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.