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A sequel without a lot to say

Paris Portokalos (Elena Kampouris: American Odyssey) longs to escape her family. Her mother, Toula (Nia Vardalos: Star vs. The Forces of Evil), is clingy and desperate, her grandfather pressures her to get married and make babies at 17 and the rest of them are loud and obnoxious. Paris hopes to flee to college far, far away. Her mother counters by pressuring her daughter to stay close to home.
    Toula smothers her daughter because that’s how she’s learned to act by the family she never escaped. Though she married an outsider, Ian (John Corbett: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll), Toula is deeply ensconced in Portokalos life. She is a caregiver for her aging father, a stalker of her daughter and the family fixer of problems. It’s a great arrangement for the family, but Toula is exhausted and neglectful of her husband.
    When grandparents Gus and Maria (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan) discover that, due to a technicality, they were never married, the family assumes the duo will head down the aisle to rectify the error. Gus is willing, but after 50 years of subservience to the domineering Portokalos patriarch, Maria isn’t so sure.
    The family tells Toula to fix it.
    A sequel to the family-friendly original, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is a meander with sparse laughs and a thin plot. Vardalos, who wrote the original and the sequel, draws on her family experiences. For this installment, she brings back all the old jokes, from the patriarch’s obsession with Windex to the white neighbors who think the Greeks are creepy and weird.
    Disaster is averted by winning performances. Andrea Martin (Difficult People) and Kazan both know how to sell hokey humor. They make a running gag about neck pulling workable and manage to make their overbearing personalities endearing.
    Vardalos doesn’t fare so well. The point of the first film was Toula’s finding her voice and asserting herself. She hasn’t.
    And this sequel isn’t My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 94 mins.

Life, love and inspiration from a humble hiding place

The miracle of Anne’s work is that no matter our background, it feels like she is talking directly to us. Indeed. Those are the words of Steve Tobin, the director of Compass Rose’s beautifully constructed production of The Diary of Anne Frank. In the playbill’s director’s note, he goes on to say, “The triumph of her story is that more than 70 years later we are still telling it, and still being inspired to be better members of the human race.” The wit and wisdom generated by a young teenager stuck for two years in the crowded upper rooms of her father’s workplace in Amsterdam as the Nazis surrounded city blocks to ferret out Jews still resonate today because Anne’s energy love for life and intelligence are timeless. But it was, of course, the extraordinary circumstances that make her diary, and its recovery, close to a miracle. At Compass Rose, Tobin and his cast and crew completely commit themselves to the universal truths of this story, and the result is an emotional, suspenseful and sometimes funny tale of life, love and inspiration. Mia Goodman is young, but her acting credentials are impressive even for an adult: Ford’s Theatre, Arena Stage and Signature Theater, to name a few. Goodman pours every ounce of that impressive pedigree into her portrayal of Anne. She’s a typical young teen, but with a depth of understanding of her situation that manifests itself not so much in fear as in optimism. When Hanukkah threatens to slip by uncelebrated but with a prayer, Anne comes to the rescue with a special homemade gift for each of her compatriots. In this scene and others, Goodman gives us an Anne whose buoyancy and love cannot be contained by her circumstances. When she writes in her diary she talks directly to the audience, and Goodman’s depth as an actress, combined with her youth, make us believe she is indeed talking directly to each of us. Goodman’s performance is, in a word, captivating. Her supporting cast achieves the same standard. As Mr. Frank, Steve Lebens is wise, understanding and brave in a very impressive performance. Alicia Sweeney gives us a Mrs. Frank who displays an inherent love and generosity that cracks when one of the other adults is caught stealing food. Jenny Donovan does a fine job as Anne’s sister Margot. As Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, the guests whom the Franks generously offered hiding, Bryant Centofanti and Jill Kyle-Keith are suitably contentious. Their son Peter is very nicely played by Eli Pendry, who subtly allows Peter’s teenaged nervousness and awkwardness to wane as his friendship with Anne grows. Edd Miller is impressive as Mr. Dussel, the latecomer whose demanding crankiness melts into an acceptance of his situation and a love for the family who have taken him in. And Rachael Murray is effective as Miep, everyone’s connection to the outside world. Helping transport us into a cramped 1940s hiding place are the multi-level set by Tobin, appropriate costumes by Beth Terranova, props by Joann and Mike Gidos and lighting by Alex Brady that is so emotionally effective it almost acts as another character. Anne Frank’s words on the page are inspiring. In the hands of these outstanding performers, they, and we, are transformed. We understand how, despite her circumstances, she could write: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

About two hours with one intermission.

Thru April 17. Th 7pm; F 8pm; Sa 8pm (and 2pm April 9 & 16); Su 2pm, Compass Rose Theater, Annapolis, $38 w/ discounts:; 410-980-6662.

John Goodman proves a horror movie lives on the power of its monster

“I’m going to keep you alive.”    
    These words chill Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Mercy Street) when she wakes up chained to the wall of an underground bunker. Her savior is Howard (John Goodman: Love the Coopers), an ex-Navy man who tells his captive that he saved her as a disaster ended most life on Earth.
    Michelle is skeptical, as one might be on awakening in underwear, injured and chained. But Howard swears his intentions are altruistic while the air outside is toxic. Eventually, he releases her from the chains.
    She meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.: The Newsroom), who fought to get inside this bunker. He offers Michelle vague reassurances of a light in the sky and bad things happening. She begins to believe.
    The problem is, the bunker isn’t safe either. Though it’s well stocked and comfortable enough, Howard is a malevolent benefactor. He watches Michelle constantly, creeps up behind her and flies into a violent rage when she doesn’t behave the way he wants.
    Should she brave the world? Or find a way to live with Howard?
    A claustrophobic thriller about three people hoping to survive each other’s company, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a sequel in name only to the frenetic monster movie Cloverfield. This restrained, tense thriller focuses most of its horror inward, creating dark and disturbing feelings without special effects.
    Goodman excels. His Howard ranks with the most deeply unsettling characters ever created on the silver screen. Goodman obliterates his loveable-dad stereotype with Howard, a monster who is so frightening because he’s so believable. Everything about him is eerie, from his mood swings to his calm, nonsensical monologues. Goodman never pushes the character too far, and as a result Howard becomes more menacing. His every move is insidious, whether he’s pounding a fist into the wall or dancing to music on an ancient jukebox.
    As Michelle, Winstead lets her expressive face to do most of the work. She makes it clear that Howard makes her skin crawl. But Michelle is not a victim; she is a survivor, and Winstead gives a determined set to her jaw that tells us she will fight to make it.
    Making his impressive debut, director Dan Trachtenberg wisely allows the actors to do most of the heavy lifting, keeping camera work minimal. He shoots most scenes in uncomfortable close-ups, emphasizing the forced proximity of the bunker. Though it’s a great debut, the film flags at the end, which feels tacked on from a different script. Still, it’s a small flaw.
    A tight thriller with brilliant performances, this movie will give you goose bumps for years to come.

Great Horror • PG-13 • 103 mins.

Disney gives kids a talk on racism that parents also need to hear

In the metropolis of Zootopia, predators and prey have evolved past biological impulses. Lions and lambs live together in harmony and work for the future of all mammal kind.
    Everyone lives in peace, but not all things are equal. Predators tend to jobs that require forceful personalities, such as police officers or poli­ticians. Prey cluster in service fields. So Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin: Once Upon a Time) is laughed at for dreaming of joining the Zootopia police force.
    A tiny bunny with a quick mind and bold spirit, Judy isn’t an obvious choice for a force full of powerful wolves, elephants and lions. But she doesn’t let her size or status stop her. Judy finds ways to outwit and outmaneuver other classmates until she’s tops at the Police Academy.
    But prejudice endures, and her police captain (voiced by Idris Elba: Beasts of No Nation) refuses to give her cases. To prove herself by cracking a case that’s stumped fellow officers, she teams up with Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman: The Gift), a con artist fox.
    Can a fox and a bunny work together? Or are they doomed by biology?
    In the era of Black Lives Matter protests, Zootopia is a timely story about the insidious nature of bigotry. The film explores the hurt wrought by harmless assumptions and teaches kids the dangers of judging on preconceptions.
    The most interesting part of the message is that everyone is guilty of stereotyping. Good people aren’t good because they’re without prejudice but because they can acknowledge poor behavior, apologize to those they’ve hurt and change. It’s a message that should help parents start a very tricky talk about discrimination.
    Zootopia also offers small viewers a great female role model. Judy is tiny and weak, and she fails a lot. But she doesn’t stop trying to achieve her dream. A fiercely independent bunny with a great work ethic, Judy remains kind and caring to all. It is wonderful for children to see that she can be both kind and tough without compromising who she is or what she believes.
    Bateman’s Nick is the sly foil to Goodwin’s perky bunny. Because he’s a fox, he’s assumed to be a liar and a thief. And that’s what he’s become, in a direct lesson on the consequences of stereotyping.
    Even little ones who are too small to understand Zootopia’s range of social commentary will enjoy the animal puns, silly humor and gorgeous animation. Zootopia doesn’t carry the same emotional impact as a Pixar film, but it more than makes up with meticulous animation, family-friendly humor and its timely, believable message. 
    If you’re looking for a way to open a conversation with your kids about racism and the harm it causes, Zootopia will help you get the ball rolling.

Great Animation • PG • 108 mins.

One man soars toward his dream in this winning underdog tale

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton: Legend) isn’t a winner. With braces on his legs and thick glasses covering most of his face, Eddie doesn’t look the Olympian. Yet that’s his dream, and when the braces come off, training begins.
    But for what? He starts chucking javelins, attempting high jumps and lifting weights. Eddie breaks plenty of pairs of glasses — but no records — as he fumbles toward Olympic glory.
    Eddie’s mother is endlessly supportive. His father wishes Eddie would stop with this nonsense and become something respectable, like a plasterer. Eddie perseveres, deciding to go for gold as an Olympic ski jumper.
    Three problems get in the way: First, Eddie has never ski jumped. Second, no ski jumper has represented England in the Olympics for decades. Third, ski jumping is one of the most dangerous winter Olympic sports; an inch off on a landing can shatter a jumper’s legs or spine.
    His first few runs are disastrous. He’s the laughing stock of the slopes. Practiced at ignoring ridicule, he continues his dangerous pursuit. Eventually he catches the eye of ski jumping burnout Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman: Pan). Eddie and the former Olympian team up for an unconventional story of Olympic glory.
    A multitude of sports movie clichés should make Eddie the Eagle unwatchable. Yet Jackman and Egerton’s winning chemistry make the film charming. Director Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith) lets his actors do most of the work. His big burst of originality is the montage of young Eddie seeking his sport.
    Taron Egerton brings a marvelous oddity to the role of Eddie. He is a twitchy, nerdy little man, but his many quirks belie his steely nerve. You can’t help rooting for him and might well break into applause during his death-defying jumps.
    Jackman gives one of his best performances in years. Instead of shouting and gesticulating, he pulls back, making Bronson’s a sardonic figure instead of a clown.
    A sweet story of one man’s journey to Olympic greatness, the film will leave you cheering.

Good Sports Comedy • PG-13 • 106 mins.

Colonial Players presents a laugh-filled farce with Boeing, Boeing

French playwright Marc ­Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing made a successful takeoff overseas in 1962, playing for seven years in London. But on Broadway three years later, it stalled after 23 performances. A movie version with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis was widely ignored. But a 2008 Broadway revival was a hit, and that version has landed at Colonial Players in Annapolis.
    Bernard (Brandon Bentley), an American living near Orly Airport in Paris, is juggling three fiancées, each an air hostess: Gloria (Debra Kidwell), the American; Gabriella (Sarah Wade), the Italian; and Gretchen (Rebecca Gift) the German. Making meticulous use of airline timetables and the complicity of his French housekeeper Berthe (Cece Mcgee-Newbrough), Bernard has managed smooth flying for his ruse.
    Along for the bumpy ride comes Bernard’s old pal Robert (Colin Hood), a nervous naïf from Wisconsin who can’t believe his friend’s luck in keeping “one up, one down and one pending.” Robert finds himself more than a witness when the planes get faster and weather sets in. That’s when the wit hits the fanjet, and the laughs start to soar.
    As Bernard, Bentley knows how to deliver a punch line and lands several. But by overdoing his physicality, he seems to be trying too hard for a cool, calm lothario. His later breakdown as things … well, break down … is more believable, so perhaps he’ll get comfortable with his sexy baritone and good looks and settle into the role more comfortably as the run progresses.
    As Robert, Hood uses his comic chops to perfection, taking his jittery body and voice right to the edge of credulity and then stepping back just enough so that we not only believe him but also share a certain empathy. He lands a nice transition from nervous pal to would-be lothario.
    As Berthe the housekeeper, Mcgee-Newbrough walks a similar comedic tightrope, balancing physical comedy and character without falling into caricature. Her lines are funny. but what she does with those lines is even funnier. Her almost silent but quite physical reaction when she first discovers that two of the fiancées have somehow infiltrated the flat at the same time is 15 seconds of comic angst that alone are worth the price of admission.
    As the stewardesses, Kidwell, Gift and Wade shine. Wearing brilliantly colored stewardess costumes by designer Christina McAlpine, each maintains a credible accent and her own brand of clichéd character — but it’s in the clichés that the comedy works.
    Gretchen is the dominating German whose voice and body are whip smart and just as stinging. Gift maintains the dominatrix attitude with aplomb; a long early scene with Robert flies by as she and Hood circle and collide hilariously. Wade’s cooing Italian and Kidwell’s Betty Boop-like cosmo girl each commands her own entertaining niche, while still being brilliant at the ensemble work that the play demands.
    Director Scott Nichols, who also chose the fun 1960s soundtrack, keeps the timing tight. Even on opening night there was nary a blip.
    So fasten your seat belts, put your tray tables up and fly on over to Colonial for a laugh-filled flight to farce.

ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm & 7:30 thru March 12. 108 East St., Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; Two and a half hours with intermission.

Stage manager Dave Carter; Set designer Alan Zemla; Lighting designer Eric Lund.

A flawed but funny romantic comedy

Four New York women explore the complexities of love.
    Alice (Dakota Johnson: 50 Shades of Grey) moves to the city to find herself. But single life in the big city is rough, and she can’t get her boyfriend back. Alone and hoping for a grand romance, she restarts her search for Mr. Right.
    Alice’s sister Met (Leslie Mann: Vacation) is at the other extreme. This independent Ob/Gyn looks for happiness in work rather than love. When she decides to have a baby, she visits a sperm bank and prepares for single-motherhood. Pregnant and content, she meets a younger man who makes her rethink singlehood.
    Coworker Robin (Rebel Wilson: Pitch Perfect 2) lives for hookup. Drinking and sleeping her way through the city, Robin offers to be Alice’s guide to single life.
    Lucy (Alison Brie: Doctor Thorne) lives over Alice’s favorite bar. So determined is she to find the right man that she designs algorithms to help her navigate dating sites. Then a promiscuous bartender tempts her to follow her heart rather than her chart.
    Will any of these women find love? Or is life in the city heart-crushing?
    A surprisingly progressive romantic comedy, How to be Single suffers from a single problem: Alice. The lead of this ensemble piece is such a boring, spineless mope that it’s amazing she’s capable of making friends, let alone attracting love. It isn’t Johnson’s fault; she does what she can with terrible material. It’s insipid characterization by director Christian Ditter (Love, Rosie)
    The other actresses are more entertaining, and the film works best when Ditter lets them riff. Mann is the most likeable, while Wilson takes a page from John Belushi’s playbook, acting the buffoon. Brie is an odd case. She is charming but separate from the other women, popping up now and again like a Jack-in-the-box.
    Though uneven and underwritten, How To Be Single offers some interesting options. Each woman gets a happy ending, though perhaps not the one she imagined. Some find that romance isn’t the only route to love and satisfaction. Love can flourish with a good friend, or within yourself. It’s a powerful message that subverts the notion that marriage is the narrow road to happiness ever after.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 110 mins.


This Ferris Bueller of superheroes shows the Marvel squares how it’s done

Former Special Forces soldier Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds: Self/less) is a terrible hero, eking out a living as a mercenary. His main interests are having sex with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin: Gotham), starting bar fights and cracking wise.
    Then Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer. To buy time with Vanessa, he signs up for experimental treatments at a shady corporate facility. Unsurprisingly, Wade is subjected to terrible things.
    The experiments leave him disfigured but able to quickly heal and regenerate tissue. Vowing vengeance, Wade dons a red costume, grabs a gun and introduces himself as Deadpool.
    Director Tim Miller makes his feature debut with a clever take on a hackneyed story. Miller subverts your basic hero-origin story by exaggerating all of the familiar tropes. The film mocks everything from the X-Men to star Reynolds’ disastrous performance in The Green Lantern. The opening credits set the tone, mocking superhero actors, crew and concept.
    The only Marvel character aware that he’s in a comic book, Deadpool also knows he’s in a movie. He pauses the action to talk directly to the audience and joke about Marvel franchises. He is, in essence, the Ferris Bueller of superheroes. Reynolds runs with it, creating a hero who’s sarcastic, violent and oddly loveable. He and his character thrive on outrageousness, which works well in a film that revels in the ridiculous.
    The supporting cast, including cameos by a few X-Men, help make Deadpool light fun. An especially odd sequence featuring his adventures with a cab driver morphs in no time from silly to sick. Deadpool’s shocking humor works because the whole cast trades barbs as easily as they trade blows.
    Deadpool is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Action, comedy and vulgarity are the standards this film rises to, with plenty of naked people, curse words and exploding heads to keep the popcorn masses enthralled. But if you’re tired of the milquetoast brand of superheroes mass-marketed with every new Marvel release, Deadpool will energize you.

Great Action • R •108 mins.

Compass Rose shows why ­Tennessee Williams deserves his reputation

Reportedly Tennessee Williams’s favorite of his plays — which is saying something — and what many consider his best — which is also saying something when you consider his prolific output — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered on Broadway in 1955 and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama.
    Williams’s proclivity for tearing the facades off the American dream, particularly those of southern Americans whose culture used to seem so different from the rest of the country, still resonates today. At its core is the very use and meaning of the word mendacity: the inability of so many families to be honest with themselves and each other.
    The famous 1958 movie classic starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor is a diluted version of this powerful and at times jarring drama.
    At Compass Rose Theater, director Lucinda Merry-Browne has assembled the cast of strong actors the play demands. They immerse themselves in the mendacious undercurrents of Williams’s work while inviting the audience to understand the motivations that have led into each abyss of dishonesty. They do what is most critical in Williams’s familial works: relate to each other and keep the pace moving.
    These are icons of American drama. Big Daddy, the rich landowner, is protected by his family’s lies from the truth about his mortality. Brick, his youngest son, douses with alcohol the flames of a forbidden love. Maggie the Cat, Brick’s frustrated wife, escaped poverty to marry into a family rich only in material goods.
    Each is depicted here by solid actors who understand what their lines mean and how they relate to those of the other characters. It’s an accomplishment that can be subtle. Led by Browne and assistant director Steve Tobin, these talented actors bring to this well-known story realism that lends it freshness and an edge that cuts to the bone.
    As Brick and Maggie, Jacques Mitchell and Katrina Clark open with a long scene of exposition that reveals their depth of despair. Mitchell gives us a Brick who seems a touch laid back at first, as he figuratively shuts down in the face of Maggie’s pleading, cajoling and lecturing. But when he uncoils in anger or frustration or honesty, Mitchell’s Brick is bared, earning our sympathy and scaring us a little.
    Clark’s Maggie is in love with her husband yet can sink her claws into his psyche with the twist of a word or a memory. We are so sucked in that it’s a shock when they are suddenly interrupted by other characters.
    As Big Daddy, Gary Goodson’s physical command of the stage is matched by his vocal command, with modulations that can be funny or threatening. When Big Daddy and Brick have the protracted, emotional and probing conversation in which Brick, of all people, finally tells his father the truth, two fine actors allow themselves to be carried away by some of Williams’s finest writing.
    Hillary Mazer as Big Mama is as bombastic as the husband who loathes her. Chris Dwyer as Cooper, Brick’s older brother, and Samantha Merrick, his wife, do a fine job as a couple whose love is driven by mendacity.
    See it and be reminded of why Tennessee Williams is one of the best American playwrights ever to put to paper the pen of profundity.

Th 7pm, FSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm thru Feb 28. 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis, $38 w/discounts:

Stage manager, Michelle Wood; Lighting designer, Ethan Vail; ­Costume designer, Cameron Ashbaugh; Props, Mike & Joann Gidos.

2nd Star Productions updates this classic with color-blind casting

Legendary acting gave The Philadelphia Story its fame. Philip Barry’s so-so comedic drama about high society marriage and divorce in the 1930s is synonymous with Katherine Hepburn, who debuted the show on Broadway and starred on screen opposite Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. That’s a hard legacy to live up to.
     Renowned for outstanding musicals, 2nd Star Productions tries to update this classic with color-blind casting. But this time the troupe aims higher than it can reach.
    The action covers a pivotal 24 hours in the life of golden girl Tracy Lord (Erica Miller), a privileged ice princess who finds her heart as she searches her soul to choose between three dissimilar men. The occasion is her impending wedding to establishment tycoon George Kittredge (Akili Brown). The society event summons attention from poet-cum-reporter Mike Connor (Erik Hatcher) and impish ex-husband, Dexter Haven (Joshua Hampton). George adores her as a goddess, Mike appreciates her surprising innocence and Dexter acknowledges both qualities — plus his culpability in souring their love.
     Subplots center on Tracy’s family: literary brother Sandy (Alex Hyder), meddling little sister Dinah (Miranda Newheart), philandering father Seth (Brian Binney) and long-suffering mother Margaret (Rosalie Daelemans), for whose sake they welcome the press in hopes of averting a public scandal. Uncle Willie (Gene Valendo) lends comic relief as resident philosopher and lecherous geezer smitten as he is with press photographer Liz Imbrie (Nina Y. Marti), who is in love with Mike. There is also the requisite black butler (Wendell Holland) and two domestics, May (Mary Retort-George) and Elsie (Lily George).
     This production stumbles on relevance and credibility. As the central characters bumble through a haze of champagne and sexist humor toward an incendiary misunderstanding, a relevant question is posed.
    “What place does a woman like Tracy have in the world today?”
    In our era of Kardashian socialites, that 80-year-old line describes an anachronism.
    Confounding credibility is the directorial concept of Tracy’s interracial engagement to George. For these characters, such a union would have been unthinkable. That scenario was the impetus for a different Hepburn blockbuster — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — 40 years later.
     Stepping in for another director, Christopher Overly, who starred as Father in 2nd Star’s musical Children of Eden, inherited a challenge. The principals deliver their own brand of Hepburn’s fiery ice, Grant’s suavity and Stewart’s guileless charm, but they cannot live up to the expectation set by that charmed trio. Despite yet another award-worthy set from company founder Jane B. Wingard, this show feels immature and, at two and a half hours with two intermissions, long.

FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, thru Feb. 20. Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts:

Stage manager, Joanne D. Wilson; Costumes, Linda Swann; Lights & sound, Garrett R. Hyde