New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Smoke and Mirrors

Confessions of a Theme Whore

It’s a big relief to me that the television season has drawn to a close—particularly that there will be no new episodes of House to miss. I’d been having a terrible time since the show moved to Monday nights. I guess I’m not television conscious that early in the week. I did my best. Nearly every Monday a point in the day would come when it would occur to me that it was Monday, and that I had to remember to watch House that night. But something would always come up—even if I knew perfectly well at six o’clock or at seven that it would behoove me to finish whatever I was doing by eight, it would always slip my mind, and suddenly I’d look up and it would be twenty or ten or four or seventeen past the hour.

It’s not as though it wasn’t important to me. I like the way House episodes begin the same way I used to get a kick out of the old teasers for Law & Order. Remember those? The pleasant anticipation of waiting first for the gruesome moment when someone would stumble across a corpse and then for the tasteless crack that Jerry Orbach always made over the deceased? House teasers are formulaic in the same way. A knowing snippet of contemporary life leads us to expect that a particular person is about to fall writhing to the floor. Then someone else entirely falls writhing to the floor.

I don’t think I caught a single House teaser this season. Instead, I seemed to keep coming in on scenes between Chase and Cameron, and they bore me. Well, she bores me. Well, she bores me now. So I’d swear and sigh and promise myself that the next week would be different. And then the following week it would happen all over again. It reminded me of a phase I went through where I was trying to develop an alcohol addiction. I’d pour myself a drink and then put it down somewhere and forget all about it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated. I just couldn’t focus. I couldn’t commit.

The season finale of House, as it happened, was about precisely this phenomenon—about a guy at war with himself because the right and left sides of his brain couldn’t communicate with each other. Of course, tuning in late, I didn’t know this; and having missed the show the week before, I had no idea that House and Cuddy had had sex in the previous episode after she’d helped him through a grueling night of Vicodin withdrawal. So the revelation that Cuddy and House had not actually had sex, and that all of it—including the detox session—had been an opiate-induced hallucination didn’t have the impact on me that it seemed to have on everyone else.

I’m not sure it would have in any case. More than any television series I can remember, House seems to me not to be about what happens in the story. Or maybe it’s just that what characters have to say about what happens in the story is always much more interesting—just as the metaphor, analogue, or association that ultimately leads to House’s diagnostic epiphany is always more interesting than the actual solution to whatever medical mystery is haunting him and his team.

Anyway, catching up on the series later, I couldn’t help noticing how much of the season past seemed to be taken up with this notion of The Divided Self.

At this point, I should really come clean about a condition I suffer from. It’s probably congenital—I know I’ve had since I was a small child: an impulse toward over-interpretation. It’s really more of a compulsion. I see patterns and motifs everywhere. I can’t stop seeing them, and even though I know they’re probably not there, probably don’t exist, I can’t stop finding them. I guess it’s like any other addiction: the truth is I don’t really want to stop.

Which is why, when I headed over to the online episode guides for House and began reading synopses to see where my viewing deficiencies lay, I seemed to see The Divided Self everywhere. I saw it in parts of the series I’d caught all or part of—in the episode about the teenage mother who changes her mind about letting Cuddy adopt her baby, and the one about Cuddy’s mixed feelings over the baby she does eventually adopt, and the one about her ambivalence over the continued need for her presence at the hospital.

Putting away the winter clothes, I caught up on episodes I’d missed and continued to see elements of psychomachia in various forms: in Cuddy’s attempt to have Cameron become more like her, taking over Cuddy’s job; in the incessant mood-swings the series seemed to be having over Chase and Cameron’s impending marriage; in the episode about the guy with “locked-in” syndrome, who was brain-dead to all outward appearances but very much alive and alert, albeit unable to communicate. I saw it in the episodes where House began hanging out with an apparition of Wilson’s dead girlfriend, Amber, which turned out to be the embodiment of his unconscious. And, of course, when I finally saw the episode that began with the suicide of the character played by the actor Kal Penn, I saw The Divided Self there, too—particularly given the way the script seemed to harp on no one’s having had any idea there had been anything wrong.

Some of this, of course, is legitimate; I understand that. (I saw there was even an episode called “House Divided.”) But some of the things that ran through my mind were just plumb crazy—certifiable. Like the thought I had during the scene after Kutner’s funeral and cremation, when everyone was standing around watching the smoke rise into the sky: I had the fleeting notion that the show had artfully managed to induce a state of schizophrenia in us, because we were simultaneously sad (well, sad-ish) and amused, knowing that the real-life circumstance necessitating Mr. Penn’s departure from the series had been his well-publicized decision to take a job in the Obama administration.

So, as you can see—and here we are back at The Divided Self—I’m of two minds about all this. There’s a part of me that wants to point out that the series creators could have chosen any number of ways to get rid of Kutner. They didn’t have to engineer it in such a way as to raise the specter of inner conflict. But there’s that other, more rational, side of me that knows that a television series like House is written by a committee of people, some working on one episode and some on another. And I ask myself how likely it is that they sit around plotting ways of making me smile and tear up at the same time. Or structuring a season so that a bunch of episodes that one character spends talking to a figure who responds but isn’t really there are balanced by an episode that a bunch of characters spend talking to someone who is there, even though he can’t respond.

Another example of how I can go haywire over a theme was what happened with The Sopranos. Early on, I’d taken it into my head that the series was about art on some very profound and interesting level—or about Tony’s relationship with art—and I wrote about this around the time the second season was about to air.

There was a certain limited validity to this. Tony certainly had issues with the artwork in Melfi’s office, for instance. The opening shot of the series showed him sitting in her waiting room framed between the feet of a life-size bronze—a nude that he was eying with hostility and suspicion. In another episode he took umbrage at a harmless painting on one of her walls—a landscape dominated by a large red barn. Catching sight of it, he frowned, walked over, and examined it more closely, zeroing in on a darkened doorway that, when the camera zoomed in, seemed to yawn eerily. In the next scene, he accused Melfi of having “a trick picture” in her office.

There was also an early sequence where Tony, dragged his bratty daughter into a church and waxed sentimental over the fact that his grandfather and great uncle had built it. When she was skeptical about their having built it alone, just the two of them, Tony was patient. No, they had built it with “a crew of laborers,” but the point was they’d known how to do it. In the next scene, we watched one of Tony’s “crew” blow up a restaurant.

I became a little obsessed with the theme of Art in The Sopranos. Then I decided that there was something going on with nature, too. Tony and his pals seemed to have a difficult time with art and nature both. They had artistic and idyllic yearnings, but whenever they got involved with art or nature, things seemed to go badly.

The fifth season included a sequence in which Tony commissioned a rather vulgar portrait of himself posed with a horse he had acquired a financial interest in. When the horse came to a bad end, Tony had asked Paulie, another subordinate, to destroy the painting, but instead Paulie had kept it and had the figure of Tony touched up to resemble Napoleon. Like everyone else, I thought that was hilarious, but I also pondered on how it figured in the art-and-nature schema.

Later that season, the painting came up again when Tony paid a visit to Paulie and saw it hanging in his living-room. He proceeded to have a rather complicated series of reactions: rage, indignation, bewilderment, something verging on awe, and finally a sort of lingering nostalgia as he gazed at the painting a last time before leaving it in the trash.

That was the episode in which Tony decided that his favorite cousin (played by Steve Buscemi) was going to have to get whacked and ended up doing it himself. In fact, in the very next scene—right after the one with the portrait and right before the one where Tony blew his cousin away with a shotgun—we saw Buscemi drive onto a property dominated by a large red barn and into the dark spooky doorway of another barn, which the camera lingered on as it had lingered on the dark doorway of the barn in Melfi’s painting.

Well, I went completely nerts, leaping up and gesticulating, shouting that it was the same scene. And my husband and the friends we were watching the episode with were all very kind. Because, of course, it was nonsense, sheer nonsense. As if David Chase and his crew of writers sat around mapping out complex systems of imagery, saying “We’ll put the scene where Gandolfini whacks Buscemi right after the thing with the portrait of Tony; oh, and let’s have the farm where the hit takes place look just like that painting way back three seasons ago.” I mean, really.

And yet…and yet. Not long ago, we started watching some of those late episodes again. I’d forgotten how unequivocally horrible everyone becomes in that last season. I’d also forgotten how Tony’s relationship with Melfi ends. Her own analyst (played by director and film historian Peter Bogdonavich) shames her into realizing that she has merely been enabling Tony all these years. (He draws her attention to a study suggesting that “the talking cure” simply gives sociopaths a chance to sharpen their skills rather than leading to insight.) Soon after, she terminates Tony’s therapy, offering to refer him to someone else.

Revisiting all this, I began to discern—or thought I did—a solution to some of the questions that the opening season of the series had left me with: about art and its importance in the series, about Tony’s relationship with it, about David Chase’s takes on psychoanalysis and on Melfi’s clinical skills, and even about the connection between psychoanalysis and art.

It seemed to me we ended up with a realization that the self-awareness that “talk therapy” engenders in the ordinary patient has merely offered Tony the tools and material with which to construct a false version of the truth and reinvent his own image of himself, and that this is the only kind of creative endeavor that people like Tony can every really successfully engage in. And I even found myself wondering whether David Chase might have read that Robert Warshow essay about the movie-gangster’s connection with the city and if there could be some validity to the uncomfortable relationship with nature that I’d wanted to ascribe to Tony and his crowd.

I honestly don’t know what to think anymore. I don’t know which is less likely, that someone as steeped in American popular culture as Peter Bogdanovich would not know the Warshow essay about the gangster-movie genre, and wouldn’t at some point over the years have brought it to David Chase’s attention, or the idea that the twenty-some-odd people it took to write the series could fashion and sustain a thematic structure that complex over a period of six years.

I’m reminded of the only time I ever went for a tarot reading. There was this guy that I couldn’t seem to break up with, and a friend of my mother’s, tired of the situation, finally sent me off to see this psychic she swore by.

I took a taxi down to Mulberry Street. The psychic was waiting for me on his stoop. And right off, while I was still coming up the steps, he started telling me that the moment he’d seen me emerge from the cab he’d had this very strong, very clear feeling…I had an aura…he sensed that I was involved with a guy who was no good, who was trouble…he thought his name began with an R…“Robert”…or “Richard” perhaps…

The session was a disaster: I didn’t respond to the psychic’s inept guesses in a sufficiently helpful manner, and he ended up throwing me out. All the same, afterward I couldn’t decide which was more implausible: that my mother’s friend had actually gone to the trouble of calling him up and tipping him off about my boyfriend’s name, or that the guy really was magic.

May 20, 2009   5 Comments

Susan Boyle and the Tigers of the Night

I’ve read several Google pages’ worth of commentaries on Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish woman whose April 11 performance of a song from  Les Miserables on the U.K. version of “American Idol,” “Britain’s Got Talent,” millions of people have watched on YouTube. So far, though, I’ve yet to encounter an article, essay, or blog post that touches on the aspect of the phenomenon that I found most fascinating and moving.

No one as far has commented on the nature of the number Boyle performed—no one has pointed out that it’s a lousy song. This is perfectly understandable. To do so would have seemed nasty or mean-spirited, and the whole point of the Susan Boyle phenomenon—at first glance, certainly—was the conquest of nastiness, the silencing of the urbane, supercilious stance embodied by Simon Cowell in the television persona he has created for himself. But I think it’s important that Boyle wowed the world with a dreadful, inept piece of sentimental tripe. In fact, I’d argue it’s the key to the whole phenomenon. Because part of what was galvanizing about Boyle’s performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” was that she made it a good song.

In order to appreciate the consummate badness of “I Dreamed A Dream” you don’t necessarily have to have the lyrics in front of you, but it helps. Like many of the songs in Les Miserables, it’s a concatenation of hackneyed tropes and verbal clichés—“empty songs with empty lyrics” was how the parodist Gerard Alessandrini put it in his send-up of one of the show’s more unspeakable numbers (“Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”). These are songs that bank on the idea that if you make something vague enough and general enough it will appeal to everyone—which is a kind of perversion of universality. (Good songs discover a particular or idiosyncratic truth that we can generalize ourselves.)

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living,
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

Of course, there are bad songs and bad songs. If this one seemed particularly laughable in the context of the show it was because the character who sang it had appeared for the first time only seconds before and died virtually seconds later. Actually, the song is worse even than I’d remembered. Boyle left out a verse that contains the lines “He slept a summer by my side/ He filled my days with endless wonder;/ He took my childhood in his stride…” The collision of euphemism with cliché doesn’t often get more infelicitous than that.

Plenty of die-hard fans of Les Miserables would go to the barricades to defend it; but even folks who love the show, or who have a love-hate relationship with it (like me), tend to admit to the transparent awfulness of “I Dreamed A Dream.” Indeed, the song became briefly famous on the musical-theater-writing circuit, when the show first opened in New York, for a lyric so inept that no one has ever been able to make even the remotest guess at what it’s supposed to mean. It comes in the first two lines of the bridge but is hard to hear in the YouTube video, either because Boyle was tastefully downplaying that part of the song or because it dips suddenly to a place slightly below her natural register.

But the tigers come at night,
With their voices soft as thunder,
As they tear your hope apart,
As they turn your dream to shame.

No one has ever been able to figure out where the tigers come from or what they have to do with anything.

There are moments in popular culture when a work of art undergoes a transformation because something in real life creates a context where there was a vacuum before. Something like that happened around fifteen years ago with the revival of the Broadway musical Chicago. If you talk to people who saw the original 1975 production, which was coolly received by audiences and critics and didn’t last long, you hear a lot about hostility toward the audience, how the murdering showgirls who become stars called you “suckers” and threw roses out into the house at the end, claiming to be living examples of what makes America great and what it stands for. Two decades later, the same finale was greeted with amusement and delight.

What had changed? Very little about the show. But Court TV had come along, and the world had watched the fiasco of the O.J. Simpson case—with its mountebanks and cheap theatrics—lead to a lot of new-made celebrities and no conviction. Suddenly a show that reveled cynically in the hypocrisies of a society that makes stars out of lawyers and murderers had a lot of meaning to a lot of people.

A 1970s audience had plenty to be cynical about, but in the post-Watergate era the media were not the villains. With no specific target for its satire, the show was (rightly I think) interpreted to be excoriating the audience. Twenty years later, events in the real world had given the show moral heft, and an audience could join in its contempt for something outside of the theater.

Something analogous, I think, was happening last week when we all watched that video of Susan Boyle performing that silly song. In this case what created a reference point was Boyle herself. There were things we knew about her that gave the lyrics of the song a context it’s probably never had before and may never have again. Some of them she had told us herself in the little sound-bytes before her performance, but most of them were things we intuited from her manner, affect, and bearing—from the way she laughed when she laughed and clowned when she clowned and cringed when she cringed and stood her ground with what seemed like an obliviousness to how she was coming off.

When she began to sing and everyone was blown away, two factors were at work. One was the incongruity between her singing and the persona she projected. She didn’t sing the way we expected someone to sing who came off the way she did—awkward and gormless. The second thing that blew us away was the lyrics to the song. It wasn’t that she made them seem good or true or meaningful; it was that they were true (and therefore good and meaningful) when she sang them. We knew that because we knew that some of those things we’d guessed about Susan Boyle were true. So when she sang about a lonely, sad, and disappointed life, a song made mute and silent by its own anonymity became eloquent through her idiosyncrasy.

Everyone keeps going on about how satisfying it was to see her “impress” the judges on “Britain’s Got Talent.” But that’s not primarily what you see when you watch the judges in the YouTube video. You’re not watching people who are impressed so much as people who are strangely moved by something they weren’t expecting to encounter. (I’m talking about the two men, really; the woman was obviously performing.) They’re aware of the triteness and vacuity of the lyrics, but they’re thinking about them all the same.

And that, I think, more than Boyle’s triumph, is what moved us when we watched the video, the barely perceptible changes that happened in the faces of the judges—the way this one swallowed or that one found himself having to turn an involuntary sigh in to a  smile. Oh sure, it was satisfying to see Boyle “wipe”—as one of the articles I read put it—“the smirk off Simon Cowell’s face,” and thrilling to get caught up in the audience’s wild excitement. But the moments in the video that made you and me and all the journalists and bloggers who wrote about the experience weep come a little later; they offer a fleeting glimpse of what’s going on in the mind of a listener as the phony, empty lyrics become filled with a possibility of meaning—because it’s a song about someone who had envisaged something else from life and Susan Boyle had walked on stage as one who couldn’t possibly envision another life for herself.

In the end, it was a kind of relay effect: the judges were moved by something they saw in Susan Boyle, and we were moved by something we saw in them. For us, as for them, it had to do with a suggestion of the unknown aspects of another soul—unguessed passions, thoughts, and experiences; the idiosyncratic and unpredictable; the tigers that come at night from out of nowhere and don’t belong in the song.

April 20, 2009   9 Comments

Comedy Lite

Yasmina Reza’s Life (x) 3
at Circle in the Square

David Ives’s Polish Joke
at Manhattan Theater Club

I picked up a copy of Yasmina Reza’s Life (x) 3 a couple of days after seeing the play at Circle in the Square and was flabbergasted to discover that the opening scene between John Turturro and Helen Hunt is actually funny. Sonia and Henry are arguing about how to deal with their recalcitrant six-year-old.

HENRY: He wants a biscuit.
SONIA: He’s just cleaned his teeth.
HENRY: He’s asking for a biscuit.
SONIA: He knows very well there’s no biscuits in bed.
HENRY: You tell him.
SONIA: Why didn’t you?
HENRY: Because I didn’t know there were no biscuits in bed.

Sonia goes offstage to lay down the law. The child begins to cry and is still wailing when she re-enters. Henry suggests bringing him a slice of apple, but Sonia puts the kibosh on that, too. Henry goes offstage and comes back a moment later.

HENRY: He’s agreed to the slice of apple.
SONIA: He’s not having any apple, he’s not having anything, you don’t eat in bed, the subject is closed.
HENRY: You tell him.I said yes to the apple, I thought the apple was a possibility. If you’re saying no, go and tell him yourself.
SONIA: Take him a slice of apple and tell him you’re doing it behind my back. Tell him I said no and you’re only doing it because you said yes, but that I mustn’t find out because I’m radically opposed to any kind of food in bed.

I’m not going to make any noises about not needing to have small children to find this funny. I am going to suggest that it doesn’t take Donald Sinden and Maggie Smith to make it play. It probably could use Brit actors, though, and they’d probably have to be performing Christopher Hampton’s translation from the French as written, not an Americanized version of the thing.

Problems of style, idiom, and cultural context tend to rear their heads when you decide that a West End hit will be best served by a cast of American movie stars and a dumbed-down script that Americanizes everything. Take the biscuit-cookie dichotomy, for instance. “Biscuit,” which appears in Hampton’s script, is a light-comedy word. It’s neutral. It allows us to get where the dialogue is going and focus on the politics of the situation. “Cookie,” the word that’s substituted in the production at Circle, isn’t neutral. It’s a joke word, almost a punchline in and of itself. Turturro is cute saying it—anyone would be. We’re derailed by the cuteness, and it doesn’t really matter what comes after.

Or take the subject of the conversation itself. Americans discussing questions of how to negotiate with their children isn’t satire, it’s sitcom. All Americans negotiate with their children, and all Americans argue about it. We take child-rearing seriously. Europeans don’t make such an issue out of it—that is, only a certain class of pseudo-sophisticated European does, probably in emulation of Americans. Spoken in American accents, the opening scene tells us nothing about Sonia and Henry. Spoken in Estuary accents, it would give us a hint about who they are.

Actually, though, the main thing you’d need in order for the opening of Life (x) 3 to be funny would be not to have Ms. Hunt anywhere in the equation. A limited actress to begin with, Ms. Hunt has taken to allowing the persona that made her America’s sweetheart (unaccountably, I think) to obtrude on every role she performs. It’s hard to believe that her mannerisms—the squint she levels at fellow actors, the whiny, strained, prosaically uninflected voice—ever seemed refreshing or even benign. She wields them now like weapons, encased in an impenetrable air of moral righteousness.

The actress playing the mother in the opening scene of Reza’s play should be able to forgo moral ascendancy. Within moments, she will be yelling for the child to “Shut the fuck up” and irrationally baiting him with visions of dessert delicacies. But Ms. Hunt brings the same emotional freight and crusading spirit to Life (x) 3 that she brought to the role of the doting mother in As Good as It Gets. It’s the same performance, for Pete’s sake, and it’s tiresome beyond belief.

In order to find anything witty or interesting in Reza’s play, you kind of have to redirect it in your head. Life (x) 3 is a slight, unassuming comedy—part gentle farce, part moth-like speculation on human behavior—that shows us the same disastrous dinner party three times in three different ways. Sonia and Henry and their guests, Hubert and Inez, are no more or less two-dimensional than the characters in a Noel Coward play. Like the foursome in Private Lives, like the theatrical family in Hay Fever and their pompous, conventional guests, Reza’s characters exist pretty much to be rude to each other. The fun lies in watching well-dressed, over-educated people misbehave. There really isn’t much more to it than that.

This is fragile stuff. Even the justification for the life-in-triplicate gimmick is gossamer-thin. Henry and Hubert are both astrophysicists, a circumstance that allows for passing references to cosmology and metaphysics (the phrase “modification of a presumed reality” comes up). But there’s no attempt to delineate a process of behavioral causality. The characters’ characters just change from scene to scene. Thus, one version of Henry is high-strung and self-dramatizing. Another is modest and self-assured. One version of Sonia is overtly hostile to Hubert, who is more successful than Henry and might help him to advance his career. In another version, Sonia and Hubert are contemplating a weekday tryst.

One of the things that’s been said about the play is that the variations are in the wrong order, and certainly the conceit seems haphazard in this production. Reading Life (x) 3, though, you realize that there may in fact be a progression. In each scene, the characters seem to become less simplistic, less oriented toward the exigencies of a specific genre. They lose their formulaic edge and take on, instead, a tinge of idiosyncrasy.

My guess is that each of the four actors in the play is effectively supposed to become three completely different people, and that our pleasure and fascination should derive from the artistry with which they do so. Reza is herself an actress (she played Inez in the original Paris production), and I suspect that Life (x) 3 is fundamentally a play about theater, just as Art was. People were wrong-headed in dismissing that first play because it seemed to raise long-settled controversies about painting.

The purpose of the white-on-white canvas—the reason why it had to be that and not anything else—was so that we would spend the evening watching actors pretending to respond to something when it looked to us like nothing was there at all. The white-on-white canvas meant that the actors in Art were doing the opposite of what actors in a play normally do. Instead of pretending to respond to a nothing that looks like something, they were responding to a something that looked like nothing. It was all a metaphor for theater—or for the metaphor that theater is itself. The closing speech in which images of whiteness vanish into nothingness—the clouds, the snow, the solitary skier who becomes “a man who moves across a space and disappears”—was a picture of the stage.

Subtext is, unfortunately, not an option with three-fourths of the New York cast of Life (x) 3. (The exception is Linda Emond, whom one could watch for hours.) As a result, the play becomes less and less interesting as the evening wears on. John Turturro is a god. I adore him, but light social comedy isn’t his key, and Brent Spiner has nowhere near the requisite edge of menace to bring off the role of Hubert. Matthew Warchus, who staged the production at London’s National Theater (where he had Mark Rylance, Harriet Walter and Imelda Staunton to work with, forsooth) must simply have thrown up his hands.

The guy you want playing the unpleasant but overwritten Hubert in Life (x) 3 is probably Walter Bobbie, the subtle, urbane, versatile actor who is appearing just now in David Ives’s Polish Joke to the great delight of Manhattan Theater Club audiences. Mr. Bobbie, I recall, did an elegant turn in a minor role in a minor Shaw play some years ago, then played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the Jerry Zaks revival of Guys and Dolls, and spent the next ten years as artistic director of the Encores! concert series at City Center—too long, I feel, as it seems to have kept him off the stage. Mr. Bobbie is rare among American stage actors in his ability to project intellectual feeling without playing it as an abstraction (he’s like Kevin Spacey in this regard), and he finds nuance in the most intriguing and unexpected places, wild comic cameos and archetypal characters, more like a novelist than an actor. He’s at his best in Ives’ extremely funny if frustrating play.

It concerns a young man of Polish descent (Malcolm Gets) named Jasiu (pronounced “Yashoo”), who goes through life pretending to be an Irishman—or who already has gone through life doing that; it’s not really clear. The play begins with a lovely, wry monologue in which Mr. Gets—memory-play-style—proposes a vision of two kinds of ethnic doom, real and perceived. The speech gives way to a flashback in which we witness the childhood conversation from which he apparently derived all philosophy, a backyard chat with his beer-guzzling Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman) in which the latter had laid out for him the practical and existential pitfalls of being Polish.

The beauty of the writing in this opening sequence—and it’s one of the funniest set-pieces being done on a New York stage just now—suggests that the rest of the play will show us the consequences of this discussion. In fact, though, Ives falls into telling-not-showing mode, and from there until a poignant final scene, the play consists of Mr. Gets narrating things we’d like to see performed, while a succession of surreal, Christopher Durang–like nightmare episodes illustrate the same joke over and over again. It’s not that the scenes aren’t funny, but the excellent ensemble cast—which includes Nancy Opel and Nancy Bell, in addition to Mr. Ziman and Mr. Bobbie—are only allowed to become embodiments of ideas we’ve already heard expressed.

The director, John Rando, has orchestrated the whole thing joyously before a wonderfully inventive Loy Arcenas set that symbolically captures the image of the world as the hero sees it. But it’s tough to stay funny at the pitch of frenetic wackiness that Ives has striven for, and the longueurs begin to outweigh the pleasure of the witty one-liners. The joke version of Daniel Deronda you thought you saw coming never materializes. Instead, there’s a tiresome thread about a tiresome girl whom Gets leaves in his search for an identity, and he ultimately discovers (imagine!) the nobility of being Polish.

Mr. Gets is as endearing and piquant as ever, and Nancy Opel is, as usual, amazingly funny. And Mr. Ziman has one or two delightful moments toward the end of the play when Jasiu comes to see Roman, now dying, and discovers that his uncle doesn’t even remember the conversation in which he imparted the precepts the boy went on to live by.

There’s a truth there, but Ives skirts around it, giving us instead an ersatz moral—that all people everywhere are really the same. It seems a missed opportunity. Surely the point here is something more complicated—almost ineffable—about the haphazard way in which our childhood selves receive and interpret information, giving them a construction or importance that the grownups perhaps never intended.

New York Press, April 16, 2003

March 4, 2009   No Comments

Artificial Affect

Ifound myself checking up on the parts of a horse the other day. It was after the Daily News had carried an AP story about some new prehistoric art found in the Perigueux region of Franceengravings thought to predate the Lascaux cave paintings by 10,000 years. It was a burial ground of some sort, and the version of the story that Newsday carried included a quote from an official of the French Ministry of Culture: “The presence of graves in a decorated cave is unprecedented.”

But the drawings in the Daily News photograph didn’t look like decorations; they looked like sketchpad studies—partial (a mane here, a hoof there, an idea of musculature) and unarranged. They were all on top of one another as though the artist hadn’t wanted to take time to find a blank space on the wall for fear of missisng whatever he was trying to capture from memory or life.

Only one of the figures in the photographa horsewas recognizable. It seemed curiously realistic, so realistic that for a moment I wondered if the drawings might be a hoax. It didn’t seem stylized enough for prehistoric art. This was no flat, geometric artifact with characteristics one might interpret as equine; it was a proper horse, fully articulated, drawn in profile, and almost in perspective, complete with all the things a horse should have. You could make out every element of horse physiognomy: upper and lower muzzle, nostril, even the soft, fat, jowly part that covers a muscle I now know to be called the masseter.

There’s nothing to say that primitive artwork has to be more stylized than it is realistic. Or, to put it another way, there’s no reason to think that art wasn’t realistic before it was stylizedany more than there is to think it impossible that a more advanced technology than ours once existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I mention the Perigueux horse because I’ve been thinking about realism and views of reality in the context of some of the summer’s more and less obviously cheesy movies. Mostly I’ve been trying to figure out why the picture of a world proposed by Steven Spielberg’s A.I. bothered me so much.

When it comes to matters of realism and stylistic form, it’s always interesting to find out what we are and aren’t prepared to accept. Detail is what tends to create problems. I remember once, some years ago, getting laughed at when I objected to something at the end of a horror picture. The werewolf-hero had been cornered by the SWAT team and would be blown away in a matter of moments, but first the heroine wanted to wish him a fond farewell and stepped into the line of fire. I said it was “ridiculous—unrealistic.” The friends I was watching the video with thought it hilarious that I hadn’t objected to the premise of the picture as “ridiculous” or “unrealistic,” but only that one small aspect.

We tend to hold different art forms to different standards of verisimilitude. We demand more literal truth from the narrative and dramatic, say, than the graphic arts. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibit of late Renaissance drawings earlier this year, you didn’t hear museum-goers finding a lot of fault with Correggio because some of the pictures deviated from natural truth. You didn’t notice anyone pointing critically, saying, “Look at the way that Madonna is holding the child! It’s ridiculous! No mother would hold a baby that way, it would slide right off her lap!” The point was the folds of her dress and the way they draped over her leg: these would have been obscured if the artist had taken the actual weight of a real-life baby into account.

It’s artistry itself, as often as not, that leads us to ignore some discrepancy between the truth as it’s depicted in a work of art and the way things are. If you go to see Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero at the John Houseman Theater (it reopened there in May and runs through Sept. 2), there may come a point when you find yourself noticing a particular unrealistic aspect of the play. Set in the foyer of a Manhattan high-rise, it concerns the relationship between four characters: a young security guard who works the graveyard shift at the apartment building, his supervisor, and two cops, one of whom is having an affair with a tenant in the building.

You’d look hard to find a visual stage truth as compelling as the way the shadow of an adjacent building on Allen Moyer’s set cuts off the sunlight from the sunken area just outside on the pavement, exactly the way the buildings surrounding those badly designed East Side high-rises always do. You know that building, you can visualize the whole exterior just from the way Mark McCullough has lighted that tiny sliver of stage, and the characters are equally well observed. All the same, it’s bound to occur to you that in the entire course of the two nights in which the play is set, no one other than the characters in the play crosses the lobby.

It’s unimportant. The truths contained in the characters’ expectations and treatment of one another are more interesting than the convention we’re being asked to accept—just as the folds in the drapery are more interesting than the bulk of the baby in Correggio’s drawing.

Sometimes what prompts us to accept a glitch in verisimilitude is the arrival of a new technique, a way of expressing something that a particular medium couldn’t have  expressed before. I remember that some years back, when the Met was holding one of its exhibitions of fifth-century sculpture, a wonderful bit of signage pointed out that the famous statue of Nike bending down to fasten her sandal both represents an important moment in the development of “realism” and is at the same time fundamentally unrealistic. The way the sculpture captures the fall of the cloth over the goddess’ body is lifelike beyond anything that marble had hitherto managed to express. Still, the curator noted, cloth falling exactly that way, that showed the outline of the body as the one in the statue does, would have to be gossamer-like, and fabric that light wouldn’t drape well. To express what he wanted to express, the artist had had to create another reality in which both a garment and the object it veils are visible at the same time thereby anticipating certain schools of modern art by a couple of millenia.

One of this summer’s cinematic talking points is Final Fantasy, a movie based on a video game, that uses computer-generated images of actors instead of real ones. It’s fascinating for the space of about ten minutes because of the precise way in which it doesn’t work. The moving figures that act out the story seem like neither actors nor animations, merely like an attempt to ape a simulation of life.

Animation—which we still use almost in its literal and etymological sense—takes nonliving entities and breathes life into them. Its wit historically resided in its ability to assign human attributes to nonhuman objects and creatures, thereby commenting on humanity. But the suggestion of life is dependent on spontaneity. The creators of Final Fantasy didn’t have that to work with, so they had to fall back on facial and gestural cliché: this expression for fear, that pose for anger or grief. For all its technical prowess, Final Fantasy turned out to be a throwback to the most primitive styles of stage and silent-movie acting.

Nevertheless, it’s caused a certain amount of consternation in the entertainment industry. The fear is that if such methods are found to be “successful,” computer images will gradually come to replace real actors on the screen. Interestingly, this development echoes a major plot point in A.I., Spielberg’s long-awaited movie about a boy-robot who develops mortal longings.

The film, which Spielberg developed from an idea that Stanley Kubrick had researched for years before turning the project over to the younger director, posits a postapocalyptic future (some polar icecaps have melted, drowning the entire globe except for a large part of New Jersey) in which human beings have so perfected the art of simulating humanity that the only thing left for a self-respecting Promethean to explore is whether a robot can be programmed to love and thereby become more “human.”

It’s odd that Spielberg chose to cast Haley Joel Osment, the child actor whose passion in The Sixth Sense was so moving and played so well against Bruce Willis’s trademark lack of affect, as the boy-robot David. In A.I., the young actor is himself required to simulate lack of affect and later, as David’s adoptive mother utters the words that program him to love her for all time, to simulate recently acquired artificial affect.

Actually, there are a number of curious things about A.I., not least of which is the widely noted “schizoid” quality that critics have enjoyed attributing to the Spielberg/Kubrick dichotomy. The movie’s singular plot keeps presenting us with recognizable tropes that we think will develop in such a way as to explore what it means to be “human.” (That’s Spielberg the bard, king of genre, storyteller extraordinaire.) But these setups keep petering out, wandering off into tough-minded existential gloom. (That’s Kubrick, genius and redoubtable intellect.)

Watching A.I., I found myself prey to the American Werewolf in London syndrome, willing to entertain the premise but stumbling over details. I was prepared to accept a world of punishingly planned parenthood serviced by a race of humanoid robots. But I kept wondering why the couple in the movie, David’s adoptive parents, have no friends and why they are so inexplicably wealthy. They live in a huge, beautifully appointed house, miles from anyone else, and can afford to have their birth son cryogenically frozen until such time as a cure is found for whatever it is that ails him.

Where are all the other people in this world? Apart from the factory workers who operate the robot plant, the only human beings in the picture are the rabble—the crowds of ugly, sweaty people who frequent the roving demolition festivals called Flesh Fairs (carnivals—get it?) where antiquated, damaged, or otherwise unwanted robots are ritually trashed. The Flesh Fairs are part theme park, part slave market, part revival meeting, part public execution, and the unkempt folk who attend them are there to exorcise their fears of extinction.

The friend who came with me to see A.I. pointed out that there’s nothing noble or uplifting about the climactic scene in which the mob turns on the carnival manager, rallying to defend the robot child because he is a child. The sequence simply replaces self-interested savagery and brutality with mawkish savagery and brutality. I doubt that was Spielberg’s intention, but then the whole movie is sort of one big glitch in verisimilitude. It’s the portrait of a society trying to make lifelike beings, drawn by a man who has been so removed from real life for so long that he doesn’t remember what it looks like. Or, rather, two such men—the reclusive genius who conceived the project and the commercial giant who completed it.

At least the movie based on a computer game knows that it’s junk. Ironically (or perhaps predictably), it carries the same message as the Spielberg epic: what makes us human is our dreams. But Spielberg here is being either disingenuous or naive: his point, surely, is that what exalts the human race is movies, not dreams themselves but dream-makers like himself and Kubrick. The whole picture is a series of self-absorbed allusions to Spielberg and Kubrick—their humanity, their achievement, their work. It’s telling (and potentially more worrying than anything in Final Fantasy) that the most compelling and lifelike performance in A.I. comes from a computer-animated teddy bear.

New York Press, July 24, 2001

February 16, 2009   Comments Off on Artificial Affect

Imagining Ahab

Relatives of Frank William “Billy” Tyne, who captained the ill-fated Andrea Gail and went down with six of his crew during the brutal 1991 storm off New England, are thundering mad at George Clooney’s portrayal of their kin.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Orlando, Fla., against Warner Bros., Tyne’s family claims that the movie “falsely depicted” Tyne as “emotionally aloof, reckless, excessively risk-taking, self-absorbed, emasculated, despondent, obsessed and maniacal.” (New York Post, August 29, 2000)

Next Tuesday, as part of a weekly movie series at Symphony Space, John Huston’s 1956 film version of Moby Dick will be shown in a double bill with John Ford’s The Searchers. The date is November 21, and I keep wondering whether Isaiah Sheffer, the artistic director of Symphony Space, knew when he made up the program that he was scheduling Moby Dick for the 180th anniversary of the incident that probably inspired it, give or take a few hours: the sinking of a Nantucket whaler by an enraged sperm whale in the South Pacific. The name of the ship was the Essex, and she went down on November 20, 1820. The Essex disaster is the subject of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, up for a National Book Award this week. I gather that Philbrick’s competition in the category of nonfiction is the great literary critic Jacques Barzun. All the same, it will be a shame if In the Heart of the Sea doesn’t win. Not only is it a thumping good read, more so even than your average first-rate humdinger of a sea-disaster story; it’s also an interesting piece of cultural criticism. In Philbrick’s book, everything one has never really understood about Moby Dick—why Ahab was kicking up such a rumpus, all that stuff about good and evil, and Calvinism and paganism, the incessant jokes about cannibals, even the footnotes and digressions—is all made intelligible through being put in the context of the Nantucket whaling industry. Reviews of the book largely focused on two elements of the story, playing up the sensational aspect and oversimplifying a literary point. In order to survive, the crew of the Essex, adrift for three months with only food and water enough for half that time, had been forced to resort to cannibalism, actually eating the bodies of their dead shipmates. Worse still, they had, at one point, gone so far as to sacrifice one of their number, drawing lots to determine who the victim and his executioner would be. It’s a haunting, horrifying tale; but almost more compelling than the story itself are Philbrick’s insights into why it so resonated with people at the time, Melville among them. The publicity material that accompanies the book describes the Essex incident as the inspiration for the ending of Moby Dick. In fact, Philbrick suggests (if he doesn’t come right out and say so) that the Essex story must have been a thematic starting point for the whole novel. More shocking even than the means by which the men of the Essex sought to survive was the unprecedented phenomenon of a whale attacking a ship. Such a thing had never happened before. Nantucketers went after whales, not the other way around. That was how it was supposed to be. rathjen_kent_2_200Even when whales did fight back, moreover, they did so in a predictable, time-honored fashion—with their jaws and tails. But this whale had rammed the ship with its head—not once but twice—and had gnashed its teeth “as if distracted with rage and fury,” as first mate Owen Chase wrote in his account of the ordeal. Chase thought the whale’s behavior a result of cool reasoning, that it had attacked the ship in the manner “calculated to do us the most injury,” knowing that the combined speeds of two objects would be greatest in a head-on collision and the impact therefore most destructive. The image of the enraged, vengeful whale is the cornerstone of Moby Dick, of course. It’s what lies behind Ahab’s quest and his obsession, a point so obvious that it only needs to be made in passing. (“To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous,” says Starbuck, but mostly so that Ahab can answer, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”) Ahab regards Moby Dick much as the crew of the Essex seem to have viewed the whale that attacked them, as a creature capable of rational action. One of the fascinating questions Philbrick raises, though, if only by implication, is where so weirdly modern a notion could possibly have come from. The Nantucketers who had harvested whales for generations, he points out, saw their vocation as part of the Divine Plan. But to ascribe rage to an object of one’s own aggression is to come perilously close to admitting a sense of guilt. You cannot, after all, discern anger or moral outrage in a fellow being unless you also grant it a point of view. Iam on something of a Melville kick just now. It started back in the summer when I went to see A Perfect Storm. That put me in a really foul mood, and I had to rent the Huston Moby Dick as an antidote. Not that I held any brief for Sebastian Junger’s book—I hadn’t read it. There are just certain themes and tropes that I expect to be moved by, and when I’m not, I know I am in the presence of fools: scenes of someone pulling away from land while someone else is left on shore; a chorus of voices singing “For Those in Peril on the Sea”; shots of a wall of names; glimpses of Leonard Craske’s famous statue commemorating the fisherman of Gloucester. You know the one: doughty mariner at the wheel, braced against the wind and peering out into sea above a fragment of the 107th Psalm (“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in the great waters; These see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep….”). craskeA Perfect Storm had all of those elements, but it was imbued by a sort of “Wreck-of-the-Hesperus” mentality—the kind of thinking according to which, say, if the young lady lashed to the mast in the Longfellow poem had not been possessed of “a bosom white as the hawthorne buds that ope in the month of May,” the whole incident would have been somehow less worthy of our attention. This was a movie that thought the Gloucester men lost at sea in a 1991 hurricane had to be played by movie stars like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in order for us to take an interest in them. It assumed that in order for their story to be tragic or poignant it would have to be established that one of them had a girlfriend and a mother who were going to miss him, that another one had a little boy who would be sad without his daddy, that a third, who never seemed to have much luck with women, had (irony of ironies) just met one with whom things might have worked out. I couldn’t understand it. How could you make a sea-disaster story so unutterably boring—particularly one based on a real-life incident? “Truth is boring,” said a friend, and I had no answer. It was only later that I realized what I ought to have said: “Truth is never boring; that’s reality you’re thinking of.” APerfect Storm got me started on Melville, but there were other things. I read the Philbrick book. Then Elizabeth Hardwick’s Melville entry in the Penguin Lives series came out, and a friend whose eyesight is going and who was listening to a recording of Moby Dick suggested that listening to the novel was actually the best way to experience it. So I did, and I found that she was right: that because it takes longer to hear things than it does to read them, images and phrases linger on in the mind, making more of an impression, so that you’re in a better position to see connections and confluences. It has something to do with the physics of time, sound, memory, and imagination. Finally, there was Rinde Eckert’s intriguing music-theater piece And God Created Great Whales, which swung through New York a couple of times. It concerned a brilliant but maimed and narcissistic piano tuner trying to write an opera based on Moby Dick, and it was striking for the way it heaped ridicule on such a foolish idea and at the same time succeeded in translating the intellectual impulse that Moby Dick is about into a piece of musical theater. It offered the same juxtaposition of human aspiration with human frailty. Eckert’s piano tuner (he sang the role himself) had immortal longings, but he also had a degenerative disease that entailed progressive memory loss. Consequently, he couldn’t remember from one moment to the next what he was writing, had written, or had been planning to write. He had a tendency to go off the deep end, so to speak, careening off into some never-never land of passionate philosophical musing or theoretical arcana. Fortunately, he had a muse, half imagined, half remembered—a retired diva he’d once known, who had perhaps loved him or whom he perhaps had loved—and she usually managed to put him back on track. The whole thing was cyclical, or nonlinear anyway, going back and forth between tape recorded messages the composer had left for himself and scenes from the opera that he was trying to write. And God Created Great Whales was part satire and part serious meditation on creation and creative failure. It was about a man who threatened his own muse, and it asked whether this is an act of heroism or folly. Eckert’s composer was destroying Moby Dick in trying to adapt it—not because he didn’t understand the novel but because of the nature of art. And watching Eckert go back and forth between imagining Ahab and impersonating him, one gradually understood the tragedy in the composer-hero’s predicament: his nagging fear that what makes something operatic is also what makes it trite. This is actually the point that Melville makes time and time again in the digressive sections of the novel (and what comes across when you listen to a recording). The definitions and catalogs and histories and phylogenies that have led students and critics of Melville to wonder if he was quite in his right mind are ultimately all about the impossibility of telling the story, of painting an accurate picture of the truth. There’s an extraordinary illustration in Philbrick’s book: an 18th-century map of the Island of Nantucket that, Philbrick points out, against all accuracy makes the harbor into the shape of a whale. Actually, there are two whales in the picture: the island itself forms another. It’s an index of how far Nantucketers allowed the specter of the whale to obsess them—they literally recast their own world in its image. They also imitated it themselves, unconsciously. One of Philbrick’s most telling insights concerns the way in which the society that whaling created—with its cycles, its matriarchal structure, and its long, long stretches of male absenteeism—perfectly mirrored the natural movements of whales themselves.moby_1 Is Moby Dick Ahab’s muse or his nemesis? Does the blasphemy consist in making the whale human, or is it the other way around? And God Created Great Whales pokes fun at creative impulses; at the same time, it has great sympathy for its protagonist. It’s as though Eckert were saying, “Yeah, trying to turn Moby Dick into an opera is dumb, maybe. But it’s better than not having the urge to turn Moby Dick into an opera.” The attempt results in some foolish moments; it also produces moments of great beauty that may or may not owe anything to Melville. I’ve always had a soft spot for the John Huston version of Moby Dick. Most of my favorite bits never occur in the book at all: the prophecy, the wonderful scene where another captain begs Ahab to suspend the hunt and help search for his lost son instead, the scene where Queequeg comes out of his trance because someone is threatening Ishmael. None of that stuff is in the book. I don’t care. I love it. What I love best, though, is something that is in the book, only in a different form. It’s what was lacking in that silly George Clooney movie—so much so that one can understand Billy Tyne’s family wanting to sue the filmmakers. They’re absolutley right. They’re saying the movie version of A Perfect Storm turned Billy Tyne into Ahab, but without giving us any inkling of the forces driving him on. For that you have to go to the John Huston film. You see it on the face of an old sailor with a concertina, playing a few notes of a wistful air, and on the faces of the women standing on the dock as the Pequod pulls away—a sense of tragic inevitability.

New York Press, November 21, 2000


February 14, 2009   Comments Off on Imagining Ahab

Song Recycle

[From New York Press, January 7, 2003]

Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme
at the Broadway Theater

Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out
at the Richard Rodgers

For Pete’s sake, why all the fuss about the Baz Luhrmann La Boheme? You’d think that no one had ever thought of updating classical opera before, or casting “realistically” trim and youthful romantic leads. The production, currently at the Broadway Theater, which brings the action forward to the 1950s, opened earlier this month to reviews that ranged from the rhapsodic to the studiously excited. Only Michael Feingold in the Village Voice had the taste and good sense to recognize it for what it is, “a well-meaning and conventional little event.”

Actually, it’s a reconstituted version of a well-meaning and conventional little event, a staging by Luhrmann and his wife, the designer Catherine Martin, from more than a decade ago. Created in 1990 for Opera Australia, it has been filmed and is broadcast from time to time on public television. I’ve happened on it myself two or three times. The first time I was transfixed. But that’s a long time ago now, and nothing stinks like old directorial “concepts.” In that production, moreover, Mimi and Rodolfo were sung, respectively, by the London soprano Cheryl Barker and an Australian tenor named David Hobson, two artists whose musical chops excelled even their striking good looks. For Broadway Luhrmann has assembled an “international” cast that includes three different Mimi–Rodolfo pairs, two Musettas and two Marcellos. Some of these, like the Marcello I saw (Eugene Brancoveanu), and like the singers who play Rodolfo’s other two flatmates (Daniel Webb and Daniel Okulitch), may be perfectly good actors with perfectly good instruments.

But the Mimi I saw, a Russian soprano named Ekaterina Solovyeva, looked (in her Act I trenchcoat and bad platinum wig) like character in a Saturday Night Live sketch—and seemed about as fragile. She had a tendency to stagger forward unconvincingly every time she coughed, bending at the waist and clutching her stomach like one suffering from acute gastric distress rather than consumption. As for David Miller, her Rodolfo, it would be hard to envision a more wooden performer.

Ironically, though, the main drawback to this Boheme may arise from its chief asset. Ms. Martin’s scenery, of which there is plenty, seems to have created a rather serious acoustical problem; this, in turn, is exacerbated by a sound system so poorly designed (or manned) that voices not only appear separated from their point of origin but also, at crucial points in the score, from each other. I heard the opera from two rows in front of the balcony overhang, and the night I attended the children’s chorus seemed disembodied and off-key; and during all of those heart-rending melodic juxtapositions between the two pairs of lovers, what Mimi and Rodolfo were singing sounded miles away from what Musetta and Marcello were singing.

Elsewhere, the production is peppered with arresting if familiar images, chief among them that of the two leads embracing before Luhrmann’s signature “L’Amour” sign. All of which is to say that Luhrmann’s Puccini is much like his Shakespeare was with respect to acting (his Romeo + Juliet starred those giants of classical acting, Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s full of clever visuals and fine as long as you don’t care at all about the music.

Luhrmann has stated over and over again that his purpose in mounting this production was to make the opera more “accessible” to young audiences. That seems like humbug. It would be hard to think of an opera more innately accessible than Boheme, whose plot was almost universally familiar even before Rent, and whose score would evince emotion in a fish—even one with no knowledge of Italian. The libretto becomes no more or less accessible for being set in the bohemia of 1950s Paris than that of 1830s Paris. It’s far more likely that Luhrmann resurrected this production so as to squeeze every last penny out of it, capitalizing on the unaccountable success of his Moulin Rouge, another period extravaganza set in artistic Paris.

High art and popular culture really meet in Movin’ Out, Twyla Tharp’s electrifying new full-length ballet at the Richard Rodgers. Built around a score made up entirely of songs by the pop balladeer Billy Joel, the show isn’t so much an attempt to popularize the form of ballet as it is a statement about “high” and “low” art and part of an ongoing dialogue Tharp has been having with her audience for decades.

It’s an example of what Tharp has termed “crossover” ballet, a form she helped to invent, and which she has been exploring since the early 70s when she galvanized the dance world with a piece for the Joffrey Ballet called Deuce Coup, choreographed to Beach Boys songs. Since then, Tharp has created ballets using ragtime, jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley standards and new-wave rock, and juxtaposed classical and baroque music with contemporary dance idioms—all partly with a view to suggesting that demarcations between “serious” and popular forms are artificial and limiting in terms of what we allow ourselves to derive from art.

Joel seems at first glance an unlikely collaborator for Tharp. For one thing, he’s not a songwriter of the first water. He’s not a gifted lyricist or melodymaker. For another, he takes himself very seriously as a musician and a composer. Unlike Elton John, the pop singer-songwriter to whom he is most frequently likened (the two are actually touring together just now), Joel has pretensions. His last album, a selection of classical pieces, some of which are used in Movin’ Out, is on sale in the theater lobby: it uses the old Schirmer’s trademark—the narrow green-black lettering and laurel-leaf border stamped on bright matte gold—for its cover art. It doesn’t allude to the design or incorporate it into some piece of original artwork, it simply reproduces it.

This is essentially Joel’s approach to songwriting. The doo-wop stuff, the pseudo-classical pieces, the hard rock anthems, the soft rock ballads, the Springsteen imitations—24 of which are performed, in Movin’ Out, by a ten-man band (led by Michael Cavanaugh at evening performances and Wade Preston at matinees) from a hydraulic lift that spans the stage—it’s all pastiche but without the wit and knowingness that would make it artful. (This is a man who sets lyrics to the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique.”) Joel is like a comic whose repertoire consists of doing impressions of other comedians. He can mimic. What’s missing is the impulse to comment and transform, to offer esthetic input. In this, he couldn’t be more unlike Tharp, who quotes others (and sometimes herself) for the purpose of saying something new.

In fact, one of the remarkable aspects of Movin’ Out is the way in which Tharp, consciously or not, manages to use Joel’s essential mediocrity—drawing on his banality and his propensity for cliché—so as to create places where the form of dance can supply a subtext. Essentially, what Tharp has done is to fashion out of an array of seemingly hackneyed tropes and images from American popular culture (many of them supplied or exemplified by Joel) a narrative that serves the purpose of dance the way certain age-old stories and popular legends served earlier choreographers. She weaves a generic narrative—a familiar, almost boilerplate Vietnam-era story of youthful idealism, disillusion, loss, and restoration—around a set of characters whose names are culled from Joel’s lyrics, who come from his hometown of Hicksville, Long Island, and who metaphorically live their lives against a backdrop of his songs.

Tharp doesn’t make her narrative conform to Joel’s lyrics, though. Her use of the songs is tremendously varied. Rarely do the lyrics actually reflect what a character might be feeling, and they almost never correspond directly to the action. More often, Tharp is content to have what’s happening onstage bounce glancingly off the subject or mood of a song, making contact at only one or two points. Sometimes a song will offer an ironic contrast with what is happening in the story. At one point Tharp uses a love song (“She’s Got a Way”) objectively, as music that’s actually playing while characters are literally dancing. We can’t help noting the contrast between the vacuousness of the lyric and the very real poignancy of what is happening onstage, in which characters thousands of miles apart, separated by war, are dancing with people they don’t know and don’t care about while thinking about each other.

The show is almost completely dialogue-free. The “libretto” resides in the conjunction between what we see and what we hear. What makes Movin’ Out Tharp’s show rather than Joel’s, however, is not this or the fact that of the two casts who dance the principal roles the first is made up entirely of dancers from her own company (Ashley Tuttle, Benjamin Bowman, Elizabeth Parkinson, Keith Roberts and John Selya) or the set by Tharp’s longtime collaborator, Santo Loquasto, but the degree to which, like most of Tharp’s work, it’s about dance itself.

Superficially, Movin’ Out is about Eddie, his girlfriend Brenda, his pals James and Tony, and James’ girlfriend Judy. Brenda dumps Eddie and goes off to find herself while James and Judy get engaged. Brenda reencounters Tony and takes a second look at him. But then the boys go off to war. James is killed in combat trying to look out for Eddie and Judy is left grieving. Eddie and Tony come back from overseas transformed. Tony, violent and uncommunicative, enters into an abusive relationship with Brenda while Eddie hits bottom, hanging out on skid row with drunks and junkies, shooting up a lot. None of this is remotely interesting, but none of it is remotely important either. What infuses the piece with meaning and drama are Tharp’s departures from the balletic structures and forms she has used to tell the story. What happens to the characters isn’t the point. What’s important is what happens to the way they dance.

This manifests itself in terms of the three things that Movin’ Out is more fundamentally about. They’re the three things that more than anything else absorbed the generation that came of age in the 60s: growing up, Vietnam, and “relationships”—not love but literally relationships. The politics of partnering—how to be free, who was more important, where would the power lie? There’s a three-way pun in the title. The title song is about a young man leaving home to start life on his own.

And it seems such a waste of time
If that’s what it’s all about
Mamma, if that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out.

The title phrase has a military sense, though, too. (One speaks of troops “moving out.”) It could also evoke the end of a relationship.

Reviews of the ballet, when it first opened, took gentle exception to the fact that Tharp doesn’t provide an explanation for the breakup that takes place during the first number. I thought she made it perfectly clear in the language of dance why the relationship founders. Both characters regard themselves as soloists—the man, Eddie, in particular. He’s thoroughly involved in his own heroic moves. As performed by John Selya, the extraordinary young dancer who plays the role in the evening cast, Eddie is epic, mesmerizing, Baryshnikov-like. But he never looks at Brenda when she dances. This is bad etiquette from a balletic standpoint. Courtesy demands that the traditional hero and heroine of romantic ballet take delight in one another’s virtuosity. That is, after all, what each is falling in love with in the other. If we didn’t know that going into the performance, we learn it from the couple who dance primarily in the language of the classical pas de deux. James never takes his eyes off Judy. Tharp seems to have given Eddie a vocabulary that precludes partnering. No wonder Brenda ditches him.

By the same token, Brenda seems drawn to Tony because his idea of partnering demands input from her. He wins her with a kind of challenge step. It’s a device you see a lot in backstage musicals. One dancer improvises a fancy step that the other picks up. The first dancer is impressed and this creates heat. Then the second dancer does a fancier step that the first has to pick up. More heat. My sense was that by not offering a motivation for the breakup that could be read on any other plane, Tharp was forcing us into reading the choreography in a way we might otherwise have escaped having to do. Tony’s approach to wooing is fun because it’s competitive—almost combative—though ultimately about the joy of the dance; and that’s significant because of the way Tony dances when he’s alone. Movements of Tony’s that start classically tend to turn martial halfway through. With the advent of the real war that Tony naively fantasizes about, the joy disappears from the idea of conflict, and a different style takes over, one that marries Eddie’s epic prowess to Tony’s aggression. And this remains the dominant mode until the idea of the agon is resocialized in a grand, ecstatic pas de deux between Brenda and Tony.

Iasked a friend who had seen Movin’ Out to help me think of a word that would take into account the three notions of separation inherent in the show’s title—romantic, military, and parental. She asked if there wasn’t some word in one of the classical languages. I thought about it and said no, I didn’t think there was. Because separation anxiety isn’t an heroic concept. Maybe that’s the point. Movin’ Out, like the generation it chronicles, is really all about fear of growing up, fear of war, fear of relationships. The baby boomers were an unheroic generation—anti-heroic, if you choose to be kind.

If you want to be really kind, you could say that they were the generation that sought to make self-indulgence and navel-gazing themselves heroic, to ennoble alienation and self-involvement by experiencing them on a grand scale. There’s a sense in which Tharp’s choreography picks up on this, too. Not that there’s any navel-gazing in the ballet, heroic or otherwise. What’s heroic is the dancing, particularly Eddie’s. And it’s chiefly embodied in Selya’s performance. It reaches its pinnacle, though, where Eddie is at his most abject, when the joyous moves that defined his narcissism and ability to revel in self-love morph into drug-addled disconnectedness.

Make no mistake: Movin’ Out isn’t The Deer Hunter or The Things They Carried. But it’s for an audience that has internalized The Deer Hunter, The Things They Carried, and other keynotes of popular culture—novels like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, movies like Who’ll Stop the Rain, Coming Home, and The Big Chill, songs like “White Rabbit” and “Sam Stone”—to such an extent that they have become a part of that society’s experience of itself.

And that, in the end, is the difference between Baz Luhrmann and Twyla Tharp. For all his self-righteous high moral tone, Luhrmann, who reminds us in his program notes that grand opera was the television of its day, and that one should only hear it in the original Italian, doesn’t really care about the audience for opera or Puccini. If he did, he would never condescend to us by cluttering up the production with supertitles in funky typefaces intended to indicate the tone of every utterance. He would not capitalize on our ignorance by directing the scene where Mimi and Rodolfo hunt for her key as though the verb “to search” (cercare) were synonymous with the verb “to gaze” (guardare). (“Are you looking,” Mimi asks? “I’m looking,” he sings, eyes fixed on her so that the audience laughs knowingly.)

Luhrmann can patronize us because he thinks the populace needs him to interpret high art for us. Tharp is probably incapable of condescending to either her audience or her material (she may even like Billy Joel) because she doesn’t see “high” and “low” art as adversarial or distinct. In Tharp’s estimation—and this is the whole point of Movin’ Out, really, and what makes it the intellectual feel-good hit of the season—art and popular culture are interdependent. In the words of a sticker I once saw in the offices of this august publication, “Without pop culture, there can be no culture.”

February 12, 2009   Comments Off on Song Recycle

Family Fare

Arecent encounter with the first half-hour or so of Jane Eyre, The Musical put me in mind of the 1857 murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. (The connection won’t immediately be apparent.) A friend with a professional interest in seeing the show had asked me along, and since she’d paid for the tickets and wanted to leave, we did—well before the act break—driven out by the inexorable staccato of the leading lady’s enunciation.
The show had not been exceptionally or unexpectedly appalling, but it made you realize that it’s possible to get anything produced on Broadway these days, provided it has a child in it. Absolutely anything. People are desperate to get their offspring out of the house, and anything with a kid in it is considered family fare.

This re-emergence of the child as live attraction may be a by-product of the current baby boom. But it has its roots, I think, in the Burdell affair and its aftermath. That’s really where the great show-business tradition of exploiting children for profit begins. The Burdell case is one of my very favorite New York murder stories—about a woman who, having killed a man in cold blood, had the audacity to lay claim to his estate as his wife. She was not his wife. But having been arrested, imprisoned, and charged with his murder, she purported to be pregnant with his child. She was not pregnant with his child—or anyone’s. But having been tried and acquitted, she carried on with the charade, trying to persuade even her own doctor that she was soon to give birth to the murdered man’s heir.

The best account of the Burdell affair is to be found in Murder Won’t Out, Russel Crouse’s wonderful 1932 anthology of unsolved New York homicides, but I first stumbled on it in a book by Jack Finney (of Time and Again) called Forgotten News, which said that on a cold winter’s morning in 1857 a rather unlikable dentist named Burdell had been found murdered in his home at 31 Bond Street. It was not possible to determine the precise cause of death (Burdell had been strangled first and then stabbed fifteen times, apparently in places where it counted) but suspicion fell on Emma Cunningham, a young widow who had been residing in his house for more than a year.

Mrs. Cunningham, to whom Dr. Burdell actually leased the premises at 31 Bond, had for some time been carrying on a not-very-clandestine affair with the doctor. It was a volatile romp, now on, now off. She had marital designs. The two had met at a resort and formed an acquaintance that, back in New York, Mrs. Cunningham had strengthened along with her teeth by going to see him in a professional capacity. She had five children, two boys around eight and nine, and three teenage girls. The whole passel of them wound up moving in with Dr. Burdell, with Mrs. Cunningham eventually taking over the lease from a previous landlady.

The Cunninghams and Dr. Burdell never lived as a family, exactly, though now and then he seems to have shared the widow’s board as well as her bed. At a certain point, though, relations seem to have gone awry. There was an incident with a fetus that either miscarried or, as Cunningham later claimed, was aborted (a procedure she said Burdell had both demanded and performed) and a couple of lawsuits. Burdell began to be heard vilifying Mrs. Cunningham, saying he wished she didn’t live at 31 Bond Street and that he feared for his life.

She seems to have been a piece of work, a creature in whom a seemingly endless capacity for guile was mingled with chronic ineptitude. In various unsubtle ways she set about alienating Burdell from his friends and acquaintances, particularly other women, moved a number of longtime boarders out and a couple of her own associates in, had him arrested for breach of promise and—when he countersued, claiming she had stolen back her promissory note for the year’s rent—for slander; all of which led to a settlement and an uneasy truce, broken only by the murder. Now Mrs. Cunningham came forward with the announcement that she and the doctor had been secretly wed some months before.

She had, in fact, been secretly married to someone. In late October of the previous year a man with a beard and a tendency not to meet one’s eye had shown up at 623 Greenwich Street, home of the Rev. Uriah Marvin, and arranged a wedding for the following day. The ceremony had been performed, Dr. Marvin officiating and one of the daughters bearing witness, but whether Mrs. Cunningham had married Dr. Burdell or another occupant of 31 Bond posing as Dr. Burdell was a matter that the minister would later keep changing his mind about. Mrs. Cunningham’s claim on Dr. Burdell’s $100,000 estate was turned over to the Surrogate. Meanwhile, she was arrested and tried for murder. She got off, owing largely to the fact that the coroner had gathered too much (i.e., conflicting) information.

The likelihood that Mrs. Cunningham was Burdell’s widow had been somewhat undercut by the groom’s failure to point out the misspelling of his name on the marriage license. (It appeared as “Berdell.”) Possibly it was with a view to improving the Surrogate’s opinion of her that Mrs. Cunningham embarked on the pregnancy ploy. But Mrs. Cunningham’s doctor ratted her out to the district attorney, a man named A. Oakey Hall, who was to become a member of the infamous Tweed ring and mayor of New York.

He was, it appears, no ordinary prosecutor but something of an impresario manqué, a man who today might have made a name for himself as a minor auteur, producing straight-to-video movies, say, or reality television. “A lifelong lover of the arts,” according to American National Biography, Hall had moved to New York in 1848 “to take advantage of Gotham’s cultural opportunities.” By 1851, he was contributing whimsical little pieces to something called The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science. One of these, a work of dramatic criticism, is entirely written in the voice of a lorgnette.

Hall proposed to Mrs. Cunningham’s physician, one Dr. David Uhl, that they collaborate on a complicated sting operation. He suggested that the doctor play along with Mrs. Cunningham, pretending to be in league with her, all the while reporting back to him. Mrs. Cunningham had asked Uhl to help her procure an infant that she might pass off as her own. She had, she said, $2000 to spend—half for him and half for the baby’s family. Hall told the doctor to go ahead and locate a suitable baby. In the charity wards at Bellevue a woman was found who was willing to be separated from her newborn child for a single night in exchange for a thousand dollars.

Hall’s plan involved stringing along Mrs. Cunningham—who at that point was claiming the birth to be almost imminent—for several weeks. While she strove to build up an illusion of gravidity (simulating cravings and nausea, expressing anxiety about whether she would go to term) Hall invented an elaborate cover story to explain how a complaisant mother had been found so easily: she could be a “California widow”—a woman anxious to remove the evidence of an ill-timed pregnancy achieved while her husband had been off panning for gold.

Hall also hired his brother-in-law from upstate, another doctor, whose role in the masquerade would be to transport the baby to 31 Bond. At Hall’s instigation, the two physicians scoured the Lower East Side for an apartment in which they might pretend this fictional mother was about to give birth. On Elm Street (now Elk Street) they found a wine-and-beer merchant with a set of rooms to let. Hall not only rented the rooms on Elm Street, he had them furnished and filled with props. He even brought in a Spring Street pharmacist to play the mother, when Mrs. Cunningham came by Elm Street at one point,  and the fellow put on a frilly cap and simulated birth pangs heroically from the bed.

To make a long story short, the police totally nailed it, and everything went off like clockwork. They let the baby arrive and be admitted to the house. Then before you could say “fallopian tube” they were up the front steps of No. 31 and in the door. Hall’s brother-in-law later claimed that on confronting Mrs. Cunningham he even remembered to say, “Do you claim this child as the child of Harvey Burdell?” to which he said she replied, “Of course—whose else should it be?” And that was it—busted.

Mrs. Cunningham, though arrested that night, was apparently never prosecuted for the Bogus Baby escapade. So it seems as if all that Hall had wanted was to put on a big show. In later years Hall himself would  be accused of fraud, but like Mrs. Cunningham would be acquitted. And though he would end his career in disgrace, he shares a biographer with Eugene O’Neill, which would no doubt have pleased him.

The baby in the case (and here is my point) wound up in Barnum’s American Museum, where it had a nice little run earning its mother $25 a week—Broadway’s first child star.

Incidentally, a No. 31 Bond Street still exists. Inside is a pretty little auditorium.

New York Press, March 20, 2001

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on Family Fare

Junk Geniuses

Icame straight home from The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg’s three-character play about the Collyer Brothers (at the Gramercy Theater through May 12) and threw out all the plastic shopping bags that had been mounting up in the pantry closet. Then I went at the piles of newspapers waiting to be gone through—two in the kitchen and three or four on the hallway bookcase. I was heading for another mound, on the living room futon, but got distracted by the laundry cart and sorted some socks instead. Such is the transforming power of art.

Greenberg’s play, which the Roundabout is presenting in a production directed by David Warren, is a sheer delight. A fanciful meditation on the legend of New York’s most famous recluse pair, it’s not so much based on their shared life together as it is inspired by the image of how they died, buried alive in their Harlem mansion under a lifetime’s worth of clutter and debris, victims of fatal paranoia and a pathological inability to throw anything out.

Greenberg goes back to a time before the Collyer boys were quite so peculiar, furnishing them with a putative youth and respectability. He also invents a woman (as in cherchez la) and a crisis (a marriage that never took place). The play is sort of an anti-period piece. It juxtaposes flagrant anachronisms (conversational and circumstantial) with tropes and figures from the fiction and drama of the first half of the last century. One brother, Langley (Reg Rogers), talks like a Wildean protagonist, the other, Homer (Peter Frechette), comes on like a character out of Noel Coward, while the woman (Francie Swift), a young heiress who attaches herself to the brothers for reasons of her own, seems at times like a heroine from one of Shaw’s pleasanter plays. Occasionally, the situation in he Dazzle calls to mind one of the triangular relationships in an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel. (More often, it doesn’t.) Out of this ragbag of literary forms, Greenberg emerges with a genre all its own—call it screwball tragedy.

In terms of the actual facts of the Collyers’ story, The Dazzle plays fast and loose with recorded history. Matters of which brother seems to have been the caregiver at what point in their lives, where and when they died, at what ages, how, in what order, and in what sort of physical state and proximity to each other—all these were aspects of the affair that shocked the public or fed speculation when the story broke in 1947, as did the bizarre manner in which the brothers had been living. (A more serious historical account of the case can be found in The Collyer Brothers of Harlem, William Bryk’s 1998 “Old Smoke” column in New York Press.)

The truth is considerably more horrific and peculiar than Greenberg makes out. But as a program note makes clear, he isn’t all that interested in the historical Homer and Langley Collyer. He’s interested in what the haunting specter of their life together can be made to represent for us. The play is a meditation on two types of neurosis that feed off each other. Greenberg’s Langley is an artist of the helpless-genius variety, a gifted pianist whose career is derailed by his own refusal or inability to behave according to conventional expectation, whether meeting concert obligations or playing a familiar piece of music at a reasonable tempo. Overwhelmed by the big picture, Langley fixates on minutiae—a hair, a thread, a leaf, a fraction of a tone—which he seems able to lament or contemplate endlessly. In his brother’s diagnosis, he’s simply unable to let the notes go. It’s a lovely conceit (not to mention an intriguing if somewhat poeticized vision of anal retentiveness). Rogers has been rightly praised for his portrayal of Langley, whose lines he intones with an adenoidal languor that suggests a reluctance to part with even the breath it takes to utter them. But it’s Frechette’s Homer—his inability to leave is the other half of the story—who really breaks your heart.

The real-life Langley Collyer actually was a concert pianist, but making him a genius was Greenberg’s idea. That part is pure invention, and it makes The Dazzle the latest in a recent spate of movies about intellectual prodigies. I wouldn’t have noticed this if Ben Brantley hadn’t made the connection in his review of Greenberg’s play; I was busy tracking tales of scientists and mathematicians, which seem to be unusually plentiful of late: Darren Aronofsky’s offbeat thriller Pi (about an obsessive math/computer whiz); Michael Frayne’s Copenhagen (about the Nobel physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg); David Auburn’s Proof (about the brilliant daughter of a University of Chicago mathematician), which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama last year; Peter Parnell’s QED (about another Nobel physicist, the American Richard Feynman). And, of course, there’s the Hollywood blockbuster A Beautiful Mind, about the Princeton mathematician John Forbes Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia for much of his adult life and in 1994 won a Nobel Prize in economics for a paper on game theory produced forty-five years before. American popular culture would seem to be going through one of its periodic love affairs with intellect just now.

It’s always nice to see a high value placed on intelligence (it happens rarely enough), but some of these plays and movies seem to worship genius without really knowing why. I recently caught up with QED, which reopened at Lincoln Center in February after a two-month hiatus, and found it mildly cringe-making. Ostensibly based on Feynman’s own writings (the program credits a book he co-authored called Tuva or Bust!), it takes place in a single evening in which the physicist is trying to decide whether to undergo a particularly risky form of surgery that may finish him off or may trounce a cancer that has been diagnosed as inoperable. Mostly, the play consists of Feynman talking to the audience, sharing hopes and dreams and memories, reminiscing about the heady days at Los Alamos working on nuclear fission, playing phone tag with various physicians, and voicing the odd qualm about the moral rightness of having helped to build the bomb. Except for a couple of interruptions from a student (Kellie Overbey), nothing else happens. Since nothing Feynman says or does offers a window onto what is supposed to be an uncommon mind, the impression left by the play is that we’re to take an interest in this man because he is super-smart and because he may be dying.

Proof is similarly frustrating for anyone who approaches it expecting to gain insight into the beauties of higher mathematics—the more so because its protagonists are constantly alluding to them. There’s endless talk in the play about the “elegance” of a particular mathematical proof whose authorship is in question, but Auburn makes no attempt to explore what that means. What does “elegance” in a mathematical proof consist of? And how does it relate to other brands of human endeavor? We’re never told, just as we’re given no inkling as to how the formal mathematical proof reflects the beauty of the world or the poetry of human and divine intelligence.

What if the heroine of Auburn’s play were not a “genius”? If it turned out that she hadn’t written the amazingly brilliant proof found in her late father’s papers, would the years she’d lost looking after him be less wasted and poignant? Would her plight—the fact that her sister has sold the house and that she fears she’ll go crazy just like Dad—be deemed less interesting or important? That seems to be the implication.

In Copenhagen, Frayn used the mysterious and much-pondered wartime meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg to suggest how essentially unknowable human motivation is—as “unmappable” as anything in the behavior of the atomic particles whose observation inspired Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thoughtful people may differ as to the moral implications of this idea—and they have differed about it, particularly in recent weeks (in The New York Review of Books, mostly) with the release of certain papers bearing on the subject of the play. What is never in any doubt is the impulse behind it: Frayn’s fascination with quantum mechanics and his interest in locating in its theories a metaphor for human action and experience. What gives plays like QED and Proof the patina of literature is the reverence they evince for the idea of ideas. In fact, these plays couldn’t be less interested in imponderables or abstractions.

Ron Howard’s biopic about John Nash doesn’t get any nearer to the essence of the latter’s genius, but it does have one thing going for it, which is the expression of paranoid delusions in terms of a Cold War spy thriller. In Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay, Nash’s delusions partly take the form of very real fantasies about being recruited into the Secret Service. Nash’s actual real-life delusions were antigovernment and nonpatriotic (he spent some of his worst years living in Europe trying to relinquish his citizenship and to get the bewildered representatives of European officialdom to offer him political asylum) but that’s no more relevant than the content of his ravings, anti-Semitic or not, or his early sexual ambivalence, real or perceived (both of which were much discussed in the media in the weeks leading up to the Oscars). What’s clever about the spy conceit is the way it forces us to experience the plight of delusion ourselves. Because Nash’s fantasies take the form of familiar genre tropes, until we begin noticing the wit behind Ed Harris’s deadpan performance as an OSS mystery man, we believe in them too.

A couple of times, Howard uses cinematic gimmickry to probe into the nature of Nash’s ideas and quality of mind. In one scene, we watch a set of choreographed arrows head…now for a sultry blonde…and now away from her. (This is Howard and Goldsman’s attempt to explain something called the Nash Equilibrium.) There’s also a sequence in which Russell Crowe (playing Nash) demonstrates to Jennifer Connelly (playing his bride-to-be) that there is no shape or object which he cannot find in the multitude of stars. Crowe lifts his finger to the heavens and charts a course, and—voila!—a line of stars lights up in the shape Connelly has named, embarrassingly like something in a PowerPoint presentation. The scene is oddly distasteful. It’s pure Disney, for one thing. But it’s also unsettling since Nash’s ability to see things that aren’t there is his whole problem.

Or, rather, it is and it isn’t. A Beautiful Mind, which sets out to celebrate Nash’s triumph over schizophrenia, is itself of two minds about madness. It needs for madness to be a bad thing—in order for Nash’s redemption and rehabilitation to seem meaningful—but it also wants it to be a metaphor for creativity. The movie wants us to see Nash as an artist, possibly because that’s how Howard sees himself. What else is the artist if not he who reimagines the world in visions of his own devising?

It’s probably impossible for the stage and cinema not to glamorize craziness, given that—like plays and movies themselves—craziness brings forth images that aren’t there. Drama makes us see things, which is one reason why theater (from a Greek verb meaning “to see”) has traditionally been the best medium for exploring it.

Alone of the recent plays and movies about mind and madness, The Dazzle chooses to glamorize neither. It’s what gives the play, for all its hijinks, a flavor of tragedy. Greenberg doesn’t value brilliance per se, but he manages to convey some inkling of what it means to have transcendent thoughts. There’s a wonderful speech, one of two from which the play derives its title, in which Langley describes a piece of string that he’s kept since infancy. “I first saw this when I was in my crib,” he murmurs lovingly: “I looked up—and saw it—it was—dazzlingly colored—nothing is ever lost on me, nothing ever leaves—it was the first thing of its kind I’d seen—and though I didn’t know about words yet, I wanted desperately to name it.” He goes on:

I remember the desperation…there were tears off to the left—a glittering of porcelain below—and a spoon with the sweet white was thrust into my mouth—and piano notes played in the next room—and everything was entirely itself, and all at the same time.

It’s a beautiful evocation of the piecemeal way an infant probably experiences the world. It also suggests the infantile selfishness of the career-neurotic, his naive willingness to feed off the love and goodwill of others. “All the frail, frail people with their iron imperatives,” Homer laments, in the other title speech, contemplating the spectrum of different types of nutcase “that modern life presents in such dazzling array.”

Oh, I mustn’t sit here, I must sit there; I can’t wash dishes, I’m afraid of foam; I couldn’t possibly work, I have a terror of energy—they’re everywhere, it seems: The People Who Simply Can’t. And they have a simple thing in common: they always get their own way.

And we romanticize and adore them.

New York Press, April 2, 2002

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on Junk Geniuses

The New Drag (And Why It Matters)

In the 1999 film adaptation of An Ideal Husband that recently came out on video, there’s a scene in which Lord Goring, the play’s hero, attends the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. All London seems to have turned out for the occasion, which ends with Wilde himself appearing in response to cries of “Author, author!” while Goring, played by Rupert Everett, looks on approvingly. The scene (invented by Oliver Parker, who wrote and directed) is metaphysically daunting: a Wilde character at the premiere of another of Wilde’s plays. Chronologically, it has an historical elegance. An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were both running in the West End at the time of Wilde’s arrest in 1895 for the crime of homosexuality.

Parker’s film isn’t, as far as I know, based on Sir Peter Hall’s 1992 London production of the play, but I doubt if it would have been made if Hall hadn’t revived interest in the play. New York audiences who saw Hall’s production on Broadway four years later, with Nicky Henson in the role of Lord Goring, will find it hard to understand how revelatory it was. As Goring in the original production, Martin Shaw had been got up to look exactly like Wilde. He’d comported himself like Wilde, too, intoning his lines with the sonorous languor we’ve learned to associate with Wilde’s own speech mannerisms. In New York, Henson just wore a fat-suit and a poppy or a lily (I forget which) and trotted out the stock figure of the stage-dandy. Parker’s film goes a long way toward restoring the central mechanism of Hall’s production by casting Everett in the role of Goring.

What had been brilliant about Hall’s conception was its recognition of the coded message in the play. Hall was mining a literary observation: two characteristics that Wilde’s most likable heroes share with their creator are a flair for aphoristic reversals and a fondness for pretending to be something they are not. Lord Darlington, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, pretends to be “wicked” and is really the best of fellows. Lord Goring, in An Ideal Husband, pretends to be trivial and ineffectual and is really serious and resourceful. When Hall showed us Goring recast in Wilde’s own image, the double meaning of the title became clear: an “ideal” husband, whatever else he might be, was arguably a bisexual one.

Both plays actually contained covert references to homosexuality. An Ideal Husband was just a little bit more opaque than Earnest. The subtext of Wilde’s effervescent comedy about a sober, respectable young man inventing a secret identity for himself so as to be able to disappear periodically to do who-knows-what, seems so patently obvious to us now, it’s hard to credit even Victorian audiences with missing it. (What can they have thought all that stuff about “Earnest in town and Jack in the country” and going “Bunburying” was all about?) Of course it was essential that the majority of Wilde’s contemporaries not get the joke. What Hall’s production of An Ideal Husband brought out, which had hitherto gone unnoticed, was that Wilde’s dramaturgy operated on two levels, relying on a potent literary device that amounted to a sort of moral “drag.”

Actually, it was more properly meta-drag. We now use the term “drag” mostly to mean people cross-dressing for non-artistic reasons—because they like to, because it’s funny or fun. But of course theatrical cross-dressing is as old as theater itself, because before the invention of the actress in the restoration period, characters of both sexes were played by males. (One theory is that “drag” referred to the long skirts that boys had to wear to indicate the gender of the characters they were playing.) What I’m calling meta-drag emerges with plays in which characters themselves were cross-dressing and the fundamental meaning of a play was dependent on the audience’s awareness that they were watching a male playing a female playing a male. A boy playing Ophelia in Shakespeare’s day was drag; a boy playing Rosalind or Viola disguised as a boy was meta-drag.

Wilde’s plays presented saints who purported to be sinners—or rather good men who liked to pretend to pretend to be bad. For Wilde’s protagonists, the affectation of affectation was a moral imperative given the institutionalized hypocrisy of society. On another level, they really were “sinners”—in society’s view—if you were hip enough to get the subtext.

Wilde didn’t invent meta-drag, but he seems to have invented the idea of applying it to non-gender-based antitheses—wicked or pretending-to-be-wicked, frivolous or affecting-a-pose-of-frivolity, affected or just saying that you were. (Years later, Joe Orton would invent a brand of comedy based on the premise that homosexuality doesn’t exist, but whose whole force and authority really relied on an audience’s knowledge that it does.) Exactly what makes meta-drag so potent and dangerous—and it almost can’t help being subversive—is a mystery. But no self-respecting culture can afford to be without it, particularly one (like ours) that’s stuck in the idea that theater is supposed to be realistic.

Our drama thinks that the only way for theater to arrive at truth is by saying things directly, a notion that Wilde’s protagonists tended to dismiss and his plays to refute. A culture without meta-drag or its equivalent is one whose theater (like ours) is going to be short on irony, ambiguity, metaphor, artifice, and moral complexity—all the things that great drama tends to revel in.

I remember some years ago having a worried conversation with a friend about what would happen to meta-drag now that there was no longer any real need for it. (My friend is fond of Ronald Firbank, another master of covert homosexual literature.) We actually discussed, though probably not seriously, which was more important: the ability to lead an openly gay life or a form of literature that gave rise to works of such complex reverberating genius.

In fact, what’s happened is that new forms of meta-drag have begun to emerge in the last few decades, very much on the Wildean model but using other binary oppositions—questions of humanity, race, identity, species, even ontology and metaphysics. You see it all over the place, any time an actor purports to play something an audience knows he is not. You saw it years ago in the sitcom episode in which the straitlaced neighbor played by the openly gay actress hit on a man who turned out to be gay. You saw it in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Carousel, in which Audra McDonald played Carrie Pipperidge, and she and Mr. Snow marched around lily-white New England attended by offspring of all different colors and races. You saw it in American Beauty, when the character played by Kevin Spacey repulsed an unlooked-for advance from the gay-bashing colonel played by Chris Cooper.

More recently, you saw it in Being John Malkovich in the scenes in which Malkovich was supposed to be playing someone else inhabiting his own body. There may even have been an element of meta-drag in the episode of The Sopranos in which Michael Imperioli came close to writing his own character out of the series.

Meta-drag, which is “non-vertical”—it creates links of a moral and thematic nature after the fashion of hypertext—makes us momentarily question what does or doesn’t matter or what might or might not be true. For a split second, some piece of knowledge that you knew you possessed but had forgotten because artistry—good acting or the compelling nature of the story—had made you oblivious to it (someone’s gender, the rumors about them, their racial background) flits through your mind. The thought it prompts is gone in a moment, but it leaves an afterimage.

Meta-drag thinks it’s important to remember that nothing is as simple as black-or-white, real-or-fictional, alien-or-human, crazy-or-sane. And, yes—as with the earlier meta-drag, the fundamental opposition lurking behind all these others is probably the primal old right-and-wrong opposition. But that would be boring to dwell on. That would be banal. So meta-drag dresses it up in all these other outfits, the more elaborate the better. That’s what those often dizzying degrees of reality are about: they’re fun and impressive. Also, there’s a moral truth they tend to reenact over and over, which is that when you expose one hypocrisy there’s always another ready to spring up and take its place.

New York Press, July 4, 2000

January 30, 2009   No Comments

Furniture Polish

[From New York Press, July 22, 2003]

What a piece of work is I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s one-hander about the German collector and transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. And what a piece of work was its subject, who survived Nazism and Communism—two of the most repressive regimes in modern history—and managed to keep faith with her chosen lifestyle while vastly improving her standard of living.

Between 1942 and her death last year, von Mahlsdorf—born Lothar Berfelde—amassed a small fortune’s worth of late-19th-century furniture and bric-a-brac, parlaying it into a private museum collection that she housed in the twenty-three-room, 18th-century manor house near East Berlin that she lived in for almost thirty years. There she ran a clandestine gay nightclub in the basement and with the fall of the Berlin Wall became a heroine of the newly resurgent gay community. Ultimately, she received the Order of Merit in recognition of her efforts and achievements in the field of furniture preservation.

Wright’s play is a bit of a puzzlement. The opening moments, in which we first glimpse Charlotte (as embodied by the actor Jefferson Mays) are riveting. Mays enters from stage left, a slim, sedate figure wearing a drab black housecoat and apron. Opening a door upstage, she appears to be walking into an empty room, but a step or two in, she stops and registers the presence of the audience. Her face lights up, and a self-conscious hand strays up to the strand of pearls at her neck. She opens her mouth to say something to us, then thinks better of it, turns on her heel, and goes back out the way she came. In a matter of seconds, Mays has managed to suggest a personality who is only ever really alive when holding court and a secret life that has to be got at indirectly, presumably by the play itself.

Unfortunately, I Am My Own Wife is less an examination of von Mahlsdorf’s life or character than an account of Wright’s attempts to gather material for a play about her. Von Mahlsdorf was no obscure figure by 1992, when Wright first learned of her existence from a journalist friend based in Berlin and contacted her with the idea of writing a play about her.

Wright traveled to Germany and visited the funiture museum, taping his thoughts, and getting the lay of the land. Back home, he wrote von Mahlsdorf a wide-eyed and effusive letter commending her on her furniture collection:

I must confess I was no less impressed by the mere fact of your survival. I grew up in the Bible Belt; I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich. The Nazis, and then the Communists? It seems to me, you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.

Wright proposed that he “continue to study” von Mahlsdorf’s life, pointing out that with her cooperation he might be able to secure funding for a play. (“As far as grant applications go,” he quipped, “forgive me, but from where I sit, you’re a slam dunk.”)

The trouble is not that Wright has included this in the play, but that it is the play. Cued by lighting changes, Mays shifts among personae as he recites the letters exchanged between Wright and his foreign correspondent pal, performs excerpts from the tapes Wright made of his observations, and impersonates Charlotte on her guided tours through the museum as well as in the taped interviews in which recounted to Wright the story of her life.

We hear about Lothar’s brutal Nazi of a father, who beat Lothar’s mother; we hear about how in 1943 Lothar went to stay with his Tante Luise, who raised horses on an estate in East Prussia and dressed like a man. We hear about how Tante Luise surprised him one day in the act of trying on a closet full of girls’ clothes, and how she gave him a copy of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Die Transvestiten along with her blessing.

We hear about Lothar’s narrow escape from death at the hands of an SS officer, and about Tante Luise whipping out a gun and chasing his father off the property when he showed up unexpectedly. We hear how at fifteen Lothar killed his father, beating his head in with a rolling pin; how at his sentencing he and his mother locked eyes in mutual understanding; and how his prison term was miraculously cut short by the Allied invasion. It is all absurdly swashbuckling, sentimental, and inconsistent.

We also hear about how in 1963, when a venerable gay bar dating from the time of Wilhelm II was to be closed down by the Communists and demolished, Charlotte thought to herself, “That is not good,” and bought the furnishings and reconstructed the bar in the basement of her museum.

And then came the wall. And for us here in Eastern Berlin, it was finished, gay life. The bars, closed. Personal advertisements in the newspaper, cancelled. No place to meet but the tramway stations and the public toilets…

So I thought to give homosexual women and men community in this house. Yes. It was a museum for all people, but I thought, “Why not for homosexuals?”… And there was over the bar an attic. When a boy or girl met a man, and wanted to go upstairs, they could. Two men, two girls, a boy and a girl—it did not matter….

And anyone with an interest in Sado-Masochism—whether it was two or four or six—could have the room to themselves for a few hours. Whips and things to beat on the behind.

“When the wall falls,” Mays tells us in Doug’s voice, “Charlotte tells me she had the only surviving Weimar Cabaret in all of eastern Germany.” (The stage directions in Wright’s script call for the actor playing Doug to speak “reverently—in hushed tones” at this point.)

Did Charlotte ever think to herself, “That is not good,” about any of the other things going on under “the two most repressive regimes the Western World has ever known”—the suppression of intellectual freedoms, the disappearance of the families and individuals whose heirlooms she somehow managed to acquire for her “museum,” the ruined lives of which those possessions were only the outward expression? Did Wright ever question her about such things? If so, he keeps remarkably quiet about it.

Shortly before the act break, Wright discovers what anyone with half a brain and a rudimentary knowledge of history will have assumed all along: that Charlotte’s much-vaunted “survival” was contingent on her having sold other people out—chiefly other homosexuals and, in one nauseating instance, an old friend and rival collector, who was, as it happens, a truly steadfast and courageous man.

Doug is devastated, though not in quite the right way or for quite the right reason. “So—at the end of the day what have I got?” he expostulates bitterly, seeing his play slip away. When his friend suggests that he go with the truth, he whines, “But I need to believe in her stories as much as she does! I need to believe that…Lothar Berfelde navigated a path between…the Nazis and the Communists—in a pair of heels.”

Putting aside the fact that Charlotte does not wear heels—that she never wore anything other than the drab uniform of a 1930s hausfrau—what kind of naif would believe there was no more to it than that? What kind of artist would not wish for there to be more? And what kind of moral idiot would equate an inability to post personals ads with people getting rounded up and shot or imprisoned?

Wright’s problem was not his lack of material but his own vacuousness, his pin-spot focus on identity politics to the exclusion of everything else. He seems perfectly content to make Charlotte the moral arbiter of her own story, buying into the notion that whatever she did, the mere fact of her having been a cross-dresser makes her admirable. Nowhere does he acknowledge that Charlotte did what she did out of self-preservation, not moral integrity—and to collect furniture.

Moisés Kaufman, who directed the play, specializes in this sort of reality-based theater. The two plays he is best known for, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, about the murder of Matthew Shepard, were similarly constructed from real-life sources: transcripts, conversations, interviews.

For a while I asked myself whether Wright’s play would have been any less offensive if he had actually put any work into it, if he had done anything more than apply for a grant, do a bit of traveling, and conduct a few superficial interviews, or if Kaufman had been able to help him shape a dramatic piece out of this material. I honestly don’t think it would. This is the story of a woman who thinks furniture, not people, worth saving, whose most profound relationships are with inanimate objects. Wright doesn’t see this, or if he does, it doesn’t strike him as worthy of comment.

Charlotte remains a cipher, as much in Mays’ performance as in Wright’s script. After those first moments, he does nothing to probe her pathological narcissism or her flights of self-invention, and nothing to suggest why Wright might have been so easily snowed by her. As for the score or two of other characters he plays, with one exception—the man Charlotte betrays—they are all fairly heavy-handed stereotypes. The only truly authentic aspects of the production are its surface elements—the decor (by Derek McLane) and effects. (There’s some nifty sound design by Andre J. Pluess and Benn Sussman that evokes echoes of music and weather and battles long past.)

Toward the end of the play, Wright has Doug describe a photograph that von Mahlsdorf sent him shortly before her death:

Lothar Berfelde at ten years old. He’s at the zoo in Berlin. He’s wearing a sailor suit, with a blue collar and matching cuffs… He’s on a bench. Sitting on either side of him, two tigers. Cubs, sure, but they’re still as big as he is. And they’re not fond of posing either. Their eyes are dangerously alert. At any moment they might revolt: they might scratch or bite. But Lothar has one arm around each tiger, and they’re resting their forepaws on his knees.

Wright has Doug pound home the allegorical meaning he detects in the snapshot: brave, fragile creature toughing it out between two bestial regimes. Amazingly, a blow-up of the photograph is on display in the theater lobby as the audience files out after the play; and almost everything in Wright’s description is either false or inaccurate. The little boy clearly loves having his picture taken. There’s no knowing what color his collar and cuffs are; it’s a sepia print. Wright doesn’t even get the animals right. They’re not tigers at all. I thought they looked like lion cubs, but whatever they are, they’re plainly used to being photographed with children. You never saw such relaxed, contented-looking creatures. They look positively sedated.

July 22, 2003   No Comments