Wednesday, January 11, 2017

TEACHERS

My fans sometimes ask me whether I have learned from other writers, and if so, what and from whom. This does not elicit easy answers for more reasons than one. The first probable influence is that of Homer Nearing, my English teacher at Perkiomen High School, who solicited my input into an epistolary novel he and his far-away girlfriend were collaborating on. My senior year at the superior Horace Mann School, did not contribute any such influence.

At Harvard, I was a student of Harry Levin, and always admired, on a sympathetic rather than systematic basis, the scope of his erudition, his insight, his acuity and wit. But admiration is not necessarily learning. On a friendly basis in conversation, I probably learned a thing or two from Wilfrid Sheed, whose writing I also admired, though his novel “Max Jamison,” as he often persuasively maintained, had nothing to do with me, however often some thought otherwise. But I may have derived my sense of irony in part from him.

Some will mention Dwight Macdonald as a presumptive teacher. He surely was an admired friend, and wrote the somewhat cool introduction to my first critical collection, “Acid Test.” He did question some of my puns, as I may now the more labored ones, but not such good ones as his comment on Hollywood epics about Christ, in which “Romans were always the fall goys.”

Withal I cannot point to any specific lessons to have learned from him, admiration not being synonymous with influence. If Dwight was a model, neither in his writings nor in our many conversations, could one point to specific lessons. We usually agreed on things, as on a shallow lecture by Alberto Moravia we walked away from.

I actually recall most our one major disagreement, on Fellini’s “8 ½.” which he loved, but I found inferior to some of the earlier masterpieces. (I have since come to espouse  several of his points.) In any case, an admirer is not necessarily a disciple.

Regrettably, much as I bought his books and respected his criticism, I cannot lay claim—more’s the pity—to any serious emulation of Edmund Wilson, except to a somewhat similar, though much less extensive, intellectual voracity. I never met him except as an unintroduced bystander while walking with Renato Poggioli, with whom, at an accidental street-corner meeting, he stopped for a briefest of conversations. I was rather envious of friends who got to sit with him at a late-night Cambridge joint, and somehow mentioned my knowledge of Hungarian, which he, in connection with recent readings in translation, remarked on envying.

In English, I favored a number of poet critics such as Ransom, Jarrell, Charles Simic and Robert Graves, whom I enjoyed, along with such non-poets as Leslie Fiedler, Benjamin De Mott, William Pritchard, and the already mentioned Harry Levin. And a novelist-critic such as Vladimir Nabokov.

But I also read a number of German/Austrians, Frenchmen and women, Italians, Spaniards, Scandinavians, and Hungarians, though for some reason no Yugoslavs or Latin Americans. Yet little of it, and that mostly subconsciously, qualifies as teaching. As an occasional writer of verse (I dare not say poet), I learned from a whole bunch of poets, of whom I only mention Graves, Cummings, Ransom, MacNeice and Wilbur, as well as Erich Kaestner, whom I translated, and Jacques Prevert.

I must however look at one possible teacher more particularly: Kenneth Tynan, from whom I hope to have learned irony (just short of sarcasm) and, in so far as this is possible, wit, which, after all is mostly innate and automatic. I cannot resist quoting some of his boutades—here the French imposes itself, with the English sallies, witticisms, epigrams largely subsumed.

“When you have seen all of Ionesco’s plays . . . you have seen one of them.” “Whenever [Chekhov’s] Platonov deceives his wife, he is stung by an attack of remorse so savage that it can be alleviated only by deceiving her with someone else.” “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have  preferred foam rubber.” “The true objection to [Genet’s “The Balcony”] is that nobody but M. Genet could have written the first half at all, while almost anyone else could have written the second half better.”

Or this: “Synge is often praised for his mastery of cadence, and for the splendor of his dying falls, Dying they may well be, but they take an unconscionable time doing it. Synge seldom lets a simple, declarative sentence alone. To its tail there must be pinned some such trailing tin can of verbiage as—to improvise an example—‘the way you’d be roaring and moiling in the hug of a Kilkenny ditch, and she with a shift on her would destroy a man entirely. I’m thinking, and him staring till the eyes would be lepping surely from the holes in his head.’” These are all negatives, but Ken could also be positive, about which some other time.

I am sorry that I didn’t get to know him better. At my one visit, when I asked him what he thought about my praise in an essay, he responded that it was merely to use him as a cudgel to clobber. George Steiner in the same essay.

Altogether, the question of from whom I may have derived demonstrable teaching is a thorny one, hardly ever fully provable, and except in the cases of full-blown discipleship perhaps not all that important. So much more characteristic and interesting is the innate and perfected independent talent, whatever it may be, and largely derived, however indirectly, from one’s living.

It is as with travel writing. One may get quite a bit from reading other travel writers, but you can truly learn only from your own experience, from your own travels. Even the best teachers are essentially road signs; the true discoveries are based on your own experiences.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bittersweet

“Sweet Charity” is as good a musical as can lap at the heels of top tier, and can even, in the right production, make it there. It does, after all, have a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and is based on a movie by Federico Fellini—what better credentials can there be? Now add to this the lead played by Sutton Foster, and you should have a non plus ultra. But some problems remain.

You may recall that this is the story of Charity Hope Valentine, the defiantly optimistic dance hall hostess, a variation on the topos of the whore with the heart of gold, only here not quite a whore and with not only a heart of gold, but indeed, as embodied by Sutton Foster, pure gold from top to toe.

In the 1957 Fellini film, “Notti di Cabiria,” the heroine is in fact a hooker, but for America in 1966 things had to be made a bit more decorous, and Neil Simon’s book, transferring the action from Italy to New York managed to be neither wholly funny nor especially moving. But Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon did make things exciting, a married couple as were Fellini and his Cabiria, Giulietta Masina. And the premiere 608 performances were not too bad for that pre-Fantasticks and pre-Phantom time.

But then as now, much depended on the female star, and Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie, like Debbie Allen in the 1986 Broadway revival, did pretty damn well too. Not so much, however, Christina Applegate in the 2005 Broadway version., which made it only to 279 performances, despite commendable support from Denis O’Hare and Paul Schoeffler. How many will the show net this time round?

At the Pershing Square Signature Center, we are offered what may be viewed as a chamber musical version, small-scale and very low-budget. In a small theater, however, with the audience on three sides, one gets to be almost within hugging distance of the superb Sutton, and how well she acts, sings and dances her role, how girlish she manages to look in a blond wig, and how boldly she jumps up to straddle the waist of a new customer, no matter how disappointing the last one was.

Unlike the other girls in this dance hall, for which the good designer Derek McLane has simply designed a porous back wall and a bare wooden floor, Charity, with sweet naivete, hopes that the next client will be her redeemer. It is a bit too hard for that floor to impersonate the river into which a heartless customer, after fleecing her, tosses Charity so she almost drowns, and this is where the film or a grander staging comes off better. But of course sight lines in theater in the round, or even near round, do not allow for much scenery. 

Clint Ramos had no such problem with the costuming, and has done particularly well by the short, inexpensive, pale blue dress, almost like a child’s play dress, which is all Charity has on when not working. Ms. Foster’s wears it with a touching grace.

The big problem here is the low-rent casting. Joel Perez simply isn’t a versatile enough actor for four parts, least of all for that of the older star actor, Vittorio Vidal, who after a tiff with his young girlfriend picks up Charity for a one-night stand, which doesn’t come to much after the girlfriend returns and Charity has to hide in the closet. I did rather like Emily Padgett as a fellow taxi dancer, Helene, but intensely disliked Shuler Hensley as Oscar.

Oscar is the seeming good guy who will apparently marry Charity, but turns out to be another loser, showing his true color when he panics in a stalled elevator with Charity and, terrified, drops his pants. Eventually he too crumps out on Charity, which, given how unprepossessing this overweight actor has become, may make it a blessing when he decamps. It pays off to follow Fellini’s casting of the accountant Oscar with Francois Perier, a presentable if ever so slightly sinister actor. Likewise, the star Vittorio is best played by an actor like Amedeo Nazzari, an older, polished, very popular leading man of the De Sica variety.

The orchestra has been reduced to six women seated visibly on a balcony above the action. The reduced orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell work reasonably well, and such female contribution is fitting. Song like “Hey, Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” are still winners.

But Leigh Silverman, the canny director, has moved to the ending “Where Am I Going,” substituting a semi-dark number for both Simon’s and Fellini’s endings, each somewhat different, but both vaguely hopeful

There remains the all-important matter of the choreography, which from Bob Fosse was innovative and dazzling. That of Joshua Bergasse is more conventional, not bad, but not even as good as the one he did for the last revival of “On the Town.”

Yet finally all this pales in comparison to Sutton Foster performing her customary wonders. You would think that even those dastardly males that toss her about could not resist her; the ecstatic audience certainly can’t.








Thursday, December 8, 2016

More Second Opinions

“Dear Evan Hansen” was, in my view, an undeserved hit Off Broadway, and is so again on Broadway, once more harvesting critical raves as numerous and useless as fallen autumn leaves.

In one respect, though, this show is typical—indeed archetypal—of current musicals: it has poor, monstrously repetitive lyrics, and absolutely not a single tune, either sung or instrumental. It is a wonder that such so-called music can be sung at all, although false notes would fit imperceptibly in.

The contrived and pretentious book is by Steven Levenson, the music and lyrics are by the currently hotshot team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose previous flukes include “Dogfight,” “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” and “James and the Giant Peach.”  All of them should be subtitled “The Musical,” lest the score be mistaken for so much noise.

This is the tale of prototypical nerd Evan Hansen, a high-school kid sorely lacking friends and advised by his shrink to write himself encouraging letters. He signs them “Me.”  One such is printed in the school computer lab and pocketed by a fellow student, Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide due to loneliness and depression.

Connor’s bereaved parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy, find Evan’As letter signed “Me” in Connor’s pocket, on the basis of which they assume that Connor and Evan were secretly bosom buddies, and, what with Evan loath to disillusion them, more or less adopt him as a substitute son. This partly because his own mother, Heidi Hansen, a single parent constrained to toil at two jobs, has scant time for her boy.

There is also the Murphy daughter, Zoe, the class belle, who warms to Evan as he co-founds, with a couple of other kids (one Jewish, one black—make your own deductions), a manifold memorial, turning the hostile Connor into a posthumous hero, with a feel-good ending for all concerned.

The cast, even under the undistinguished direction of Michael Greif, does well enough—I particularly liked Laura Dreyfus (Zoe), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi) and, as Evan, Ben Platt, doing almost frighteningly well down to the last stammer and nervous tremor in his legs. The final insult, presumably to epitomize the role of the Internet, consists of dogged but irrelevant projections by Peter Nigrini onto David Korins’s drab, dromomaniac panels, depressingly matching a certifiably tuneless score.

The quasi-autobiographical story of Chazz Palminteri’s early life, “ A BronxTale,” can match any Indian cult of avatars with reincarnations worthy of the phoenix. Having begun as a play and re-emerged as a movie, it now pops up as a musical, with who knows what further variations to come. A comic strip? A ballet?

As a musical, it has lyrics by Glenn Slater and music by Alan Manken, the former an old hand and the latter an all but perennial one. It returns co-directed by Jerry Zaks, another old pro, and Robert De Niro, who co-directed and starred in the movie version. So, you see, there is a kind of Bronx Tale industry, somewhat larger than a cottage one, but just as dedicated. The book of the musical, need I say, continues to be by Chazz.

I won’t go into details of a plot that you can hardly have wholly avoided, but will say that it is the story of a boy with two fathers: the real one, a decent hard-working bus driver, and an adoptive one, Sonny, crime boss of the neighborhood, who took him on after the kid, then nine years old, refused to finger him upon witnessing a flagrant murder.

Chazz figures as the plucky boy and, later, devoted Sonny protege called Calugero, which the gangster, good at cutting lives and names short, reduces to a mere C. As C.  Calugero becomes head of his own, noncriminal gang, and courts a black girl from a neighborhood with which his Italian one has strictly no truck. He does get support and a sexual education from Sonny (which is quite amusing), and, under his real father’s guidance, manages to outlive the murdered Sonny and, we assume, go straight.

The show makes it all amorally jolly, and Sergio Trujillo furnishes it with a lively choreography. There is good scenery from Beowulf Boritt and authentic costuming from William Ivey Long, as well as helpful lighting by Howell Binkley.

But here again, the score, with only passable lyrics, gets second-rate support from the experienced Alan Menken. Having provided music for so many works in various media, largely for Disney, Menken may have depleted his stock that, for his penultimate, “Aladdin,” still managed rather better. Which is not to say that it does not surpass drear [sic] “Evan Hansen.”

 The acting is mostly fine, though I do not prefer the current Calugero, Bobby Conte Thernton, to the previous one at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. But there is one performance that outshines all others, the Sonny of Nick Cordero. This, down to the tiniest threatening facial expression and most sparing minatory gesture, is sheer perfection, making criminality unleashed fun. You may have reservations about everything else, but Cordero, even in an ominous silence, is an ungainsayable last word.

“Sweat” is another show hailed by the reviewers as a masterpiece, though it is not the author’s finest. Lynn Nottage is, along with August Wilson, the black theater’s best; the rest, no matter how many genius awards are lavished on them, are not in the same league. Among Nottage’s virtues are the not inconsiderable ones of never repeating herself, and of basing her work on irreproachable on-site research.

Here she deals with blue-collar workers of uneventful Reading, Pennsylvania; the  bar in which they hang out; their financial, social, emotional problems; their friendships and hostilities; their boozing and gossiping. It is impossible to provide a précis of the goings on, what with nine characters’ tribulations complicatedly interwoven and in constant, however minor, change.

What is particularly good about “Sweat” is the capture of these mentalities and misadventures in the exact language in which they are given voice, rendering them incontrovertibly real. But therein lies also the danger: in this long, perhaps overlong, play, no character commands more than a genuine but transient empathy. Turns and tensions abound, but our feelings are never vitally engaged.

This said, Kate Whoriskey has perceptively directed a persuasive cast, and we can practically smell the beers and hard liquor being prodigally consumed. Except perhaps for Johanna Day, we get a set of most likely unknowns, thus favorably contributing to our not viewing them as actors. In John Lee Beatty’s detailed scenery and Peter Kaczorowski’s unsparing lighting, we get a kind of reality show unknown to television.

The ending may be just a trifle pat, but this is forgivable after the authentic disorder we have been witnessing. You can apply quite a few gritty phrases to the proceedings, but “Don’t sweat it,” is not one of them.

In my opinion, Richard Greenberg , author of numerous plays, has scored only one winner: “Take Me Out,” directed by Joe Mantello and given a flawless production. Otherwise, neither his spotty wit nor his latent sentimentality has carried much weight with me.  It was Frank Rich, in a Times rave review for what may have been Greenberg’s questionable first attempt, who put this smartass on the map despite such blatant turkeys as “The Violet Hour” and “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” among others.

We now have “The Babylon Line,” neither his worst nor his best, but in which Greenberg tries to be a bit different. He has undoubtedly taught some classes in writing, and this is about such a one in unglamorous Levittown on Long Island’s Babylon railway line in what is doubtless some second-rate institution.

The unrewarded but conscientious teacher is the youngish Aaron Port, author seemingly of only one story in an obscure academic journal. His six students are three variously typical Jewish Long Island housewives  and mothers, and a weird, goyish, childless woman, plus one middle-aged man whom life has passed by and one quite oddball younger one, working on the first paragraph of a yet unwritten thousand-page opus . None of these have an easy time providing a piece of writing for discussion, though they do come up with eventual bits, as comic as they are banal.

Joan Dellamond is at least a strange kind of intellectual; Frieda Cohen is humorously commandeering; Anna Cantor is a squeaky mouse; and ludicrous Madge Braverman is somewhere in between. Aaron, in most cases, might have an easier time extracting the entrails from a goose, but, an underpaid and humble commuter from the Village, he tries to do his best.

There are some funny moments, and even a smidgen of pathos in an aborted love story between Aaron and Joan (a partial recluse who dreams of kicking a baby), but somehow the whole thing does not jell. You hope for a resolution, a purpose, at least an arc, but you just keep getting numerous short scenes, on and on, not leading anywhere. A pat ending is mercifully avoided, but something more is desperately needed.

Still, under Terry Kinney’s sedulous direction, an expert cast does yeoman’s work. As Frieda, Randy Graff, one of our finest actresses, is marvelous as a loudmouth and know-it-all, expertly making an annoying character just enjoyable enough but not too lovable. There is lovely work from one of our top comediennes, Julie Halston, as Madge Braverman, who comes into her questionable own, and Maddie Corman, who squeezes maximum life out of subaltern Anna Cantor.

On the men’s side, that most dependable of balding actors, Frank Wood, does touchingly by painfully ordinary Jack Hassenpflug; Michael Oberholtzer, as the untalented fanatic Marc Adams, couldn’t be more droll. The most notable character, Joan, may not be quite nailed by Elizabeth Reaser, but she comes disturbingly close enough. Richard Hoover (set}, Sarah J. Holden (costumes) and David Weiner (lighting) make sterling contributions.

On a show-off level, some of this works passably enough; if you can keep your expectations as low as those of Aaron Post, winningly acted by Josh Radnor, you can have a tolerably good time.

We come now to the modest Off Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” which I find slight but likable. Based on an Israeli movie by Eran Kolirin, this is a story of the uniformed Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving at an invitation of the Israeli Betah Tikva  Cultural Department to perform at the Culture Center. At the outskirts of Bet Hatikva, they are informed that there is a Petah Tikva or a Bet Hatikva, but no Betah Tikva, and, as the owner of Dina’s Café and hangers out inform them, there is “Not culture, no Israeli Culture, no Arab, no culture at all.”

This leads to the first songs and much comical disputation about where the visitors are or should be, to the probable latter there being no bus any longer till next morning. What follows is the varied fascinating interaction among the Egyptians and sundry Israelis--chiefly, but by no means exclusively, between Dina, the spunky café owner, and Tewfyk, the widowed and repressed conductor of the orchestra.

There are quite a few minor characters with their several intertwined stories, including one family with a variously passed around baby, a young man afraid to woo a desired melancholy young woman, another chap glued endlessly to the sole payphone, hoping for a call from his girlfriend that doesn’t seem to be coming. Also some provocative female soldiers and a character or two whizzing about on roller skates, plus others just waiting for something different to happen.

The show is staged by David Cromer, a famous but somewhat overrated director, who can be effective as he is here, turning turmoil to scenic advantage. Conveyed is a sense of something larger, implied and all-encompassing, that bespeaks a confused and confusing society to which, however, music and goodwill may bring redemption.

The book is by Itamar Moses, whom I don’t trust as a writer, but who proves an acceptable adapter. David Yazbek has provided pleasant music and rather less impressive lyrics, although a kind of love song with “Omar Sharif” for refrain is not without piquancy. At the very least, credit must be given for Tewfiq and Dina not having the expected fling, despite her flagrant efforts.

And speaking of Dina, her embodier, Katrina Lenk, strikes me as the most interesting actress currently on view, displaying a perfect fusion of talent and looks, and easily worth the price of admission. Altogether, this “Visit” is worth visiting.

Nicky Silver, Perky and Pointed

All writers in general and playwrights in particular are uneven. Perfection is not a widely recognized human attribute. As the poet Horace cannily observed, “Sometimes even good old Homer nods.” So does Shakespeare, the greatest of all. And Nicky Silver, bless his heart, can doze off with the best of them.

But whereas Horace referred to occasional passages in the Homeric epics, dramatist Silver can be somnolent for an entire play. All that glitters, we know, is not gold, but neither is it Silver. At his worst. he can be merely self-indulgent; at his best, as in the current “This Day Forward,” he puts his best foot forward. Here, I guarantee, there is no shuteye either from him or for you; you will be kept pleasurably alert.

This is particularly interesting because the play is in equal measure funny and serious, blending those opposites with conspicuous skill. The first act takes place in 1958, the second in 2004, enabling spectators to speculate about what the passage of 46 years can do to a person.

In Act One, Irene and Martin are well-off Jewish newlyweds in a suite of the posh Saint Regis hotel, with Martin scarcely able to contain his eagerness to bed his bride. But Irene, somewhat belatedly on their wedding day, reveals that she does not love Martin. Early in the day she was in fact in bed with Emil, a supposedly very handsome gas station operator, her clandestine lover for some time. The revelation drives Martin nearly crazy, while Irene evinces only a middling embarrassment.

Emil duly shows up and claims Irene for himself. Although Joe Tippett, as the Emil In this production, looks consummately ordinary, this only confirms the insidious illogic behind physical attraction or its lack. Act One implies that Irene, or even Martin, might subsequently split, even as Martin and Emil fight over her, or seem to, but the whole thing remains differently absurd..
                                                                                                                                                            After the intermission, we gather that, whether in love or not, Martin and Irene have stayed together for forty odd years, and that Irene, now an eccentric widow and mother to adult Sheila and Noah, drives the caregiver daughter nuts, and infuriates son Noah by repeatedly calling him Martin. Both offspring are understandably exasperated.

In this Second Act, Noah is a successful stage director, homosexual with a live-in partner, Leo, a young actor not entirely undemanding. Sheila is sick and tired of caring for Irene, who just made off to the airport in nightgown and robe, only to be returned with police assistance. Irene, as sassy as can be, and in most ways pleased to lord it over her children, is not all that complaisant with either of them.

Out of this material, Silver has fashioned a provocative comedy—really a comedy drama—that elicits both laughter and thoughtfulness from its viewers. We cannot but be amused when Irene rebukes her son, “For God’s sake, I know that you are gay, Noah. I made you gay. I did it to spite your father.” Or when she comments about her alarming escape, “I had a Toblerone bar a the airport. Why can’t you get those anyplace but the airport? They’re delicious.”

One of the not inconsiderable virtues of “This Day Forward” is that it offers no easy solution to its problems. Noah is, though physically satisfied by Leo, no less eager to get away from him to Hollywood and avoid commitment. He is loath to take on Irene as his responsibility, yet not so sure about making it in Tinseltown. So the play becomes, on top of comedy and even farce, tinged with drama, as we worry about what is to become of Irene in her widowhood. But we are also concerned for her children, to whom, kvetch that she is, she is a genuine burden.

The direction by Mark Brokaw is impeccable, overcoming the threat of remaining too talky and static by means of inventive stage movement and well-paced dialogue. The cast could not be more apt, whether in reproach or resignation, repartee or rebarbativeness. Thus Holly Fain is subtly provocative as the young Irene, and June Gable is jovially grouchy as the aged one. Michael Crane is equally commendable as the sideswiped groom Martin and the restless homosexual Noah. Andrew Burnap and Francesca Faridany are helpful in encompassing the real and the ridiculous in well handled double roles.

Allen Moyer’s contrasted sets—plushly traditionalist for the Saint Regis, and edgily modern for Noah’s bachelor pad—are on target, and Kay Voyce’s costumes, like David Lander’s lighting, are similarly to the point. Nicky Silver, without quite being Shakespeare, has his gift of melding the real and the ridiculous, of turning the everyday into the oddly endearing.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Etcetera


So now we have “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912,” transferred after a hiatus to Broadway and ensconced at the Imperial Theater, in a grandiose setting it does not really deserve. “Enthroned” might be nearer the mark, because Mimi Lien, the set designer, and Rachel Chavkin, the director, have redesigned the Imperial’s auditorium, so as to make the setting for a “War and Peace”-based show truly imperial.

But “Comet” the musical does not even equal other feeble new musicals. Yet for it, the fascinating seating now comprises various levels for action that partly respects the original seating, but also uses two aisles and two staircases, as well as the stage level for sideline bleachers and a lower free-floating one as well as an overhanging one--and even movement on the mezzanine--to achieve notable diversity. There is also impressive lighting design by Bradley King, involving an upstage bank of lights that can appear and disappear, and lighting units from above that are effectively lowerable and retractable.

The staging allows cast members to interact with the spectators in sundry ways, even unto briefly sitting down among them or having orchestra members ply some instruments up and down the aisles to cajole our adjacent ears.

Dave Malloy has inflicted on us his book, lyrics, music and orchestrations, as well as his obsession with things Russian. He also specializes in uncalled-for adaptations, having previously attacked Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, as well as Beowulf and Schubert’s “Winterreise,” while his Shakespearean “Henriad” is waiting in the wings. He is part of the Anglophone branch of Regietheater, in which a director or adapter craps on masterpieces that cry out for being left alone, as for instance in Simon Godwin’s disastrous current revival of “The Cherry Orchard.”

In the previous, outdoor version of “Comet,” Malloy also had the effrontery of playing the male lead, which made him a very unlucky Pierre. On Broadway, the role has gone, more commercially, to Josh Groban, who sings it much better, and even acts the part decently enough. But he is not the big, affable bear of a man the text calls for, despite some extra stuffing in his waistcoat.

Yet since this is supposed to be nothing less than a pop opera, let me begin with noting the arrogance of competing with Prokofiev’s marvelous nonpop opera, “War and Peace,” which, even unfinished, outshines a thousand Comets. Malloy’s music as well as instrumentation generate a vaguely Russian sound, but there is in it not a single memorable song. On the contrary, there are long stretches in which what passes for music sounds like a concert by assembled metronomes, not even worthy of an obbligato. Sometimes the human voice manages a Pyrrhic victory over mere sound and fury, but the accomplishment is the singer’s, not the song’s.

As for the lyrics, they are prosaic as can be and wallow in repetition of the same phrase countless self-indulgent times. Thus “There is a war going on/ out there somewhere/ and Andrey isn’t here, or “Helene is a slut” is repeated often enough, but never dramatically conveyed, to revulse even a besotted masochist.  Rhyme is only slightly less rare than hen’s teeth—not that it helps much when allowed to interlope.

As for the book, there is little to recommend extracting a fragment from a long, major novel. It is doubly grievous, both for what is omitted and for what is not. For motivation, insight, and style, it remains on the level of a second-rate graphic novel: Tolstoy for Marvel Comics.

Which brings us to the casting. I have grave problems with the Natasha of Denee Benton, somewhat because she is black, but overwhelmingly because she is not much of an actress, and indeed has a babyish quality of looks, voice, and demeanor. Yes, Natasha is supposed to be guileless, but is she meant to be infantile? She sings well enough, but in a slightly black English accent that, for me, wrongly colors what she sings. Nicholas Belton, the Andrey (a Belton for a Benton?) has too slight a role, and his doubling in a wig as Prince Bolkonsky, his semidemented father, is horrendous ham.

 I have already commented on Groban, but the rest of the cast surely deserves specific mention.  They are all fine in various roles: Brittain Ashford, Amber Gray. Grace McLean, Gelsey Bell, Nick Choksi and Paul Pinto do well by their parts. But only one manages to be outstanding, largely because of the longest and most theatrical role: Lucas Steele as Anatole, the vile seducer.  Pale, blond, and manifestly devious, with a touch of the showily histrionic, he steals the show no less than Natasha’s heart. His being easily the center of attraction skews what is already  unbalanced into the barbarous. 

As for the Great Comet of 1912, its greatness is limited to a rhetorical apostrophe in Pierre’s concluding lyric, no more distinguished than all that preceded it. I repeat, “War and Peace” is a remarkably wrongheaded source for a Procrustean adaptation, doing scant justice to Peace (a grand Imperial ball? Forget it!), and none whatsoever to War. I can see no excuse for the critical raves “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912” has garnered from all over beyond perhaps some awe for its literary source.  But to Tolstoy’s prose epic, “Comet” is like a children’s sleigh attached to a mighty troika.                                                  

Monday, November 14, 2016

THEATRE: SECOND OPINIONS

The Westchester Guardian is gone, and once again I have had the horse shot out from under me. True, it may not have been much of a mount—more like Don Quixote’s spavined nag Rosinante—it was still recognizably an equine, even if no contender for a crown, let alone a triple one. So now my theater criticism will, until further notice, appear in my blog, Uncensored John Simon. Herewith a brief overview of shows that I would normally have reviewed at greater length.

Take, for starters, the revival of the William Finn/James Lapine musical “Falsettos.” In its day, almost a quarter century ago, the show that underwent several rethinkings still marked an early serious response to the new plague, AIDS. As such, it was both novel and necessary. After some earlier versions, it emerged full-blown in 1992, successful enough but already a trifle late.

Today, the revival is only partly effective, aside from feeling somewhat dated. The protagonist, Marvin, leaves his wife Trina for a troubled love affair with Whizzer who eventually dies of AIDS, surrounded by Marvin and a number of friends and kinfolk, perhaps a bit too beautifully. The incarnator of Marvin, Christian Borle, a good actor who specializes in comic or naughty characters, never quite rises to tragic heights. Others come off better, notably Andrew Rennells, as a babyfaced Whizzer, and Stephanie J. Block, as a neurotic Trina, as well as a few sidekicks, including the earnest boy actor Anthony Rosenthal.

David Rockwell’s scenery, consisting mostly of a very large, soft, striated, gray cube, with detachable parts of various shapes and uses, is not without interest, and Lapine has again directed cogently. But the whole thing smacks a mite too much of self-righteousness and complacently good intentions on a topic that has already been treated more trenchantly elsewhere, even if not with music.

The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur comedy, “The Front Page,” has been an oft-revived favorite, but even that is not endlessly renewable, despite a savvy director, Jack O’Brien, and a mostly exemplary, all-star cast. It takes place in a Chicago courthouse pressroom, where sundry hardboiled journalists wisecrackingly await a routine dawn hanging, but where the most unexpected and often droll developments eventuate.

It’s a funny thing about revivals that grandparent-time and earlier works fare better than more recent ones, subject to the traditional rebellion of children against their parents. Somehow generational revolt affects brainchildren as well as children. “The Front Page,” full of yesterday’s humor, emerges as old newsprint, almost too yellowed to be read.

The discomfiting truth is that a clutch of our foremost actors, including John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse among others, come across as champion swimmers thrashing  about in a shallow pool. I exclude John Slattery from the group, too Anderson Cooperishly gray and uncharismatic, as a recalcitrant star reporter; and Nathan Lane, almost too good as a ridiculously ruthless newspaper editor, what with some sublime Lane mugging way beyond what is posited. If this is enough for you, as it may well be, go ahead and catch it.

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” (1782) is a dazzling two-volume affair, in which, for their decadent amusement, the ex-lovers Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil revel in the seduction of the innocent and destruction of the virtuous. Apt incurrers of the coming Revolution, they embody the elegant amorality of the heedless contemporary French aristocracy. Christopher Hampton’s English adaptation into a standard-length drama (1988) is not unskilled, but not nearly as powerful as the leisurely but steadily increasing evil of the novel.

The American premiere of the play boasted the brilliant British actors Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, directed by Howard Davies; the current revival, directed by Josie Rourke, collapses under, among other things, the performances of Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber. She, to be sure British, is an overacting beanpole and relentless fidget; he is an American rough action specialist, far too inelegant and unsubtle for a deft British version of a dissolute but stylish French aristocrat. When at last he sheds his wig, he looks downright catastrophic.

Some supporting performances are vastly superior, notably those of the victims: by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (a perfectly British Dane) as the pious Mme de Tourvel, Elena Kampouris as the charmingly hoydenish Cecile Volanges, and the somewhat less appealing Raffi Barsoumian as  the avenger, Chevalier Danceny.

Unfortunately there is something apposite about the person advertising the show on TV mispronouncing it as Liaisons Dangerouses (rhymes with booze), as well as in the name of Laclos appearing in the program in microscopic, barely legible print. There is too much drinking during, and ballet between, scenes and not enough respect for Laclos in this production.

David Hare, at his frequent best, is a considerable political and psychological playwright with some daring features. But “Plenty,” which for some reason is his best known play, is not one of his best. It does, however, provide a great female lead, admirably embodied in the past by actresses such as Kate Nelligan and Meryl Streep, and now, no less eminently, by Rachel Weisz.

It is the story of Susan Traherne, an enthusiastic English girl, who in her idealistic youth acts as a courier for the French underground in World War Two. But the brave new world she envisions provides only a severely checkered career, during which all her noble aspirations are gradually but relentlessly eroded. A major problem for us in America are all the very British references, political, social and even linguistic.

More damaging in the current revival is the direction by the hugely overrated David Leveaux, dispensing with the required specific locations  and meant-to -be displayed dates for each scene, thus not enabling us to follow the downward spiral of the action. Damaging too is some miscasting, especially of the unappealing Corey Stoll as Susan’s ineffectual politician husband, and LeRoy McClain as the stranger whom Susan picks up to father a child on her. No one other than Byron Jennings, as a discouraged diplomat, distinguishes him or herself in the supporting cast, but far the worst hurdles are the grossly misconceived visuals.

Mike Belton, the set designer, and David Weiner, the lighting designer, apparently intended to compensate for the absence of scenery with some gratuitous light displays, suitable only for a state fair pavilion advertising electronic products. They manage to undercut much of the remaining credibility. While it is easy to admire Rachel Weisz, there are burdens here that even Atlas couldn’t shoulder. If the titular “plenty” referred to the number of conceivable objections, it would be all too apt.

One of Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces, “The Cherry Orchard,” is given an abominable production in the present Roundabout Theatre revival. For inexplicable reasons, the RT’s chief, Todd Haymes, reached to England to fish out one of its most misguided directors, Simon Godwin, a specialist in adapting shows that patently do not need it. He has here contrived,  with the help of  the adapter, Stephen Karam (author of “The Humans”), the reverse alchemy of turning gold into lead. Even the dependable set designer, Scott Pask, has been induced to make a mock of the scenery, which includes such incomprehensible lapses as a table and chairs for dwarves, into which some hapless actors actually squeeze themselves.

Unforgivably, the misdirected role of the aging and declining actress and landowner Ranevskaya was imposed on one of our loveliest and ageless actresses, Diane Lane. Constrained to absurdities like the rest of a potentially able cast, she could not protect the stage from being turned into a shambles. For once, even some New York reviewers known for their namby-pambiness, proved rightly indignant.  


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

CHARMING MISTAKES


Some few mistakes are actually charming. A bunch of us Harvard undergraduates were fans of the delightful French soprano Lily Pons. So we sent her an ardent fan letter, naively hoping for a handwritten response. Instead, we got a typewritten reply from her secretary, with--Ossa on Pelion—the envelope address mistyped as Lowell Gouse. But we, her forgiving fans, went on amusedly calling our residence Lowell Gouse.

Speaking of which, the then housemaster of Lowell House, Eliot Perkins, upon being apprised that I had, for some reason, moved to another house, allegedly exclaimed, “Good riddance to that Hungarian Horsethief!” Now, although I speak Hungarian, I always correctly thought of myself as originally Yugoslav, and chuckled at a master who clearly preferred alliteration to the truth.

My maternal grandmother, who. like me. also knew German, once laughingly told me about a quondam schoolmate, who in class, about to recite Uhland’s poem “Die Kapelle” (The Chapel), proudly announced it as Die Rapelle. This because, in the Gothic script of many German books, the capital K looks a lot like the capital R. So, whenever I craved an easy laugh, I just used to raptly utter, “Die Rapelle.”

Archetypal, but, alas, also apocryphal. is the story of the elderly American couple in Paris, whose female member suddenly dies. Her husband, wishing to look proper at her funeral, wanted to buy a black hat. In the haberdashery, confusing chapeau (hat) with capote (condom) he asked the clerk for a capote noire, appropriate for his wife’s funeral. The French clerk, enthralled, exclaimed: “Ah! Quel sentiment, monsieur! Quelle delicatesse!”

Charming, or at least amusing, mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. At a screening of “Black Orpheus,” the greatly awarded and hugely overrated Brazilian movie, I had the misfortune of sitting behind a bunch of Brazilians who never stopped chattering. Enraged, I circumambulated the whole vast auditorium, to be able to come more or less face to face with the culprits, and, in passing, loudly addressed them as “porcus,”(swine), careful to pronounce it the Brazilian, not the Portuguese, way. Now, in retrospect, I find it amusing to have thought clods able to learn from a reprimand.
                                                                                                                                                             Take a capital, and funny, mistake of the ineffectual and unpopular French president, Francois Hollande. All good French presidents are expected to honor the tradition of having, bachelors or married, a mistress. But Hollande chose wrong in picking for mistress the journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and later ditching her for the younger actress Julie Gayet. Scandale! But some journalists can actually write, and so Ms. T., as Adam Nossiter relates in the Times, in a book of her own “took ‘revenge’ in a tell-all recounting of Mr. Hollande’s frailties and prejudices. [H[e habitually referred to the poor as ‘the toothless ones’—she wrote—a devastating revelation for a Socialist president.” That’s what you get when you unwisely bed a journalist. Surely there must exist enough attractive young women in France who, if not necessarily illiterate, at least would, when dropped. more likely choose to avenge themselves with a kitchen knife or rolling pin.

Then again an entire nation can commit a laughable error, like the Phillipines, allowing themselves to be saddled with a president who, to quote David Victor in the Times, “cursed Pope Francis for creating traffic delays, made light of the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary and boasts of sexual conquests.” Not so charming mistakes not requiring a tell-all book to reveal their president’s flaws.

But back to my own mistakes. Once in London, confronted with an attractive film maker, I asked her how she could have collaborated on a movie with an untalented phony. The critic Alan Brien, who introduced us, was amused: “It’s her husband,” he chortled. Uncharming, I’m afraid.

More charming was my mistake committed as a child in Abbazia, the Italian resort we used to visit for Easter vacation, lovely and warm. There I fell for a little girl my age, who owned a butterfly net with which she tried to fish, needless to say unsuccessfully. But one day it slipped from her hand, and floated tauntingly on the Mediterranian waves, not too far but just enough.

The girl was frantic, and I, like the perfect cavalier or idiot, trudged fully clothed into the sea, which luckily was not too deep there, and gallantly retrieved the net. A lady friend of my mother’s, horrifiedly noticing what happened, dragged me off to her room, removed the wet clothes and, while undressing me, also delivered a friendly dressing down. That I consider to have been a mistake as charming as reckless.

Merely amusing was another youthful mistake. In Belgrade, I attended a bilingual Serbian and German elementary school. On a class outing, I produced an orange from my satchel. Walking next to me, young Christoph von Heren, son of the German ambassador, lusted after the orange, which I had already peeled. Perhaps impressed by that “von,” I gave him the fruit, which he unthankfully devoured, as I contented myself with chewing on the orange peel. “Isn’t it convenient,” said the young bastard, “that while I prefer the orange, you favor the orange peel.” That mistake may have been more laughable than amusing.

To this day, it fills me with regret, as does my having used my BB gun to shoot at sparrows, of which I am often reminded when there are sparrows around. (This corresponds roughly to a feature of a play by Jean Anouilh, where, to be sure, it is more vicious.) I also tried to shoot lizards with a toy pistol, but those, happily, eluded me. Thus I felt innocent later on when purchasing a lizard-skin belt or wallet.

Just sometimes a joke manages to be both funny and horrendous. Thus the pos-sibility of Donald Trump being elected president. But, as the German saying has it, “Ich hab schon mehr gelacht”–-I’ve been known to laugh more.