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Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

To make a film in the Fast & Furious franchise you need three things: Flashy cars, hulking biceps lathered in baby oil and heart-pounding action sequences. What you don’t need are actors or plot.
    Furious 7 keeps this tradition alive with a film so filled with screeching tires, machismo and surprising sentiment it almost distracts you from the abysmal performance of the lead and ridiculous plot.
    In a London hospital, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham: The Expendables 3) stands over the broken body of his baby brother Owen (the baddie from Fast and Furious 6). Swearing vengeance on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel: Guardians of the Galaxy) and his crew of racers, Deckard hunts them down one by one.
    He kills one and hobbles Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson: Hercules), Toretto’s law enforcement ally, before finding Dominic. Toretto goes on the offensive, reuniting his team for one last ride — just as in the past three movies.
    Dominic’s brother-in-law and partner in crime Brian (Paul Walker: Brick Mansions) is facing his own crisis. Now a father and husband, he’s chaffing at driving a minivan instead of a muscle car. He tells his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster: Dallas) he misses the bullets, and she worries that he’s unhappy with family life.
    Can Brian settle into domesticity? Can Toretto and his gang defeat Deckard? Who is buying these idiots million dollar cars to destroy?
    Director James Wan (Insidious: Chapter 2) continues a brainless and still popular formula as old as Sylvester Stallone.
    The problem with Wan’s brand of mindless action is that it’s toothless. To earn the lucrative PG-13 rating, he must make a hardcore action film that’s kid-friendly. As a result, bullets and fists fly, but it’s a bloodless affair with seemingly few consequences. Women are dressed as sex objects, but to ensure parents bring their teens, there is no actual nudity — just plenty of up-skirt shots.
    Wan does surprisingly well within the restrictions on violence and nudity. Two of the hand-to-hand combat scenes are brilliantly choreographed and paced. The fight between Johnson and Statham is a brutal highpoint with both actors throwing everything they have at each other. But the real star of these movies has always been the cars. When we’re watching preposterous physics-defying car chases, it’s a fantastic spectacle that perfectly complements a fistful of popcorn.
    Impressively, Wan manages to inject a little sentiment into this ode to macho posturing. His tribute to Walker, who died while making the film, is both touching and fitting to the franchise. Wan and the editors should be credited for cobbling together Walker’s final performance using doubles, digital editing and the few scenes filmed before his demise.
    What Wan and his team of talented editors couldn’t fix, however, was Diesel’s performance. Blank, meaty and potato-like in both expression and demeanor, Diesel is an abysmal actor. His lack of a human personality was less noticeable in the first films; here, with the addition of exemplary supporting actors, you notice. Both Statham and Johnson crackle with charisma, and international action superstar Tony Jaa commands the screen in a nearly wordless performance.
    In spite of the wealth of action talent, Wan chooses to subject us to Diesel’s lumbering attempts at acting for seemingly endless stretches of film. Pairing him with Johnson and Statham seems like a cruel joke.
    With fantastic action and a bit of heart, Furious 7 isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been — if you can ignore Diesel.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Truth doesn’t matter if you yell loud enough

Who do you trust? When experts debate on television an issue like climate change, do you believe that both are qualified?
    Most often, the debaters are experts in speaking, not science.
    It turns out that the news is just another TV show. Lively debate, doubt and fear-mongering make for great ratings. There is little incentive to seek out facts when bread and circuses bring in money and viewers.
    In 2004, science historian Naomi Oreskes became interested in a phrase common in the Global Warming debate: “No consensus has been reached among scientists on the matter of climate change.” Oreskes read through every scientific paper on climate change published in journals from 1993 to 2003. Out of 928 articles, she found none that refuted climate change.
    If there was no disagreement in the scientific community, where did this dissent come from?
    Hint: It’s not science.
    Pundits are hired by think tanks and corporations to argue their case, not sift through the facts or do independent research. To that end, they manipulate data, suggest that scientists have a hidden agenda and lie. These experts also become the faces for volunteer groups backed by major corporations that depend on the status quo for their profits.
    Based on a book by Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt is a documentary that takes a troubling look at how easy it is to lead people away from the facts. Using the tobacco industry and the climate-change debate as his two main topics, director Robert Kenner (Food Inc.) examines how corporations manipulate citizens, government and the law to further their interests.
    Kenner interviews scientists who have been battered by the press and professional spin-doctors. Ill prepared by a life of research to deal with slick PR men, many of these researchers look befuddled when confronted by misinformation. James Hansen, one of the fathers of the climate change movement, admits that he wasn’t prepared to become the face of global warming. Nor was he prepared for the backlash. Death threats, smear campaigns and aggressive politicking.
    Those on the other side seem to enjoy being contrarians. All pundits readily admit to Kenner that they don’t conduct research; they merely interpret. Marc Morano, founder of Climate Depot, seems to revel in the fight if not the facts. He enjoys going after scientists who question his view that global warming is a liberal hoax, often publishing their personal email addresses and encouraging his followers to send hate mail.
    Kenner’s only misstep is his over-reliance on metaphor. To liken pundits to magicians performing card tricks, he uses a repeating motif of shuffling decks and sleight of hand. The framing device seems silly compared to the seriousness of the issues.
    Like most documentaries that take a bold stand, Merchants of Doubt will likely make you angry. Whether you’re furious at the pundits or Kenner’s take on climate change largely depends on what side of the debate you fall.

Good Documentary • PG-13 • 96 mins.

Intimate setting, top-notch acting, taut direction and high production values bring this classic to life

For this classic, less is more.
     The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, uses a script nicely streamlined and adapted to the stage by Jon Jory, whose versions of other classics like Pride and Prejudice the company has presented over its brief history. As impressive as the script’s fidelity to the novel is Annapolis Shakespeare’s confidence in its ability to tell a complex story with nary a set piece other than a few chairs and a trunk.
    After spending time at the Bowie Playhouse, Annapolis Shakespeare moved into its Chinquapin Round Road facility just a couple of years ago, and began doing its plays there even more recently. By using a less-is-more philosophy — and knowing that solid talent and direction are quite a bit more important to good storytelling than extensive sets and facilities — producing artistic director Sally Boyett nicely adapts to the company’s small, 70-seat space.
    In the case of Sense and Sensibility, Boyett gives us the classic story of two young sisters. Elinor is filled with sense and prudence, a level-head. Marianne is filled with sensibility — emotion, romance — and always speaks her mind. Though written in the late 1700s, Austen’s work remains loved, read and performed because she captured ideas and feelings that are essentially timeless.
    This story of love, laughter and heartache is brought to us by a cast of actors led by Laura Rocklyn as Marianne Dashwood and Rebecca Swislow as Elinor Dashwood. Rocklyn’s Marianne is a charmer, attracting us via her refusal to hold her tongue as well as the humor of what she says when she does speak. Rocklyn and Swislow work very well together; this is a pair that you can believe are sisters.
    They and their widowed mother, played nicely by Sue Struve, are forced to move into a small cottage after their half-brother (the elegant Brian Keith MacDonald) and his wife, played to the hilt of vanity by Renata Plecha, decide that they prefer to take the family estate and force the trio out.
    Evicted, they settle in a small cottage in Devonshire, near the home of her cousin John Middleton and his wife, who welcome the three openly, soon introducing them to local society. As Middleton, Richard Pilcher is gregarious and warm, quite the opposite of what they had experienced before being forced out.
    But Sense and Sensibility is not so much about society connections as it is about the two girls and the suitors who come calling: Edward Ferrars (Patrick Truhler), whose engagement to another is kept secret but who becomes attracted to Elinor; John Willoughby (James Carpenter), a charmer but a cheater whose engagement to Marianne is presumed by many but never official; and Colonel Brandon (Joel Ottenheimer), a tall, good guy who takes on the charge of the daughter of a woman he loved but was not allowed by family to marry, and who falls in love with Marianne.
    All three give us tightly drawn and distinctive characters, each bringing their unique backgrounds to bear on the present, and each revealing to us the chemistry that has formed their affections for the sisters.
    As always with Annapolis Shakespeare, costumes are expansive but true to the period, lighting of the small space is imaginative and evocative and Boyett’s choreography of scene changes keeps things moving apace, with each scene blending into the next clearly yet with nary a visual or verbal gap.
    In other words, less is more: an intimate setting, top-notch acting, taut direction and high production values are more than enough to bring this classic to life.


Production stage manager: Sara K. Smith. Lighting design: Colin Dieck. Costumes: Kat McKerrow. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs

Playing thru May 3: FSa 8pm (and 2pm, Sa April 4); Su 3pm: Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis; $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

Abandon all hope, you who enter the Divis Flats

British private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell: Unbroken) wants a station in Germany. He wants an easy assignment and money to provide for his son, in care while he’s serving. Instead he’s sent to Belfast, where the IRA is waging a bloody war against the British Crown.
    Fresh out of training and uneasy in the tense streets of Northern Ireland, Hook tries to keep his head down and collect his check. Wish again.
    An inexperienced officer leads his platoon into a riot. Sent into a swarm of protesters to retrieve a stolen gun, Hook sees his comrade’s head blown off and his fellow soldiers beating a hasty retreat — without him.
    An easy target in his British fatigues, Hook flees, evading IRA gunmen and angry citizens. To survive the night in Divis Flats, an IRA stronghold, he must also avoid IRA spies and steer clear of the roving gangs of Molotov cocktail-wielding rioters.
    Hook’s run through the Flats drives a wedge in the already segmented IRA. The old-school members are horrified at the murder of a soldier and fearful that killing Hook will bring the British in bloody invasion. The young IRA want blood and don’t care whose.
    With a soldier stranded in enemy territory, the British military turns to undercover agents. But the spies have their own agenda, a planned counter-strike against the IRA. Hook’s death might just further their plans.
    Can anyone leave Divis Flats alive?
    Director Yann Demange (Top Boy) uses handheld cameras to follow Hook on his dashes through the shadows as the city burns around him. Though handheld can become pointlessly shaky, here the technique compliments Hook’s frenetic journey through the night. Demange also keeps his film looking authentic by using a muted color palate and soft focus that looks like it was shot during the 1971 Belfast riots.
    At the heart of ’71 is O’Connell, who is masterful as the frantic Hook. In his previous starring role in Angelina Jolie’s run-of-the-mill Unbroken, O’Connell was forced into the generic hero role. In ’71, Demange unleashes O’Connell on the screen with brilliant results. Hook is a barely competent kid utterly terrified of the men with guns chasing him. A man without a plan, he simply reacts to what’s happening around him with more luck than skill. When he must fight, his barely contained panic fuels his blows.
    Don’t bother to buy popcorn; you’ll be too breathless to eat it.

Great Drama • R • 99 mins.

An old story marred by modern filmmaking

Jimmy ‘The Gravedigger’ Conlon (Liam Neeson: Taken 3) was once the most feared man in New York. Suspected of having killed dozens for his best friend, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris: Frontera), he’s eluded all efforts to pin a body on him.
    Jimmy’s crimes have caught up to him in other ways. He can’t sleep because of dreams of people he slaughtered. His son Michael (Joel Kinnaman: The Killing) will have nothing to do with him. Jimmy drowns his guilt in booze, stumbling from bars to his hovel of a home.
    To the Maguire mob, he’s a washed-up old man who used to be somebody. But he’s still Shawn’s best friend, and the ruthless mob boss tries to help him fight his demons. Shawn always saves him, no matter how drunk, belligerent or broke.
    Until Jimmy kills Shawn’s only son.
    Jimmy takes the shot to save his own son Michael, who happens to be the only witness to a Maguire murder. Now nearly insane with grief, Shawn orders every killer he’s ever worked with to hunt down Jimmy and Michael.
    Michael must in turn trust the ­violent father he has shunned for decades.
    Can the duo patch up their relationship while avoiding every thug and dirty cop in New York?
    At heart, Run All Night is an old-fashioned crime story about family ties, vengeance and the mark violence leaves on families. With subjects so rich, it’s a shame that director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) values style over substance.
    Collet-Serra seems to be directing a video game set randomly throughout New York’s five boroughs. The movie is filled with aerial views of the city that zoom into minute details at nauseating speeds. He has no interest in justifying his slapped-together action sequences. When Jimmy and Michael are trapped in a seeming dead end, Collet-Serra cuts away to the cops. By the time he cuts back, the Conlon boys have escaped. How? The director doesn’t care, so why should you? The only one who seems to be paying attention to the action is Neeson. Jimmy’s ankle is injured in a fall, and to his credit, Neeson remembers to lumber along in at least 60 percent of the subsequent scenes.
    Female characters also follow the video game tradition, speaking only when they are nagging the beleaguered main characters.
    In Collet-Serra’s fantasy version of New York City, traffic is minimal unless there’s a car chase, there is ample street parking and all trains run on time. The citywide manhunt for the Conlons never affects traffic patterns. With transportation so simple, why don’t father and son hop a train out of town?
    Run All Night is redeemed by its leads, two veterans who know how to mine good material out of poor direction. Neeson and Harris play beautifully off each other. Neeson can pull off the dangerous dad in his sleep, but he perks up when Harris joins him on screen. Harris manages to make Shawn frightening, intimidating but oddly human. He clearly loves Jimmy, but this he can’t forgive.
    If only the director had focused on their relationship …

Fair Action • R • 114 mins.

Connecting communities through King and art

Dr. Martin Luther King’s message will see you through any month of the year, as readers young and old will learn in Love Will See You Through. In it, King’s niece, Angela Farris Watkins, draws six principles the civil rights leader followed as he promoted peace and non-violence.
    Each core belief is explained with an anecdote from his life, making the book both guide and biography. As African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, protested bus segregation 50 years ago, King told his followers to Have Courage. When King led a march against housing discrimination in Chicago, a rock hit him in the head. Knocked down, he stood up and marched on, proving his commitment to Resist Violence.
    Annapolis artist Sally Wern Comport’s exuberant illustrations match the real life drama of King’s mission. She found inspiration for her work in the bold posters of the 1960s.
    “What a great connector art is, and what a great connector Martin Luther King’s words are,” says Comport, speaking of the Annapolis Art District’s book launch March 13. “We wanted to use the book as a reason to connect communities through art. All ages, all neighborhoods are welcome.”
    Comport has a history of making community connections through art. Starting in 2007, she co-chaired ArtWalk, which made Annapolis an outdoor public art gallery.
    Teaching studio ArtFarm and neighboring Compass Rose Theater have arranged a dramatic opening, with music, theater, meditation and art. Comport’s original illustrations pair with collages created by young artists from Girl Scout Troop 1812 and The Annapolis Boys and Girls Club.
    Join the celebration at the ArtFarm Studio, 47 Spa Rd., Annapolis Friday March 13 6:30-9pm. Books also sold at the Annapolis Bookstore.

With actors this delightful, who needs a plot?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a success, thanks to the assistance of former housekeeper Muriel (Maggie Smith: Downton Abbey) to proprietor Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel: Chappie). With retired British ex-pat pensioners filling nearly all the rooms, Sonny seeks to expand his empire by buying a second hotel. To realize his dream, Sonny must court rich American investors.
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel must pass an undercover hotel inspection before the American company will put up the money. Meanwhile, Sonny is planning his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai: Sense8), who has had about enough of playing second fiddle to a hotel.
    Marigold’s residents are also considering some major changes. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench: Philomena) is considering a relationship with her long-devoted admirer Douglas (Bill Nighy: Pride). Sexy Madge (Celia Imrie: What We Did on Our Holiday) must choose among her wealthy lovers. New couple Norman (Ronald Pickup: Call the Midwife) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle: Good People) must decide on — or against — fidelity.
    The arrival of two new guests — writer Guy Chambers (Richard Gere: Time Out of Mind) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig: Episodes) — brings upheaval. Is one of them the inspector? Can Sonny love a hotel and a wife? Will the Marigold’s guests start a second life in a new home?
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the cinematic equivalent of one too many candies: over indulgent, too sweet, but enjoyable.
    This time, director John Madden seems to have forgotten what drew crowds the first time. In Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he spends entirely too much time on the younger generation. Sonny’s woes are of little interest compared to the pensioners finding a new spark in their lives.
    When Madden turns to the greying residents of the Marigold, the old magic returns. Dench and Smith, chums on and off the screen, light up the movie with their interactions. Dench is sweetly funny as a woman who finds success in business and love at 80. Her stumble toward independence is delightful and touching.
    Smith delivers the acerbic, wry performance she has become famous for in her golden years. She could arch an eyebrow and deliver a hilariously cutting insult in her sleep; no one can do it better. In the sequel, however, Madden chooses to expand her role, exploring her relationship with Sonny. Muriel has progressed from casually racist ex-pat to fiercely protective maternal figure to Indian Sonny. Their relationship is the backbone of the story and far more poignant and interesting than Sonny and his love.
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not as much fun as the first, but it has charm enough to make you glad you checked in.

Good Dramedy • PG • 122 mins.

65 Years of Broadway! deserves its !

Long synonymous with musical theater excellence, 2nd Star Productions had a brilliant 2013-14 season with Children of Eden nominated for a WATCH Award as Outstanding Musical and Hello Dolly winning a Helen Hayes Award for All-Around Production Excellence.
    Now the company is celebrating with a star-studded musical revue.
    65 Years of Broadway! The Best Musicals, Abridged is a lively retrospective featuring all the Best Musical Tony Award-winning shows since 1949. The first — Kiss Me, Kate  — happens to be 2nd Star’s next show.
    The cabaret is compiled by Nathan Bowen, a WATCH nominee for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in Hello Dolly. In it he conveys both his passion for this genre and his comic appreciation of its excesses.
    Many tastes will find satisfaction here with 12 actors on a very small stage, performing under Bowen’s whimsical direction. You will thrill one minute to Phantom of the Opera and chuckle the next at the sight of the men’s chorus pirouetting and groveling on bended knee in All I Ask of You. The zealous young missionaries in Hello from The Book of Mormon will have you praying for breath from all the laughter. Then you get to sing along in the perennial favorites The Sound of Music, Cabaret, and Seasons of Love from Rent.
    With 65 songs in total, the entire cast gets to shine. E. Lee Nicol, star of Children of Eden, will break your heart in Not My Father’s Son (Kinky Boots) and I Am What I Am (La Cage aux Folles), then take you to Shangri La in Stranger in Paradise (Kismet).
    Pam Shilling — nominated for a WATCH award for Outstanding Feature Actress in Hello Dolly! — is exquisite in Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music), Memory (Cats) and Bye Bye Blackbird (Fosse).
    Bowen, ever the comedian, gets to Put On a Happy Face (Bye Bye Birdie) and reunite with Dolly costar Daniel Starnes in Muddy Water (Big River) and in trio with Nicol for The Egg (1776). Starnes also shines in soli written for a young man of his age: Miracle of Miracles (Fiddler On the Roof) and All That’s Known (Spring Awakening).
    Cheryl Campo is empowering in Nothing (A Chorus Line), Shadowland (The Lion King) and As If We Never Said Goodbye (Sunset Boulevard).
    Emily Mudd shows off her vocal and acting range in Think of Me (Phantom of the Opera) and Buenos Aires (Evita).
    Michael Mathes, with his falsetto channeling of Frankie Valley, is so spot-on that when the male chorus spins into Sherry (Jersey Boys), you will swear it’s the recording.
    Young Sophia Riazi-Sekowski will touch you in Maybe (Annie). Geneva Croteau gets you dancing in I Can Hear the Bells (Hairspray). Cheramie Jackson gets into the groove in They Can’t Take That Away From Me (Crazy for You), Josh Hampton in What Do You Do (Avenue Q) and Alexandra Baca in Breathe (In the Heights). There’s even a stirring ensemble acappella rendition of Gold from Once.
    All the big composers you remember are represented here: Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein, Bernstein, Hamlisch, Herman, Webber, Sondheim, and 35 others you may have forgotten or never knew about. There are also pop names that might surprise you such as Roger Miller, Elton John and Cyndi Lauper.
    This collection will not only get your toes tapping and your heart thumping but also pique your desire to check out Broadway’s more recent hits.
    Two hours (plus intermission) of pleasure for all ages.


Sixty-Five Years of Broadway! The Best Musicals, Abridged: Directed and Produced by Nathan Bowen. Musical director and accompanist: Laura Brady.

Playing March 13 & 14: The Shop, Cape St. Claire, Annapolis. $20: 410-757-5700; ­www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Loaded with two charming leads, this movie doesn’t quite pull off its con

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith: After Earth) has a charming smile and a light touch. He’s adept at cons from lifting wallets to convincing investors that an empty warehouse is the Federal Reserve. A third-generation conman, Nicky has managed to stay successful in the game by staying isolated.
    When he meets Jess (Margot Robbie: The Wolf of Wall Street), a beautiful con clumsily targeting horny men, he sees potential. Jess becomes his student in the true art of the hustle.
    Soon his able pupil can emerge from crowded streets laden with wallets, watches and jewels. When their professional relationship turns romantic, Nicky panics. Explaining that love is dangerous in their business, he tosses Jess a pile of cash and takes off.
    Three years later, Nicky is working a scam on a billionaire racing magnate when he spots Jess. His deft touch fails. Distracted and lovesick, Nicky tries for both Jess and the money. His dangerous play could cost him his life and the girl.
    If Focus were a conman, it wouldn’t be a very good one. In a movie about misdirection and distraction, plot is convoluted and the numerous twists are telegraphed obviously by writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love). Experienced moviegoers will pick out twists long before they’re revealed. Watch for shots that last longer than they should.
    Nor does the film offer tension or propose stakes. The pair never seems in real danger, even when a gun is pointed at their heads. Nicky seemingly never makes a misstep, which creates a sense of invulnerability. Since Nicky is infallible, there’s no need to worry about him; everything must be part of his plan.
    Though the plot fizzles, the herculean efforts of the stars keep Focus watchable. Up and coming Robbie sparkles as Jess, who she makes an eager student who thrills at every watch she slips off her marks. Her enthusiasm and charm are beguiling, and she is susceptible to panic, which makes her interesting.
    As the man who has a plan, Smith’s Nicky is smooth to a fault. Smith fails to give Nicky vulnerability, but he succeeds in reclaiming his shine as a movie star. He’s slick, cool and exceptionally likeable as he hustles through the movie. Focus is an effective reminder of why Smith became one of the biggest stars of the screen, standing he lost in the wake of After Earth and Men in Black III.
    The stars work well together, too, and we fall for the way they play off each other.
    Focus isn’t a good crime film, but it’s an enjoyable romantic comedy. Buy a ticket for Smith and Robbie’s sexy banter. But don’t let them near your wallets.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 105 mins.

Listen up to tease plot from prattle

Colonial Players bills the World War II drama Watch On the Rhine as the first in their American Standard series, “presented for the nostalgia of older audiences or introduction to younger patrons.” As winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 1941, this play would seem a good choice. It has star appeal: The hit film featured Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, who won an Oscar for Best Actor. It is historically compelling: A call to arms for a pre-war America grown complacent in the face of global discord. It smacks of scandal: Dramatist Lillian Hellman was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of her membership in the Communist Party.
    Yet for all its relevance and fine execution, this two-and-a-half-hour golden oldie feels moldy.
    Commenting on social conventions among the Roosevelt era’s upper middle-class, the play revels in trite gossip and quotidian trivia. It opens with irascible Fanny Farrelly (CeCe McGee-Newbrough), the widowed matriarch of a suburban D.C. mansion, preparing for the arrival of her daughter Sara (Theresa Riffle), whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years, along with Sara’s German husband, Kurt Muller (John Coe), and their children Joshua (Eli Pendry), Babette (Katie McMorrow) and Bodo (Andrew Sharpe).
    By way of preparation, Fanny barks orders to her butler, Joseph (Daniel M. Lopez II) and her live-in housekeeper, Anise (Mary MacLeod). She badgers her bachelor son David (Benjamin Wolff) about every aspect of his life that falls short of the standard set by his late father. She discusses with her houseguests, Count Teck de Brancovis of Romania (Timothy Sayles) and his young wife Marthe (Shannon Benil) such pressing issues as the weather, menus, jewelry and the social aspects of ambassadorial life. When she finally meets her son-in-law and grandchildren for the first time, it is with left-handed compliments and outright insults veiled as teasing. One understands why Sara stayed away for two decades.
    For one mind-numbing hour, we learn little more than the fact that the Mullers are impoverished and itinerant because of Kurt’s anti-Fascist work … that the Count and Countess are equally but secretly penniless … that Marthe is unhappy in her marriage … and that David is perhaps interested in her.
    The goldplate on their civility ­tarnishes when Teck rifles Kurt’s luggage for clues to his mysterious background. Teck, as it turns out, is an opportunistic aristocratic who know that Kurt is wanted for political crimes against the Nazi party. Being a gentleman, however, he offers to forget he ever saw Kurt in exchange for $10,000 hush money. Feeling that he must return home to save the lives of three colleagues, Kurt takes the blackmail into his own lawless hands and bids a tearful goodbye to his family. Fanny is left to cope with the realization that her world is no longer the safe cocoon she supposed it to be.
    Despite the play’s slow start, when the action finally comes, it explodes like a grenade. Meanwhile, the cast works hard to push their characters beyond their stodgy trappings. McGee-Newbrough brings a mix of condescension and compassion to her dowager widow. Sayles makes a suave and ominous villain. Wolff is the perfect put-upon eldest child, and Benil evokes our compassion as the embittered child bride. MacLeod is so comfortable as the long-time maid that she feels like ­family. As for the more sympathetic Mullers, Coe and Riffle blend a feeling of genuine affection with an air of mystery, while the children are models of comportment and cosmopolitan ­sophistication.
    The exquisite set features period antiques and a console radio that croons big-band swing. The costumes are sumptuous with gowns in moiré, chiffon and lace, and the men wear silk smoking jackets as they puff on their fruity pipes. The nostalgic trappings are so nice that they almost make one yearn for that simpler, more elegant time. Almost.
    In an era of sound bites where life is cheap both at home and abroad, this show may try your patience rather than keep you engaged. There are, however, exceptions: History buffs, amateur sociologists and enthusiasts of black-and-white cinematic classics will find this morality tale interesting.


Director: Terry Averill. Set designer: David Pindell. Sound: Sarah Wade. Lights: Matthew Shogren. Costumes: Bonnie Persinger. Fight choreographer: Mark Allen.

Playing thru Mar. 21: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Mar. 8): Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.