|Here & There|
|* Design for Living|
|* Enchanted April|
|* Frankie & Johnnie in the Clair de Lune|
|* Golda's Balcony|
|* I Am My Own Wife|
|* Kiss Me, Kate|
|* Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom|
|* The Little Dog Laughed|
|* The Man Who Came To Dinner|
|* My Old Lady|
|* The Producers|
|This & That|
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After the theatre one night, Kathleen and I wandered around in the rain in search of a late dinner. We knew where we were going, but it felt like wandering because of the rain. The long blocks of Central Park South never seemed so endless. When at last we reached our destination, we were extremely annoyed to find that it had been pre-empted by movie-makers. Persisting, we tried another door and got in. Yes, the Palm Court was still serving. The moment we arranged our dripping coats over a chair and sat down at our banquette, the bank of blazing lights on the other side of the tall glass doors was shut off, and the film crew departed. Within fifteen minutes, you wouldn't have known they'd been there. The lobby at the Plaza Hotel was back to regular business.
How many movies with scenes at the Plaza can you think of? The only one that, to my mind, makes the hotel look more interesting than it really is is Hitchcock's 'North By Northwest,' but then I'm not sure I'd personally want the Plaza to be that interesting. At the beginning of that thriller, you'll recall, Cary Grant is kidnapped at the Oak Room doorway by a pair of nasty goons who mistake him for a nonexistent counterespionage agent. Things might happen in this wedding-cake of a building that hardly anyone would ever find out about. The people who were coming in to the Palm Court as we were leaving, for example, probably had no idea that an upcoming film called (according to a placard) "It Had To Be You" had just become a few feet longer on the other side of those French doors. I regret to say that I've no idea who the stars are, or if any of them were on location. As a self-respecting New Yorker, I wouldn't have dreamed of asking.
Butley | Democracy | Design For Living | Enchanted April | Frankie & Johnnie at the Clair de Lune | Frozen |Golda's Balcony | I Am My Own Wife | Jumpers | Kiss Me, Kate | Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom | The Little Dog Laughed | The Man Who Came To Dinner | My Old Lady
The Little Dog Laughed, the new play by Douglas Carter Beane, is one of the best-plotted pieces of theatre that I've enjoyed in a long time. It ends with a fantastic ka-chink that's a surprise only because the solution to the problem ought to have been obvious from the start. Of course, it would never have been obvious to a normal person. Only a barracuda-powered Hollywood agent could work it out.
For that reason, I can't say much about the play itself. It has two modes, questioning and answering. The questioning scenes are the ones in which Julie White, playing the role of Diane, is not on stage. Alex - to my mind the show's lead, magnificently played by Johnny Galecki - is the questioner. A hustler, he is tripped up by a botched encounter with movie star Mitch (Tom Everett Scott), and the question is, what if these two guys really like each other and just want to be together? Alex has a girl friend, Ellen (Ari Graynor), who's ready to upgrade her status to girlfriend when her lover dumps her. It's a case of bad timing, especially because Mitchell is slated to make a big movie about two gay men in love, and it won't help his career if he's actually gay in real life. As Diane, his agent, puts it, if he's straight, then playing a gay man is "noble." If he's gay, it's bragging!
Diane is the answerer. Julie White is almost terrifyingly dynamic onstage. Always alluringly outfitted, she's in motion even when she's sitting still. As quick and cynical as any "industry" personality ever to appear on stage, screen, or television, her Diane is a monster of calculation and bullshit (a lot of the bullshit, in fact, is abbreviated or pantomimed, as if it were a question of Diane's not being able to utter some falsehood or other for the trillionth time). Her handling of Mitchell, especially when he flounders in new-found love, is so deliberate that she's more animal trainer than agent. Let's hope that Ms White gets a Tony for her breathtaking performance - and that all the other playwrights rush to provide her with future vehicles. Not since Angela Lansbury rolled out Mame Dennis has there been an actress so loudly and blindingly that astronomical phenomenon that we call a Star. The woman is a one-man kick line.
Mr Beane allows himself everything, even Diane's announcement that it's time for intermission. Diane actually deconstructs the play's plot at one point, with a funky rule of thumb. In the first act, you put your characters up in a tree. In the second, you throw things at them. In the third act, you bring them down from the tree. And the difficulty with this play, she observes, is that what's being thrown at the characters in The Little Dog Laughed is happiness. Up in the tree, Mitchell and Alex, who have never been honest about their sexuality, discover that their desires might actually lead them to happiness. This is the romantic surprise of the play's "second act" (Little Dog has only two acts, of course.), and Mr Scott and Mr Galecki are very sweet about it.
And then, somebody throws in a baby.
I've read in the Times that The Little Dog Laughed has been tinkered with since its Off-Broadway days. Ms White and Mr Galecki are veterans of the earlier production; Mr Scott and Ms Graynor are new. The production team - Allen Moyer (sets), Jeff Mashie (costumes), Donald Holder (lights), and Lewis Flinn (music) - set the show off wonderfully well. Director Scott Ellis makes sure that his four highly talented actors are always on the same page. (October 2006)
As to why we went to see Butley, refresh your memory.
Simon Gray's Butley is a Greek tragedy in every way but the most important one: there is no catharsis. The hero comes to no blinding insight. He does not reach the sudden understanding that he himself is the cause of everything that has gone wrong. And, given Ben Butley's situation, it would wholly bogus if he did.
Butley is no longer a contemporary play. The world has slipped since the early Seventies (the show opened on Broadway for the first time in 1972). It no longer accommodates people like Butley; it institutionalizes them. Today, Butley would be shuffled off to rehab, which, from what I can tell, is a mild form of what the Cultural Revolutionaries in China used to call "re-education." You are taught the new, the correct values. You are assured that, in order to make any headway with your life, you must not only subscribe to but enact these values in your daily life. For better or worse, the expression of existential anomie is no longer tolerated in Western society.
Largely, perhaps, because everyone got tired of the Butleys of the world. Brilliant, bitter, committed to drunken malingering, Butley has nothing to do, really, save wait for death. He fills his hours with repartee, seduction, and evasion. If he can avoid teaching - he has taught at Cambridge, but has slid somewhat to London University - he will. Students are as disagreeable to him as mosquitoes. His love life is a shambles, and soon in ruins; if Butley has learned anything in the course of the play, it's that he doesn't have the energy to try to kindle something new. He is terminally disaffected.
He is also, however, extremely entertaining. Butley is an aggressive troublemaker, gifted with a fluent tongue that's capable of many modes of speech. His head is stuffed with poetry that he can rattle off by the yard. (If you ask me, his misery owes to the fact that, for some reason or other, there came a time when Butley stopped learning new lines.) He is a one-man George-and-Martha, conducting a war of attrition against himself while only appearing to take on the other people in the room. He is dishonest, disloyal, insincere and cruel, but these are not so much character flaws as battle wounds. Butley's downfall, such as it is, comes across as sad as it is inevitable.
The role was written for and created by Alan Bates; he won a Tony for his New York performance. It's hard to imagine an actor physically less like Bates than Nathan Lane, and if Mr Lane hasn't garnered the reviews that he might wish to have, to some extent that's owing the inability, childish in my view, of critics to forget "immortal" performances. The world, as I say has turned, and what we want today, for reasons that I've hinted at, is a funny Butley, not an outrageous one. Nathan Lane's Butley is a clown, a Pagliaccio whose wretchedness is always on display. His interpretation is superb and successful.
So is that of Julian Ovenden, as Joey Keyston, a gay man with whom Butley is living as a roommate. Is Butley gay, too? Not surprisingly for a play of its vintage, Butley is rather coy about homosexuality, and there are no public displays of affection. Butley is such a wreck that it's hard to imagine a stable sexuality for him. Mr Ovenden reflects this ambiguity adroitly, passing from affection to impatience with gossamer deftness. His Joey is the first amiable passive-aggressive character that I've ever come across. He is a sweet but self-protective boy who hasn't quite attained manhood - and who sees that he never will attain it so long as he keeps company with Butley. It's Mr Ovendon's job to be concave to Mr Lane's convexity, but equally roughed up, and he does it perfectly.
In the current revival at the Booth Theatre, directed by Nicholas Martin, Dana Ivey has a field day with Edna Shaft, Butley's colleague and occasional footstool. Darren Pettie is almost frighteningly convincing as Joey's new boyfriend, a publisher of Northern background. Tall and fit, he wore his opulent clothes with the kind of apparent unconsciousness that betrays great painstaking. Pamela Gray is perhaps too good - too genuinely unsympathetic - as Anne, Butley's wife, who shows up at his office with, as I thought, no absolutely clear plan of what she is going to say. Jessica Stone is winning, as a student who insists on her tutorial rights. On the night that we saw the play, understudy Roderick Hill did a fine job as Mr Gardner, the radical student who is much talked about throughout the play but who only swaggers on at the end.
It's hard to praise Alexander Dodge for coming up with such a dismal set, but that's what he was paid to provide. Ann Roth's now-period costumes look good. Lighting by David Weiner and Sound by John Gromada are just what was wanted. Dialogue coach Stephen Gabis ought to be proud: Mr Lane's wade into Northern brogue is particularly sparkling.
Scour the Playbill as I might, I cannot find the name of the artist who drew the iconic poster for this production. (October 2006)
Michael Frayn's Democracy is an outstanding play, but whether it is a great one, I can't begin to tell. To be sure, greatness is something that emerges over time, but I can't remember the last instance of a play that seemed so insistently to withhold its own future. Perhaps that's a sure sign that it will turn out to be great; plays that feel great at first encounter are probably too compromised by and with the Zeitgeist. This isn't to say that Democracy has an air of timelessness about it. Quite the contrary. It is very much a backward glance whose retrospective reach is totally distinctive: fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, fifteen years into the European transformations engendered by that fall and fifteen years into an unexpectedly troubled and confused international scene that still hasn't come to terms with the end of the Cold War, we look back on the brief Chancellorship of the man who did more than any other to undermine the Iron Curtain.
To many people today, Willy Brandt is no more than a name. To me, he will always be the Mayor of Berlin. I don't remember anything specific, but he was a dashing and attractive antidote to the colorlessness of the Cold War. To his Chancellorship I paid no attention whatever. I must have parroted AP copy when reading the news at the radio station, but nothing sticks; our own problems (Nixon, Vietnam) and new horizons (China) were more absorbing. In any case, it appears that Willy Brandt was not made of presidential timber, at least in Michael Frayn's portrait. Highly charismatic - he specialized in silent speeches that knocked everybody for a loop - and determined to make his mark on the greatest political problem of his day (the reunification of Germany) - Brandt seems to have had little interest in the undramatic realities of everyday parliamentary democracy. His success was attributable largely to his clean hands - he had fled Germany in 1933, when members of the Social Democratic Party became persona non in Hitlerland. His administration was, in the long view, a success, because the initial treaties of cooperation with the USSR, Poland, and, most of all, the DDR broke the logjam of mutual nonrecognition. But his supporters expected a longer run.
Democracy appears to make the case that Brandt was done in by the exposure of the secret DDR agent who acted as his personal assistant, Günther Guillaume. To put it better, Brandt's colleagues in the SDP with ambitions of their own (such as his successor, Helmut Schmidt), manipulated the exposure to make Brandt's tenure unviable. But beneath that less-lethal replaying of Julius Caesar, there is Brandt's collapse from within once the great treaties had been signed. Here is where my questions about the significance of Democracy spring. What went wrong? Not in actual history, but in this character's makeup. Where does Mr Frayn's text yield to James Naughton's tragic resignation - a posture that, moving at first, became tedious by the play's end, as though Brandt had been done in and his body left on view. Mr Naughton is a pillar of the New York stage, but I am not sure that he was quite right for this part. Somebody physically stockier and more impetuous ought to have taken it on; I can just see Matthew Broderick surprising the hell out of everybody (yet once again).
Richard Thomas, on the other hand, is eerily perfect as Guillaume. At 53, Mr Thomas has preserved his trademark boyishness intact, and it is just what this part needs. For his Guillaume is not an evil person at all. Even the spy business is just a game, and he can hardly believe in his own success. He has been planted and groomed for the part, but he is very nearly given the heave-ho, because Brandt doesn't like him at first. But he endures and then thrives. He also comes to care deeply for his boss. That his boss is also his victim is hardly clear; Guillaume's handler insists that the whole point of this bit of espionage is to reassure the East Germans that Brandt is sincere about mutual recognition. Guillaume's incessant photocopying is helping everybody! Even John le Carré never came up with a mirror trick this good. And when it all comes down, and allegations are made about lists that Guillaume might have made and photographs that he might have taken, Guillaume himself, who made no lists and took no photographs, is beside himself with grief. He is also, of course, in prison, and powerless to set the record straight.
The lists and photographs would have had no political import. As in our own day, politicians were done in not by incompetent governance but by sexual exploits. The very heart of Democracy beats when Guillaume and Brandt, standing side by side at the window of a campaign train, size up the hordes of lovely women who show up to greet them. Both men are Don Juans, in love with a "woman" whose ideality is incorporated each night (or even more often) by a different human female. Remarkably, there is nothing even remotely homoerotic in their bond. They are right out of Augustine, incapable of friendship with women but driven by a mindless heterosexual carnal longing. I say "mindless" precisely because their characters are constituted on a rigid mind/body distinction. The mind is for friends, politics, ideals, ambitions, and the good fight. The body is an itch. Because so much is going on in Democracy - behind Brandt, Guillaume, and his East German handler there is a flock of seven politicos and gofers - it is impossible to take the measure of what one only later realizes is the central drama, far more significant than the political maneuvering that sometimes clutters the stage.
Put another way, my questions about Brandt and Guillaume are also question about whether this play is aptly named. Parliamentary Democracy would have been a better title. I can understand why it wasn't used, but because the role of the electorate is so ostentatiously passive, while the back-room machinations of politicians are never offstage for long, the title has a cynical ring that I don't think the playwright intended. Whatever my reservations, however, this is a play that I hope to see in revival. (I also hope that Mr Frayn will advance the moment of intermission; the first act is too long, and a magnificent bit of stage business that seems to herald its end is therefore rather wasted.) The current company, however, has done a great job. (If I question Mr Naughton's casting, that's only because I began to develop a conception of his role that called for a different type of man.) I will single out Robert Prosky for his hair-raising impersonation of the SDP's in-house Machiavelli, and Lee Wilkof for having a great time with the bumbling bureaucrat in charge of the investigation of Guillaume. Everything apart from the cast was imported from the London production, from director (Michael Blakemore) to cold but surprising set design (Peter J Davison). If Democracy comes to your town, don't give not going a thought. (January 2005)
It's too late to see Frozen now. The play, by Bryony Lavery, ended its Broadway run at the Circle in the Square last weekend. Happily we had already rounded up tickets for what would turn out to be its final Friday. Magnificently directed by Doug Hughes, with a set by Hugh Landwehr, costumes by Catherine Zuber, and lighting by Clifton Taylor (all excellent), Frozen turned out to be a pinnacle of my life as a theatregoer.
Who wants to see a play about a serial killer, or about the grief of a serial killer's victim's mother? Not me, said I, as I tossed discount offer after discount offer into the trash. Oh, I wanted to see Swoosie Kurtz, all right, but I wanted to see her in a good play. If I'd passed up the Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman show (which Ms Kurtz did with Cherry Jones), then I could pass up a show involving serial murder.
But even in the quiet of my apartment I could pick up a buzz that eventually changed my mind, and thank heaven for that. Because Frozen is the first play that I've seen in a very long time that I didn't think could have been improved with a few important changes. This isn't to say that Frozen is perfect; no show is perfect. But Frozen was everything that it ought to have been and nothing else. The superb acting didn't surprise me; whatever might be wrong with today's world, there's no dearth of fine actors in New York. But the play was startlingly good.
Artful indirection is a hallmark of contemporary theatre, but I have never seen it more artfully deployed. There are three characters in Frozen (the silent guard hovering in the shadows, played by Sam Kitchin, is more of a prop), and they present themselves in a series of solo scenes that does not give way to duets until the second act. In the late production, great acting and great writing combine to work theatrical magic of the highest order. Frozen might be hard to follow for people unaccustomed to the highly fragmented narrative technique that prevails in contemporary theatre, but quite aside from being quite accustomed to it myself, I realized later that the scenes had been so well crafted and so well acted that I didn't feel a need to coordinate them exactly; decided early on that I was in very good hands, I relaxed and let the coordinates emerge, which they did with the greatest discretion. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of being led, but never patronized or manipulated, by a playwright. It is one of the great un-self-conscious pleasures.
Richard, the killer, still at large at the beginning, is a damaged man who overestimates his own cleverness. He is always careful to strike at some distance from his 'base of operation' somewhere in the heart of England, but it never occurs to him that commemorating each of these crimes with the work of a local tattoo parlor will clinch his identification as the killer. We're easily persuaded by the American psychologist who comes to study Richard that his pathology is a matter of simplemindedness. She has studied the brains of serial killers and found that they have quite often suffered some sort of head trauma which, in her view, stunts the powers of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that guides our judgment and our behavior. Serial killers, she believes, cannot feel remorse for their crimes because the regions of their brain that would activate the feeling of remorse have been damaged. Incapable of an important kind of judgment, her subjects cannot be said to be evil. Meanwhile, she herself is obviously troubled by some personal misfortune; we realize that she has recently lost her colleague (to whom she was obviously deeply attached) to a freak car accident.
Brían F. O'Byrne and Laila Robbins turned in splendid performances as Richard and Agnetha (the psychologist, a strapping blonde, is of Icelandic extraction). Mr O'Byrne seemed to know just how far we could see into the heart of his character without flinching, and he made great use of the crumbs of humor that Ms Lavery gave him. (That Frozen keeps its audience laughing without degrading its material is one of its many surprising achievements.) His Richard never asked for pity, but neither was he repellently arrogant - not with the audience, anyway. Ms Robbins was called upon to present Agnetha's theories and findings in lecture format but without the benefit of visual aids; I must say that Ms Robbins might have been a university lecturer. It seems almost fatuous to praise an actress for good public speaking skills, but Ms Robbins' trick involved a lot of art-concealing art.
Fascinating as Richard and Agnetha are when the hold the stage, it is Nancy, the mother of a girl named Rona, who really carries the weight of the play. At her first appearance, Nancy has just dispatched Rona to her grandmother's house with a pair of garden shears; she has absolutely no idea of the tragedy about to befall her. Indeed, she resists the tragedy for a long time, taking up advocacy on behalf of the parents of missing children - for she regards Rona as missing for more than ten years - and straining to maintain her faith that everything is all right. Nevertheless, even before she finds out that Rona is dead, she begins to dry up, marking off areas of consciousness that cannot be visited. This desiccation does nothing, however, to dampen the ferocity of her hatred of Richard when he is exposed.
Rona was Nancy's favorite daughter, indeed, her favorite person in the world, and both her husband, Bob, and her other daughter, Ingrid, know this. Ingrid gets very fat after Rona disappears; then she goes off to Nepal and Tibet. When she returns, she counsels her mother to let go of her fury. Although we never see Ingrid for ourselves, but only through Nancy's somewhat exasperated eyes, we get to know her quite well, and we're warmed when Nancy, who dismisses her daughter's advice initially, begins to give it a try. Her movement from resignation to acceptance and even forgiveness is the great drama of Frozen, not only because it constitutes the play's only character development but because it highlights at every turn the nature of Richard's stony remorselessness while countering Agnetha's conception of responsibility. For Nancy never gives up on responsibility. What changes is her understanding of it. At first, the responsibility is all Richard's, and the law that merely locks him up without inflicting further punishment frustrates her enormously. Gradually, however, Nancy discerns a greater responsibility: her own. Ingrid is right: she must outgrow the role of aggrieved, angry mother in order not to be buried alive in it.
Over Agnetha's professional objections, Nancy obtains permission to visit Richard, and their meeting is of course the climax of the show. How climactic we don't at first imagine. Nancy produces a packet of photographs of Rona and shares them with Richard, who considers them almost uncomprehendingly. He insists that he doesn't believe that Rona suffered at his hands, 'not really.' Nancy quietly disagrees, but doesn't belabor the point. Instead, she asks him about his childhood and his father, and is presently treated to an outburst of explosive resentment that shades into a recollection of extraordinary humiliation. Nancy says that she can imagine how such abuse must have hurt Richard; then, while his feelings are lively and his guard is down, she asks him if he really believes that Rona and the other victims didn't feel the same. After a moment of stunned silence, Richard presses his hands over his eyes and collapses in a bizarre, strangulated wail. There is no magic in the proceedings, but no magic wand could work a more wondrous transformation. It is as though a switch has been thrown, and all of Nancy's old fury has been discharged in Richard's moment of unbearable recognition. And it is unbearable; Nancy has her revenge, even though it doesn't matter anymore.
From first to last, Nancy's part is embroidered with vivid details about the life - lives - that have gone on notwithstanding Rona's death, and Swoosie Kurtz took full advantage of every one of them to present us with one of the most fully-rounded yet ineffably unique creatures that has ever appeared on a stage. A rueful woman of modest gentility, Nancy is loaded with North Country hard-headedness, and her growth as a person requires her to overcome her resistance to feeling. If her earlier scenes are made harrowing by our knowing that her optimism is doomed, Nancy's later scenes partake of transfiguration, and she seems to know things that we can barely guess at. Ms Kurtz's performance encompassed Nancy's wide range with unforgettable conviction, and, what's more, there was something about it that almost persuaded me that I was seeing Frozen for the second time, savoring the kind of complexities that go right by me the first time. It was also like hearing a strikingly original performance of a beloved piano sonata. Such blending of the familiar with the unexpected only takes place at the highest altitudes. And Ms Lavery's play brings unexpected distinction to the all-too-familiar subject of sociopathy.
Keep that buzz coming. (August 2004)
Jumpers, Tom Stoppard's 1972 play, currently enjoying a fine Broadway revival under the auspices of Britain's National Theatre, has dated quite agreeably. Its anxieties have taken on the charm of quaintness without having lost their edge; its theatrics appear seminal rather than revolutionary, but remain exhilarating; and its cleverness is the élan of a brilliant young man. I hadn't seen it before, much to my regret, so I can do no more than drool at the thought of Diana Rigg as the original Dotty Moore while at the same time feeling very lucky to have seen Essie Davis. Like Ms Rigg, Ms Davis has an extraordinarily interesting voice - a vital asset for an actress called upon to dilate about moral philosophy. And she can sing as well, although it's a pity that she never gets to finish a song. There are many pities in Jumpers, but the show's headlong momentum scatters them like so many pretty flower petals.
Jumpers is something of a circus, with a revolving stage and constantly shifting spotlights that contrive to make following the action a matter of considerable suspense. At several junctures the fundamentally a naturalistic if very unusual drama is punctuated by surrealistic episodes that recall an era when 'experimental' theatre was the exception and not the rule. These episodes are never gratuitous, but the light that they shed on the play's very earnest argument is blunted somewhat by their magic-act pace.
Meanwhile, we're shown on big-screen projections that the first British moon landing has gone awry. The capsule's engines have only enough thrust for one passenger, and Commander Scott caddishly has knocked Astronaut Oakes to the ground and scrambled up the ladder to solitary safety. This dystopic replay of Antarctic tragedy is one of many attestations to the collapse of honor, virtue, altruism, and every other idea that George's antic colleagues have junked. Indeed, the Britain of Jumpers is a bleak place, warmed only by George's generous curiosity. (Dotty's traduced beauty is throughout associated with the moon.) Even this will leave some audience members cold, for it is embedded in what will strike some theatregoers as a lot of clever talk about philosophical conundrums. The play's tone shifts frequently and abruptly between George's intellectual inquiry and very clever dialogue. Detective drama and bedroom farce, two theatrical forms that were old-hat when Jumpers was written, are both deconstructed, reconstructed, and spiced by conjunction.
The star of the show is Simon Russell Beale, an actor of deservedly soaring reputation. Playing a moral philosopher named George Moore, not to be entirely confused with the G. E. Moore of fin de siècle Cambridge fame - also, of course, a moral philosopher. (That both Georges have wives named Dorothy heightens the reverberant incongruity.) I had heard so much about Mr Beale's marvelous acting that I had to see it for myself, and Jumpers has simply made me hungry for more. Mr Stoppard's George is an unwilling post-modern figure, almost but not quite overwhelmed by the absurdity of, among other things, working in a philosophy department whose other faculty members are also enthusiastic gymnasts who appear as such throughout the play, which is of course named after them. They're not particularly remarkable gymnasts, it's true, but their philosophy, according to George, is even worse. For it is a philosophy that has discredited the big questions about good, evil, and the existence of God. It is a philosophy of pat arguments about cats on mats and bacon sandwiches. Presenting such philosophers as acrobats is one of Tom Stoppard's most astute maneuvers, because, among many other things, it is so obviously wrong. Philosophers are interested not in stunts, but in wisdom, not in the success of an argument (which may be as impermanent as a human pyramid), but in truth. Such philosophers can't be philosophers. George, of course, is the real thing, generous but rigorous, as agile as the jumpers but firmly grounded.
A tour de force that is much more than an exercise in virtuosity, Jumpers deserves to be read in advance. Because Tom Stoppard knows how to sparkle like Mozart, knowing the text before seeing a first-rate production (such as this one) is bound to produce a very physical delight. (June 2004)
Doug Wright's one-man play, I Am My Own Wife, starring Jefferson Mays in a production directed by Moisés Kaufman, was not on my list of shows to see this season. The real-life story of a transvestite who survived the Nazis and then the Communists in East Germany while running a museum devoted to the decorative arts of the Second Reich had, as such, no appeal for me. It promised a too-highly seasoned immersion in bad taste. Happily, I was not left to my own philistinism. An out-of-town friend, here on a theatre junket, invited us to join her for a Monday evening performance, and at that point in the holidays almost anything seemed interesting. I Am My Own Wife far surpassed my minimal expectations. The show is almost as intelligently as it is stupefyingly entertaining.
Now that I've already told you what the play is about, let me point out how interestingly the playwright lays out his material. He makes his hero/heroine, Lothar Berfeld/Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002), instantly sympathetic, by presenting the character entirely against the expected grain. Instead of a flamboyantly expressive diva, his Charlotte is a prim, black-clad spinster in a head scarf, easy mistaken for a nun were it not for her strand of pearls. When Charlotte speaks, one can almost count the dozens of words that she has rejected for everyone one that she speaks. Her obsession with the Gründerzeit - the era of ponderous ornamentation that followed the German victory over France in 1871 - is austere without being hieratic, and her air of withholding, as intense as her beloved clocks and curios but utterly light-handed, draws us in like moths. Before we even get to the furniture, however, we're slyly seduced by Charlotte's fascination with early phonographs and gramophones, especially those of American manufacture.
Then, a few minutes in, the play opens up into a miracle of ventriloquism, as Jefferson Mays begins to add a host of other impersonations, including one of the playwright himself. Except for a brief spell at the beginning of the second act, Charlotte's costume never disappears, but Mr Mays finds a way of using it to bring each of his many voices to life - even, most hilariously, that of a smarmy Berlin talk-show host (think David Rasche as Stig in The Big Tease). This is the stupefying aspect of I Am My Own Wife: I won't even try to convince you that Mr Mays pulls off the most acrobatic theatrical act I've ever seen, even if his feet are always planted firmly on the stage. Nothing short of the altogether unprecedented spectacle itself would convince you - which is probably why this show wasn't on my list. I can only bully you into giving I Am My Own Wife a chance to delight you.
There is more to I Am My Own Wife, however, than the circus act of a peculiar life lived in turbulent times. As I say, Mr Wright begins the play by making his unlikely heroine sympathetic - the better, we soon find, to pull away the props of our support. Charlotte may not be such a nice person after all (not that she's ever actually nice); she may have spied for the Stasi, the GDR's dreadful security police. Well, didn't everyone in East Germany? Mr Wright's primary interest, however, is not Charlotte's culpability, which in any case can seem justifiable under the circumstances, but rather in the difficulty, and perhaps the impossibility, of fixing an identity in the twentieth century. Charlotte's transvestitism is only the first of her disguises. Looking back from the culmination of the play, we realize that Charlotte was never demonstrably forthcoming, and that her reticence may have had roots other than prim discretion. So Mr Wright puts us in his own shoes. Attracted to Charlotte's story in the early 90s not least because it would prove a 'slam dunk' at obtaining grant money (for him), the playwright had to learn that his subject was no simple victim. His play recreates this emotional trajectory for us, and it leaves us with an unsettled ambivalence that would be unpleasant were it not for the thumping, trumping, triumphing wizardry of Jefferson Mays's performance.
Which raises the question of a road show. I ought to be a believer: if Mr Mays can do this show - which I was sure wouldn't be very interesting - surely there must be other actors who can do so, too; but I still find it hard to believe. With luck, an actor, in a theatre near you, will once again prove my doubts ungrounded. If so, let's hope that the Lyceum's quartet of designers - Derek McLane (scenery), David Lander (lighting), Janice Pytel (costume), and Andre J. Pluess (sound) - are retained to recreate their superb work. Rarely have such contributions been so magically coordinated. (January 2004)
Tovah Feldshuh's impersonation of Golda Meir, in William Gibson's Golda's Balcony, brought me as close as anything ever will to sympathy for the Zionist project. Holding the stage for about ninety minutes, the accomplished Ms Feldshuh projects a personality more than sufficiently dramatic to draw attention away from what is basically an interestingly disjointed, animated history lesson. How did a Milwaukee girl wind up as the Israeli head of state? It's a story that's entwined with that of the establishment of Israel itself; Goldie Meyerson was in at the birth. She was drawn to Palestine in 1921 by the dream, which seemed genuinely realizable in the wake of World War I, of a Socialist utopia for Jews in their ancestral homeland. Already a burgeoning leader, she made a mark as the representative of her kibbutz, and was subsequently given an important post at the Histadrut (a trade union). In 1948, she went to Moscow, as Israel's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. And so on. It was the sort of career that, given the secular progressivism that characterized Zionism, was bound to befall some woman sooner rather than later.
Opening with the sound of a horrific explosion, Golda's Balcony dwells on the Yom Kippur war, in which Meir's government blackmailed - Henry Kissinger's term - the United States into supplying Israel with desperately needed jet fighters. It did so, the story goes, by threatening to deploy a nuclear arsenal the existence of which Israel has never actually confirmed. The title refers the nickname given to a control room, which Meir visited often, that overlooked the nuclear program's subterranean laboratories at Dimona, in the middle of the Negev desert. The crux of the drama is the tension, brought to unbearable pitch by Israel's crisis, between Meir's humanity and her determination to protect her people by whatever force was required.
So on top of the juggling of family and career that beset all ambitious women, Golda Meir had to consider initiating a holocaust of her own: rich material for the theatre. It is difficult - and perfectly unnecessary - to say where Mr Gibson's skill as a playwright gives way to Ms Feldshuh's as an actor; Golda's Balcony appears to be a very successful collaboration. Tovah Feldshuh has been demonstrating her command of the stage for years, most recently in another one-woman show (with minor male assist), Tallulah Hallelujah! Entertaining as that show was, however - and I'll never forget her arrival on stage in a long mink coat, singing a perfectly monotone 'Bye, Bye Blackbird' - the new play provides Ms Feldshuh with a figure of major significance in a compelling dramatic situation that holds one's attention from the start. Golda's Balcony also has a regrettable timeliness, as it becomes ever more apparent that the worst threats to Israel's survival might come from within.
As ambassador in Moscow, Golda Meir made a famous appearance outside the principal synagogue, where she was mobbed by Jews who could hardly believe that such a wonder existed. She thanked them, in Yiddish, for having remained Jews. This perplexing attachment to the past in a woman who devoted herself to looking forward is perhaps the secret of Meir's power. (November 2003)
I've never read the book, but I've seen the movie a few dozen times, and I was curious to see what the glittering cast would make of Matthew Barber's stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April. When Kathleen called from West 44th Street, right outside the Belasco Theatre, in the middle of a rainy round of errands, I suggested that she try to get a pair of good seats at the box office, and that was that. It was almost as easy as slipping my Laser Disc copy of the movie into the Yamaha.
Enchanted April, no doubt about it, is a feel-good show. Depressed by London rains that were all too familiar to this season's New York audiences, Lotty Wilson persuades an almost-total stranger, Rose Arnott, to take the lease of an Italian castle for the month of April, 1922. To cover their expenses, these ladies enlist two other strangers, Lady Caroline Bramble, a bright young thing with a broken heart, and Mrs Graves, an elderly widow who lives on the memories of her childhood, as the daughter of a literary lion who knew everybody (but not Shakespeare or Keats). Because all four women have reasons to be dissatisfied with Men, their one interest in common, aside from the castle, will be the absence of the opposite sex. Lotty is married to a priggish bully, a solicitor on the make - can somebody please tell me what kind of a name 'Mellersh' is? Rose and her husband, Frederick, have drifted apart, ostensibly because of a miscarriage but more likely because Frederick, the author of naughty historical novels, has a taste for parties that pious Rose doesn't share. Although everyone takes Lotty and Rose to be war widows, it's Lady Caroline whom the war has robbed of a husband. And Mrs Graves has a view of marriage that's heavily inflected by Wildean paradox.
They're hardly established at San Salvatore, however, before this ban is broken, and the birds and the bees and the wisteria crown a lovers' paradise. First on the scene is the castle's owner, Antony Wilding. He is very taken with Rose, whom he believes to be available, and this interest in another woman, something new to Lady Caroline, excites her interest in Antony. Then both the husbands show up, apparently at their wives' invitation but not, in fact, the case so far as Frederick is concerned. Mellersh wants to take a bath, despite warnings that the castle's plumbing is pericoloso, and the high point of the comedy is his towel-draped introduction to a member of the titled aristocracy. Finally, with a little prodding from Mrs Graves, all three couples find themselves together, and happiness pours off the stage with the freshness of spring rain.
Amazingly, Enchanted April manages not to be treacly. The stage play makes far better use of the dark background of the Great War than the film version does, and the brown, severely underdecorated first act setting makes the loggia at San Salvatore, when it appears after the intermission, a vision of heaven. (Sets were designed by Tony Straiges, costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Rui Rita.) But it is of course the acting that staves off the saccharine potentialities of this slight, happily-ending tale. Alas, the actor whom I most wanted to see, Jayne Atkinson (as Lotty), was indisposed. I've read great things about Ms Atkinson but so far missed her work. Her place was taken by Isabel Keating (not an understudy, apparently), and taken very nicely. Somewhat submerged beneath an excess of hat and coat in the first act, Ms Keating emerged as a figure of birdlike curiosity and grace in the second. Molly Ringwald, said by the women in the row behind us to be well along in pregnancy, and not only that, but pregnant with a girl (they could tell), seemed every so slightly somnolent as Rose, but she made up for drawled delivery with the best English accent in the cast. Dagmara Dominzyck's impersonation of Lady Caroline was so close to Polly Walker's in the film that it underscored the different directions taken by the other actors, and it was perhaps to conceal this resemblance that she appeared onstage as a platinum blonde. Elizabeth Ashley did not eat up quite as much scenery, as Mrs Graves, as I thought she might, but she garnered the lion's share of the laughs. Michael Cumpsty, whom I last saw in Copenhagen, gave a superbly modulated performance that made the most of his embarrassing half-masted presentation to Lady Caroline, and his response to a passionate kiss from Lotty had a touch of the miraculous about it, so transfigured did he seem. Understudy John Feltch ably covered the part of Frederick for Daniel Gerroll, and made the most of Frederick's divided attention. Michael Hayden was an engaging Antony Wilding - the most difficult role in the play, certainly. It's a much bigger part than its correspondent in the film, and this only intensifies Antony's oddness - his independence of means, his career as a portraitist, his war wounds, and his profound gentlemanliness. Indeed, Antony is the model man compared to whom both Mellersh and Frederick are somewhat swinish inferiors, and yet they're rather more vital. It's difficult to play such a nice guy without losing the audience, but Mr Hayden pulled it off. As Costanza, the castle's housekeeper, Patricia Connelly had a huge amount of fun deploying her excellent Italian and mocking the linguistic shortcomings of the Inglesi. Director Michael Wilson has every reason to be satisfied with this production. (June 2003)
Israel Horovitz has written a great many plays, but until the other night I'd never seen one. I came away from My Old Lady thinking that perhaps Mr Horovitz has written too many plays, or, more exactly, that he'd been a little too easily satisfied when it came time to deciding that his plays were complete. Certainly My Old Lady needs more. The play so complete fails to resolve its central problem that it seems to stand for the idea that drama doesn't need to be resolved, that all it takes is a vatic line or two at the end, and a quick curtain.
And a fine cast. My Old Lady has that. I called up Telecharge and ordered a pair of tickets because of the two ladies in the three-actor cast, Siân Phillips - notable for an eminent stage career but unforgettable for those of us not lucky enough to live near London's West End theatres for a riveting performance as the Reverend Mother in David Lynch's 'Dune' - and Jan Maxwell, whom I fell in love with over the summer after seeing her in Alan Ackroyd's 'House.' Ms Maxwell was tremendous as the wife (Trish Platt) who has had enough of her husband's philandering and finally decided not to recognize his very existence. I jumped at the chance to see her again.
The ladies of My Old Lady both play Parisiennes. This means that the actress impersonating them speak with Frenzh aksans all the way through, something that both Ms Phillips and Ms Maxwell manage very well. More than that, they really impersonate French ladies; they recoil in proper French fashion from the aggressive, undisciplined, and sarcastic gusto of their American visitor, who, in addition to his other faults, drinks too much. Both ladies declare, with high Continental propriety, that his excessive drinking is 'disgusting.' No enablers they. They have the advantage, however, over the audience, of being able to leave the room whenever their guest became too unpleasant.
Insofar as any play ought to offer the opportunity to spend, as the cliché has it, a few hours in the company of interesting people, My Old Lady does two thirds of the job very well. My problem was with the American man, played by Peter Friedman. Mr Friedman threw himself into the role of Matthias Gold, and obviously had a lot of fun with it, but he was unable to dispel my complete disenchantment with the character. Matthias is a fifty year-old self-declared loser who is bitter about his failures (bad parental relationships, three divorces, and not a penny in his pocket) but so indisposed to adjusting his behavior that it doesn't matter that he has, probably, arguably, a good heart. He is that most wearying of Broadway tropes, the Big Baby. And the humor of My Old Lady rests almost entirely on the incongruity of a man's changing his emotional diapers in the salon of a shabby but respectable flat overlooking the Luxembourg - a very old joke indeed.
Matthias, the loser, has inherited something from his rich father's estate: an apartment in Paris. What he doesn't know until he arrives on the premises - having spent his last dime on the plane ticket from New York - is that the apartment is what the French call a viager. They're not unknown here in New York. They're apartments inhabited by oldish people that purchasers can buy at a steep discount, on the understanding that they, the purchasers, will pay the maintenance on the apartment for the life of the tenant, who remains in possession; when the tenant dies, the purchaser gets the apartment. Matthias is thunderstruck to discover that he not only doesn't really have an apartment but actually owes money on it, a dismay that is only slightly leavened by the satisfaction of knowing that his father, ordinarily a shrewd businessman, had been paying the charges for twenty-seven years. Madame Giffard, the old lady in the apartment, is ninety-four.
Suffice it to say that the transaction between Matthias Gold's father and Mme Giffard wasn't at arm's length, and that Mme Giffard's daughter, Chloe, is more to Matthias than a woman he'll be able to evict when her mother dies. The actual relationships among the parties, as they emerge, prove to be quite predictable; the unexpected element is the symmetry between Matthias and Chloe. Chloe is angry about her childhood, too, although she's much better-behaved about it. While Matthias sympathized with his mother' unhappiness in her marriage, Chloe longed for the love of her father. This gives them something in common, once they get past an initial hostility that Mr Horovitz doesn't quite manage to invest with the screwball heat that his story really needs.
All Mr Horovitz does, really, is set up a mildly intriguing situation - perhaps it would be better to call it a situation that excellent actors could make mildly interesting - and then let his characters talk at each other, revealing little secrets at strategically-timed moments and announcing, rather than showing, their changes of heart. There may be a happy ending, but there is no resolution, no concord among the characters. For the young people to subscribe to Mme Giffard's philosophy would be to understand that their lives up to the final curtain had been wasted; if, on the contrary, the Matthias and Chloe are right to think of themselves as wounded beings, then Mme Giffard ought to have been crushed by her selfishness. Instead, she chirps 'La vie est belle' at the end, whereupon Chloe shakes her head in qualification, 'No, life is better.' Better than death, presumably; but she doesn't say. We are never obliged to judge whether Mme Giffard's liberated views on life and love are charming or dangerous. Mr Horovitz, somewhat lazily, wants it both ways.
Under David Esbjornson's direction, Peter Friedman works the audience for laughs, but Siân Phillips, using every trick in the book, including a dead faint from standing position, is in every way the greater entertainer, and she well deserves her top billing. Jan Maxwell charmingly conveys the persistence of a smart little girl's wariness in a mature woman's makeup; her Chloe is anything but a big baby. She is also the only character to force issues, and this Ms Maxwell manages without the stridency that usually accompanies such obligations. There is a gentleness about her exasperation that could probably - has probably - make one of Tennessee Williams's damaged heroines appealing. But here's hoping that her next role will be as comic as Ms Phillips's. (October 2002)
Proof, if any was wanted, that New York has more theatrical talent than it knows what to do with was on offer last weekend at the Metropolitan Playhouse, a rather grandly-named loft in Alphabet City. To be perfectly honest, Kathleen and I went to see Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, David Zellnik's OOBR-winning play, because a friend of ours was in the cast. That's how we knew about the revival, briskly directed by Liz Ortiz-Mackes, in the first place. It would not have occurred to us to look through TONY's 'Gay and Lesbian' section to see what was playing Off-Off-Broadway, and we would have found no listing in the magazine's 'Theater' section. I hadn't understood the extent to which a play on gay themes might be marginalized. Shame on TONY.
Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom is a well-made play - and I mean that as a compliment - about two old friends, Puppy and Jake. Puppy requires the services of a wheelchair, while Jake tries to cope with the fact, thanks to effective medication, that he is not about to die of AIDS. Who's the cripple here? Puppy writes pornography with a whimsical political slant for a publisher named Al, a sleazy number who in this production appears to have asked for the Mrs Norman Bates look. When Puppy's not writing, he's probably listening to Jake complain about his lover, Samson. That Jake and Sam should have trouble getting along is no surprise, since their relationship was formed in the teeth of a death threat that, for the time being anyway, has evaporated. What hasn't evaporated is Sam's phobia about sex - he and Jake haven't had any in about five months. (He says that his skin hurts because of the medication.) The situation isn't helped by Jake's joblessness, either. Jake is a writer, or wants to be a writer, but he has nothing like Puppy's industry or imagination. So he stops taking his medication for a few days and lands in the hospital.
Puppy's current work-in-progress concerns the fate, as it were, of a group of Chinese prisoners, all of whom have landed in jail because they took Mao's exhortation to Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom literally. Puppy tells Jake how no one believed Mao at first - no one believed that criticism would go unpunished - but then someone spoke out, and nothing happened, and a few other people spoke out, and nothing happened, and so on - until finally Mao had everybody arrested and executed. Puppy sees an AIDS allegory in this (don't ask), but the title of the play has much more bearing on the action than that, for Puppy convinces disconsolate Jake that he should have a little fling while Sam's out of town. The little fling becomes something more like a hundred flings. Appalled to discover that Jake isn't practicing safe sex, Puppy spills the beans to Sam - a not entirely disinterested gesture, since Puppy harbors longings for Jake, and if Jake needs another place to stay, Puppy's happy to provide.
To get things going, Puppy pushes Jake into the ambiguous armature of a Latino shoe salesman named Addison. Addison is a hunk, and responsive, up to a point, but he insists that he is not gay, and to back this up he prohibits kissing on the mouth and limits Jake to two encounters. 'Two times. That's the rule with guys. Two times so you don't get addicted to me.' Addison's swaggering denial of the implications of his frolics with Jake came straight to mind a day or so after we saw the play when I read that some Islamic businessmen had figured out a way to get round the prohibition against negotiating with a woman: by calling her 'Mister.'
The four principals - Jon-Michael Hernandez as Puppy, Jonathan Vaughan as Jake, Peter Byrnes as Samson (and Al), and Todd d'Amour (not a stage name!) as Addison and a number of other hunks - all gave great performances. Mr Hernandez, who is himself disabled, inflected his role with the wryly bluffing vulnerability of a very winning loser but arrived at the happy ending with all flags flying. Mr Vaughan managed to hold my sympathy even though he brought Jake's passive-aggressive reflexes to the fore. When the inevitable go-away-and-don't-come-back scene came his way, Mr Byrnes's indignation was so righteously intense that his spectacles blazed. As for Mr d'Amour, he has a great body now, but in thirty years he will still have a supple, agile, and very rich voice.
The text of Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom is available on the Web at here. It reads very well, but then I've got the memory of four fine performances to fill it out.
Having ordered tickets the moment they went on special sale to American Express cardholders, we saw the revival of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune from Row E; any closer, and we’d have been looking up Edie Falco’s robe. Missing the original production in 1987, which starred F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates, is high on my list of theatrical regrets, so missing Ms Falco and Stanley Tucci was out of the question. They're terrific together, funny and heartbreaking – McNally’s favorite blend. It's probably not fair to pin all the nudity on director Joe Mantello.
What’s most amazing about this play is the speed with which McNally brings you into synch with the world of two Greek coffee shop employees. The hallmark of his deftness is that notwithstanding the title of the play, and the fact that Clair de Lune composition is played twice, to great effect, on the onstage radio, the piece is never identified, and Frankie and Johnny themselves have no idea what it’s called. Johnny is sure – or wants to be sure - that all you have to do is go into a fancy record store and ask for the most beautiful piece of music in the world, and that’s what they’ll sell you. Frankie is more skeptical. She thinks it’s much more likely that you’ll end up with ‘Michelle,’ or ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ or the soundtrack to ‘The Sound of Music.’ The wonder of it is that not once do you look down on these characters for not knowing Debussy's extraordinarily famous composition. You want to choke, rather, thinking of how much they have to learn, how much they have to teach themselves – and you know that they’ll try. What you, brought up in bourgeois, professional comfort, learned without any effort whatsoever, lies over the horizon here, you hate to think how far. McNally has put two 'ordinary' people on the stage, and clothed them with dignity.
The struggle is heroic: Frankie and Johnny are determined to fall in love. That's to say that Johnny's ready to fall in love, and Frankie is determined not to fall in any other direction. Johnny is romantic, Frankie practical. They work together in a Greek coffee shop (as if there were any other kind in New York); this could be just an opportunistic one-night stand. But something tells them that this coming together is a big chance. They may blow it. Frankie’s pretty sure that they’ll blow it, and at one point Johnny lets on that he’s doubtful, too, for all his bravado (“I’m no good with people… Sooner or later, I hang myself.”) But the chance is real, not a daydream. The road may be bumpy, but it won't necessarily throw these two apart.
You’re familiar, I’m sure, with Chekhov’s law: if a gun appears in the first act, it must go off in the third. So when Johnny swears, as a kind of allegiance to his own identity, that he would never hit a woman, you wait for him to fail the test. McNally’s staging of a small scuffle that erupts at an impatient moment – Frankie, as usual, the impatient party – quite wonderfully lays Chekhov to rest: Johnny does not, not anything like, hit Frankie. He doesn’t even hold back from wanting to. Frankie slaps Johnny, twice, but that’s different; women get to. But Johnny's first-act declaration remains a gauntlet thrown thrillingly down.
The curtain goes up on two people making love in the dark. After their climax, the lights go up a bit as they sprawl in bed. I would say that Edie Falco is naked, for all to see, for about five minutes; Stanley Tucci prolongs his nakedness by at least twice that. There were moments when I fell for the picture of two unabashed lovers coming up for air, but as it happens these were not two unabashed lovers, and their relish in the naked afterglow was a little dishonest. Frankie’s was, anyway. Johnny’s nakedness was really a kind of nudity, an aggressive unclothedness, part of his desperate attempt to be the compleat lover. But I don’t think anything would have been lost if Frankie had been wearing a robe when the lights went up. I expect that the director would disagree; he’d argue that Frankie’s postcoital nakedness was a rare, and daring, moment of freedom, almost as willed as Johnny’s. But in fact we were looking at Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci (who has a very good body for a middle-aged man, by the way), not Frankie and Johnny. Edie Falco may not be the beauty that Michelle Pfeiffer is (Pfeiffer, incredibly, had the part in the bad movie adaptation), but neither she nor her costar is hard on the eyes, either, and one can be sure that if they were they’d be robed from the get-go. What keeps me off the high horse is knowing that scenes such as this are keeping Broadway financially healthy. ‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, after all, is really an off-Broadway show, but star power and nudity will keep the Belasco Theatre filled at least for the length of the production’s ‘limited engagement.’ (August 2002)
Have you seen the ad for Design for Living in the Times, or perhaps in The New Yorker? It’s immensely misleading and largely responsible for the bad reviews. Showing the three principals as carefree cutups en route to a perpetual party, the photograph doesn’t remotely convey an idea of what these people look like on stage. Someone in search of frothy and clever entertainment from Noel Coward is bound to be awfully disappointed.
Design for Living may anything but carefree, but is it any good? And what about this revival? As to the first question, any play holding that three people can live together ‘as a couple’ will provoke a resistance quite different nowadays from the titillated scandal of its première. In 1933, ménage à trois was a myth because hardly anyone had had the opportunity to conduct such sexual experiments. A powerful man might have a wife and a mistress, more or less openly, but neither of the women had much say in the arrangement, and in any case Coward endows one woman with two men. On the other side of the late sexual revolution, however, we speak with somewhat more experience when we ask to see successful examples of such threesomes. The idea remains fabulous: a myth because it can't happen.
When there is the Proust problem. By this I mean the questionable value of a homosexual's theorizing about heterosexual love and the erotic life of women. While I doubt that Coward had no experience whatsoever with women, he was not a bisexual, and when we look at Gilda, the heroine of Design for Living, we find a woman who not only doesn’t much like herself but seems to have no idea who she is or might be. She talks a big game of independence but she doesn’t believe in it. She cannot sit still; she rushes about in search of madder music and stronger wine. Two years of respectable married life nearly kills her. Evaluated realistically, her character compares to that of a unicorn in need of a twelve-step program.
I’m not sufficiently familiar with Design for Living to know where the script stops and the interpretation begins, but I’m pretty sure that Gilda needn’t be played as gravely as Jennifer Ehle plays her. The seriousness of this performance has all the signs of a well thought-out miscalculation, an attempt to do something with the role that, while interesting so far as the role itself goes, can’t be made to fit with the rest of the play. When the curtain goes up, Gilda is seen sitting in a slip in front of a whirring fan, lost in thoughts that, even if they’re happy (we’ll find that she’s just made love) are far from light. As if oppressed by an existential burden, Ehle holds the pose for about twice as long as an actress untutored by director Joe Mantello would, pushing the audience into wondering if something’s the matter with her – Ehle, not Gilda – and perhaps even drumming its fingers with impatience, lest we be in for an evening of Tennessee Williams. Ehle has a rich low voice, which she puts at the service of interpretive complexity: her simplest ‘no’ suggests hours of knotty deliberation, but for all that it’s unlikely to be a final answer.
One clear improvement, in my book, from the original production (as it must have been) is the openness with which the men express their, er, mutual affection. That they should carry on together is only questioned once, where it would have had to be in 1933: after Gilda runs off to New York, Otto (Alan Cummings) asks Leo (Dominic West) ‘What now?’ When the two pop up in Gilda’s New York penthouse after a prolonged sojourn on a tramp steamer, there’s no need to guess whether they did or they didn’t; it was clear by the kisses that answer Otto’s question that they were going to. Their easy sexuality together, contrasted not only with Ehle’s seriousness but with the men’s gentlemanly treatment of her, may have led one reviewer to pronounce Gilda’s the loser in this production – or at least the odd man out. We come back to the stubborn proposition that three is still a crowd and that somebody’s going to be left out. Since Design for Living ends when the new relationship begins, we can’t look to Coward for answers.
It would be interesting to know how many members of the audience shared the disgust, if not the priggishness, of Gilda's soon-to-be ex-husband Ernest (John Cunningham) at the end. I'd also like to know if anybody but me fell all unwilling beneath the spell of Robert Brill's glamorously hideous design for a stylish London flat, featuring a livid green the likes of which I'm happy to say I'd never seen before. (March 2001)
For a day or so before seeing the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of The Man Who Came To Dinner at the newly-minted American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street – a very fitting venue – I wondered if it watching the Warner Brothers 1941 film mightn’t have been a bad idea. The revival of this 1939 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart had garnered a poor review in the Times, and it was hard to imagine how anyone, even Nathan Lane, could rival Monty Woolley, a classmate of Cole Porter’s at Yale who gave up teaching acting in 1936 to go on the stage himself. I’d read that even Alexander Woollcott, the radio snake-charmer who inspired the title character, didn’t do as well at it, when he gave the role a try in a California production. Even more, the movie had brought out the hugely dated quality of the play’s repartee. If names were coconuts, Sheridan Whiteside and his chums would all die of concussions, but not many people today really know much about the Khedive of Egypt or Dorothy de Frasso or Schiaparelli. It’s been a very long time since the Normandie plied the seas or Hattie Carnegie her gowns. There may very well have been people in the theatre who had never heard of Katharine Cornell.
The movie did beat the play at production values. More than just sets and lighting, ‘production values’ signifies everything in a show that isn’t (a) story or (b) starpower. It definitely includes the character and supporting actors whose names never make it to the marquee (no matter how beloved they might become of thoughtful audiences), and even more the direction that those actors are given. Hands down, Warner’s ‘Man’ has a better supporting cast than the Roundabout’s. With nearly thirty stage roles, it’s easy to see why the Roundabout might have to settle for talent at the level of a first-rate high school production. But I suspect that Jerry Zaks’s direction had something to the mediocrity that dragged throughout the first act. In any case, the actors playing Ohioans were even more outdone by the stars than their characters should have been.
There are five juicy parts in The Man Who Came To Dinner, and all of them are out-of-towners, town being Mesalia, Ohio. Everybody else lives in Mesalia full-time. In the movie, Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell, both supporting talents of the first order, play Sheridan Whiteside’s bedeviled hosts. Mary Wickes makes such a success of her screen her debut as a nurse that Warner’s put her to work in the same kind of role, this time even sassier, in ‘Now, Voyager,’ a year or so later. The excellence of these three performances serves to paper over a fault line that the Roundabout revival left starkly visible. Onstage at the American Airlines Theatre, the Mesalians are not only less sophisticated than their glamorous visitors, but less interesting, too. In fact I came to share Sheridan Whiteside’s impatience with them. During the third act, when they’re very much in the background where he wants them, the show finally took off.
The Man Who Came To Dinner is two plays in one. The first is an entertainment reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s plays, built entirely upon shocking remarks. More a revue than a drama, it stars Sheridan Whiteside, internationally famous radio charlatan, marooned in Mesalia after a nasty fall on the ice. His insults, even at this remove, still pack a wallop; two of my favorites, both directed at poor Miss Preen, are ‘Nurse Bedpan’ and ‘My Lady Nausea.’ His attending physician, an incompetent bore if there ever was one, he holds up as a poster boy for euthanasia. The immediate and unwilling audience for this presentation struggles valiantly if somewhat stupidly to react with savoir faire. What we might call the Sheridan Whiteside Show sounds like the precursor of half the sitcoms ever made; indeed, Whiteside’s slip and fall on the Stanley’s steps creates the archetypal Situation. Having specialized in backchat from the beginning, Nathan Lane is a natural in the role. Unfortunately, the actors playing his victims also seem to be naturals.
The second play stars Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s secretary, and Lorraine Sheldon, a star of stage and screen, and here Whiteside plays a supporting role, along with the ingenu they’re after and a pair of celebrity actors who , hating Lorraine, do what they can for Maggie’s campaign. Here, too, Warner’s had it over the Roundabout, and no wonder, since Bette Davis plays Maggie in the movie pretty much to perfection. Although Davis became famous, later in her career, for a Whitesidean hardness of her own, she was still in the early forties capable of a composed softness, and she puts this to work to make herself plausible as the loyal but hardly long-suffering personal assistant of an extraordinarily self-absorbed man. On the strength of a Lincoln Center revival of ‘The Little Foxes,’ a few years ago, I venture to suggest that Stockard Channing would probably be very good at giving an entirely unexpected twist to Davis’ role. Unfortunately, Harriet Harris is not in Channing’s league. There must have been some idea of making Maggie more ‘realistically’ plain than Davis could ever be (at least without her ‘Now, Voyager’ makeup), but somewhere along the way ‘plain’ became ‘awkward.’ I’m admittedly no fan of awkwardness onstage, even the intentional kind, but even a fan must agree that it has no place in a big, complicated comedy that has to spin to stay off the ground. Again and again, Harris’s pauses, her uncertain accent, and her gawky stage presence gummed up the works. And she never once seemed plausible as a clever man’s secretary.
Harris’ performance is all the more regrettable because it dampens the efforts of her costars to launch this second play – which of course is the only real play here, for which the first one works merely as a setting, just as the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets frames the love story of Romeo and Juliet – into the stratosphere of Broadway legend. Lewis J. Stadlen, last seen (by me, that is) in another, much darker play with Nathan Lane, ‘Mizlanski/Zilinski,’ has probably rocketed himself there anyway, in a performance as Banjo, a character based on Harpo Marx, that completely effaces Jimmy Durante’s in the movie. From the moment he walks on and throws a terrified Miss Preen back in his arms to his departure with a loaded sarcophagus, Stadlen lights up the stage with such transcendent clowning that one thinks of Bill Irwin. Not far behind Stadlen is Byron Jennings, playing Beverly Carlton, a Noel Coward knockoff. Incomparably more in command of Coward’s feline self-control than Warners’ Reginald Gardiner – who’s just another ritzy English guy – Jennings seems to be stretched out on luxurious pillows of blissful self-regard even when he’s walking about the stage. He even manages to hold onto the audience while he sits down at the piano and runs through a Cowardly ballad – no small trick.
Here’s a show I’d like to see: Jean Smart’s Lorraine Sheldon faces off against Marin Mazzie’s Lilli Vanessi (of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’). Lorraine and Lilly represent a lost breed of actress, ladies who saved their real dressing up for offstage. Never appearing in public without the attentions of a French maid and a couturier, these divas inspired generations of drag acts before dying, presumably, of sheer theatricality. As grandes dames, they’re wholly bogus. Curiously, it’s when they bare their teeth that they drop their guard – that’s what distinguishes them from real tigers like Joan Crawford. And they are easily provoked into baring their teeth. Jean Smart’s field day with as Lorraine Sheldon (“a siren of no mean talents”) unaccountably takes a while to get going; I wrote it off to her not liking her first ensemble. It’s not until she’s wearing her second outfit that she shows us what Lorraine’s all about, and the revelation comes in a small moment. It’s Christmas Eve, and the Stanley house has been upended even further to accommodate Whiteside’s traditional Christmas Eve broadcast. While Whiteside prepares offstage, Lorraine buffs her nails idly on the sofa. Aware that a sound technician is ogling her, she flirts back a little and then when he leaves actually says ‘tee hee’ with all the delight of a bad little girl. The ardent attentions of the sterner sex are, if not meat and drink then at least peanut butter and jelly. Smart cooked up a wonderful little shtick about trying to cry on cue and failing. She runs this through a couple of times, and gets good laughs for it, but the payoff comes when, genuinely moved by a treacherous compliment from Whiteside, she tears up without trying and is so pleased that she laughs. I wept.
Two things stood out for me in Nathan Lane’s performance. The first was his recital of a an aria in the key of blarney sharp & flat. Since it was omitted from the film, I insert it here, and beg the reader to imagine Mr Lane’s singular vocalise.
Whiteside. It is one of the most endearing and touching stories of our generation. One misty St. Valentine’s Eve – the year was 1901 – a little old lady who had given her name to an era, Victoria, lay dying in Windsor Castle. Maude Adams had not yet caused every young heart to swell as she tripped across the stage as Peter Pan; Irving Berlin had not yet written the first note of a ragtime rigadoon that was to set the nation’s feet a-tapping, and Elias P. Crockfield was just emerging from the State penitentiary. Destitute, embittered, cruel of heart, he wandered, on this St. Valentine’s Eve, into a little church. But there was no godliness in his heart that night, no prayer upon his lips. In the faltering twilight, Elias P. Crockfield made his way toward the poor box. With callous fingers he ripped open this poignant testimony of a simple people’s faith. Greedily he clutched at the few pitiful coins within. And then a child’s voice wavering treble broke the twilight stillness. “Please, Mr. Man,” said a little girl’s voice, “won’t you be my Valentine?” Elias P. Crockfield turned. There stood before him a bewitching little creature of five, her yellow curls cascading over her little shoulders like a golden Niagara, in her tiny outstretched hand a humble valentine. In that one crystal moment a sealed door opened in the heart of Elias P. Crockfield, and in his mind was born an idea. Twenty-five years later three thousand ruddy-cheeked convicts were gamboling on the broad lawns of the Crockfield Home, frolicking in the cool depths of its swimming pool, broadcasting with their own symphony orchestra from their own radio station. Elias P. Crockfield has long since gone to his Maker, but the little girl of the golden curls, now grown to lovely womanhood, is known as the Angel of Crockfield, for she is the wife of the warden, and in the main hall of Crockfield, between a Rembrandt and an El Greco, there hangs, in a simple little frame, a humble valentine.
Maggie. And in the men’s washroom , every Christmas Eve, the ghost of Elias P. Crockfield appears in one of the booths.
Crock indeed. The second most memorable moment was Mr Lane’s curtain call. Coming out last onto a thickly-populated stage, he held the stage with the authority of Jackie Gleason. Any insecurities that the actor might humanly feel were completely buried by satisfied authority. It’s possible that Lane doesn’t know why audiences have come to love what he does, but he does know what it is and he likes doing it well. In a way, the final curtain came down not on The Man Who Came To Dinner but on ‘The Nathan Lane Show.’ (August 2000)
The smashing revival of Kiss Me, Kate that’s still playing to full houses on Broadway seems to revive everything that was wonderful about the Golden Age of American musical theatre, and if the producers had only had the courage to can the amplification, the evening would have been perfect. There were just enough updating touches to signify that this was a revival, not an exhumation. Of course, there’s an additional dimension to the revival: when the show was first produced in 1948, the only period costumes on display were worn in the play-with-the-play – Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Now, Marin Mazzie begins her glorious reincarnation of a Margo Channing-class diva by strolling onstage in a New Look outfit that, we now know, was really the Old, prewar Look, probably more dependent on rigorous foundation garments than anything Elizabethan.
Rigorous foundation underpins almost everything that happens onstage. As befits a backstager, displays of professional virtuosity provide the real drama, and there is plenty of it here. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such complete assurance demonstrated by the entire cast of a musical comedy. The lines between dance and blocking, and between song and speech, pale to an extent that would do The Magic Flute proud. But I’m not going to take up the rather silly argument about whether musical comedies like Kiss Me, Kate are operas. Instead, I’m going to wish that musical comedy audiences behaved like their counterparts at the Met.
Here’s what I mean: Anthony Tommasini ends a review of some free Beethoven quartet concerts thus: “And when the performances of the final quartet ended, the Orion players were greeted with a standing, whooping ovation. This was not an occasion for a critic to quibble over intonation and phrasing. The Chamber Music Society intended this series as a gift to New York, and it was received as a generous and exciting one.” (The New York Times, May 25, 2000, p. E1.) What makes me uncomfortable is the idea that critical standards are supererogatory at best whenever untutored people are having a good time.
Because Lincoln Center audiences are not comprised of the untutored, their responses provide a meaningful judgment upon the performance. It’s true that I’ve more than once chafed at tepid applause, at Philharmonic Concerts, for outstanding performances of unpopular or unknown works. Precisely because enthusiastic accolades are uncommon, though, they’re rapturous when they do occur, and add greatly to the pleasures of the evening. I would hate to see the cast of Kiss Me, Kate rewarded with lukewarm, short-lived applause by people who hadn’t been to the theatre before, but I wouldn’t miss the roar of carnival excitement that greeted almost every bow.
(I suppose nobody’s not been to the theatre before anymore. Television has put an end to that deficiency. Did the producers of, say, The Carol Burnett Show – as close to the theatre experience as television ever afforded - feel that they had to work the studio audience up to a pitch of screaming and whistling in order to move viewers at home?)
The kind of audience that greeted the premiere of Kiss Me, Kate fifty-two years ago is with rare exceptions no longer seen on Broadway but only off-, at venues such as MTC, the Lucile Lortel, and the Variety Arts, where the plays are rather less predictable. Where one might actually get to see, someday, the plays of Dawn Powell, which I’ve been reading at night. Powell’s champion, Tim Page, teamed up with Michael Sexton to bring out a Steerforth edition of four of her ten stage works, Big Night, Jig Saw, Women at Four O’clock, and Walking Down Broadway. I knew about Jig Saw from Powell’s diaries; her entry for April 26, 1934 (written during the play’s out-of-town run in Washington) mordantly contrasts Spring Byington’s comic technique to that of Ernest Truex and Cora Witherspoon. Reading along, I thought that Byington’s role would have been great for Irene Dunne, if Dunne had ever played a woman so completely unmoored from virtue. Then I turned Walking Down Broadway, which has never been staged. The two are very different: while Jig Saw’ strikes the same seedily sophisticated note that plays through Powell’s New York novels, Walking Down Broadway takes a clear but tender look at a quartet of young people who have not very long ago left small towns for the bright lights and the big chances.
Toward the end of their introduction to the collection, Messrs. Sexton and Page conclude that “Powell writes about people who are going nowhere, but who are determined to have as good a time getting there as possible.” I would say rather that Powell writes about people who have already done their going. They may never do any better, but they have managed to land somewhere in Manhattan. Like Powell, they lead precarious lives, particularly the women, but distract themselves by going to as many parties as possible. Loners are rare in Powell, for there’s no telling what opportunity may show up for a drink.
The girls in Walking Down Broadway, Marge and Elsie, come from the same small town of Marble Falls – and who wouldn’t leave a town with such an unlucky-sounding name? – but a friendship formed in such thin air can’t sustain either of them in New York, where people come in so many different shapes, and when Marge finds she has a big problem, she confides in the girl next door, whom Elsie can’t stand. One foresees that Marge and Elsie won’t take long to fall out of touch. If they manage this badly, they may even come to forget that they were ever roommates. If they manage it gracefully, then once every ten years ago, Marge and her husband will get on a train just to go out and spend the evening with Elsie and her husband – or vice versa. Children will wonder who these strange visitors are, and what it means to be so visibly choked up about old friends whom, for all that, one never sees.
What’s it like to come to New York alone? And I do mean alone – without relatives, or old friends (at an age when all old friends are school friends) to give a context. I wonder if anyone still does. (May 2000)
Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press