Monday, April 30, 2007

And their stories all follow one line

Speaking of stories in the Times that made me a little bit crazy: Did you musical-theatre lovers read this article about the smearing, defeat and triumphant rise of Donna Murphy? I couldn't understand the impulse to dogpile on Murphy back when Wonderful Town was running. (I suppose Michael Riedel's habitual nastiness explains itself, but seriously, people: why you gotta hate?) I saw the show three times -- once during previews, and twice more over the next several months -- and Murphy went on every time. And she wasn't whispering, either; she gave a great performance each time I saw her. So it all seemed rather unfair from my admittedly limited perspective. And this account of the events only increases my sympathy for her -- especially the part about the miscarriages (although, really, is that any of my business?).

But what this article doesn't discuss is the role the Times played in the whole mess. Ben Brantley, never one to review an entire production when he can write a lopsided appreciation of its star, reviewed Wonderful Town as though Murphy's performance were the only reason to buy a ticket. It was a very valid reason, certainly; he wasn't wrong about that. But he hardly noticed that the show has two leads -- perhaps the Encores! concert was billed as a star vehicle for Murphy, but in reality the role of Eileen is just a smidge less central than that of Ruth, and Jennifer Westfeldt more than held her own. Brantley had little to say about her contribution (though he noted that she made a "charming" debut); the vast majority of his review was dedicated to worshipping at the feet of Donna. I admit, I was slightly less in love with Murphy's comedic stylings than Brantley was -- I was irritated by the way she delivered all of her dialogue out of one side of her mouth, in a style so mannered and "jokey" it made Roz Russell look like Olivia de Havilland. But Wonderful Town's dialogue isn't the point; if it were, they'd just revive My Sister Eileen and save some money. The book of the musical is corny and slapdash, the overall structure bizarre, and this revival's strength was in realizing that the first, best and only reason to revive Wonderful Town is Leonard Bernstein's score. So the orchestra took up most of the stage, to thrilling effect, while the scenery was as airy and insubstantial as the story itself.

Don't get me wrong, Murphy was fantastic, and if she stayed in the role another six months, I'd have gone back at least three more times just to watch her (and the terrific ensemble) perform "Conga!" and "Swing." (I couldn't bring myself to see, or hear, Brooke Shields's attempt to stop the show with those same numbers... Can anybody out there give me a report?) When this Avedon portrait appeared in The New Yorker, I tore it out and hung it over my desk, because it captures so perfectly the exhilaration of musical theatre at its best. (Have you ever seen a still image that seems to sing and dance so joyously?) But Murphy wasn't the only reason to see the show. (In fact, from what I heard, Linda Mugleston, her understudy, was terrific in the part -- I was kind of hoping to catch her at some point. But I saw Murphy every time.)

However, for better or for worse, people listen to Brantley, and if he says, "You must not miss [this star] in [this show]," they buy tickets, not to see that show, but to see that star. And if that star is out, they think they've thrown away their money. It would help matters if Broadway tickets weren't so exorbitantly priced, of course, but it would also help matters if people understood that the point of going to the theatre is that you are seeing a live event, different every night, and sometimes that means you see the understudy. (Which may not be so awful: you could be witnessing the debut of the next Shirley MacLaine!) And it would also help matters if Ben Brantley weren't so narrowly, sometimes disturbingly, focused on the leading ladies of whatever show he sees. (I mean, seriously.)

Wouldn't I love to see an honest discussion of all this in the NYT? Instead they gleefully tossed kindling on the fire with a shallow "investigation" of "Broadway's No-Show Business," written by Charles Isherwood and featured on the front page of the arts section. A bogus trend story! Just the voice of reason that was missing from the discussion of Murphy's supposed truancy.

The story now in question, though laudatory, is salted with more than a dash of insincerity; the Times and the press in general would like nothing better than to see the producers backing Murphy lose their shirts all over again. And I'm not expecting a departure from form in the forthcoming Lovemusik review.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Good Catholic girl

On Monday I read this. Before I even finished my coffee, I wrote this in reply. Because there are things other than theatre that I feel strongly about.

ETA: Also worth reading in the Times: This report on the very real phenomenon of "chemobrain."

Friday, April 27, 2007

Got glory all around him, yes he has

Spotted yesterday in my neighborhood: Brian Stokes Mitchell! I met the man once, years ago, when I happened to be passing the Ford Center (during the run of Ragtime) at just the moment he was stepping out of his car, and he was kind enough to pose for a photo with a young and starstruck me. (I made lots of copies of that photo, and in fact it's still hanging on my bedroom wall... but until Restricted View has access to a scanner, you'll just have to take my word for it.) More recently, I saw him on the street, dashing to his town car while I sat inside a nearby Starbucks. Of course, these sightings don't approach the excitement of seeing him onstage, which I do as often as possible. But passing him on the street, especially in my residential neighborhood, far from the theatre district, seems worth noting here, because the man is so prodigiously talented as a performer that it's a bit of a surprise to see him walking the earth like a mortal, with his disarmingly gentle manner and light speaking voice (and cute little kid!). I guess I assume that when he's not onstage he's in a closet somewhere, plugged in and recharging for his next performance. But there he was, walking around like any old boring, untalented dad. And there I was, casually walking past him like it wasn't totally the high point of my day.

Fun fact: The very first Broadway show I ever saw was Jelly's Last Jam, and by the time I saw it, original stars Gregory Hines, Tonya Pinkins and Keith David had been replaced by Stokes (then credited as "Brian Mitchell"), Phylicia Rashad and Ben Vereen. At the time I remember being excited about seeing Rashad, whom I knew from The Cosby Show; Ben Vereen, whom I knew from Zoobilee Zoo; and Savion Glover, whom I knew from Sesame Street -- in short, everyone but Stokes. But the seed was planted! (Incidentally, I highly, highly recommend the Jelly's OCR. What it lacks in Stokes it makes up for with plenty of Gregory Hines. I like it better every time I listen to it, and that's often.)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Getting them in the right order is just as important.

Yesterday's post about Middlemarch gave me an excuse to pick up my own dogeared, scribbled-in paperback copy. I read the novel for the first time during the summer either before or after my freshman year of college, when I worked evenings as a receptionist in a nursing home. The shift was pretty quiet, so I had plenty of time to work my way through the nursing-home library, and I was pleased to find a few classics shelved alongside the extensive collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books that took up most of the bookcase.

I read it for the second time a few years later, as part of a college course on the Victorian novel, and on that occasion I purchased the Oxford World's Classics edition recommended by the professor. I developed an intimate relationship with this book -- even under the most tranquil of circumstances (like, say, the reception area of a nursing home after 7 p.m.), Middlemarch takes a long time to read, so I probably toted it with me everywhere for quite a while. And I made notes in the margins as I read, underlining particularly insightful passages or especially well-turned phrases -- and if you've read any Eliot, you'll know that means I wrote on practically every page. Especially given how closely I identify with Dorothea Brooke. (Seriously -- in section, when people expressed frustration with the character, I felt personally insulted. But that's another post altogether.) So I left my mental footprints, and my copy now stands as a personal record of my experience of the book. And I figured, when I read it again -- and I knew I would -- the experience would be enhanced by the memory of my previous journey through Eliot's world.

And then, a little more than three-quarters of the way through, I noticed something funny. On page 624, chapter LXV, I encountered this sentence:
Perhaps there might be a particular note to her enclosed; but Lydgate was naturally addressed on the question of money or other aid, and the fact that he was written to, any, the very delay in writing at all, seemed to certify that the answer was thoroughly compliant.
What's that "any" doing there? That doesn't make sense... And then I realized it ought to be "nay." Somewhere in the text-setting/editing process, the letters were transposed. Sloppy, but it happens, I figured, so I forgot about it. Until I got to Chapter LXXVII, page 725, and read this:
With these exceptions she had sat at home in languid melancholy and suspense, fixing her mind on Will Ladislaw's coming as the one point of hope and interest, and associating this with some new urgency on Lydgate to make immediate arrangements for leaving Middlemarch and going to London, till she felt assured that the coming would be a potent cause of the going, without at all seeing regarded as a peculiar folly in Rosamond. And it is precisely this sort of sequence which causes the greatest shock when it is sundered: for how. This way of establishing sequences is too common to be fairly to see how an effect may be produced is often to see possible missings and checks: but to see nothing except the desirable cause, and close upon it the desirable effect, rids us of doubt and makes our minds strongly intuitive.
I read that and said, "Huh?" (possibly aloud), and then reread it, my mind strongly intuiting that this was not exactly what Eliot had written. It was profoundly disorienting to feel Eliot's lucid prose give way beneath me like that, her analytical tone suddenly turned to word salad. I was able to find the correct text online, and I sent an email to my TA to point out the mistake; as I recall, she was greatly amused, especially by the "for how" dangling there after that colon. It is wonderful, isn't it? That authoritative colon, promising an explanation of some sort, and then: utter nonsense. She'd been reading in her own (intact) copy of the novel, published by a different imprint, so she had an excuse for not noticing the error, but apparently no one else had ever noticed, in the entire history of the course (at least as far as the professor knew), which was troubling. Could it possibly be the case that, by the time they got to page 725 (only 60 pages to go!), my classmates were no longer reading carefully? (Or at all?)

Here is the correct passage, in case you're curious:
...till she felt assured that the coming would be a potent cause of the going, without at all seeing how. This way of establishing sequences is too common to be fairly regarded as a peculiar folly in Rosamond. And it is precisely this sort of sequence which causes the greatest shock when it is sundered: for to see how an effect may be produced is often to see possible missings and checks; but to see nothing except the desirable cause, and close upon it the desirable effect, rids us of doubt and makes our minds strongly intuitive.
I felt betrayed by Oxford UP. I had come to treasure my copy of Middlemarch, having invested so much in it, and now I wasn't sure I could trust it. If they could make a mistake like that, how could I be sure they hadn't left out entire sentences, even chapters? Evidently the final draft never passed through a proofreader's hands. Could they not hear Ms. Evans spinning in her grave? Were they not afraid that the ghost of George Henry Lewes would rise up and give them a hard time? But seriously -- proofreaders are important, y'all. Even when you're publishing classics that have been published many times before. Even when the author is dead, and the book is long, and you're pretty sure nobody will ever read past page 600. At least one person should read all the way to the end before you publish it. You need a proofreader. (Contact me for my rates!)

This whole thing reminds me of not one but two Monty Python sketches: one you can read (and if you're a theatre lover, you definitely should), and one you can watch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Milton looking for his portrait in a spoon?

I'm not sure how I feel about the news that Sam Mendes is at work on a film version of my very favorite novel, George Eliot's Middlemarch.

I have a lot of respect for Sam Mendes, so I expect he'll do a decent job. And he has exclusive access to Kate Winslet, who might just be the perfect Dorothea. But the best possible movie adaptation would still be a poor substitute for rereading the book, in my opinion. I feel that way about books-turned-movies in general, and I'm always surprised that others don't. I loved The Lord of the Rings on the page, but I fell asleep watching the first movie. Which is about what I expected, because the fact that it was a book was a huge part of why I liked it in the first place. Peter Jackson's realization of Middle Earth, spectacular as it might be, could never be as exciting as the one I built in my head as I read Tolkien's words. I have the same basic reaction to the idea of George Eliot on the big screen, albeit for slightly different reasons. Eliot's greatness lies in large part in her keenly observed psychological portraits. I wouldn't expect to see that reproduced on the screen, but watching the denizens of Middlemarch go about their business without the emotional insight backing it all up seems like a pointless exercise to me.

I suppose it's possible that the movie will turn out to be a creative complement to the novel, instead of a lackluster replacement. I can think of one occasion where that was the case: Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie Lolita is very nearly as fascinating as Nabokov's book. It somehow captures the spirit of the novel even when tweaking the particulars -- and maybe because Kubrick and screenwriter Nabokov knew when to depart from the page -- so it succeeds as a stand-alone work and as a companion to the book. I have a hard time imagining so felicitous an outcome here -- after all, Eliot is not available to draft the screenplay -- but one never knows, do one? Especially if Kate Winslet gets the part. And anything that inspires people to pick up the original is probably a good thing. I kind of want to read it again right now.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Do you move your lips when you read?

I recently put together a birthday gift for my friend Tim, some home-crafted objets d'art that I thought might appeal to his unique combination of taste and wit. In one of those classic-film photo books I'm always cutting up, I found a handful of silent-movie title cards, reproduced to serve as thumbnail sketches of an era. I mounted them on pretty paper and dropped them into funky little glass frames, to make attractive paperweights or bookcase accent pieces or whatever Tim decides to use them for. They came out very cute, in my humble opinion.

I mention this because I think they tell us something interesting about the experience of going to the movies in the pre-talkies era; something not captured in all the stills of Gloria Swanson and John Barrymore and Alla Nazimova. One of the cards said (I'm paraphrasing, because I didn't think to write all this down before I gave them away), "Please be patient while the operator changes a reel." I paired it with another request: "Please read the titles to yourself -- loud reading annoys your neighbors." A simple request, but totally revealing, no? It communicates something concrete about the everyday experience of going to the movies in the pre-talkies era, a detail that isn't part of the official film-history account and is therefore not part of anybody's mental image of what moviegoing was like in its early years, even though it seems totally obvious now that I think about it. Of course people read the titles out loud! They didn't have cell phones, so they had to do something to annoy each other. And if I'd been a blogger in 1919, I would have been complaining about it regularly, I'm sure.

The others are interesting from a women's-studies perspective: "Ladies! Please remove your hats" was accompanied by a cartoon of a frustrated man seated behind a woman wearing a very large hat. (I recall a sketch on Sesame Street that found Bert in a similar predicament, although I don't quite remember the punch line. Did the woman have very large hair beneath the hat?) And I love the one that says, "Please refrain from smoking -- it disturbs the ladies." And how.

The theme I'm getting at here -- the difficulty of seeing the past clearly through the distorting prism of the present -- is explored (delightfully, I think) in Richard Greenberg's play The Violet Hour, and I'm reminded in particular of this moment from the very last scene (not a paraphrase; I looked it up):
JESSIE: Well, I don't know about you, but I would like to get to the theater early for a change --

GIDGER: Oh, absolutely. Because eighty years from now, there are going to be signs in the lobby that say WARNING: THIS PLAY CONTAINS CIGARETTE SMOKING, so we don't have a minute to lose.

(Everybody but John laughs, gaily, as in a twenties play.)

MTC's 2003 production of that play contained very little that was bright or effective. But Greenberg's spooky joke paid off, because at that very moment, just such a sign was on display in the lobby of the Biltmore.

Monday, April 23, 2007

When you know what you want, then you go and you find it and you get it

I owe thanks to Betz for passing on that Beatles/Shakespeare clip, and I owe her even bigger thanks for her assistance with this weekend's wedding-planning chore: finding a dress! I thought that would be the biggest hassle of all, despite my intentions of keeping it simple. But Betz alerted me to a sample sale happening this weekend, and I liked what I saw of the designers' collections online, so I figured it would be worth a shot. (Especially since this was a "make an appointment" kind of sample sale, not a "get in line at dawn and be prepared to throw elbows" kind of sample sale.) Long story short: I ended up buying the first gown I tried on: it's gorgeous, it fits perfectly (except for the length, which is easy enough to fix), and it was deeply discounted. I felt like Sir Robin after watching Lancelot answer the 3 questions posed by the keeper of the Bridge of Death: That's easy!

Once I'd paid for the dress and zipped it into its garment bag, we took it uptown in a cab, of course. Doing otherwise might have made for a great "subway story," but I wasn't about to take any chances just for the sake of this blog. My dedication only goes so far. As for the dress itself -- well, I'm not going to try to describe it, because I'd probably fall asleep somewhere in the middle of "tulle" this and "A-line" that. But I can give you a link! When I got home, I discovered I had bookmarked that very page, with the title: "I love this dress." And I must say, I love it even more now that it took me all of half an hour to find and purchase it. Bring on the accessorizing!

Perchance you wonder at this show

Beatles dorks like myself have probably seen evidence of the Fabs' mid-60s televised performance of the Rude Mechanicals' "Pyramus and Thisbe" play from the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now, thanks to the magic of YouTube, we can actually see it. The Beatles and Shakespeare: two great tastes that taste great together! And methinks their interpretation is actually rather keen, if totally wasted on the crowd present. (I think George is especially strong as Moonshine... but I've always been a George girl.) So this clip is a treasure, provided your tolerance for piercing adolescent shrieking is high. (Thanks to Betz for the tip!)

Friday, April 20, 2007

True story... but then again, I could be lying

The other night on my way downtown, I was sitting on a Q train that was sitting at Times Square, not in any hurry to go anywhere, and filling up with people. I sat down across from a couple of young men just in time to hear them resume their casual conversation. "So, I don't think this one is even mine," said the first guy, off-handedly. "I didn't see her for, like, three months, and now she say she pregnant."

His friend nodded sagely, the way you might if someone made a completely unsurprising observation about urban life, e.g., "The Duane Reade in my neighborhood is poorly organized." We've all been there, haven't we? And he said, "You dealing with women," and then paused for just a moment, apparently to adjust what he was about to say, having noticed that the car in which he was sitting was very crowded, and that crowd included many representatives of the sex in question. I, for one, was on the edge of my seat: teach me, O wise one!

"Men lie a lot," he observed -- no argument from his friend -- "but women lie better." And his friend (the putative baby daddy) concurred, nodding as if to say, "What are you gonna do."

I don't know whether they would have continued the conversation -- they'd exhausted the topic, really -- but a third fellow apparently traveling with them began, at that moment, to play a very large conga drum and make up a song about other people on the train. Seriously. I got off the train at that point, because it didn't seem likely to leave any time soon. Also, I wasn't sure the guy seated across from conga-drum-man was going to like the verse about his dreadlocks, and I didn't want to find out what might happen if he took offense. So I took a different train to my destination, which happened to be The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, but really I should have just turned around and headed home, because I'd already had my fill of domestic drama for the evening, and honestly, a scene like that is hard to top. Still, who knows? Perhaps the baby whose parentage is in question will grow up to be a great playwright some day. The next William Inge.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Take the Stairs... please!

I find myself in an unaccustomed and somewhat confusing position: concerning the Transport Group production of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I am very much in agreement with Charles Isherwood, and in sharp disagreement with Michael Feingold.

As you should all know by now, you can't beat Feingold for dramaturgy, and on the topic of Inge's play he is as informative and insightful as always. Meanwhile, when I first read Isherwood's review I thought it was unnecessarily bitchy (I know, big surprise). But now that I've seen the production in question, I have to say Isherwood gets it right.

Here's Feingold: "If the production's look suggests 21st-century minimalism, the richly nuanced array of unspoken feelings that Cummings's actors supply evokes the Actors Studio style at its 1950s best, newly toned up for a more straightforward time." I liked the sound of that, but it's not what I saw last night. "A richly nuanced array of unspoken feelings" is exactly what was missing from Cummings's overlong, drearily paced, stiffly blocked production of this not especially subtle script. So I'm with Ish when he says, "If any true magic is to emerge in a staging of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I suspect the poetics of extraordinary acting would have to supply it," and I concur with his observation that extraordinary acting is not much on display in this production. In fact, I think the cast was overpraised by both Feingold and Isherwood, because in my opinion the actors on the stage can very easily be divided into 2 categories: Donna Lynne Champlin and everybody else. Champlin, so excellent in John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, was one of the main reasons I wanted to see this in the first place, and she's giving another fine, nuanced performance in Stairs. But there's only so much an actor can do without a little cooperation from her costars, and no one else in the cast comes remotely close to Champlin's level, not even Michele Pawk, whose characterization of Lottie is a trifle bizarre, and broad in all the wrong places, like Miss Hannigan wandered into the wrong play. And no one else in the cast does any better. (Side note: Liz Mamana is your woman if you ever need an actress who looks and sounds uncannily like Parker Posey. But if you need an actress who looks and sounds like a high school student, you should probably keep looking.)

If anything, the production feels under-directed -- the actors seem to have been left to make their own choices, and very few of them are good choices. Meanwhile, every staging-related decision does a disservice to the play. Stairs might be quietly powerful, maybe even devastating, if staged briskly on a naturalistic set with great actors. But this production drags, its funereal pace apparently dictated by the overwhelming dreariness of the play's events. And the most credulity-straining plot elements (like Sammy's instant bond with Sonny, or Lottie's sudden decision to pour out her heart to Cora) have no hope of playing out in a natural or believable way on the bare-yet-fussy set, which has many scrims but almost no furniture, and therefore nothing to occupy the characters (and no place for them to sit down) during their long, angsty dialogues. Remember the scene in that seminal Fawlty Towers episode, "The Germans," where Basil loses his patience with the hotel guests because they insist on waiting in the lobby for him to begin the fire drill? I felt like Basil for much of this play, sniping mentally, "Right, because obviously if there were a family crisis to discuss, you'd all be standing around like this in the foyer." And, as if it weren't long enough, the play ends with an audio review of its key dramatic moments. The sound design isn't good, and even if it were, the gimmick would be a bad idea, because if the lines had the proper impact the first time around, I wouldn't need to hear them again. And since they didn't have much impact in context, there's no point in prolonging the evening by revisiting them at the end. Believe me, the evening is long enough already -- and that's not Inge's fault.

How do you measure a year?

One year ago today, my doctor told me I had cancer. I haven't written about that whole adventure here, since the hard part was over before Restricted View got started, and it's not really on my current list of things to blog about. But I did want to mark the anniversary, because I owe so much of what I now bring to writing, and life in general, to the experience. Also, during the early weeks of my diagnosis and treatment, I drew a lot of encouragement from blogs and online journals of other people's experiences, so I post today in gratitude for that.

When I looked at other people's cancer-related journals and blogs, I was comforted by the pattern: they made their way through treatment with a complaint here and a joke there, photos of themselves with no hair here and an account of an emergency-room visit there, and then, finally, the end of the treatment and the official all-clear, followed by a few infrequent updates as they resumed their normal lives. It was encouraging to see it all laid out that way, as a steady journey from beginning to end, through darkness and into light. And it was that way for me, too. A year ago today, I had no idea what was ahead of me, or what I would do next; I just knew that dealing with it would take a lot of work upfront, and a lot of time and patience down the road. It did take a lot of time -- there aren't any shortcuts. But as this post proves, time passes, even when it seems like it won't. You get through whatever it is you have to get through, and eventually you'll be looking back at it from a sunnier place. I promise.

One good thing about having all that time is that is gives you many opportunities to count your blessings, and you'd be surprised how helpful that can be. So if your life is rough today, for whatever reason, hang in there -- just think how proud of yourself you'll be a year from now. And whether things are rotten or peachy in your life, I encourage you to take a moment today to be grateful for what you have.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something just broke

One afternoon during my freshman year of college, at the very beginning of the fall semester, I stopped into a computer cluster (the one in the basement of Connecticut Hall on Old Campus, for those who know the neighborhood) to check my email. Computer clusters are usually pretty quiet, even when they're full to capacity, and this one was no exception -- until, with no apparent provocation, a guy stood up from the terminal where he'd been sitting. He was Asian, wearing glasses, holding a bookbag, totally unprepossessing. I wouldn't have given him a second look -- or even a first look -- if he hadn't started speaking, not to anybody in particular, but to the room in general. In retrospect, I guess you could say he was testifying; he started out, "I just want to say, I know sometimes things can happen that are really bad, and they can be hard for you to handle... but everything will get better, even though it seems really bad..."

He went on in this semi-apocalyptic vein for some time, and at some point I think he started talking about Jesus, and how you should bring your troubles to the Lord, but I don't remember exactly. What I do remember is that I thought, Holy shit, this guy is going to kill us all. He is obviously insane, and he has a bomb in that bookbag, or an automatic rifle, or something, and we're all going to die right here in the basement of Connecticut Hall, and classes haven't even started yet. I remember trying to decide whether I should risk bolting from the room while this guy was still delivering his suicide speech. And I wondered why nobody else seemed as frightened as I was... Of course, I was trying really hard not to make eye contact or attract attention to myself, so I didn't really make a thorough survey of the room. But I was waiting for someone, perhaps a large athletic male, to tackle this guy, and when that didn't happen I found myself thinking, Yes, I am new on campus, but surely this can't be normal computer-cluster behavior.

After a couple minutes of him talking and me panicking, the guy wrapped up whatever he had to say and just... sat back down. And everyone went on pretending nothing unusual had happened, and I finished whatever I was doing as fast as possible and left the building, my heart still pounding, deeply grateful to be alive.

Of course, weird stuff happened all the time at Yale (see yesterday's post), as I imagine it does on most campuses with a surplus of creativity and/or geekiness. For example, one year on Tap Night, an all-female secret society moved an armchair, an area rug, a potted plant and a large ceramic statue of a dog into one of the elevators in the library, so that it looked like a little conservatory -- and when the doors opened to admit a very surprised me, the girl inside offered me an Oreo. (I wasn't a candidate for this society, by the way, just a bemused bystander.) And during the course of that first year, I met quite a few people, Asian and otherwise, who loved Jesus and weren't shy about expressing their feelings on the topic. But I never again encountered anything quite so creepy and inexplicable as that guy's rambling testimony in the computer cluster. Eventually I forgot all about it (probably sometime around September 11, 2001) -- until today, when details started to come out about the Virginia Tech shooter.

There's no real point to my telling this story: I'm not saying my experience illuminates what those VT students went through, or are going through. I have no insight into how this could have been prevented, or what might have caused it. I'm not advocating suspicion of mild-mannered Asian college students. But that's what I'm thinking of today, for what it's worth. I'm still not sure whether I overreacted that day, or whether everyone else under-reacted, and I guess I'll never know. All I know is this: unless I'm sitting in a place of worship (and maybe even then), I reserve the right to leave the room, subway car, or general vicinity anytime somebody stands up and starts talking to nobody about Jesus, God or the end of the world. I guess that won't necessarily keep me safe, but I think God understands, just the same.

Monday, April 16, 2007

They run and hide their heads

Saturday I was in New Haven, on campus for a speaking engagement (aren't we fancy). It turned out to be a lovely day to see the old alma mater, which is more than I can say for yesterday or today. Anyway, when my duties were done, the fiance and I called a taxi to pick us up outside Battell Chapel, which was where we happened to be standing. (Our intention of walking across Old Campus had been thwarted by some "emergency repairs" to the Elm Street gates. Current Yale students: between that and Cross Campus being gated off, how do you get anywhere?) There was a sign on the door of the church that said something about The Crucible being performed inside. (There is no venue at Yale that can't be turned into a performance space when the need arises.) So we stood there chatting -- I was pointing out the very spot where I was once felled by a FedEx truck -- when suddenly the big wooden door behind us opened, and a stream of young women in colonial dress rushed past us. They were apparently in a hurry to make their next entrance through Battell's College Street doors, and as they ran past us down Elm Street, hiking up their skirts, a young man in judicial robes came zipping across the lawn behind me and hopped over the railing to enter through the door they'd just come out. "Sorry!" one of the bonnet-wearing maidens shouted as she dashed by. No apologies necessary, kids: that was the only live theatre experience I had all week, and it was exactly the sort of thing I went to Yale for in the first place.

Since then I've been trying to stay indoors and dry as much as possible. This is disgusting, wet, cold, comfort-food weather. The sidewalks are strewn with broken and abandoned umbrellas; every intersection is a river crossing. And you know those plastic covers that fit over strollers, so that the kids inside look like limited-edition collectibles? I want one that fits over my entire body.

Friday, April 13, 2007

His skin was pale and his eye was odd

When I was maybe 12 or 13, I stumbled on "Imus in the Morning" while establishing my before-school routine (I used to get up really early, so I had lots of time to kill before school). I tuned in for maybe a couple of weeks, because I had never heard anything quite like it, and I thought it made me quite the grown-up, to be listening to morning talk radio. But the novelty soon wore off, and I realized that too much of what I heard was at best sophomoric and at worst reprehensible, and too little was entertaining. So that was the end of my Imus-listening career. Since then I have heard his name now and then, and I'm always mildly surprised: adults still listen to that show?

I don't have any particularly strong feelings about this recent brouhaha; I've been avoiding most of the coverage, mainly because I've been in an office all week and can't watch online video. Based on the little I've heard, I'd say he certainly deserved to be called out -- but I suspect what he said in that particular show is not such a huge departure from what he's been saying for years, so his bewilderment may be justifiable. And punishing Imus doesn't really do anything about the real problem, which is the apparently significant number of people who tuned in to hear him (and his many colleagues/imitators) say such things on a regular basis. But I am hoping that we've come to the end of his public shaming, because however much it might trouble me that there are people who choose to listen to Imus, it troubles me far more that we are all now being forced to look at Imus. (One of those free subway newspapers had a headline today that would have made me chuckle -- "Imus in the Mourning" -- had it not been paired with a photo of the man himself, which made me recoil.) "That is not a handsome man," I said the other day, employing litotes, when Imus came up on TV. My fiance replied matter-of-factly, "Yeah, he looks like he's been disinterred." I wish I could convey the exact tone with which he said that, because it was so funny; he said it just like you would confirm any basic fact, like "Yeah, he's simulcast on MSNBC" or "Yeah, he's a vegetarian." And I wish I could take credit for that comparison, because it is so perfectly descriptive, and incidentally not a bad metaphor for what-all is happening these days. But anyway, I'd like to stop looking at him now, if you don't mind, media outlets, because another day of this and I'm going to start having nightmares about Zombie Imus.

P.S. Just now I received a spam email (or press release?) with this subject line: "6:30am King Of All Blacks Asks Questions." There's a king of all blacks? Who knew? And why has it taken him this long to speak up?

ETA: I have been informed that this "King" is a Howard Stern character. Here I thought it was just a happy string of words in a spam subject line.

Insufficient brains

Attention, MTA customers:
"Insufficient Fare" does not mean the same thing as "Swipe Again [at This Turnstile]." Please learn the difference.
All the people behind you.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

I know I mustn't fall into the pit...

Yesterday my affianced sent me a link to this list of "guilty pleasure" bands, as compiled by some Rolling Stone blog. He had some quibbles with their picks, which I pointed out was not very sporting of him considering that the headline says the list is "Undisputed." It all seems pretty solid to me, and so I will continue to tease him about his appreciation for Hall & Oates, and expect to be teased in turn for my affection for America and the Monkees.

We've been learning a lot about each other's guilty (musical) pleasures lately, as we're in the process of finding a band to play at our wedding reception. That has led to a number of scenes like this one: We're in the car, headed for Scranton, and I'm playing with the radio trying to find an acceptable station (in that radio-reception vortex near the Delaware Water Gap). Finally I come upon "Love Shack" (by the B-52's, "The World's Greatest Party Band," hello), and as I turn it up, I say, "This definitely goes on the reception playlist." And I wait for him to say, "Oh, yes, you can't have a dance party without 'Love Shack,' and I will now sing along because I, too, know all the words," and he waits for me to say, "...That was a joke, of course." And then we realize that "Love Shack" is actually not a place where we can get together. So to speak. And we must reevaluate whether we really ought to be planning a wedding, given that we can't agree about something as fundamental as the indispensability of "Love Shack."

We musical theatre lovers have our own guilty pleasures, don't we? Chess is at the top of my list, for the same reason ABBA comes in at number 4 on the RS list referenced above. And if anybody wants to do me a favor, they will translate Tim Rice's execrable lyrics into some other language, like German or French, and rerecord all the songs (in total fidelity to the original's 1980s synth-pop sound) with their new non-English words. That way I can listen without worrying about the characters or the story (also idiotic -- and, surprise, surprise, the show is "based on an idea by Tim Rice"), or the abominable lyrics that I find myself singing anyway, because the music they're (awkwardly) set to is so damn catchy. (At the moment the line I hate most is "It's not just black and white / If I may coin a phrase..." Listen, lady, whoever you are, you're not "coining a phrase," you're making a play on words. "If you'll pardon the expression" is what you really mean. Oh, but I won't start listing examples of why Tim Rice sucks, or we'll be here all day.)

Tim Rice is actually a useful indicator of guilty-pleasure status; his very attachment to a project renders any pleasure you might derive from that project inherently shameful. Another guilty-pleasure mainstay is Carolee Carmello, whom I love... and who has no shame about appearing in something like Lestat. Or many things like Lestat.

Are you ashamed that you know several brainless ballads from Side Show? Do you get a secret thrill from "Defying Gravity"? Can you name a song, any song, from Starlight Express? Now is the time to leave a comment and confess your guilt.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Isn't it rich?

I seem to be taking a little Spring Break around here! With Easter and a lot of other stuff to keep me busy this week, I haven't been consuming much culture, but I didn't want you to think I'd abandoned you.

Last night I watched another great episode of The Riches, and by now I'm well and truly hooked. If you're not watching, you might want to do something about that before it gets too hard to catch up, because there is an awful lot of plot in each episode. Right now they're still spending a good 3 minutes at the top of every show catching you up on what's been established previously, so it's still a good time to join in, plus they're running the whole series from the beginning sometime soon. (I fast-forwarded through most of that ad, and FX isn't paying me to pass on the word, so you'll just have to look it up for yourself.) Join us! You won't regret it!

Why am I hooked? Well, aside from the screwball premise, and the generally sharp writing, and the hurdles the writers keep setting up for themselves, I'm loving the excellent casting. I always thought Minnie Driver was cute -- she's the only thing I remember from Good Will Hunting -- but now I am ready to join the fan club, because she is a hoot on this show. Eddie Izzard's fun to watch, too, but you already knew that. And my very favorite member of the cast might just be Margo Martindale, who gave far and away the best performance in the tedious 2003 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Of all the tantalizing mysteries and hinted-at future complications that have popped up in the show so far, the character of Nina might be the most fascinating of all. And it's all, or at least mostly, due to the depth of Martindale's performance. That twinkle in her eye is part menace, part warmth, and all intrigue.

Are you watching? If not, what are you watching instead?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Sing us one of the songs of Zion

The Triduum has me too busy for blogging, folks. Go listen to your Godspell cast albums till Holy Week is over. And if you're not tied up with churchgoing, Jason Robert Brown is at Birdland through Saturday! I was there on Wednesday and saw a great set.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

As time goes by

The 1945 Vincente Minelli movie The Clock had been sitting in the DVR queue ever since the keywords "JUDY GARLAND" caught it on TCM months ago, and the fiance and I finally sat down to watch it the other night. Our plan was really just to watch some movie, since there are so many saved on the list, taking up space as they wait for us to set aside time to watch them, that newly-recorded programs (mostly Law & Order reruns) are now immediately in danger of deletion. The first movie we tried was Two for the Seesaw, which I'd optimistically plucked from TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" lineup based on the presence of Shirley MacLaine and a plot summary that made me hope for something along the lines of The Apartment. Instead, Seesaw reminded me why The Apartment is such a one-of-a-kind pleasure. Aside from some interesting shots of Manhattan during the opening credits, we saw nothing in the first 10 minutes that made us want to keep watching. Not even Shirley (sporting a jarring black wig and painted-on eyebrows) could save the movie from its own dreariness and would-be coolness (according to IMDb, the tagline is "a square from Nebraska? an off-beatnik from Greenwich Village? It just didn't figure... that they would... that they could... that they did!" which gives you an idea of what you're in for). And I wasn't really excited about seeing her paired with Robert Mitchum -- Jack Lemmon he's not. So we erased that one unwatched and moved on to The Clock.

The opening scenes of The Clock amount to another Manhattan travelogue (this one taking place in 1945), and both films find their characters strolling through the Egyptian galleries of the Met, which was a strange coincidence indeed. Both movies also have charm-deficient male leads and unimpressive scripts, but I stuck with The Clock anyway (after the fiance fell asleep) and found it full of small pleasures. The basic plot: a young Midwestern soldier has a 2-day leave in NYC before he ships out to locations unknown; stumbling through Penn Station (far more romantic then!) he meets a pretty young professional girl, also with heartland roots, of course, and they fall in love. Robert Walker plays the young soldier, and he's no match for Judy Garland, as his secretary love. Neither character is interesting as scripted, but Judy makes the most of what the script gives her, whereas Walker's All-American boy act is more irritating than sweet. He doesn't have the kind of looks a girl could fall for across a crowded room, and if you've ever seen Strangers on a Train you'll understand what I mean when I say that, every time he tried to get smoochy with Judy, I had the creepy feeling he might strangle her instead. (Which would certainly have made for a more exciting movie!) I had the same problem with Since You Went Away -- Jennifer Jones would be looking at him all moony, and I'd be whispering, "Run!"

After about half an hour of stiff and unconvincing courtship, I realized why the movie felt so awkward: with its wholesome innocence, lightweight plot and improbable love story, it plays like a musical without the songs. It feels as though wartime shortages forced Minelli to cut all the planned musical numbers. The fact that there is no singing (well, almost none -- James Gleason croaks a few bars) is part of what makes the movie a curiosity worth seeking out for Garland fans; it's an early look at what she can do as an actor when she's not playing a "little girl with a big voice." And it's to her credit that she is the lead who seems less in need of a song or two to prop up her performance. Whereas if Robert Walker had a number, and if he could sing like Tom Drake, it would make a world of difference. You wouldn't have to wonder what Alice (Judy's character) sees in Joe; the songs in a romantic musical are a shortcut past all that.

It is interesting to compare this movie with Meet Me in St. Louis -- the previous year's Minelli/Garland project -- and study why this fails where that succeeds. St. Louis, while only loosely a "musical" in the theatrical sense of the word, has the songs The Clock lacks, and a far better script. But it also has a more convincing frame for its Americana and innocence: I can believe in, and chuckle at, the simplicity of the Smith family; I know the subtext is wartime affection for home and hearth, but the turn-of-the-century setting makes it palatable. The Clock tries to transplant old-fashioned American values to mid-1940s Manhattan, and it doesn't take; G.I. Joe's astonishment at New York City's skyscrapers is hard to credit, unless he was raised on the moon, and (spoiler alert!) in the harsh light of day, the lovers' quickie marriage seems like a truly bad idea. There's a sequence where they race against the clock (get it?) to get all the necessary papers, tests and licenses together before Joe's leave is up, and the whole time I was thinking, shouldn't all these obstacles make them stop and realize their plan is a stupid one? It's 1945; can't they just wait till he comes home?

But the film doesn't end there, and the scenes that follow their courthouse marriage caught me by surprise. In the moment that Alice breaks down in tears, sobbing, "It was all so...ugly!" the movie briefly becomes a commentary on the escapist musical romance it might have been. Escaping to the 1904 World's Fair is all well and good, it seems to say, but in contemporary America there's a war on, and even young lovers can't live like they're in a musical. Sure, I'll meet you at the Astor, but we're not going to sing a whole song about it. As a counterpoint to Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock has more to offer than initially meets the eye; for example, instead of "The Trolley Song," we get an impromptu sightseeing trip on the top deck of a city bus (albeit one that never stops), where the conductor has no patience with rubes who don't pay their fares, and later, a harrowing and all-too-realistic trip on the subway, where everybody pushes and nobody stops to say he hopes he hasn't stepped upon your feet.

The film's other highlight is a terrific drugstore/lunch counter scene, as sharp and unexpected as the rest of the movie is fuzzy and formulaic, with wonderful performances from Keenan Wynn and Moyna MacGill (who, Robert Osborne told us at least twice, is Angela Lansbury's mother). Nice to know the city had its weirdos, even then. And there are lovely Minelli touches throughout, like the altar boy extinguishing candles in the "St. Faith's" scene, or the careful inclusion of minorities in crowd scenes. And I'm always fascinated by what American movies were like during World War II, especially when they have war-influenced plots. How did audiences want to see themselves? Where did they find hope?

So: if you like Judy Garland, Vincente Minelli, and mid-1940s popular culture, The Clock is probably worth your time. But definitely skip Two for the Seesaw, unless you are similarly fascinated by the films of the early 1960s.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Announcing MOTHER LOAD!

If I may be purely promotional for just a moment: my very talented sister, Amy Wilson, is now gearing up for an 8-week Off-Broadway run of her new show, Mother Load. It's funny, it's smart, and it's not just for parents. So visit the website, watch some clips, check out more adorable pictures and get your tickets! Previews start April 21.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Send in the clowns

I didn't see any plays this weekend, but I did make time for a few broadly theatrical experiences. On Saturday morning I joined my sister and brother-in-law and their two boys, and some of their young friends, at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Madison Square Garden. This was a new experience for me -- I may have been to the circus once or twice when I was little, but not since I can remember, and I've seen the nail-biting pachyderm-pyramid scene in Dumbo many times, but that doesn't really count. Anyway, watching the action was fun, but watching the kids watch the action was more fun. We were all most impressed by the animal acts -- I think I'm supposed to be morally opposed to the animal acts, but what can I say? They're neat. I will say that my favorite act was probably the dogs, because they did really cool tricks without balking, and I didn't have to worry that anybody might die as I looked on. The horses' "tricks" were comparatively lackluster, and the tigers looked really grudging and irritable when asked to perform. The elephants were impressive, but not as impressive as the ones in Dumbo -- seriously, if you haven't seen that movie lately, check it out, because that is a great scene. I laughed when they emerged wearing enormous "Bello" wigs, but I felt a little bad for them, too, majestic beasts that they are. Whereas teaching a poodle to do backflips doesn't seem particularly cruel, or beneath its dignity. (My 2 1/2-year-old nephew, on the other hand, liked "the guy who flipped over the tigers" best.)

I was surprised by the half-assed approach to the theatrical and structural elements of the performance, most particularly the focus on "Bello," the star of this particular show. This Bello person is plainly a great acrobat and a good clown, but as a character he has less personality than your average minor league baseball mascot, and so the idea that we're supposed to be invested in him, or even able to tell him apart from the other clowns, rings a bit hollow. The kids never even learned his name, despite the fact that the first half closed with a song that went, "It's a Bello-Bello-Bello-Bello-Bello-Bello-Bello-Bello-bration!" (Repeat 17 million times.) In fact, during the "Wheel of Steel" act (harrowingly discussed here), my 4-year-old nephew was shouting, "Be careful, Nikolas!" to Bello's performing partner. I think part of the problem may be that the folks at The Greatest Show on Earth don't seem to realize that the character needs a bio different from that of the man who plays him ("Demetrius Nock," apparently) -- click on "Read More" to see what I mean. (I also love the way they capitalize "Children Of All Ages.")

The weekend's other semi-theatrical event: Palm Sunday Mass! Complete with participatory reading of the Passion Gospel ("Crucify him!") and props (palm branches)! Not to mention ill-behaved Children Of All Ages, poking each other with their palms, cutting in line for Communion, and generally failing to observe that church is a quiet place. Grumpiness aside, we have entered Holy Week, so blogging will probably be light as the Triduum approaches. You gotta have priorities!