Don’t Drink the Water! … Dynasty , à la Pearl S. Buck

Don’t Drink the

Water!

The in crowd-always on top of every trend, first in line at

every “happening”-can be found these nights climbing the stairs of the Midtown

Community Court building at 314 West 54th Street, next door to the police

station. Here, on the second floor, where a converted courtroom from the late

19th century has been turned into the seediest, pee-stained urinal in town,

they are witnessing a strange, macabre, eccentric, improbable and wildly

indescribable entertainment called Urinetown:

The Musical . Color it different, but get there fast. You’ve never

experienced anything quite like it.

In the unsettlingly titled but delightfully accessible

(general admission, no reserved seats) Urinetown ,

16 energetic cast members from Broadway and the fringe, headed by the

distinguished John Cullum, and four scruffy musicians who look like the Nitty

Gritty Dirt Band take you on a guided tour through a dark, diabolically Gothic

place where a 20-year drought has dried up the reservoirs and caused a water

shortage so severe it has made private toilets unflushable and peeing without

permission illegal. The law says you must pay to pee, the public bathrooms are

all owned and operated by a greedy corporate monster named Caldwell B. Cladwell

(Mr. Cullum, in villainous good form), and everybody has a bladder problem.

It’s based on the premise that the best way to get rich is to charge people for

the one thing they cannot live without, and everybody’s gotta pee.

In the two acts and 16 musical numbers that follow, the poor

bathe in coffee cups and boil what’s left for tea, a motley crew right out of a

prewar Berlin musical by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht entertain with songs

like “It’s a Privilege to Pee” (a hopping number) and “Snuff That Girl” (a real

killer). A love story develops between the innocent daughter of the corrupt

villain who controls the public amenities and an optimistic, idealistic young

revolutionary who leads an uprising for dignity. Nobody ends up happy.

The work of two zany Chicago Wunderkinder , Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, Urinetown was understandably rejected by hundreds of producers

before it was rescued by director John Rando (currently represented on Broadway

by the Neil Simon hit The Dinner Party )

and big-time risk-taking producers the Dodgers. The imaginative choreography by

John Caraffa utilizes every square inch of the stage; the eclectic score by

Messrs. Hollmann and Kotis throws in everything but the kitchen faucet-a

Russian folk song, a passionate gospel anthem, rollicking rock tunes and

showstoppers with real melodies in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway

tradition. Even the pinch-faced villain gets a nifty number of his own.

The well-oiled ensemble has great comic timing, lively

scene-stealing performances and polished, crackerjack characterizations. The

cast includes aces like Sondheim veteran Ken Jennings, David Ives alumnus Nancy

Opel, and Jeff McCarthy, one of the Disney

“beasts” in Beau ty and the Beast . Credit the writers and the impeccable direction by Mr.

Rando for never leading the show in the direction of any scatalogical offense,

but don’t go in search of anything conventional in song, dance or book. Urinetown follows only one rule: Expect

the unexpected. With a pregnant woman in a leg brace, a kidnapping, a mob

hankering for violence, a brutal cop narrator, a hero who meets a grisly end

before he saves the town, several murders and lovers who do not waltz away into

a happy sunset, it’s a combination of Sweeney

Todd, The Threepenny Opera and Mad magazine.

In fact, the only sunny wisdom and humanity in the show is dispensed by Little

Sally, a pigtailed child on roller skates who often interrupts to warn the

audience about bad taste, bad subject matter and that bad title. (“That could

kill a show pretty good.”)

Did I forget to mention that the show is as charming and

hilarious as it is doleful? There is even a cynical finale that leaves Little

Sally to ruminate, querulously: “What kind of musical is this?” A fresh,

unique, original, impudent, colorful, exciting, irreverent, surprising and

wonderful musical, that’s all. The four-week run ends May 28, but don’t worry.

A show this special will find a new home. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and

everyone is gone already over Urinetown.

Dynasty , À la Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck was the

Edna Ferber of China, a spinner of elaborate soap operas set against vast and

complex landscapes of sweeping cultural, political and historical transition.

Although her books were banned in China until 1994, Hollywood struck gold with

adaptations of both The Good Earth

(which won an Oscar for Luise Rainer in 1937) and Dragon Seed (1944) starring Katharine Hepburn, who was described at

the time by James Agee as looking like a Chinese coolie in “shrewdly tailored

Peck & Peckish pajamas.” Now, 28 years after her death, the work of Ms.

Buck, one of the few women to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is back on

the screen, under very different circumstances.

Chinese films are usually

about warlords and peasants. Pavilion of

Women , based on a 1946 novel, is the first Chinese film ever shot entirely

in China by a Chinese director with Asian actors working entirely in English,

about a wealthy, respected and rebellious woman, under the influence of Western

culture, who risks her life and reputation to free herself from the yoke of a

feudal society. It has stimulated a storm of controversy in China, but aroused

only a chorus of critical yawns in America. It deserves more serious attention.

Pavilion of Women ,

directed by Yim Ho, was produced and co-written by Luo Yan, an accomplished

actress in her native China who lives in California. Ms. Yan also plays the

leading role of Madame Wu, the matriarch of the richest family in the province

of Jiang Su. The year is 1938, when the rules of upper-class society were

changing and a thousand years of Chinese tradition were eroding. Although

Madame Wu has been a loyal, intelligent and faithful wife, she has tired of the

duties she has been forced to perform in a society where women exist to please

their husbands-preparing their opium pipes, managing their homes, submitting to

sexual favors and massaging them to sleep. On her 40th birthday, she

scandalizes the entire town by presenting her husband with a concubine-an

orphaned peasant girl who is expected to act as a second wife and service Mr.

Wu in bed.

Freed from her obligations as a sexual servant, with her own

son’s arranged marriage imminent, Madame Wu shocks the family further by

joining her son’s private classes with his tutor, Father Andre (Willem Dafoe),

an American priest who often mistakes saintliness for sexiness. Under his

spiritual and cultural guidance, complications ensue rapidly. While the

progressive mother and the modern son are introduced to the beauty of poetry

and music, the miracle of electricity and the value of new ideas like monogamy,

the family patriarch discovers the forbidden joys of the prostitutes on the

flower boats. The son falls in love with the young, unhappy concubine, Madame

Wu succumbs to her own sexual awakening with the priest in a hayloft, and

Father Andre, the missionary who has come to this strange land as a savior of

Chinese orphans, finds his own heart as a man. Meanwhile, the Japanese are

invading Manchuria, World War II is at the gates, and the story introduces an

infinite variety of plot twists-suicide attempts, burning orphanages, heart

attacks, the concubine’s escape, the son’s leaving home to join the Communist

Army-that border on melodrama. It’s only a matter of time before the Japanese

arrive, raping and pillaging with violent and tragic results. A way of life is

destroyed forever, but in the carnage the woman and the priest redefine

themselves as human beings.

The temptation to label this lavish, sprawling saga Gone With the Wind with chopsticks

stretches from here to deadline. But that would be a cheap shot. There is much

to admire here, including the lush musical score, the staggering

cinematography, and the miraculous can-do sweat and talent of so many dedicated

and resourceful people. Yim Ho bankrolled the film for a modest $5 million

budget, which is pretty astonishing for so much artistry, and the whole thing

was shot in 46 days. As a producer, she has grit and courage; as an actress,

she has passion, sincerity and an open, appealing face that is incapable of a

false expression. Willem Dafoe emerges from the chaos with his famous granite

jaw uncracked, yet he actually seems both stronger and more vulnerable than

he’s ever been before. Veteran Hong Kong director Luo Yan gets extraordinary

performances from his Asian actors, who show no discomfort with the

occasionally awkward English dialogue, and takes the audience to breathtaking

locations where no film crew has ever been allowed. I can’t imagine an American

film achieving half of this triumph at 10 times the cost.

Although Pavilion of

Women reflects the political and gender-challenged turmoil Pearl Buck

experienced during her 37 years in China, its universal concerns are still

vibrant. Now that economic liberalization has revived the middle and upper

classes that vanished under Communist rule in the late 1940′s, the challenges

faced in China today by educated students (and women of any age group) are

renewed reflections of the distress Ms. Buck was writing about over 50 years

ago. Pavilion of Women may be too

busy for its own good, leaving much to be desired as a romantic period piece,

but at a time when most movies are about nothing at all, I confess I’m a sucker

for a good story. Give me two or three simultaneous plotlines any day over no

plot at all.

You have to admire a film that inspires so much thought,

spans so much history and conquers so much material for less money than the

budget spent on Goldie Hawn’s panties in Town

& Country . Imperfect as it is, Pavilion

of Women is an honorable film, worthy of encouragement and well worth

seeing.