Monday, December 31, 2007

...fifty-seven candleholders

I wonder if it will surprise you to learn that, of all the stores/websites where I have managed registries, Target is my very favorite? I know many people have very warm and affectionate feelings about the Target shopping experience, but I say this as someone who has rarely had the pleasure of visiting an actual Target store. The closest I have come during the last couple years is spotting the one in Riverdale from a passing 1 train. But I've enjoyed their web registry very much.

First of all, check it out: they call it "Club Wedd." And they illustrate it with cute little cartoon people and birds, like you'd find in a ad. It's almost like they're not taking this whole registry thing too seriously! You might even get the impression that they don't think women are the only ones getting married!

I suppose they can afford to have a sense of humor about the registry process, because they know really serious registrants will probably have to look elsewhere: it's difficult to put together a really nice set of linens or bone china from the Target inventory. But I recommend making Target your first source for odds and ends, for a number of reasons. First, their website allows easy access to, and navigation from, the registry sign-in page. Mouse over "Gift Registries" in the menu at the top of the page, and you get an unobtrusive, completely comprehensive drop-down menu that allows you to search for or sign in to a registry/gift list (wedding, baby or other). After you sign in, you can use the site like any other customer, and add things to your registry using the handy little "Add to Club Wedd" button. Even better, the button is there whether you're signed in or not; find something you like, and you can click on it and sign in from there, instead of backtracking endlessly like certain other sites force you to do.

The one thing that puts Target head and shoulders above the rest of the field is the "Guest Ratings" feature. It's not as active as it could be, but the reviews that do exist are extremely helpful when you're registering for home goods without even seeing them in a store. This duvet looks pretty good on my computer, but will I like it on my bed? Absolutely, say a number of customers who already own it (including one who thinks it's "sheek"). How about the coordinating sheets? Lots of people love them too. And should I add the handsome blanket to complete the set? I might have, if I didn't have access to a long list of negative reviews complaining about how it sheds. God bless these other Target customers for taking the time to offer feedback.

The registry is also customer-friendly, as far as I can tell; they make it easy to see when an item is no longer available for purchase (although I don't think I registered for more than one of any item, so I can't say how clearly they indicate that). One friend bought us a number of items, which were sent in two shipments; that fact was clearly communicated to both of us. The only wrinkle was that the packing slip for the first shipment didn't tell me what was being sent separately, useful information that everybody else provides. So that was weird (and suspenseful!). My only other complaint is that they don't notify me if something on my list goes out of stock. But it seems nobody does. And it doesn't happen as often at Target as it does elsewhere (I'm looking at you, Crate & Barrel).

I'll conclude my trip through registry land with a postscript about Pottery Barn. We initially thought we might register there, but we changed our minds and removed all items from the registry list. But the website didn't allow me to delete it altogether. That's weak, Pottery Barn. Weak.

(To read all of my wedding-registry reviews, click here.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

They ought to give commissions for spelling

Today's rendering of "Mollie," on my Esprit dressing-room door?


I can't say whether my eager sales-associate friend had help coming up with this one. If there was a conversation, I didn't hear it. But I have to wonder: Are they just messing with me now?

Friday, December 28, 2007

...forty-seven paperweights...

I was excited about registering at Crate & Barrel, especially after the fiance and I visited one of their Manhattan stores and beheld their collection of shiny kitchenwares. Crate & Barrel is hip, cool, urban, as we can only aspire to be. Even better, it's an efficient mail-order company, with an easy-to-use website supplemented by a relatively comprehensive catalogue. Registry heaven.

The website is definitely better than the others I've discussed for general shopping, but as a registry tool it could use some improvements. Like I said when I critiqued Bed, Bath & Beyond, I think I ought to be able to sign in to my registry once and then browse like a regular customer. Crate & Barrel, like Macy's, has a separate "registry" interface they make you use once you sign in, focused on pointing you in the direction of adding more stuff (per their "recommendations"). This makes it harder to look up things you already know you want (like items from the catalogue), and if you manage to break free of the registry frame, you'll have trouble going from search results to registry list and back.

My other complaint is that, like BB&B (and all the other stores), Crate & Barrel doesn't notify me when something I've registered for goes out of stock. And since many of their items are presented on a "seasonal" basis, this happens a lot. I've had to reconfigure my list many times since I set it up. I got an email when they changed their returns policy (although I still don't know what changed). When I sign in, I see a message, in red letters, alerting me that my list is down to only X number of available gifts and encouraging me to "add more." And we get a new catalogue every three days. So I don't see why they can't send an email when something I'm hoping to receive is no longer available.

I do like Crate & Barrel's gift packaging -- their black-and-white boxes are simple and elegant, and so sturdy I've saved a few for storage purposes (at least until we get those baskets we registered for!). When it comes to gift packaging, I'm a confirmed recycler and re-user -- one of those people who folds up wrapping paper and puts it away for future use -- and I wish I could find a use for the yards and yards of black-and-white, C&B-branded ribbon I've received. The fiance suggested tying one particularly long sample around me like a sash. I could be "Miss Crate & Barrel" for Halloween next year! They get further kudos for not stuffing their boxes with the dreaded styrofoam peanut; generally they use crumpled paper to pad things for shipping. This is commendable, but I did contact them with a suggestion regarding the rolls and rolls of paper in which they swathe certain items. I'm not saying I know anyone dumb enough to make a mistake like this, but if they sent out a package that included some items rolled in paper this way, and if those items were very lightweight -- like, for example, champagne flutes -- and if the person opening the package didn't know what was inside (because it was a gift), she might accidentally discard the rolls of paper, thinking they were just padding. And she might not realize her mistake until she sat down to write her thank-you notes, and noticed that the packing slip said something about "champagne flutes," but there were no such flutes inside the smaller boxes she opened. And she might have to call home and ask her mother to check the boxes -- already on the curb, waiting to be picked up -- and retrieve the missing flutes. So I think they ought to tie a little ribbon around those nondescript rolls of paper, just to make it obvious that there's something inside. You know, just in case someone should ever make such a silly mistake.

C&B is my favorite so far -- but make sure you stay on top of your list! Stay tuned to hear about my remaining stores...

(To read all my wedding-registry reviews, click here.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

...thirty-seven butter knives...

Ho ho ho! I hope you all had a wonderful, warm and blessed Christmas. In honor of bargain-shopping (and gift-returning) season, I bring you the next installment in my registry series. Time to talk about Macy's!

As I mentioned before, I like to be left alone when I shop. But in most wedding-related service industries, leaving people alone to make their own decisions is unheard of. After all, the whole point of being a bride is having a fuss made over you. So it is with setting up a wedding-gift registry -- and if you enjoy having lots of attention and advice from store employees, or from their internet representations, you will love the registry process. After we amused ourselves with the scanner gun at Bed, Bath & Beyond, the fiance and I refrained from presenting ourselves in person elsewhere and did all our registering online. But the stores still clog up the process with "helpful" hints and tips and guides, all of which boil down to two basic directives: 1. Register for lots of stuff. 2. Register for more expensive stuff.

In this regard, Macy's is the most obnoxious of any I've encountered. When you sign up, they make you tell them how many guests you expect to invite, so they can let you know how many gifts to register for. (Hint: a lot.) And when you sign in, they ask, "Does your registry offer guests enough options?" (Hint: no.) A saleswoman even called my cell phone and left a long voice-mail message about how I hadn't yet linked the registry to my Macy's charge card, or some such nonsense (I don't have a Macy's charge card, but I'm sure she was prepared to offer one to me). Worst of all, they require you to be a member of, one of the more odious online "communities" where brides-to-be can gather to feed their wedding-related insecurities. I signed up at Wedding Channel and when I was first plotting my attempt to scale Mount Wedding. It seemed like a good place to start. But I quickly decided there was nothing but downside to having the details of our wedding available on these sites, so I canceled my accounts, and I really don't appreciate having to sign back up just to have a registry at Macy's. Being a member of Wedding Channel makes me uncomfortable; I don't like the decisions they want to make on my behalf. Case in point: at this moment, typing "" into my navigation bar reroutes me to, so I can edit my registry. Even if I sign out. Even if I close the browser and restart it. I feel like my computer has a virus.

Macy's was not originally in our core group of stores, but one day, just before gift-buying season began in earnest, I noticed the china pattern we'd picked out at Bed, Bath & Beyond in a Macy's advertising circular. And it was on sale! Some investigation revealed that they have a few pieces BB&B doesn't carry, so I decided it was worth having an account there, Wedding Channel tie-in and all, to score some extra serving dishes and save our guests some cash. Which brings me to my first pro: the prices at Macy's are very good when the pattern is on sale, and it goes on sale every few weeks. Unfortunately, the regular prices are significantly higher than Bed, Bath & Beyond's, so I've spent the last several weeks transferring items back and forth, depending on what's available from which store at what price. I don't want anyone to have to pay $36 for a plate they could get at $31 or $22.

All that work has given me a chance to get acquainted with some of the site's other quirks. Macy's, like BB&B, is a physical store first and an online store second, and it shows on their website. Searching for a specific item is tricky, and the nesting of related items (like individual dishes from the same pattern) is unpredictable and not very helpful. Since searching for what I want is such a pain, I think I should be able to click on an item from my registry and go from there back to a list of related items, but the website doesn't work that way; clicking on something I've already registered for is a dead end. To make matters worse, several of the images don't match the items -- they have a picture of a rice bowl in place of a soup bowl, and the soup bowl instead of the serving bowl, and so on.

If you register at multiple stores, you'll find they have different methods of displaying what items you want and what you've already received. Some sites show how many you asked for and how many you've received; others show how many you "still need." This is particularly important when the couple registers for multiples of a single item (six dinner plates, for example), and they don't all get purchased at once. For some reason, I find Macy's system particularly confusing, whether I'm looking at it as a customer or updating it as the registrant. I'm always doing mental math. Shouldn't it be easier to tell what's still available for purchase?

In the pro column: they have enough locations to be convenient for many of our guests who prefer to shop in person. And their service seems to be good. One of my shower guests bought us a set of pasta bowls, but the store had only four of the six in stock, so they added a note letting me know that the other two were on the way (and indicating very clearly whom they were from). Unlike most computer generated "gift cards," this note was practically suitable for framing, and the bowls arrived very soon thereafter. I'm not blown away by their online selection, though -- I've done some searching in hopes of adding other stuff, but our registry hasn't expanded much beyond dishes. And I'm unhappy that those who visit our registry list are invited to "Check out the couple's website!" I can't get rid of that note, nor the link that takes you to a page with a hideous border of red roses. It lists only our wedding date, and a link back to the Macy's registry, so I don't think any intelligent person would confuse it with our actual wedding website (hosted with far more class by But I am still rankled. As if.

Tune in tomorrow(ish) for my thoughts on Crate & Barrel!

(To read all my wedding-registry reviews, click here.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

And you say people pay you for your opinions?

From Roger Ebert's review of the new Burton film Sweeney Todd:
The Stephen Sondheim songs don't really lend themselves to full-throated performance, although that has been the practice on the stage. They are more plot-driven, confessional, anguished. Depp and Bonham Carter do their own singing, and very well, too, and as actors, they use the words to convey meaning as well as melody.
Hear that, George Hearn? Len Cariou? You and your foolish full-throated attempts! Clearly, Johnny Depp's weak, pitchless whine is the best possible vehicle for a plot-driven, confessional, anguished aria like "Epiphany"! I've always considered "My Friends" to be a patter song, myself, and I am so glad that it is finally going to be heard as Roger Ebert knows it should.

I suppose this is what I get for violating my longstanding rule against reading or listening to the opinions of Roger Ebert, as well as my other, newer rule against reading or listening to any press about this new movie. From the little bit of coverage I've been exposed to, I've gotten the very clear impression that what Burton really wanted to do was make a movie about the story of Sweeney Todd. He didn't really care so much for the Sondheim part of the equation; he just liked the source material, and the aesthetic choices that were part of the Hal Prince staging of same. I read recently that he cut "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Cut the song that opens the show, closes the show, and moves the story forward throughout the show. Given that choice, I'm not sure it's fair to say he's making a movie of the musical. It'd be like if you made a movie about the life of Maria Von Trapp and said it was based on the stage musical, because you like the way they named the kids in the Rodgers & Hammerstein libretto, but you cut the song "The Sound of Music" and cast Reese Witherspoon in the lead role.

I saw one ad for this movie. In the background there was some generic film-score music -- not Sondheim's -- and then that gave way to Johnny Depp wheezing, "I will have vengeance!" Except without the exclamation point. "I will have vengeance. (But first I'll have a nap.)" I couldn't hit the "mute" button fast enough. Are you, like me, planning to spend the next several months listening to the original cast recording (with its unsuitable full-throated performances) over and over until the hype around this movie goes away?

...Okay, I'm back, because hours later, I am still annoyed by this. I can't get over the idiocy of the statement "Stephen Sondheim's songs don't really lend themselves to full-throated performance, although that has been the practice on the stage." It's not just a wrongheaded opinion; it's an erroneous statement of fact -- and one that contains an acknowledgment of its own inaccuracy. Perhaps what he wanted to say was, "Stephen Sondheim's songs are not best served by full-throated performance..." That would still be moronic, of course, but at least it would be an opinion, in the same way that his follow-up statement about how Depp and Bonham Carter sing "very well" is an opinion, one to which he is entitled, however risible it might be; and in the same way his statement that "as actors, they use the words to convey meaning as well as melody" is (sort of) an opinion, even though it should have been filed under "goes without saying," and the fact that it wasn't exposes how little he seems to know about the genre of musical theatre in the first place. But this isn't about whether I agree with Ebert; it's about Ebert trying to display his expertise while saying something utterly untrue and nakedly self-contradictory. What he actually says, in the sentence I've just requoted, is that Sondheim's songs can't really be performed in the style in which they were written to be performed -- and have consistently been performed for nearly thirty years. It's like saying, "Tchaikovsky's compositions for The Nutcracker don't really lend themselves to ballet." Or "Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' doesn't really lend itself to performance by a piano soloist with an orchestra." It's total nonsense. So I figure there are two possible explanations for how this got into print: (a) Roger Ebert does not know the proper meaning/use of the phrase "lend itself to," and no one has bothered to set him straight. (b) Roger Ebert amuses himself by inserting demonstrably idiotic statements into his reviews, just to see if his editors will catch them, and they do not. Either way it ultimately reflects badly on the folks at the Chicago Sun-Times, I'm afraid.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thank you for the twenty-seven dinner plates...

Lately I've put a lot of energy into creating, updating and managing our wedding-gift registries. Before we sent out our save-the-dates, the fiance and I set aside one day to visit a couple stores; since then I've done everything online. We ended up maintaining registries at five different stores, which I swear is not as extravagant as it sounds, and by now I've had plenty of experience navigating their various websites and dealing with their idiosyncrasies. I want to do something with all that knowledge. So here, for all three people who might actually be interested, is a bride's eye view of the registry process. Our first contestant: Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The broad scope, and convenient Lincoln Center location, of this store made it an obvious choice for our "main" registry: we figured we'd cover most of our needs there and branch out for the extras if necessary. It was the only place we did the whole scanner-gun-and-clipboard thing, and even then we spent most of our time in the store doing undercover reconnaissance. I brought my notebook. We tested the pillows, we studied the coffeemakers, we held up the towels to compare the colors with the shower curtain we liked. Only after we discovered a china pattern we loved -- practical enough for everyday use! Fancy enough for company! -- did we approach the registry desk and make it official. Then we went around revisiting all our selections as efficiently as possible, considering every store employee who spotted us had to ask us when the wedding was, where we were going on our honeymoon, etc. I really prefer to be left alone while I'm shopping; when I walk into a store and a clerk asks if I need help finding anything, I automatically say no, even when I'm there in search of something very specific. So I had my fill of the bridal treatment after that one trip. We did enjoy that scanner gun, though.

B3 (as they like to call themselves) got us off to a good start, but I might not rely on them so heavily if I had it to do over again. Very generally, I had better experiences with the companies that are web/mail-order retailers first, and bricks-and-mortar retailers second; B3, on the other hand, is better for shopping in person than shopping online. Their website is not well designed; it's the sort of site where you hesitate before typing in your credit-card information. They have limited information about any given item, and only one image per product. And they don't allow customer reviews or ratings, which can be extremely helpful when you're comparing appliances and housewares. The organization and nesting is weird, too; when you're looking at items from a set (like individual pieces of china), it can be hard to find your way around, and doubly hard to return to your search results.

All of that applies even if you're just shopping normally. When you're trying to manage a registry, it's twice as annoying. There are two basic things I want in an online registry: First, ideally, once I log in to edit my registry, I should be able to search the site as I normally would, with the option of adding to (or going back to look at) my registry at any time. With B3, I keep having to use the "back" button to get to my registry (using the "Bridal & Gift Registry" tab, docked permanently at the top of the page, takes me back to the sign-in page, regardless of whether I'm signed in already). Very frustrating.

The second thing I want is to be able to access my list online without giving the rest of the world access as well. When we started putting our registries together online, we added items as a way of bookmarking them -- e.g., Let's choose three blenders we think we might want and then decide among them later. So we didn't want people to see our work till it was actually ready for purchase. That seemed like a no-brainer to me, but Bed, Bath & Beyond doesn't allow it. You can decide whether or not the registry will appear online, but there's no way to have it available for you to edit from home, but not for others to browse. And the registry reps looked at us like we were speaking Martian when we inquired whether such a scheme was possible.

Once the list was in place and shower guests started shopping, weird things happened. Somehow we ended up getting a coffeemaker similar to, but not identical to, the one on our registry. I went back to see whether we'd accidentally registered for the wrong color, and found that our original choice (which was stainless steel) still appeared on the list, and the one that was purchased instead (which was black) had been added alongside it (and marked "purchased"). So now we had 2 coffeemakers listed on our registry: the one we added ourselves, and the one that was mysteriously added when someone went shopping. I am still scratching my head over how that could have happened (and not looking forward to dragging the black one to the store so we can exchange it for the one we should have gotten in the first place). And while I was investigating that, I noticed a red travel mug on the list that I didn't remember registering for. Had we gone a little crazy with the scanner gun? No -- a guest of ours had bought it for herself as part of an order that also included a gift for us, so when she checked out, the travel mug ended up on our registry list as well (marked "purchased"). Curiouser and curiouser.

My biggest complaint, though, is that stuff we registered for keeps becoming "unavailable," and I am not notified when this happens. Those pillows we painstakingly tested? No longer in stock. When this happens, shouldn't I at least get an email to let me know? I have this problem with all of the places we registered, but Bed, Bath & Beyond is definitely the worst, because not only do they not tell me when this happens -- they don't indicate it on my "edit your registry" page! When I log in, I see the list just as I created it; the only way for me to tell when something's "unavailable" is to follow the link from our wedding website to look at the list as it appears to our guests.

I've got lots of little nitpicks, too: we've received packages from B3 that were stuffed with environmentally indefensible styrofoam packing peanuts, and this week we got a large, flat cardboard box, big enough to hold a bookshelf from Ikea, that held: a knife. One knife. Gift-wrapped, but still. And, on top of everything else: one of the items I registered for after our trip to the store was a big, metal, store-brand colander. We received it a couple weeks back, and I love it -- but I don't love the fact that they stuck the label inside the colander, at the bottom. And, as I discovered once I tried to remove it, they didn't use one of those stickers that peels off easily (like the ones that came on all our OXO utensils and accessories). I had to scrape off the bulk of the sticker with my nails; soak the collander in vegetable oil; run it through the dishwasher; soak it in oil again; scrape at it some more; wash it again... I get angry when they put nonremovable stickers on the covers of CDs, but that's purely an aesthetic complaint. This is a practical issue, because it's a colander. The entire point of a colander is that it has holes in the bottom. If you block all the holes in the bottom with a big, difficult-to-remove sticker, you render it useless. It would be like selling T-shirts with the sleeves sewn shut. ...If only I could leave a customer review on their site, I might not have to blog about it!

In short: Bed, Bath & Beyond gets a thumbs-up for convenience, breadth of stock and reasonable prices, but a big thumbs-down for their website, their packaging and their store brand. Next on the block: Macy's!

(To read all my wedding-registry reviews, click here.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

400 calories of frustration!

I didn't want to eat Pop Tarts this morning. Especially not frosted ones. Let's just make that clear.

What I wanted was a midmorning snack, to hold me over till lunch. The vending machine at the office is set up to function on the building-wide ID card system (you can put money on your ID, and use it in the cafeteria too), but today the little card-reader screen says, "Use bills or coins." Weird, but not a problem, because in the change pocket of my wallet I had, not counting pennies, exactly 85 cents. Which was exactly what it would cost me to buy a small package of Fig Newtons. Perfect! I thought. Then I started feeding my dimes into the machine, and it spit every one back out. the nickels it took, but not the dimes. And I didn't have enough nickels to buy anything. Why does this happen? Is the dime-slot full?

Back to my desk I went, to look for a dollar bill. So much for using up my coins -- now I'll have more. But at least I'll get my filling and marginally virtuous snack of Fig Newtons! Back to the machine, which accepted my dollar bill without a squawk. I punched in my selection, and the machine's readout flashed: "Use exact change."

So let me get this straight: The machine won't accept payment via ID card. It won't accept dimes. And it won't dispense change. And it already ate my dollar. So my choices are: buy something that costs exactly a dollar, or go back to my desk with no snack and a dollar's worth of coins (assuming the machine deigned to give me any money at all). And the only thing in the machine that cost exactly a dollar? Pop Tarts.

Remember that episode of The Simpsons ("Homer vs. Dignity," I believe) in which Mr. Burns thinks he can order aloud from the vending machine? When it doesn't produce the "pound of Bristol's Toffee" he requests, he scowls and says darkly, "You have made a powerful enemy, my friend." That goes double for you, stupid vending machine in this office. Watch your back. As soon as I stop feeling ill from eating those Pop Tarts, I am so coming after you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Golden lads and girls

To be fair, Cymbeline is a disjointed play, even on the page. It feels as though Shakespeare, well into the obtuse, experimental, tragicomic late phase of his writing career, threw everything in just to see what the result would be. The plot is so overburdened with Shakespearean tropes -- disguises, cross-dressing, multiple identities, banished courtiers, a villainous queen, a slandered maiden, chance encounters and strange portents -- that at times it seems arch and self-parodic. The final product is puzzling, to say the least, but deliciously so; it's moving, suspenseful and hilarious, sometimes simultaneously. Unfortunately, in putting together the present production at Lincoln Center, Mark Lamos employed a directorial approach that echoes the script's unevenness. Rather than pulling the play's disparate elements together into something coherent, he has compounded the problem: not only do the characters not seem to live in the same world; the actors don't even seem to be performing in the same play.

In some corners, the production goes for a broadly whimsical, fairy-tale-like tone. Jess Goldstein's bright, colorful costumes seem to set the play in the ahistorical, vaguely medieval world of fairy-tale royalty -- except for the Roman soldiers, who look like they stepped out of a biblical drama, and their Soothsayer, dressed like The Lion King's Rafiki. But the fairy-tale atmosphere is dominant, and a few of the performances, most notably Phylicia Rashad's scheming queen, complete the effect. Say what you will about television actors onstage; you must admit, Phylicia Rashad never phones it in. (Said my companion, at intermission: "She doesn't even know phones have been invented.") It's probably not fair to call her a "television actor," since she's done plenty of theatre -- and I was impressed by her Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean a few seasons ago. I'm not sure she's completely up to the challenge of Shakespeare -- she seems to be still playing the Witch from Into the Woods -- but it's not entirely her fault that the other performances don't match hers in tone or breadth (or sheer oddness). At least that sensibility seems to run in the onstage family: as the queen's son, the hilariously hissable Cloten, Adam Dannheisser steals every scene he's in. By the second half, you can feel the audience brighten every time Cloten steps onstage and deflate when one of the less colorful heroes shoos him away. Yes, we know we're supposed to be rooting for Posthumus, but Cloten is so much more fun! And when (SPOILER ALERT) Guiderius rushes onstage brandishing Cloten's bloody head, the triumph of the moment, and the humorousness of the image, is blunted by the palpable disappointment that ripples through the audience. Everyone had almost forgotten the play was not called Cloten, Son to th' Queen.

This imbalance is enhanced by John Cullum's retiring presence as the actual title character. He makes so weak an impression that, when the focus of the (lengthy) final scene is suddenly on Cymbeline, you wonder why he's doing all the talking. The play's true hero, Posthumus Leonatus, is played by Michael Cerveris in a truly terrible wig (worse than his shiny bald head? Probably not), intensely serious as ever, spitting all over the stage and twisting his face into his patented "carsick" expression. It's not a bad performance, but it's not likable enough to make you root for him over his rivals -- the buffoonish Cloten and the villainous Iachimo, played with arresting confidence by Jonathan Cake. I was surprised by how good I thought Cake was here, because I thought he was absolutely dreadful opposite Fiona Shaw in Medea. (Nobody but Shaw came out of that show looking good, in my opinion.) He more than holds his own here, and even if he didn't, his native British accent gives him an advantage over his costars, and his astonishing, beefcakey physicality is worth the price of the ticket all by itself. Cymbeline calls for a number of special effects ("Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle," what?), but nothing in this production is as memorable as Cake's shirtlessness.

With Iachimo and Cloten as competition, Leonatus never seems worth cheering for. Nor is he a completely worthy match for Imogen, as played by Martha Plimpton. She's the one actor in the company who seems totally comfortable with the language, and makes it totally lucid for the audience; when Imogen is speaking, you never have to think about translating what she says. It's a sincere, accomplished performance that brings the words to the forefront, and it made me ache to see Cymbeline performed by a tight ensemble company that might illuminate the text more fully. (Dear Propeller: Please come back!)

Also worthy of mention: John Pankow, whose gentle, naturalistic portrayal of Pisanio came very close to wiping the memory of Ira Buchman from my mind; David Furr, intense and sincere as Guiderius-now-called-Polydore; and Herb Foster, who had the kind of presence in his few scenes as Cornelius that it would have been nice to see from John Cullum as Cymbeline. Individually, most of the performances are fine; they just don't come together in any discernible way. It seems as though everyone rehearsed individually, or perhaps honed their performances in other productions and then brought them together as a kind of stunt. Everything about the production is similarly schizophrenic -- not just the costumes, as noted above, but also the the overall tone. Is the battle scene meant to be taken seriously? What about the Jupiter-descending dream? And whose idea was it to present the ghosts of Posthumus's family as enormous, Basil Twist-y puppets? I laughed, but I had the feeling I wasn't supposed to.

On top of that, the blocking was an obstacle -- I usually find the thrust stage of the Vivian Beaumont allows for an intimacy you don't often get on Broadway. But in this case, the disunity of the overall production is present even within individual performances, which seem fractured because only about a third of the audience can see the central action, or the speaker's face, at any given time. This also makes a lot of the dialogue difficult to hear, a particular problem given that it's Shakespeare at his least familiar and most complex.

This Cymbeline is still worth seeing; it's enjoyable, if seldom relevatory. You can't really appreciate the twisted tragicomedy of this play's latter half -- in particular, the scene where the heroine, disguised as a boy and believed dead, awakens to find herself lying next to the headless corpse of her stepbrother, which is dressed in her husband's clothes -- until you see it onstage and drink in the confusion of the audience around you. Reading the play, you can wonder whether, listening to the "Fear No More" elegy, you ought to be touched by its pathos, amused by its puns, or simply tickled by the absurdity of it all. But you can't really work it out until you experience it as part of an audience. The problem in this case is that the actors don't seem to know what effect they're going for, either -- the play lacks the cohesion it needs to work its magic. The Soothsayer comes close to articulating what the director ought to do when he proclaims, at the end, "The fingers of the powers above do tune/The harmony of this peace." A surer touch from those fingers would have helped a great deal. If you get a chance to see a solid ensemble company put on Cymbeline, by all means, take advantage of it. In the meantime, you could do worse than see this one. And after all, it is, in a sense, a Christmas play, and not a bad way to "abide the change of time,/ Quake in the present winter's state, and wish/ That warmer days would come."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Christmas Garland

Tomorrow night, TCM is airing a pair of Judy Garland films back-to-back. I don't know whether they're advertising this with the pun I've made above, but I sincerely hope they are. From the schedule:
    8:00 PM Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
    Young love and childish fears highlight a year in the life of a turn-of-the-century family. Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor. Dir: Vincente Minnelli. C-113 mins

    10:00 PM Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
    A small-town boy tries to juggle two girlfriends at once. Cast: Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Judy Garland. Dir: George B. Seitz. BW-91 mins
I manage to catch a little of Meet Me in St. Louis nearly every time it airs. Like A Christmas Story, it has an episodic structure, so once you've seen it start-to-finish, you can tune in any time and catch your favorite scene. In fact, one of these years I think TCM should just do a 24-hour Meet Me... marathon. Instead, they seem to show it on or around every major holiday -- the movie is built around a year's worth of events in the Smith family home, and Christmas is only one of those events. But it's especially worth watching at this time of year. Once you've heard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in its original context, with its original lyrics, you'll never again be satisfied with "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."

I confess that I've been waiting for this movie to come up in TCM's rotation since the last time I watched it, because while I love it dearly, there are a few things about it that bug me every time. Finally, a chance to complain!

The first one comes very early in the movie, when little Tootie (the fantastic Margaret O'Brien) tells the ice man that her ailing doll -- the one with four fatal diseases -- will be buried in "a cigar box" her father gave her. It's a sweet period detail, but I'm always distracted by the fact that the doll she's holding is much too big to fit in a cigar box. A milk crate would do the job, but not a cigar box, unless she plans to feed it through a wood-chipper first (and I wouldn't put that past Tootie). Shouldn't someone have noticed this discrepancy during shooting?

My other, larger objection is that the girls' Halloween prank and its fallout are confusing and convoluted. I've seen the movie many times, and I still have trouble following the whole sequence of events. Let me see if I have it right: Agnes and Tootie left a dress, stuffed to look like a dead body, on the streetcar tracks and then hid to watch the crash they hoped would result. When the car went off its cable and the police showed up to investigate, John Truitt pulled the girls into a side street so the police wouldn't catch them. But they struggled to get away from him -- why? So they wouldn't miss the excitement? And John somehow managed to belt Tootie in the mouth in his attempt to hold her back? The movie is completely caught up in Tootie's dramatization of the event ("He tried to kill me!") and Esther's overreaction ("If there's anything I hate, loathe, despise and abominate, it's a bully!") -- and I love all of that. But the explanation of what really happened is rushed, and the audience is left to put together a timeline without many details. Even if you can follow it all as it unfolds, you still have to wonder: Why aren't Agnes and Tootie punished for their attempt to derail a streetcar? Rose likes to exaggerate, yes, but when she tells them they "might have killed dozens of people," she's absolutely right. Esther denounces them, but then she runs off to make up with John, and never gives Tootie the scolding she deserves for lying about his role in the proceedings. And why doesn't Mrs. Smith tell Mr. Smith about the girls' little joke? If Tootie gets a spanking for leaving her roller skate where Papa might trip over it, surely she ought to get a cross word when she leaves a faux corpse in the path of a streetcar.

Wow, I feel much better now that I've gotten all that off my chest. The follow-up flick, Love Finds Andy Hardy, is nowhere near as good -- as you can easily guess if you've ever seen any of the Hardy films. But it's still entertaining for Judy fans, as long as you're not expecting it to make sense. The plot is so ragged, it seems like they must have been making it up as they went along; one crisis after another is played up way beyond its actual significance, with everyone stressing over a completely solvable problem, and then it's dropped suddenly with no real resolution. It's like they took several traditional sitcom plots and smashed them together, and forgot to write actual endings for any of them. Even the title is inaccurate: there is nothing like "love" in this movie. The teenage couples actually model pretty unhealthy relationships, if you ask me: the girls are demanding, dull and not very affectionate, and the boys, burdened by the task of having to entertain these difficult females, respond with near-constant prevaricating. Why the boys are so extremely invested in pursuing and protecting these unhealthy relationships is a total mystery, since not even the most innocent whiff of sexual attraction is permitted.

Most disorientingly, the audience is expected to be just as invested as Andy in the survival of his "relationship" with the shrewish, charmless Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford), in spite of his obviously greater chemistry with Betsy Booth, played adorably by the young Judy Garland. The one truly clever thing the screenwriters did was to introduce Betsy Booth as a young girl with an enormous crush on Andy Hardy -- the explanation for this ("My grandmother writes about him in her letters -- she says he's the nicest boy in the neighborhood!") is utter nonsense, but since Mickey Rooney was the Michael J. Fox of his day, creating a character who was Andy-crazy was an ingenious way to draw the Mickey-crazy audience into the film. Or so I thought, until I learned that Betsy doesn't actually end up with Andy -- Polly does, through no merit of her own (except perhaps her willingness to put up with his lying and cheating). In light of this fact, I am sorry to report that the tagline on the cover of the DVD edition -- "Mickey's in love and Judy's his girl!" -- is an outright lie. Still, it's totally fun to see Judy in the early years of her fame -- this was her first pairing with Rooney, I believe, and in 1938 she was still regarded as a novelty act: the little girl with the freakishly adult voice. Her delivery of the priceless line, "I sing, you know," is worth watching the movie for all by itself.

I think this movie should have been titled Progress Finds Judge Hardy, since every other scene finds the venerable Lewis Stone exclaiming over this or that newfangled development (automobiles, aeroplanes, telegrams, ham radio!). He also wins the prize for most unintentionally grim line when he remarks, in the presence of Andy and one of Andy's friends, "Heaven knows what this generation has coming!" They're teenage boys; it's 1938... Let's put it this way: there will be airplanes and telegrams involved.

That, of course, is exactly why I love to watch these old movies, even the shoddily constructed ones; they're time capsules of not-so-ancient cultural history. Not that I'd hold up the Hardy Family as an accurate portrait of American family life in the 1930s and 40s -- nor do I believe the St. Louis Smiths are representative of turn-of-the-century living. But the movies are a portrait of popular entertainment in the 30s and 40s, and I find that deeply fascinating. For example, you can get a taste of how things have changed when you discover that one of Andy's many insurmountable (but actually eminently solvable) problems is his desire to purchase a car, for which he needs to raise... twenty dollars. Twenty bucks! For a car! (He does get the money, of course, and it is a testament to how bad the plot was that I can't recall how he actually did it.) And I don't know of any film that captures the national mood in 1945 quite as evocatively as Meet Me in St. Louis, despite its being set in 1904. You don't have to work hard to guess what "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is really about, and what "troubles" everyone was longing to be "miles away" from by next year. If you have troubles you'd like to be miles away from, I don't think there's any better escape than TCM!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The whole world's waiting to sing your song

The fiance and I dragged our feet (or abdicated entirely) when it came to certain wedding-related details -- neither of us could muster much enthusiasm for deciding what kind of car would take us to the church, what sort of figurine would stand atop our cake, or which flowers would be featured in our bouquets, corsages and boutonnieres. But -- as you know from my stationery-related posts -- certain other details have received a great deal of our attention. Music is a big priority for both of us: we want our reception to be a really fun party, and having good music will help make that happen. So as soon as we had a date and a venue for our reception, we set about finding a great band. And once that band was booked, we turned our attention to composing a suggested playlist -- and, just as important, a detailed, exhaustive, high-priority do-not-play list.

We haggled a bit over what we wanted to hear and dance to, and when necessary, we made sacrifices -- he allowed me to request "Love Shack," and I consented to some of the dancier hits by the Police (I think I was born too late to love them). We had a common goal, after all -- and isn't compromise what marriage is all about? But when it came to compiling the do-not-play list, we were very much in agreement -- we hate a lot of the same stuff. (The one major exception was Earth, Wind and Fire; he would happily have included them in our general request for disco hits, but I seem to be allergic to their music, so I took this opportunity to exercise my bridal veto. That horrible "Aaaaa-ee-aaaw! Dancing in September!" song might be a major part of every other wedding reception I will ever attend, but I will not submit to hearing it at mine.) I tease him about being older than me -- see difference of opinion re: the Police, referenced above -- but we're both out-of-touch cranks at heart, because we both recoiled in horror when we read through the general "Top 40" repertoire for our band. "Hey Ya," by OutKast, made it on to the request list. "Anything Top 40, with the exception of 'Hey Ya'" headed the do-not-play list. Also verboten: country pop, Latin pop, the Dave Matthews Band (we are united in our loathing for the Dave), and a category I like to call "Man Ballads," which includes "Lady in Red" and the entire song catalogues of Peter Cetera and Michael Bolton. For starters.

All of this got me thinking: wouldn't it be great if we could somehow impose our own individual do-not-play lists on our surroundings? Portable music players have given us the power to have playlists for life, but they can't stop the music you hate from reaching your ears now and again. Places like Duane Reade and Gristede's are responsible for much of my exposure to horrible, horrible music. It pops up on commercials from time to time. Or somebody drives down your block with their stereo blasting. The music you hate will find you. How great would it be if you could prevent that? I mean, if somebody out there actually wants to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire, well, far be it from me to take that pleasure away. But if I had the power to keep it from reaching my ears, I would exercise it in a heartbeat.

My personal do-not-play list would include (aside from the categories and artists mentioned above): "Put Me in, Coach," Sheryl Crow, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the Pearl Jam cover of "Last Kiss" (doesn't come up much these days, but you can’t be too careful), Bette Midler singing "From a Distance," “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and Macy Gray. I'm sure I'll think of more as soon as I post this, but that's a solid start. What about you? What would you ban from your airspace, if you had the power?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bless this bride, totally insane...

Ordinarily, I like to keep a well-ordered mind and a well-ordered home. (And a well-ordered blog.) But my mind is far from well-ordered right now -- it's a big mess of wedding-related minutiae and deadlines, with Christmas gift ideas and other errands scattered about. My home is a literal mess composed along those same lines -- and the fiance's apartment, wedding-planning central, is even worse. With just a month to go, I'm in triage mode -- if it's not related to the wedding, or marriage, or Christmas, I can't afford to spend time thinking about it. Creative impulses must be denied! Professional ambitions must be ignored! Friendships will have to wait! I'll have plenty of time to patronize the arts after I'm married! I can be prayerful and reflective some other Advent! Lunchtime? But I just ate four hours ago! I was actually relieved when the stagehands and the SAG went on strike, because who has the time to keep up with Broadway openings, or favorite television shows? And I let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse, because I don't have time to read it anyway, and it seemed easier to just resubscribe after the honeymoon, once I've moved, rather than changing the address now. I have no room for clutter in my brain. I find myself reacting to everyday irritations -- finicky wireless connections, obnoxious holiday music, the woman who held me up this morning by stopping dead in the subway turnstile to go through her purse and get out her Metrocard, and then stopping dead again, on the steps down to the train, to put her card back in her purse -- as though they were major disasters, because weeks of stress have entirely worn away my already thin layer of patience, leaving all my nerves exposed.

If I had time for reflection, I might wonder: Is coping with all this craziness the essence of what it means to be a "bride"? Or am I experiencing the friction produced by straining against the forces that would make me into a "bride"? Every time I turn on the TV -- which I do now and then to keep me company while I'm writing thank-you notes, working on table numbers, breaking down boxes, shopping online -- there are a host of wedding-related programs to choose from. Stuff like I Propose, Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway? and Bridezillas. The other night, getting ready for bed, I watched about 40 minutes of the '90s remake of Father of the Bride, and I couldn't decide whether I found it relaxing or stress-enhancing. I was just numb. I do know that the title character I most identified with was the father, not the bride. She has it easy. He does all the work. The scene where Steve Martin has a breakdown in the supermarket and starts tearing open packages of hot-dog buns? I watched it and nodded, thinking, That could be me.

I never identify with the brides on those reality shows, probably because the kind of woman who would invite a reality TV crew to follow her around as she plans her wedding is not the sort of woman I would want to talk to, let alone be. (Those bridal reality shows are among the least entertaining reality shows I've ever watched five minutes of, by the way, and I have to assume they'd be even less entertaining to anyone not currently planning a wedding. Don't waste your time.) When I fell in love with the man who is now my fiance, not a single part of me was dreaming of spending almost an entire year planning and preparing for our wedding. And when it came time to actually take on the task, I did my best to avoid all the unnecessary expenses and distractions and frills, the "bridal" stuff that didn't seem to have anything to do with me, or us. But it's crazy anyway, and it took a long time anyway, and now I'm slightly in awe of the women who manage to fit in all that extra stuff. How do they do it? How do they find time for it, how do they pay for it, how do they fit it into their overtaxed brains without completely falling apart?

People keep telling me this is supposed to be fun. Maybe someday I will look back on this time with fondness, but right now I'm just hoping to get through it. Today I am back at work in an office, sitting at someone else's desk (which is a sort of metaphor for my situation in general), and next to me is a review copy of a book called His Cold Feet, "a guide for the woman who wants to tie the knot with the guy who wants to talk about it later." This made me laugh, because one problem I don't have to deal with is cold feet, on his part or mine. Our feet are so warm we have to wear sandals. Let's get this over with, already!

Once in a while, I come up for air and notice how much we've accomplished: I may not be keeping up with my blog (or my laundry), but we've obtained our marriage license, purchased our rings, booked our transportation, approved our decorations, given instructions to the musicians... We're keeping track of response cards and sending out thank-yous with reasonable promptness. I'm proud of us whenever we check something off the list, and I am excited about our plans; it's all looking great. But it's the rare non-wedding-related activities that I really treasure, because they actually have something to do with me -- not Mollie the "bride," but Mollie, the young lady who has many other interests, and whose brain is capable of focusing on many other things if permitted. Tonight I'm giving a presentation to our RCIA group. Tomorrow I'm going to see a play -- it's been so long! And best of all, after class tonight, the fiance and I are going out on a date, just like we used to before we were caught in the pre-wedding whirlwind. The priest we met with last week at my hometown parish (where the wedding will be) ended our meeting by instructing us to do exactly this. I think it was excellent advice: These days we're so focused on using the time we have together to discuss wedding details, we could easily forget why we're planning all this in the first place. And we picked tonight because it happens to be our first-date-iversary. Two years ago on this very day, we met for coffee on a Sunday afternoon, and we've basically been together ever since. We're going back to that same spot tonight -- tomorrow, the 12th, begins the one-month countdown to the wedding, but tonight we focus on enjoying each other's company. I just hope nobody gets in my way on the subway while I'm in transit, because I don't know how much more I can take.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Private Practice recap: episode 9

The latest recap is up today (although TWoP has been buggy lately, so try again later if it won't load).
Addison finds Geoffrey in the lobby, waiting for Cathleen, who's taking another look at "the sperm-donor book." (I keep mine right under the Derm Atlas on my coffee table.) Addy wants to know why Geoff is so determined to get his wife pregnant. "I promised her a happy life," he says. "Sometimes you have to get over yourself in order to do that." Addison looks baffled: What is this "getting over yourself" of which he speaks? It sounds inconvenient. Geoff adds that Cathleen was adopted, and he thinks she should get a chance to have what he has (meaning blood relatives). "It's only fair that she gets to have one person in life that looks like her." I'm beginning to realize why Oceanside has a psychiatrist on staff. Violet may not be busy right now, but just wait till all the babies conceived here for dubious reasons and/or born here to unstable parents start coming in for counseling. She's got a home-grown patient base!
This could be the last episode for a long time, unless there's progress in the SAG strike. That's just as well, really -- I have plenty to worry about -- but I'm not sure this was a great note to end on.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Shuffle off to (eat some) buffalo

Until I have time to write a real post, I would like you to entertain yourselves by watching this remarkable video. I'm sending you over to YouTube to view it because it's kind of long, and I feel like I should. (I found it via Dooce.) Family members take note: anyone who watches nature shows and/or real-life-drama shows like Animal Precinct and Rescue 911 -- you know who you are -- will enjoy this, but it may be too intense for 5 year olds, even 5-year-old "animal experts."

Speaking of fights, there was a new Private Practice on last night, and boy was it dumb! I'm pretty sure viewers are expected to put their brains to bed before tuning in, but unfortunately I don't have that luxury. Still, it's fascinating to watch the excellent cast working tirelessly to make a silk purse of entertainment from the sow's ear of a script they have to work with. Anyway, the recaplet is up, and the recap is in the works -- one more thing to keep me from blogging.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Christmas shopping dispatch

Today is an out-and-about kind of day: as my Nana would say, I am a regular Mary Go-the-Road. So I'm just checking in to offer a scene from my morning of errands. I was standing in line at the Gap, just trying to buy some underwear, and the man in front of me (who was in the process of paying for his items) suddenly fainted. The woman standing next to him -- who I took to be his companion, although she may have simply been browsing nearby -- bent over him, trying to revive him, and the cashier spoke some kind of code into her walkie-talkie, and I...walked away and got in line at another register. I felt sort of coldhearted just walking away like that, but I'm pretty sure it was the most helpful thing I could have done. I'd have stayed to help if I were a doctor! And if it had been a sudden copyediting emergency, I'd have been all over it, I swear. But I figured standing there gaping (and waiting for someone to ring up my undies) was probably not going to help.

Maybe this fellow was overwhelmed by the enormous posters of John Krasinski just inside the door of said Gap store? Normally I am kind of annoyed by their "celebrities wearing our clothes" campaign -- not sure why, although the ubiquitous posters of John Mayer displaying his pasty, undefined upper arm probably have a lot to do with it. But in this case I heartily approve.