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 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:

    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.