A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood  is a dramatization of the real-life friendship between the beloved Fred Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) and the investigative reporter,  Lloyd Vogel (a pseudonym for Tom Junod.). Vogel (played by Emmy winner Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”), is a journalist known for being cynical and abrasive. He is given the assignment to profile the beloved PBS television host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Fred Rogers (the incomparable Tom Hanks), But he is determined to reveal that no one can have such a good and warm-hearted nature.

A feel-good story of kindness and integrity triumphing over cynicism, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a chronicle of the groundbreaking show which became a cultural touchstone for more than two generations of children. [The show ran on PBS from 1968-2001, with a total of  895 episodes.]  Rather the US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of.    This  takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling.  (For an excellent documentary of the history and development of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, see my review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, March 17, 2019.)

There is a dual plot. Roger’s empathy, kindness and decency prove to be an anodyne to Vogel’s unhealed wounds.  This forces the reporter to reconcile with his own painful relationship with his father (played by an astounding Chris Cooper, most recently in “Little Women”).   What children and their parents find endearing about Fred Rogers soon affects Vogel deeply:   the psychological healing when Rogers probes Vogel’s feelings about his parents the same way he taps into children’s.  The surprise for viewers is how much both the personalities–Rogers and Vogel–play off each other and gain strength from their relationship. 

Tom Hanks channels Fred Rogers in a jaw-dropping performance, including his vocal range, body language, and facial expressions. The viewer gets a powerful, touching tribute to Fred Rogers and the impact he had on so many children’s lives.  Matthew Rhys’s performance as Vogel matches the accomplished brilliance of Hanks.  The death scenes for both Vogel’s mother and father are  memorable and moving, with a theatrical sensibility of the stage, –stripped clean of any background noise or special effects–and a nuanced, impossible-to-forget performance by Chris Cooper.  The entire ensemble cast couldn’t be better

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”.   He tells millions of children all over the world that he likes them just the way they are.   His demonstration of the impact of kindness, –and courageous and positive ways of thinking and dealing with our emotions,–  makes feelings both “mentionable and manageable”. Speaking directly to the camera from his heart and transitioning to a make-believe world may be the most startling reality-TV show ever.

An unexpected delight to watch for every adult (but not young children).  I thought it would be saccharine…it is not.

Note: Available as a Netflix DVD. May 22 is the 143rd day of the year and a celebration of the late Fred Rogers’ favorite number. Shorthand for “I love you.” Because there is one letter in “I,” four in “love” and three in “you.”) of the calendar year, has been designated as “143 Day” in tribute to Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers is the sixth cousin of Tom Hanks.

“A Doll’s House Part 2”–Knocking on the Door

 

A door slams. The viewer is stunned. Nora makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and three young children. That is where A Doll’s House, the iconic 1879 play by Ibsen, leaves off.

Now the young playwright, Lucas Hnath, has continued Nora’s story in this intriguing Tony-nominated play asking us to imagine her life fifteen years later. Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, opens with a knock on that door. Nora is back.

Nora (Tony-nominated Laurie Metcalf) returns home, but not as we imagined. Now a wealthy best-selling author whose books are loosely based on details of her married life, Nora has become rich on selling the view that marriage is a woman’s prison. We soon learn that Nora herself remains married. Consequently, all contracts and investments she has made in the past fifteen years are now null and void, since married women could not engage in business without their husband’s consent. Unless she can get her husband Torvald to divorce her, she is now worse off than she once was. She may be tried as a criminal.

Metcalf, Houdyshell, Rashad, and Cooper

Yet this is a very different Nora. She’s no longer the person who had to appear “smaller” and “barely visible” in order to be desired by her husband as feminine, needing protection and support. A Doll’s House Part 2 asks the same question Ibsen did in 1879: Can a woman find her own voice in an exclusively male-dominated society?

A Doll’s House Part 2 raises high stakes. In the original classic, Nora chooses her own freedom over that of caring for her young children. Here we see her try to forge an alliance first with her children’s nanny, Anne Marie (the multiple Tony-award nominated   Jayne Houdyshell) and later with her adult daughter, Emmy (played with poignant grace by Condola Rashad). First, Anne Marie, in a scathing rebuke, rejects Nora’s offer of money. After all, Anne Marie has given up caring for her own child in order to be a nanny for Nora’s. Then, Emmy moves in to blistering effect–extolling the virtues of being a married woman and mother, responsibilities Nora rejected.

Chris Cooper & Laurie Metcalf

The astounding Laurie Metcalf constantly acts within her acting, as if she is listening to her own argument in opposition to Torvald’s countering dialog, a riveting feature of this play. Like Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (novels by Evan S. Connell), we see scenes from the same marriage but from completely different perspectives, with very little intersection. Torvald (in a quiet but searing performance by Chris Cooper) is her counterpoint and both actors reveal their wounds in every facial expression, even in the comic relief interjected before the breakdown of the human spirit becomes unbearable.   They box each other into a corner.

Yet, how can people expect to stay together when they are always, individually, changing? Even their emotional truths are disjointed. That is the puzzle and it is left unsolved. Nora as a character will always be defined by her never-to-be-completed quest for independence and fulfillment. The perception that a woman who puts her own needs above her children’s is violating a sacred pact —and the collision of viewpoints: freedom versus duty and obligation, relationships versus solitude, marriage and family versus individual growth —is explosive in the context of gender and social class. A Doll’s House Part 2 almost dares us to see the hypocrisy in considering Nora’s quest and struggle for identity as a human being separate from her roles as mother and wife. The price she has paid to even think it is possible may be too high. How could she have left her children out of self-care and self-love? What about social convention?

A Doll’s House Part 2 is staunchly unapologetic and an extraordinary accomplishment in literature. Each character is given center stage to see the consequences of his or her own failings, a series of unfortunate and tragic events, with visceral angst.

“The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would,” Nora confesses to Torvald. But she’s not prepared to concede defeat. Hnath brings Nora’s struggles to a new generation, knocking on our door once again.