Schumer leaves her mark on raunchy rom-com

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)
Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)

By Richard Ades

We knew Amy Schumer was funny. Likewise, SNL alum Bill Hader.

But who knew LeBron James could slam-dunk a joke almost as easily as he does a basketball? That’s just one of the revelations crammed into Trainwreck, a raunchy rom-com that’s awash in hilarious surprises.

Written by and starring Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids), Trainwreck is tailor-made for the current queen of provocative comedy. Schumer even plays a New Yorker named Amy who, like her stage persona, indulges in a life of bed-hopping abandon.

That is, she does until she meets Aaron Conner (Hader), a sports physician who volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not keeping James and other athletes in competition-worthy shape. Assigned to interview Aaron for the aggressively hip magazine that employs her, Amy soon finds herself questioning the prejudice against monogamy that she learned from her cynical father (Colin Quinn).

Incidentally, the scene in which Dad imparts that advice to an adolescent Amy and her little sister is the first of the flick’s hilarious surprises. But since comedy is always better when it catches you unawares, I’ll say nothing more about that moment except to advise you to get to the theater on time.

Throughout the movie, Schumer is a delight, whether Amy is having her way with a one-night stand or trying to convince Aaron she really does know something about sports. Schumer even handles the rare detours into pathos with aplomb. Maybe she’s not quite as versatile as Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, but she’s no one-trick pony, either.

Even more surprising is screenwriter Schumer’s ability to make the most out of the film’s innumerable supporting players, including prominent sports figures.

Appearing as himself, James generates laughs whether he’s arguing over a check or talking up the hometown that welcomed him back after his sojourn in Miami. Fellow NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire also is effective, playing himself during one of his bouts with knee injuries.

Funniest of all is the WWE’s John Cena, who plays the pre-Aaron Amy’s closest thing to a steady guy. A particularly funny bedroom scene even finds a way to utilize Cena’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

Non-sports-related players include familiar Saturday Night Live faces such as alum Quinn and current cast member Vanessa Bayer. Also prominent are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s blithely nasty boss and Brie Larson as her happily married sister.

Is there anything wrong with Trainwreck? Well, some of the transitions seem a bit abrupt, if you want to be picky. I also could have done without the “homage” to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Not only does it remind us of an even better film (never a good idea), but it includes a humorless dig at Allen himself.

A more welcome detour consists of scenes from a fictitious avant-garde movie about a dog walker played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. Trainwreck is so full of such throwaway moments that it’s one of the few flicks that would benefit from a second viewing, just so you can catch the subtle jokes you missed the first time.

In recent weeks, Schumer has been criticized for making supposedly misguided jokes about racial and ethnic matters. After initially explaining that the comments were made in the guise of the clueless chick she used to play in standup routines, she vowed to do better.

Let’s hope Schumer doesn’t censor herself too much. Her first big-screen vehicle demonstrates that we’re all the winners when Amy is free to be Amy.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Trainwreck, rated R, opens Friday (July 16) at theaters nationwide.

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Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?

Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)
Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)

By Richard Ades

If you’re like most people, you think America’s gay rights movement began with New York’s 1969 Stonewall rebellion.

Well, it did and it didn’t. The uprising was a prime catalyst, but a few brave souls were already fighting anti-gay discrimination nearly two decades earlier. Their efforts are the subject of Jon Marans’s The Temperamentals.

The play is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a red-baiting era when homosexuals are treated with as much suspicion as communists. And it so happens that the main protagonists, Harry Hay (Brent Alan Burington) and Rudi Gernreich (Adam Greenbaum Latek), are both.

Though outwardly more conservative than Rudi, Harry is the one who seems determined to challenge the status quo.

Taking advantage of costume designer Rudi’s connections, he approaches Hollywood bigwigs such as Vincente Minnelli (David Allen Vargo) and asks them to sign a manifesto he’s drawn up on the rights of “temperamentals” (the euphemistic 1950s term for homosexuals). Not surprisingly, Minnelli and others are afraid to have anything to do with the document.

Eventually, Harry and Rudi do gather a tiny group of like-minded men and found the Mattachine Society, an organization devoted to the cause of equality. However, they accomplish little until Dale (Donnie Lockwood) is arrested on the trumped-up charge of soliciting sex from an undercover cop.

Such ruses are common in these pre-enlightened times, as gay men are so desperate to keep their sexual identity a secret that they willingly pay a hefty fine to make the charge go away. But when Dale says he can’t afford to take that route, Harry suggests a bold alternative: Admit his homosexuality while declaring his innocence. Members of the jury will be so impressed by his brave honesty, Harry reasons, that they’ll have to believe him.

In a perfect world, such a courageous act would inspire more courageous acts, all of which would lead to the kind of acceptance the Mattachine Society was seeking. But our world isn’t perfect, and it was even less so in the 1950s. Thus, The Temperamentals is the story of a movement that proves to be ahead of its time.

Because it remains true to history, with its mix of triumphs and disappointments, the play lacks an overall dramatic arc. But it makes up for it by documenting the huge barriers early gay activists faced. And not all the barriers were external; a big first step was learning how to communicate with each other about their shared heartaches and frustrations.

Director Douglas Whaley helps us understand these struggles by drawing relatable performances out of his cast. Burington anchors the production as the abrasive, impatient Hay, while Latek offers contrast as the more diplomatic Rudi. Besides Lockwood’s Dale, other founding members of the Mattachine Society are Chuck (Vargo) and Bob (Mark Phillips Schwamberger).

In addition to their central roles, all of the actors except for Burington play multiple supporting roles, both men and women. For the most part, they rise to the multitasking occasion.

Like Evolution Theatre Company’s spring production of Yank! The Musical, The Temperamentals is an imperfect but engrossing work that offers insights into gay life in the mid-20th century. That makes it invaluable.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Temperamentals through July 18 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Will Richard III get into a turf battle with Tony Soprano?

Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)
Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)

By Richard Ades

When I heard Actors’ Theatre was going to turn Richard III into a 1950s American crime saga, my first thought was: How are they going to explain the title character’s best-known line: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Are they going to pretend that 20th-century mobsters have traded their Cadillacs and Lincolns in for four-legged transportation?

As it turns out, the relocated Shakespearean drama runs into problems long before Richard utters the iconic lament. Thankfully, good acting helps to salvage the production, but not before viewers have spent much of the proceedings scratching their heads.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why director Jennifer Feather Youngblood decided to recast Richard and his followers as mobsters. In his attempt to satisfy his lust for power, he’s as ruthless and violent as any Mafia capo.

Unfortunately for Feather Youngblood and her cast, Shakespeare refuses to cooperate. His script is clearly about someone aspiring to be England’s king, not the head of some crime syndicate. The tale is so immersed in British history and geography that you quickly forget it’s been relocated to 20th-century America. It simply comes across as Shakespeare that’s being performed in relatively modern dress.

To make matters worse, viewers apparently aren’t the only ones who don’t buy the hop across the pond. Most of the cast doesn’t, either. Though a few of the smaller roles are played with Jersey accents, Geoff Wilson’s Richard and most of his cohorts and victims speak in standard Shakespearean English.

Complementing the inconsistent accents is the production’s inconsistent tone. Most of the play’s many murders are handled with appropriate solemnity, but one is as darkly comedic as if it had been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Most inconsistent—and jarring—of all is the recorded music that accompanies each scene change. It seems to have little to do with what’s happening around it.

For example, after Richard sends a pair of assassins to dispatch his trusting brother Clarence (David Ailing), the air is suddenly filled with the strains of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire. If you’re like me, this will leave you with two responses: (1) “Oh, that’s right, this is supposed to be 1950s America” and (2) “Huh?” It’s hard to fathom why the rockabilly hit is being used to introduce an act of outright villainy.

One gets the feeling that Feather Youngblood envisioned an interpretation of Richard III that was much more sardonic—and, obviously, more American—than it ended up being. The result is that it comes across as a production with multiple, clashing personalities.

As I said, good acting helps to make the show entertaining despite its problems, particularly in Act 2. As for Act 1, I should mention that I didn’t see it at its best, as the performance I saw was plagued with annoying sound problems prior to intermission. But the script itself is also a problem early on: Shakespeare bombards us with so many historical characters and intrigues that we struggle to keep them all straight.

By Act 2, thanks to Richard’s murderous machinations, many of these characters have disappeared. This leaves us free to enjoy the rousing arguments and battles of those who remain.

Throughout, Wilson’s Richard is a powerhouse, exuding evil from every pore of his twisted frame. The rest of the cast also is consistently strong, even though it speaks with inconsistent accents.

Three actors are particularly notable as a trio of wronged women: Vicky Welsh Bragg as former Queen Margaret, Beth Josephsen as current Queen Elizabeth and Christina Yoho as Lady Anne. Male characters who stand out from the crowd include Ailing’s Clarence, Alexander Chilton’s Buckingham, Philip J. Hickman’s King Edward IV and Robert Philpott’s heroic Richmond. In a prominent smaller role, Jason Speicher is memorable as the goon-like Ratcliffe.

Maybe it’s because I share his name, but I have to point out that not everyone believes the actual Richard III was as evil as the Bard portrays him. Nevertheless, he makes a great villain. Even though you almost need a degree in English history to understand his world—and even though Actors’ Theatre further complicates matters by pretending he’s an American gangster—it’s fun to watch him connive his way to the throne.

Especially since you know he’ll eventually have that problem with the horse.

Actors’ Theatre of Columbus will present Richard III through Aug. 2 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (donations accepted at intermission). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.