Monday, March 21, 2011


Amazing how many stories of interest center on food. Some of my and my wife Pat’s liveliest adventures involve eating. Take our holiday weekend in Beach Haven on the Jersey shore, where we had dinner at the leading hotel restaurant. I ordered snails (I doubt if they were known as escargots there), and they came with a modest mountain of croutons. I decided, next, on a salad which arrived with an immodest mountain of croutons.  Then onion soup topped with--you guessed it! “More croutons?” I exclaimed in horror. Promptly the waitress returned, beaming, with a Himalaya of croutons.

Wonderful place, Beach Haven. In her musical-comedy actress days, Pat had starred there at the Starlight Theater. But star-bright everyone is not. When at a local cafe, I ordered hot tea and lemon, the waitress apologized that they were out of bottled lemon juice, and all they had were fresh lemons. But can nature, pace Oscar Wilde, really imitate art?

Or take the time in a London Chinese restaurant, where an item on the menu fascinated us: Mange Tout. This didn’t sound Chinese. We asked the waiter what was mange (as rhyming with change) tout (rhyming with trout)? He answered in good French that mange (rhyming with blancmange) tout (rhyming with choux) referred to peas in the pod, eaten whole (mange tout).

Then there was the time in Paris, when we could still afford such things, and went to the most expensive restaurant, Lucas-Carton. Pat ordered something innocuous, but I ordered brains, imagining something nicely breaded, perhaps like a wiener schnitzel, only brainier. When the elegant cover was removed, there was, all by its naked self and staring at me, a large, gray, quivering, convoluted mound, the size of a human brain, perhaps one actually. “Yikes!” as we say in French.

Venice brings to mind a lovely lunch I enjoyed with a former girlfriend. On a cart next to our table was a huge truffle--I still don't know how they could come that big. When no one was looking, she stuffed it into her pocketbook. We kept it hidden in our hotel closet until it started to smell. We had to toss the precious thing into the lagoon. I hope the fish develop a taste for it.

Perhaps the most wonderful dish either of us ever ate was in pre-Katerina New Orleans, at the Stella Restaurant.  It was a veal tenderloin, beyond delicious, and much as we searched everywhere, we could not find anything of that kind—not just in culinary quality, but even in quiddity—again. We still think of it with lip-smacking nostalgia, as of a long-lost relative.

Memorable as well were long-ago meals at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia where on our first visit I opened the gentleman's menu with the prices and exclaimed loudly, "It costs $85.00 per person!!!!"  It turned out worth every penny.

One New Year's Eve we hoped to dine at Le Bec Fin but couldn't get a table so decided on the Ritz Carlton where they had a prix-fixe dinner and dancing.  There is an art to a proper tasting meal in that the courses must be sized and spaced for enjoyment.  By the time the main course--buffalo filet--was served Pat and I were both feeling quite full from the preceding courses but tucked in. We then discovered that we disliked the taste of buffalo filet and asked the waiter to bring us something else.  He offered us filet mignon and we agreed.  When it arrived we realized we were too full to enjoy it but felt terrible about having asked the waiter to make a switch.  So we hid the filets in a potted plant next to our table.  The next morning at breakfast we laughed wondering if the people seated at that table could smell the meat beginning to rot.

Our all time best tasting meal was at a now closed restaurant in Portland, Maine.  Run by Erik Desjarlais, it was called Bandol--but it should have been called Perfection.  Erik now runs a less fancy place in Portland called Evangeline and we keep talking of returning to Portland to see what he's up to there.

At the instigation of the then famous Andre Heller, the Austrian government invited us to visit Salzburg (out of season, alas) and Vienna (never out of season). On Austrian Airlines, in first class, the food was outstanding, and we looked forward to more adventures in gastronomy.

On our very first evening, we were given seats at the Opera for a performance of  Don Carlo (not one of my favorite Verdis) starring Placido Domingo. After that, there was to be at the famous Hotel Sacher (home of one of my favorite deserts, the Sacher Torte) a late night supper in our honor. The guest list read like a who is who of some of the greatest names in opera.

We arrived at the already late hour to find a table set for about 24, but no one there except a bunch of nervous waiters eager to get things started and over with. After a while, an elegant elderly lady arrived. It was the fabulous Martha Moedl, an octogenarian still in fine voice, as we found out later at The Queen of Spades, another of my nonfavorites. (How crazy of Tchaikovsky to prefer it to his true masterpiece, Eugene Onyegin.) The diva was utterly charming, graciously spoke perfect English to  my wife, and the highest German to me.

Finally, the Nr. 2 guy on the Opera staff, an affable chap, showed up as we sat down to eat. He looked at the list of invitees and laughed. Muti had left Vienna the day before, Abbado had not yet arrived, and Domingo had gone off to his hotel for the night. And so on. We started on the soup just as Herr Direktor showed up, as grouchy as Nr. 2 was jolly.

An awkward, faltering conversation ensued, until the subject of Croatia came up, which, with Teutonic support, had just seceded from Yugoslavia. I expected Austrians, part of whose empire Croatia had been, to side with the Croats. Still, I put in a good word for the Serbs, among whom in Belgrade I grew up, and considered much nicer than the Croats. Well, whose face lit up? That of Herr Direktor, who joined me in enthusiastically extolling the Serbs as far finer than the Croats. Thereupon, though no one further showed up, a pleasant supper was had by all. This despite the accursed Tafelspitz, which pursued us all through Austria. The national dish, beloved of Emperor Franz Josef I, it is boiled beef in broth Viennese style, usually served with roasted potatoes and sourcream mixed with horseradish. Horsefeathers! Imperial palate nowithstanding, we thought, and still think, it tastes like meat gone bad.

But back to the celebrated Sacher Torte, which we bought at the Hotel Sacher with high hopes. Well, it was a huge disappointment. Though gorgeously packaged—the outer wooden box itself is a thing of beauty—the cake was dry, not quite as dust, but approaching sand. I eventually discovered that this was indeed the original Sacher recipe, although later, decadently inauthentic versions have been much more to my taste.

Oh, the shock of it, though! Can you imagine Modena vinegar disappointing in Modena? Dijon mustard fall flat in Dijon? Swiss cheese flunk in Switzerland? Kobe beef batting out in Kobe—prior, of course, to the current catastrophe? But such things do happen. Not in Greece however where Pat found every moussaka she ordered to be different and terrific.

One night dining at Per Se, we found the very nice young waiter mispronouncing Montrachet as he poured it, with the middle T sounded. I amicably informed him that this T was mute, as in, say, Montparnasse, because the T in Mont (French for mountain) is unsounded. Which reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes, quite likely apocryphal. Jean Harlow was invited to lunch by Lady Margot Asquith, and kept mispronouncing the Countess’s name as Margott. Finally, the great lady pointed out politely, “My dear, the T in Margot is mute—as in Harlow.”

Let me not forget, however, what Pat does for me. Rushing home from her teaching job, she cooks up a helluva a meal in no time before we run out to the theater. To abolish the boundary between good home cooking and fast food is a miracle to be grateful for.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


In the Arts and Leisure section of the March 13 New York Times, I find an article about Tom Stoppard and his active involvement in the forthcoming New York revival of his Arcadia. That is a wonderful play, though like much of Stoppard it is hugely cerebral. Which is not to say it isn’t accessible enough to be manna to a civilized audience, but it does make me personally regret not having a scientific enough mind to comprehend it fully. The Times article informs me that “during the 1990s it was one of the most frequently produced plays around the world.” How much of it did or do audiences really get?

What struck me most about that article was that Stoppard is preoccupied with trying to cut three minutes from the first act of the current revival, and having a hard time figuring out just what to cut. So he is postponing the painful surgery till after previews begin, and he and his director can determine from the audience reaction just where to apply the scalpel.

Still, three minutes? What earthly difference can three minutes more or less make to a play? Shakespeare, a dramatist thought to be the equal of Stoppard, has been cut much more than that or not at all, and either way made out quite well. This concern tells us something about Stoppard. Is he a fabulous perfectionist, his brain so discriminatingly fine-tuned, that he can actually be discomfited by such a minuscule difference? Or is he a fussbudget like that fabled princess who couldn’t sleep because of a pea under her
multitudinous mattresses? Or, worse yet, is he a show-off, expecting to call attention to his giant cerebellum and hypertrophic sensitivity, setting him off from lesser playwrights who couldn’t care less about whether and where to cut three measly minutes?

Can you, in all honesty, imagine any of our successful boulevard playwrights shedding a single tear over three lost minutes? I can, though, visualize someone like Tony Kushner yammering about not being allowed to add three minutes of extra garrulity to his existing text. Such addition might not even be a bad idea in a demanding play like Arcadia, which, as the Times puts it, “discusses iterated algorithms, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory.” I myself couldn’t even distinguish between an iterated and an uniterated algorithm, should one of them poke me in the ribs.

There is, by the way, a bit of irony in the Times story’s observing that at the 1995 revival of Arcadia, Stoppard offered the cast “a tutorial in the play’s mathematics and science himself,” rather than having, as at the London premiere, an Oxford don dispense such instruction. When a cast member asked the author to explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Stoppard tells us, “his mind went completely blank.”

It’s honorable of Stoppard to bring up this incident, but blanking out on that law is the equivalent in physics to blanking out in history on who won the Civil War. Or, in grammar, drawing a blank on the difference between an adjective and an adverb. To be sure, the average American college student may not know the answer to that, but then he wouldn’t have written Arcadia either—to say nothing about understanding chaos theory, beyond personifying at least the chaos part of it himself.

Still, it is impressive to have a playwright grapple in his oeuvre with scientific, historical, and political issues the way few if any American dramatists do. It does not make him superior to his equally brilliant British colleague, Alan Ayckbourn, who may not even know what quantum mechanics is—or are—but who turns out no less dazzling plays in even greater number. And while Northern Ireland is still not totally disconnected from England, there is the marvelous Brian Friel, which gives Britain a trifecta leaving most American playwriting eating Albion’s dust.

So overerudite or not, more power to British drama. What do we have to counterpose? Lanford Wilson seems to have stopped writing; Sam Shepard is both too obsessive and too regional; Donald Margolies one would wish more prolific;  and even the Alps are more even than Albee. What we do not have is a truly intellectual playwright, such as little Austria had in Thomas Bernhard, and tiny Switzerland in Duerrenmatt and Frisch. Whatever his shortcomings, Stoppard does fill that role.

Beware, however, of the pseudointellectual playwright. Such a one may be talented, as Kushner and Albee are, but not without some pretentiousness or even megalomania that spoils the brew. On the other hand, a playwright may do wonders without major intellectual aspirations, as long as he  has acute insight and unstinting empathy. We did have one of that kind, a long-lived and productive one: Horton Foote. His only flaw is being dead.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


French Without Tears is the title of the charming playwright Terence Rattigan’s first comedic hit. But this post is not a tribute to Rattigan’s centenary now being celebrated wherever English is spoken. For that, catch a forthcoming Theater Talk program on TV, where critic and journalist John Heilpern, actor Edward Hibbert, and I debate and evaluate Rattigan’s contribution to the theater.

No. This post is about my learning French back in the late Yugoslavia with the help of a French primer, which taught through edifying anecdotes. Two of these stick indelibly in my memory, as I experienced again the other day while shining a pair of my shoes, not as expertly as the professionals, but not too shabbily for an amateur.

Anyway, the first of these anecdotes concerns Voltaire and his manservant. As the philosopher was ready to step out one rainy day, he noted that his shoes had not been shined as usual. Under questioning, the servant replied, “What’s the point? It’s raining, and they’ll soon be muddy again.” “Right,” said the sage, and departed with unshined shoes. Forthwith the servant came chasing after him, crying, “Master, you haven’t left me the key to the pantry. How am I to have my lunch?” “What’s the point?” Voltaire rejoined. “In no time at all you’ll be hungry again.”

A thought-provoking morality tale, this. It is perfectly true that certain actions or procedures have to be undertaken even if the outcome is only of transitory value. So I have realized as a teacher that education must not stop even if students forget your teachings and revert to saying “lay” for “lie” or “With Bill and I” for “With Bill and me.” There are times—many times--when, like Nadezhda Mandelstam, one must hope against hope.

There was, to be sure, very little hope for Osip Mandelstam to emerge alive from the clutches of the Soviet GPU or NKVD, or whatever the secret service was called then. But for Voltaire’s shoes there was a faint but encouraging chance that their wearer might circumnavigate puddles, or at least bypass the muddiest spots, and thus preserve a minimum of polish. So too might students who can withstand the teachings of that greatest of educators, television, and thereby not say “We were laying in the dormitory”—unless, of course, the little lechers were.

In other words, without dreaming the impossible dream, there is no way the possible dream, purportedly inside it--and, like the thin man from within every fat man, just waiting to emerge--can conceivably break out. A slim chance, granted, but a slight polish education may, against all odds, conceivably provide. Voltaire’s shoes may not, like the harvest moon, shine on; yet just perhaps they may avoid becoming eyesores.

Now for the other anecdote. King Louis the Eleventh of France—but let me stop right here: Was it really the Eleventh? My secure knowledge of the sixteen Louis extends back only to the Thirteenth (thanks to Alexandre Dumas pere and the Three Musketeers) if that. Or perhaps the Ninth, known as Saint Louis, may have been the one. But no matter.

One day there came before the appropriate Louis a jongleur--or anglice juggler—and his boy to perform a rare skill. The boy stood several paces away, holding up horizontally a long pin. The juggler then, lofting a sack of peas, proceeded to toss pea after pea at the boy. Astoundingly, each pea landed, firmly impaled, on the extended pin. The King had to concede that this was truly amazing.

At the juggler’s request for a reward, the monarch had a page come running with a well-filled crunchy bag. The happy juggler reached inside, but promptly withdrew his hand in horror. Inside were not gold nuggets but peas. Indignantly, he inquired whether this was the royal munificence. “Well”—or Eh bien—replied the saintly Ninth or secular Eleventh Louis, “for a perfectly useless skill this is the suitable recompense.”

As a boy, I felt that this tale made unimpeachable sense. Today, however, I am no longer so sure. Take, in the first place, the great circus artistes—the high-wire acrobats, the human projectiles shot from cannons, the athletic strongmen, the prodigious jugglers, the vast variety of clowns—none of whom provide a cure for cancer or a substitute for oil from Libya—are they to do this for peas or peanuts? Surely the state of wonder they elicit--our not entirely selfless pleasure in seeing human potential in the ascendant—is not to go unrewarded. They deserve whatever they get at least as much as the TV newscasters who deliver the news in their customary faulty English.

But never mind the artistes; what about artists of the not entirely trendily pop kind? Those so-called singers, millionaires whose earnings should really go, if to anyone, to the makers of their microphones. Should not some portion of the earnings of rappers and punkers, of Justin Biebers and Celine Dions, really be diverted to classical composers (other than Philip Glass and Steve Reich), or given to poets who still believe in meter and rhyme and communication, rather than in nonsensical Ashberiesque verbal masturbation?

And what about the monstrously unrewarded intellectual laborers, who, for example, as drama critics (yes, dammit, I am arguing pro domo)  work their asses off in uncomfortable theater seats to review often unconscionable plays and are honest enough not to be politically correct and circulationally enhancing professional yeasayers? Sure, there are exceptions, not quite as rare as hen’s teeth, but easily as rare as centenarian ones. If Terence Rattigan were alive today, how many natural choppers would he have left?

This, alas, is late learning. If I had known better in my youth, I might have become a stockbroker or standup comic, anything but a drama critic. At least, though, it disproves those who claim that after age_______(you fill in the blank) one can’t learn anything anymore.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Herewith some reflections on this year’s Academy Awards from a longtime film critic currently not reviewing movies. Of course I watched the Oscars as I always do; they provide the kind of entertainment that yesteryear’s really pretentious B-movies used to. But this time round they were mostly just plain boring; still, a few kudos and a number of Bronx cheers don’t seem uncalled-for.

Things began with the very sad appearance of Kirk Douglas as presenter of the Best Supporting Actress award to Melissa Leo of The Fighter. Douglas, saddled with the aftereffects of a stroke, severely speech-impaired and looking like Methuselah on a bad hair day, should probably not be exhibited in public. But far worse was the carrying on of Ms. Leo in a dress bedizened with tiny mirrors, no doubt to attract the attention of fellow narcissists. She had already indulged in an elaborate pre-Oscar self-promotion campaign, which alone should have disqualified her. We would have been spared her lengthy dithering replete with Pinteresque pauses, breathlessly self-serving gush, a laundry list of invoked names, and a general air of participating in a ceremony dedicated entirely to herself. An obscenity inherited from her movie role was not quite obliterated; left intact, it would have revealed her as the vulgarian she seems to be.
The co-hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were meant to add young viewer appeal, but a prerecorded introductory routine for them already seemed hopelessly contrived. Otherwise they managed to be fairly innocuous, except when Franco appeared in drag as Marilyn Monroe. He did however, look bored or uncomfortable most of the time, whereas Ms. Hathaway effervesced like the queen of the Junior Prom. She did thus contribute some welcome sparkle, though I am bothered by those jet black designer eyebrows, saucer eyes, and large mouth red enough to enrage a bull, rather like a creature born not so much of woman as of Pixar. She had more costume changes than a runway model, but she did sing a bit rather engagingly.

The best Supporting Actor award to Christian Bale, likewise from The Fighter, was yet another reward for overacting. It should, in my view, have gone to Geoffrey Rush, as splendid in his supporting role as Colin Firth was in the lead of The King’s Speech, deservedly winning the Best Actor Oscar.

I have yet to catch Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but am prepared to agree with her Best Actress award. She has been a wonderful performer since her first film role at age eleven, and even her convincing ballet dancing in this movie (I have seen excerpts) strikes me as worthy of recognition.

The Song Oscar had three dismally tuneless numbers competing, and even the fourth and winner—Randy Newman’s “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3—was only minimally better. On the other hand, Newman’s speech was witty and modest, assuredly one of the evening’s best. He noted that if his category had had five contenders like the others, that fifth might well have beaten his.

The other distinguished speech came from the white-haired David Seidler, who won Original Screenplay for The King’s Speech. Tersely and unostentatiously, he spoke on behalf of older scenarists and stammerers. Charming, too, was Sandra Bullock’s presenter’s banter with celebrities in the audience, better managed than a similar undertaking by Jeff Bridges.

The only King’s Speech winner who, though well deserving of the Direction award, came off unimpressively was Tom Hooper with a mostly flatfooted tribute to his mother. Nor was I impressed with a brief guest appearance by Billy Crystal, a former host, even though it elicited a standing ovation. These days, standing ovations have become as commonplace as hellos, and more often than not undeserved.

Testifying to the Academy members’ benightedness was their completely ignoring the French candidate for the Foreign Language award, Of Gods and Men, by Xavier Beauvais. A story about gallant martyred French monks in North Africa, beautifully written, directed and acted, it did not get so much as the slightest nod.

Another folly was the innovation of having ten films compete for Best Picture. This meant racing through ten items without indication of any special merit, and, to make matters worse, doing this with King George VI’s climactic speech on the accompanying sound track. This must have seemed mystifying to anyone not knowing what it was, and a dead giveaway to others of what the winner would be.

Three further questions arise. Why does the talented Helena Bonham Carter have hair to make a Gorgon envious? Why must the vastly overrated Scarlet Johansson’s hair look as if she came from running a windswept mile without having brought a comb? And why hasn’t the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who numbers among his many achievements making the Coen brothers look much better than they are--despite nine nominations and numerous Society of American Cinematographers’ and Britain’s BAFTA awards—won a single Oscar?

Finally, as always, there were the absurd dresses, but I’d rather not even get started on those. This year, several of them looked metallic, notably Annette Benning’s, which appeared to be artfully cobbled together out of pieces of surplus armor from the year’s historical epics.