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!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The American way

I saw Second Stage Theatre's production of Some Americans Abroad, a 1990 play by Richard Nelson, during its closing weekend. So I didn't think I'd write about it at all: I liked it, I would have recommended it, but what was the point? It was already gone.

Then, however, I read Charles Isherwood's review in the Times, and it gave me what you might call the Isherwood itch. I don't think the Ish is always bitchy or unfair. And sometimes I can see that he's being bitchy, and maybe even unfair, but I don't mind, because I agree with him. But once in a while, more often than I'd like, I read an Ish review and think, Yeesh, what did [name of playwright] ever do to you? (Or, less often: Exactly how big a favor do you owe [name of playwright]?) Especially when he goes after a show for not being something he thinks it should be, or for being something he hates, and completely skips the part where he assesses it for what it is, on its own terms. I suppose all critics, including me, are guilty of that sometimes, but we don't all write for the New York Times. I can go in grumpy and leave grumpy and write a grumpy review for you all about why some show should never have been produced to begin with, but no matter how off-base I am, it won't cut the box office in half. If I knew I had that kind of influence, I'd like to think I would be a bit more scrupulous about being fair and not misrepresenting things and getting up on the right side of the critical bed and all that. Maybe I am taking liberties in assuming Isherwood wrote this review in a bad mood, or with a grudge against Richard Nelson. But I prefer that to the alternative explanation, which is that he honestly did not get what the play is trying to do. What I do know is, when I see a review like that published in the unjustly powerful NYT, it gives me an indignant little rash, and the need to scratch that itch is why I'm writing about the show now in spite of the fact that it already ended its run.

Isherwood reports:
Only frantically Anglophile theatergoers — maybe pathologically Anglophile theatergoers — are likely to derive much joy from this limp two hours of high-toned cultural tourism in the company of uninteresting American academics.
Full disclosure: I am an Anglophile. I admit it. I'm not ashamed of it. I don't think that's the only reason I like this play, however, and I certainly don't think "high-toned cultural tourism" is the only thing, or even the main thing, this play has to offer.

I read Some Americans Abroad a few years ago, when I was helping to copyedit this collection of Nelson's work. It was my favorite play in that volume. I remember being impressed by Nelson's gift for writing dialogue, and for making the simple act of conversation seem so dramatic. Reading and watching Some Americans Abroad, I felt like I was eavesdropping on an actual conversation, watching what the characters reveal about themselves as they talk about whatever it is they happen to be talking about. Not a lot "happens" in many of those conversations, but an enormous amount is revealed, and the way it's revealed feels totally honest to me. There's none of that tortured exposition that makes me cringe. Nelson's characters don't say things like, "How's your older brother, Jack? Does he find it harder to concentrate on being a high-powered lawyer now that he's engaged to marry that woman he met in the Peace Corps?" (At least not in Some Americans -- I haven't read the others in a while.) They're not in a rush to tell us what we need to know.

Maybe that's what Ish is reacting to when he says, "I digress, but then Some Americans Abroad is a talky and digressive play." Talky for sure. Too long, probably. But I wouldn't say "digressive." I think the talk is where the action happens. As for "I digress..." Isherwood is apologizing for a few cute sentences where he went on about how expensive it is to travel to Europe these days. I don't think that's a digression either, because it's the one part of his review I totally agree with: London is really costly these days, and when the characters go on about the great deals they're finding (or the high prices that don't sound the least bit high), it's very distracting. The play is set in 1989. The Playbill says so, but otherwise you wouldn't know: the dialogue doesn't include a lot of clues, the way it would if it were written now and set 20 years ago. The costumes don't suggest that or any period assertively, which is fine; that might be distracting in the other direction. But the production does use supertitles to show us where the various scenes are taking place, and unless I am very much mistaken, the first one didn't say when. Maybe I missed it? It just seems obvious to me that telling us it's supposed to be 1989, not just on paper but in the show itself, would be the obvious way to minimize the weirdness of all the later references to three-pound lunch buffets and so on. But as you may know, this is a constant theme of mine: contemporary plays set in "the present" are usually very much of their time, and if you revive them twenty or more years later you have to pay attention to the time in which they were written. Company doesn't make sense unless it's obviously the 1970s; The Marriage of Bette and Boo has to be clearly set in the 1940s through 80s; Some Americans Abroad can't look like it's happening now. Because otherwise everything rings a bit false, in ways the audience might not even consciously realize.

Okay, there's my digression out of the way. Back to Nelson. He doesn't write a lot of punch lines, either. This play is certainly funny, no matter what Isherwood says, but the laughs are organic, not forced, not false, not calculated. That kind of writing is really hard to pull off, and I feel pretty strongly that it's a gift we ought to encourage when it turns up onstage.

Let's take another line from Isherwood: "If Mr. Nelson’s primary aim is to satirize the tendency of overeducated Americans to worship at the altar of all things English, the comic point is mostly dulled into obscurity in this revival." Is that Nelson's primary aim? Isherwood phrases it as a guess, but I'm not sure he considered the possibility that he's wrong. I think that aim is there, to be sure, and it probably did have a lot to do with this play's success in Britain. I think it's a pretty decent target -- I'll admit it left me feeling a tiny bit ashamed, and I almost get the impression that Nelson has hurt Isherwood's feelings too. And that, I think, may have been his true aim. Not wounding Ish in particular (although we may yet see that play produced), but rather, poking fun at all us self-congratulatory intellectuals. I suspect Nelson wanted to burrow into the subconscious of folks like me, who pride ourselves on being educated, who enjoy feeling smart and cosmopolitan and slightly superior to our countrymen. I'll cop to recognizing that impulse. I can't speak for Ish, since I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him, and for all I know he may be the humblest fellow you could ever hope to meet. So this is purely a guess. But I will venture to guess that the play may have poked him in a similar place, and he didn't appreciate being thus poked.

On a related note, Ish complains that the characters don't seem to have "appealing inner lives." I think that is the point exactly. They have appealing external lives, at least if you (like me) perceive academia, and devotion to literature and drama, as a noble pursuit and a fine way to use one's gifts. Externally they seem to be doing just great. But what lies beneath their superficial sophistication is less noble, a fact that becomes increasingly, uncomfortably clear as the play moves along. Eventually, as a result of a handful of small plot twists, the characters' moral failings and less-than-noble motivations work their way to the surface. You don't even have to be a snob to know what dishonesty looks like, or to recognize the rot that it causes.

To further that point, another quotation from Ish: "No doubt this caricature of a gauche American [the character of Joanne Smith], and the walk-on role of a still more buffoonish Yankee who accosts Joe at the theater, helped endear the play to the British." Perhaps. But I think "An American," as that walk-on role is known, has a subtler function: he's really not so bad. Uncouth, yes, but couthness isn't everything, as we should have learned by now. In fact, this "American" fellow seems sincere and not the least bit snobby. That might be the real reason Joe despises him. And by that point in the play, when we see him standing next to Joe, I think he's more than just a clown for us to laugh at. I think we're meant to look at them together and wonder: Who is it that's ugly? Because I think the real, true point of this play, beyond satirizing academia or poking fun at Anglophiles or having a laugh at the expense of American tourists, is to illustrate that ugly is as ugly does.

There's an awful lot of ugliness in Some Americans Abroad, beneath the surface of every conversation, exposed in little ways that add up slowly and terribly. By the end I found it painful to watch. Those conversations you're observing like a fly on the wall are so transparently superficial and glib and self-serving and vain -- but they still feel like conversations you, or at least I, might have. As an audience member I can see the dynamics at work, but what if I were participating? Would I ever notice when things shifted away from honesty, decency, nobility? Is that happening now, and would I see it if I could only step outside myself? Those aren't comfortable questions, but this play made me ask them, and damn am I impressed by the skill that takes.

The Second Stage production wasn't thrilling, but it was decent. Even a play this talky could have a bit more energy, I think. Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the cast had a tendency to lean on every line, emphasizing as many words as possible, as if they were worried they might accidentally miss something important. I can see how that might happen, since the important stuff is woven so deftly into the dialogue, but they all seemed a little too aware of that process at work. I do agree with Isherwood that the pace was slow -- the play is also too long, I think, which is probably a function of the time when it was written. Things have gotten brisker since 1990. Of the cast, I liked Enid Graham, Halley Feiffer and John Cunningham best. Tom Cavanagh was miscast as Joe -- he seemed like he would have made a better Henry -- and he tended to fall into a repetitive line-reading rhythm, but for the most part he and the others held their ground and let the play do its thing.

Not everyone will like Some Americans Abroad. Not everyone has the patience for theatre that does what this play does. And hell, not everyone really likes plays at all. Even if you can see what Nelson is trying to do, maybe it will leave you cold -- maybe you're not as guilty of the ugliness the play exposes as I know I can be. But I think an intelligent person, especially a person who criticizes theatre for a living, ought to at least be able to perceive what a play is trying to do, even if he then decides it's not doing that thing well. And when a high-profile critic is content to dismiss a carefully constructed, delicately insightful play like this one with the claim that it has nothing but Anglophilia to offer -- well, like I said, it just gives me a rash.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Easy listening made easier!

In a hospital waiting room on Monday, I heard a Muzak version of the John Denver song "Perhaps Love." Now, I love John Denver and I don't care who knows it. But if there was ever a song that didn't need softening, it's "Perhaps Love." And honestly, when you arrange a really simple acoustic-guitar song with classical instrumentation and no vocals, it just sounds like a very underwritten classical piece. Nobody wins.

I was in said waiting room playing name-that-mangled-tune because I was due for another post-treatment CT scan, just to make sure my old friend Hodgkin's hasn't come back. So, good news: I'm still cancer-free! Plus, the guy who started my IV and, later, the guy who took a blood sample managed to find a cooperative vein without too much poking around, so I was extra happy about that. Go do something to celebrate! The next update's in December.

While I was waiting (and drinking my delicious Crystal-Light-and-iodine cocktail), I flipped through some recent copies of The New Yorker to see what I'd been missing. I started reading a Talk of the Town "Comment" by Hendrik Hertzberg from the August 4 issue, but stopped when I got to this sentence:
(Let us note, in the currently fashionable spirit of joke-explaining, that the baseball allusion is to a long-defunct Class B circuit made up of teams from Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.)
Oh, get over yourself. Joke-explaining isn't "fashionable." You know what's "fashionable"? Crafting and telling jokes that are funny. Jokes that work and do not need to be explained. That is always in fashion. Getting all defensive and condescending when you fall short of that goal, and then nursing the wound (he would have had to clarify this allusion under any circumstances), is definitely not in fashion. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes a true child to wallow in it.

I've been pretty happy with my nonsubscriber status in 2008 (I've read books! Actual books!), but I always assumed the time would come when I'd want to sign back up. I'm not so sure anymore.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Who checks the checks?

The newest data point in my ongoing "people are confused by apostrophes" study: The husband and I recently ordered new checks for our joint bank account, printed with both of our names. They arrived this week. His last name is rendered correctly -- "O'REILLY" -- but immediately beneath that, I am listed as "MOLLIE WILSON O. REILLY." I believe Gob Bluth said it best: Come ON.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Monster facts

Here is a list of search terms that have led people to my blog since yesterday afternoon:

"turtles without their shells"
"turtles without shells"
"how to take the shells off turtles"
"Photos of Turtles without their shells"

I'm happy to be serving an educational function. Meanwhile, the real puzzle is still not solved. I agree with yesterday's commenter that the second set of photos (the ones from Newsday) look like a dog; however, I'm not sure that creature is the original one. It could be the same thing, flipped over to its not-so-sunburned side. And I am hoping it is the same thing, because what's worse than one mysterious ocean demon? TWO mysterious ocean demons! But I'm not sure "dog" accounts for the weird fingerlike phalanges I think I can see in the original picture. So... Maybe raccoon? Otter? Nutria/coypu?

Still don't know what I'm talking about? Still think you want to know? Okay, FINE. The Gawker item that started it all is here, and Newsday has another set of pictures here (although their lousy web layout makes them hard to find). But I must warn you again that YOU WILL BE SORRY. Instead, why not spend your afternoon admiring this awesome photo of a creature that most definitely is a turtle. A box turtle, in fact. (Though it looks to me like it might be female.)

UPDATE: mystery solved.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Turtles can't take off their shells

People, I can't emphasize this enough.

I am obsessed with the so-called Montauk Monster. I must know what it is! Nutria? Otter? Somebody please do something to solve this mystery so the good people of Long Island, and everyone on the Eastern seaboard, can leave their homes without fear, and so people on the internet can stop suggesting it's "a turtle without its shell." Because NO.

I just had to mention this. But for your sake, I will not link to the photos I can't stop looking at. If you don't know what I'm talking about, for the love of pete do not Google it. You don't need the nightmares.

P.S. Especially sea turtles.

P.P.S. And they don't have teeth.

UPDATE: Follow-up posts here and here.