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On the Culture Front: Oliver Parker, Dusk Rings a Bell, and Le Grand Macabre

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Elizabeth Meriwether's plays make me excited to go to the theater. Her dialogue is effortless and often very funny without being frivolous. Her latest, Oliver Parker, is a "buddy play" of sorts, and is currently running at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre with John Larroquette leading the cast as Jasper, a disheveled drunk on his last legs. His closest friend is the title character, a rich and precocious teenager desperately trying to get laid. Throughout the course of the play, he lusts after inappropriate women - most memorably a kinky political aid who likes to be spanked with issues of The Economist - while trying to take care of his aging friend. There's a tension between the two, though, concerning an horrific event in the past that slowly seeps to the surface.

Evan Cabnet (who also directed Meriwether's The Mistakes Madeline Made) perfectly balances the many conflicting emotions that tend to spew out in a carefully orchestrated mess throughout the intermissionless show right up until the chilling climax. It's all too easy for plays to veer into sap and melodrama as the situation becomes serious, but refreshingly that never happens during Oliver Parker, which allows the audience to have a deeper and more involved experience.

After a few recent stumbles, Stephen Belber is back on top of his game with an excellent two-hander Dusk Rings a Bell that, like Meriwether's play, grapples with the past in inventive ways. This world premiere production focuses on an innocent teenage hookup between Ray (Paul Sparks) and Molly (Kate Walsh) as they reflect on their lives years later. What could have been an "all talk no action" repartee is saved by Belber's disarmingly honest writing and excellent performances directed with understated elegance by Sam Gold.

Paul Sparks has been one of my favorite stage actors ever since seeing him in Tracy Letts' Bug. He brings nuance and depth to disaffected characters, exposing their often hidden warmth with such precision that it's hard not to simply marvel at his superb craft. Kate Walsh matches him with intensity and charm in her off-Broadway debut. She seduces the audience early on with her slightly deep voice and piercing eyes, drawing us into her character who overcomes a childhood stutter and embarks on a successful PR career at CNN. Belber knows exactly what to write and what to leave out, and one of the plays most powerful moments is when Kate reads a letter that she wrote as a girl to her older future self about what her life will be like. It's so simple on the surface, but evokes an Our Town quality of the precarious and transient nature of life that stayed with me long after I left the theater.

Gyorgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre follows a garish group of people through their final moments on earth and through to the other side, wherever that may be. Thankfully, he doesn't attempt to provide any concrete answers and opts instead for an abstract mysticism that highlights the existential questions concerning our existence. The opera's chaotic score feels appropriate and has many moving flourishes that utilize an auxiliary chorus seated in the second tier and the long, grand aisles of Avery Fisher Hall for a surreal procession in the second act. The action isn't entirely coherent without the accompanying libretto but an overarching feeling of the epic journey is strongly felt. Most thrilling of all was the incorporation of striking visuals in a New York Philharmonic concert. I hope to see them expand on this in future productions.

Speaking of visual feats, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's new film Micmacs is stunning to watch. Check out exclusive images on Flavorpill.