Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What not to do this weekend

I should have told you this before now, but better late than never: Saturn Returns, the new play by Noah Haidle now entering its last week Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, is terrible. Just terrible. If you're entertaining the thought of going, please do yourself a favor and don't.

I loved Haidle's breakthrough play, Mr. Marmalade, when I read it in American Theatre magazine. I didn't think it was profound, but I did think it was hilarious, and I didn't see why it should have to be more than that. (Not everyone agreed, as we'll see below.) I passed on seeing the Roundabout production because I heard it was lousy and didn't do justice to the script. But I was excited about Haidle's talent and looking forward to this one... And I was extremely disappointed.

Saturn Returns has a relatively promising concept, as laid out in the program notes: "In astrology, Saturn is associated with three crucial turning points in a person's life: first at 27-30 years of age, then around 58-60, and the third and usually final time around 86-88." A good playwright might be able to build something really interesting on that idea. But there's nothing the least bit interesting about what Haidle did with it in this play. It feels like the first draft of a hastily written assignment for an undergraduate playwriting seminar: earnest, pleased with itself, totally underdeveloped and badly in need of revision.

Mr. Marmalade was a black comedy with a bracingly zany sensibility. This is not a comedy, alas; it's apparently supposed to be a romance, but there's nothing authentic about its sentimentality. There are occasional, distracting flareups of Haidle's quirkiness -- like one character's fondness for launching into setups for jokes that couldn't possibly culminate in satisfying punch lines. But none of that fits into the world of this play, which seems to want to be realistic (the staging, under director Nicholas Martin, certainly tries for naturalism), and all of the more straightfaced dialogue is tedious and patronizing. Even at a mere seventy-two minutes, Saturn Returns feels way too long. You will leave feeling sorry for John McMartin, who makes a heroic attempt to do something with his completely lifeless character, and for yourself for having wasted more than an hour hoping the play would come to life. There's a moment in the final scene, when the three actors who play the central character are onstage together, that seems poised to breathe life into the concept at last. But it's false hope. There's no payoff to this play.

I knew Saturn Returns had gotten an unfavorable review in the NYT, but I was surprised to find that Charles Isherwood had actually been far too indulgent. This play is slight and insignificant; it didn't deserve a handsome Lincoln Center production, and it didn't deserve as much attention as Isherwood gave it.

I am pleased, however, to see Isherwood is still asking the important questions:
The climax of the scenes between Gustin and Zephyr, who is encouraging her father to date because she is planning finally to leave home, on the cusp of 30, is undeniably wrenching but not quite believable. (And did people in Michigan really name daughters Zephyr in 1948?)
Why, no, they didn't! What an insightful criticism! Way to poke holes in the conceit of this play! Nothing gets past you, Ish! (Except perhaps the fact that Zephyr's father's name is "Gustin." How many Gustins do you know?)

The reason I paid no attention to the NYT review before I saw Saturn Returns for myself was that I remembered Isherwood's review of Mr. Marmalade. As I mentioned, I heard from other people that the Roundabout staging of that play was poor, so I skipped it. But I loved the play itself, and I thought Isherwood's review was astonishingly unfair, built entirely on criticisms like the one I just quoted. It was a classic example of Isherwood's tendency to criticize a play for not being what he thinks it should be, instead of considering what the author wanted it to be. In the case of Mr. Marmalade, Ish basically objected to Haidle's decision to write a comedy.
The play conjures in bright Crayola colors the precociously adult mindscape of little Lucy (played by the adult actress Mamie Gummer), a pigtailed New Jersey tot whose fantasy companion comes accessorized with personal assistant, bipolar disorder and cocaine problem. But Mr. Marmalade... never truly capitalizes on its provocative conceit...

Lucy's interior world is so patently incredible as the creation of a 4-year-old mind, however marinated in the scream-fests of daytime television and episodes of Law & Order: SVU, that the author never really even dips his toe into the painful emotional undercurrents beneath the play's antic comic surface. Instead, he settles too easily and too consistently for cheap laughs.

Lucy's lexicon is too sophisticated to suggest random imprinting from endless hours of television consumption, to begin with. ...With her knowledge of interns and brunch and the menu at Nobu, Lucy's vocabulary is littered with such references planted to serve as punch lines. How to explain this urbanity, when her distracted single mom appears to work as a waitress in a diner? (Never mind the distasteful implication that neglectful mothering is endemic to the working classes.)
That last line is itself a completely unfair criticism (and you're one to talk, Mr. "People in 1940s Michigan were obviously pedestrian and uncreative"). But I'd like to focus on the central complaint here: 4-year-olds don't know about Nobu! They don't use big words! Oh, and people in the 1930s didn't name their kids "Zephyr"! Oh, and hello, Eugene Ionesco, human beings can't turn into rhinoceroses! And, AND, if Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, how come everyone speaks English?!

Obviously Charles Isherwood is not completely unfamiliar with the conventions of the stage. So how to explain what possesses him to write nonsense like that? To me it reads as an arbitrary dislike of the playwright.
In between the tea parties and naughty games of doctor, Lucy carries on so many complex conversations about concepts (suicide, infidelity) blatantly beyond a 4-year-old's intellectual capacity that her nightmare world retains no grip on our imaginations or our emotions. It is too palpably shaped by the playwright, not by his character.

...In exaggerating Lucy's self-inflicted emotional torture to spark spasms of nervous laughter, Mr. Haidle sacrifices the chance to explore his dark subject matter honestly. And you don't have to be a prig to wish that a playwright dealing with the idea of children's suffering would demonstrate an awareness that the subject is sadly not as far-fetched as the loopy tone would suggest.
No, you don't have to be a prig. But Mr. Marmalade is a comedy, and you do have to be a pretty perversely irresponsible critic to write your entire review about how you would have prefered it to be something else. It may be legitimate to criticize a play for being "too palpably shaped by the playwright." But Isherwood is really criticizing this play for being "too palpably shaped by the playwright instead of by ME."

Maybe someone gave Ish a talking-to about this, and maybe that's why he went out of his way to take Saturn Returns seriously when it deserved nothing more than a disapproving finger-wag.

Michael Feingold, on the other hand, gave Saturn exactly that, and instead of waiting till I had ten minutes to write about it myself I should have just linked you to his review weeks ago. It says all that needs to be said:
If Noah Haidle's Saturn Returns... has any dramatic point, it's hard to perceive. Saturn, a slow-moving planet, supposedly produces a changed consciousness of life when it enters your astrological chart, about once every 30 years. But Haidle's hero—played by three fine actors at 28, 58, and 88, respectively—remains the same stodgy, sardonic, otherwise traitless person throughout, while one appealing actress, Rosie Benton, tries to nudge change out of him as his wife, daughter, and home health aide. Short (75 minutes), slight, and sentimental, the play's tidy cleverness seems as vapid as its hero, making the resources expended on it seem a more shocking waste than those poured, however erratically, into Faust or Billy Elliot.
For what it's worth, Feingold hated Mr. Marmalade too, and his criticisms weren't so different from Isherwood's. But they were far more intelligent.

Friday, December 26, 2008

R.I.P. Harold Pinter

I'd been thinking about Harold Pinter quite a bit lately, while working on my review of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. To say that David Mamet was influenced by Pinter is an understatement; the line from one to the other -- say, from The Caretaker to American Buffalo -- is direct and easy to discern. They are masters of an approach I can only describe as stylized naturalism. They're hilariously funny, but it's not quite right in most cases to call their plays comedies. And they both use simple dramatic structures to present complex moral (or amoral) landscapes and insights (and, in light of that, both prove surprisingly unsubtle political commentators). This description of Pinter's work, from the Nobel Prize citation (quoted in the AP obituary), could just as easily apply to Mamet:
"Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles," the Nobel Academy said when it announced Pinter's award. "With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution."
I spent a semester studying in London, and my "Modern British Drama" course was fortunate to coincide with a West End revival of The Caretaker starring a splendid Michael Gambon and the National Theatre's staging of Pinter's Remembrance of Things Past. The latter was a heady, intimidating prospect -- Proust and Pinter in one go! -- not to mention fodder for lots of "Summarize Proust Competition" jokes. But the production was more accessible than you might imagine. It was a dreamy, impressionistic play that left me wanting to tackle the original text (which I haven't yet done). On the whole, as I recall, Pinter stayed out of Proust's way.

I loved The Caretaker. We had excellent seats, right up front, and I remember finding Sir Michael Gambon's tramp so convincingly filthy that I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by his odor. Seeing that play was one of those gratifying moments when you encounter a giant and find his reputation for greatness entirely deserved. Sometimes, with the benefit of several decades' innovation standing between you, it's hard to understand why a given artist is considered pioneering or influential. I had no such difficulty with Pinter.

I didn't quite know what to make of The Homecoming when I saw it this year on Broadway (which is one reason there's no Restricted Review). Eve Best was extraordinary; Ian MacShane was arresting; Michael McKean was affecting; and Raul Esparza gave his usual "intense," "look-how-hard I'm-acting" performance. The play was unsettling, which I think is the point. For once it was oddly gratifying, rather than irritating, to experience a play as part of a Wednesday matinee audience (and not just because it gave me the opportunity to sing, "a matinee, a Pinter play!" in my head for a week). It was almost like seeing it for the first time... in the 1960s. Most of the retirees and bewildered tourists around me knew very little about the play and had no clue what to expect, and since I didn't know it either, it made for an especially authentic experience. The people around me literally gasped in shock every few minutes throughout the second act. I think Pinter's plays will be shaking people up for a while yet.

The New York Times obituary is a good holiday read -- the overview of Pinter's career is helpful, and as you might imagine, the details of his personal life are choice and juicy. Farewell, Hal, and thanks for everything.

[Photo by Ivan Kyncl, from HaroldPinter.org]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

That's one solution

Last year I wondered what I should do with all the "special gifts" Catholic Relief Services kept sending me. Well, I haven't received one of those mailers since -- perhaps CRS finally took me off their list (the power of blogging your complaints?). Or maybe I just fooled them by moving to a new address (in which case, Shh, don't tell them!). But other people keep landing here at Restricted View by googling terms like "guardian angel coin," presumably in search of a solution to the very same problem. And now, at last, Time magazine offers a suggestion: You can give them to Barack!

You'll find a different photo on page 85 of the current issue of Time. It's the same hands holding the same objects, give or take a few, but the trinkets are spread out more, and several are identified with captions. The guardian angel coin is much easier to pick out in that shot -- it doesn't get an ID, but you and I know where it came from. And now I'll know what to do if I start getting them again. Just save them for the next time I meet a world leader in need of luck.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Did someone say 'mercurial'?

I probably shouldn't be all "Oh, the holidays are just so busy" this year, considering I am not at all busy compared to this time last year. I hardly remember Christmas 2007 as such. In my panicked prebridal state, December 25 was mostly just "three weeks till the wedding!" This year I am planning no big celebrations, preparing no seating charts... Just working and shopping and doing the usual end-of-year scramble. Which, I am sorry, has not left much energy for blogging.

Last week, on my way home from work, I took a crowded subway and ended up sitting right next to... Boyd Gaines! Can you imagine?! That's how busy I've been; I have an exciting stage-actor encounter and I can't even be bothered to tell you all about it. Mr. Gaines was, I presume, on his way to work in the hit musical PATTI LUPONE GYPSY. (If you must click that link, make sure the volume is turned way down, or you'll be sorry.) And, in case you were wondering, that Herbie mustache is real.

I haven't been neglecting the theatre, but I have been neglecting to tell you about it! In the past month I've seen both American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow, because I had the bright idea to do a review of both for the magazine. Well, American Buffalo announced its closing the day after I saw it -- so much for that. And then, yesterday, as I was finalizing my review, this whole Jeremy Piven situation screwed things up even more! Piven!!!

The audience I saw Speed-the-Plow with was the youngest, hippest Broadway audience I've seen in a long time. Everyone around me was buzzing about Entourage and Mad Men while we waited for the show to start. (Well, except for the dude next to me, who was preoccupied with taking up as much room as he could with his coat, umbrella, laptop bag, and unreasonably wide-spread legs, because of course I'm going to sit next to the guy who thinks his personal space is being compromised if someone occupies the seat next to him.) So that was encouraging: young people at the theatre! I don't know what all those folks thought of the play, but I can tell you that Mr. Piven was very good in it, so if that's what they were coming to see they certainly weren't disappointed.

I wasn't there the night Raul Esparza favored the audience with a song (and I'm really sort of thankful for that), but the scolding-of-latecomers described in the NYT's account squares with my experience. The night I saw S-t-P, a few people in the orchestra section (including Mr. Sprawly next to me -- of course) got up during the blackout before the third scene. So after the bows, Piven motioned for the audience to be quiet and addressed a woman in the third row: "You got up to go to the bathroom during the show. It's a 72-minute show. You couldn't wait?" Hee. I should have some sympathy, what with that one time I got sick and almost hurled during a show. Maybe it was an emergency. But this was the woman's response: "I could still hear you on the speakers!" "Oh, great," Piven said. "We'll give you a recording; you can listen to it on your way home."

Anyway. I'm sorry he's gone, but I bet Norbert Leo Butz will be just as good -- in fact, I kind of want to see it again. As for the "high levels of mercury," it is my understanding that mercury poisoning is actually a real and serious condition, so I probably shouldn't make fun of it, but... You have to admit, it does make for a pretty humorous press release. It certainly beats "exhaustion." The Playbill Online report read like a spoof article, especially the long quote from Piven's doctor to Variety. "We're not sure if this is from his diet, which is high in fish, or Chinese herbs, which he's been a fan of in the past, or a combination of both."

Of course, the best response came from Mamet and has been requoted everywhere, so why not here: "I talked to Jeremy on the phone and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury. So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer." Ladies and gentlemen, the master of his art, David Mamet FTW.

Too bad Mamet wasn't around to talk to the New York Times about the fortunes of the Roundabout's latest musical-theatre project. He could have given Todd Haimes a few pointers on how not to make things worse when you talk to the press. Did you see the article -- excuse me, the "Broadway memo" -- about how this new production of Pal Joey is, er, not going well? Normally I'd be like, "Oh, who cares," because I really don't. Leave the whisper campaigns to Michael Riedel. But I read the story and couldn't help wondering if Haimes was trying to sabotage the show. If the NYT is writing an article about how your show looks like it might suck, and they give you, the artistic director, a chance to comment, and you can't muster anything more than tepid enthusiasm, it might be better not to return their call. "The backstage work and the audience reaction — both positive — have been very different from the public experience in the Internet theater chat rooms and elsewhere, which has given this show bad word of mouth. I will say for myself, I feel like the production is going really well.” Oh, boy, I will just rush right out and get my tickets!

Even better was this part about the replacement of Christian Hoff:
Mr. Haimes declined to respond directly about whether he had been concerned about Mr. Hoff’s dancing.

“You know what, I don’t think any of this is anyone’s business,” Mr. Haimes said. “The entire world economy is falling apart, and many nonprofit theaters are facing grave financial issues. My feeling is Christian Hoff is an absolutely lovely man, and discussing this only hurts Christian.”
Boy, it's a good thing Mr. Haimes declined to respond directly! Wouldn't want to "hurt Christian"! Let's see, how could you have avoided giving the impression that you actually do want to "hurt Christian"? Maybe by giving a defensive nonresponse invoking "the entire world economy" and conspicuously failing to say anything even vaguely positive about the performer's abilities... Or maybe, rather than helping the paper create such profoundly negative buzz that it renders the next day's very negative review redundant -- maybe you could just say "No comment." Something to try next time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!


I hope my nephew won't mind that I'm using his artwork -- I think it strikes the perfect festive note. Hope you have lots of blessings to be thankful for this year!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Christ, you know it ain't easy

So maybe you've heard about this whole Vatican-forgives-John-Lennon thing. That's not really what happened, of course, but it's still kind of a fun cultural thing, especially for a person like myself, whose Beatlemania is counterbalanced by a fanatical devotion to the pope. I've already spent my blogging energy hashing this out for the Catholics here and for the Beatle geeks here, so interested parties can drop in on either or both blogs for my thoughts.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

We are amused.

I have to thank Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal for inspiring me to watch the HBO comedy special Ricky Gervais: Out of England. Oh, she didn't recommend it. Far from it. I have never read so contemptuous and humorless a television review in all my born days. "Mr. Gervais's new comedy special has nothing whatever to recommend it," she sniffs. "The real curiosity here, of course, is how such braying emptiness -- packaged as edgy comedy -- comes to be produced, filmed and put on air in the first place."

I read that review last weekend and thought, Whoa, wait a minute -- how could it possibly be that bad? I wasn't planning to watch it myself, but I have a lot of faith in Ricky Gervais, and it just didn't seem possible that he would put himself out there with completely awful material. I mean, I have seen terrible stand-up. It isn't hard to find. Comedy Central routinely grants half-hour specials to comics so painfully unfunny you'd be better off spending thirty minutes punching yourself in the face. So how could Gervais's HBO special possibly deserve this kind of rancor? It sounds as though Rabinowitz just doesn't like Gervais (or...anything funny), but she claims to be a fan of The Office and expresses admiration for Extras, so that can't be it, can it? On the other hand, in so doing she manages to put down the U.S. version of The Office and downplay the brilliance of Extras, so that's a couple of red flags right there. (She says Extras is "far from peerless." Oh really? Then what are its peers? I would really love to know, because I can only watch the complete series so many times.) Another red flag: she uses "of course" twice in two consecutive sentences, and both times it's superfluous (of course).

The real problem, it seems, is that Rabinowitz doesn't get the character Gervais plays in his routines; she seems to take all that self-regard and buffoonery at face value. He's not quite playing David Brent or Andy Millman in this stand-up special, but there's a recognizable dose of both. What might have confused Ms. Rabinowitz is the looseness of the conceit in this routine, as opposed to Gervais's tightly constructed sitcoms. Sometimes, as on The Office, the joke is that he's obnoxiously unaware of his own ignorance; sometimes, as on Extras, he's half truthteller, half jerk. And sometimes it's unclear which framework is operative -- maybe neither? That lack of clarity is responsible for the weakest moments in the show, like the extended riff on obesity. It's all in poor taste, but it isn't clear that the character knows that. It's not outrageous enough for the joke to be on Gervais, but it's also not "true" enough for it to be funny in spite of the tastelessness. And while you're not laughing, you find yourself thinking that maybe the real Ricky Gervais is not a very nice guy. Other riffs on "taboo" subjects work better. But the best moments come from Gervais's deceptively disciplined performance -- the more natural he seems, the more thoroughly calibrated his delivery. And the mildest subject matter produces the biggest laughs. I'm still giggling whenever I think about his elephants-swimming encore. And a section on nursery rhymes starts off bland, but I was laughing so hard I had to pause the TV to catch my breath by the time he finished unpacking "Humpty Dumpty." There's only one Eddie Izzard, but there are moments in this special where Gervais comes close to Izzard's brand of transformative stand-up.

Ricky Gervais: Out of England isn't gold from start to finish. But it is worth checking out. And as for you, Wall Street Journal: I've come to expect this sort of bizarro-world commentary from your op-ed page. But does this mean I should disregard your arts coverage too? Or does it just mean you need to find a comedy critic with a sense of humor?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sickness is normal to me as health is to you

Why no posts for so long? And why two posts today? The answer to the first question is the usual stuff -- busy schedule, real job, other outlets for my creative energy... plus a new and exciting factor called The Flu. Yes, I have the flu, or something very flulike, which has left me without much energy to turn on my computer, much less type coherent sentences. I'm into day five of feeling lousy, although I feel less lousy than I did yesterday, so there's hope. That's the answer to the second question, by the way: this is day five of flulike symptoms, and day three of absolutely no productivity, and I'm getting antsy. My body and my brain are not quite up to real work -- the sink remains full of dirty dishes; my coat has been draped over a chair since I took it off Wednesday night -- but at least I can blog for you all.

Wednesday I stayed home from work, because I couldn't get out of bed till 9 a.m., and that was only to stagger to the couch (which effort wore me out so much I had to take a nap). I had press tickets for a Broadway show that night, and I was really not in a going-out mood, but I figured I could get through it as long as I rested all day. So I set out for the show a little after 7, leaning heavily on the husband's arm. I'm not going to tell you what show it was, because I don't want to invalidate the review I expect to write, but suffice it to say I had a very good seat, close to the stage and on the aisle, and I was enjoying myself in spite of feeling thoroughly achy and ill. And then, late in the second act, the play turned suddenly and stomach-turningly violent. I was expecting this (I'd just read the script), but I guess I wasn't "prepared" for it, or maybe I was too prepared for it, because in the aftermath of the stage violence I found myself overcome with nausea. Those susceptible to carsickness will recognize the sensation: you start to get dizzy, there's a roaring in your ears... This is happening to me as I'm sitting completely still, in my seat, a few feet from the stage. So I'm making desperate mental calculations: should I make a run for it? In my advanced state of dizziness and weakness, the odds that I will make it all the way up the aisle without collapsing and/or vomiting are, I judge, about 50/50. The odds that I will make it out of the building, or even as far as the lobby, are lower still. And in the best of circumstances, leaving my seat to rush up the aisle seems awfully disruptive, especially since the action onstage has reached its climax. And I am right up front. Not only do I have an unrestricted view; the actors have a perfectly clear view of me. So I decide to put my head between my knees and hope for the best.

Guess what? The head-between-the-knees thing? It really works! But you have to stay that way for a while. And I had to pull off my sweater, too, because I had broken out in a cold sweat (fortunately I was wearing another shirt underneath). So there I was, head-between-knees, trying to keep one ear on the play, and then deciding against it because that just reminded me why I was sick in the first place. I had my hat at the ready in case I needed something to puke into. But I managed to regain my equilibrium by the time the play ended, about 10 minutes later. I still feel bad about my bad audience behavior -- I had a dream that night that one of the actors was yelling at me for distracting him -- but the husband assures me that I did not create a scene. (Even he thought I must have dropped something, for the first few minutes, anyway.) So I guess the only other person I might have bothered was the lady sitting behind me, and since she was distracting me throughout the play with her loud, jangly bracelets and inappropriate laughter, I don't feel so bad about that. Me puking into her lap would have been more distracting than my sitting quietly doubled-over, I tell you what.

I suppose it is a credit to the actors that I found their suffering so convincing. My visceral reaction probably has more to do with my illness than with their work, but still, they'll have to take it as a compliment, especially since I was unable to summon the strength to applaud when the play was finally over. I was thrilled to get outside into that sub-freezing air. The husband had to flag down a cab to take us home (a matter of blocks), and I was sticking my head out the window like a dog to avoid getting sick all over again. That's what I get for my show-must-go-on attitude, I guess.

Today I feel like I'm on the mend, and I'm desperate to go outside, because I'm starting to get a bit Fosca-like in my extended illness. But I think I set myself back Wednesday night, so it's probably safest for me to stick to nauseating television until I'm back to normal.

"Turkeys die as Gov. Palin takes questions from media."

Have you seen this video? If you watch just one holiday special this Thanksgiving season, I think it should be this MSNBC clip. I confess, I am torn: it's the funniest Sarah Palin clip yet, especially now that there's no undercurrent of outrage or fear to interfere with the comedy. But I can't bring myself to watch the whole thing. Especially since I have a bit of a delicate stomach at the moment (as you will learn in my next post). However, if you're feeling hardier, or if you want a good reason to go vegetarian this Thanksgiving, please do yourself a favor and watch. The subtitles alone are hilarious.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Oh, NEPA

I saw this headline on Wonkette, and I just had a feeling I knew what part of Pennsylvania they were talking about: "Drunk Pennsylvania Bitter's Post-Election Rage!" Sure enough, they're linking to a story from the Times-Leader, the Wilkes-Barre newspaper (which, by the way, has a much better website than the Scranton Times-Tribune, though that's not saying much). It's about a man who got so angry Tuesday night over this whole President Obama thing that he got really drunk at Pizzle's bar (Pizzle's!), started shouting "obscenities" (we just have to imagine what they were), and ended up hitting people with his cane (he was 70 years old) and biting some guy on the nose. The best part of the story on the TL site is the first "reader comment," which says: "I don't believe that this is the first and only instance of a bar-fight over some political issue or other. I'm only surprised that there hasn't been more. But, to go to jail for expressing your political views?"

Ah, yes, clearly the fact that this story got written up is evidence of the notorious liberal bias of the media of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and not at all related to the fact that it's the most embarrassing and hilarious item from that day's police blotter. Seriously: my friend, I know you're upset. But try to control that persecution complex. The man is not going to jail for expressing his views. He's going to jail for biting a guy on the nose. That's not change we can believe in!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I voted

Does your polling place give out "I Voted" stickers? They are hard to find in NYC. I showed up! I waited in line! I cast my votes, even in categories where the "choice" was merely symbolic (choose four of the four names listed)! Is a sticker too much to ask?!

The line at my polling place was not so long, although I was hearing alarming reports on the news as I was getting ready, and I gave myself plenty of time just in case. (I hear it was worse at 6 a.m. -- so much for beating the crowds!) Anyway, can I just say how pleased I am that Election Day is finally here, and in a matter of hours it will be over (please God)? Phew. Let's not do this again for, oh, four years at least.

One of the many irritating factors about this campaign season: the lame election-themed displays in retail store windows. It seems like every single clothier and chain eatery has to come up with some ridiculous way of linking their product to the fact that there's a presidential campaign going on, without actually commenting on the content of that campaign. So the Gap's windows are covered in signs that say "Vote Peace" and "Vote Love" and other, even more inane slogans. ("Vote Boot-Cut Jeans!") I've walked past a Home Depot that had some weird orange, white and blue display, and it was hard to tell whether the orange was a deliberate reference to the store's logo or a red that had been in the sun too long. The most bewildering display I saw was the one at J. Press on Fifth Ave., where the usual upscale novelty ties and cuff links are interspersed with old-timey buttons for candidates who may or may not have existed. It all felt very time-machiney, and I couldn't tell whether it was self-aware or incredibly un-self-aware. But the point is, I'm sick of stores trying to cash in on election fever. Partly because it trivializes something that really shouldn't be trivialized (further), and partly because I spend enough time thinking about the freaking election and I don't need the Gap to remind me about it. Can I please not focus on politics while I browse this clearance rack of favorite tees. Thank you.

Here is a nontrivial reason why you should vote, long lines be damned: In Texas, a 109-year-old woman whose father was born into slavery cast her vote this year for a black presidential candidate.
Amanda Jones's father urged her to exercise her right to vote, despite discriminatory practices at the polls and poll taxes meant to keep black and poor people from voting. Those practices were outlawed for federal elections with the 24th Amendment in 1964, but not for state and local races in Texas until 1966.

Amanda Jones says she cast her first presidential vote for Franklin Roosevelt, but she doesn't recall which of his four terms that was. When she did vote, she paid a poll tax, her daughters said.
Ah, yes, our nation's proud history of granting black people the theoretical right to vote and then systematically disenfranchising them to make sure they don't. You know who thinks that's hilarious? Pat Buchanan! I know because he had a good hearty laugh about it. On Hardball. In 2008.

So vote. Even if you're not a minority or a woman. Even if you're not voting for That One. Even if the lines are long, and they're not giving out stickers, and there's no question who will win your state. Vote. And then be glad it's over.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The king's good servant

My review of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons is in this week's Commonweal. Once again, you've got to subscribe to read it online. But I can tell you that director Doug Hughes decided to cut out the character of The Common Man -- with, unfortunately, little regard for how that character functions in the play and what would be lost without him performing that function. Here's a taste of my take:
The self-conscious narrator is undoubtedly an old-fashioned device -- Bolt himself wrote that the character never worked as he intended in performance. He hoped that employing this Brechtian alienation technique would “draw the audience into the play” and give them a character to identify with. But critics heard the term “common” in a pejorative sense, and reacted to the perceived insult with umbrage, or (worse) smug approval. Nonetheless, Bolt himself never cut The Common Man from the fabric of the play, and Hughes’s decision to tear him out has left some ungainly holes. The water imagery that flows through the script, suggesting the chaos that lies outside the protection of the law, is compromised. The unity of the many roles played by The Common Man is fractured, and dialogue that once referred to his speeches now makes no sense. Over the course of the play, these little changes cause significant structural damage, draining the dramatic tension and obscuring the story’s message.

Even without The Common Man, Hughes and his cast find ways to hold the audience at arm’s length. All the actors -- some excellent, many miscast -- speak in the stagy not-quite-British accents of an amateur Shakespeare repertory company. In the role of Thomas More, Tony Award-winner Frank Langella tiptoes around any imitation of Scofield without ever finding his own way into the character. He declaims More’s speeches in his sonorous voice, sliding from a low growl to a noisy shout with studied precision, but the result is cold and artificial. Langella’s calculated posturing and posing is more distracting than any narrator figure could have been.

I love this play, so I was disappointed to see it so poorly treated. I have also been disappointed by the lazy criticism I've read since I turned in my review. Brantley's review in the NYT boiled down to "That was boring - huh, I guess the play isn't as good as everybody thought it was." But if he (and everyone else who said basically the same thing) had reread the original text, he would have been able to diagnose the problem with this production. There's no tension, no ambiguity and no intellectual challenge because the character who provides all that was cut from the script! Thank God, as I often do, for Michael Feingold, who knew exactly what was missing:
Hughes omits [The Common Man] character, which is roughly like doing Threepenny Opera without the songs. The Common Man was one of the play's structural elements. Lacking him, it feels shabby, pompous, and monochrome—especially because Hughes and Langella have invented a bullyingly self-righteous More who ends every scene with a hoarse rant, ignoring the witticisms or whacking them at you with a sledgehammer, echoed by the pounding drums and crashing chords of David Van Tieghem's score.
I've also been surprised by all the positive marks Frank Langella is getting (from pretty much every critic other than Feingold). Maybe I saw him on a really, really off night...during press previews... but I felt like I was reading along in his marked-up script during every big speech. I could practically see where he had written, Shout these lines really loud... On this word, strike a noble pose. In short, I was always watching an actor reading lines, and listening to himself reading lines, instead of watching Sir Thomas More. Of course, Langella didn't get much help from the rest of the cast, some of whom were so amateurish I wondered whether the casting director had held auditions at all. One big exception is Zach Grenier, who is wonderful and easily steals the show as Cromwell.

My complaints about this production are really quite similar to my problems with last year's Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind. No coincidence, I guess, that it was also directed by Doug Hughes. He's a fine director of new work -- he had no trouble balancing the ambiguities and tensions in Doubt, for example -- but his approach to reviving these old, popular plays seems to be: read a synopsis to get a basic idea of what it's about; come up with some kind of "concept" to make this production qualify as a new and innovative take; hire a few reliable stars; play to the audience's prejudices so as to flatter them into applauding; cash the check and move on. Then as now, I felt that the casting was uneven, the text badly treated, the intellectual complications totally ignored. Instead of taking advantage of the script's ability to make us think, both revivals settled for congratulating us for being on the right side of the issue. That can't be the reason either of these plays was written, and I don't think it's the reason they're so popular today. I've seen amateur productions of both that were just as effective. So why pay Broadway prices?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stranded review

I posted a new movie review over at dotCommonweal. A sample:
In October 1972, a plane carrying 49 passengers, many of them members of a young men’s rugby team, ran into a snowstorm on its way from Uruguay to Chile and crashed in the Andes mountains. You know what happened next.

Except, of course, you probably don’t know much about what happened next. I certainly didn’t know how many died and how many survived. I didn’t know how long they were lost or what became of them afterward. And although I could have guessed, I didn’t realize the people involved were Catholics. For most of us, this tragedy, this miracle, has been reduced to a grisly horror story: the men who became cannibals in the mountains.

Now, thirty-six years later, a new documentary, clumsy titled Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, tells the whole remarkable story—not by rehashing exploitative media accounts, but by compiling the memories of the men who lived through it. Interviews with the survivors (in Spanish, with English subtitles) make up the narration. Their ordeal is reenacted, tastefully, in haunting footage modeled on the few ghostly photos taken after the crash and before the rescue. And the whole story is framed by a reunion of the men, now about fifty years old, who travel back to the site of the crash with their children. The structure can be confusing at first—explanatory signposts are few—but the result is a thoughtful, reflective film that doesn’t work too hard to shape your reaction to the story.
Read the rest here. And go here to find out whether the movie will be playing near you. (New Yorkers: it's at Film Forum starting this week.) I recommend it!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

If you haven't yet subscribed to Commonweal, you haven't seen my review of the new(ish) novel Exiles, by Ron Hansen, which was published in the October 10 issue (and available online only to subscribers). The title of the review, "How Fiction Fails," works better when you see it in the context of the magazine -- it follows a review of James Wood's How Fiction Works. But I'm afraid it's apt, even if the joke doesn't come through. I thought I would love this one -- a novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of my favorite poets) and the shipwreck that inspired his most ambitious work! Promising premise. Disappointing execution. A sample of my take:
Hopkins, too, is a less inspiring hero than his poems suggest, but this is due to Hansen’s reluctance to invent where the record is silent. An anxious “author’s note” declares, “Care has been taken not to contradict biographical details or historical testimony.” The result is a novel with too much fact and not enough fiction, a story told by a narrator on less-than-familiar terms with his characters. We study Hopkins from a disorientingly uncertain and limited point of view, granted access to the poet-priest’s interior life only through excerpts from his actual correspondence.
...Late in the novel, after Hopkins’s priestly service has been all but spent in a series of inglorious assignments, Hansen allows himself, and us, to “imagine it otherwise,” outlining the life a more orthodox theologian or single-minded author might have had. It is the one true taste of fiction in an otherwise unimaginative recital of history.
Still, I enjoyed having a good reason to tackle "The Wreck of the Deutschland" again. And I am kind of excited about this forthcoming Hopkins biography...

Will this upstart critic ever like anything? Only time will tell!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Barack o' lanterns!

I love pumpkins. I love Halloween. And if I'm going to survive till election day, I'm gonna need less anger and fear and more whimsy and joy. So that's why I think YesWeCarve.com is pretty much the best thing ever. I mean, "Barack o' lanterns"! You know you want to make one.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Writing gibberish and calling it commentary

I am hard pressed to think of any newspaper op-ed columnists I actually like. On those rare occasions I have a hard copy of the paper in my hands, I tend to skip over the op-ed columns without even thinking, just like I ignore box scores and certain cartoons on the comics page (I'm looking at you, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith... and by that I mean I'm not looking at you). If I see a guest columnist, I might read what he has to say, if it's someone who might have some expertise, or a really entertaining writer amusing himself by slumming on the op-ed page. But regular columnists tend to range from poor to awful, simply by virtue of their being regular editorial columnists. They get into a habit of inflating every half-baked thought they have into a glib 800-word exercise, and you end up feeling dumber for reading it, or at least angry that you wasted your time.

Having said all that: Oh my sweet baby tigers, you must read Peggy Noonan's latest hilarious Wall Street Journal column. (My deepest thanks to Wonkette for bringing it to my attention.) Noonan's column is called "Declarations," but it's really more like "Disjointed Musings From On High." I think she may have been coherent at one time, but now she writes like Larry King with a better vocabulary. And no one spins his or her wheels quite as showily as Peggy. She can start out with absolutely nothing to say and then spend a whole column trying to convince you that her failure to complete a thought is the result of her being unusually thoughtful. And she jokes just like McCain -- that is to say, badly, in a way that makes you cringe with embarrassment and wonder just how out of touch a person can get. Here is an actual excerpt -- and remember, she got paid to write this, and then it was published in a national newspaper where everyone could see it:
One had the sense this week that our entire political class is playing Frisbee on the edge of a precipice, that no one is being serious enough, honest enough, that it's all too revved, too intense, and yet too shallow. I have grown impatient with the strategists from the campaigns, the little blond monsters who go on cable TV to give us their bouncy, aggressive, tendentious talking points. They are like the men on the plane, the gargoyles with BlackBerrys who think the race is about them and their personal win/loss ratio, who think history is their plaything, who stay up with the press in the bar sipping Perrier and calling it seltzer, and who advise their candidates, in essence, to talk down to the voters, to the American people.
Oh, but Peggy Noonan will never talk down to you, American people. Around in circles, maybe, but never down.

Update: I have discovered a possible exception to the rule -- Gail Collins. More research is needed, but this week's column is evidence in her favor.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Limited time offer

New workplace, new cafeteria. Today there was a sign on the dessert table:

    HOMEMADE COOKIES
    .49
    3 for $1.57

...I bought two.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Yes, I am still alive

I don't know what to make of the fact that traffic to this blog has been rather steady during the past week, even as actual blogging has been nonexistent. Does this mean I have reached a point where my blog is self-sustaining and can be released into the wild to fend for itself? Can it survive entirely on people searching for crossword-puzzle clues, pictures of turtles without shells, and the correct pronunciation of "Duquesne"?

Of course not. The American people -- the hockey moms and Joe Six-Packs and families sittin' around the kitchen table -- know I'm not in this for page views! At least a few of you have been coming here hoping for actual content, or maybe just wondering whether I am still alive, and I apologize for letting you down. The fact is, I just started a new job as an assistant editor at Commonweal magazine -- yes, that's right, your favorite independent, lay-published Catholic journal of opinion, religion, politics and culture! I'll be doing some writing and much editing of other, smarter people's writing, as well as a bit of blogging when I'm feeling feisty. (What do I think of the bishop of Scranton's leadership style? I'm so glad you asked.)

So, TWoPpers, that's why I'm not recapping anything this fall -- not even Private Practice, I'm sorry to say. It was a difficult decision, because recapping is fun. But the fact is, the fine art of picking apart a terrible television show is time-consuming, and I don't have that time anymore. And although I do miss my weekly date with Kate Walsh, Taye Diggs and Audra McDonald, it turns out I can't bring myself to watch the show they're on unless I'm getting paid. Oh well.

Obviously having an actual full-time job I really care about is cutting into my blogging time too. But never fear -- while it's possible this will be the last post I ever write, I'm pretty sure I'll continue posting here. At the very least, I will be shamelessly promoting my own writing when it is published elsewhere, even though much of it is likely to be available to Commonweal subscribers only. (Which means you should probably just subscribe. Try two free issues!) It's especially likely that I'll find time to blog a bit after the election is finally over, because obviously right now all of my internet time -- like yours, I assume -- is taken up with watching clips of Sarah Palin "answering" questions. If I had been blogging this past week, I probably would have just been posting one interview excerpt after another, because I have been unable to focus on much else. But it looks like we've finally seen all of the devastatingly hilarious footage, so now I can just post this highlights reel.



Also not to be missed: Slate diagrams Palin's sentences and anthologizes her poetry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Check out all his majesty

The facades of Italian churches -- especially Tuscan churches -- hold all sorts of surprises. A close study of the inlaid marble images on the facade of the Cattedrale di San Martino, in Lucca, reveals the Medieval origins of one of the internet's most fearsome creatures...


Holy crap! It's Trogdor! I mean, TROG-DORRRRRR! I made sure to get my rather dashing husband in the photo so you would believe me that this totally awesome image is also totally legitimate. Now let's move in for a close-up.


This puts the "holy" in "Holy crap!" Does it not? No beefy arm, of course. And I don't see any consummate V's. So let's say it's an early prototype... But he was still TROGDOR! And that is just one more reason why Catholicism is awesome.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What do we do? We fly!

I'm back from my travels in Italy! Yesterday's nine-hour flight was pretty brutal, but we made it in one piece. Today I have lots to get done -- I start a new job tomorrow! -- and the fact that my poor body is still catching up with the clock doesn't help. (Isn't it bedtime yet?) So, fresh from the streets of Florence, I give you this "odd shot," certainly worth at least a thousand words. It's a composition I'm rather proud of, even though all I did was walk past it and pull out the camera. I think it sums up my whole Tuscany experience pretty neatly.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The city of naked marble boys


Posting will drop from "seldom" to "not at all" for the next week or so, as I am off to Tuscany for a week of tourism and art and sunshine and, I hope, spiritual edification. Not to mention pasta and gelato and possibly hot chocolate (thanks, other Mollie, for the tip!). Given my level of obsession with (and dismay over) the current political climate, this trip couldn't come at a better time. Just think, we'll be that much closer to November when I get back... I'll think of you all tomorrow evening, as I'm enjoying la passeggiata. Ciao!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Straight talk

Besides talking politics, another thing I don't do often on Restricted View is post clips from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, because everybody else is already doing that... and once I got started I'd probably never do anything else. But today over at HuffPo's Eat the Press blog, Rachel Sklar (who does post clips from the aforementioned shows quite often) flashed back to a piece The Daily Show ran in 1999, when John McCain first launched the Straight Talk Express.

Back then, I admired McCain. He actually seemed to be an honorable man, or at least as close as a lifelong politician can be to "honorable." I might have voted for him, given the chance; I certainly wouldn't have minded seeing him get the GOP nomination. At many points during this campaign, but especially during the last couple weeks, I've found myself reflecting ruefully on what could have been, and how far we've come since 2000. If McCain had any claim to "honor" left at the start of the month... Well, it's a lost cause now, isn't it. Just the last couple days I've been wondering, What will be left of him by November?

All the more reason to flash back to 1999! Besides giving us a glimpse of McCain at that time, this clip is a chance to look back at TDS when Jon Stewart was younger and more absurdly coiffed, and Steve Carrell was a correspondent. (Oh my, the Carrell-Colbert days were the glory days, weren't they?) Oh, and Cindy McCain looked much better back then -- Jon's hair looks silly, but Cindy's is great.

The check is in the mail, whether you like it or not

You know those "checks" your credit card company probably likes to send you? I get them attached to my monthly bill, and under separate cover too. They look like ordinary checking-account checks, except of course you write them against your line of credit, probably incurring some kind of fee and agreeing to a very high finance charge in the process. I don't really know how it works, because I've never used one myself. That's what my actual checking account is for. I just have a hunch that there might be a downside. Anyway, I know a guy -- a friend of the husband's -- who got one of those credit-card "checks" in the mail and tossed it in the trash can at work. A member of the after-hours cleaning staff dug it out and used it to buy a car.

I thought of that story when I got my most recent bill from Citibank and found one such check attached. There was also an insert, which said:
A check that makes it easy to access your credit line -- who wouldn't sign off on that?
Well, I wouldn't, for starters. My husband's sadder-but-wiser friend probably wouldn't, either.

"You've probably noticed the balance transfer check included in your statement," the insert continues. Why, yes, I have, because it makes for one more thing I have to be extra-careful to shred. Shredding papers is a regular household chore at our place, like doing laundry or taking out the recycling. We had to buy a more powerful shredder after I moved in, because the old one broke. It's such a terrific use of our time! "Use it for pretty much anything you want," Citibank adds. Why, thanks! That's so generous of you! How convenient that will be for anyone who might happen to find it in my trash!

I wouldn't mind so much if I only got "balance-transfer checks" with my statement. But I get them between statements, too, in unmarked envelopes that add to our shredding burden. It makes me question Citibank's commitment to protecting my vulnerable account information. And the thing that really pisses me off is when Citibank turns around and questions my commitment to the environment -- my monthly bills now come in an envelope that says, "Help the environment and get paperless statements." My credit-card bill is the only statement I still get in the mail; I haven't switched to paperless because I want to remember to pay it on time. So I refuse to feel guilty about that. And what they really mean is "Help us make money." But their little reminder makes me want to write back and say, "Help the environment by not sending me checks I don't want, not to mention paper inserts explaining how they can be used." Now, if I had any reason to believe they'd stop sending balance-transfer checks if I switched to online-only statements, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But something tells me that's not how it works.

Speaking of banks wasting paper: I did "turn off" paper statements for my regular bank accounts a long time ago. But occasionally I get a letter from Washington Mutual informing me that an email they sent me bounced back, and threatening to cut off access to my account if I don't update my profile with accurate contact information. They have the right email address -- I've checked more than once -- so I'm more than a little annoyed that they keep blaming me for the fact that their emails are evidently so suspicious that Yahoo won't even let them through to my spam folder. At first I thought maybe I really was missing some important communique, but sometimes I do get WaMu emails. The "important message" they want to deliver? My online account statement is "ready." Wow, it would be a shame if I missed that. I mean, I check in at least once a week, but there's nothing like looking at it on an arbitrary monthly basis to really keep me informed. Oh, and since I have two linked accounts (checking and savings), I get two letters every time this happens. Two more letters to shred. What identity fraud? What global warming?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Obligatory joke about Explaining It All For You

In the newest issue of Commonweal: my review-slash-critical essay on Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo and the current -- er, make that "recent," since it closed yesterday -- Roundabout Off-Broadway revival. Looks like it's too late for a box-office bump, which is just as well, since the web version of the article is available to subscribers only.

Much of what I wrote focuses on Durang's artistic relationship with the Catholic Church. Look for a hard copy to find out more! Here's a taste of what I said about the Roundabout's production:
Not all the cast members seem comfortable in the play’s world. Bette’s sister Emily, played by Heather Burns, is too one-dimensional, constantly hysterical to the point of tedium. The other sister, Joan, is a grouch, but Zoe Lister-Jones makes her incongruously sarcastic where she ought to be simply bitter. And Matt’s earnest speeches tend to drag, while a few come off as wan stand-up routines. But Victoria Clark is a marvel as Margaret, straining to keep smiling through one tragedy after another, and she is nearly matched by Julie Hagerty’s giggling, heartbreaking Soot. With a subtle shift of the eyes, Christopher Evan Welch carries Boo from earnest young bridegroom to middle-aged, addlebrained drunk, surveying his failures with a haunted stare. And Kate Jennings Grant steps nimbly through Bette’s distracted monologues, gradually adding depth until her nonsensical prattling seems pitiful and real.
I also said Terry Beaver was "splendid" as Father Donnally. That reminds me... I already told you about the dreadful behavior of the first audience I saw the play with. I saw it again, weeks later, with a much more attentive audience -- including an elderly priest! In his clerics! I wonder, would I have seen that in 1985?

P.S. I didn't know my Commonweal piece would be called "Bleak House" till I saw it in print. But it's a good title, not least because it echoes one of my favorite Durang jokes, from the Woman's monologue in Laughing Wild:
"My favorite book is Bleak House. Not the book, but the title. I haven't read the book. I've read the title. The title sounds the way I feel."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I try not to be political here...

But my head is about to explode. So: What is with the repeated GOP attacks on Obama's experience as a community organizer? Where do they get off sneering at community organizers -- especially while touting Palin's "Oh-I'm-just-a-hockey-mom-who-joined-the-PTA" background? And who applauds at that kind of mean-spirited, out-of-touch garbage?

...Okay, that was the thing that got me fired up enough to post. But now that I'm here, I can't resist offering a few more thoughts on last night's display. I won't bother with the distortions and lies about Obama's and the Dems' actual plans and policies -- other people can cover that better, and anyway that's politics as usual. But some of this stuff in Palin's speech just made my jaw drop:
To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters.
Where I'm from we call that kind of effort "community organizing."
I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.
Unless you're poor! And/or uninsured!

Okay, this is from later, when she'd transitioned fully into snide attack mode:
This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word "victory" except when he's talking about his own campaign.
Obama hates America because he won't glory in our might! Americans don't go to war regretfully, out of duty -- we go to win! Am I right, folks?
But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed ... when the roar of the crowd fades away ... when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot...
Oh, you're just jealous because you have to speak in front of a fugly green screen showing a waving flag -- and they couldn't even show your little intro movie! Seriously, that screen behind the speakers looks absolutely awful, especially on TV but also (I'm guessing) in person, whereas I thought the DNC stadium set actually looked quite good on TV. Guess all the good set designers are liberals. But there's no reason to be jealous, Governor Palin, because you too have a roaring crowd in front of you! Well, to be accurate it's more of a rabid, chanting crowd. But still. She goes on:
...what exactly is our opponent's plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet?
Yeah! Stupid liberals, always trying to heal and fix and improve and inspire! They think they're so great! Screw them! USA! USA!
Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?
Oh my God, do you think she actually believes that? I don't know which is the scarier prospect: that she truly doesn't understand the difference between "detainees" and "Al Quaeda terrorists actively plotting against the U.S.," or that she gets it and is already cynical enough to act like she doesn't.

Okay, now it's my turn to be snide. I'm taking these quotes from the transcript of Palin's speech at NBC.com. This is not a transcript put together as she spoke, but rather one that was provided to them before she spoke, at least according to what it says at the top: "The remarks, as prepared for delivery, of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in her address to the 2008 Republican National Convention accepting the party’s vice presidential nomination." So I simply must call your attention to a few interesting things I found in these prepared remarks:
Long ago, a young farmer and habber-dasher from Missouri followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency.
Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay...
So maybe I'm just a mean old elitist, but I am nevertheless going to snicker at the fact that whoever prepared these remarks spelled out the "hard" words phonetically for Palin, so she wouldn't pronounce them wrong on national TV. (Of course, the speech was written by a Bush speechwriter, so maybe it's just force of habit... Oh, and the helpful spellings are in the transcript at the GOP Convention's official site, too, so don't go blaming the liberal media.)

And how about the bizarre spectacle of Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, sneering at the idea that Wasilla, AK, isn't "cosmopolitan" enough? (I'd give you a direct quote, but that was one of the many places he strayed from his "prepared remarks.") Besides which, and more important: in no way is "Being mayor of a town with fewer than 6000 people in it is perhaps not the most impressive preparation for being vice president of the entire U.S." the equivalent of "Small towns are worthless and risible!" Giuliani knows it. Palin knows it (one would hope). Hell, everybody knows it -- right? I mean, everyone can smell that BS, right? Please tell me I'm right.

Some things that have helped me keep my sanity this week: First of all, Rachel Sklar's Eat the Press post on the ridiculous "the media is out to get Palin" accusations. Right on, sister. Then, enjoy this Peggy Noonan screw-up, which is a refreshing chaser after you've watched something like, for example, Laura Bush's incredible gall in praising the McCains for adopting a daughter from India, as though her own husband's campaign had never tried to spread the smear that McCain had an illegitimate black child. (Not just an illegitimate child, you understand. A black one!) There's also this wonderful clip of Campbell Brown interviewing Tucker Bounds and pressing him for one example of Palin's executive authority in connection with the Alaskan National Guard -- the media doing its job! Which, by the way, McCain thought was so unfair he backed out of Larry King Live in retribution. (Please. No. Don't.) Oh, and I've been checking out Wonkette lately, especially this liveblog of Palin's speech. And finally, let's not forget the most hilarious (and honest) moment of that speech:



Ah, it feels good to get all that off my chest. I promise I won't do that again. At least not after November.

Friday, August 29, 2008

I mean this as a compliment

I realize this is going to sound like faint praise, but there is genuine enthusiasm behind it, which I hope to explain if you'll bear with me. What I want to say is this: [title of show] is much less obnoxious than I expected it to be.

I avoided this show through its festival-buzz era and its Off-Broadway run because the more I read about it, the more irritating it sounded. But finally, improbably, it opened on Broadway, and I felt obliged to check it out and see what I was missing. What kept me away all that time was the constant, breathless gushing about how "original" and "clever" it was, this extremely metatheatrical musical (so daring and outside-the-box it doesn't even have a real title!) about a couple of guys writing a musical. To read the press coverage, you would think no one had ever used metatheatrical tricks before, when in fact they are at present an absolute staple of musical theatre. You would think the creative process had never been examined in drama before, when in fact it has long been a favorite subject for navel-gazing artists. And you would think the young, underemployed, creatively inclined, showtune-obsessed community had never before turned its gaze inward to focus on its own fascinating existence, when in fact it often seems unable to focus on much else. From what I was hearing, [title of show] sounded like another Musical of Musicals: The Musical, a parade of empty references dressed up as "jokes," and its supposedly original concept sounded to me like the absence of an original concept. So I stayed away.

I get it now. [title of show] is more than just self-regarding blather and referential humor. It's just hard to explain how it transcends that, because the appeal of the show is all in the execution, not the ideas. Make no mistake, the whole "it's a show about writing a show" idea is essentially the absence of an idea. No plot description can make the show sound bracing and original, because on that level it really isn't. What makes [title of show] exciting is how committed its creator-stars, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, are to telling that story well, and how deft their command of musical-theatre storytelling tools turns out to be. The show has a level of integrity and faith in its own methods that you won't find in other recent self-aware Broadway shows, from silly musicals like Xanadu to acclaimed plays like Well. It works within the frame it establishes, a frame that is freeing but has its own restrictions. Where other shows use meta tricks to maneuver their way out of creative traps or to get a cheap laugh, [tos] commits to telling its story in a certain way and then sticks to it. Instead of being falsely self-effacing, something you find in a lot of "humorous" shows that try to excuse their faults by not taking themselves too seriously, [tos] dares to take itself seriously in the most important ways.

There has been some fretting about the show's dependence on inside jokes and intentionally obscure musical-theatre references. That's all well and good in an Off-Broadway, fringe-festival run, folks have said, but will it be an obstacle to reaching a broader audience? I know that this is something the creators (or at least the producers) worried about, because it's mentioned in the show -- too many times, in fact. If you're really concerned about missing out, the NYT just published this primer to help you navigate the names. But it's misplaced worry, in my opinion. There are a lot of obscure jokes in the show, to be sure, and even I heard a lot of names I didn't recognize. But unlike, for example, Musical of Musicals, [tos] doesn't live or die by its references. In this show, the jokes are a character trait, and as such they perform a function beyond getting laughs from the in-the-know few. I mean, I giggled myself silly when Susan Blackwell deadpanned, "Don't say that, of course you were meant to have children…" So maybe it's hard for me to judge whether the not-so-obsessed will recognize the function that those references perform. For me, seeing Hunter and Jeff banter about Mary Stout or about having opinions about shows they haven't seen worked because I've had those kinds of conversations and shared that enthusiasm with my own friends. I suspect that kind of experience is widely accessible, even if the particulars are foreign, but I can only say it rang true for me in spite of the fact that I didn't know who Mary Stout was. It seems to me the only reason an audience should find the inside jokes a turn-off is that the show can't stop calling attention to them. Also, of course, it's always irritating to be stuck sitting next to one of those people who needs to let everyone else know how much they know about musicals… Those people are another reason I avoided seeing this show in its earlier, smaller incarnations. But that's all the more reason to see it now, in a Broadway theatre, where the insecure musical geeks are outnumbered by the other groups that make up your average Broadway audience. (Plus, that Into the Woods line could never have been as funny as it is now, being delivered from a Broadway stage.) There are the people who love musicals but are amateurs when it comes to trivia -- you'll know them because they hear the number "525,600" and actually applaud with delight -- and, perhaps most important, there are the people for whom a Broadway musical is just an evening's diversion, who come to be entertained and don't bring a lot of genre-related baggage. What surprised me most about [tos] was its ability to reach those people, to entertain them and draw them in and give them a real experience of theatre. It's that old truth about the specific being the best path to the universal. The success of [tos] comes from being faithful to that truth, in spite of the potential for fuzzy generalizing.

The moment when [tos] does give in to generalizing about the state of the Broadway musical is actually its weakest point. The observations in the song "An Original Musical," where the creators imagine the forces that would keep their show from being a success, are oddly stale -- a show like [tos] can't succeed, they imagines critics saying, because Broadway is inhospitable to original ideas, and musicals require chorus lines and big budgets and spectacle. That criticism might have felt accurate in 2004, when [tos] first took the NYMF by storm. But we've just ended a season when Passing Strange found critical success and In the Heights found commercial success, while the big-and-flashy, based-on-a-movie shows didn't even crack the Tony nominations. A Catered Affair hardly made a splash, but it is one more data point suggesting that Broadway does indeed have room for musicals that don't fit the description offered in [tos]. And let's not forget Glory Days, which blundered into the midst of all that genuine excitement and tried to pass itself off as a refreshing alternative, the unlikely success story of two young men with big dreams of making it on Broadway. That didn't fool anybody -- lousy is lousy, it turns out, whatever your intentions might be. The lesson that should have been learned there is to be cautious about patting yourself on the back when it comes to the new ground you think you're breaking. The situation for new musicals on Broadway is much more complicated than [tos] acknowledges. All that crowing about being "An Original Musical" comes off as protesting too much -- invent some characters with a little more distance from yourself, and then we'll talk about original.

I get the impression [tos] isn't doing so well, box-office-wise, but if it closes soon it won't be because it's just too intimate or too daring for Broadway. It actually feels quite at home in the shabby, small Lyceum Theatre, and it provides enough entertainment and energy to justify Broadway prices. I don't know when I've seen an audience more enthusiastic than the one I saw [tos] with a few weeks ago. Whether you get the Mamie Duncan-Gibbs reference or not, you will be entertained, I promise. The one thing that doesn't quite fit the venue is the score, which would have benefited from another three weeks of work. And I wouldn't have objected if they'd found an excuse, somewhere along the road to Broadway, to get another instrument or two onstage. Two guys with basically the same voice singing unspectacular songs, accompanied by a single electric keyboard, gets old really fast.

Thank heavens for the two women in the cast, who pull much more than their own weight: Heidi Blickenstaff has the pipes to bring much-needed dimension to the songs, and Susan Blackwell supplies the personality and warmth that allows the audience to connect with the characters. (Blackwell also manages to make nearly every one of her lines funny in a way you have to see to believe.) My favorite moments in the show concerned the two female characters and the tentative relationship they build. Their song "What Kind of Girl Is She?" is a crucial moment, tangential as it is to the central "story." It provides actual character development and sincere emotion to satisfy an audience thirsting to connect with someone onstage. By the time that's over, you never want the women to exit, and when they do you're waiting for them to come back.

Ultimately, [tos] goes on a bit too long, especially once the push toward Broadway begins. There isn't a lot of tension in the drawn-out whining about wanting to make it to Broadway, since we do know how that part of the story will end. In fact, after a while it starts to feel like pandering, something "Hunter and Jeff" made a point of eschewing early on. And the closing number indulges in a misty-eyed "up to us, pal, to show 'em" sense of achievement that doesn't feel totally earned (especially since that song is particularly underwritten). If [tos] does end up posting a closing notice soon, the silver lining will be the element of poignancy that will animate the last twenty minutes. But I'd like to see it stay awhile. I think it more than deserves its place on Broadway, and audiences will be glad they took a chance on seeing it. It's likable, it's intelligent, it's fun. I'm just hoping it won't be the most "original" musical to open on Broadway this year. Somebody must have a story to tell where the stakes are higher and the roots go deeper than their own, age-old, commendable but hardly original desire to tell a story.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Most difficult-to-spell college names

(An Olympics-inspired competition.)

The top honor in this category is really no contest: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute walks away with the gold. Even when you have it right, it looks wrong.

There are a number of solid contenders for the silver and bronze medals. I like Duquesne for the silver: the disparity between how it's pronounced and how it's spelled makes for a high degree of difficulty, as they say in gymnastics. This is one of those names you could spend your whole life hearing and saying and yet not recognize when you see it on the page.

But there are a few others giving Duquesne a run for its money: Bryn Mawr, of course, and dark horse competitor Bowdoin. Don't count either of those schools out just yet. And I think you also have to consider performance in tallying the final scores: Johns Hopkins is not difficult to spell, but it is nevertheless frequently misspelled. Could that put it in the top five?

(Embarrassing admission: I personally have trouble with Stanford, the selective West-Coast university. I want it to be "Stamford," like the city in Connecticut. I don't know how widespread this problem is, though.)

I think there should be a separate category for colleges whose names bug me. Wesleyan is a big one. Also Tufts.

Your turn! Have I overlooked your favorite? Should your alma mater be on the list? Please help me out. I have a mild case of the flu, and this is as deep as my thoughts can go right now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mystery solved

To prep for an upcoming trip to Firenze, I've been dipping into Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. (It's my favorite 19th-century book-length essay on 16th Century Europe -- what's yours?) Burckhardt has a tendency to allude to pertinent facts in the most oblique way possible, and so I am forced to visit Wikipedia to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. That's how I ended up Googling Pope Alexander VI (motto: "There's no conclusive proof that I personally poisoned anyone"), which led me to the entry for his successor, Pius III (motto: "At least I'm not Cesare Borgia!"). And that's how I got to the bottom of the summer's biggest mystery. We can all stop freaking out, because the Montauk Monster -- follow that link for a photo, on the off chance the image is not yet seared into your mind -- is not an unidentified mutant in an advanced stage of decomposition, but in fact the relatively well-preserved corpse of His Holiness Pope Pius III.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ripped from the headlines

Maybe it’s because my favorite shows are in reruns, or maybe it’s because I have seen every episode of Law & Order and L&O: SVU at least once, but for whatever reason, I have been on a true-crime kick lately. Especially since I discovered that there is a whole channel devoted to reruns of true-crime shows: Investigation Discovery, 113 on my TV. (I was going to link to its website, but I went there just now and then a bunch of weird "update your security!" pop-ups started, well, popping up, and I had to restart my computer. I don't know where they came from, but I'm going to avoid directing you there just in case.)

Since I stumbled on the treasure trove of Investigation Discovery, I’ve been DVRing various programs to try to get my crime-and-punishment fix. One of my most frequent indulgences is 48 Hours: Hard Evidence, a "series" that repackages reports from 48 Hours. My favorite thing about this show is its host, Maureen Maher. I don’t know who she is, but I love the presumption that I should know, or care. “I’m Maureen Maher,” she tells us at the beginning of each show, and the blurb on the ID website says, “Host Maureen Maher uncovers the facts surrounding some of the most disturbing crimes…” even though she doesn’t do any of the investigating or interviewing, or even narrating. Unless I am very much mistaken, her role in "uncovering the facts" is limited to announcing what episode we're about to see, welcoming us back from commercial breaks, and occasionally giving us an update at the end if there have been significant developments since the episode originally aired.

But this is the really fascinating part: whenever we see Maureen Maher, she is always walking around in some dangerous-looking area -- a dingy basement, an abandoned warehouse, an overgrown field. I am endlessly intrigued by these location choices. She could be speaking from a neutral studio background (like Lester Holt, who hosts the repackaged Dateline episodes). Or, for a touch of drama, she might be pacing the halls of a prison, or standing in an empty courtroom. They could even have her posed in front of a crime-scene investigation in progress (like James Kallstrom, hilariously stiff host of FBI Files), wearing a trench coat and staying just outside the yellow tape. But the creative minds behind 48 Hours: Hard Evidence have chosen to put Maher in what looks like a future crime scene, or else a recent and not-yet-discovered one. There's no connection to the actual cases (when those involve a suspicious death, the body usually turns up in someone's living room). But even as Maher is walking slowly toward the camera, earnestly setting up the episode’s story, you expect her to turn a corner and stumble upon a corpse, or stop in front of a wall studded with torture instruments. What I want to know is: Whose idea was this? And do they build these sets specially, or do they just scout a location? What instructions do the producers give the designers/scouts? “We want something that says, A body was discovered here. Or maybe If you were a serial torturer, this is just the sort of place you’d bring your victims. Nothing bloody, you understand. No corny stuff—no bats or cobwebs. Just someplace you’d definitely avoid after dark, and maybe even during the day.”

Much as I enjoy speculating about the intros, I think I'm going to stop recording 48 Hours: Hard Evidence because, despite the title, the program tends to shortchange the actual evidence in favor of lengthy, manipulative interviews with family members of the victims and the accused. "Tell me how you felt when you found your daughter's body." "Walk me through that moment when the police came to arrest you." You know the drill. Suggestive framing devices aside, these cases tend not to be terribly lurid, and I'm tired of seeing weary parents insisting that their accused-murderer child is "a good kid." That is not "hard evidence," and time and again I find myself frustrated by how little attention the show pays to the evidence that exists and the way it affects the verdict in the case. The other day I watched one about the murder of Kent Heitholt that might as well have been called 48 Hours: No Evidence.

Far better, in my estimation, is FBI Files. That show focuses on the investigation itself, with no-nonsense interviews with detectives in place of emotional conversations with victims and families. The low-budget reenactments are sometimes hard to swallow -- it's a little like Rescue 911, but with fewer choking toddlers and more spree killers. But here the reenactments feature very little dialogue -- the narrator does all the work -- so they're not quite as ridiculous as you might expect. I find them much less risible than the photo-distorting visuals and silly, ominous sound effects that characterize shows like 48 Hours, and somehow the whole thing feels a bit less exploitative when I don't have to see the actual people involved. Who needs Law & Order, anyway?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Weekend roundup

Some odds and ends for you on this Assumption Friday. First of all, I've posted a review of the new movie Henry Poole Is Here at dotCommonweal. If you've seen ads for this movie, you might have wondered, is this a heartwarming feel-good story or a quirky indie flick? The short answer is: it wants to be both and ends up being neither. I don't know when I've seen a movie that seemed to be trying so hard yet left such a slight impression.

For more recommended reading, I suggest you visit The Big Jewel. You're probably already in the habit of stopping by there weekly. But in case you're not, you should make a special trip, because this week's piece -- "Mariposa Barbie Welcomes Fair Trade Doll To Fairytopia," by John Frank -- is one of my all-time favorites.

Finally, I want to inform you all that Fresh Direct and I have patched up our differences, after a truly tireless effort on the part of the customer service department to reach out to me (in spite of my never answering my phone during the day). They ended up issuing me a credit, which was quite generous and not at all necessary, and my next order arrived without incident. In fact, I think I might schedule another one now... I love happy endings, don't you?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More views of Brideshead

If you've had a chance to read my review of the maddeningly shallow movie version of Brideshead Revisited, you've heard all about what I found wanting. But what did the other, less invested critics say? Over at the Commonweal blog (which is called -- naturally -- "dotCommonweal"), I've put together a roundup of noteworthy critical opinions. A few are insightful -- good old A.O. Scott leads the pack there. A much larger number are dismayingly misinformed, which is an object lesson in one tenet of the critic's honor code: If you haven't read the book, don't pretend you have! And, of course, there are a handful who don't seem to know there ever was a book in the first place. So fans of "critiquing the critics" should check it out. (And for extra fun, see whether you can detect the hostile attitudes toward Catholicism masquerading as commentary on the film.) I know it's not quite as fun as actually reading the novel, but it does beat seeing the movie.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Brideshead, reviewed

I reviewed the new film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited for Commonweal, and you can read my take on the magazine's website now! At last you will know the source of that whirring sound you've been hearing all summer: it's just Evelyn Waugh spinning in his grave.
...Inspiration is ultimately where the film founders -- it can’t be faithful to the novel’s plot while rejecting its notions of faith. Suffering and holiness, sin and redemption: these are Waugh’s themes, expressed imperfectly and embodied ambivalently by his characters, and resisted by his narrator almost to the end. Jarrold reshapes Brideshead as a fairy tale of doomed romance, an exercise in cliché in which boy meets girl but strenuously resists meeting God.
This may be the only review you'll find that contains extensive analysis of the film's religious imagery -- and not a single comparison to the 1981 BBC serial. Go on and read it.

Also, film fans, don't miss Mother Load's breathless account of a brush with a certain celebrity mommy and her named-after-fruit preschooler!