“MIRACLE ON 42nd STREET” at DOC NYC | It’s got jazzy transition music and charismatic star power, plus its archival footage of seedy ’70s Midtown puts HBO’s “The Deuce” to shame — but this documentary on NYC’s iconic housing complex for “qualified singers, actors, dancers, and behind-the-scenes members of the entertainment community” comes up just short by adhering to that old showbiz adage about leaving the audience wanting more.
Running mere minutes over one hour, there’s simply not enough time spent telling the multitude of stories to be found within Manhattan Plaza’s two Mitchell-Lama funded, Section 9, subsidized housing towers between Ninth and 10th Aves. from W. 42nd to 43rd Sts., whose 1,689 apartments house some 3,500 residents — 70 percent of those being performing artists and the rest being neighborhood elderly, and local residents who were living in substandard housing at the time of the project’s construction. That ultra-wonky sentence gives you a good idea of how the film spends its first third, during which even confident narrator Chazz Palminteri can’t bring things out of the weeds.
But when director Alice Elliott gets down to the business of letting the theater impresarios, project backers, Plaza administrators and early-era tenants walk down memory lane, “Miracle on 42nd Street” comes alive with the urgency of artists who struggled for success, and credit Manhattan Plaza with helping them to get there — not only by providing a place whose rent declined when their fortunes did, but also by placing understudies and hoofers within blocks of the theaters where they practiced their craft. It also didn’t hurt to be surrounded by a community eager to help you prep for auditions or give you a life-altering break, free of charge.
We can thank one such act of kindness for the very career of Alicia Keys. “I’m definitely a Manhattan Plaza baby,” she says, attributing “the whole reason I can play piano” to a woman who, upon vacating the building, told her of an old upright, “If you can move it, you can have it.” Keys did so and, not yet in her teen years, wrote a song on that piano after being deeply touched by seeing the 1993 film “Philadelphia.” Although this documentary does not link Keys’ recollection to Manhattan Plaza’s own role in the AIDS crisis, Elliott’s film does chart, to great effect, the toll taken on its community. Archival footage from a CBS news report states, “It’s believed more people have died of AIDS at Manhattan Plaza than in any other residential block in the country.” In response to that need, the Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project was created, which later expanded its mission to care for any resident who was terminally or chronically ill. There’s enough for an entire documentary on that era alone. Watching this section of “Miracle,” one hopes that film exists already, from footage left on the cutting room floor.
Giancarlo Esposito, Donald Faison, Terrance Howard and Samuel L. Jackson are among the big names who no longer live in the building, but practically swoon at its footprint on their formative years. They all have winning stories to tell — but that stingy one-hour running time means they do so at the expense of hearing from current tenants who have worked steadily in the business without achieving marquee status. That’s a shame, yet it’s hard to fault a documentary with frequent appearances by Angela Lansbury and Estelle Parsons, along with video footage from a young Larry David during a Kenny Kramer-booked Manhattan Plaza Tenant Talent Night. Later, when David recalls paying $57 a month upon a November 1977 move to the building, we don’t need the film’s final ruminations about modern-day real estate realities to know the circumstances that created Manhattan Plaza are not likely to happen again. But any miracle built to last has faith as its foundation — and hearing from likeminded people who created an oasis is enough to make you believe that if they did it back then, others might in the future.
Sat., Nov. 11, 7pm at the SVA Theatre (333 W. 23rd St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.). For tickets ($19, $17 for children & seniors), visit docnyc.net/film/miracle-on-42nd-street. Director Alice Elliott, Kenny Kramer, and Chazz Palminteri are among those expected to attend the screening.
“LITERATI: A COMEDY SHOW ABOUT THE GREATEST AMERICAN NOVELS NEVER WRITTEN” | In need of a few good laughs and weary of scrolling through a Facebook feed where Fake News runs amok?
This series uncomplicates the matter by admitting upfront that the prestige literature whose pages come alive on the stage are not now, nor will they ever be, registered with the Library of Congress.
Your hosts Colin “Master of the self-help genre” O’Brien and Michael “Pioneer in the erotic autobiography genre” Wolf — who also host the equally silly and satirical “Literati” podcast — stay in character throughout the evening, donning the occasional wacky costume accessory and inviting you to imagine a world where their overbaked narrative scenarios are real.
Sat., Nov. 18, 7pm at Caveat (21 Clinton St., at E. Houston St.). Tickets are $10 at the door, $8 online via caveat.nyc. Learn more about the multitude of comedic projects from O’Brien and Wolf at nancycomedy.com, where you can also access “Literati”-specific stage show and podcast info.
—BY SCOTT STIFFLER