Monday, November 14, 2016


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


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.