Friday, June 29, 2007

Nothing to say but what a day

Sorry so quiet! I've been working 12-hour days this week, copy-editing. You know those fashion magazines that put out Bible-sized issues once or twice a year? Well, think of me, slaving away, when you see the fall issues on the stands. Anyway, all this hard work is good for my bank account, but bad for my blog. And when I can grab a minute, I'm working on wedding stuff: we're almost at the 6-month mark, which means the big day is just around the corner. Not in the real world where the rest of you live, of course; just in the bizarro world of wedding planning. Tonight the Hampton Jitney will whisk me out of Manhattan for a much-needed escape and a weekend with the family, and I can't wait. But you all will have to.

In other news: 2 more "Rosa Vilchez" bags today, from the deli downstairs!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Paper bag princesses

A couple of months back, I bought myself a snack at the Bread Factory and noticed, when I got home, that the paper bag they gave me had the words "EVELYN WHITE" printed on the bottom. This caught my attention because I happen to know an Evelyn White (probably not all that unlikely, statistically speaking), so I saved the bag to show it to her, but I didn't have any explanation for it. The bag was white, so I figured maybe "Evelyn" was the name for the shade of white or the style of the bag. Ladies' shoes have ladies' names; maybe paper bags do too. Who knows.

Well, this week I ordered food from two other 8th Avenue chains and brought home two more white paper bags with women's names (and recent dates) printed on the bottom. I am officially nonplussed by this phenomenon. From Bagel Stix:

And, a few days later, from Ray's Pizza:

Can somebody please explain to me what's going on here? Is each bag stamped with the name of the person who assembled it, like some sort of handcrafted treasure? That would seem out of proportion with the level of craftsmanship involved. Is this a private tribute to the women in someone's life -- like the "Nina"s hidden in a Hirschfeld drawing? Please, someone solve this mystery for me, because it has me so perturbed that I am taking pictures of paper bags. I fear I may be losing my mind. I fear it is only a matter of time before I turn over a bag and find my own name. Which would be spooky, in a baffling sort of way; I would feel like I was living in a very, very low-budget suspense thriller.

The latest: This morning's cheese danish (purchased at the deli in the building where I work -- subpar baked goods, but you can't beat it for convenience) came in a bag labeled "March 09 07 ROSA VILCHEZ." Curiouser and curiouser...

ETA: I am not the first to ponder this urban mystery... in fact, it's been covered on "All Things Considered"! I can't wait to listen when I get home. God bless the internet.

What's in a name?

Very observant readers may have noticed the addition of a new category here at Restricted View: "titles as titles." I often find myself discussing, deconstructing, admiring or deploring the titles of things, and although some people don't appreciate that particular critical exercise, I figure there may be others who do. And this seemed like the week to introduce the idea, since we're all getting such enjoyment out of recontextualizing book titles.

I'd like to mark the occasion by sharing two titles that made me laugh recently. The first is the title of Stephen Colbert's forthcoming book:

I Am America (and So Can You!)

I've been giggling over that one for a couple weeks now. I feel like I should preorder the book (or better yet, the audio book!) just to pay for all the enjoyment I've gotten out of it already.

The other is from a recent issue of the usually very serious-minded Commonweal magazine. I don't know why we keep encouraging Christopher Hitchens by taking him seriously, but I got a good laugh out of Eugene McCarraher's review of Hitchens's latest book, God Is Not Great, which is titled:

"This Book Is Not Good"

Hee. (The review is available online, if you're curious; I haven't finished it yet.) As for the blog categories, I am open to suggestions, so let me know if there are new ones you'd like to see or current ones for which you have no use. I am here to serve.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Rake's Progress

My second entry in the Dizzies Title Bout is up! Thanks to the fiance for the books, the camera, and the skillful, glare-reducing photography technique. Click on it for a larger version -- and let me know if you think I should post the titles. Then, check out the rest of the entries! Some very stiff competition.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The last hole, played with a handicap

When I told my younger sister I was on my way to see a play called Radio Golf, she said, "That sounds even more boring than televised golf." It is a strange title, no doubt about it, especially for the final entry in what TCG is calling "The August Wilson Century Cycle." It sounds like it was generated at random, like Wilson riffled through a dictionary wearing a blindfold and chose the first two nouns his finger landed on. The result is like a nonsense verse, memorable and pleasing to the ear, but not at all evocative. Say it to yourself, and wait for an image to form; nothing will come. It stubbornly refuses to take shape. The title might as well be "Word Salad." (Or "Googlewhack" -- and in that light, it is a very decade-appropriate choice.) Following the impressionism of Two Trains Running, the lyricism of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the poetry of Gem of the Ocean and the grandeur of King Hedley II, the perplexing diffidence of Radio Golf feels more like a question mark than an exclamation point.

This is probably not an accident -- after all, by the time this play (set in 1997) kicks off, Aunt Ester is long dead, and the cost of that loss seems to outweigh any of the century's gains. But appropriate or not, the title is a puzzle, and so my hat is off to the folks at TMG -- The Marketing Group, if they are the ones responsible for the Radio Golf logo. I stopped to admire it the first time I passed the off-the-beaten-path Cort Theatre, where the Broadway production ends its run next week. Rather than trying to make the title itself concrete, they styled the words "August Wilson's Radio Golf" in red, white and blue block letters, combined with a flag, like a campaign poster (not unlike this, and very much like the Bush Cheney '04 logo, but I'm having a hard time finding an example of that one that hasn't been satirically altered). Presented in this way, the title suddenly refers directly to the play's central character, a would-be mayoral candidate (the "radio" and "golf" portions of the plot center on a supporting character); it communicates clearly; it gestures to the work's greater significance (the story Wilson is telling is America's story). It's simple, it's striking, it looks great on a marquee. Very, very well done.

I wish I could tell you that what's happening onstage at the Cort is as focused and effective as the posters outside. Radio Golf is not Wilson's finest play, it's true, but it's hardly an embarrassment to his legacy. The people who grab your attention in the other nine plays, with their wild imaginations and unpredictable moods and rich histories and, above all, their wonderful language -- the characters who stay with you when you leave the theatre -- you can find them in Radio Golf, too. But, for the most part, this production hasn't found them. With one exception -- the reliably terrific Anthony Chisholm -- the actors in this cast barely scratch the surface of their characters. Harry Lennix, playing Harmond Wilks, the above-mentioned politician and the play's central character, is the biggest handicap. He's so stiff he's hard to watch; he seems to be longing for the final curtain, and waiting nervously for his next cue in the meantime. The script doesn't give Wilks much color, it's true, but the conflict between tradition and progress (to put it very crudely) comes down to Wilks, in the end, and the play's success depends on our investment in his struggle. Lennix's wooden performance gives the audience nothing to hold on to, no sense that anything vital is at stake, no reason to care one way or the other. Tonya Pinkins, who plays his wife, has very little to do here, which isn't her fault, but it's still a surprise to see how little she's done with what Wilson did give her. James A. Williams, playing Roosevelt Hicks, the closest thing this play has to a villain, is far less stiff than Lennix but not much more effective. John Earl Jelks has a more colorful character to play, and he would do all right if he slowed down, but he and his castmates all seem determined to spit out their lines as fast as possible. It's as if director Kenny Leon, having noticed that the play was running long (no kidding!) and losing the attention of the audience, instructed his cast to pick up the pace until the play sounded like a 1930s comedy without the jokes. Too bad the pace wasn't the problem.

Only Anthony Chisholm, as this play's evasive truth-teller, Elder Joseph Barlow, takes his time, making sure each line is spoken by a fully-formed, living character. And only when Chisholm is onstage does the play come to life; only then does it feel like something from the August Wilson canon. Barlow's speech about carrying the flag in World War II, his explanation of how he was arrested for walking a dog -- prime examples of Wilson's remarkable ability to entertain, provoke and disarm an audience, expertly delivered. But Chisholm's way of skimming lightly over the text, picking at its richness without completely digging in, feels inadequate here. In the more fantastical Gem of the Ocean, where I last saw Chisholm on Broadway, a light touch was advisable; the appetite might have sickened, otherwise, confronted with such a surfeit of riches. But here, without a LisaGay Hamilton or a Ruben Santiago-Hudson or a Phylicia Rashad to pick up the slack, you find yourself wishing Chisholm would add a little ham to the menu.

I swear I don't seek this out, but it's becoming a staple of my reviews, this part where I tell you how my view was literally restricted by some aspect of the staging and/or the theatre's layout. I may have cursed myself when I chose a name for my blog. In this case, a climactic moment near the end of the play was blocked so badly that, as Sterling applied his "warpaint" and the rest of the audience hooted and clapped, those of us seated on the far left side of the orchestra found ourselves looking at James A. Williams's broad back. That means that at every performance, at least 15 people, all sitting in seats that (at full price) cost more than $80, are unable to see what is, for the rest of the audience, the play's most exciting moment -- all because nobody important ever bothered to watch the show from those seats.

Finally, I need to add a word of praise for David Gallo's marvelous set design. The storefront real estate office is simple enough, but it's the details that surround it -- the torn-away tin ceiling, the decaying second story, the frozen-in-time diner next door -- that really set the scene. With its focus on the middle class and its flat landscape of politics and urban development, Radio Golf can feel strangely set off from the rest of the Century Cycle. But Gallo's set places this play squarely in the center of the Hill District, and firmly in step with the plays that came before it. It isn't Gallo's fault that his set has more character than most of the play's performances -- I found myself wishing for a scene or two to be set around that old lunch counter. But that decade has been covered and left behind -- and Wilson wrote a wonderful play about the result. You just can't tell from the production now on Broadway.

Even in a production as flaccid as this one, August Wilson's writing brings out the academic in me; every time I read or see one of his plays, I want to go to grad school and spend the next seven years tracing the threads of symbolism and family history that run through his Century Cycle. Perhaps it is OK not to like August Wilson's plays, as Hilton Als would have it, but I much prefer to love them. I stand amazed at the way his work can be personal and grand, humble and sweeping all at once. How marvelous to have caught the end of the Cycle as it unfolded; to see Aunt Ester make her entrance, more than halfway through, first dead, then alive, then long forgotten, and then to look back at the completed Cycle and see her there at the beginning. I feel lucky to have been here to see it happen. I just wish the sendoff had been as inspiring as the work.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

An American Dream...

Just wanted to call your attention to my first entry in the Dizzies "Title Bout." I'm still working on my second bookstacking masterwork -- how's yours coming along?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

You became a legend of the silver screen

Yesterday, heading home from work, I passed a woman I thought was Penny Marshall. There was no way to be sure -- I didn't hear her talking, and she wasn't wearing anything monogrammed. And I suppose there are more than a few women in New York City who look kind of like Penny Marshall. But I still think it was her. And I was still considering the likelihood of this two blocks later when I passed a man who I am pretty sure was Robert De Niro. Again, I can't be positive -- he wasn't waxing poetic about the city as he walked ("My West Side... my private side") or anything like that. He wasn't doing anything but walking down the street, but he was walking in that tentative, I-hope-nobody-bothers-me style peculiar to the very famous, which (combined with the sunglasses he wore) helped me go from thinking "That guy looks like Robert De Niro" to "That guy is Robert De Niro." It also made him look surprisingly vulnerable. So I left him alone, as he probably was hoping I would (whether he was De Niro or not), and when I got to the fiance's place I said, "I think I just saw Robert De Niro! Except his physical presence was not as imposing as I would have expected." And my fiance said, "I think De Niro is a little guy." So I looked it up: this is true! Did you know he's only 5'9"?

I could be wrong. Maybe there was a celebrity look-alikes convention in Clinton yesterday, or maybe my mind was just trying to make my walk home more exciting than my long day at work had been. If you have conclusive evidence that either or both of these people were not in NYC yesterday, feel free to burst my bubble. But in the meantime, I'm crediting myself with two more Eighth Avenue star-sightings!

Friday, June 22, 2007

You can't judge a book by how literate it look

All this week I've been sitting down at a computer, intending to Get Things Done, and then accidentally spending all afternoon browsing wonderful internet finds instead. Today's distracting find (and a contest!) comes courtesy of The Dizzies. First, be inspired by the Sorted Books project. Then, take a moment to work out the kink in your neck from twisting your head (and squinting) to read the titles. (It's worth it!) Then, try creating your own! How can a girl get anything done with this sort of challenge before her?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Make them hear you

Nothing adds excitement to a new Broadway season like a new Tony Award! Two awards, actually, split as usual between plays and musicals. Of course, seeing as they fall in the unglamorous category of "creative" awards, the new Sound Design honors will have next to no impact on the Tonys telecast. But still, a victory for the profession, even if it does come too late for this year's should-have-been-contenders, Gregory Clarke (Journey's End) and Brian Ronan (Spring Awakening). I just hope they really mean it this year. I'd hate to break the sound designers' hearts with a repeat of last year's cruel Tony Administration Committee games: "We've decided to honor replacement cast members... Psyche!"

In other mildly-amusing Tony-related news, someone recently visited Restricted View from Italy, and took advantage of Google's offer to translate my writing into Italian! And you thought I couldn't get any more lyrical. The result is so much fun, you might want to consider reading this blog exclusively in semi-accurate Italian from now on. I particularly loved this rendering of paragraph 21 of my Tonys recap:
Dopo, Marvin Hamlisch, jeans ancora non da portare, introduce il montage dell'anno nei Musicals. Chi non ha memoires affettuosi del Grinch che ha rubato Natale? Il silenzio scomodo greets le clip dei tempi che sono A-Changin'.
ETA: I see it gets even better when you run that paragraph through the translator again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Life outside the Wicked stage

Spotted an hour ago: 2006 Tony nominee and current Wicked cast member Jayne Houdyshell! Only this afternoon, as I walked past the Circle in the Square theatre complex where Wicked and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are playing, did I learn that Houdyshell is now filling the role of Madame Morrible. For just a second, I felt a tiny flicker of interest in actually seeing Wicked. Then I remembered Idina's performance of "Defying Gravity" at the 2004 Tonys, and that tiny flicker died down, and I went on with my day.

[It is always a weird experience to look up clips like that on YouTube, intending to link to them without further commentary, trusting that their awfulness will be self-evident... and at the same time knowing that the only reason they're on YouTube in the first place is that someone somewhere thinks they're the awesomest thing ever and wants to share the awesomeness with you. I almost feel guilty taking advantage of other people's enthusiasm for my own derisive ends.]

Anyway, when I left work this evening, there she was, having a smoke outside the theatre. I realize it is probably not such a blogworthy "sighting," spotting a person standing outside her place of work. And it looked like she was talking to some young people, potentially Wicked groupies, who then posed for a photo with... some other guy. Which means I probably had a simultaneous and, in some circles, far more exciting actor-sighting and didn't know it. But I needed something to post today, all right? My favorite part of the whole thing is that Jayne was standing beneath a sign affixed to an adjacent parking garage that said: PARK HERE FOR WICKED / FROZEN. Looks like somebody was counting on an unrealistically long run... but we're coming up on three years, fellas. Seems like enough time to change (or cover) the bottom half of the sign.

Daytime layabouts, take note! Tomorrow afternoon, TCM is marking Judy Holliday's birthday by airing a handful of her movies. They're not showing my favorite, It Should Happen to You, but if you've been hankering to see Born Yesterday since I recommended it months ago, this is your chance! Also on the docket: Adam's Rib -- tune in for the Judy, stay for the Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes -- and two I haven't seen (yet), The Marrying Kind and Full of Life.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

So fix it, dear Henry

I wish I had something inspiring or exciting or polarizing to say today, but I'm preoccupied with wedding planning, working and, of course, managing my newfound fame (or, to be more accurate, the recent and slight reduction in my obscurity). I haven't even had a chance to read and dislike anything in the new New Yorker. So I'll offer a link instead, a link that I hope will appease you... unless I'm the last person on the internet to find out about This Is Broken. This website is the best reason I have come across for owning and carrying a digital camera. It would be my new favorite thing on the internet if it weren't for the snarkless aridity of the posts, and the curiously humorless folks who take the time to comment (and bicker over what "broken" means). So I am linking in hopes that some of you smart, funny, time-wasting people might head over there and improve things.

Even though the whole point of this post is to give me a chance to move on to the rest of my to-do list, I now find myself watching a 20-minute video presentation by the website's founder, Seth Godin. Three minutes in, he notes how annoying it is that people post comments on his websites to argue about the "broken" verdict. I love this guy.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Preserving the old ways from being abused

Yesterday afternoon I took the nephews to a birthday party at the curiously named Victorian Gardens amusement park in Central Park. Ah, there's nothing like a ride in a child-sized cropduster that rises and falls while pivoting around a metal base to put you in mind of 19th-century England. Boys, if you behave like little gentlemen, I'll buy you each a hot-cross bun!

Anyway, as a party favor, the nephews received a toy pickup truck with a rhinoceros head where the cab should be. (One of a set! Collect 'em all!) I know what you're thinking: that's not a rhinoceros, it's a triceratops. But my 4-year-old nephew is a self-professed animal expert, and he insists that it's a rhinoceros, and unless you want to make a 4-year-old cry I suggest you accept his verdict. As if the vehicle-dinosaur (I mean, rhino) hybrid weren't exciting enough, the truck comes equipped with -- and this is quoted directly from the box -- "Free Wheel'in Power." I don't know what it is about the apostrophe that frightens and confuses people so, but if you have no idea how they function, why use one at all? Do people think they're purely ornamental? Seriously, "Wheel'in"? What would ever possess a person to put an apostrophe there?

I'll resist the urge to write a whole Ignatius J. Reilly-esque treatise on the travesty of apostrophe misuse, because I do have other things I want to do today (other than blogg'in, I mean). And I know am unhealthily uptight about this sort of thing. I came across "T'is" in a book I was reading yesterday, and it made me deeply sad -- you were so close, author I will not name! But that was an advanced reader's copy, so there's still a chance someone will catch it. And "Wheel'in" isn't at all close. Create a prehistoric beast/monster truck mashup if you must, sirs, but when you start throwing around apostrophes willy-nilly, you've gone too far. (If only I had a camera handy; I'd submit this travesty to the folks at Apostrophe Abuse.)

Oh, and as for the "Power" advertised -- you might assume this means the truck does something special, but apparently what they mean by "Free Wheel'in" is that the truck's wheels turn (freely). Which is an important feature, certainly, but not one I'd call out on the packaging.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear

When I saw the movie Dreamgirls, I wasn't impressed with the oft-reprised song "Family." But what if it had looked more like this? What if it had involved Nell Carter, Bea Arthur, Charlotte Rae and other NBC stars of 1986? Then my reaction might have been different.

Ah, the earnest shillery of the '80s. Can you imagine NBC promoting its current lineup this way? Also, I don't know who came up with the concept for this number (our prime-time stars all live in a house together!), but it occurs to me that a sitcom with this setup would be infinitely more entertaining than any of the individual sitcoms being promoted here.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I have to watch it several more times. My favorite part is when Alfonso Ribeiro tries to rock out. What's yours? (Via, where they dig up all kinds of neat stuff.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how

Busy week, and I'm only now getting around to reading what other people had to say about the Tonys. David Marchese, Salon's associate music editor, linked here from his "Audiofile" column earlier this week, sending lots of traffic my way. Naturally, I appreciate the attention (and the fact that he "sort of agrees" with me about Colapinto's article). From what I've seen, Marchese is good at his job, and his piece about the Tonys is as well-written as his other stuff. So I certainly don't mean it personally -- I'm not spoiling for a fight -- when I say it sounds to me like he was the wrong man for the job. Salon doesn't seem to have a theatre editor, or even an arts editor who reviews the occasional Broadway show, so I don't really know why they had anyone at all covering the Tonys. But they sent a music editor, and, like any quick-witted writer faced with a subject he doesn't know well, Marchese wrote a light and dismissive piece about how said subject isn't worth paying attention to anyway. Turning your ignorance into a virtue is a useful critic's trick, if you can pull it off; I've done it myself on occasion, so I can't blame Marchese for trying. But in this case -- as someone who takes the Tonys much too seriously -- I feel compelled to object.

Marchese complains of being bored in the press room:
It wasn't long before people whose names and faces I didn't recognize from shows I haven't seen went back to talking about why their production was a life-changing experience and the epic struggle to have it produced. By the time Spring Awakening capped the evening with its win for best musical ('This is the thing that's everyone talking about?' I heard a waiter mutter backstage during an on-air performance by the show's cast), I was only half paying attention.
I'd probably write a very similar report if Salon (or any other publication) sent me to cover the World Series, or the U.S. Open, or the World Cup -- I'd watch the star athletes thinking, "This is what everyone's talking about?" And later, in the press room, my mind would wander as I listened to athletes I didn't recognize talk about sports I don't watch. And that is why I should not be called on to cover a major sporting event, at least not without some gimmicky "novice's view" frame (like that nonreligious guy who's "blogging the Bible" over at Slate).

Are the Tony Awards meant to entertain a generally disinterested audience? That may be a goal of the telecast, but it certainly doesn't apply to the press room. I don't appreciate the implication that, because Marchese and the anonymous waiter were less than captivated, the Tonys (and the shows honored with awards) must therefore be lame. No editor worth his or her salt would allow me to interpret my own lack of interest in sports as evidence that no one could or should be interested in the outcome of the World Series. Why should it be different for theatre?

Of course, it's hard to separate my indignation on behalf of the theatre from my writerly jealousy -- what I wouldn't give to be in the Tonys press room, even as a waiter! So it irks me on a personal level to know that another writer was extended that privilege and viewed it as a chore. But on a more objective level, I take issue with Salon's editorial carelessness -- a carelessness that extends to the online presentation of the article, by the way; witness the mispunctuated quotation from the waiter, which I copied-and-pasted above, and the misspelling of Donny Osmond's first name (don't tell me you've never visited!). But the readers have already objected at length, so I'll just end by saying to the folks at Salon: if you're ever looking for someone to cover theatre seriously, you know where to find me!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It's getting better all the time

No matter how carefully rehearsed a televised awards show might be, there's still no way of knowing what will happen when the camera is turned on the audience. The camera operators know where the celebs are sitting, but they don't know what those celebs will be doing at the moment the camera cuts to them. Ben Affleck might be yawning. Cate Blanchett might be picking her nose. You just can't know.

As I mentioned in my exhaustive Tony telecast recap, Angela Lansbury was the first presenter to take the stage on Sunday night, and the audience greeted her with enthusiastic applause. For some reason, at that moment, the director (or whoever makes these calls) cut to a shot of audience member and fellow nominee Ethan Hawke, who was definitely not participating in said applause. Maybe his hands were tired (the clapping had been going on for some time at this point). Or maybe he just got back from the bathroom. Probably he was just distracted, thinking of something else, like how he really should have gotten a haircut before appearing on national TV. And probably it was just a coincidence that the director cut to that camera at that moment. But it looked like it could have been intentional -- like Hawke was refusing to clap on principle, and the camera wanted to cover it. Like that time Elia Kazan received a lifetime achievement Oscar, and some of the movie stars in the audience stood, and some sat and clapped politely, and some crossed their arms and scowled.

Apparently I wasn't the only one this thought occurred to; at least twice yesterday, somebody reached this page after a Google search for Hawke Lansbury. I gather, from this, that there are people out there wondering, "Are Angela Lansbury and Ethan Hawke in some kind of blood feud? Why have I not heard about it?" Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case (aside from this page, that search just turns up articles listing the various people who were at, or would be at, the Tonys). Too bad, because if such a rift actually existed, I would love to read about it. I'm almost tempted to make one up. (And I'm not the only one: it's on YouTube!)

Of course, most of Restricted View's very steady traffic this week is due to the great Colapinto Criticism Controversy of 2007. My stats have revealed at least 18 other pages that link here, or link to the Huffington Post article, and the thoughtful comments keep rolling in (incidentally, you should be proud of yourselves, commenters; I am proud to play host to such an astute and respectful bunch). And there are now plenty of other places you can join in the discussion (or start one), among them: After the MFA,'s Bookstore Blog, Arts Journal, Cosmopoetica, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, The Dizzies, Gawker, Infotainment Rules,, Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant, Roth Brothers, A Tiny Revolution, Salon and Very Like a Whale. (I can see my list of blogs-to-read-regularly will be lots longer before this is over!) Let me know if I've missed any -- and don't miss John (a different John)'s poll, "Which quotation [from Colapinto's comments] is the most condescending?" (I haven't voted -- I can't decide!)

In the midst of all the excitement, I still get the occasional person looking for information about restricted-view seating at various (typically British) venues. And every day -- every single day -- I get at least one hit from someone looking for images of a certain actor in an advanced state of undress. (I won't repeat the actual phrase -- don't want to get anybody's hopes up -- but it hasn't changed.) I do not have, and never will have, and wouldn't post even if I did have, such pictures, but I'm kind of touched by this person's/these people's refusal to give up the dream.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Tonys on TV

Once, during an interview on his fictional chat show, the Martin Short character Jiminy Glick interrupted his guest (whoever it was) to announce, apropos of nothing, "Marvin Hamlisch: I don't think he should wear jeans anymore." I am afraid that this is what comes to my mind when I turn on CBS to watch the 61st Annual Tony Awards and see Mr. Hamlisch perched atop the Radio City marquee, playing the vamp from "One" on a piano that has equally improbably been placed atop said marquee. He is not wearing jeans, at least as far as I can tell, but after a few moments I stop thinking about him and start thinking about how well the number is working. It's professional, it's inviting, it's appropriate -- even the headshots gimmick works (although, Sam Waterston, who are you kidding with that headshot? Your hair hasn't been all-black since I'll Fly Away). I haven't seen an opening number that worked this well since the year 42nd Street was on Broadway, and I wonder now, as I did then, why they don't just do it this way every year. Why not always have one of the nominated musicals perform right at the top of the show? It saves time, it saves trouble, it saves embarrassment. We are off to a very good start.

Monday, June 11, 2007

I wasn't disappointed (how disappointing!)

In case you weren't watching -- I hear there was some other show on cable that was pretty good? -- last night's Tony Awards ceremony was elegant and classy, and the television broadcast was sharp and professional. Everything went off without a hitch, and the whole thing seemed to be guided by a healthy respect, even affection, for theatre -- for its own sake, not just theatre as a breeding ground for TV and film actors. If it hadn't been for the ham-handed filming of the musical numbers, I'd wonder whether I dreamed the whole thing. So my hat is off to CBS, and the producers, and anyone else I should credit for making last night's show almost embarrassment-free. Was it thrilling? Only occasionally. But it was always dignified, and that is nothing to sneeze at, as my Nana would say.

Before the broadcast on CBS, I watched NY1's red-carpet preshow, which was every bit as rough as the actual event was polished. Roma Torre, Donna Karger, Patrick Pacheco and their crew flubbed every single toss ("Back to you, Patrick!...Patrick?"), and their interviews served up plenty of cringeworthy moments -- my favorite was when Donna announced, "We're standing here with John Mahoney, who's nominated for his work in Prelude to a Kiss..." Mahoney should have won a special award just for keeping such a straight face as he replied, very politely, "Unfortunately, I wasn't nominated." Whoops. Still, they were at least as prepared as Joan Rivers has ever been, and she has the easier job to prepare for (anyone who reads the occasional issue of Us Weekly would be more prepared for the Oscar night press junket than Joan). And their motives were pure -- they didn't stop talking to Charlotte D'Amboise (wearing what was surely the night's worst gown -- it looked like one of those tiny tank tops that bodybuilders wear, except with gold sequins) or the creative team from Grey Gardens just because Zach Braff walked by. What a surprise that the evening continued in that fashion!

Of course, I watched the actual ceremony with laptop close by, so check back later for the play-by-play!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Live from Radio City

It's here at last: Tony Sunday! I spent some time handicapping the races with Josh McAuliffe, a reporter for the Scranton Times-Tribune (my hometown paper), and you can read his story for some of my thoughts. If you want more from me, those shows I've seen (not all of the nominees, regrettably) are reviewed at length here in the archives -- links in the sidebar to the right. And welcome to any new Scranton-area readers! You picked a lively time to stop by (see below for the great New Yorker staff writer vs. blogger dust-up of 2007).

Now for the standard jaded-arts-critic disclaimer: Yes, competition and the arts are an awkward pairing. And yes, the Tony Awards are commercial, often infuriatingly so. But that doesn't mean I'm not excited. In fact, the Tony Awards is the only awards show I do get excited about. Tony night, for me, is what Oscar night is for most people: a chance to see a bunch of celebrities and artists I admire dressed up, mingling and being recognized for their work. To me, the theatre stars are the real stars.

I know I'm not the only one who feels that way, but I also know Broadway geeks like me are in the minority. CBS knows it, too; that's why, every year, they try to produce a Tonys telecast that non-fans will want to watch. And every year, they fail, and what we end up with is a telecast that nobody wants to watch.

This year, I'm told, most of the world will be tuning in to the final episode of The Sopranos while CBS is broadcasting the Tonys. But even if the telecast's strongest competition were reruns of The War at Home, it still wouldn't win its slot, because casual TV viewers aren't going to care whether Jennifer Ehle or Martha Plimpton wins Best Featured Actress in a Play, not even if Paris Hilton is released from prison just to present the award.

I keep hoping, one of these years, CBS will realize it's fighting a losing battle trying to turn the Tonys into the MTV Movie Awards. Someday, I tell myself, they'll give up on ratings and, instead, cultivate the goodwill of theatre fans (that small but discerning interest group) by producing a show that theatre fans will actually enjoy. A ceremony designed to gratify those of us who are actually invested in the proceedings might accidentally manage to impress, even convert, the channel-surfing masses, by showcasing theatre as an art worth caring about. At the very least, it wouldn't leave me feeling insulted and resentful, as I do nearly every year when I watch the Tony Awards.

It starts at the very top of the show; almost invariably, the opening number is so awful I find myself thinking, Man, musicals are lame. Why would anybody spend their money on that? So I ask you, if they can manage to make me forget what I love about theatre in less than a minute, what chance do they have of holding the attention of the uninitiated? Why oh why can't they come up with an opening number that might make people want to see a Broadway show? Why can't they even come up with a number that will make people want to continue watching this show?

Perhaps some of you remember the opening number from 2000, when host Rosie O'Donnell condescendingly informed us that some of our "favorite stars" from TV (Megan Mullally, Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski) got their starts on Broadway! "Betcha didn't know / She did a Broadway show," she sang of Mullally (to the tune of "Jesus Christ Superstar," to make matters worse), obviously addressing the audience "at home," not the audience in front of her at Radio City. Presumably most of them were very aware of said performers' stage credits; in fact, I bet some were thinking, "Oh, that's why Megan Mullally hasn't been onstage in a while." And there I was, watching "at home" and bristling at the suggestion that TV stardom is somehow more valuable than stage stardom (where have I heard that before?), not to mention the implication that I didn't know Jane Krakowski had starred in several musicals before landing on Ally McBeal. The number seemed grounded in the assumption that Broadway stardom is just a step up from obscurity, which might be true for the average TV viewer, but hardly seems appropriate for kicking off the Tony Awards. See for yourself:

This clip also highlights another perennial problem with the Tonys: the musical numbers tend to look and sound terrible on TV. The constant cutting from one camera to another means we can't get any sense of what the choreography looks like onstage (check out how bad this one looks once the chorus enters. Then, marvel at what happens to this excellent staging when you shoot it TV-style; the live audience applauds as the choreography falls into place, and the TV audience has no idea why). And of course, these performances were never meant to be seen in close-up. Meanwhile, the singers often have trouble staying in key (I get the impression they can't hear the band all that well) -- I mean, did you make it to the end of that Jesse L. Martin solo? "Gotta hear him sing," indeed. Yikes.

The bad decisions don't stop with the opening number, obviously. Every year, they find a new stupid way to present the "Best Play" nominees (remember 1999, when they had a bunch of actors stand in a semicircle reading random lines from their shows, like some kind of drama slam? That might have been the worst). Every year, they dig up TV and movie "stars" with no evident connection to the theatre and trot them out as presenters (why watch The Sopranos when you can see... Zach Braff! And Rainn Wilson!). Every year, the audience reaction shots make it painfully obvious that nobody in the control room is really sure who these people are. And every year, they run out of time (something the Oscars broadcast never has to worry about) and end up squeezing in the final award. "And the Tony Award for Best Musical goes to The Lion King good night everyone!" Sorry, Elaine Stritch, we would have let you finish your acceptance speech, but we had to make sure we had time for all of Hugh Jackman's "Wolverine" jokes. You understand.

And so, every year, I find myself scowling at movie actors who yawn their way through their presentations, and watching stuff like this in open-mouthed horror. Meanwhile, the most memorable moments -- graceful acceptance speeches, powerful performances -- are provided by people who have never once appeared in Us Weekly magazine. But, of course, I still watch. And I really do appreciate the fact that CBS airs the awards, and takes the ratings hit, every year, even if I also believe another, more arts-focused network could do a better job. So I guess I'm sorry-grateful. The move to a 3-hour broadcast was a good thing, and the decision not to have a host has been working for me, too. So I'm hoping I'll be pleasantly surprised this year. And in case tonight is business as usual, I direct you to this video gallery at the Tonys' official site. I just finished watching their "Tony Memory" interview with Joanna Gleason, and in that 4 minutes and 50 seconds my theatre-geek self found as much to enjoy as I hope to find in the entire 3 hours of tonight's telecast.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Maybe I'm amazed

We're in our third day of record-setting traffic here at Restricted View, and in case you haven't heard, the Huffington Post reported that Thursday's honored visitor was, in fact, award-winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto. The HuffPo received no response from Colapinto himself -- perhaps his AOL connection is still on the fritz? -- which makes me wonder what went down, exactly. Did The New Yorker's PR folks track him down to verify? Or did they just recognize the M.O.? ("Knee-jerk defensiveness... name-calling... condescending asides... Oh yeah, that's definitely him"?)

I probably don't need to tell you this is not what I expected when I wrote that post. It wasn't my intention to spark a debate about old vs. new media and their respective uses and limitations, or to challenge the distinction between "blogger" and "writer" (it hadn't occurred to me that I couldn't be both). I didn't set out to expose the allegedly entrenched institutional snobbery of The New Yorker. And I certainly wasn't looking to get into a fight over who's the "truest" Beatles fan, or whether this article's "unprecedented" scoops were, in fact, new. I just wanted to say, for whatever it's worth, that I found the article disappointingly dull. Being a Beatles fan, and having read much more interesting New Yorker profiles of much less interesting people, I expected to be fascinated, and instead I was bored. But the author says, actually, the article is fascinating, I just wasn't reading it correctly. And now that my opinion (and perhaps even my right to have an opinion) has been challenged, I am sorry the article isn't available online; I wish you could check it out and judge for yourself, instead of just taking my word for it. (Or Colapinto's word for it -- you decide who seems most trustworthy.) Still, a few of you have tracked it down (I had to pull it out of the recycling bin myself, just in case I need it for backup), and I'm grateful for your comments, because the discussion here and elsewhere has turned out to be much more entertaining and enlightening than the article in question. So thanks to my visitors old and new for being such careful readers and thoughtful writers. And please, keep it up!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

I could make it longer, if you like the style...

Today (Thursday) was supposed to be a day off for me; I'm out of town, home for my brother's high school graduation, and I didn't even bring the laptop with me. Which is why, when all this was happening, I was out in the backyard, watching ants and building a pile of sticks with my two-year-old niece. I don't want to get all A.A. Milne on you, but there it is; I'm taking the time for a number of things that weren't important yesterday, as it were. And so I haven't prepared any remarks or anything, but faithful readers (ye happy few!) who don't know what I'm talking about should check out that link. And all you new folks, thanks for stopping by! (And if you're looking to hire a "lovable" blogger who's "not a writer" and "barely a reader" -- clips notwithstanding -- drop me a line.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

You won't see me

After I posted my quick appreciation of Paul McCartney's new album title last week, I opened a brand-new issue of The New Yorker and found John Colapinto's article "When I'm Sixty-Four," a study of "Paul McCartney then and now."

A better subtitle would have been "How I spent a week wasting Paul McCartney's time." The story contains a few interesting revelations -- I didn't know Sir Paul's company, MPL Communications, owns the rights to Guys and Dolls, for instance. But for the most part it is dull, shapeless and devoid of insight. There's no real criticism of his music, either then or now, and certainly no attempt is made to synthesize his body of work. That would make a really interesting article, don't you think? I'll tell you what doesn't make a really interesting article: exhaustively cataloging every encounter Macca has with an autograph-seeking fan during your time together. If all that detail added up to something -- if Colapinto used it to make some point about Paul as public figure -- it might make sense, but no, it stands alone, as if the very fact that Paul gets recognized a lot were newsworthy. At one point a fan compliments him on Pipes of Peace, and I thought, Ooh, interesting choice. Maybe this will be the segue into a discussion of Paul's long and varied solo career. Or maybe the author will contrast this episode with the earlier one where Paul was asked to sign a copy of Beatles 1, to discuss the breadth of his fame and following. But none of that ever happened.

I first realized I might be wasting my time when I got to the "describing the subject's physical appearance" paragraph and it began, "McCartney's hair, which he admits to dyeing..."

Admits to dyeing? The man's hair was gray for more than a decade; it's not a matter of "admitting" to anything. This is like saying, "Starr's mustache, which he admits to having grown..." It might make for interesting reading if you discussed his decision to go back to brown, and whether or not it had anything to do with his decision to marry a wife several decades his junior. Or if you discussed the alleged plastic surgery he does not admit to having.

But Colapinto does not do any of that. Instead, he focused on asking dumb questions and then including them in the article. For example, Paul is approached by a fan brusquely seeking an autograph (the first of many), and as he walks away, Colapinto reports, "I remarked that the man could have been another Mark David Chapman." If I had the chance to chat with Paul McCartney, and I said something like that, I would buckle instantly under the weight of my humiliation. Like Chris Farley interviewing McCartney: "Stupid! Stupid!" I certainly wouldn't tell the world about it in The New Yorker. I would also be too embarrassed to write this sentence: "I suggested to McCartney that it's difficult to know whom to blame for Ono's presence at the [Let It Be] sessions -- Lennon, who brought her along, or Ono, who stayed when she was obviously unwelcome." Did you now. I am sure Paul thanked you for that insight.

The piece is full of the sort of details (nine pages' worth, not counting photos) you might find interesting if you haven't already heard the story about how "Yesterday" was originally, provisionally titled "Scrambled Eggs" -- in other words, if you're not at all interested in the Beatles. But if you're looking for analysis, look elsewhere.

The article's not available online, but if you feel like killing 6 minutes and 40 seconds, you can listen to an mp3 of Colapinto discussing "what it was like to interview Paul McCartney" at The New Yorker's website. I think I'll pass -- I've wasted enough time on this already.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Three weekend subway tales

Saturday evening, I step onto a downtown train, and as the doors close I realize there are two teenage girls seated in the center of the car having a heated argument. Terrific. The girls were sitting right next to each other (every seat was taken), and Girl #1 leaned in even closer to Girl #2 as she shouted, "If you gonna talk about that, how 'bout what you pulled at my birthday party?! Girl, we talkin' my SWEET SIXTEEN party, and you all, Just walking him out, and you don't come BACK for 45 minutes." Her friend responded in like manner (dismissive gestures were flying, usually accompanied by "Psshhh"). And when I say they were shouting, I mean, this conversation was being carried out at a volume level that I'd say is only appropriate to normal conversation if you're standing next to the speakers in a nightclub, or maybe operating a jackhammer. Not, I would say, on a rather crowded but quiet subway car, when you and your conversation partner are sitting hip-to-hip. Every few sentences, the girls would laugh -- angry though they ostensibly were -- so I was satisfied this wouldn't escalate into a hair-pulling, earring-ripping, bystander-injuring fight. But it was still alarming, and still hurting my ears. So I changed cars. Girls, I'm sorry you don't get enough attention at home, or at your birthday parties, but I'm not here to make up for that. I'm just trying to read this copy of Commonweal.

* * *

Sunday morning, I'm on the uptown 1 train platform at Columbus Circle, just beginning my walk all the way to the end. Which is a great tip, by the way, in all cases but especially when you're heading uptown from 59th St. on the 1: instead of just stopping at the center of the platform, where the crowd is already three deep, and then fighting your way onto the already-full car that stops in front of you? Walk to the end of the platform, where you will find fewer people waiting for spaces on cars with lots more room. I don't know why this is such a well-kept secret, but I'm trying to get the word out. (Also: stay to the right. And step aside to let others on and off the train.)

Anyway, as I was saying, I was walking along the platform, and a white-haired man approached me and said, in halting, German-accented English: "Miss. We go to Guggen-hehm Moo-seum?" I thought he was asking me out on a date or something until I noticed the three middle-aged ladies nearby, also awaiting my response. Just harmless tourists! Phew. I'm always happy to help lost tourists if I can, because the subway system is hard enough for us residents to figure out (especially on the weekends). But this was no easy case, because -- as you've already realized, if you're a New Yorker yourself -- there is no simple way to get to the Guggenheim from 59th Street, especially not from the 1-train platform. (At least they had the uptown part right.) And they obviously spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no German (I can sing "Happy Birthday," but that wouldn't have helped much). "The Guggenheim..." I said, and the man nodded and said, "Eighty-six." One of the women held out a map, on which she (or someone) had circled the B-C 86th St. stop. Right street -- wrong side of the park. I tried to demonstrate this by pointing. "The Guggenheim is here," I said, dragging a finger across the green rectangle that represents Central Park. "Yes, and ve are here," the man said (almost rolling his eyes, or so it seemed), pointing to 59th St. The woman spoke up: "B or C?"

If only it were that simple. Even tourists fluent in English would probably get turned around if I gave them the best getting-to-the-Guggenheim advice I could muster, and these tourists were definitely not fluent in English. The woman with the map did not feel like waiting around for me to think of a good answer. "To eighty-six," she insisted. "B or C?" Like, Come on, lady, we don't have all day. But of course, I was trying to think of a route that wouldn't take them all day. I looked around for backup -- maybe someone would help me convince them that they should consider another path? But everyone within earshot was staring straight ahead, or up, or down; anywhere but at me and my new friends. I was on my own. "You could take the 1 train..." I began, but they all shook their heads, and the woman repeated, "B or C?" and jabbed an impatient finger at the map. Maybe it's just the German/American social barrier that made them seem so impatient, but by this point I wanted to say, "Look, you seem awfully confident, so why don't you just go ahead and pick a train yourself." Instead I said, "You could get off at 86 and take the bus," trying again to convey the message that crossing the park would be necessary at some point. They conferred briefly ("Bus?") and seemed to reach an agreement that this would work. So when the woman holding the map asked again, "B or C?" I told them, "C," hoping that's the line that runs on weekends (it's all I can do to keep track of the ones I ride every day), and they headed off. I hope they found their way to the Guggenheim, or at least ran into a native they trusted more than me to direct them there.

* * *

Sunday night I encountered a personal subway first: an otherwise sane-looking passenger clipping her nails. I thought -- I hoped -- that this was just an urban legend, but no, I can now confirm that there are actually people who think nail-clipping is appropriate public transportation activity. And she was doing a really thorough job, too; this was no emergency hangnail removal. Clip, clip, clip, all the way downtown, in spite of many dirty looks tossed her way by the rest of us. (Wouldn't it be great if dirty looks were effective? So many of my problems would be solved.) I think I speak for all of us not raised in barns when I say: Ew.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Is a puzzlement

Do you read the theatre reviews in The New Yorker? If so, you already know that Hilton Als has a habit of saying bizarre things. Sometimes I think he's trying to beat his own record for least relevant intro paragraph ever. (Sorry -- once I got started looking for examples, it was hard to stop.) Other times I just wonder what he's talking about, and why nobody in the office asked him that before they printed his piece. A few weeks back, when I was busy bagging my mattress and scrubbing my baseboards and otherwise dealing with my suspected bedbug infestation, he published a column that I've been puzzling over ever since. So even though it's old news (insofar as it was ever news), I'd like to discuss it now.

In the May 21 issue of The New Yorker, Als reviewed two recently opened Broadway shows, 110 in the Shade and Radio Golf, and for a change his intro paragraph actually referred directly to the subject at hand, namely Audra McDonald. He gets off to a good enough start, describing her as "a performer so freakishly gifted that you wonder how she does it." No argument there. And I can't take issue with anything he says about the show, since I haven't seen it. What struck me as odd was his devoting the final paragraph on this topic to a discussion of Audra as a television actress. "For those audience members who have seen McDonald only in her sporadic television appearances -- on The Bedford Diaries or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -- her Lizzie is a revelation." Ah, yes, Audra's talents, so long underused on TV, are finally getting a chance to shine onstage! Is this not a truly bizarre point for a theatre critic to make? And even if it were somehow justifiable to discuss her headlining performance in this show as a departure from her "sporadic television work," I can't help recalling that much of her small-screen exposure has been related to her career in musical theatre: see for example, the 1999 ABC remake of Annie, or her televised concert appearances on PBS. I mean, I got a kick out of seeing her on Law & Order, but I have a hard time believing that anyone in the Roundabout's potential audience would identify Audra McDonald chiefly as "That psychiatrist lady from season 2 of SVU." If those people exist, and if something inspires them to see this show in spite of their total lack of awareness of what's been happening on Broadway in the last 13 years, then, yes, her performance will probably be a revelation. But I hardly think that benighted point of view should be adopted by a professional critic.

Is it possible that Als just doesn't know that Audra has been, you know, onstage before? That she has, in fact, a couple of awards to show for it? "In Mike Nichols's 2001 TV-movie version of Margaret Edson's play Wit," he continues, still apropos of nothing, really, "McDonald struck me as a serviceable actress, but not a standout. Watching her in this production of 100 in the Shade, which beautifully ignores race and casts black and white performers alike in key roles... I was reminded of how underused -- or poorly used -- actresses like McDonald continue to be onscreen, where they would reach larger audiences. If movies were as color-blind as they should be, McDonald, with her incredible skill, soul, and purpose, could easily become her generation's Meryl Streep."

It always irks me when a critic writes about a star as though he had just discovered her -- as though only he were discerning enough to see the star's true potential, but he's generously letting us in on the secret -- when in fact the star in question is well-established and widely revered already. And under normal circumstances I'd probably go on and on about just that. But it's just the beginning of my issues with this particular sample of Als's art. In the paragraph I just quoted, I'm not sure whether he's saying Audra has improved since 2001, or that she was misdirected or miscast in Wit, or what -- there seems to be a sentence missing that states his point in mentioning Wit (assuming there is one). As for the comparison to Meryl Streep -- well, I don't know what effect Als was going for here (could anyone ever really know?), but it sounds as though he's lamenting the fact that Audra's talents are being frittered away on the stage, when she could have a major motion picture career, if only she were white, or cast in roles typically given to white actresses. As though her multiple Tonys, etc., are really just consolation prizes, stand-ins for the Academy Awards she ought to be winning. An argument that might be convincing, or at least defensible, were it not for the fact that Audra is (as noted earlier in this review) a pretty darn good singer. Her talents therefore lend themselves to a career path slightly different than Streep's, and (with all due respect to Meryl) I thank God for that. I doubt that it's primarily racism that keeps Audra working in the theatre, and only "sporadically" on TV and in the movies, but even if that were the case, I'd be awfully sorry to see her turn into her generation's Meryl Streep. I much prefer her as her generation's Audra McDonald.

That's not the end of the madness, I'm afraid. Als -- having just finished recording his "melancholy" impressions of the racist motion-picture industry -- moves on to Radio Golf by declaring, "It's OK if you don't like August Wilson's work. Perfectly all right." The one thing that irks me more than critics who pretend they're discovering an already much-loved performer is critics who turn condescending as soon as they are asked to discuss the work of August Wilson. When it comes from white critics, it feels distinctly like intellectual racism, of the sort that Wilson's plays are constructed to defeat (at least in my experience). The fact that Als is black makes it more complicated; he's not dismissing Wilson simply because he's a black man writing about ordinary black people as though their lives were worthy of literature, but rather because he's a fellow black man writing about ordinary black people in the wrong way. That doesn't make me feel much better about this critical approach; I still think it's a failure to judge Wilson's work on its merits, or to acknowledge that it has merits at all. I would never ask a critic to like any playwright just because everyone else seems to, and I'm happy to entertain any critic's carefully reasoned argument, however against-the-grain it might go. But attending a play with a chip on your shoulder, and then granting your readers permission to join you in disliking the playwright, is another matter altogether.

Als has words of comfort for you, if criticizing Wilson makes you "feel like Don Imus"; he encourages you to "Take off those political-correctness-tinted glasses," which will presumably give you a share in his courage, the courage that allows him to go against public opinion and dismiss Radio Golf as "a formulaic work that illustrates why Wilson was not, in the end, a great artist." Ah, but perhaps, if he'd been white, he could have been his generation's Eugene O'Neill. Why, he might even have had a career in the movies!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

I can't help my concern that the ladies of River City keep ignoring all my counsel and advice

Here's a fun time-wasting blog, for those days when Restricted View just isn't absorbing enough: Passive-Aggressive Notes. [Update: they've moved here.]

In my experience, "passive-aggressive" is an oft-misused label; people enjoy accusing others of "passive-aggressive" behavior in situations that fall well outside the purview of the actual definition, possibly because this sort of not-strictly-passive-aggressive-but-still-annoying behavior lends itself so well to complaining, and possibly because "passive-aggressive" is kind of fun to say. (The same goes for "anal-retentive.") I'm not sure all, or even most, of these notes would really qualify as "passive-aggressive." (The folks that run the blog are aware of this, to their credit.) But they're fun to read, because each pissy little Post-It tells a story, a saga of human behavior and misbehavior. Sometimes a tragic story; more often a farce; almost always a story with which you, the reader, can identify. Sometimes you identify with the note's recipient/target; more often, you identify with the person who left the note, or with the bystander who took the picture. For the past few weeks I've been mentally composing my own note, a list of "instructions for using the garbage chute," because some of my neighbors don't seem to realize that they shouldn't leave their garbage bag (or, more often, plastic grocery bag with the handles left untied) squatting behind the door, at the top of the chute, waiting for me to come along and give it a push. I don't want to touch your garbage, people. I don't even want to touch my own, but we all have to do things we don't like from time to time.

I probably won't actually write and post that note, or any of the others I compose in my head in response to similar annoyances. Not because it would be passive-aggressive (which it wouldn't; I think "bitchy" is more accurate), but because it probably wouldn't work, and then I'd just be more angry: not only are people ignoring the conventions of civilized society, now they're also ignoring my note! The nerve! So I'll just keep on blowing off steam here instead. Because, really, what is a blog, if not a series of (so-called) passive-aggressive notes?

P.S. I seem to be invoking Marian Paroo a lot lately -- I've always identified with her. And you just know she wrote scoldy notes to post around the library.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Ill Wind

The set of Doug Hughes's revival of Inherit the Wind is one big courtroom, and as the audience members take their seats (some onstage), a "gospel quartet" materializes in the courtroom's gallery and launches into a set of bluegrassy old-time-religion anthems. What seems, at first, to be mere whimsy turns out to be a perfect setup for Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's drama: the musicians perform with such competence and such enthusiasm that I began to wish I could spend my summers in the 1920s Bible Belt, wearing a sackcloth dress and playing songs about Jesus on a dulcimer. They got the crowd to stomp along to their rousing rendition of "Down by the Riverside" (just try not to sing along), and then, when we were all settled and feeling magnanimous, inclined to identify with these good and earnest people and, what's more, having just declared our intention to study war no more, the quartet launched into a spirited rendition of the unconvincingly lighthearted, alarmingly defensive "You Can't Make a Monkey out of Me."

The effect is deeply, and appropriately, unsettling -- you couldn't ask for a better curtain-warmer for this play. Unfortunately, Hughes squanders the richness of this opening once the play itself is underway. As it turns out, staging the entire play on a courtroom set isn't such an intelligent design after all (ha). The trial dominates the play, but there is more to the play than just the trial; there are a number of important non-courtroom scenes that feel cursory and peripheral in this staging, pushed as they are to the area in front of the judge's bench. Many of these scenes are meant to give us insight into the trial's major players -- the two lawyers, Brady and Drummond; Bert, the young teacher on trial for including Darwin in his high-school curriculum; the town's "spiritual leader," Rev. Brown, and his rebellious daughter, Rachel; and the people of Hillsboro in general. A truly intelligent staging, one interested in sustaining the dramatic ambiguity of this one's musical warm-up, would build on the script to help us see these characters as individuals, not easily compartmentalized and labeled, even when they themselves insist on the strictest of interpretations. Instead, Hughes seems bent on reducing the dimensionality of every character, or at least of those characters not on the side of truth (i.e., not obviously rooting for Drummond), even when the script is straining against it. So he has the townspeople appear onstage together in a drab, uniform block at the top of the show, and when two youngsters step forward to perform the scripted first scene -- which, on paper, is a cleverly intimate introduction of the play's big themes -- the whole thing feels false (and not just because one of those youngsters -- see the show and guess which one I mean -- is really quite a bad little actor, although I blame the director for that, too).

All of these wrong notes combine to make one noisy, dissonant chord out of the first act's "prayer meeting" scene. The townspeople, under Hughes's direction, act as one, shouting their "Amens" and engaging in a call-and-response with the Rev. Brown as if they were performing "Ya Got Trouble" by torchlight. The scene ought to show us what is at stake for the believers in the town (or, at least, what they think is at stake); it ought to make us see how their world is shaken by the issues raised in the trial, and why they might look to someone like Brown, with all his fire-and-brimstone certainty, for leadership. But here we see them, not as troubled individuals hoping for guidance, but as a uniform mob, gathered to frighten us, to make us root all the more for their ultimate defeat and humiliation. In this crowd, Rev. Brown doesn't stand out as the most rigidly fundamental; he just happens to be the one with the most lines.

The actors who make up the ensemble are, for the most part, doing their best to create fully realized characters, however little use Hughes might have for their contributions. Less impressive are Maggie Lacey and Ben Walker, as the young lovers supposedly at the center of this story; their Rachel and Cates have little personality and less chemistry, so who cares what happens to either of them? This isn't their story, anyway; in Hughes's hands, the only characters who matter are Brady and Drummond. And, with Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer in those roles, how bad can it be? I was seated in the front row (sure, my view was partially restricted, but who's complaining?), and once the music was over, the show's biggest thrill came from being so close to the legendary stars. That Brian Dennehy's characterization of Matthew Harrison Brady doesn't quite land is not really Dennehy's fault; he seems to be longing to show what lies behind that frozen grin of his, but the production, anxious to signal that its sympathies are with Cates and Drummond, is designed to cancel out any depth Dennehy might try to establish. This leaves Christopher Plummer's Drummond looking like the only three-dimensional figure in a field of cardboard cutouts -- with the possible exception of Denis O'Hare, as the newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck. It would be difficult not to find color in Hornbeck's poetic dialogue, but Hare brings so much personality to the stage you keep thinking he'll burst into song. (The man has had many Tony nominations already, but he really should have had another this year.)

I'd recommend that you read the play, but odds are you already have. And there's a reason for that. On the page, this play may be unfashionably lyrical, but it is also richer than this revival would have you believe. Take this exchange, from early in Act One:
RACHEL: Everybody says what you did is bad.

CATES: It isn't as simple as that. Good or bad, black or white, night or day. Did you know, at the top of the world the twilight is six months long?

RACHEL: But we don't live at the top of the world. We live in Hillsboro, and when the sun goes down, it's dark.
Cates is right, of course; life isn't as simple as Rachel wants it to be. But the play is only dramatic because Rachel has a point, too, and it would have been nice to feel a little of the darkness she's talking about. Not "darkness" as in "fundamentalists are scary, and still among us in 2007!" but "darkness" as in "life is hard, and there are no easy answers." The thrill of the courtroom scene comes from its even-handedness; Brady takes a drubbing, sure, but he gives nearly as good as he gets. He knows his stuff (although the playwrighs stumble badly in having Brady declare that sex is "considered original sin"), and it's hard to blame Hillsboro's citizens for buying into his vision of bright daylight. But this production recasts the battle as the urbanites vs. the rednecks, and thus misses the opportunity to comment on, recontextualize, or even reflect contemporary American political discourse; in the end it only reflects the sort of thinking that led us to our regrettably polarized state. And Drummond's famous speech about progress and its price ("You may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell like gasoline"), even delivered masterfully by the great Christopher Plummer, has little impact here, because at no other point does the production ever intimate that embracing a six-month twilight has its own drawbacks.