On the Culture Front: The Fountainhead, Downtown Race Riot, LCD Soundsystem and more

12/29/2017 01:55 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2017

I was admittedly skeptical when I heard Ivo Van Hove was doing a production at BAM of Ayn Rand’s ode to extreme capitalism, “The Fountainhead.” If it were any other director, I probably would have skipped it. Van Hove though has a knack for finding humanity and vulnerability in unlikely places, and this production turned out to be one of the most thrilling of the year. Running four hours, there isn’t a moment of slag. The long diatribes Rand writes about radical individualism come off as absurd gems and Van Hove’s deft direction makes it possible to laugh at them without losing an emotional attachment to the characters.

I saw Gabriel Kahane’s new show, “8980: Book of Travelers,” at BAM a couple days later. Kahane is one of the most unique composers currently working. He blends an expansive classical minimalist style with flourishes of folk phrases to create a new kind of Americana. His latest show melds a song cycle and travelogue as he recounts a post-election trip that he took across the country on Amtrak. Unfortunately, while the music is interesting enough, the stories are too abstract to draw a vivid picture of his journey. By the end, the experience feels more like a blur.

Geoff Sobelle’s “Home” was the last show of the Next Wave Festival I saw at BAM and one of the best. Using physical theater to explore the ways and reasons why we live, the intermissionless piece brings a kinetic momentum to an age-old philosophical discourse. If Thornton Wilder and Charlie Chaplin had written a play together, it might have looked something like this. Beginning with a blank stage, Sobelle constructs a simple space that continues to add layers of complexity. It begins at a meditative pace and gradually quickens into a frenzy where a large section of the audience is participating onstage. I was recruited to be a fireman at one point and before that played an insanely physical card game upstage. Elvis Perkins performed brassy yet sullen folk songs in a well-tailored suit, guiding the show through its ambitious journey.

Acclaimed Chicago-based company the Hypocrites brought their Hawaiian shirt clad adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” to the Skirball Center this month. Bookended by pre and post-show modern nautical classics like the Beach Boys folk rock rendition of “Sloop John B” and Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” the production actually adheres closely to the original, capturing the zany but proper humor and irresistibly catchy melodies packed with tongue twisting lyrics. The biggest liberty the company takes (besides the tropical costumes) is having the cast play the music on guitars. This organically gives the songs a modern feel while creating an intimacy between performers and audience. Seating the entire audience onstage and in the midst of the action adds to an ingratiating warm that propelled the action and makes time evaporate.

Watching “Hundred Days,” real life married couple the Bengsons offbeat version of the “meet cute” storyline, I kept wanting to like it more. With enchanting lighting, an energetic band and compelling performers, I felt that I should be feeling more. Sarah Gancher’s book delivered by the Bengsons unraveled like a story at the Moth, but the couple’s songs were disappointingly bland and in need of tighter construction. Their lyrics kept the show lulling in neutral and served more often than not as unwelcome pauses during what was otherwise a compelling story.

Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman,” inspired by Henri Becque’s “La Parisienne” is a well-constructed dose of highbrow escapism. Set in the present day Trump administration, the play follows a power grab for coveted appointments with a Noel Coward like levity. Part love triangle and part political intrigue, director Pam Mackinnon allows the play to move at its quick witted pace with seamless staging that lets us laugh at the horrifying incompetency in Washington. She draws out a commanding performance from Uma Thurman (in her Broadway debut) as a master manipulator who still has some lingering sincere intentions. Phillipa Soo plays one of the objects of her affection with a combination of ambition and naivety. Thurman’s character is in an open (and relatively healthy) relationship with her husband (a winning Josh Lucas). This is refreshing to see as non-monogamy is usually painted in a more sinister light.

Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s “Downtown Race Riot” is downright chilling. The playwright ingratiates us with his characters through a series of playful scenes and for a while it plays like a solid coming-of-age dramedy. Chloe Sevigny plays a former hippie turned drug addict who’s retained her idealism and hope for her children even as she’s unable to change her own life. Set in Greenwich Village in the 70s, the action unfolds in her apartment before the titular event. While the riot never actually occurs in the play, everything we see is leading up to this inevitable moment. This gives the play a tragic momentum. We can see them inching towards the cliff but are powerless to stop what is about to happen. Themes of immigration, “the other,” and downright racism feel sadly and utterly relevant. New Group artistic director Scott Elliott brings Rosenfeld’s searing play to life in a visceral and moving production that ranks among the year’s best.

On the music front, I saw Lydia Ainsworth play a seductively lush set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Combining the swell of strings with the percussive structure of electronic samples. The Toronto musician is awash with diverse musical impulses. At one moment, she’s evoking eastern-European folk songs and another the power of choral recitations. Sometimes her voice is a roar of sound and others an intriguing lilt. The audience was crowded at the front of the stage and largely silent for the absorbing set that included a heart-breaking cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” unearthing the emotional power of a song that previously felt overblown.

Following a dozen sold out shows at Brooklyn Steel earlier this year with ten more this month, LCD Soundsystem proves the unquenchable desire for their long-awaited return. After a seven-year absence, “American Dream” didn’t have to be good to draw a crowd. That songs like “Oh Baby” were met with the same kind of excited cheers as “Dance Yrself Clean” is a testament to the band’s staying power. Both were played during the four-song encore of the two-hour concert. A clock onstage kept time, but it was easy to lose track of it. A full band fronted by James Murphy ignited songs like “Someone Great” and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” The later is just a 2 ½ chord vamp but transformed into a Sinatra-like modern classic with Murphy’s sense of melodic structure and melancholic lyrical phrasing. It’s the kind of song that could close a show, but that honor was left to “All My Friends,” which is driven by the kind of rhythmically intricate repetitive phrase found in the work of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Of course, it’s Murphy’s biggest dance anthem.

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