Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Following yonder star

I bought last year's Christmas cards from UNICEF -- a worthy charity gets some cash; my friends and family get some attractive artwork and cozy holiday wishes to decorate their mantelpiece/refrigerator/trash can; everybody wins. I probably won't be sending cards this Christmas (maybe we should add "P.S. Happy Holidays!" to our wedding invitations?), but when the UNICEF Cards & Gifts catalog arrived this week, I flipped through it anyway. My favorite Xmas card design was "City of Bethlehem" -- until I read the description more carefully. What's wrong with this picture? "Embossed with bronze accents, the City of Bethlehem glows in the evening sun, while a shimmering star guides Joseph and Mary." That star is pretty and all, but I'm pretty sure that's not how the story goes.

Seriously though: UNICEF does good work; their Christmas cards are nice; you should consider buying some... but if you go the religious route, maybe look for a design with a slightly better grasp on the nativity story details.

What global not-for-profit will I find petty fault with tomorrow? Come back and see!

Monday, July 30, 2007

I often ask myself that very question

Had a fine time relaxing in the Hamptons over this surprisingly sunny weekend. I wouldn't have minded too much if it rained, though, since I enjoyed having the time to read and poke around online and such. And it had been a long time since I devoted the better part of a Sunday afternoon to reading the Times. My 4-and-a-half-year-old nephew came along, looking for some entertainment, when I was just picking up the NYT Magazine (which I'd left for last). He looked at it, and then at me, and then he asked, "If it's not interesting, why does it have a robot on the cover?"

His assumption that the NYT Magazine was "not interesting" was probably the result of an earlier exchange with some other grown-up, but I prefer to think it was a completely spontaneous pronouncement. In any case, his point was well taken. Why was I seeking out the content in the NYT Magazine when I could be doing something rewarding, like playing with my nephews? We ended up watching the last half of the Yankees-Orioles game, after which everybody went outside to play some backyard wiffleball, with rules made up Calvinball-style by the aforementioned four-year-old. After making contact with the ball, he trotted proudly around the "bases" we'd established, then headed off into the far reaches of the yard. "I'm still running the bases!" he called back to us. "There's lots more of them over here!" Eventually he finished his victory lap and came back to establish a new rule: all players called "out" had to sit in "Baseball Jail" (the nearby Little Tykes playhouse) until someone else got out and took their place. Baseball Jail is sort of like the pickle jar, but more awesome. And more challenging for those of us over 4 feet tall. Frankly, I think baseball's popularity would soar if the MLB adopted some of these rules.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

...Where we're twice as upset as in town

Perhaps I jinxed myself when I expressed doubts about whether I'd have anything to blog about this weekend. Not half an hour later I left my apartment and stepped straight into a comedy of errors... except without the "comedy," really. Do you like reading long and irritable accounts of other people's travel mishaps? No? Too bad, because that's what you're getting. The one thing that got me through this afternoon without snapping at innocent passersby or giving up on my little vacation was the thought that, when I got back to my computer, I would write such a blog post about all this.

Things started off well enough. When I left my apartment I was toting a heavy backpack and an equally heavy laptop bag and wearing not-so-practical shoes (this is rare, for me, and I almost always regret it), but I made it to the bus stop two blocks away at the same moment the bus arrived, which I took as a positive sign. Yes, it was crowded and slow-moving, and carrying at least 15 noisy preschoolers on some sort of day-camp field trip, but at least it took some of the legwork out of the errand I had unwisely decided to run on my way to Penn Station. I still had to walk two long avenues west when I disembarked to run said errand, and then two long avenues back to Broadway to catch the subway (I didn't have time to take the bus all the way downtown -- nobody does, really, unless they're not picky about when they arrive). It was hot and humid and just after 1:00 when I arrived at the 86th St. downtown 1 train platform, a dripping, sweaty mess. I set my bags down gratefully and looked around at the surprisingly large number of people also waiting on the platform. Obviously there hadn't been a train in quite some time. Great, I thought, a nice crowded ride downtown. I was too tired to dig out any reading material, and anyway, I'd be reading plenty once I got on the train, so I just stood there dripping and gazing down the track, waiting for the 1 train to appear. It did appear rather quickly, but unfortunately it was speeding past us on the express track. Say it with me: ruh-roh.

A few more minutes went by before an announcement was made over the PA system. It was basically unintelligible, but I believe it went something like this: "Due to a stalled train and a passenger needing assistance at 96th Street, the downtown 1 train is running on the express track. As an alternative to downtown service, transfer to an uptown 1 train to 96th Street and take the express downtown."

Lately I've been reading a lot of headlines about the MTA's proposed fare hikes. I also read about the most recent findings of the Straphangers Campaign State of the Subways Report, which found that the 1 train was the best in the system in terms of dependability. Because of where I live, where the fiance lives, and where I work, I tend to ride the 1 train almost exclusively, and my response to that was, "Wow, if the 1 train is the best, then the MTA is doing even worse than I thought." Because, seriously. I suppose you can't blame the MTA for a passenger's "needing assistance," whatever that means, but you sure as hell can (and I sure as hell do) blame them for taking so long to inform all of us would-be downtown passengers that we were screwed. Based on the number of people waiting on the platform, and the 1 train that whizzed past us on the express track just after I arrived, service had been suspended for some time already when I got there. But nobody stopped me, or any of the people after me, from running a Metrocard through the turnstile, paying for a ride we would not be able to take. I even saw a guy swipe in after that announcement had been made (fighting against the tide of people storming out); nobody bothered to stop him, either.

I have an unlimited-ride card, so I didn't join the throng of customers looking for a refund or a transfer from the token-booth clerk. Instead I went upstairs and hailed a cab, because it was now 1:15 and I didn't have time to go uptown and then downtown again on the subway. (Plus I was really sick of lugging around my bags, and teetering a little on my not-so-practical shoes, and did I mention it was very hot?) So I rode downtown, feeling sorry for myself as I watched the price ticking up on the cab's meter -- it ended up costing me more to get to Penn Station than it would to get from there to Bridgehampton -- and feeling sorry for the people stranded on the corners of Broadway wherever there was a 1-train stop.

When I finally got to Penn Station, the clock there said it was 1:34. My train was to leave at 1:39. So I ran to the nearest ticket machine, which actually accepted my credit card on the first dip (I'd say the machines fail to read my card a good 65% of the time), and then ran back to the departures board. I saw "1:39... track 19," and rushed down the stairs. A conductor (do they call them conductors? Can a train have multiple conductors? I like that word, and will use it until you suggest a better one) was standing in the nearest train doorway, so I asked him, "Jamaica?" (I always have to switch at Jamaica to catch another train to Bridgehampton), and he said, "Yes." Phew! I hopped on. No seats available, so I stood in the entrance-area, happy just to put down my bags.

Here's something you should know about me: I hate being late for things. If it's up to me (and I am not thwarted by, say, the subways), I almost never am; when it's not up to me, I have a hard time believing things will come out all right. And here's something else (possibly related) you should know about me: I have very little faith in my travel instincts. I always secretly suspect I'm on the wrong train, or airplane, or bus, or highway, or elevator, and I only calm down a little bit after the conductor (or whoever) checks my ticket. (They would probably tell me if I were on the wrong train/plane/bus, but you never know.) This quirk of mine doesn't stem from any real-life experience that I can recall -- I've never flown to Spain when I wanted to go to Pittsburgh or anything like that, and I usually do a decent job of figuring out where I'm supposed to be. It's just one charming manifestation of my personal insecurity. Normally, these two quirks -- my preference for leaving myself lots of extra time, plus my hyper-vigilance about the details of travel -- prevent me from actually messing things up, or at least I believe they do. But what happens when the MTA takes away my extra time? I fail to notice that, apparently, there are two trains departing from Penn Station at 1:39, and one of them is going straight to Jamaica, where it will make its connection to the Bridgehampton-bound train, without stopping at Woodside, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens first. I am only guessing, because I am on the 1:39 train that makes all of those stops, on its way to Jamaica and points beyond. When the conductor punches my ticket, he says, "Okay, you'll have to transfer at Jamaica... and there's an information booth on track 8." An information booth? I am not encouraged. This does not look good for Homestar Runner.

When at last we arrive at Jamaica, I have a bad feeling about what kind of information I am in for, but I ask the information-booth lady anyway -- trying to sound as hopeful as possible -- "When is the next train to Bridgehampton?" She answers -- is that a smirk? -- "Not till 4:25." It is now approximately 2:10. Super. I consider whether I can kill 2 hours in Jamaica (not with my heavy bags I can't). I consider taking the subway all the way back, which would definitely kill a good chunk of that time, and which is already paid for, but after what I've been through so far today I just don't trust the subway. So I buy a round-trip ticket to Penn Station (I'll have to ride back out here again, remember, to catch that 4:25) and jump on the 2:14 Manhattan-bound train. More money wasted, as the conductor walks right past me when he comes collecting tickets.

Back on 34th Street, I call my sister to tell her I'll be later than I originally planned, and then call the fiance to tell him how my day is going (I felt he would want to know of my unhappiness). Then I head across the street to Borders, where I read the book I'd been saving for the train and nurse a coffee. (I was tempted to buy one of those high-calorie, low-nutrition "blended coffee drinks," but I'd blown my luxuries budget on the cab.) I head back out to Penn Station well before I need to, just so I'll have plenty of time to study the departures board before making any sudden moves. When the 3:58 pulls out, I am sitting on it, across the aisle from a young man with a German accent who is SHOUTING into his cellphone about his evening plans. ("HELLO? YES, I AM ON ZE TRAIN TO SOW-TAMPTON! VAT TIME IS ZE OPENING?") The conductor does take my ticket this time. At Jamaica, I transfer for the last off-peak train to Montauk, stopping at Bridgehampton (and running express to West Hampton; thank the MTA for small favors), and I move to the end of the platform to increase my chances of getting a comfortable seat. Then the train arrives, and it's one of those short ones that don't take up the whole length of the platform, so I have to run back along the platform to where the last car stops, with all the other morons who thought they were beating the system. But I've been feeling like a moron all day long, so this is nothing. I'm just happy to finally be on my way. (I suppose it bears mentioning that, when I complain about "the MTA," as I often do, I really just mean the subway system. The LIRR and Metro-North have never let me down. That is, unless the whole "Connection to Bridgehampton? What connection to Bridgehampton?" screwup was theirs and not mine... but it probably wasn't.)

Epilogue: When I get on the train, I find a flier on my seat. (I noticed many similar fliers littering the floor of the train to Jamaica.) It is headed "The Fare Facts" and takes the form of an open letter from Elliot G. Sander, Executive Director and CEO of the MTA, printed in English and, on the reverse, in Spanish. He "encourages" me to read the MTA's Preliminary Financial Plan for 2008-2011 and "form [my] own opinions." But, he adds, "When you do, bear in mind that it's about more than just fares and tolls." (Emphasis his.) Then he outlines some of the other things it's "about" -- first, "uncontrollable costs like pensions, health care and debt service" that have left the MTA with "future budget gaps." I'm not sure I'm prepared to accept that "uncontrollable" at face value, but I have no stats to back me up, so I'll grant him that. The next bullet point lists the ways that the new plan proposes to close said gaps: "We are tightening our belts with internal administrative efficiencies and better use of technologies, among other things." This I would like to hear more about. "We are also proposing modest increases in fares and tolls." Oh, you know, I think I may have heard something about that... The next point is my favorite: "We have proposed no cuts in service." Don't you love it? It reminds me of how NBC (along with, I believe, the other major networks, but I don't presently watch a lot of network TV) interrupted its programming schedule in March and spent the next 6 weeks or so airing either reruns of The Office or something else entirely during the 8:30 Thursday slot -- and then, when they were wrapping up their little vacation, aired a bunch of promos announcing that they would be showing only new episodes until the end of the season! Gosh, NBC, I am overwhelmed by your generosity! Why, that's 5 whole weeks when I'll be able to watch the show I like to watch in the time slot you're supposed to air it! Aren't I a lucky little consumer! Similarly, I feel overcome with gratitude that, in exchange for charging its customers more, the MTA is pledging not to provide less service than it currently provides. Now that's something to look forward to!

This open letter ends by inviting me to contribute my "advice by email, by letter, or by attending the public forums that will be scheduled" and advertised "well in advance." Perhaps I will. In the meantime, MTA, here's an idea: this afternoon you took $2 from me, and a whole bunch of people besides me, and then told us we wouldn't be getting a train after all. When you're looking to fill those budget gaps, I suggest you start with that money first. Let me know how it goes. As for all the other money I wasted today because of that little service glitch, it would be great if we could count that against my personal fare hike, too. Meanwhile, it would be ungrateful of me not to recall that, for my trouble, I've earned a free trip from Penn Station to Jamaica (or vice versa)! And I thought I wouldn't get to go anywhere exciting this summer.

P.S. Now that I've gotten all this out of my system, I should add that I know, in the grand scheme of things, my day wasn't all that bad. First of all: Boo hoo, I had a difficult time getting to the Hamptons for my 4-day weekend! I know. And second, this time last year, I wouldn't have gotten nearly this far. I couldn't have spent my afternoon running hither and yon, I couldn't have carried a bag that heavy, and I definitely couldn't have worn shoes that were the least bit impractical and expected to get away with it. So you probably shouldn't feel too sorry for me today. But you should still join me in scorning the MTA.

A weekend in the country

My summer vacation is happening this week, apparently, so I am off to the Hamptons for a nice long weekend retreat. I promise to blog if I have anything to blog about -- like, for example, if a groundbreaking theatrical production spontaneously breaks out in the backyard. But if not, things will be quiet around here. I hope you can cope.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Must be the season of the witch

Wicked, which took up residence in NYC just a couple of months after I did, has been running on Broadway for close to four years now, and I think it's safe to say it's a hit. In the face of anything Ben Brantley or Michael Feingold or any other critic might say about it, and in spite of a not-so-impressive showing at the 2004 Tonys, it is a major hit and a big crowd-pleaser. I saw it for the first time last night, and ordinarily that would mean a lengthy review here today. But I have a feeling that if you were going to bother to have an opinion about Wicked, you would have formed it long ago, and so it seems like a waste of time for me to review it now.

Instead I will just say that, if you are inclined to see Wicked (for the first time, or on a return trip), right about now would be a good time to do so. As Elphaba, Julia Murney is wearing the green paint with as much dignity as she can muster, and using her powerful pipes to bring some color to Stephen Schwartz's generally colorless score. Sometimes you can even hear her over the mechanical blare of the "orchestra." Kendra Kassebaum is sensational as Glinda: there isn't a joke in the show that's better than feeble, but she still made me laugh nearly every time she was onstage. Finding a performance that feels spontaneous and alive at the heart of all that noise is no small miracle, and if that "replacement cast member" Tony ever got off the ground, she'd be a nominee for sure.

I digress, to ask a question with no good answer: Why do both leading ladies have vanity-site URLs in their bios, but no actual vanity sites? Juliamurney.com is "under construction," and kendrakassebaum.com takes you to one of those sketchy ad-laden "search engine" sites. And the show's current Boq, Logan Lipton, pulls the same trick. People, don't advertise a website you haven't built yet! I shouldn't have to tell you this!

Finally: I love those flying monkeys. I want to write a new musical just about them -- and I wouldn't wimp out by making them friendly and misunderstood, either. Winged Monkeys! Fearsome. Irredeemable. Sure to give your 11-year-old daughter nightmares. Tell me there isn't an audience for that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jazz Odyssey

Last night the birthday boy and I thought we were going to the Village Vanguard to hear their regular Monday night jazz orchestra, but when we got there we saw a sign on the door: closed! Apparently the orchestra is on tour. Fortunately, the fiance knows all the cool spots in the area, so we backtracked to the nearby Smalls Jazz Club, which in my head is really called "Derek Smalls Jazz Club" ("He wrote this!"), where we caught a set by the Rafi Malkiel Group. I know very little about jazz, so you'll have to go to the fiance for a detailed analysis; I'll just say I loved these guys. They have a fascinating instrument balance -- trombone, sax, piano, drum kit, but also clarinet, flute, bassoon (!), and Latin percussion -- so their music combines the discipline of classical music with the unpredictability of jazz and the alegria of South American rhythms. We were especially taken with the clarinetist, Anat Cohen (you can hear her interviewed on NPR here). And, of course, I was excited to see women performing, period. (They also had a bitchin' female bassoonist. A bassoonist!)

All of the above links will take you to websites that play music -- the Smalls site has an entertaining animated intro, as well -- so I'll stop chattering and let you go listen. I have a Broadway date tonight, so you can count on hearing about that tomorrow!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Happy birthday, it's your present

Many happy returns to my fiance, who celebrates his birthday on this very rainy day! So blogging will be light, because I have celebrating to do. (I think we're going out to hear some jazz tonight, so we'll see whether I can say anything intelligent about that tomorrow.)

I would like to say a word about the recently announced Emmy nominations, which you can find here. (You could also start at the Emmys' official website and spend a good portion of your morning looking for the list of nominees yourself, if navigating poor web design is something you enjoy.) And that word is: hooray! Minnie Driver's brilliance on The Riches has been recognized! I shouldn't be surprised, because she is so seriously awesome in that role, and if they could find room to nominate Mariska Hargitay again (for a season of SVU that even I found too painful to watch), they can certainly afford to nominate Minnie Driver. But usually the Emmys need a couple of years to catch up (e.g., no other nominations for The Riches), so I am very pleased they got with the program so quickly in this case. Speaking of which, other performers whose brilliance was finally recognized: Jenna Fischer, Rainn Wilson. Now where's the Emmy for Supernanny Jo?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Two! Two amusing YouTube clips!

Actual, not-made-up caption from an Us Weekly spread (July 30 issue) about Rebecca Romijn and Jerry O'Connell's recent wedding:
A gospel choir sang Foreigner's 'I Want to Know What Love Is' as the bride strolled the aisle on her dad's arm. Later, the groom crooned 'Save the Best for Last.'
The funny thing is, I think I had a nightmare where the very same thing happened.

Speaking of nightmares, the other day I tried to amuse my nephews by showing them this clip the fiance and I dug up on YouTube.

My affianced and I were just looking for classic Ernie and Bert routines (I can never get enough), but we were excited to uncover this early appearance by the Count, who was much spookier when first introduced. They hadn't settled on his signature post-counting laugh at this point, and I find the sinister freeform cackle deeply unsettling. And I don't remember him having the ability to stun others into silence, deployed several times here. Still, the Count is not so very menacing, strictly speaking, and the things that make him "scary" are mostly cultural references not yet part of my nephews' vocabulary. So, I wondered, without any exposure to Bela Lugosi or Vincent Price or monster movies, would the boys still register this character as "scary"? And now I can tell you that there is something about a guy in a cape with an Eastern-European accent, pointy ears and sharp incisors that is inherently frightening. Or maybe it's the throaty laugh, or the widow's peak, or the minor-key organ music that accompanies his entrance and departure. In any case, my nephews watched the entire clip in silence, until the Count skulked off for the last time, prompting my not-quite-three-year-old nephew to shout, "I think he's coming back!" He never took his eyes off the screen, but when the clip ended he jumped down from my lap and ran from the room, shouting, "Hurry, before he comes on again!" I turned to his older brother, still standing on the chair next to me, and said, "I guess the Count is a little scary, huh?" He nodded and observed, trying to sound nonchalant, "He has kind of a scary voice." I had to promise: no more Count. Too bad, because this is totally awesome.

I believe the fiance said it best: "The Count is a trip."

Friday, July 20, 2007

In praise of creative pronoun use

I just finished reading Patricia Marx's new novel, Him Her Him Again The End of Him, and as long as we're discussing titles around here, I felt I had to mention it. I love this title. Every time I look at the book's cover, I want to read the title out loud. Speaking of which, I also love the cover design, with its elegant italics in exactly the right places... My (advance reader's) copy doesn't credit the designer, but lucky for you, this website does! (It also misuses "nonplussed," but what else is new.) Yes, it's difficult to remember, which is probably a drawback from a marketing point of view, but in terms of the material, that diffidence is entirely appropriate -- and once you've read the book the title is suddenly easy to recall. In fact, one of the best reasons to read the book is to feel the title taking shape, turning from apparent word salad into something approaching coherence. The novel itself has a similar trick of withholding details (names, dates, circumstances) but creating a vivid picture out of the holes.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I've a sorry tale to tell

Today Restricted View is mourning the death of tenor Jerry Hadley. I know shamefully little about opera, but Hadley made occasional forays into the world of musical theatre; I first heard him on the recording the 1992 Sondheim -- A Celebration at Carnegie Hall concert, singing "Johanna" and "With So Little to Be Sure Of," and he was Gaylord Ravenal in the 1988 studio recording of Show Boat. But I knew him best as the best of all possible Candides. The 1989 Bernstein-conducted Candide -- the "final revised version," as it is billed in the 1991 recording -- is notable for including all of Candide's meditations and laments, and Hadley's performance as the endlessly suffering title character goes straight to the heart. Now his "Nothing More Than This" will be freighted all the more with real-world sorrow.

(Incidentally, the fact that you can own this complete, two-disc Candide for only $15 means there is no excuse for not adding it to your collection. There is also a concert DVD, if you're the Netflix type.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Think about the game

Last night I attended my first-ever Yankees game, at Yankee Stadium! Thanks to my future brother-in-law for obtaining the tickets, and to the fiance and his siblings for being just the sort of family a girl would want to marry into after being disowned by her birth family for having attended a Yankees game.

We had terrific seats, but I found it nearly impossible to concentrate on the actual game, what with all the other competing demands on my attention. The vendor situation is out of control -- the only thing they weren't selling was albatross, and I don't even want to think about what they would charge for that -- and yet regular people still find reasons to get up and walk around throughout the game. So there's always somebody shouting in your ear, or threatening to get into a drunken argument nearby, or wondering if you're sitting in their seats, and 50 percent of the time there was someone standing right between me and my perfect view of home plate. And then there's that guy with the frying pan and the signs. Mollie "sez" she just wants to watch the game! I don't understand why, at pro sporting events, there is this desire to occupy your attention at every possible second, with music blaring, video screens flashing, advertisements scrolling... But I need a lot more practice filtering it all out. Most of the time I felt like I was undergoing autism sensitivity training. And, of course, it's hard to focus on the game when you're busy cowering every time a ball is popped up into, or near, the stands, which is my MO. I have a fly-ball phobia that may be related to my days of getting beaned in Farm League (as a lefty batter facing nascent righty pitchers), so although nothing ever came near us (if by "near" you mean "within thirty feet of"), I still managed to dispel any notions of my "bravery" that have lingered since the whole fighting-cancer thing.

Nevertheless, the Yankees won, somewhat spectacularly, in the bottom of the 10th, in a game where most of the action involved non-hit-related base-advancing. And my (somewhat arbitrarily chosen) favorite player, Melky Cabrera, did his share. So it was a good first trip! But the next time I go to the theatre I may have a little more patience with my fellow patrons -- sure, those people behind me at City Center chewed gum very noisily throughout both acts of Gypsy, but at least they weren't banging on frying pans with spoons.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bridal suite is occupied

I have a big family and the fiance has a big family, and we both have a small but reasonably loyal number of friends, which means, barring a major blizzard, a considerable number of people will be descending on Northeastern PA for our wedding in January. Making arrangements to accomodate said people at local hotels is on my to-do list this week, and it's turning out to be more difficult than I'd anticipated. Yesterday I called a certain hotel twice to inquire about setting up a block of rooms, and both times they hung up on me. It went like this:
    [Ring... ring... ring...]
    HOTEL: Thank you for calling Scranton-Area Hotel, this is Jan, how may I help you?
    ME: I'd like to set up a block of rooms for my wedding -- [Click.] -- in January... if I can... Hello? [Silence.] Hello?
    ["Your call is over, dummy" arpeggio from my cellphone.]
Same operator, same exchange, same outcome, both times. I've been puzzling over it ever since. Here are some possible explanations I have come up with:
    1. After listening just long enough to ascertain what I want, Jan is connecting me, brusquely but in good faith, to an extension that (unbeknownst to her) is not active.

    2. Scranton-Area Hotel has been fooled by the old "fake wedding block" prank several times in the past, and its operators are now instructed to hang up immediately whenever anyone proposes such a scheme.

    3. Jan is suffering from a condition like that of Mr. Lambert, the mattress salesman from the Monty Python sketch who puts a bag over his head whenever he hears the word "mattress." Except, in this case, she is a hotel employee who hangs up the phone whenever she hears the word "wedding." Bad luck for me, I suppose.

    4. Jan cannot hear me. Is it all Sprint's fault?
The fiance has floated a fifth possibility: perhaps "Jan" is Jan Levinson (formerly Levinson-Gould) from The Office! After all, as we await season 4, we have evidence that that Jan Levinson is (a) crazy, (b) living in Scranton and (c) no longer employed by Dunder-Mifflin. So she certainly could be spending her days hanging up on would-be Scranton-area hotel patrons out of spite, except for the fact that she is (d) fictional. (Which is too bad, because I would love to be able to tell some of our Office-loving guests that they might get to meet her! Don't mention the divorce!)

Anyway, this morning I plan to call Scranton-Area Hotel again, from a land line, and hope that Jan does not answer. If she does, I guess I will ask about arranging a block of rooms for my "dog kennels." In the meantime: are there other explanations I am not considering? And do you have any idea what a "fake wedding block" prank might entail? Please comment.

Monday, July 16, 2007

You either got it or you ain't

Will you allow me one more Patti LuPost, now that Gypsy is officially open? I just want to comment on an interesting phenomenon: although Ben Brantley and I differ on most of the particulars, our general impression of Gypsy at Encores! — namely, that Patti-as-Rose is less than thrilling — is just about the same.

I especially admired this sentence from Brantley's review:
Ms. LuPone, in contrast [to other famous Roses], seems to slide in her purposeful focus, the way her voice — more trombone than trumpet — famously slides around on notes.
Very descriptive of her musical style, and insightful, I think, when it comes to her dramatic style. And although on the surface, his summary ("...She seems to be still fiddling with the gears and looking over her shoulder when she needs to be plowing full speed ahead with blinders on") sounds like the opposite of mine ("LuPone's Rose goes full steam ahead until she breaks down, not because it's dramatically inevitable but because it's time to end the show"), I think the problem we're identifying is basically the same. It's just that, for me, it wasn't Lupone's focus as Rose that was shaky, it was her focus on Rose. And Brantley zeroes in on that:
She can’t resist playing jokes for jokes’ sake, giving lines a Mae West-style spin that, however amusing, puts a distance between star and character. And in singing Jule Styne’s adrenaline-stirring melodies, she never pursues a straight line, so that the great Act 1 finale, "Everything’s Coming Up Roses," has a feeling of distracting, internalized restlessness.
And so we come out in pretty much the same place, even though I disagree with his take on most of the details of this production: he sensed sexual chemistry between Boyd and Patti where I felt only a void, and we even depart on which stripper was the best (I thought Marilyn Caskey cribbed her gimmick from Julie Halston, so wonderful in the 2003 Broadway revival, and turned it up past the point of effectiveness). But of course, he certainly had a better seat, and most likely saw a more solid performance than I did. (He couldn't have been there the night I was, because for him the orchestra "gives life to that score with a fullness that itself justifies the price of a ticket," and nobody would say that walking away from the performance I heard.) But enough about Ben. What about you? Did you see it, will you see it? Loved it, hated it, I want to hear about it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

More information on comics can be found on the Internet

During my time in college, the dining halls started providing copies of real-world newspapers alongside the towering, usually neglected stacks of campus publications. You had to get to breakfast early if you wanted to land a copy of The New York Times -- I usually did, because that's just the sort of go-getting, early-rising, I-paid-for-three-meals-and-I'm-gonna-eat-them student I was. The New Haven Register, on the other hand, tended to last throughout the day. This was partly because there were more copies to begin with, and partly because the majority of Yalies had very little interest in what went on in the city where we lived for most of the year, but it was mostly because the New Haven Register was a terrible newspaper, from almost every angle. There was one thing I loved about it, though: it had a daily comics page, and it ran lots of comics. It packed them in so tightly that you needed a magnifying glass to read Peanuts. I was an early riser in high school too, and I read the comics every day, even after Bill Watterson quit doing Calvin and Hobbes (my mom and I used to chat about the goings-on in For Better or for Worse). So having access to the comic strips again was a comforting reminder of home.

The Register, with its ugly layout and typographical error-prone content, was a natural home for my favorite high-school-sports-focused serial, Gil Thorp. I'd never heard of Gil Thorp before I noticed it in the Register, but I fell in love with its awkward art and stilted storytelling immediately. At lunchtime, I could often be found trying to convince my friends that they, too, should be reading Gil Thorp. "Guys, you don't understand!" I would tell them. "It's crazy today! This cheerleader thinks she's pregnant! And they just played an entire basketball game in three panels!" But no one else grew up reading Marvin; no one was interested in listening to me explain why Fred Bassett is superior to Marmaduke; no one wanted to gossip with me about the latest lame development in the world of For Better or for Worse. (I think they were all getting the same so-bad-it's-good thrill out of reruns of Saved by the Bell.)

Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered The Comics Curmudgeon just a few weeks ago! Essentially a Television Without Pity for the funny pages (right down to the devoted readership and surprisingly active discussion forum), The Comics Curmudgeon picks out a few of the day's standout strips and analyzes them for the edification of all. Which means I can once again keep up with the action in Gil Thorp and the irritating dialogue tics in For Better or for Worse, and make fun of them at the same time! I have found my people! Do check it out: this analysis of Popeye and (especially) Mark Trail has had me giggling for days.

If that floats your boat, there are lots of other making-fun-of-the-"funnies" web destinations you might want to check out. Joe Mathlete Explains Today's Marmaduke is a must-bookmark, if you've ever been consumed with rage over the low quality and incredible lifespan of most of the comics now in syndication (and Marmaduke in particular). And Comics I Don't Understand is a clearinghouse for incomprehensible strips and poorly-executed punch lines.

Finally, not really related but still very worth visiting: Spamusement! Poorly drawn cartoons inspired by actual spam subject lines! is all that it promises and more. Actually, most of the cartoons are reasonably well drawn (compared to crap like Marmaduke, anyway). But the point is, they're funny. My favorite so far is HELLO ME NOT DEAD. Now go enjoy yourself, kids, and don't say I never gave you anything.

Friday, July 13, 2007

There are milestones, there are millstones...

All you geeks no doubt recognized the title of yesterday's post as a line from "Rose's Turn," the big eleven o'clock number in Gypsy. But geeks who make it to City Center will likely notice that Rose/Patti doesn't sing that line in this production. In its place, she sings, "Momma's singin' out."

Some background for the non-geeky among us: "Rose's Turn" is composed largely of references to other songs from the show, and the line "Momma's talkin' loud" is a reference to a song written for June and Louise, "Momma's Talkin' Soft." That song was cut from the original production (according to this Wikipedia article -- which hasn't managed to settle on a spelling of "Momma" -- it was later recorded by Petula Clark, which is something I must hear). But the "talkin' loud" lyric stayed, until now... I guess Sondheim finally got around to fixing something that's been bothering him for the past 47 years. It certainly makes more sense now, but, as with most Sondheim revisions, I liked it better the old way. Standing alone, "Momma's talkin' loud" was so appealingly oblique. And now that "Sing out, Louise!" has attained such iconic status, "Momma's singin' out" feels a little too self-parodic; it makes me think of Ruthless! So I find myself suspended between "It's about time" and "Leave well enough alone." What do you think?

Either way, I can't hear "Rose's Turn" without thinking of Jessica Walter and Arrested Development. The scene where Lucille turns up the Merman OCR and gets hammered after Buster moves out was ample payoff for all my years of musical-theatre geekdom. And speaking of parody: some time ago, Forbidden Broadway spoofed Patti LuPone with a pair of Cole Porter songs, one of which was memorably titled "I Get a Kick Out of Me." The other was called "Patti LuPone" and sung (of course) to the tune of "Anything Goes," and it has lodged itself in my brain to such an extent that now, whenever I say "Patti LuPone" out loud, I have the urge to belt it nasally, Forbidden Broadway style: "Patti La Poooooone!" As often as not, I give in to that urge. I just thought you should know.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Momma's talkin' loud

Patti LuPone has pitch problems. Enunciation is not her strong suit. She likes to mispronounce vowels, and she has a habit of second-guessing composers. In another performer these might be considered flaws, but in Patti's case they're more like hallmarks. Poor diction? Casual adherence to melody as written? Nasal patches that shift without warning into overpowering blasts of volume? Gotta be Patti LuPone!

I don't expect that any of this is news to you, assuming you know who Patti LuPone is in the first place (I was so convinced of her diva status that I only recently discovered she's not as well known as, say, Cher, except in certain circles). Those of you familiar with the woman should be able to recognize that I'm not so much criticizing Patti as describing her. Oh, I've been tempted, time and again, to write Patti off for all of the above-mentioned tics, but I can't quite do it. A voice that powerful can't be written off, in the first place, and there is a definite need for Patti's particular brand of star quality in the musical theatre. In times of famine, when exciting new musicals are few and far between, diva-worship is sometimes all that keeps fans going. And when new musicals turn out to be the sort of shows where fidelity to the material is no virtue -- where the music is banal and the lyrics are inane -- a leading lady with personality to burn might be just what the show doctor ordered.

But what about a show where book, lyrics and music combine to tell a story with sophistication and intelligence? What about a show where the lead role is a character of great complexity and depth; a role in which an actress can and should lose herself completely, putting all her talents to work in the service of the character and the show itself? That, I would argue, is a show in which you might not want to cast Patti LuPone.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I want your spirits to climb

Spotted at last night's Encores! performance of Gypsy: Neil Patrick Harris! I was happy to have the fiance at my side to confirm the sighting, and to make the obligatory "Doogie" reference (I'm too much of a snob). He was sitting not far from us, but in what I hope was a much better seat, because mine could hardly have been worse. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

You know there's nothing I'd rather do than tell you about last night's show, but wouldn't you know it, another fashion bible needs my copy-editing attention today. So you'll have to sit tight till tomorrow (and if you decide to see the show without waiting for my word, don't sit in the mid-mezzanine!). In the meantime, I offer you this exciting glimpse at the eternal power struggle between turtle and cat. Guess which side I'm on!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Television history meets actual history, becomes personal history

I wasn't even born yet when Roots first aired, but I remember when the Family Channel ran it circa 1992, and I watched it just as breathlessly then as anyone could have back in 1977. Around that same time, my grade-school history teacher decided we should watch the miniseries in class. (She probably taped it from TV, now that I think about it.) Even then, I could have identified several reasons why this was a bad idea: first of all, the amount of classroom time a 12-hour miniseries takes up was almost certainly more than the official curriculum set aside for the historical period at hand. One could also question the wisdom of expecting thirty-odd fifth-graders to be on their best behavior while following a storyline that involved multiple incidences of sexual assault and rape. And, of course, the 1970s production values and Southern-flavored plantation patois, not to mention the many actors we recognized from less serious roles (after all, we had been herded together to watch Reading Rainbow only a few years prior), weren't completely conducive to maturity on our part. But even with all the snickering and squirming and general lack of respect, I can't say that classroom time was wasted. I learned an awful lot about slavery, war and reconstruction from Roots that I wouldn't have learned if we'd stuck to the textbook, and I gained an appreciation for the African-American experience that I certainly wouldn't have picked up from the standard Black History Month bulletin-board displays in the hallways of my all-white school.

Roots (along with its follow-up, Roots: The Next Generations, about which more in a moment) is one of those rare television confections one can enjoy both ironically and sincerely at the same time. Ironically because it was produced in the 1970s, and everything that came out of the 1970s bears the stylistic slime of that decade, regardless of the historical period in which it is actually set: see also Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons, for more inappropriately wide collars and feathered hairstyles. (I also commented on this phenomenon recently in reference to Angela Lansbury's turn in the 1977 revival of The King and I.) Also because the miniseries features pretty much every actor alive at that time, black or white, in its cast of thousands. And because many of those actors play characters who age many decades over the course of the series, which means either they are ignominously replaced at some point -- I am still angry about the LeVar Burton/John Amos switcheroo, because on what planet is it possible that someone who looked like this would, in a time before cosmetic surgery or artificial human growth hormones were widely available, end up looking like this? -- or else they are buried beneath ever-thickening layers of aging makeup. But it's actually pretty good makeup, considering the era, and most of the young actors do a surprisingly good job of embodying their elderly characters and preserving some dignity despite their increasingly puffy and immobile faces.

And that's where the sincere appreciation starts to kick in: sure, this makeup (by special effects wiz Stan Winston) is a little bit silly, but it's also rather skillful (and certainly no more silly than subbing in John Amos for LeVar Burton). And the story may be a bit melodramatic, but for the most part it's intelligent and deeply affecting. The director may push our emotional buttons a bit too vigorously from time to time, but I defy you to watch Louis Gossett Jr.'s "There gonna be a better day" scene at the end of Roots, Part 3 (or is it Part 2?) and not cry honest tears. Not all the acting is good -- some of it is awful -- but a lot of it is excellent. And yes, there's a significant humor factor in seeing, for example, Robert Reed playing a plantation owner, but then again, what better way to impress upon us the casual treachery and hypocrisy of our white ancestors than to have them portrayed by lovable TV dads like Robert Reed?

The reason I'm musing on this topic right now is that TV One, a "lifestyle and entertainment channel for African-Americans," is airing Roots: The Next Generations all this week. (They aired Roots back in April, and if you travel in the upper reaches of New York City you're likely to see the advertisements on city buses even now.) I remember watching this series years ago (also in school, perhaps) and concluding that it was boring and not as good as the original. But I've been watching it again this week, and I'm pleasantly surprised by its quality. Perhaps I am simply more disposed to appreciate plotlines that center on the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow politics than I was in middle school. I'm afraid you've missed your chance to see a very young Brian [Stokes] Mitchell, who appeared in Part 1 as a too-white(!) suitor for one of the central character's daughters. And I'm not sure whether Olivia De Havilland, so strong as a fading belle adjusting to the postwar South, will be back in Part 3. But you're not too late to catch solid performances from Henry Fonda, Richard Thomas and Stan Shaw, and they tell me Marlon Brando will make an appearance at some point! Meanwhile, Georg Stanford Brown is holding everything together with dignity and strength as the central character, Tom Harvey, in spite of his oddly waxy face. Not everything is perfect -- heavyhanded music cues abound, and Lynne Moody's dreadful performance is a constant embarrassment (all the more because she's also hosting the TV One presentation, and keeps coming back to tell us how much she enjoyed being a part of this important television event). And, of course, there's the vaguely ungrammatical title. I cringe every time they say "Next Generations." But overall, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours (or twelve hours). I may be laughing at the hairstyles, but when it's over I feel like I'm a better person for having watched. And how often do you say that after an evening in front of the TV?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Somebody pull me up short

Sending out save-the-dates, setting up a wedding website (yes, I have another web presence, but this one is password-protected), and attending someone else's wedding this past Saturday have had me thinking of nothing but nuptials lately. Between scheduling this and paying for that, I found the time to watch The Marrying Kind, which aired last month as part of TCM's birthday tribute to Judy Holliday. It's a black-and-white picture from 1952 with a sentimental premise: a couple on the verge of divorce discover, through telling their story to a sympathetic judge, that they'd rather stay married after all. George Cukor directed, Judy starred, Gordon and Kanin wrote the script, and given all that, I thought I knew what to expect: a light romantic comedy, short on credibility and long on heart. But The Marrying Kind turned out to be gritty, even dark, where I expected it to be ditzy. In fact, what Cukor et al. have put together here is a kind of anti-comedy, just as surely as The Clock is Vincente Minelli's anti-musical (although in this case I'm pretty certain the genre-subverting effect is intentional).

You know something is different from the moment the youngish couple, Florence and Chet Keefer (Holliday and Aldo Ray), sit down for an after-hours confab with the judge who'll be hearing their case. Aldo Ray's face probably isn't a familiar one, but it wouldn't have been in 1952, either; the opening credits "introduce" him with fanfare. But you're not watching him anyway; your eyes are on Judy, sitting quietly, awkwardly at the head of the table. Her posture and her expression bear no trace of the bubbly, innocent dames she played in Born Yesterday and will play in It Should Happen to You; Florence is much closer to her woman-on-the-edge defendant from Adam's Rib, but with less spark. She's quiet, even when she opens her mouth; she seems depressed, defeated, in no mood for screwball antics.

With some prodding from the judge (a woman, by the way -- the movie's refusal to comment on this fact is another boundary broken), Chet and Florence reluctantly launch into the tale of their lives together. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's script sets us up for comedy, but doesn't fully deliver: the pair can't agree on the details of their meet-cute in Central Park, but their bickering is resentful, and their revisionist versions of the truth are nakedly self-serving. Seeing Aldo Ray in action is a bit of a shock, even though you haven't seen him before; he has the boyish good looks of an amiable straight man, but his voice is like sandpaper and his mannerisms are almost as rough.

Most of the movie is an extended flashback, and Gordon and Kanin keep leading the pair into the obligatory comedy setups: we see Florence musing about how she discovered the pleasure of "thinking" on her honeymoon (the explanation for her surprisingly grounded character? A wry euphemism? Or both?), and vowing to devote at least half an hour each day to thinking, going forward. The thought is silly, but the scene isn't; Florrie is serving lunch to her brittle mother (Phyllis Povah, lean and ironic) and wealthy sister-in-law in her sparsely furnished new apartment, where they sit on folding chairs and wish they were elsewhere. Florence's disappointment, and her discomfort with the housewife role, is palpable. At work (at the post office), Chet takes a good-natured ribbing from his coworkers, who give him earplugs to help him survive married life...but then, when you expect the scene to fade out, they give him a real gift, because their friendship is a real thing. That night, at home, the couple get ready for bed -- two twin beds with a nightstand between them, of course. Ah, the innocent '50s, you think, smugly. Florence chatters about her day, and launches into a story about how, if she hadn't gotten the mumps, she'd never have met Chet. Meanwhile, her husband searches his pockets for the earplugs. Finally, you think, the comedy's kicking in; you're a little disappointed to see the movie turn predictable, but at least now you can get comfortable... But Chet doesn't use the earplugs, and Florence's story turns out to be more philosophical than you expect (the product of that day's thinking, perhaps?). The twin beds aren't beds at all, they're mattresses on the floor, and before the newlyweds turn in, Chet suggests that perhaps, when they do arrange a bed delivery, they might buy just one? (They don't. But they did consider it, at least.)

I couldn't get over the apartment -- the tacky decorative ducks attached to the wall above the sofa in a line, too small to fill the space; the folding chairs at the dining room table; the walk-through bathroom. The photo of Chet in his naval uniform, arms akimbo, which was probably Ray's own, and which is the only reference to the war in the entire film. And the deadening exterior shots of Peter Cooper Village, Manhattan's then-new middle-income housing, shown here squatting unromantically against a gray sky. The details in the script are just as realistic -- have you ever seen anything so unglamorous as Florence plucking her "chin whiskers" before bed, right in front of her husband? And the characters and performances match the surroundings: Florence and Chet are real, blue-collar people, struggling with real feelings, running full-speed-ahead into promising fantasy setups (a get-rich-quick scheme, a radio contest with a big cash prize) and coming out the other side dazed and disappointed. Instead of the comedy we expect, the movie gives us uncompromising, even grim, realism.

Still, they seem happy enough -- the film takes its time establishing grounds for their divorce, and when the problems finally start in earnest, Cukor doesn't flinch. When the Keefers pack up their things for an Independence Day picnic, we watch a sweet but not cloying domestic scene. The children -- by now there are two children, shrill and not especially cute -- run off to play; Judy reclines with a ukelele and serenades her husband with a novelty song. "Ay-yi-yi, Delores," she sings in that goofy voice of hers, but she's not playing it for laughs. She's mindlessly singing a lament, a song to the lady of sorrows; appropriate, but she doesn't know it yet, and the moment she finds out is doubly horrifying for its restraint. Cukor might have allowed the movie to turn melodramatic at that point, but he keeps his solid grip, and the Keefers' ensuing downward spiral is as controlled as it is difficult to watch.

In short, no, The Marrying Kind is not a laugh riot. But the laughs it offers are rewarding and genuine; Judy, especially, finds the comedy in her character, but she finds it on a deeper level than you might expect. The film is unsettling and disorienting, and it makes a lasting impression, in spite of its too-neat ending (and the confusing lack of time cues along the way: over some 10 years, Florence and Chet don't even change hairstyles). The couple's decision to reunite isn't overplayed, but the judge's "You've both made some mistakes" lecture, however gentle, seems misdirected from where I'm sitting (I won't ruin the film with more detail, but the burden of responsibility rests pretty heavily on one side, a fact the judge ignores). And, at the very end, the invitation to watch out for MGM's "newest star," Aldo Ray, in other projects is a jarring reacclimation to the cinematic world of the early 1950s. You may think you've seen what Judy Holliday, George Cukor and 1950s comedies can do, but you haven't really seen it all unless you've seen The Marrying Kind.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

This little light of mine

Spotted in Manhattan, at dusk one fine July evening: a firefly! Maybe that's not so incredible, but I haven't told you where in Manhattan... When was the last time you saw a firefly in a Thai restaurant? A heavily air-conditioned Thai restaurant, at that. Don't know how he got in, but there he was, suddenly, hovering near our table, flashing his little SOS. Eventually he buzzed too close to a woman at a nearby table, who reached behind her head and batted the poor thing to the floor, where he was squashed underfoot by the restaurant's manager. I think they both mistook it for an ordinary fly, rather than a fascinating miracle of nature. Of course, if it had been some other kind of bug -- say, a roach, or a spider -- I wouldn't have been rooting for its survival. But fireflies rank above even ladybugs on the "Admire, Don't Execute" scale of insect life. So I was sad to see him go.

The fiance and I were still talking about it hours later; I said something about "That awesome firefly," and he said, with palpable relief, "I'm so glad you call them 'fireflies' too." Up to that point I'd been saying "lightning bug" exclusively, without realizing it (I'm spontaneous like that). Apparently that sounded foreign to him, so he was glad to discover I'm not completely weird. What about you: is it a "firefly" or a "lightning bug"? Or either, depending on your mood? And have you seen one anywhere unexpected?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Anyone for tennis?

Outside the Music Box Theatre, where Deuce is playing, are framed collages of the play's two stars, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, in various poses and costumes, as they appeared in...other plays. A career retrospective, in fact, for each woman, in the spot you would expect to find a photo or two from this production. Deuce has no real costume or set changes, and there are no fistfights, showdowns or dance numbers, so I suppose there is a limit to the number of interesting production photos one could display. But still, it seems an odd way to promote a new play. "Remember how good these actors were in other things?" the collages seem to say. "Well...this is what they're in right now!"

Under the circumstances, it's not a totally unreasonable strategy. I haven't heard a good word yet about Terrence McNally's play, and the chance to see Angela and Marian was what finally brought me to the theatre. But it still feels a bit unseemly for a play on Broadway, even one as bad as this (and it is bad... but I'm getting to that), to have so little faith in itself. It's also a dangerous strategy to remind people of plays like A Delicate Balance and Dinner at Eight and musicals like Sweeney Todd and Gypsy just before you send them in to watch the latest half-baked comedy from Terrence McNally. Given what I'd heard about Deuce, I feared I would find myself wishing I were watching any one of those other shows instead. In fact, by the 60-minute mark, I was wishing I were back out on the sidewalk looking at the photographs. In other words, the collages alone were more absorbing than this play. (And I am not being glib -- for example, did you know Angela Lansbury was in The King and I? She replaced Constance Towers in the 1977 revival! What wouldn't I give to see that. Just the photo is fascinating: she's standing there with "Louie," both of them looking very 1970s, in that way "period" costumes and hairdos from the '70s always look more like the '70s than like the period they are meant to evoke. And Angela has a very Mrs. Lovett-esque expression on her face, and it looks just like an image from a Forbidden Broadway sketch. And that's just one photo! I'm telling you, take a walk down 45th St.; these collages are worth checking out.)

As for Deuce, well, how this play ended up on Broadway is a mystery to me. What made Terrence McNally think it would be a good play, and what made other people agree with him once he'd written it -- these are questions I cannot answer. In reality, the play is every bit as boring as the plot summary (two former women's tennis doubles partners sit in the stands at the U.S. Open and discuss their championship careers) would suggest. Very little actually happens; the dialogue is a good 85 percent exposition, and nothing it reveals is worth getting excited about. The women take turns mentioning things about their shared past, or their individual pasts, or their present lives, and sometimes -- just for variety -- one will stand still in low light while the other one tells us what she thinks of her. Sometimes we hear from a pair of sportscasters (Joanna P. Adler and Brian Haley, both trying too hard to make their banter sound like anything other than pure exposition), who supply us with more tennis stats and biographical details, and sometimes "an admirer" (a restrained Michael Mulheren) pops up, in his own ill-defined space, to drive home the point that these two women were really, really great at tennis. Throughout all this, the audience waits in vain for someone to mention something just a tiny bit dramatic; some reason to sit still and watch what happens next. But unless you think watching people wonder aloud, "Do we ever really know each other?" is the stuff of great drama, you won't find much to hold on to here. If these tennis players were real women, you would wonder why anyone thought their stories would make a good play. Knowing they are fictional creations makes the play's limpness all the more bewildering.

Still, Angela Lansbury -- there's something worth getting excited about. Early reports (from other bloggers) suggested she was embarrassing herself here -- forgetting her lines, getting lost, depending on Seldes to rescue her. Perhaps that was the case in previews, but things are under control now; at least, if she's still flubbing lines, she covered too fluidly for me to notice (and we, the restless audience, would probably have welcomed any departure from the script). Yes, I wished I were seeing her in something, anything, else, but even here, what a joy she is to watch. She finds her character, Leona, in every line, and she wrings every laugh out of McNally's weak jokes. Watching her, you feel the play may spring to life at any moment. To come so close to animating this deadweight of a play is more than enough justification for that Tony nomination.

Marian Seldes is no slouch herself, of course, but she plays her character, Midge, gravely, with less sparkle. To be fair, this approach is entirely true to the character, but as has already been established -- by me, by every other critic, and by the theatre's own exterior -- the play is not the main attraction here. I'd prefer to see her have a little more fun, especially since her attempt to find depth in the role only calls attention to the shallowness of the script.

If, like me, you've never had the pleasure of seeing Angela Lansbury perform live, you might want to take advantage of this opportunity. The final scene (so to speak), when the women address their audience in the stands, is a delight almost worth sitting through the preceding 80 minutes. Not that it's well written -- it isn't, any more than the rest of the play -- but watching Lansbury and Seldes go all self-conscious as they speak into the microphone, their fine technique expanding to accomodate broad comedy, is a rare pleasure. If only Deuce had a few more moments like that. It would still be forgettable, but it would be a lot more fun.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Please, Mr. Postman

Now that the 4th is over, I would like to send out a big screw you to the Postal Service, who waited until just after I bought my save-the-date stamps to roll out the new, 41-cent "Wedding" design. Cute stamps are one of my favorite things about this great nation of ours. And the ability to buy said stamps online is another of my favorite things. Seriously, people, there's no line, and you can pick the ones you want! No more endless waits at the bricks-and-mortar post office, along with every other out-of-work person in your neighborhood! (The last time I was at the post office, mailing a package, a woman ahead of me in the line called the police because some men, also in line, were bothering her. She felt threatened enough by whatever they did to call the police, but she didn't get out of the line. And the worst part was, I arrived after all this happened, so I only got to see the part where the police showed up and rolled their eyes at everyone involved.) No more icy refusals from the lady behind the counter when you ask if they have something other than flags, like perhaps those new Ella Fitzgerald stamps advertised on the poster right behind her! No more vending machines that load you down with Sacagawea dollars! And the shipping, the price you pay to avoid all that, is only $1! So worth it.

I usually enjoy my online stamp-buying experience, at least in comparison to the usual in-person experience, but thanks to the recent rate increase, I had few options when it came time to buy stamps for our first big wedding-related mailing. It's not bad enough that I have a desk drawer full of fun 37- and 39-cent stamps (the Muppets, Judy Garland, children's storybook characters) that I now must combine with those ugly 2-cent Navajo Necklace rate-increase stamps... Now I have to send out all my save-the-dates with boring flags and Liberty Bells. (I would even have been happy with the Pollination stamps, but they hadn't been released yet, either. And that's just as well, because nobody wants to get that ugly bat in their mailbox.) So I spent my Independence Day contemplating these symbols of our freedom and grumbling, because I liked the doves better. Hell, I even liked the American Diplomats better.

When I was finally finished stamping and stuffing and sealing and such, I checked the USPS site again, for some reason, and that's when I saw the new "Wedding" stamps. Thanks a lot, Postal Service. I did learn some interesting facts about this rate change, though, which I'd like to share with you, because either I'm not exposed to enough reliable sources of news (very likely), or this whole postal-rate mess has been under-explained and under-advertised to all of us. Last year, the standard 2-ounce wedding invitation cost 63 cents to send (and the response envelope was the regular 39). Now the base rate has been increased, but the rate for the second ounce has decreased, so the invitation will only cost 58 cents. Woo hoo, this wedding won't bankrupt us after all! Of course, that assumes you don't mind the horrible pink color of the stamp. Bleh.

And I learned something else that's much more exiting, especially for those of you not stuck in the parallel universe of wedding planning. Along with my coil of boring-old-flag-stamps, I bought a bunch of Liberty Bell stamps that say "USA FIRST CLASS FOREVER" along the side. I assumed this was just standard jingoism, like "UNITED WE STAND" or "THESE COLORS DON'T RUN" or "THE USA IS THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD AND YOUR COUNTRY ISN'T." But, in fact, these Liberty Bell stamps are valid first-class postage... forever. That means you can buy a bunch now, and then, when the rate goes up another 2 cents next year, you'll still be able to use them! Everybody else will be paying 43 cents, but not you! And 60 years from now, when mailing a postcard costs $2.73 and very old people are the only ones who bother, you will still be able to use them! Even if they've lost their stickiness, and even if the Liberty Bell doesn't exist anymore, your "Forever" stamps will still be good. So says the Post Office. I just hope you don't get sick of looking at the Liberty Bell.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Last chance blues

Holiday weekend theatregoers, take note: you have till July 29 to catch Grey Gardens which I recommend), and till July 8 to see Inherit the Wind (which I don't).

If you're one of those Restricted Viewers who confessed to a weakness for Chess, you might want to plan to be in East Hollywood September 17 for the BC/EFA benefit concert performance. Matthew Morrison singing "One Night in Bangkok" -- who wouldn't pay good money to see that?

In the meantime, does anybody else want to go with me to see Les Miz, now that Chip Zien is playing Thenardier? Chip is one "celebrity" I always thought I'd spot and never did -- my sister lived in the same apartment building as him for several years, right around the time I was nursing my Into the Woods obsession, and I always thought we'd have a lobby encounter, but no such luck. Anyway, as you can see, he turned in an entertaining set of answers to Playbill.com's "Cue & A" questionnaire. ("Who would play you in the movie?" "Probably someone who was upset about not having a better film career.")

And finally, somebody call Hilton Als: Audra McDonald is back on TV! I predict big things for this little lady -- gosh, maybe even the movies!

Cast photo

The cast and creative team of Underwater All the Animals at the Circus Show (from left: Seal, Shark, Fish). I'm helping them with their grant proposal.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Children and art

My weekend in the Hamptons featured an unexpected theatrical event, courtesy of my four-and-a-half-year-old niece and nephew and three-year-old nephew, who announced on Saturday evening that they were going to put on a play. They spent at least half an hour in the backyard, preparing for their show -- most of this time was devoted to set-decorating (coloring on the sidewalk with chalk), broken up by periodic trips into the house to bark for said show. "You can watch!" they would tell us. "It's not ready yet." At one point, the two four-year-old auteurs had a falling out over whether or not one of the parents present would serve as narrator -- "We don't need a narrator because we are going to tell what happens," my nephew explained. "That's the play!" As it turns out, the narrator might have been a useful device. But anyway, the preshow buzz was at a fever pitch by the time my nephew announced, "It's time for the show!"

What followed was a fascinating mix of processional and site-specific theatre, postmodern dance, metatheatrical audience interaction, boldly avant-garde prop use and highly unorthodox storytelling. "Follow the fish!" the kids told us when we (the audience) came out onto the porch, and they wriggled along the path (chalked to represent water) in an impressively fishlike manner. It was an arresting start -- and we did follow -- but once we all got to the end of the path, things started to deteriorate rather quickly. The fish led us back along the path, through the garage and back again to where we'd started; one told us to sit, and then another informed us we were on "Shark Island" and would need to be encased in "plastic" to avoid being bitten. (Extra plastic was applied to my 2-month-old nephew, lying vulnerable in my arms.) After that was accomplished, we were divided by the actors into two-person "teams," although the purpose of these teams was never explained. Then the cast members distributed some branches cut from nearby bushes, two to each audience member -- although, again, no one told us what the branches were for. Then they reorganized the "teams" (this time I got to be on a team with the baby, which I worried would put me at a disadvantage if we were called to strategize -- although I was holding him anyway, so it probably made sense for him to be on my team rather than someone else's, as was originally the case). By this point, several audience members were suggesting helpfully that perhaps it was time for the acting to begin.

"We are acting already," my nephew insisted, confoundingly. "I am a Seal, she's a Fish, and he's a Shark." Given this valuable clue, the three-year-old Shark (who presumably had not been allowed much creative input) sprang into action and wriggled toward us, menacingly. The Fish said, "Glub glub glub!" then walked into the audience, instructing us individually that posing a certain way would make us shark-attack-immune. The Shark ignored this, however, and took big imaginary bites out of us all before returning to the playing area. "I wonder what will happen at the end of this play," someone said loudly from the audience. "We'll all be friends," the Fish explained. The Shark whispered a plot clue to my brother, who later told me that he'd said, "I'll probably eat the Fish." That turned out to be optimistic on his part.

"I hope the end will come soon," another spectator ventured. The Seal approached and whispered in my ear, "The play will end when we start the ending." Then he slithered off to crouch inside an overturned wicker table. ("The table is modernity," the fiance whispered to me.)

Eventually there was a snarling showdown between Shark and Seal, with the Seal, on his belly in the grass, doing most of the snarling (as the Fish ran around, shouting, "Glub! Glub! Glub!"). The younger, startled Shark protested, "You're a Seal! Seals are nice!" "We're not friends yet," the Seal reminded him, and us. "We're still mean friends." Then he raised himself to look the Shark in the eye and growled, "If you don't start being good, I will kill you."

The Shark was plainly uncertain whether this was part of the script or not. His mother saved him from potential death by announcing that she'd be going back inside in two minutes, which precipitated the long-awaited finale -- although to see it we had to stand up and leave our branch-piles behind, and follow the actors across the yard. And the Shark collapsed in not-very-professional tears when we accidentally clapped before the final tableau had been staged. We did see the characters reconcile, however, and the actors beamed as we applauded their efforts.

The whole thing was breathtakingly freeform; Richard Foreman could hardly have done better. "The play will end when we start the ending" could even be the title of his next project. If the kids were trying to break open boundaries and defy all our expectations, they succeeded mightily. I think that must have been their aim, because later, the Fish said to her father, "Dad, you missed the whole show! ...It was awesome."

The next morning, I asked the two 4-year-olds what their play was called. "Underwater", the Seal answered. "Underwater Fish," said the Fish. And the Seal said, "It was called Underwater...All the Animals at the Circus...Show." Which is, of course, exactly what I would have guessed. I repeated the title, to verify it (we're serious about fact-checking here at Restricted View): "Underwater All the Animals at the Circus Show?" And he said, "Yes. Because it was so fun for the actors to be in."

All I can say is, the next show I see has a tough act to follow.

[Elsewhere on Restricted View: this cast photo.]