ personal sexuality. I doubt they are all straight, but it is likely still the case that publicly identifying oneself as a gay stripper in a heterosexual-oriented club could potentially damage one’s popularity and, subsequently, one’s livelihood. While Manganiello takes a generally straightforward, positive approach to his subject(s), he does show a bit of the dark side of the stripping world in incorporating the murder of a former La Bare star. Anyone interested in the art and/or commerce of male stripping will surely enjoy La Bare.

This Labor Day weekend offers a great opportunity to check out any number of new releases, either in theaters or at home. I highly recommend the spooky-sexy Jamie Marks is Dead (previously reviewed here), opening today in LA.

Not so worthy of one’s attention is the new DVD releaseAftermath. This dramatic thriller directed by Peter Engert has a potent premise — a group of diverse strangers (including a pair of possibly gay comic book geeks) take refuge in the basement of a Texas farmhouse in the wake of a nuclear attack on the US — but suffers from poor acting by the majority of its no-name cast. The lone exception to this is former bad boy Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Pecker), who is most effective as a redneck expectant father.

Whatever you do, have a great holiday weekend!

Reverend’s Ratings:
Trying (ICT in Long Beach): A-
La Bare: B
Jamie Marks is Dead: B+
Aftermath: C

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. It's one of the finest plays I have ever seen. a two hander of enormous depth. it's filled with wit and poignancy, and is a marvelous invitation to bringing into your home, and having a play reading evening.

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