A Weekend’s Entertainment: Monument Men, Jonathan Groff at American Songbook (Lincoln Center), Bertolt Brecht’s “A Man’s A Man” at Classic Stage Company

I began the weekend by seeing “The Monument Men,” a new movie from George Clooney based on the story of a special U.S. Army unit that functioned in Europe towards the end of World War II in an attempt to reclaim art stolen by the Nazis. Some reviews have pointed out that this story has been depicted in film before, and questioned whether it needed to be shown again. I found the movie to be a bit disconnected in terms of its flow, and ultimately unconvincing as drama, although there were a few scenes that worked particularly well. Cate Blanchett was oddly stiff as a French woman who worked as a secretary for a Nazi occupation commander in Paris but ultimately divulged information to one of the U.S. Army team, played by Matt Damon, but without getting into any kind of romantic involvement between them. Sort of odd for a Hollywood picture. John Goodman was wasted in this, as was Bill Murray. These guys are great comic actors, but their parts were significantly underwritten. Bob Balaban was fun, and it was kind of neat to see Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey (Hugh Bonneville) as a British member of the team. Of course, at the time of these events, he would have been rather elderly to be pressed into such service, having served in a regiment in World War I (and, of course, he wasn’t actually playing Lord Grantham… but now in my eyes he is that part). I wouldn’t say the movie is a total bomb, but I wouldn’t call it a smash either. Just OK for entertainment.

On Saturday night, I attended the first of two shows by Jonathan Groff in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, presented at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s facility in Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Groff first came to my attention for his star turn in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway. He’s done a fair amount of off Broadway work, appeared in several TV series (including Glee), and is now starring in the HBO series “Looking” about the lives of gay men in San Francisco. The format for these programs is that there is no published song-list distributed to the audience. Instead, in the sort-of simulated nightclub setting of the Allen Room, the performer introduces the songs from the stage, interspersed with autobiographical material and light patter. At the 7:30 show (there would be a repeat at 9:30), Groff did rather more talking than one would expect, although there were 14 songs performed over the space of about 75 minutes. (No intermission.) Groff is charming and, perhaps, talks too much for this format. It would have been nice to have heard a few more songs. He knows how to “put over” a song, but doesn’t have total control of his voice in the higher range. I thought some of the falsetto singing sounded sweet with the amplification but was not always really true to pitch. But he does get into the spirit of the songs, and it was clear that several of them had really deep meaning for him. I was glad to have attended, but I hope he learned some things about putting together and presenting this kind of program (it was his first such solo gig in Manhattan) and would do an even better job if invited back.

Bertolt Brecht’s play “A Man’s a Man” is a product of his German years before seeking refuge in the U.S., and was presented in an English translation by Gerhard Nellhaus. Not knowing the original, I would not know how faithful the translation was in rendering idiomatic German into idiomatic English. An all-male cast included female characters in drag, sometimes obviously not intended to be realistic. I was reminded frequently of Monty Python, but less fantastically humorous. I found some stretches of the first act rather tedious and tended to tune out briefly, but the second act, which was more coherently plotted, worked better for me. There were several cast substitutions, not surprising in that this was the last performance of the run on Sunday afternoon. I would not have gone out of my way to attend this, but my play-going companion was attracted by Stephen Spinella being in the cast and music by Duncan Sheik. This wasn’t conceived by Brecht as a musical, as far as I know, but Sheik composed some songs to be interspersed at key moments, and they were interesting. Spinella was superb, as always, as he always is in everything he is in. He is a treasure, one of our great actors, ever since making his big splash in the original Broadway production of Angels in America… Kaufmann’s new recording of Schubert’s Winterreise is released this week, and I have it on order. Couldn’t possibly pass that one up!

So, on balance, an interesting weekend without anything being a real overwhelming success. But this coming weekend I have Werther (Jonas Kaufmann, be still my heart) at the Met and Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, so I expect great things.

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