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Review: Shrinking Lives at a Big Box Store in ‘Paris’

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Christmas in Paris is a cheerless occasion. Or at least that’s how the Yuletide season is experienced by those working at a big box store in the mid-1990s in the Vermont town of Paris, which gives Eboni Booth’s coolly observant new play its title.

True, the employees of Berry’s (which is likely to have you thinking of discount retailers with Mart in their names) may wear festive sweatshirts with their regulation lanyards and uniforms. And canned carols are piped, relentlessly, throughout the store.

But this aural wallpaper only underscores the bleakness of the lives unraveling in the staff rooms and loading docks of the non-unionized Berry’s, where a typical salary is $5 an hour. In the world of “Paris,” which opened on Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, there’s no expectation of comfort and joy.

Like Samuel D. Hunter’s “Greater Clements,” which recently ended its run at Lincoln Center, “Paris” is a solid addition to the expanding genre of sociologically detailed working-class American dramas. Booth, a playwriting fellow at the Juilliard School who is best known in New York as an actress in adventurous plays (“Dance Nation,” “Fulfillment Center”), shares with Hunter a rigorous economic fatalism.

But while “Greater Clements” deploys the grinding gears of melodrama to wear down its doomed characters, “Paris” takes an almost flatline approach to the unhappy existences it portrays. Yes, these people explode in fits of temper on a regular basis; they taunt and insult and scrap with one another; and at least one of them is involved in dangerously illegal activities.

Yet suspense rarely makes an appearance in this realistically acted, astutely written play, which is directed with a very even hand by Knud Adams. An ever-corrosive anxiety — the kind that comes from never knowing if this week’s paycheck will cover this week’s living expenses — is in the oxygen of Berry’s. And it leaves those working in its airless confines (evoked mercilessly by David Zinn’s gloomy set) in a state of depleted resignation.

This includes the store’s newest staff member, Emmie. As embodied by the appealing newcomer Jules Latimer, in a bravely affectless performance, Emmie (birth name: Emaani) has the self-effacing mien of someone who aspires to invisibility. As it turns out, this is a not a state she has to work hard to achieve.

Emmie is black. And though she has lived most of her life in Paris, a small and insular town, and also works at a popular local bar (called Blonde Jovi), none of her fellow employees can remember having seen her before.

Racism is seldom openly acknowledged in “Paris”; it is instead a stealthy, insistent part of its general climate. Gar (Eddie K. Robinson), the store manager who hires Emmie in the play’s first scene, is also black. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s her ally.

He treats everyone badly, especially when he’s in a bad mood. And as a boss, he has a secret weapon he holds over his employees. He knows how much — and why — they need their jobs. “You want to quit?” he typically says to one of them with the confidence of a fully briefed henchman. “No, you can’t quit. You have your grandmother to think about.”

There is little rousing esprit de corps among Emmie’s fellow workers, though they can usually be relied upon to inventively cover up one another’s mistakes. Logan (Christopher Dylan White) performs — pathetically, one presumes — in a local rap group. Wendy (a spot on Ann McDonough), a former nurse and a not-so-secret on-site drinker, is married to Dev (James Murtaugh), who fruitlessly peddles the gospel of success books.

The most outspoken of the lot is the misanthropic Maxine (Danielle Skraastad), who lives with her four children in a motel room behind the local Costco and snarls at pretty much everyone. Wendy winningly offers an explanation for such behavior: “Her children are very bad people.”

Lines like that — simple yet startling — come along with welcome frequency in “Paris.” Yet while the play holds the attention, it seldom clutches it.

Ultimately, the wage slaves of Berry’s register as the sums of their financial problems, fitted out with eccentricities that might show up in anecdotes of someone who had worked there for a summer. It is part of Booth’s point, I think, that when money is as elusive as it is for these people, character is indeed primarily defined by privation.

Only Emmie — who has spent an aborted year in college and is working to earn money to return — would seem to have any chance of escaping this flattening destiny. Her status as a newcomer and an outsider makes her an effective, and increasingly dispirited, proxy for the audience’s initiation into the Berry’s universe.

She has also reached a nadir in her own life when she starts work there. Her mother has recently died, and her face is badly bruised — her mouth intermittently bleeds without warning — from a recent, drunken fall. Berry’s seems like the next and natural circle of hell for her to enter.

In the show’s most unsettling scene, Emmie encounters a visitor to the store named Carlisle, who’s looking for her boss, and a whole other, deeper vista of darkness opens up behind him. Played with creepy, compelling understatement by Bruce McKenzie, Carlisle — a soft-spoken man who runs his own mysterious and illicit business — might have been teleported from a David Lynch movie.

“You want to be my little elf?” he asks Emmie, proffering an unspecified alternative form of employment. He later adds, “Your people are good workers.” He asks her to open her injured mouth, so he can inspect it.

The cold wind of primal evil has entered the room. And for just a moment, a low-pay, tenuous job at Berry’s seems, in contrast, like a pretty good way to make a living.

Paris

Tickets Through Feb. 16 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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What a Man Wants … to Wear

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Gabriela Hearst likes to say that she wouldn’t be a fashion designer if she didn’t understand the subtle ways in which a female body can shape-shift over the course of a day — how a woman’s waist, for example, can fluctuate in size between morning and evening. That may sound like a surprisingly unglamorous concern for a luxury clothing brand, but Hearst’s namesake label, which she founded in New York City in 2015, is remarkable not only for its attention to high-level craft and luxurious materials — including merino wool sheared from sheep reared on the 17,000-acre ranch she inherited in 2011 from her father in her native Uruguay — but also for her minute focus on how her clothes, whether a figure-skimming, graphic-printed knit dress or an ankle-length trench, make women feel. As Hearst, 43, sees it, “It’s an upside to be a woman designing for women.”

How, then, does she approach her latest undertaking — designing clothes for men? In May of last year, Hearst presented a small pre-fall men’s collection of chunky speckled wool sweaters and slate gray tailoring, and in July, she followed with a 23-style resort offering of lightweight powder-blue and putty-colored suiting, as well as crew-neck knits in off-kilter pastel shades like faded butter yellow or dusty lilac. Though many of the pieces are crafted by a family-owned tailoring company in Parma, Italy, and though there are sporty elements (an ivory cashmere polo shirt, a suede bomber jacket the color of wet sand), they don’t fall neatly into either of the two major categories that define contemporary men’s clothing: streetwear and suiting. Rather, Hearst’s collections offer considered, well-crafted everyday clothes for modern professional men — a niche filled by Jil Sander in the late 1990s and rarely since. A collaborator in the venture is the British graphic designer Peter Miles, whom Hearst has been working with since he created the brand’s logo six years ago, and whose personal style she has long admired. “There’s an ease to the way he dresses — and an elegance, but it’s not pompous or ostentatious,” Hearst says. Still, though Miles provides occasional knowledge of the technical details of men’s clothing (he has been a client of the same Spitalfields tailor since 1993) and can offer feedback from a wearer’s perspective, Hearst relies heavily on her imagination.

Yet Hearst is not the only female designer at the head of an established women’s wear label to have delved into the male psyche — Stella McCartney, Isabel Marant and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of the Row launched men’s lines in 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively. Clare Waight Keller, the artistic director at Givenchy — which has done men’s ready-to-wear since 1969 — introduced men’s looks to the brand’s couture collections in 2018. These designers join a group of women who began their careers in men’s wear, among them Grace Wales Bonner and Emily Bode, and one could argue that, between the lot of them, much of what a certain sort of man most wants to wear now is being designed by women. This shift comes at a time when people are especially aware of how rigid notions of gender can prove harmful, making the question: How, in 2020, can we create clothes for men that feel timeless without reinforcing regressive ideals of masculinity? Hearst often envisions she’s designing for someone who is part wind-swept gaucho and part well-heeled urban journalist — a blend of her rancher father and her husband’s father, the New York newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst Jr. — but also someone whose self-regard is not impervious. In a 2005 article in The New York Times, Tom Ford was quoted as saying, “Of course there are many more gay male designers. I think we are more objective. We don’t come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies.” Hearst, on the other hand, feels strongly that insecurity is not an affliction unique to women. “I hope they make him feel good and confident,” she says of how she wants her garments to comfort their wearer, adding, “because we know what an insecure man is.”

While Savile Row tailors traditionally stitch buttons inside the waistband of trousers to allow a wearer to adjust their size, Hearst learned from her husband, the media executive Austin Hearst (who was also the brand’s first male fit model), that belt loops enable a more flattering cinch. “He told me the belt acts like a girdle for men,” she says. She also landed on a high rise on her flat-front wool formal pants so as to flatter the waist, and she likes to temper the stern lines of a suit with a midnight blue pullover or navy knit polo shirt.

This sort of thinking suggests that the very act of a woman offering up a fantasy of manhood in an arena dominated by male fantasies of women can be a revelatory gesture. If men’s ideas about how a woman should dress have at times felt constrictive — “He doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them,” Coco Chanel once said of Christian Dior, whose postwar wasp-waisted New Look shapes heralded a return to more traditional female silhouettes after the liberating advent of women’s trousers — the impulses of the women currently at the forefront of men’s wear are by contrast generous and freeing. Waight Keller’s couture collections use finishes long associated with women’s wear (sequins, delicate floral embroidery) that encourage men to experiment with new identities, and at the Row, the Olsen sisters are creating men’s suiting so sublimely minimal it is almost self-effacing, as though its wearer has more cerebral concerns than tailoring. Similarly, Hearst says that her ideal customer is, above all, a man with “a modern brain,” someone who is engaged with the issues of our time, such as climate change — the brand exclusively uses biodegradable packaging — and dissolving gender lines altogether. If men have historically designed for women as they think they ought to be, these women are designing for men as they hope they might be.

Models: Yvens Mendes at Next Management, Romaine Dixon at Soul Artist Management and Mo M’Bengué at Heroes Model Management. Casting director: AM Casting Paris. Grooming: Adam Szabo at Frank Reps. Location: The 1896, Brooklyn. Tailoring: Leroy Gough at Lars Nord Studio. Photo assistant: Matt Baffa. Grooming assistant: Ryo Kuramoto. Stylist’s assistant: Jameson Montgomery.

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C.D.C. Officials Warn of Coronavirus Outbreaks in the U.S.

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Federal health officials starkly warned on Tuesday that the new coronavirus will almost certainly spread in the United States, and that hospitals, businesses and schools should begin making preparations.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news briefing.

She said that cities and towns should plan for “social distancing measures,” like dividing school classes into smaller groups of students or closing schools altogether. Meetings and conferences may have to be canceled, she said. Businesses should arrange for employees to work from home.

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare, in the expectation that this could be bad,” Dr. Messonnier said.

Shortly after the news conference, stock markets plummeted for the second day as investors dumped stocks and turned to the safety of government bonds. The S&P 500 fell by more than 3 percent, following a 3.4 percent slide on Monday — the worst day for the American markets since February 2018.

In contrast to his own health officials, President Trump, traveling in India, played down the threat, saying, “You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country.”

“We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are, in all cases, I have not heard anything other — the people are getting better, they’re all getting better.”

As of Tuesday, the United States has just 57 cases, 40 of them connected to the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship overwhelmed by the coronavirus after it docked in Japan. Those patients are in isolation in hospitals, and there are no signs of sustained transmission in American communities.

But given the outbreaks in more than two dozen countries, officials at the C.D.C. seemed convinced that the virus’s spread in the United States was inevitable, although they did not know whether the impact would be mild or severe.

“We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus,” Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, told a Senate panel on Tuesday. “And we need to be realistic about that.”

Globally, public health officials are confronting a multipronged threat. China’s battle to contain the epidemic has shown signs of success, with a plunge in the rate of new infections.

But this has been overshadowed by new clusters of infections in Iran, South Korea and Italy. The emergence of these new hubs underscored the lack of a coordinated global strategy to combat the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 80,000 people in 37 countries, causing at least 2,600 deaths.

By Tuesday, South Korea had reported a total of 893 cases, the second most in the world. The C.D.C. on Monday warned Americans not to travel there.

  • Updated Feb. 25, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

Of the 60 new cases reported by South Korea’s federal health agency, 49 came from Daegu, the city at the center of the country’s outbreak.

In Iran, a spike in coronavirus infections — including to the top health official in charge of fighting the disease — has prompted fears the contagion may spread throughout the Middle East. In Italy, one of Europe’s largest economies, officials are struggling to prevent the epidemic from paralyzing the commercial center of Milan.

Keenly aware that the virus has the potential to wreak havoc in the United States, lawmakers from both the Democratic and the Republican parties grilled Mr. Azar and other members of the administration at the Senate hearing, apparently unconvinced that the Trump administration was prepared for the outbreak that the C.D.C. is forecasting.

Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, grew exasperated when the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad F. Wolf, could not say how many people were expected to become infected.

“I’m all for committees and task forces, but you’re the secretary,” Mr. Kennedy responded. “I think you ought to know that answer.”

The administration officials overseeing the response to a coronavirus outbreak told lawmakers that the initial funding requested by the White House — $1.25 billion in new funds and $1.25 billion taken from other programs — would most likely be just a first round.

Mr. Azar said that there were 30 million N95 masks, respirators best suited to guarding against viruses that typically cost less than $1 apiece, in the nation’s emergency stockpile.

Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, asked the health secretary whether he thought the United States currently had enough health masks in stock.

“Of course not,” he responded, “or else we wouldn’t be asking for more.” Health care workers may need 300 million masks in the event of an outbreak, he added.

Mr. Azar said he was alarmed by the human-to-human transmission of the virus in other parts of the world without an identifiable connection to confirmed cases, and what that could mean for how the virus may spread in the United States.

But other federal health officials were trying to tamp down concerns.

“You need to do nothing different than you’re already doing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a news briefing.

Federal officials were only trying to tell Americans that if an outbreak occurs, he added, “these are the kinds of things you want to think of.”

Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, declared on CNBC that the coronavirus had been “contained” and would not do serious harm to the economy.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an economic tragedy at all,” Mr. Kudlow said.

Preparations to respond to a potential outbreak have begun, government officials said, but are far from complete.

[Like the Science Times page on Facebook. | Sign up for the Science Times newsletter.]

It still is difficult to diagnose the infection. The C.D.C. performs most of the testing, and samples must be sent from state and local laboratories to the agency in Atlanta, a process that takes days.

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Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger Steps Aside, Ending 15-Year Run at Top

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“Chapek is a really good, no-brainer pick — the other division leaders have been there too short of a time,” Michael Nathanson, a media analyst and founding partner at MoffettNathanson, said in a phone interview. “He’s a really nice person who is part of the Disney culture, which is important.” Other candidates to succeed Mr. Iger included Kevin A. Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international division, and Peter Rice, chairman of Walt Disney Television.

Since taking over as chief executive in 2005, Mr. Iger has led Disney to record financial results, even in the face of economic downturns, the occasional horrendous movie write-off and changing consumer habits that dented ESPN, the company’s longtime profit engine. Last year, Mr. Iger completed a $71.3 billion acquisition that gave Disney the bulk of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, substantially altering the entertainment landscape. Mr. Iger then oversaw the successful introduction of Disney Plus.

The downside to that success? Nobody seemed to measure up, complicating succession at a company that has a history of bumpy transfers of power. Mr. Iger’s predecessor, Michael D. Eisner, tried to cling to his job, resulting in him eventually turning over a company that was struggling.

One internal candidate to succeed Mr. Iger, the well-regarded Thomas O. Staggs, abruptly left Disney in 2016 after losing the unqualified support of Mr. Iger and some other board members. Since then, Disney has been engaged in a quiet hunt for a successor.

Even among media conglomerates, Disney has a unique mix of businesses, some of which are healthier than others. The company’s movie studio is widely regarded as the strongest in Hollywood and the Disney theme parks are delivering record profits. But the company’s vast consumer products division has been in decline, and Disney’s television operation, which includes ABC, Disney Channel and Freeform, has been struggling with ratings weakness and a lack of breakout shows. Now it has entered the streaming era with Disney Plus, which has started strong but will lose money for the coming years as Disney spends billions of dollars on original content and technological infrastructure.

Mr. Iger started his entertainment career at ABC in 1974. Disney has no mandatory retirement age for chief executives; the company’s mandatory retirement age for board members is 74.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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