Sunday, October 27, 2019

Critics and the (Un)criticized

One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot. That they are not united in their opinions is ascribable to the Latin saying: quot homines, tot sententiae. I myself prefer being considered a creep, but that is what you get for having what Vladimir Nabokov called “Strong Opinions.” It is odd that in a country so wallowing in negativity, starting with mass shootings and climaxing with Trump, such an unim-portant matter as theater criticism should generate so much hostility. The only target patently more important is lead in the drinking water.

Anything about theater reviews must start with The New York Times as the only place that can make a difference at the box office between a hit and a flop. Which brings me to a dinner my wife and I had with Elaine May and her partner Stanley Donen, both lovely people, and both execrating the theater reviews in the Times, at that time by Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, though it could have been just as easily anyone else. The argument was that these reviewers couldn’t write, which I disputed.

My point was that they could write as far as style and perhaps wit were concerned, but there remained the matter of content, the matter of taste. They were chosen for how they wrote rather than what they wrote, something the editors could see without seeing the shows. They saw clever writing, but most of them had not seen the shows. Hence writing that could as easily overestimate as underestimate. The reviewers were expected to be a few times positive, even if their material was consistently undeserving. My question was why reviewers approve of, even extol, manifestly terrible:shows such a Adam Rapp’s dependably dreadful “The Sound Inside,” which Jesse Green of the Times labeled sublime, and similar things were said in other publications. This even for a thing  that struck me as preposterously pretentious, illogical and even ludicrous. But who am I to contradict the Times?

The problem in the greater circulation dailies, though not exclusively there, is incapability of justly stern judgment, sometimes indeed stinking to please.  There are several possible reasons (though not so much at the Times), the most obvious being that nobody reads reviews at this time when many reviewers  of all disciplines are being dumped as unnecessary. But a favorable review, deserved or not, echoes propitiously at the box office. An unfavorable review might alienate readers, to say nothing of producers, nowadays required in large numbers to foot the cost for even a modest show.

More profoundly, Americans like to “accentuate the positive.” There is in them a basic goodwill that tends to meet forgivingly even the expensiveness of today’s tickets by those who can still afford them. Make them feel that is, never mind think. I have seldom before heard so much laughter, so much ready applause, or seen so much indiscriminate standing and ovating, as I encounter nowadays. Part of it is that if someone spent that much money, he or she will persuade themselves to have had a good time come hell or high water. But much of it also is benightedness, to use a milder term for stupidity. It also reflects the reviewer’s captatio benevolentiae aimed at the employer and the frequently reiterated need to sell the paper, starting with the all-important advertisers. This is especially the case at some very shaky publications.

Important, too, are so-called drama queens, who expect published confirmation for their lightly earned personal enthusiasm. The great critic Kenneth Tynan spoke of two kinds of prevalent wit—and presumably two kinds of theatergoers--Jewish and homosexual.

Some things don’t change. Trash like “Slave Play” and “The Sound Inside” caters to known influenceability. By the way, what does the latter title have to do with the content? The script repeats that title in block capitals at one point twelve times, without having to do with anything—not even specifying the speaker. For even such plays, American hits automatically generate European productions I can’t tell with how much success. I wonder whether it was always so. But European hits tend almost invariably to come to Broadway, usually from England or Ireland, e.g., “The Ferryman” and “Betrayal,” and make it on Broadway. There are now, however, for whatever reason, few translated imports from France.

The itinerary has reversed. It used to be from stage to screen, now it is mostly from screen to stage, often as a musical. Two of our best musicals, “The Band’s Visit” and “Tootsie,” are stage versions of cinematic hits, the one from an Israeli movie, the other from long ago Hollywood. The Broadway version of “Visit” closed already after a goodly run, at first Off Broadway. It starred Katrina Lenk, one of the most attractive and talented actresses of our time.

I will list here, with one exception, only the still running shows I have really liked, starting with the aforementioned ”Tootsie.“ Ain’t Too Proud,” a tribute to The Temptations” is good when singing and dancing, paltry when attempting a story. “Bella Bella,” Harvey Fierstein’s very funny solo tribute to Bella Abzug and himself. ”Betrayal,” Harold Pinter at his infrequent best, starring the wonderful Zawe Ashton. The bilngual “Fiddler on the Roof, in Hebrew and English. “Linda Vista,” a serious comedy by Tracy Letts, unfortunately closing soon. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” despite a devastating review by Kyle Smith in the September New Criterion. “The Prom,” a delightful musical that flopped in spite of an epochal performance by Brooks Ashmanskas. There are also a couple of shows to come, which I haven’t yet seen.

As usual, the season will have had a couple of deserved and a few more undeserved winners, par for the course. More amazing perhaps is the success of such trash as “Slave Show” and “The Sound Inside,” whose worthlessness I cannot often enough proclaim. About some coming shows, I will most likely write in a future blog entry.
Until then, let’s have a pleasant autumn nontheatrical calendar season, the best time of year New York has to offer.

Sunday, September 15, 2019


We have here Robert, a publisher; his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent; Emma, Robert’s sassy wife, a gallerist, for seven years Jerry’s clandestine mistress, but no longer so for two years. Unseen but talked about: Jerry’s wife, Judith, a nurse; each couple’s two children; Casey and Spinks, two novelists, the former perhaps about to become Emma’s next lover.

In a typical Harold Pinter play, characters, even if friends or kin, are involved in a power play. The dialogue, even if seemingly amicable, is double-bottomed, competitive and even threatening.. Running through it are, every few minutes, pauses—the famous Pinter pause—and often even longer silences.. The power shifts sometimes, back and forth, and can be as funny as it is malicious.

“Betrayal” is the rare Pinter work that does no conform to the formula, and is his most performed play. A few years ago we had a production of it with the gifted married couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, good, but the current one is even better. It features very imaginative direction by Jamie Lloyd, was a sold out hit in London, and has transferred to Broadway intact.

Lloyd has rejected specified locations, and has, designed by the talented Soutra Gilmour, a surround of tan flats, with what changes somewhat is the slowly and ominously revolving stage. Also, of course, incisive lighting by Jon Clark, and canny sound design and composition by Ben and Max Ringham.

Against all the neutral color, Gilmour’s costumes stand out darkly:  both men in almost interchangeably as well as suggestively navy outfits. Between them is Emma, in equally dark trousers, but with a light blue blouse.

For seven years, Emma, escaped from the gallery in the afternoons, for an apartment in a distant, unchic area, which she has nicely furnished for the affair with Jerry. The play proceeds backward in time in two-year installments. We follow its mostly happy increments and may wonder, as Jerry does, that there has been no gossip about the lovers.

Lloyd has added a clever device. During the mostly two-person scenes with whichever man  or sometimes the woman, the third member of the trio is seen upstage or to the side, usually immobile, a personification of their thoughts and sometimes guilt. Different, though, is the opening scene, two years after the affair has ended. On a whim, she herself cannot quite understand, Emma has summoned Jerry by phone to meet her at a pub they both know. She says, “Well, it’s sometimes nice to think back, isn’t it?” But she also says, “Listen. I didn’t want to see you for nostalgia. I mean what’s the point? I just wanted to see how you were. Truly. How are you?”  When a “Darling” escapes him, she recoils. And they drink quite a bit: she glasses of wine, he pints of bitters.

It does emerge that Emma and Robert have spent the night in revelations, She tells about Jerry, he about flings he has been having all along. Now they may separate. She has been seeing a bit of Casey.

Three things come up quite a bit  from time to time. One is literary talk: about whom Robert is publishing or not, and about what Emma thinks about books she is reading. The other thing is various places in Italy, Venice, Torcello, etc. and the novels of Casey and Spinks, and their lives. In particular. Thirdly, Robert envies the Italians  and their “laughing Mediterranean ways.”

There is also much talk about shared lunches, one even see in a London Italian restaurant, with Robert and Jerry, best friends; after all, hasn’t Jerry been the best man at Robert and Emma’s wedding? And there is much talk about playing squash and not having played in quite a while, which takes up some of this fascinating scene, complete with amusing Italian waiter.

This is quite symbolic, as was a scene long ago, when with Robert, Emma, Judith and the children watching, Jerry was tossing up and catching Emma’s little daughter, Charlotte, who is now thirteen and talked about lunching with Casey. But that playing with little Charlotte, was it in Emma’s or in Jerry’s kitchen, they can’t agree. Not even some cherished memories can be trusted. And at times, even a spouse can be quite cruel. as when Robert remarks to Emma, “I always liked Jerry. To be honest, I liked him more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.”

As usual in “Betrayal”, the acting is excellent. Himself an actor, Pinter writes stuff that actors can have confident fun with. As Robert, Tom Hiddleston is handsome in such a very English way, as if even his face were made to comfortable bespoke measure. He is all tallness and fairness—who would want to betray him? Jerry, with dark beard and dark hair, could pass for an Italian lover providing a touch of romance that Charlie Cox supplies admirably.

But truly sensational is the Emma of Zawe Ashton, a devastating charmer of mixed British and Tunisian descent. She has both the darkness of her pants and the lightness of her shirt, and without being classically beautiful, manages to exude a sexiness rarely matched on stage. Even her elegant feet, which she keeps bare, have a kind of eloquence, contributing to the sensual slinkiness of the woman--or feline-- who sports them. The voice, the demeanor, the essence the actress
exudes, everything  adds up to the spell she can easily cast on a husband or lover or novelist or two. (In real life Ms. Ashton is also a poet, playwright and novelist.)

The cast, in other words, down to the Italian waiter of Eddie Arnold, is flawless. Catch this show if you possibly can—the engagement is limited.

Thursday, August 29, 2019


What Is happening to America's greatest contribution to the theater, musical comedy? Why so many jukebox musicals? Why so many paltry shows?  Why haven't you even tried to hum a  song from a show as you were leaving it? The answers tend to be forbidding. Can it be that possibilities are exhausted? There has not even been a brand new Sondheim show for some time now, and the recent "Road Show," is merely a third version and  even so not a real success. Is there nothing new under the limelight? Is every new note really an old note? No use pointing to new operas, few of them hits and having, as a genre, options that the Broadway musical doesn't have and the off Broadway musical doesn't afford. Some of the new or newish Broadway musicals smell to me of desperation. Take "Hadestown," which, to my nose, is redolent of that desperation, holding no other real interest than Andre de Shields's marvelous performance. But can a single safety belt save a shipload of drowners? The plot is part exhausted myth and part farfetched claptrap.That this elicits ovations reminds me of the German saying "In compulsion, the Devil will eat flies." That is what keeps a mediocre show like "Frozen" going,  that children love it and their parents can at least  bear it. Only two recent musicals have earned my approbation, with "The Prom," despite a sensational performance by Brooks Ashmanskas, already closed, and '"Tootsie," based on a popular movie that offers an adroit actor a timely genderbending role.

Still, with the excellent exception of "The Band's Visit" gone after a respectable run, shows like "Waitress" and "Mean Girls" offer audience-flattering elements  that differ from real quality. Such shows depend largely, if not quite exclusively, on the hunger and gullibility of audiences willing to stand, and stand up for rather meager fare. Most often these are cult favorites, like "Beetlejuice," aimed at and cherished by specific minorities. Another, "ain't too proud," caters to nostalgia for "the life and times of The Temptations," and has at least decent choreography by Sergio Trujillo well executed by an able cast. However, some shows boggle the mind. I am thinking of such nonmusical dramas or comedies as the double bill of "Sea Wall" and "A Life," whose two British authors seem to have gone out of their way to make things needlessly complicated and barely comprehensible as tokens of  presumed profundity. In the former, by Simon Stephens, you never know why a hardly mentioned, submerged wall of sea shore should have become titular; in the latter, by Nick Payne, we never know whether we are dealing with a stepfather's dying or a wife's birthing, the two  becoming somehow scrambled.

But to return to musicals, what are we to make of "Bat Out of Hell," with book, music and lyrics by the songwriter Jim Steinman? He is known for stuff written for, or performed by, the likes of Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Tyler, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a whole trilogy performed by Meat Loaf. But basing an entire show on preexisting numbers is almost like finding a button in the street and having a suit made to go with it. It does not make much sense. Its young hero, Strat, is lover to both Raven and her mother, Sloane, on a rather unbecoming set by Jon Bausor which, not only hard to decipher, does not follow locations called for by the script. The chorus that provides most of the backup is labeled the Lost, though we never find out what they have lost and how. The presumed villain, Falco, is just as vague as the rest, provenance and relationships remaining obscure. The title song does not emerge until the end, and does not explain much of anything.

The show's young hero, Strat, gets little help from having to say or sing things like "Though it's cold and lonely in the deep dark night,/ I can see paradise by the dashboard light." A car and motor bike do indeed figure prominently. The latter "explodes apart/ and his heart explodes out of his chest." "He is drenched in blood" as the Ensemble goes  on repeating without respite oohs and ahs, and we wonder "if life is just a highway. and the soul is just a car" and our hero "seems dead or near dead" in an ambiguity rather hard to enact. Oddly named characters such as Tink and Zahara sprout out of nowhere, the former to have his name comedically mangled, and finally "disappear in a cloud of feathers," which the costume designer, again Jon Bausor, does not quite manage to pull off. And what are we to make of characters named Ledoux, Valkyrie, Kwaidan and Jagwire, among others, who may emerge from the chorus without much conviction or function?

One question haunts the mysterious proceedings: "On a hot summer night/ Would you offer your throat to the wolf with red roses?" As it is worded, I could not even tell whether the red roses come from the unseen wolf or from your throat. After two and a half hours, we get several iterations of a "bat out of hell," when  all we want is for the whole damn thing to be over already instead of coming up with ever more quasi endings. Why doesn't it just go to hell or Hadestown and let us go home? There we can at least play our recordings of true musicals past.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Moulin Rouge!

If you like splash, “Moulin Rouge!” is the show for you. Even more than the Baz Luhrmann movie, on which the musical is loosely based, it can hold your wonderment without abate from start to finish. Let us begin with the enchanting lighting design.

This superabundance of lights basks in everything from several chandeliers to hundreds or seeming thousands of colored bulbs all over the stage and parts of the auditorium. Also neon lights, chamelioning it up from color to rich color. Justin Townsend outlines the stage in concentric heart-shaped frames of differently colored light, simultaneous or successive, to our irresistibly dazzled delight.

Then take the costumes by veteran Catherine Zuber. They can be seriously beautiful or slaphappily comic, but always helping the wearer to the desiderated character. Like the men in top hats and evening garb, smoking cigars, in various parts of he stage, mostly balconies; or, in diverse configurations, the group of cancan dancers, performing or just oolalaing to heart’s content.

Much of the music that Justin Levine has culled, arranged and orchestrated derives from very smart jukeboxes melodious to begin with. Eight experts assisted Levine in their various capacities, all to good effect.

But what about the book by John Logan, primarily the tragic story of the young, innocent composer, Christian (here an American), in love with Satine, experienced   headliner at the Moulin Rouge and courtesan of a certain age? It is clearly influenced by Alexandre Dumas fils’s truth-inspired drama, “La Dame aux Camelias,” and by what Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s “La Traviata” made of it.

There are thus also the wealthy Duke of Monroth, Christian’s rival for Satine’s body if not heart, and Harold Zidler. a historic figure, compere for both the show and the nascent show within the show for which Christian is providing the music, and which features the secondary, comic couple of Nini, a dancer,  and Santiago, a Hispanic performer, known as the King of the Tango.

Interwoven throughout is the bevy of girl dancers, largely governed by Toulouse-Lautrec, a patron of the Moulin, painter and cripple, enacted by the gifted Sahr Nigaujah.

Satine marks the return to the stage after a long absence by the wonderful Karen Olivo, who looks never a day older or a bit less convincing than of yore. She manages the role with its inherent self-contradiction with exemplary professionalism and compelling charm. She also carries consummately the choreography of Sonya Tayeh, which is consistently evocative.

As Christian, the youthful Aaron Tveit manages the not all that easy task of making innocence interesting in a penetrating role, and there is steady support   from Danny Burstein as Zidler, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Ricky Rojas as Santiago, and Tam Mutu as an almost too appealing Duke.

The show profits greatly from the long-active designer Derek McLane, whose scenery does admirably by conjuring the Paris of 1899 and the particular ambiance of the Moulin Rouge, keeping the versatile sets from succumbing to sprawl. This is a show to make the young feel mature, and the old blissfully young again.

Road Show

It was clever of Encores! to revive Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical “Road Show,” a musical with some gorgeous music both for individuals and choral. The orchestra under James Moore performed, as is the custom at Encores! admirably, and the chaste scenic design by Donyale Werle like the sober costumes by Clint Ramos were all to the good. So too were Will Davis’s direction and choreography, proving that indeed less can be more.

This is a road show in the sense the that its main characters, the fabled Mizner brothers, Wilson and Addison, moved all over the place along what seems like very divergent roads to what ends up as a shared one. Here is how Sondheim puts it in his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” concerning a show that exists in three different versions:  “Wise Guys,” a1998 reading,  “Bounce” of 2003, my favorite, and “Road Show.” (2008), the final one,

The storied brothers started out in the small California town of Benicia, and headed from the 1880s for the world and their end in the 1930s. Here is how Sondheim puts it; “Wilson was a conman, entrepreneur and. wit, Addison was chiefly an architect. Their personalities were polar opposites, but their relationship was intense and complicated. The show charts their lives from Benicia California through their adventures in the Klondike gold fields of the 1890s to the extremes of New York City society in the early 1900s and into the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s, for which they were largely responsible,”

The difference was that Wilson was a “brilliant and shifty fellow who through a colorful life was at times a goldminer, a saloon keeper, a prize fighter, a cardsharp, a conman , manager of a hotel for criminals as well as the manager of the world’s welterweight champion, a celebrated Broadway playwright, the husband of one of the richest women in America,, a raconteur known for his wit, an entrepreneur majorly [sic] responsible for the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s, a drunk, a cocaine addict, a notorious womanizer, and finally a Hollywood hack and a successful one..” Conversely, the younger brother, Addison, was a closeted homosexual, a gifted If somewhat bizarre architect, think Boca Raton. Of all this you would need more than a clever musical, perhaps a television series.

Even so, Sondheim and Weidman have come up with quite a musical of some 19 winning numbers, among which my favorite is ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” as fine a number as anything in the Sondheim catalog. It is sung in “Bounce” to a woman, but here to a man.

The show needs two splendid actors in the principal roles, and here it gets them in Raul Esparza (Wilson) and Brandon Uranowitz (Addison), both terrific in their different ways, both excellent singers. Esparza is one of America’s best actors tragically undervalued  and underemployed. His Wilson moves idiosyncratically and nervously yet also gracefully with the agility of a dancer, along with crystal - clear delivery of dialogue, and  his disputes with his younger brother are part of a uniquely blended natural and theatrical charm. Uranowitz, in turn, puts to good use his talent for comedy plus a childlike innocence combining jovially with adult smartness.

What both Mizners are in this version is ever so fond of their mother, beautifully played by Mary Beth Peil. Whenever either son is in trouble, he comes back home to her to be affectionately chided and straightened out. The admonitory father, earlier deceased, is nicely handled by Chuck Cooper of the commanding baritone.

The final scene is a moving effusion of brotherly love and a reminder of the show’s leitmotif, and its contrasting traversals. Wilson points ahead: “Addie,, you know what that is? It’s the road to opportunity!” To which Addison: “It’s the road to eternity. ” And Wilson sum up, “The greatest opportunity of all. Sooner or later we’re bound to get it right.”

As Will Davis directs, they’re close together, moving upstage, away from the audience as the final darkness falls. Too bad that this excellent production for Encores! as always plays only a few performances.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

In Praise of Slow

Americans are almost always in a hurry, though rush is all too often rash. Even cars are often sold on speed disallowed by law, and so essentially useless. Emblematic is horse racing, , with a winner (think Secretariat) enshrined in historic memory, less speedy losers deservedly forgotten. In just about all sports speed is of the essence, and what Americans are indifferent to sports? Only in sex, for which, significantly, “sport” was once a synonym, is slowness desirable and premature orgasm a failing.

Accordingly, by proverbs and adages, speed is viewed as positive. However jokingly, we tend to get “run like a bunny” or “speedy Gonzales,” or yet “fastest gun in the West,” to say nothing of disapproval for “slow pokes” and “dawdling,” with “dragging your feet” or “Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread” especially notorious. There is, exceptionally, a song, “On top of Old Smoky/ All covered in snow,/ I lost my true lover/ For loving too slow,” in which slowness is not reprehended, though probably not referring to the duration of the sexual act itself. 

But even in an affirmative sense, too much of a good thing may be undesirable. Take   the charming poem “The Lost Race,” by the poet priest Canon Andrew Young, which I reproduce in its entirety.

       I followed each detour
       Of the slow meadow-winding Stour.
       That looked on cloud, tree, hill,
       And mostly flowed by standing still.
        Fearing to go too quick
        I stopped at times to throw a stick
        Or see how in the copse
        The last snow was the first snowdrops.

        The river also tarried
        So much of sky and earth it carried;
        Or even changed its mind
        To flow back with a flaw of wind.

         And when we reached the weir
         That combed the water’s silver hair,
         I knew I lost the race—
         I could not keep so slow a pace.

There are a few places where signs demand that cars go slow—in the vicinity of schools, hospitals, and perhaps churches; otherwise the car corresponds to the equine lower body of a centaur, usually in an especially speedy gallop, as in, say, stretches of Texas, where slow is not even dreamed of.

But the greatest purveyor of mostly unwelcome speed is television, whose racing images outstrip the most excited heartbeat. How many times have I hoped to linger with something worth a moment or two more before the next thing of equal or possibly lesser interest had supplanted it, but there is no stopping the TV it.

To be sure, slowness can be problematic, as when my fast-walking wife is halted by
stops to allow catching up by me, reduced by age to sauntering. On the other hand (or foot), that slow saunter is the only way to get to know a city you want to know and fully enjoy. This may not work for, say, Detroit, but does very much so for, say, Paris. There, on my all too brief visits, except once on a Fulbright, I have reveled in places and people to see. Much has been made of the beauty of the Paris sky, even though a sky depends on what it frames: buildings, monuments, parks, vantage points, persons passing by or lolling on benches. 

Sitting outdoors at a café, taking in the surroundings, one may well be struck by the slowness of so many passing Parisians. That is how I spotted the American ballet dancer performing in Paris who became my girlfriend for a very pleasant while.

And what about the pleasure of learning from what one reads unhurriedly? It is said that if you read slowly, you get more out of it by remembering more. I have always been a slow reader, and occasional attempts to read faster have dependably failed, quite possibly profitably unbeknown to me. I have until fairly recently, had a pretty good memory, although I cannot tell whether more so than faster readers. But let’s face it, there is both good and bad learning from books, and not all good is slow, just as not all fast is bad. But definitely, some good stuff has to be read slowly; I can’t imagine racing through a page of Proust, or even of Henry James, and so much of modern poetry—need I name names?—has to be read slowly or, even more slowly, reread.
                                                                                                                                                              Which brings me to the praise of what is considered to be difficult reading that postulates  slowness, and thus to the praise of slowness itself. That is, when and where “slow “ works, where it isn’t merely the writer  wallowing in obscurity to make him or her seem more profound.

Finally, in music, it is more often than not in a sonata or symphony that the slow movement is by far the most beautiful. It is the adagio or lento that carries  the lyricism, the melody, best. If you don’t believe me, ask Faure, ask Debussy.

Broadway’s Rising Stars

Every year we get a “Broadway’s Rising Stars” show produced by Scott Siegel at Town Hall, a revue of songs performed by recent college graduates aspiring to careers in musical theater other than opera. Some in this thirteenth version already have a bit of a career, having performed with certain orchestras. But all are clearly candidates for Broadway shows and every one of them display genuine talent.

What they do is sing a number from a Broadway show, some with a bit of dancing, or an independent solo number by some established composer, which suits their particular talent, and the evening on July 24 was a pleasure from start to finish. The show’s finale was the contribution of Ali Stroker, now costarring in a revival of “Oklahoma” as Ado Annie, to general acclaim. Here she sang enthusiastically “Be a Lion,” the song from “The Wiz” with which she appeared ten years ago in “Broadway’s Rising Stars.”

Here go the following appreciations. Gabrielle Baker for “If You Knew My Story,” charmingly from “Bright Star.” Jack Brinsmaid, firm in “Corner of the Sky.” Christopher Brian earning an A for “Museums.” John W. Dicaro for a glowing “Once in a Lifetime.” The double delight for twin brothers John and Matthew Drinkwater for “Agony” in the show’s first half, and equally so for “For Good “ in the second. Mara Friedman warm with “Electricity” from “Billy Elliot.” Brian J. Gabriel persuasive in “Make Me a Song” by William Finn. Adan V. Gallegos ably navigating the challenging “I’ll Imagine You a Song.” Esmeralda Garza, apt with “You There in the Back Row from“13 Days From Broadway.” Jonathan Heller’s splendid contribution to the group’s joint “Make Our Garden Grow.” Victoria Kemp justly moving with “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Bettina Lobo, eloquent in “This Is Me.”  Tyler McCall for a lively “Defying Gravity,” Albert Nelthropp digging deep into “At the Fountain.” Cameron Nies for a fine rendition of a prophetic “On Broadway.” Luana Psaros for a soulful “I’m the Greatest Star” from “Funny Girl. “Jacob Roberts-Miller with a forceful “Taking the Wheel.” Didi Romero smart in “My Simple Christmas Wish.”

I am looking forward to these talented kids appearing in sundry prominent shows, with their names gracing the Who Is Who listed in the respective programs. Meanwhile I can tell you that, as far as I am concerned, these gifted youngsters are not merely rising, but already risen stars.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Betty Buckley & Donald Margulies

There are two ways to be an actor—either to disappear into the role, or to let the role come to you. In other words, to be a modest interpreter or an overwhelming personality. In still other words, be like Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep, or like Cary Grant and Carol Channing. Either way can work in the right hands.

In the recent revival of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway, one could get Bette Midler, Donna Murphy or Bernadette Peters, and I leave it to you to decide which of them was what I shall call Mode A, and which Mode B. There have been exceptions and surprises: George C. Scott could actually play a character based on Noel Coward, a case of a Mode B actor doing well at Mode A. Good looks are helpful in either mode, but funny looks could be just as good, think Zero Mostel and, yes, Barbra Streisand.

Now we come to the Dolly of Betty Buckley, whom she has been playing since September 2018 in the National Tour. Ms. Buckley is that rare performer who somehow manages both modes simultaneously. But please don’t make the mistake of assuming that my admiration for her is based on friendship; if anything, it is the other way round, with my friendship based on admiration.

So here we were at the Kennedy Center, my wife and I, sitting very close to the stage. But I kept wondering: Who is this woman playing Dolly Levi? Sometimes it was indeed someone I knew, but at other times it was someone whom I had never met before. A wig can look like a fedora on a mule; Betty wore hers as if they had been cohabiting since early childhood.

Notable is a scene in which Dolly is esuriently stuffing herself at the expense of the rich man she secretly intends to marry. The way Midler played it, it was something, from the domain of Marx Brother farce. Here it had humanity along with the humor. It was not so much greedy as well-earned.

And something else. Any actor will tell you that the hardest thing to convey is thought, to look like someone who is cogently thinking. The screen can do it with close-ups and lighting, on the stage there is no such recourse: you have to act it. Buckley did it subtly with swiftly modulating expressions.

One minute she is very much the cozy woman I know, merely somewhat disguised; the next minute, I cannot believe that this person only a few feet away is really Betty Buckley:  Mode A and Mode B are triumphantly merged. She is not just the actress who can also sing or the singer who can also act; she is the complete performer about whom such questions do not even arise.

Now for another matter altogether: Donald Margulies’s current Broadway play, “Long Lost.” This Manhattan Theatre Club production is not quite up to the playwright’s best, Margulies marvels such as “Sight Unseen” and “Dinner With Friends,” but it is still as good as, or better than, most of what is now playing..

What is the problem? Well, in a fully successful play you want to identify with one or another character, may even feel compelled to do so. But in “Long Lost,” an older brother, Billy, who has become some sort of hobo (it is not specified just what kind), gone for a good many years, shows up uninvited at younger brother David’s successful businessman office. Equally undesired, he follows David even into the latter’s grand, Park Avenue style apartment, for what may be an unwelcome and undetermined guest-room stay.

David’s wife, Molly, is the head of an important charity operation she initiated, but had, it emerges, a drunken one-night stand with Billy on the eve of her wedding to David. They now have a charming collegiate son, Jeremy, a sporadic student at the distinguished Brown University, who takes to Billy perhaps a little too much. It further emerges that, given a troubled marriage, David has for long had a clandestine mistress on the side. Billy’s meddlesome presence causes revelations difficult for all concerned.

A problem with all this is that none of the adults comes off as a particularly winning personality, except perhaps Jeremy, but he is hardly a grown-up. Despite mostly apt dialogue, none of it is all that compelling, and we get an uneasy mixture of comedy and drama. There are no surprises to speak of either.

To be sure, there is convincing stage design by the dependable John Lee Beatty and assured costuming by Toni-Leslie James, as well as savvy lighting by Kenneth Posner. Daniel Sullivan has directed with his customary expertise, but somehow I expected more. This despite solid performances from Kelly Aucoin (David), Annie Parisse (Molly), Lee Tergesen (Billy) and Alex Wolfe (Jeremy). This quartet also benefits from none of them being too histrionic or excessively familiar,
but making a virtue of ordinariness is not the simplest thing in the theater or indeed in the world. In the end, one counted on being moved at least when Billy and a visiting Jeremy have a nice scene together in a retirement facility, but even that leaves one, if not exactly cold, only lukewarm.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Gozzoli, Etc.

I’ve always been fond of tiny triumphs that seem to come out of nowhere to score surprise effects. Let me evoke three such incidents.

One long ago day some of us were cruising the labyrinthine Metropolitan Museum, when a modest-sized painting loomed by itself ahead of us, whereupon I suddenly exclaimed “That is a Benazzo Gozzoli!” That proved right, which amazed my companions, and me even more.

First, at that time, I knew nothing about Gozzoli, as I more or less still don’t. Second, I had never even had a college Renaissance art course. Third, Renaissance paintings have much in common, and there was no way in which that minor effort by a minor painter stood out in the least. Fourth, I made that identification from some distance, and, fifth, on the run, which tends to blur things. Sixth, there was no earthly reason for my making that or any unsolicited call in the first place. My friends, in any case, were duly impressed by my accurately attributing a lesser work, and must have thought I knew quite a lot about Renaissance painting. Even now, I only wish I did.

This does, however, bring to memory a much later event, when the Times’s chief art critic,  John Canaday, who liked me and published some of my stuff about art and movies, wanted to take me on permanently. This, however, required the approval of the hated and dreaded powerful Sunday editor, Lester  Markel, who had allegedly caused the suicide of one or two subordinates. Wanting to check up on my qualifications, he pointed to an art work on his wall and asked me to identify it. Heaven only knows out of what dark substratum I summoned “Early Raphael sanguine, Portrait of a Man,” and, hang it, I somehow managed to hit it right. But that job I never got, as a phone call from the monster’s secretary, a couple of weeks later, informed me. I guess that was because, in our conversation, the monster asked me what I could tell him about the rivalry between the Met and MoMA, as to which could snatch up some available modern art works, a subject about which I had scant knowledge and less interest.

And then there was that dinner party with friends where the conversation turned to the then very popular movie, Akira Kurosawa’s  “Rashomon.” I volunteered that the film was based on a fiction by the prematurely deceased, highly gifted Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which I hadn’t read yet. What impressed the person who spoke  Japanese was not so much that I knew the movie’s provenance, but that in pronouncing Akutagawa I almost elided the U, as, apparently, Japanese speakers do. But this had nothing to do with my knowledge of anything, only with the unstressed U making pronunciation of the long name easier.

However, let not the foregoing be viewed as intended self-praise.  In fact, I admit to being on occasion mulishly impervious to justifiable correction. Let me cite a prize example of it, going back many years, when my Polish American friend Stanislas  Wellisz and I used to converse in French so as to avoid forgetting it. At that time,
my French was less good than that of Stash, my not yet having assimilated  the wit of Sacha Guitry and Jean Renoir on film, and, in literature, such giants as Jules Renard and Guillaume A[pollinaire for charm, Alphonse Allais and Georges Feydeau for wit, and Jean Giraudoux and Anatole France for elegance.

Thus I foolishly insisted on rendering “It rains” as “Ça pleut,” and Stash exasperatedly correcting me with “Il pleut.” I don’t recall how many times I resisted his correction, driving him up the wall, until I finally complied. To this day, I may be prone to similar obstinacy without the benefit of a like tutor. Absolutely nobody could lessen my admiration for Jacques Prévert in the unlikely case it were needed by that wonderful artist. There are cases where obstinacy is justified.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Name Fudging

I can’t help it but I am an entrenched traditionalist—or, if you prefer, conventional soul—about names. I have no serious quarrel with those who invent names for themselves, but if you want a name hallowed by history, I say, “Stick to the tradition and don’t meddle or muddle with spelling or pronunciation.”

Let’s start with the name of the Countess of Essex, married to Prince Harry. She should be Megan, not Meghan, as she has it. Before an A, O, or U, the G is automatically hard, as in garden, government, and gutter, and as such does not require hardening by an extra H. Before an E or I, things can go either way: getting or gender, gibbon or gist. With Megan, an H after the G, is no option.

“Meghan” is manifestly de trop and  illiterate. So much for the former Meghan Markle. You might try to excuse this fault by blaming the parents who perpetrated it. But an intelligent bearer, in this age of openness, could easily have corrected it, either legally or simply by usage.

Yet what can you expect from a couple that after prolonged pondering names their son Archie ? That is not even a full-fledged name, merely a diminutive for someone called Archibald. It derives from the Teutonic Ercanbald, meaning nobly bold.

Of course, you might argue that President Clinton, for example, would go by Bill, even if he was christened William Jeffferson Clinton. When it comes to preference, however, he might as easily have called himself Habakuk or Marmaduke if he chose to; the aura of William would cling to him anyway. Other politicos too have used nicknames for their first names, presumably making them more friendly and eligible.

Now take the case of that obnoxious female chef on TV, Rachael Ray. Rachael for Rachel is absurd. That second A is clearly derived by faulty analogy from Michael, but serves no purpose (e.g, different pronunciation) except to look pretentious. The fact is that both Michael and Rachel come from the Hebrew, the one meaning “who is like to God,” the other “a ewe,” “emblematic of gentleness,” as the great linguist, Eric Partridge, on whose book, “Name This Child,” all my wisdom is based.

Although English names come from all over, some even from old English, Scottish or Welsh sources, the ones that I would most consider affected are a number of women’s names ending in “ah,” where the problem is that they are, for the most part too historic. Too snobbishly faithful to their origins. The terminal H is particularly useless, given that, in English, it could easily be dropped.

Take Deborah, a bee in Hebrew, which to my eye would look better as Debora. Or take now Sara and Sarah, equally popular, though the first is all that’s really required. It derives from the Hebrew “Sarai, meaning quarrelsome, which in time became Sarah, meaning “princess,” influenced no doubt by “Sar,” a prince. Nora, or Norah, is largely from the Irish. Writes Partridge: “earlier Onora, a Hibernicism  for ‘Honora’ or ‘Honoria.’” That final H seems to me the very acme of meddlesomeness, as in Norah O’Donnell, the new anchor for “CBS Evening News. The classic Nora, perhaps under the influence of Ibsen, strikes me as much the finer.” Hannah, according to Partridge is “a doublet of Anne,” whatever that exactly means, and seems to me, who have never encountered it, truly fudging the obvious and quite sufficient Hanna. Ann and Anne seem to me equally unsullied .
However,  I rather like Anna, “the original form of Anne,” according to my master Partridge; not because of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, which I shamefully admit to never having read, but because of any personal associations--Nordic, Teutonic or Slavic--that I may have gleaned from readings or acquaintances. Thus the heroine of Lanford Wilson’s play “Burn This” is called Anna. Eugene O’Neill even gives us an Anna Christie.

 As a tennis fan, let me conclude with two instances from the tennis world. Nick Kyrgios, the Australian ace of clearly Greek origin, has himself and the world pronouncing the name as Kyrios, the middle G unsounded. Why? It’s no tongue twister in its written form, so what has that poor G done to be avoided? Perhaps the danger of being an undesired mispronunciation in English as Kyrdgios.

More curious yet is the case of the African American Tiafoe (his parents immigrated from Africa), who calls himself Frances Tiafoe. He has been duly warned that Frances is a woman’s name, but that he had its masculine version, Francis, at his ready disposal. No, he insisted, Frances it must be. This though he doesn’t sport the least feminine trait, looking rather like a very butch male person. Francis, extremelyMy popular among Elizabethans, “derives from Old German, Franco, a free lord.” But isn’t there something a trifle too free about such gender-bending?

Readers, if you can shed light on either of these instances, kindly do so. My own full name John Ivan Simon, had that redundant middle name (Ivan is just another form of John) added by my father to make me sound, in his view, more American, what with the popularity hereabouts of middle names. To me, it seems more Russianizing than Americanizing, and I have been avoiding it whenever possible.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


The British novelist L. P. Hartley is remembered chiefly for the novel and movie version of “The Go-Between,” beginning with “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” True enough, as we old-timers gaze back into our memories. We may dimly recognize ourselves in them, but tend to be surprised by what we discover, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, most likely as in a foreign country.

So we can view retrospect either nostalgically or shamefacedly, perhaps recalling Jonathan Swift’s comment upon viewing some of his early works: “What genius I had then!” We may never have had genius, but surely greater mobility, flexibility, enterprise, and relationships. In short, what did “old” mean in contemplation of it, and what does it in experience of it.

I was, as a boy, enormously fond of the novels of the German author Karl May, and owned a good many of his numerous volumes in the original German. The stories took place either in the American Wild West or in the no less wild Arab North Africa. A prison term for some kind of fraud clouded May’s name, with the work, however, remaining irresistible to young adult readers, though, more damaging yet, his books were favorites of Adolf Hitler, who even instituted an outdoor theater for dramatizations of it.

The plots attested to remarkable imagination, what with tremendous seeming authenticity coming from one who did not leave Germany. The characters, mostly trappers or hunters we assume, are called things like Old Firehand, Old Surehand, and, greatest of all, Old Shatterhand (which I, having little English at the time, blithely mispronounced). Shatterhand, May’s alter ego, was of course really German, and blood brother to the noblest of Indians, the Apache chief Winetu (to be pronounced Win-Net-Too). Together, they civilized the West.

The last-named principals owned fabulous horses and superb shotguns, all in the service of justice. I tried to emulate them, owning a great, German-fabricated realistic toy handgun, called the MG, as well as lesser weapons to proudly brandish. This earned me the sobriquet “the boy with the pistols,” from Sinka Nikich, Crown Prince Peter’s beautiful and polyglot girlfriend, particularly amused to hear me refer to myself in English as a “poetist,” and none of it making me, as I hoped, look or be older.

The ages of May’s characters were not specified, but they surely weren’t old, the term being one of affection and admiration. Admiration because old imputed wisdom gleaned from long and varied experience and staying power, as in the phrase “good old so and so,” a kind of verbal smile of approbation. Renaissance images of philosophers invariably showed them as bearded and thus old, and the rare depictions of God always featured a full and well tended white beard on a seemingly ageless being, old if you like.

Then, too, things like wine and manuscripts do indeed profit from extended survival, so that old easily became some sort of honorific, like gallant or noble. Triumphant warriors, too, were often portrayed bearded, but that managed to look like suggesting rather than having endured old age, a good kind of oldness. The very word, however, may nowadays be shunned. Thus TV commentators on tennis almost never refer to a player as so many years old, but always “of age,” as in, say, ““thirty-seven years of age,” apparently meant to extend their youthfulness  by avoiding the word “old.”

“Old,” the term, has many uses, so let us consider them. Historicity (Old English) geography (Old Lyme, Old Dominion), religion (Old Testament), sociology (old families), familiarity (old friends), old masters (art), publishing (old type), charm (old English sheepdogs), natural wonders (Old Faithful), commercialism (old, tried products), legends (myths of various civilizations). experience (old hands), fashion (old costumes), patriotism (Old Glory, Old Ironside) and literature, selectively (Old Mortality, Old Wives’ Tale, Old Fortunatus, Old Man and the Sea, Old Curiosity Shop, Old Familiar Faces, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), etc. etc. Sometimes also in putdowns: Old Hat, Old Crow, Old Jokes, Old Fool, Old Stories, etc.

But never mind the nomenclature; what does being old these days really entail? Or, specifically, how am I doing as I approach my 94th year? As I have mentioned already often, the one nearly surefire positive thing is that, seeing my cane, many bus or subway riders yield me their seat, women more often than men. Still, getting around with the help of a cane isn’t wonderful—I would have preferred an Abel (or able, please note the pun).
Then the obvious disadvantages. Long walks can be painful, and even short ones are essentially slower than a rapid walker such as my wife appreciates. There are problems with blurred sight at a distance, and decreased hearing at, say, the theater, a problem for a drama critic. Even assisted hearing devices are ultimately unhelpful, as they merely increase volume but not comprehensibility.

One is supposed to have a good long-term memory, but not so much of a short-term one. Let me enlighten you: one forgets old things too. The short range obliviousness may be more troubling, as one forgets why one has gone into the next room, or even what is or isn’t in the fridge. It is both frustrating and humiliating how much one struggles with forgotten things, some of which one eventually recalls, others not at all. In rereading my published doctoral thesis. I came across an impressive-sounding word whose meaning I could not puzzle out. (If you ask me what it was, I’m afraid I can’t remember.)

Recently I could not come up with the formerly cherished word for a thousand-year span; I had to call my linguist friend Bryan Garner, who promptly supplied “chiliad.” This relieved me from a prolonged agitation and sleeplessness. I can find little quite as exhausting as fruitless cogitation.

Still, I am thankful for being basically in good health, suffering from none of the lethal ailments I read about in the Times obituaries, nowadays part of my regular matutinal perusal. Interesting how many of the deceased made it to the advanced nineties, and some even into the hundreds, leaving me to wonder how much I have yet coming to me, and if so, whether without pain. That is one of the worst things about growing old: one’s provision of hope becomes daily more sparse, my mnemonics faultier, and some of these blog spots perhaps less reliable. But I carry on, faithfully, I hope, to the end.

Saturday, March 2, 2019


Fashion matters. Consider haute couture designer Karl Lagerfeld’s recent obituaries, extensive enough to be worthy of a prince or president. To be sure, Lagerfeld was, in uniqueness and influence, ahead of most contemporary designers, but that such status was achievable in his field is the very proof of fashion’s importance.

Also the importance of what is near-synonymous with fashion, though insufficiently remarked upon, change. Since the overwhelming number of existences is monotonous and boring, change or fashion assumes global importance. At its lowest  level, it is the seductress’s request to her target, “Wait till I change into something more comfortable.” Mere erotic maneuver, to be sure, but also part of the great change issue, so much so that it can become a problem how to marginalize it or exploit it. The latter often in some preposterous designs making runway models seem to come straight from Mars or  Bedlam, and earning for the designer recognition even without everyday relevance.

But there are homelier aspects of change, as in the problem of marriage, which may require  fidelity and variety in need of conciliation. Thus I have heard about a married couple where the wife regularly wore a different wig to bed, allowing the husband innocuous fantasies of polygamy. But what change is there for the single man or woman? Either painlessly, through serial affairs or, perhaps painfully, through resigned abstinence?

In comes the socially acceptable fashion of changing outerwear, which introduces harmless change for both the wearer and the viewer. In other words, fashion. This is made easier for women, who can achieve relief through unlimited freedom of design. Not so much for men, whose suits have remained basically conservative, although lately male models have begun appearing on fashion runways in outfits equally diversified as those for women.

These odd new male fashions may prove especially pleasing to homosexuals, at any rate to those favoring dress-up, not to mention drag. There is another type of gay man who strives to be indistinguishable as such by becoming ultraconservative. But for the unattached and possibly cruising type of gay men, clothes, or more accurately costume, becomes a useful appurtenance. (Need I mention that I write all of this without pointing a moralizing finger at any of it?)

But for the typical middle-class male, single or married, there has been very little apparel change available. For a very long time until recently, the area where it was  applicable was the necktie. So what happened to the necktie? It became practically obsolete, beginning like most fashions in France. Shirts, still essentially unchanged, were being worn unbuttoned at the neck, even on some formal occasions.

Lately though, further change eventuated in a shirt designed to be worn untucked, impossible to do with the traditional kind. But that kind achieved some fashionable diversity through changes of color, pattern, or material. And there remained the T-shirt, which moved from underwear to outerwear, from gymnastics and leisure to more general use. Further, fashion moved downward to varied hemline length and to footwear, fashionable shoes and boots of all sorts, some of them knee-high, made from diverse kinds of leather or more unusual materials.

In more northerly climates, there are coats for fashion to have freedom of indulgence. Here hemlines traffic in changes of length, perhaps even more so than they do in skirts; but in both skirts and coats, longitude matters to the woman bent on being fashionable.

Importantly, then, fashion, which is to say the language of major designers, takes on significant characteristics, whereby a trained eye can distinguish a Dior from an early Balenciaga (before the master’s death), a Saint Laurent from a Givenchy,  Lanvin from a Valentino, and so on and on, with Italy and Spain, Britain and America snapping at the heels of France. For men especially, there are Armani and Versace, Brioni and Zegna, Hermes and Ferre right at the forefront of the very best, and still others, again so on and on. I leave it to greater experts to trace the relationship between fashion and culture, or between fashion and history.

Unsurprisingly, some concept of fashion has made it into the arts, even if not necessarily associated with clothing. Thus we have Dryden’s comedy “Marriage a la Mode,” Etherege’s “The Man of Fashion, or Sir Fopling Flutter” as early as 1676, and Ernest Dowson’s immortal verse “I have been faithful to you, Cynara, in my fashion” with its reference to sexual behavior. In American theater we had “Fashion; or Life in New York” by Anna Cora Mowatt as early as 1845.

And, of course, in the movies. There we had “Paris Frills” (Falbalas) by Jacques Becker in 1945, and Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear” and P. T. Anderson’s “Fatal Threads” more recently. The figure of the powerful fashion designer, as Raymond Rouleau incarnated him in “Falbalas” as an elegant womanizer, exerts irresistible romantic appeal even when the figure is a dominant woman, like Coco Chanel (offstage and on in the musical “Coco”).

Being a fashion prince may, like all nobility, be precarious; note Alexander McQueen, Lagerfeld’s most serious rival, a suicide at forty, with no satisfactory explanation provided. Other designers, to be sure, have enjoyed a much sought after social prominence, such as even that of Vogue’s omnipresent, mildly obnoxious editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.

But to get to my own involvement with fashion--from my younger, more loosely pecunious days—there remains in my possession a single Lagerfeld item. It is a pair of light-weight pants, darkish tan with an almost invisible, thin vertical stripe, and around the inside rim a white encircling band inscribed sixteen times with “Karl Lagerfeld Paris.” The material is enviably soft, but retains its enduring shape,  reaffirming for me the hegemony of fashion.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Great Performances

What exactly is a great performance by an actor or actress on stage or screen? Or if not exactly, because it involves something words seem unable to express fully, at least approximately.

It predicates a paradox or oxymoron, because it is both unique and universal, something we can identify with without even having imagined. Over decades of theater and movie going, I have  witnessed it not all that rarely, but not all that often either. What one gets frequently enough is good or even very good acting, but short of the prodigious, the unforgettable, the great.

As I look back, I encounter what may be the most often lauded performance by an American actress in all time, Laurette Taylor’s as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” (1944). As it happens, I saw it and liked it, but was perhaps too young to sufficiently appreciate it, or able to recall it now. The role certainly boasts writing good enough to attract fine actresses, but none other has achieved comparable glory in it, adulation even on hearsay from persons who weren’t there. And let us not forget that Julie Haydon, as daughter Laura, was pretty great too, but is not half so often cited.

Haydon, incidentally, was of a fragile loveliness seldom equaled in Hecht and MacArthur’s movie, “The Scoundrel,” opposite a likewise remarkable Noel Coward.
Why that film is not rereleased remains a mystery to me. But let me for the moment consider whom I view as the two greatest American male actors of stage and screen, Fredric March and George C. Scott. This despite my appreciation of James Robards, Paul Muni, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, William Holden, Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, John Garfield and certain others, all of whom could occasionally be great.

But, of course, greatness does come more often in great roles, like Scott onstage as Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind.” On film, he was great in “Hospital” (with help from Paddy Chayefsky’s script) as early as 1972, and as late as1986 in “The Last Days of Patton.” He specialized in fanatics whom one could have hated even in good causes, but he knew how to make fanaticism admirable even in poor ones But then, onstage in Coward’s “Present Laughter,” he proved himself just as good in light comedy and British wit.

In Fredric March, too, the genius lay in the man, regardless of the part. He was incredibly handsome in diverse roles; let’s single out “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Death Takes a Holiday.” As diverse as the quality of their writing were the roles from light to heavy, whether based on Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain or whoever.

Thinking about both Scott and March, I conclude that their greatness lies not so much in individual performances as in their whole careers, in the aura of masterliness adhering to their mere starry presence. Versatility certainly, but personality even more.

Interestingly, more performances by British actors of stage and screen come to mind than do those by American ones, by which I mean born in the U.S. I would guess that this stems from more rigorous training and more frequent exposure to Shakespeare and other classics. Consider the legendary quality of Laurence Olivier’s performances, not only in “Henry the Fifth” and “Richard the Third,” but also in such modern roles as in “Rebecca” and “The Entertainer.”

Or think of John Gielgud, to whom being great in various roles came as easily as a suit of different clothes to a dandy. Hard to pick any one gem from such a treasure trove. but let me settle for the butler in “Arthur,” for which he deservedly got an Oscar. Gielgud was often praised merely for his extremely musical voice , but he could hold is own below that as well.

And what of my perhaps favorite British actor, Ralph Richardson, who had a quality that repeatedly dazzled me. It consisted of endowing a more or less ordinary man
with a core of nobility that transcended looks or mannerisms, as for instance in another butler in “The Fallen Idol,” or the surgeon in “The Elephant Man,” and on and on, even in such an awkward film version as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Great innumerably too on stage, for example in “John Gabriel Borkman” or “Home.”

Let me cite merely performances I have seen from a variety of great British actors. Michael Redgrave (“The Captive Heart”), Albert Finney (“Tom Jones,” “Gumshoe,” “Erin Brockovich”), Michael Caine (“Alfie), Peter O’Toole (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons”). Peter Finch (“Network”), Donald Sinden (“London Assurance”). Robert Morley (“Oscar Wilde,” “Beat the Devil”), Ian McKellen (“Richard III”), Kenneth Branagh {“Much Ado About Nothing,” and “Conspiracy”),  etc.etc.

And what of my beloved Trevor Howard in an undeservedly forgotten film, one of my favorites, “Outcast of the Islands,” and in everyone’s beloved “Brief Encounter.” Also, while we are on Noel Coward, himself as actor in “In Which We Serve,” and Harold Pinter as actor, before he turned, less felicitously in my view, into a playwright.

But enough of men. Let me turn now to American actresses, at least those who weren’t deformed by the Actors’ Studio or really British, as, for example, Vivien Leigh and Gertrude Lawrence. This would include exceptional achievements even by, as I see it, undesirables such as the later Judy Garland, except very fine in the seemingly forgotten, underrated “The Clock,” and also an early version of the continually reinvented “A Star Is Born.”

Also, of course, Mary Martin, especially in “South Pacific,” Claire Trevor (“Key Largo,” “Murder, My Sweet”), Gloria Grahame (“Man on a Tightrope,” “The Big Heat”). Uma Thurman (“Henry & June”), Sono Osato in anything she touched, Julia Roberts (“Pretty Woman” and “Erin Brockovich,”) also in an abundance of parts too numerous to catalogue, the wonderful Jan Maxwell (“House and Garden”), Lauren Bacall, Elaine Stritch, Julie Harris, Evelyn Keyes, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Meryl Streep, Patricia Neal, Katharine Hepburn, Janice Rule, Ina Claire, Elizabeth Ashley, Lynn Fontanne, Donna McKechnie, Dee Hoty, Marian Seldes, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry, Lena Horne, and a good many others of whom I cannot think at the moment. But there are two ladies I want to particularise here, namely Alexis Smith and Lee Remick, two incomparable stars, both of whom played one of the leads on different occasions in “Follies.” I quote from “John Simon on Theater”: “Were there ever two more maturely beautiful women on our stages, more ladylike and sexy, more aglitter yet accessible, more totally theatrical and not the least bit stagy? Where are you now, Alexis and Lee, you two marvelous Phylisses of the 1971 premiere and the 1985 concert revival? You are built into the accruing glory that is “Follies,” as surely as Daphne lives in the olive tree, as Andromeda lights up in the night sky.

I will not even try here to go into great performances by men beyond those by two actors’ already mentioned. Rather let me try to develop my notions what constitutes greatness in theater and cinema.

Let’s turn to John Howard Wilson’s book “All the King’s Ladies: Actresses of the Restoration” for the pages about the magnificent Anne Bracegirdle, who lived from presumably 1663 to 1748 and played in more shows than any dozen current actresses rolled together. It takes Wilson 3 ½ pages just to list them. Included is this description by Anthony Acton:

She was of a lovely height, with dark-brown Hair and Eye-brows, black sparkling Eyes, and a fresh blushy Complexion; and, whenever she exerted herself, had an involuntary Flushing in her Breast, Neck and Face, having continually a cheerful Aspect, and a fine set of even white Teeth; never making an Exit, but that she left the Audience in an Imitation of her pleasant Countenance.”

That essentially translates as good looks, felicitous stage presence and natural charm, producing delight in her audience even after she has made her exit. This may be the place for my tribute to Jane Fonda in “Klute.” “As irresistible as a surfy beach in July, her performance washes over you like a tartly cooling, drolly buffeting liquid benediction, bringing wave after wave of unpredictable, exhilarating delight. There is a perfect blend here of shrewdness, acerbity, toughness, anxiety, and vulnerability. A quintessential femininity is caught in transition between a badly dented girlishness and a nascent womanliness as innocent of its past as a butterfly of its larva. Note the play of Miss Fonda’s febrile hands when she is sweating it out with her therapist, the dartings and hesitancies of her voice, with its sudden leaps and falls of temperature, the faint seismic tremors of her facial play, indicating turbulences valiantly repressed.”

Now compare this with what I wrote about a German actress, Ingrid Ernest, in Hauptmann’s “Before Sundown,” as reprinted in “Acid Test.” “She gave herself in every form of giving: a girl’s, shyly proud; a woman’s, quietly eager; a tomboy’s, a small child’s, a spoiled princess’, an unknown somebody’s—unknown even to herself; astonished, frightened, and very, very sure. We were confronted with a reality so overwhelming that life would have found a way of diluting it, just so as to get us over it and beyond. But in the theater it was there, pure and immutable and ours.

From both of the above, we conclude that great performance consists of layers, contradictions reconciled or not, emotions and actions that intensify reality recognized or not, components we realize as ours, but not ordinarily proffered in such abundance. Make of it all great performance. Sadly, we lost track of Ms. Ernest, but Ms. Fonda, still active, still radiant, is with us still.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Curse Words

Persons of extreme sensitivity or puritanical leanings might as well stop reading right here; others might find, as I do, each language ‘s choice of curse words and  purported profanities as revealing national characteristics of its users.

Anglo-Americans favor mostly innocuous or childish CW  (to initialize curse words henceforward) by way of a potty mouth, itself a bit of a euphemism. A big favorite in America is ”Your mother wears army boots,” about as housebroken as CW can come. I am going to focus on Hungarian and Serbian ones, both rich in gusto, compensatory for belonging too small or too highly regimented nations.

Thus the Croats, constrained by both Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Roman Catholic restraints, have come up with ludicrous terms for parts of the body, based mostly on the German Scham meaning both shame and the vagina, i.e., “stidljivost,” shamefulness, a chickenfeed CW compared to Hungarian and Serbian popular parlance. Which Croatian ones are the subject for laughter out loud by Serbs and Hungarians, going in for far saltier things.

Take, for instance, walking in the streets of Belgrade, the Serbian capital, or in the so-called korzo, the favored universal promenade, where the prolific, loud expletives  are “jebi ga,” fuck it, or “jebesh mu” fuck his (something or someone), expressions with which the parlance of even many educated speakers is laced raising almost no eyebrows. Rather more problematic is the Serbian “idi u pichku materinu,” or the Hungarian version, “menj az anyad pichajaba,” go into your mother’s cunt. ” Serbian even has a popular alternative for that organ, “pizda.” Neither form has any truck with something as infantile as pussy.

Moreover, elaboration thrives, as for example in “I fuck your mother’s black whorish cunt,” in either Serbian or Hungarian, still fairly routine stuff. But I must confess to a certain abstemiousness myself, not using any of the above, but contenting myself with much milder utterances, such as “Go to hell” or “Go to he devil,” even though I am aware that neither hell nor devil exists. This restraint despite the fact that even the highly civilized French has the tougher “va te faire foutre,” coming from that neither small nor a powerless nation. But consider that even in literature, such wildly unhampered practitioners as Rimbaud and Lautreamont made no use of expletives. Yet, as always, there are exceptions. The poet Apollinaire’s celebrated comic-pornographic work, “Les cent mille Verges” which is S&M, but turns into Vierges (rods into virgins), which is comedic sacrilege. think of Saint Ursula and her retinue.

To my eternal regret, I don’t know or read Italian, so I can’t say what obtains in that language  beyond the rather ungracious “porca Madonna,” and the totally anodyne “porco di Baccho.” For Spanish, I depend entirely on Hemingway, from whom I get “cojones,” pricks. I would be particularly interested in what gives in Scandinavian languages, as well as in other Slavic ones, of which I am ignorant. However, there is a Russian fiction by Mikhail Arcybashev, in a translated scene from which a man pays a poor young woman quite handsomely to let him whip her naked buttocks a specified  number of blows.
Most writers even in, say, Hungarian, make no use of CW, not even, such as the wonderful Frigyes Karinthy or the less wonderful Peter Esterhazy. To be sure, I have neither read nor heard very recent performances in foreign languages, and cannot speak conclusively to anything but English.
Even there, I have avoided such writers as Hubert Selby (“Last Exit to Brooklyn”) and note that even in most of them, as in Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, there is little or no CW. There are others, so-called Beats, typified by William Burroughs with his “Naked Lunch,” and the once ubiquitous Charles Bukowski., neither of whom I have read at all. In speech, my friends and I have remained essentially chaste. The same goes for most recent British writers.

But not so, strange to say, for the theater, as wallowingly spearheaded (if that is the word for it) by David Mamet, with any number of contemporary playwrights having made use—some more, others less—of his CW. What I find interesting is that the verb for sex and the four-letter version of excrement are profusely employed, but the grant almost never includes the sexual organs, I don’t quite know why. It may be out of some last-ditch effort at respectability that cannot be sloughed off, like the verb, which, through frequency of use has come to pass as practically inconspicuous.

Things used to be different in Restoration England, as for example in the writings of that remarkable rake and poet, Lord Rochester. In his only once performed play “Sodom,” he apostrophized the female organ brilliantly as “This is the warehouse of the world’s chief trade,/ On this soft anvil all mankind was made.” In the play, Rochester’s patron and butt, King Charles II, is satirized as saying (using the contemporary pintle for penis) “And with my pintle I shall rule the land.” More rowdily we get dear “Industrious cunt shall never pintle want,/ She shall be mistress to the elephant.” (Was that about poor dear Nell Gwynn?)

To this day, few publications are allowed to print anything like that, although The New Yorker does permit the verb for sex. I myself do not advocate unrestrained use of CW, lest it, too, lose its sting. Nudity in the theater is permitted, more often of men than of women, make of it what you will. There has also been simulated intercourse, though not the actual thing as in “Sodom.” In Germany, there was something called “Nacktballet,” from a leading female dancer-choreographer, Marie Wigman. it never crossed boundaries, although I for one wouldn’t have found it unwelcome anywhere.

And what about the future of CW? Having no crystal ball, I cannot predict it. I am , however, all for it as long as it is used judiciously  and not indiscriminately. As for my own limited, personal future, there is no telling what can prevail. I daresay that neither angels nor devils espouse nudity and uncalled-for CW.