The Siegel Column

Toni Collette in great film opening soon, praise for School of the Americas, but Secrets should remain unknown.

Toni Collette & More Theatre Folk in Best Movie of Summer!

It hasn’t opened yet – you’ll have to wait until July 26th – but you are going to adore Little Miss Sunshine. If you’re exhausted from the season’s tidal wave of over-produced Shlockbusters like Superman Returns and the sequel to The Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll be delighted – not to mention refreshed -- to find actual writing and acting (and nary an explosion in sight) in what will surely be the sleeper hit of the summer.

In brief, Little Miss Sunshine is an emotionally and dramatically textured story of an American family striving for love, success, fame, acceptance, and sanity. What makes this movie a must-see is its magnificent human scale, which is to say it has a scope far beyond the limited oohs and aahs of special effects. It’s the kind of movie during which you cry your eyes out and laugh uproariously, sometimes virtually at the same time.

We bring this treasure of a movie to your particular attention because the majority of its leading players have previously trod the boards. Toni Collette starred with Mandy Patinkin on Broadway in The Wild Party. Steve Carell is a veteran of the Second City Theater Group; he was twice nominated for Joseph Jefferson Awards. Paul Dano is a young actor who has worked alongside Helen Mirren (A Month in the Country), Ben Vereen & Terrence Mann (A Christmas Carol), and George C. Scott (Inherit the Wind). The film also stars Greg Kinnear and features Alan Arkin (longtime star of screen, stage and TV). You know how good these actors are. Happily, they have a film that matches their talent. Let us know what YOU think after it opens…

4 Stars: School of the Americas

School of the Americas is a fascinating piece of theater, in part because of its subject matter – Che’s last days on Earth – but mostly because the set design by Andromache Chalfant and the direction by Mark Wing-Davey are both so spectacular. A co-production of the Labyrinth Theater Company and The Public Theater (it takes place at The Public in a little used theatrical space on the south end of the building), these two theatrical entities have combined to give Jose Rivera’s play an expansive production.

This is not Rivera’s first contemplation on the character of the charismatic Che Guevara. Rivera won an original screenplay Oscar nomination for The Motorcycle Diaries, a hit art circuit movie that speculated on the series of events that turned Guevara into a revolutionary. Curiously, the movie was about Che’s very beginnings while School of the Americas is about Che at the very end of his journey.

The play takes place in Bolivia. Che has already been wounded and captured. He is under heavy guard in a rural village schoolhouse. The play was inspired by the true story of a female school teacher who spent unguarded hours with the famous renegade before he was ultimately executed. What went on between them? What did they talk about? The truth will never be known but Rivera’s speculations bounce back and forth between polemic and cliché, only occasionally rising to something artful.

Nonetheless, the circumstances are intriguing and the sheer theatricality of the presentation is stunning. We can’t say enough about the set design, which literally opens doors of imagination. Director Wing-Davey elicits electric performances from his leads, including a riveting turn by John Ortiz as Che, a surprisingly complex villain by Felix Solis as Lt. Ramos and an endearingly vulnerable yet strong-willed school teacher played by Patricia Velasquez. During a summer with little in the way of meaty offerings, School of the Americas has a great deal to intrigue serious theatergoers.

0 Stars: Secrets

This is going to sound cruel, but Secrets by Gerald Zipper is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the talent. And we don’t mean just the cast. This is a sordid and ultimately senseless play at St. Luke’s Theatre in which three couples get together for the evening in order to rip each other to shreds. The script lacks credibility almost from the moment the lights go on. Oh, there are attempts to justify why these people are friends and why they periodically meet, but contrived would be too kind a word. Ted Mornel dutifully directs a cast of poor souls and two very poor actresses (Alyce Mayors and Lissa Moria) in memorably miserable performances. On the plus side, Mark Hamlet stood apart from the wreckage. Finally, though, this is one play that should remain a secret.

Barbara and Scott Siegel