One of the things I love about living in New York City is the sheer number of special events happening in the city. Although my schedule doesn’t allow me to go to everything I would like, I try to go to certain arts and media related events at least a couple times a month. Here are some brief thoughts on a few I’ve attended the past month. I may make this a semiregular feature depending on how often I’m actually able to get myself to events worth writing about.
Picnic on Broadway
My only exposure to William Inge’s Picnic before had been the 1955 film starring William Holden and Kim Novak. This revival from Roundabout Theatre ups the ante on some of the elements that the Hays Code prevented the film from including. Regardless of the story elements, however, Picnic’s strength is its cast. It has acting veterans Ellen Burstyn (as Mrs. Potts) and Mare Winningham (as Mrs. Owens), alongside up-and-comers Maggie Grace (as Madge), Sebastian Stan (as Hal), and Ben Rappaport (as Alan).
During the years that Lost was on the air, I thought that Grace was a better actress than a lot of the material they gave her showed, and I’ve been a fan of Stan’s since he was on NBC’s short-lived (but brilliant) series Kings. Some critics have argued that these two leads have zero chemistry in Picnic, but I found myself moved by their performances.
The performance I attended had a post-show discussion with Winningham, Stan, Rappaport, and Madeline Martin (who played Millie). It helped to learn some background on Inge and the genesis of the play, as well as some of the cast’s thoughts on the ending.
Spoilers about the ending coming!
One of the things I loved about the version, which Mare Winningham discussed in the post-show talk, was that the ending seemed more realistic than in the movie. I thought the movie wrapped up a bit too neatly, but in this version, when Madge decides to go off to meet Hal, you get the feeling that all will not be entirely well. Winningham attributed this to how the director gave Mrs. Owens’s warnings to Madge more weight.
The Heiress (1949) at the Merchant’s House Museum
The Merchant’s House Museum is the only preserved 19th century home in New York City. Built in 1832, it became a museum in 1936. Since it is from the same era of Henry James’s Washington Square (and is actually located only a few blocks from Washington Square itself), when the novel was turned into the play The Heiress, the original Broadway production studied the house for its set design, and the recently wrapped production also did the same.
A few weeks ago, the Museum hosted a screening of the 1949 film of The Heiress in its parlor, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see it in so historic a venue. Anthony Bellov, a board member of the Museum, introduced the screening with background on the film and the time period. He showed screencaps from the film with photos from the house to note the similarities between the house and the set, even though there is in fact no official record of anyone from the film studying the house for the production design. He then pointed out some anachronisms in the film, like Morris’s out-of-date wardrobe and the Slopers’ too-modern furniture.
Although the screening was only from a DVD (not much else could be expected in so small a place), nothing could take away from the special feeling of seeing the movie in a home so much like the one on screen. We were a small group but a very engaged one. Most were familiar with the story, either from seeing the film before or from having recently seen the Broadway production. As I was leaving the Museum, I heard almost everyone discussing the film. It seemed as though everyone thought Olivia de Havilland’s performance was excellent, which made the de Havilland fan in me very happy indeed.
The Harry Potter Exhibition
It’s hard to believe it, but this year 2013 marks fifteen years since I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ve been a big Harry Potter fan for those fifteen years, and I had been looking forward to seeing the Harry Potter Exhibition for the past few years. Since the movies are finished, the exhibition now features props from all eight films.
The tour opens with a sorting for any kids and a brilliant montage of some of the best moments of the series. From there, you see part of the Hogwarts Express before going into a winding tour through several partial sets and prop displays. They had costumes and wands of various characters and displays for some of the classes, including most of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes and a fabulous display of potions ingredients.
We could walk through Hagrid’s hut, see the Gryffindor dormitory, and see Umbridge’s office. There were issues of the Daily Prophet, Fred and George’s Skiving Snackboxes, the Sorcerer’s Stone, and various other textbooks, pamphlets, and other paraphernalia from the films.
The room devoted to “Dark Forces” was eerily fun. Under one glass case were all the horcruxes – you could see the words, “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure,” on Ravenclaw’s diadem and the sign of the Deathly Hallows on the ring. I also quite enjoyed the Quidditch display, which had the equipment and uniforms of both the student teams and the Irish and Bulgarian national teams; they was also a little place to play and throw quaffles into hoops.
While watching the Harry Potter films, you get the idea that the production design is detailed. But I don’t think you can really appreciate it until you see some of these props up close. The Daily Prophet issues have actual stories in them, and he Half-Blood Prince’s potions book actually has tiny black writing all over the pages, and so on. Say what you want about the quality of the films themselves (I’ve gone off about the final one in particular), but there’s no denying that the production design for each was flawless.
My advice if you’re going: zoom through the first few bits of the tour to avoid the crowds and then backtrack to them. It’s much more leisurely to look at all the props without dozens of people all around you. And beware of the prices in the gift shop! That Ravenclaw scarf I would have liked? $30…