With Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen has created an atmospheric period piece with nostalgic scenes of Coney Island on the beach and on the boardwalk, that will stir memories for many who once enjoyed escaping the city’s heat for a day by the sea. The wonder wheel itself looms as a backdrop and ubiquitous presence in the lives of those who live and work in the resort. Coney Island in the fifties was a play land for some, a prison for others.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) was once an aspiring actress, with a husband she loved and a young son. One too many love scenes with another actor led to an affair and the end of the marriage. Now she lives with her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the amusement park’s merry-go-round. About to turn 40, Ginny works as a waitress at a clam bar on the boardwalk while trying to keep her pyrotechnic son, Richie (Jack Gore), under control.
Steve Schirripa, Tony Sirico, and Jim Belushi
Humpty’s adult daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up unexpectedly. She and her father had a falling out when she quit school to marry a mafioso. After singing to the FBI, Carolina is now on the run. She returns home, hoping that her husband will believe Coney Island is the last place she would come. (Two Sopranos alums, Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico, turn up as the mafia henchman looking for Carolina.)
Ginny and Humpty live in an apartment that once housed a freak show. Ginny hates everything about her life, angry that one mistake could have derailed what was once a promising future as an actress. It doesn’t help Ginny’s moods that Humpty, seemingly ignorant of the slight, still calls his dead wife “an angel,” and tells Ginny that Carolina is too smart to be a waitress. Humpty is oblivious to his wife’s unhappiness, puzzled that, unlike the other wives, she rejects his offers to take her fishing or to a ballgame.
Ginny’s hope for a future materializes when she meets a lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), an NYU student pursuing a master’s degree in European theater. A few casual conversations on the beach lead to drinks, and soon the two are enjoying rainy days making love under the boardwalk. Timberlake is the Allen stand-in, breaking the fourth wall and keeping the audience updated on what’s happening and his feelings. For Mickey, the dalliance is a summer romance that might help provide material for the play he’s trying to write. Ginny, however, sees Mickey as her chance to turn around her life.
When Mickey bumps into Ginny and Carolina, he’s immediately smitten with the younger woman. Carolina, unaware, of course, that her stepmother is having an affair with Mickey, asks Ginny for romantic advice. Ginny, desperate for a way out of her troubled marriage, will do everything possible to keep Mickey and Carolina apart, with disastrous results.
Wonder Wheel is not Allen’s best. An early scene when Carolina tries to justify her return home is too drawn out. And why would the FBI just cut her loose, without protection, knowing she was in danger of being killed? But what’s lacking in the plot is more than made up in the performances. Timberlake is more effective when he’s actually acting in the film rather than talking to the audience. While this narrative device is one of Allen’s favorites, the scenes with Timberlake alone disrupt the flow of the film. Belushi delivers a strong performance as Ginny’s husband. Temple, who might be unknown to many audiences, lights up the screen as Carolina, particularly in the scenes with Timberlake’s Mickey.
Winslet is the heart and soul of the film. There are shades of Blanche Dubois and Norma Desmond in her Ginny. Winslet makes Ginny’s desperation palpable. But while we understand Ginny’s pain, it’s hard to feel sorry for her. She accepts minimal responsibility for how her life has turned out, and is incapable of taking steps on her own to make her life better. Lost in the shuffle is her son, whose cries for attention with his fire setting are met with anger and punishment. Of all the sad personal stories in this film, his is the most tragic.
Top photo: Juno Temple
Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio / Amazon Studios
Alive On The Inside
Written and Performed by Richard Eagan
Eight year-old Richard Eagan tore out of the subway, running as only an eight year-old can towards hurdy-gurdy music, colored lights, the smell of salt, “popcorn, axel grease, and sweet something.” His straw-boatered grandfather, Montague Sidney Chamberlain Renshaw, aka the Colonel, had declared, “It is high time for me and for you to make a tour of General Coney’s Island.”
Things were different then. Coney Island was holding, white-knuckled, to its nationwide reputation as an affordable beach resort with rides, games, and entertainment. Steeplechase Park stood as 12 fenced-in acres of amusements, a giant mechanical garden accented by statuary. The Colonel seemed to know everyone by name. He bought Richard a ‘combination ticket’ which could be punched all around “until your ticket’s empty and you can’t see straight” and regaled him with stories. The boy took in everything around him like a sponge, longing with all his heart to be a part of it.
Then life happened. The family moved, he attended several schools, became an actor, began therapy, and took up fine carpentry, “a favorite occupation for white boys in the 1970s.” When they sold Steeplechase Park and demolished most of the rides, Richard wasn’t paying attention. Not even when The Colonel died did he emerge from a morass of self involvement. Still, the place called to him.
With some urgency, he returned. “All that was left was a gaping hole and an aching heart in the greatest place in the world.” Resolving to do what he could, Richard founded The Coney Island Hysterical Society whose first effort was painting a large mural of the place’s former glory. From a 20’ scaffold, listening to the music of 70 something year-old Freddie Moran’s wind-up victrola in the house below The Cyclone (roller-coaster), he watched the members of Coney Island’s Polar Bear Club (founded 1903) plunge into icy, winter waters, past and present unwittingly side by side.
This is the story of Richard Egan’s love affair with Coney Island; of cigar chomping, uber-luxury-car driving, Ronnie D. who sized up the young man’s dreams and successively seduced him into running a ‘plate pitch’ (toss a quarter onto a plate) – when a kid won an expensive teddy bear, Ronnie D. would buy it back at a profit and return the prize to his tent; The Florida Shark Show- with short, dumpy, sweat-suited Miss Atlantis and three sleepy, baby sharks- “Ah, but wait til ya see the show;” and what was left of the Funhouse-after Richard dealt with rubbish, rust, and shot hydraulics. (This does not end well.)
Dramatis personae also includes Leo who recommends the acquisition of a number of High Strikers (the strength game wherein one attempts to ring a high bell with a heavy mallet) and explains how a high ticket booth helps one rip off the rubes and local fixture Jake Fine whose Basketball Toss becomes a practical second to stock recommendations.
Richard Eagan shares colorful character emulations with pitch-perfect accents, the art of the bally (outside come-on), and old timers’ tricks of the trade. Details are so specific and rich, you feel like you were there. Beautifully written and performed, Alive on the Inside is part Ray Bradbury and part Dylan Thomas (A Child’s Christmas in Wales.) It aches for another time, only briefly referring to the short-sighted wheeler dealers who eschewed refurbishing for commercializing. The piece is vivid, amusing and extremely touching. This is storytelling. One can only hope it has a future.
Though well chosen, Chris Tsakis’ sound effects were too loud, too long and too abrupt.
Harlem Blooms in Spring – Impressions of Langston Hughes
Written and Performed by Jersten Seraile
Directed by Zishan Ugurlu
I would venture to guess that no one enjoys being yelled at for over half an hour of a 50 minute show, especially in an intimate theater. The earnest actor/author and his director might easily have embodied frustration, anger, passion without sustained volume.
Langston Hughes’s House Un-American Activities Committee subpoena- ostensibly because of social activism and a trip to Russia, attempts to give this piece form. It’s a good choice, but ricocheting back and forth from childhood (the latter, a well written and acted segment) and discussions of the musical inspiration of his poetry to a perpetually ringing phone is disjointed. The intrusive noise makes its point after twice breaking up monologue, yet continues. Additionally, atmospheric background music is repeatedly too loud all but burying speech.
It’s clear Jersten Seraile is invested here, but the show could use a clearer narrative line and intensity without shouting.
All Photos courtesy of the productions
410 West 42nd Street
In its 7th season, United Solo is the world’s largest solo theater festival. Performers from 18 countries, 23 states, and six continents will present their unique works between September 15 and November 20, 2016.
Tickets: Telecharge (or 212-239-6200) and at the Theatre Row Box Office (410 West 42nd Street, NYC).
For the full calendar of performances, please click to visit the United Solo website.