Monday, December 28, 2009

Eustace Tilley's revenge?

I felt better after getting all my New Yorker-related gripes off my chest Saturday. When I came home tonight to find a brand-new issue waiting for me -- dated January 4, 2010 (!) -- I was ready to start fresh. But... I think there's something wrong with my New Yorker, you guys.

At first I thought this spread was supposed to look like this. Innovative design choice, I said to myself.

But the next spread was half blank too.

I saw this and felt a pang of insecurity... is this a test of some kind? Am I failing?

But no, I'm pretty sure they didn't intentionally blank out half of Tad Friend's article. The first page of "Shouts & Murmurs" is missing, too (which will spare me from trying to solve the "quiz," always a frustrating exercise, because the New Yorker refuses to modify its layout to make the "quiz" format functional).

On the plus side, I won't have to decide whether I'm in the mood to read the latest piece by Adam Gopnik! (That left column is supposed to have text in it, and several other pages are blanked out. How long was this article, anyway?)

The good news: no pages missing from the Uwem Akpan story. Guess I'll start there.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Who will buy?

As you know, when my subscription ran out at the end of 2007, The New Yorker and I took a break from our relationship for a while. We had grown apart. It was for the best. But I got a new subscription as a birthday gift, so we're back in touch, and I'm pleased to say I'm in a much healthier place now. I don't feel pressured to read every page. It's not scripture, for heaven's sake, it's a magazine. So I've learned to skip the things I know I won't like, and spend my precious magazine-reading subway time on the articles I'll find satisfying. Nowadays that means I spend most of my time on the feature articles, and of course the Hertzberg (or Packer) editorials at the front of "Talk of the Town." Otherwise the "Talk of the Town" shtick has gotten a little stale for me, so I tend to breeze through those quickly. If "Shouts & Murmurs" is half-baked or underwritten, as it so often is, I move along rather than brooding over the lost opportunity. I try to read the "financial page" -- I usually learn something -- and there is almost always at least one feature article to savor. (The most recent issue was an exception, for me, but I expect to be bored by the "theme" issues.)

And then there's the critical reviews, which used to be my favorite part. Alas, I'm afraid the thrill is pretty much gone. You already know about my disenchantment with The New Yorker's theatre coverage: I learned some time ago that one shouldn't read John Lahr before seeing the show he's reviewing, because he writes as though his readers will never see the show under discussion -- he repeats all the best jokes and always spoils the ending. But since his West Side Story rave he's been downgraded from "Don't read till after I see the show" to "Don't bother reading at all." And as you know, Hilton Als was already in my "Don't bother" column. When it comes to movies, I had more patience with David Denby than some, but I lost it when he published Snark. That just leaves Anthony Lane, and I still read (or at least skim) his stuff, but it's not the scintillating experience it once was. The guy needs a long vacation.

Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones are still a good read (provided I care enough about whatever music they're covering). I used to admire Nancy Franklin's offhand style, but it's been a long time since I thought she actually delivered the goods in her TV column. And the last issue of The New Yorker reminded me of one more source of dissatisfaction: Joan Acocella.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Based on a novel by a man named Lear

Over at Hey Dullblog -- the occasionally updated group blog for Fab Four fans and obsessives -- you will find my thoughts on the twin Beatle-bio reviews in this week's New York Times Book Review. Nellie McKay decided to make her contribution, a review of the latest Lennon bio, interesting by writing a la In His Own Write. Do you think she pulled it off?

Suzanne Vega took on the new McCartney bio, which sounds pretty lousy. I quoted a few lines from her, too, in my Dullblog post, but I wanted to bring this bit over here, given Restricted View's history with disappointing Macca-related journalism.
One line about McCartney, which reads like a comment from a rejected suitor, reveals the possible source of this disappointment: “He grants interviews to bloggers and alternative weeklies, even as he turns away some major magazines (and biographers).” Perhaps the author made a bid for his subject’s cooperation but was turned down.
Seems pretty likely. And yet, is the author's description of Sir Paul's media policy accurate in a general sense? Not unless The New Yorker is an alternative weekly. He gave their writer a lot of access, you may recall. Based on the rest of Vega's review, I don't think he turned down the chance to participate in the making of this book just because he was feeling anti-mainstream.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Are we still talking about that?

Here is a partial list of things I thought would go away if I just kept ignoring them:
  • The Harry Potter craze
  • The television show The Hills
  • John Mayer
  • Those Geico ads with the cavemen
  • Twitter
  • "News reports" about Tiger Woods's car accident/alleged affairs
Obviously, this strategy is not panning out as I'd hoped. I suppose it must work for me sometimes, but I can't think of examples. (If I could, it wouldn't have worked!) All I know is, every time I walk past a newsstand, or flip past a cable news channel, or open a browser window with an AP feed, I see something about Tiger Woods and I think, "...That's still a thing we're talking about? Really?" And yet here we are. The culture is leaving me behind once again.

Friday, December 4, 2009

An alternative view of Central Park

This summer, the husband and I took my nephews to see Up (which was excellent, by the way. I highly recommend it). Five-year-old Seamus sent us this drawing as a thank-you note. (Click to enlarge.) It's helpfully captioned by his mother: "This is Central Park and you can go uptown or downtown and I am in a truck."

The truck is very detailed. Check out those tires -- and the taillights! I'm not sure what that brown stuff is (is it a dump truck?), or why Seamus is riding in the bed instead of the cab. But I haven't had a chance to ask.

Even more fascinating is his representation of Central Park, and (I guess) the roadways around it. To me it seems inspired by subway maps -- although it looks more like this alternative one than the official MTA version that Shea would have seen. It could also be influenced by those maps they have in the backseat of taxicabs to help you figure out where you are... I can't find one online, but New Yorkers will know what I mean.

Once, I picked up Seamus's older brother at school and took him somewhere in a cab. He was probably about five at the time -- maybe four. When we settled in, he was sitting with the map right in front of him, and he pointed to it and said, "Doesn't that look like a rhinoceros?" I can still picture him pointing, with his little mittened hand and his short arms making it difficult for me to tell what exactly he was pointing to. But I looked at the map, and specifically at the paths winding through Central Park, and: he's right! It does look like a rhinoceros! Now I look for the rhino map whenever I'm in a taxi. Kids are the best.

On the back of his magnificent picture, Seamus wrote a message:

You're very welcome!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Journalism I'm not thankful for

Is it surprising that the Atlantic's December cover story -- "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" by Hanna Rosin -- is an unfocused, badly argued, cheaply provocative mess? Perhaps not, if you've spent a lot of time reading general-interest magazine articles about "religion"... or recent issues of The Atlantic... or pretty much anything by Hanna Rosin. But it didn't have to be this bad! I took it apart in some detail over at dotCommonweal.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things that made me laugh today

I share this list with you at the risk of revealing just how much time I spend screwing around on the Internet when I should be getting work done. Seriously, though, today was a good day for LOL-ing, if that's your kind of thing.

First up: this Wonkette post about Saxby Chambliss's hilariously bad drawing of Georgia. To be fair, I'm no geography star, and I couldn't draw an accurate outline of Georgia either. Nor could I draw New York, come to think of it. But I can definitely do Pennsylvania, should it ever come to that. In fact -- and I was just complaining about this the other day; ask the husband if you don't believe me -- I'm deeply annoyed by how stumpy and jagged Pennsylvania looks on NY1's weather map. It's a little bit like Saxby's Georgia, but not as funny. (Chambliss and all the other senators who agreed to do this for National Geographic got their butts kicked by Al Franken, obviously.)

Here's another winner from Wonkette today -- by far the best thing to come out of "bow-gate." (Don't know what that is? Bless you. Don't ever change.)

If you're headed to The Game this weekend, how about a little Yale-vs.-Harvard humor to get you in the spirit? My friend Mike Sloan wrote a very funny piece on that topic for the Yale Daily News.

In family news: my godson is a married man at the tender age of five. You have to read the Mother Load account of how this went down: part one and part two. (Why didn't I know it could be this easy?!)

You knew there had to be Palin-related stuff in this list, and I won't disappoint. First, at Slate, Christopher Beam's index to Going Rogue has the distinction of being both hilarious and potentially useful. I think my favorite entry is this one:
________skeptical views of, 217
________________use of word "Neanderthal" despite, 30, 172

And this Daily Show segment, in which John Oliver covers the "Palin-mania" at a NYC bookstore, is pretty good, but it's the last part, where he's reading to the kids, that you really want to watch. I love the little guy with the glasses: "Everyone here thinks that's boring!!"

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm no Alan Greenspan

"When I bought The Fountainhead, I remember being impressed by how light — literally lightweight — the book was, despite its tremendous thickness. If I were a character in an Ayn Rand novel, that impression would have been symbolic. But since I’m not, I’m forced to admit that the book sucked me in...."

Read all about my not-quite-full-blown Ayn Rand phase at dotCommonweal, along with a roundup of excellent review-essays in response to the two newly published biographies of Ms. Rand.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Brighton Gone Dark

I have mixed feelings about the suprise commercial flop of "The Neil Simon Plays" -- despite the critical success of Brighton Beach Memoirs. On the one hand, it means the words "Neil Simon" -- even coupled with the word "revival" -- are not enough to sell tickets these days. I think that's a good thing, generally, for Broadway. On the other hand: this was an exceptionally good revival, and it's not so great for Broadway when excellent work goes unrewarded.

The major reviews I read got things pretty much right. Michael Feingold was the most insightful, as usual, and came closest to expressing my overall reaction -- this was so well directed that it made Simon's script feel less like an expert collection of one-liners and more like, good heavens, a play. I kept comparing it mentally to The Last Night of Ballyhoo, another play I saw on Broadway about the American Jewish experience on the verge of the Second World War. (The presence in both casts of Jessica Hecht also inspired the comparison.) The production here -- the acting, sets, costumes -- achieved a similar kind of nostalgic realism, comfortable but never treacly. I still have more respect for Alfred Uhry's achievement as a playwright -- he managed to get laughs and tug heartstrings without a single character who talks directly to the audience! -- but, as I said, in this outing Brighton Beach Memoirs really felt like a play.

The hero of all this, and rightly so, is director David Cromer. I'll be looking for the next thing he does. But a lot of credit has to go to the cast. Noah Robbins, who played Eugene, is a born star and will be back again for sure. Laurie Metcalf was a terrific choice for Mama Jerome; she brought a comedian's skill to the part but grounded everything in legitimate character work. And although Feingold faulted Jessica Hecht for "pushing her character to the edge of grotesquerie," I thought she was particularly good. Every actor in the cast landed their punch lines with skill, and without mugging, but Hecht drew laughs in places where there were no jokes, just by bringing Blanche to life.

Since it's too late to save the show now, let's talk about something I didn't see much discussed in the reviews: all that "sexual content." I'd forgotten how much innuendo Simon squeezes into his plays, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. At first, when Eugene starts describing the forms his adolescent lust takes, it's jarring. Then, once you get past that, it's sort of refreshing -- a good antidote to all the improbably chaste representations of the good old days. It seems to inject an honest edge into our cultural memories of the knickers-and-stickball era of American life: teenagers were sex-obsessed then too. But -- and I wonder, is this just me? -- after a while all the talk about breasts and legs and masturbation and "the golden palace of the Himalayas" just makes me uncomfortable. It's a little creepy, really, especially coming from a character who's so aggressively autobiographical. (Characters who want to be writers is right up there with characters who talk directly to the audience on my list of "writing crutches to be avoided when possible." But I have to admit, Simon really makes it work.)

I'm disappointed I won't get to see Broadway Bound, not because I can't wait to spend another night with the Jeromes, but because this group of artists worked so well together, and I was looking forward to seeing whether they could work their magic twice.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Birthday Book, part four

We have come to the final page of my birthday book -- and, as you can see, Connor saved the best for last.

This makes me laugh each and every time I look at it. Everything about it is awesome -- the gills! The blunt top fin! The way it emerges from the left margin! The upward-slanting caption! But I think the yellow, different-sized eyes are my very favorite part.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Birthday Book, part three

On the third page, Connor broke from the animal theme to do a portrait of me. I don't care to inquire about the not-so-subtle echoes between this page and the PIG drawing on the previous page.

My hair is particularly short (and a little patchy) because this was created just about a year after I finished chemotherapy. "You're wearing one of those shirts with no sleeves that you wear," Connor told me when he presented the book to me. I really don't wear tank tops that often, but obviously my muscular upper arms made an impression. (Part one here. Part two here.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Recommended reading

The new "Fall Books" issue of Commonweal has my review of Mary Karr's new memoir, Lit. Do check it out.

(Following this interruption we will return to your regularly scheduled posting of pictures from my birthday book.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Birthday Book, part two

My nephew was, and is, a lover of animals (an "animal expert," as he once put it), so the subject matter of my birthday book was pretty much a given. As you can see, he drew the animals with loving attention to detail. This one is helpfully labeled:

I love the concentric circles that form his crazy eyes. And of course his little blue hooves. And the nose! It's almost cubist. Part three coming soon...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Birthday Book, part one

For my birthday two years ago, my then-almost-five-year-old nephew made me a book. It's been on our coffee table ever since, but the colors are fading rapidly, because he drew it using those "Color Wonder" markers that only work on certain kinds of paper. Good for avoiding messes; bad for archival purposes. Since the book is too precious to lose, we decided to make a digital copy, which means I can now share the book with all of you. The husband scanned it and then I increased the contrast to bring out the many different colors, an important element of the artwork (notice how many times he switched markers!). That's also why the paper looks so blotchy and yellow, by the way.

So, this is the cover -- click to see it bigger.

The artist explained it all to me at the time. I believe that's an octopus up top -- note the suckers on his many legs. There's a very detailed "X-ray fish" in the center, and a jellyfish (with a sideways smile) in the bottom left corner. He also wrote his address here on the first page, so either that's the title or he's combined the title and copyright pages. (I scribbled out the street number to protect his privacy, but I can tell you at least one of the digits is backward.) As for the part in blue, my sister told me he asked her, "Mom, how do you spell 'to'?" And then, before she could answer, he said, "...Oh, 'two'!" And so he wrote "2MOLLIE," Prince-style.

Stay tuned for the next page... And in the meantime, you can visit the Mother Load blog for more of Connor's excellent work.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ora pro nobis

The Church has five new saints today -- as of about 4:30 a.m. EST -- and one of them, Jeanne Jugan, is an old friend of the family. I wrote about how she and her Little Sisters of the Poor have been part of my family's life over at dotCommonweal. I also happened to be awake (thanks to an upset stomach) to see the canonization rite more or less as it happened. The sisters in Scranton were watching live, too!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Important facts about art

1. Read this essay: a eulogy for Cookie magazine by my very own sister.

2. If you are planning to see the Vermeer show at the Met -- which is organized around the visiting masterpiece "The Milkmaid," and which runs between now and November 29 -- don't go when it's crowded. Do what you have to do to go when nobody else will be there, like on a Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. Because these are small pictures, and if you can't get close to them you might as well just go to the gift shop and look at the larger poster-size reproductions. I went yesterday at noon, thinking I'd beat the weekend crowds, but the place was a zoo. I can't say I was able to peacefully contemplate the play of light and shadow in Vermeer's little canvases while surrounded by people pushing and jostling and spacing out while listening to their audio guides and asking the guards, "Is there glass over top of this?" (And don't get me started on people who take pictures of everything they see in museums, because what is up with THAT.) I got the most out of my visit by retreating to the Medieval galleries and spending most of my time there. But the Vermeer show is small and cramped and really not worth the admission fee if you can't stand right in front of the paintings for as long as you like.

3. If you do go to the Met, especially when it's crowded, try to find your way to the "Visible Storage" area (which, on their not-really-all-that-helpful maps, is labeled "Henry R. Luce Center"). It's up some stairs in the back right corner on the first floor, and it's where they keep the American art they don't have on display. It's lined up in cases in this sort of friendly warehouse atmosphere, so you can walk up and down the rows and try to take it in. Lots of great paintings back there, plus furniture and many rows of fine silver and glassware and such. Spoons, old-timey baseball cards... It's like the world's greatest flea market. Plus it was a quiet spot in a museum otherwise packed with tourists.

Well, it was almost quiet. There was one guy there who was talking VERY LOUDLY to his companions, and intent on showing off his vast knowledge of art history (which, spoiler alert, was not really all that vast). So that was irritating, but it all paid off when he stumbled upon the case of American impressionists. "Mary Cassatt," he read from one of the identifying labels. "I thought that was Mary Cassatt!" Then, in his most professorial tone, he announced: "She was one of the first lesbians." On the other side of the case, I burst out laughing. Yeah, I... really don't think that's true.

Friday, October 9, 2009

We all owe the Piv an apology

Back when the 2008 Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow was struggling to make money for its producers in the wake of Jeremy Piven's sudden departure, I noted that the New York Times was doing everything it could to help. This is why the Times has such a glowing reputation in the theatre community for using its power responsibly, and for trying to be as fair and generally supportive of high artistic standards as possible. Oh, wait...

Today's report on the details of the arbitration between Piven and the producers of Speed-the-Plow producers does not depart from the pattern when it comes to that show. Headline: "An Inside Look at an Offstage Drama" (or, if you look at your title bar, "Inside Jeremy Piven's Offstage Drama With 'Speed-the-Plow'"). Yes, reading the background details is interesting for theatre gossip buffs, and I suppose those same buffs were all over it when the outcome of said arbitration was decided back in August. The Times did report that back in August in a perhaps-too-even-handed story by Dave Itzkoff... but at the time they didn't have the details of the confidential arbitration to report on, just the statements from both sides. Now they're telling us what the arbitrator actually said, and for the sake of the general public reading this first-page-of-the-arts-section story, you'd think writer Patrick Healy might mention the outcome of the arbitration somewhere near the top, instead of more or less as an afterthought at the end of paragraph four. For the record:
The arbitrator, George Nicolau, ruled in the actor’s favor in late August.

In other words, Piven won. Something to keep in mind when you're reading through the he-said, they-said details in the rest of the piece. One side was ultimately found to be more convincing than the other. Oh, and also: he had mono? That's a new detail, isn't it?

I was as skeptical as anyone back when this happened; I did my share of joking about "mercury poisoning" and such. (I should have suspected, when David Mamet made his wiseass comment about Piven preparing for a role as a thermometer, that Piv was actually sick -- from what I've seen of his essays, when Mamet's being funny, he's not being honest.) It was certainly tempting to believe Piven was a lightweight, especially when he was making statements invoking (I think?) Barack Obama in his defense. Healy did write an article that offered up Piven's side of the story in February -- and I can't say that inspired me to rally to his cause (Martin Luther King, Jr.? Really?). Also, for the record, I quite liked the production (which I reviewed here). But still, all the valentines from the NYT after Piven's departure left me wondering how, exactly, you manage to buy that kind of "bad press." And I guess I'm still wondering.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Wanna count?

The chain of hat-tipping is particularly convoluted and random: Andrew Sullivan linked to an essay published months ago in Commonweal, which he'd found via this blog. I don't know this blog and have never seen it before, but it can't be all bad because it recently posted this video, which I decided I had to share with you right away.

My favorite part is the exasperated sigh Sherlock Hemlock gives John-John when he interrupts. Bert's subtle double-take when John-John takes over the segment is also awesome. Every time I watch Sesame Street now I grieve for the old-time muppeteers.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Deliver us, O God...

...from falling for every stupid smear that plays to our prejudices and distracts us from discussing important political issues like adults. (More at dotComm.)

Update: Since I know you all like a good blog fight, you may also want to read this follow-up.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It's true what they say about Dan Brown

He really is a terrible writer, in the most basic sense of the word. That's what I've learned from the Telegraph's list of 20 awful sentences from the collected works of Dan Brown. (I blogged about it at dotCommonweal too.) It doesn't get much worse than this:
Deception Point, chapter 8: Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.
Tom Chivers is correct in noting, "It’s not clear what Brown thinks ‘precarious’ means here." And that's just the beginning of the reasons that sentence is laugh-out-loud bad. In fact, in most cases the commentary from Chivers is unnecessary -- and given the apparent richness of the material, the list is probably not as good as it could have been. (The bit at the end about how "Da Vinci wasn't Leonardo's last name" is particularly weak. There's no need to get pedantic about that when we're dealing with a writer who thinks "precarious" can modify "body.") But there's still enough to make lovers of the language grind their teeth. And to encourage me to stick to my practice of not reading anything by Dan Brown ever.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You'd think a theatre critic would have seen more musicals

I don't read Terry Teachout regularly, because he's in the Wall Street Journal, which is behind a firewall online and not something I regularly come across in person. But when I got on an Amtrak train to Boston last week I found that day's WSJ in the seat-back pocket in front of me, so I flipped through it, which is how I happened to read Teachout's review of a Boston production of Kiss Me, Kate. And I have to ask: when he says things like this, do you think he's being serious?
If there's a better musical than "Kiss Me, Kate," I haven't seen it.
Wow. I don't like to be the one to break it to you, Terry, but -- there is.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

This is why kids should have to diagram sentences

This has been bothering me for a while, and it seems to be getting worse. So listen up, people: Your favorite expression of moral responsibility and noblesse oblige has more words in it than you think.

You hear it during graduation season -- it's popular in commencement addresses and yearbook quotations. Vicki Kennedy botched it at Senator Ted's memorial service. And I came across it recently in the New York Times Business Section, of all places. Here's what people usually say:

    "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not criticizing the sentiment people think they're endorsing when they say this. I'm always trying to live up to it, in fact, since it's from the Bible and everything. But look again, because what I just wrote above doesn't make any sense. Here's what you have to say in order to be communicating a coherent thought:

    "FROM THOSE [or OF THOSE] to whom much is given, much is expected."

See? You can't start with the "to," because then you've got word salad. Well, unless you do it RSV-style: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." (Luke 12:48)

Bonus fun fact: not that anyone was paying attention to her speech, but this year's Notre Dame valedictorian got the quotation right. In fact, she built her whole speech around it. However, she attributed it to Bill Gates's mom, rather than Jesus. Whoops?

Monday, August 31, 2009


I reviewed the 2008 documentary Trouble the Water (now on DVD) at dotCommonweal. It's a moving, disturbing, inspiring view of the storm and the aftermath from inside the Ninth Ward. Not easy to watch, and impossible to forget.

Friday, August 28, 2009

"We could use griffins, but we don't use griffins"

As satire this is only middling. But as comedy, it's gold. And it must be healthy to take a break from moral outrage, however righteous, once in a while...

Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A secretary is not a toy

Today's NYT has an op-ed by Chiara Volpato (professor of social psychology at the University of Milan) complaining about the outrageously sexist behavior of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. I know what you're thinking: if Italian women didn't like being sexually harrassed, why were they born in Italy? For real, though, this woman has a point. She has also won the award for the most wonderful sentence in today's Times -- part of a list of Berlusconi's recent exploits:
He designated a former model with whom he had publicly flirted to be Minister of Equal Opportunities.
Isn't that just too perfect? It's almost hard to be mad at the guy. It reminds me of how the upper management on Are You Being Served? always surrounded themselves with comically busty young ladies who serviced them as "secretaries" and "nurses." Minister of Equal Opportunities. I love it. (If you want an even more obscure British comedy reference, it's like in Yellowbeard when they're introducing the officers on the ship, and one of them is a shapely young woman with a very unconvincing false mustache whom they call "Mr. Prostitute". This is both hilarious and historically accurate.)

The other thing that makes it hard for Volpato to get her point across is the stiff English -- it's perfectly fluent, but it has that unmistakable nonnative feel. I'm actually rather fascinated by it, because when I try to pick out a particularly awkward sentence, I have trouble explaining just exactly why it doesn't work. It's all grammatical, but it just doesn't sound right.
At the same time, the sexism portrayed on TV reinforces chauvinistic ideas among the culturally weakest parts of the population. Researchers who study female body objectification need only look to Italy to witness the sad consequences of this phenomenon.
See? It's just... not right. Also not-quite right: the graphic that accompanies this piece. The clawlike lady's hand reaching up out of -- a plate of spaghetti? Aren't we trying to defeat Italian-culture stereotypes here? And why does that hand look like something from a horror movie? When I was a kid I read an illustrated version of the R.D. Blackamore novel Lorna Doone just because it had an illustration much like that one near the end. It looked really gruesome and cool. (Someone dies in a marshy fen, I think, suffocated by mud.) It makes me curious about this opinion piece, too, but in a different way. I think it may be an op-ed-art misfire.

P.S. Jason Linkins at Eat the Press had a similar reaction.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It ain't just a question of misunderstood

I know I never got around to elaborating on my review of the new Broadway revival of West Side Story earlier this year. In fact, it seems I didn't even link to it when I reviewed it for Commonweal, probably because it was available only to subscribers. By now I'm sure you've subscribed, in which case you can read the whole thing (I paired it with In the Heights, since -- as I noted back when I reviewed the latter on Restricted View -- there are many points of comparison). But if your Commonweal subscription hasn't kicked in yet, here's a paragraph I wrote about West Side Story that will give you the gist:
The current revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre was preceded by intriguing buzz: this version promised to revitalize the show by putting the Puerto Rican characters -- the Sharks -- on equal footing with the “American” Jets. In the Heights’s Miranda was recruited to translate some dialogue and lyrics into Spanish, and the Sharks would be played by Latino actors (not a priority in the ’50s). Unfortunately, the revival doesn’t live up to its hype. In fact, under the direction of ninety-one-year-old Laurents, West Side Story feels creakier than ever. The dancers simply go through the motions of Robbins’s choreography, and most of the musical numbers miss their mark. The costumes look improvised. The sets look cheap. The much-vaunted revisions turn out to be inconsequential -- the staging and acting are so limp that it makes little difference when, for example, Josefina Scaglione delivers Maria’s over-familiar final speech (“How many bullets, Chino?!”) in Spanish rather than English. Meanwhile, the score -- surely the best reason to revisit West Side Story -- is ill-served by the technological changes that have come to Broadway. The orchestra, stuffed beneath the stage, is muted and muffled, and the singers -- especially Matt Cavenaugh as Tony -- are too dependent on their mikes. Karen Olivo (a standout in the original cast of In the Heights) easily steals the show as Anita, but she is the lone bright spot in a disappointing evening.
I've been meaning to go into more detail here, but reliving the experience was simply not high enough on my priority list. Today, though, a new article in the New York Times has inspired me to return to the subject and comment on just one of the bad decisions that went into this production. The headline alone made me laugh ruefully: "Some 'West Side' Lyrics Are Returned to English." Took them long enough!

Friday, August 21, 2009

She's right about one thing: this is "disgusting"

Why yes, I did watch the Jon Stewart/Betsy McCaughey interview, although only the part that was broadcast (I'd had more than enough by the time that was over). Basically, what James Fallows said sums it up: "She is just making it up, as anyone who has followed her work over the decades will know." I haven't followed her work, but it was still glaringly obvious to me that she was full of it. And given how little I know about legislation, health care, etc., I find it downright alarming that it was so easy for me to tell that all her talking points are arrant nonsense. It was also obvious that her preparation for the interview consisted not of boning up on the facts -- or even on her version of the facts -- but rather of putting on her game face. Smile like a beauty-pageant contestant; act like the audience is on your side; refuse to notice when you've been called out.

Fallows doesn't mention my very favorite part, which comes at about 3:45, when McCaughey first starts randomly flipping through her intimidating binder. ("How could I not know what I'm talking about when I have this big prop with me?") Stewart called her out for being completely dishonest and wrong about something or other in the bill, and by way of rebuttal she pointed to a page and said, "Guess what, the first time I read it I wrote 'disgusting.' See? 'Disgusting.'" Oh well that changes EVERYthing. Your interpretation must be correct, because your alleged emotional reaction backs it up!

Jon Stewart has been doing more and more "serious" interviews recently. The fact that he's become an important figure in the public discourse as an interviewer, and not just as a satirist, is partly a testament to him and his show, but just as much a testament to how pathetic and cowardly actual television news shows are these days. But he's still, at heart, a comedian, which manifests itself in ways that irritate me. In particular, he's always looking to riff on whatever his interviewee has just said with a punch line that redirects attention to himself. I don't care about this when he's talking to a movie star (in those cases I usually just turn the interview off). But when he's talking to someone who actually has some valuable information to communicate, I'd rather he didn't keep trying to steal the ball back. And when he's talking to someone who's spreading misinformation, as McCaughey was, I'd rather he didn't let them off the hook with a joke, as he does here. That tension in the room -- that incredulous "...Seriously, that's your argument?" burst of laughter from the studio audience -- is what makes this good TV. That's not the moment to open the valve and make everyone comfortable again.

Since I've been on an Arrested Development kick, I probably would have channeled Maeby Funke if it were up to me to reply: "Let's just sit quietly and consider how ridiculous that statement was."

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Betsy McCaughey Pt. 1
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Friday, August 14, 2009

There are dozens of us! DOZENS!

If the state of the health-care-reform "debate" in America has you hovering between dismayed and disgusted -- well, this charming photo essay at Blue Hampshire (which I found via Wonkette) won't make you feel better. But wait -- that last photo! In the midst of all this madness, I take it as evidence that there are still young people in America who remain focused on what really matters... Who hold out hope for change... Who will never admit defeat. Their cause is noble, and history will prove them righteous.

Yes we can!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

If I can't take my coffee break...

When it comes to coffee, I am a Dunkin' Donuts devotee -- although most of the time, it's home-brewed. My parents started brewing DD coffee at home years ago, when I first developed my morning-coffee habit, and when I got the husband hooked I made him a DD fan too. Now he always makes the coffee at home, because he's much more serious about it than I am (there's a trick to measuring the beans I can't master, or honestly even understand). And it's always from Dunkin' Donuts.

Here's how addicted we are to Dunkin' Donuts coffee: we went on a three-day private retreat earlier this week, for which we rented rooms in a tiny lakefront cottage. We left behind many creature comforts -- which was sort of the point, it being a retreat and all -- but we knew they had a coffeemaker in the cottage, so we brought a bag of Dunkin' Donuts coffee grounds with us...because what were we going to do, just drink the coffee they had there? Please. There's asceticism and then there's mortification of the flesh.

So anyway, we like our Dunkin' Donuts. But lately we've been seeing all these ads for their flavored coffees, and they leave us scratching our heads. I mean, hazelnut I can understand, and even caramel, but who wants their coffee to taste like raspberries? Or blueberries? The other day I saw a print ad on the side of a bus shelter with this image: a cup of DD iced coffee covered with a square of red-and-white-checked fabric, like it was a jar of homemade jam. Which was a cute idea, except: who would find that appetizing? I don't want my coffee to be jammy, for heaven's sake. And if you do, you should probably switch to some other beverage.

Given all that personal history, I very much enjoyed Nathan Heller's piece at Slate this week taste-testing and ranking coffee from Starbucks, McDonald's, and Dunkin' Donuts. It validates my own preference (there's no contest, seriously), and I'm pleased to see such a frank and unapologetic acknowledgment that Starbucks coffee is really very bad. But the writeup is also very entertaining.

Monday, July 20, 2009

With all due respect

I didn't spend much of my weekend trip to Georgia sightseeing (we were there for a wedding). But we did have time for a stroll around the Decatur Cemetery. Lots of great Southern names from generations past, but this one was my favorite...

I.M.A. Burpitt
May (s)he rest in peace.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Mollie Sudgen, RIP

I will miss you, other "Mollie"! As young Mr. Grace would say, You've done very well.

Even if you've never seen Are You Being Served?, Sudgen's is an obituary worth reading.
After making shells for the Royal Navy in an armaments factory during World War II, she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Her first role was the juvenile lead in “Dear Octopus.”
Truly the Greatest Generation. And did you know this?
“Are You Being Served?” was made in 1972 as a one-shot segment of another series, “Comedy Playhouse,” but when the killing of several Israeli athletes sent the 1972 Summer Olympics into chaos, the BBC, faced with hours of empty air time, rushed the series onto its schedule. There it stayed for more than a decade.
Why isn't that in the history books?!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Make it gay"

I found something funny in the Commonweal magazine archives, which you can see over at dotCommonweal. I don't want to ruin it, but let's just say it involves the phrase "Coke party for the youngsters." Catholics in the 1950s weren't as uptight as you think!

The man in the mirror

I'm already sick of hearing about Michael Jackson. But one thing I can say about his death is that it has brought together the nation by giving us an opportunity to stare at pictures of the man, compare the recent shots to the ones from his childhood, and collectively ask ourselves, "What the hell happened?" (And aren't you glad you don't have to watch him get old? I am.)

Perhaps the most compact and culturally layered treatment of this theme comes from the Wall Street Journal's "Speakeasy" blog, which today is featuring a look at how MJ's "hedcuts" have changed through the years. (H/t CJR's The Kicker.) Truly spooky. As a bonus, there's this sentence, which says so much... "According to research database ProQuest, Jackson was first mentioned in The Wall Street Journal in a Sept. 25, 1980 article entitled 'Record Buyers Remain Loyal To Black Music.'"

P.S. Also: Holy crap, the sky last night!

Friday, June 26, 2009

You've got a place to go

I know I'm supposed to say something about the death of Michael Jackson, and what he meant to me, but honestly, I don't have an emotional reaction to record. I, uh, like some Jackson 5 songs, and about half of Thriller is good, and I've always been amused by his Paul McCartney duets. And I didn't know "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and "Smooth Criminal" were MJ songs until a couple years ago, but finding that out increased my regard for the man tenfold, because those songs are cool. But I am a touch too young, or just a touch too out-of-touch, for Michael Jackson to really loom large in my legend. (There was a girl in my high school who was utterly devoted to MJ, but the rest of us thought this was bizarre. Like being a huge fan of cockroaches. It was the mid-90s, after all, and MJ was becoming increasingly difficult to look at. This girl took it very personally if you said so, though. She loved the middle-aged Michael the way the young Michael loved Ben.)

So you should go read my friend Marla's blog instead, because she has the best Michael-Jackson-related story I've ever heard.

I was planning to celebrate Mr. Jackson's memory by watching my favorite You Tube video -- the one of the walrus dancing to "Smooth Criminal." But I see now that "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Warner Music Group." Booooo, Warner Music Group. It wasn't even the whole song! Oh well. I'll have to go do my own awkward dance, in tribute. Who wants to join?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tony telecast 2009

As I mentioned, I was less than enthusiastic about this year's Tony Award contenders. I haven't even seen any of the Best Musical nominees -- and worse, I don't particularly want to, even now. But I still watched, of course, and I found the telecast more enjoyable than I expected. This year it seemed to have a split personality: more pandering and embarrassing than ever when it came to musicals (and musical numbers), but at the same time rather dignified and not as desperate to impress as it has seemed in the past. Maybe that's because there were so many widely-known screen actors on Broadway this year, or maybe they just committed to not apologizing for honoring theatre as an art in its own right. But if it weren't for the fact that I turned off the television feeling thoroughly depressed about the state of the modern musical, I would have to give this year's Tony broadcast high marks. Since we couldn't watch together, I offer my traditional Restricted View recap.

Monday, June 1, 2009

God of Carnage and August: Osage County, reviewed

In the June 5 issue of Commonweal -- just in time for the Tonys! -- I review Yasmina Reza's new play God of Carnage, alongside its neighbor on 45th Street, Tracy Letts's August: Osage County. I thought it would be interesting to discuss last year's Best Play winner alongside this year's favorite, especially since August represented a major departure from the formula for success that Reza established back in 1998 with Art. My review is available online for all you nonsubscribers. Here's a taste:
At first God of Carnage pits one couple against the other; then it shifts to a battle of the sexes, with wives aligned against husbands. By the end, each character is alienated, feeling betrayed even by his or her own spouse. “You force yourself to rise above petty-mindedness and you end up humiliated. On your own,” Veronica sulks. Her husband (James Gandolfini) replies gloomily, “We’re always on our own. Everywhere.”

...It is difficult to say whether Reza really believes any of this, and it seems almost beside the point to ask. The play is so thoroughly entertaining that it doesn’t need to be convincing. Reza manages a number of hilarious surprises, and some artful bons mots, as the couples’ predictable conflict unfolds. God of Carnage is a superficial but highly amusing dance of ideas, brought to vivid life by a uniformly excellent cast....

Where God of Carnage is an intellectual diversion, August: Osage County is an emotional workout. Letts’s play is a portrait of a family whose dysfunction takes on every conceivable form: sibling rivalry, suicide, addiction, adultery, incest, jealousy, and greed. The plot is a series of shocking revelations, but nothing that transpires among the Weston siblings and in-laws is quite as astonishing as the cruelty with which the ailing matriarch, Violet, eviscerates her children....

August is more authentic and more satisfying than God of Carnage, but in the end it is not much more profound. The endless, hysterical miseries of the Westons seem constructed to defeat the idea that human fates are determined by any divinity, even a savage one. The play is compelling not because it offers any insights, but because its characters and their suffering are so immediate and real.
Read the whole thing for more on how I think the two plays resonate, and how they differ.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Could the pope be Catholic? Film at eleven

The news has been more ludicrous than usual lately, and at times I have found myself wondering whether it's all a big practical joke. You know how, on or around April 1, newspapers sometimes put out an "April Fool's Edition" with one or more hoax stories? I think we're in the middle of a monthlong version of that.

Surely serious news outlets didn't fall for the AEI's PR trap and frame Cheney and Obama's nearly simultaneous but not-at-all equivalent speeches as a "debate" or a "competition"... did they? Professional journalists wouldn't really repeat Cheney's bald-faced lies and self-contradictions as though they were legitimate criticisms... would they? The notion that the word "empathy" is some kind of sinister "code" wouldn't be repeated with a straight face in the national news... would it? The accusation that Sonia Sotomayor is a "reverse-racist" would be beneath the dignity of all but the most raving lunatics... wouldn't it? The Associated Press would never run a "news analysis" piece this hacky and laughable, right? And so on and so on.

The moment I figured out that this was all a cosmic joke came a few days ago, when I heard a television news reader announce, very seriously, that some relatives of the infamous "Jon & Kate" are concerned that the couple "may be exploiting their children."

That made me laugh out loud. Of course they're exploiting their children! They star in a reality show about how they have a lot of small kids. That's the whole show. That's what they're famous for: they let cameras follow them around when they're with their kids. The only reason the show isn't called Jon & Kate Exploit Their Eight Children is that it doesn't rhyme (and also gives away too much of the "plot").

Are you seriously just figuring this out now, concerned relatives? Because if I were a news analyst, I would be pitching another story. Here's the headline: "Concerned Relatives of Jon & Kate Exploiting the Increased Attention Being Paid to Jon & Kate as a Consequence of Their Having Spent the Last Five Years Exploiting Their Children." I mean, come ON.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I loved you in Monsters Inc.

My latest celebrity-on-the-street sighting: John Goodman, on his way (presumably) to Studio 54. Which reminded me: Waiting for Godot got really enthusiastic reviews. And this in a season when Roundabout has been the not-for-profit everyone loves to hate. I guess that means I have to see it.

Have you been to the TKTS booth since it reopened in Duffy Square? It's cute and everything -- I like those stairs, and I like that you can see the boards while you're standing in line. But: why did they leave so little room between the ticket windows and the curb? It's still so cramped. Isn't that the sort of thing a redesign should fix? Not only is it really difficult to walk away from the window once you've bought your tickets; when you do manage to free yourself, you're standing in the path of people trying to cross the street. It's not ideal.

When I was last at the booth, buying not-discounted-enough tickets for God of Carnage (only 30% off, and $83 should be full price for orchestra seats at a 90-minute play, if you ask me), I got in a line that looked short but, of course, wasn't, because the people in front of me took forever to complete their transaction. I gathered that this was due to their knowing very little English. I could only hear the TKTS guy's side of the exchange, because he was speaking into a microphone. And it went like this: "Hairspray? Hairspray is closed. Do you mean Hair? [Tourists confer briefly, then say something in broken English, ending with "...Hairspray."] I'm tryna TELL you, Hairspray is CLOSED. DO YOU MEAN HAIR?!" And so it went, back and forth, until finally (I think) they ended up with tickets for Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, the people at the window next to us were asking, in equally uncertain English, "Do you have Wy-ked?" It's a regular United Nations down there in Duffy Square, I'm telling you.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bad Idea Bears

I'm not sure whether I've been doing a really bad job keeping up with theatre news, or whether I heard this one a while ago and simply blocked it from my memory. Probably both. But did you know Phylicia Rashad is taking over the role of Violet Weston in August: Osage County in less than two weeks? It's true! And no, they're not turning the Weston family black (or mixed-race) to accomodate this casting. In fact, original cast member Amy Morton is coming back on the same date. All of which strikes me as...odd. (And not just me, obviously -- everyone else filed their confusion/dismay two months ago.) But wait, this is the good part. Here's how I found out -- I went to the official website for the show and saw the button that says, "Learn more about Phylicia and Jenny Craig. See our latest offer."

I saw Deanna Dunagan -- awesome -- and I saw Estelle Parsons -- also awesome -- but I probably won't rush out to see Phylicia. Who knows, maybe she'll be a better fit for the part than I'm imagining, but the fact that she was cast without any significant plausibility adjustments in the cast around her makes me suspect the production in general has jumped the shark. However, since they've updated the homepage to reference Rashad's weight-loss spokesperson gig, I'm wondering whether the script will get some tweaks, too. Like, maybe, instead of cancer, Violet can just have a weight problem. And she can turn to Jenny Craig to help kick her diet-pill addiction! A happy ending!

You might have noticed I haven't commented at all on the Tony nominations. This is partly because I'm busy, but mostly because I'm completely unexcited about this year's Tonys. Oh, I have a few thoughts here and there... But I can't remember when I've been so un-invested in who got nominated and who will win, especially in the musicals categories. It's all meh. And now, this headline on
Neil Patrick Harris to Host 63rd Annual Tony Awards
They really don't want me to watch this year, do they?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Irena's Vow, reviewed

I mentioned a while back that I had been to see Irena's Vow. The takeaway, in four words: Great story, lousy play. If you'd like more details, my review is in the May 8 issue of Commonweal -- and available to nonsubscribers online.
Playwright Dan Gordon focuses narrowly on Opdyke’s plan to save Jewish lives, cramming the events of several years into a bumpy ninety minutes. The result is a hurried exercise in Holocaust-drama shorthand: swastika armbands, yellow stars, uneven German accents. So many factual details have been removed, for expediency, that the plot feels less than credible. And though Tovah Feldshuh gives a commanding performance as Irena (Opdyke’s Polish name), she is constantly in motion, rushing from one plot point to the next. Irena addresses the audience almost constantly, but she never seems to stand still long enough for anyone to get to know her.
Opdyke's story is so remarkable it beggars belief -- and that's if you tell it accurately. The version in the play is particularly difficult to swallow because, as it turns out, it's playing fast and loose with the facts. (For example: How did they manage to hide a newborn baby without its cries being heard? The play never explains...probably because, in reality, they didn't. The Jews left the cellar where they were hiding before the baby was born.) Adam Feldman's review in Time Out New York, which I've just read, makes a good argument for why such fabrications are particularly troubling in a play that appropriates the solemn duty of Holocaust remembrance. My objections to the playwright's departing from the facts were less ethical than practical -- if you're going to change things, your changes should at least have some sort of dramatic advantage. Don't take out details that would make the story better, for heaven's sake. Anyway, historical inaccuracies aren't the only problem the play has: it's also hampered by a (mostly) weak cast, clunky dialogue, and (as Charles Isherwood rightly noted) an awkward sense of humor. Tovah Feldshuh's performance is quite good -- better than it has any right to be, considering she's nearing 60 and her character is around 20 -- but the play is otherwise a disappointment. The best thing about it, for me, was that it moved me to look for Opdyke's memoir, In My Hands, which is a much more thorough and rewarding telling of her story. I recommend the book, but skip the play.

P.S. Restricted View readers have a special fondness for writers getting defensive and embarrassing themselves on the Internet. In that spirit, I direct you to this post of Adam Feldman's on the TONY blog... with comments from Dan Gordon, responding to Feldman's (completely fair) criticisms. That's... no way to demonstrate your talent as a writer, Mr. Gordon.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Oh, lordy

Let's see, what have I not been blogging about lately? Celebrity sightings, for one: Swoosie Kurtz, in the audience at MTC's Ruined! Brian d'Arcy James, on his way to the Broadway to get into his Shrek makeup!

And then there are all the shows I've seen and not told you about. Let's start with a relatively recent one: Lincoln Center's revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, directed by Bartlett Sher. Like everything Sher directs, this production has a cool set and is lovely to look at. And, of course, that's not quite enough. Sher seems to have focused all his attention on making the comic parts come across. The play gets plenty of laughs -- at least, it did when I saw it -- but after a while the approach feels condescending and inappropriate. The production isn't taking the characters seriously. By the second act, the audience was whooping so loudly at every hint of romance, I felt like I was in the studio audience for a taping of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And, as you can imagine, that meant when the the play turned serious, the audience was left behind. There's a scene, late in the play, when Herald Loomis is slain by the spirit. He falls to the ground, writhing and babbling, and the people in the audience cackled and hooted, because they thought the whole thing was a comedy routine. Oh, those turn-of-the-century black people and their ridiculous spiritual practices!

In that atmosphere, the ending falls totally flat. I left thinking, "I'm still not sure what this play means, but I'm sure it's not whatever Bartlett Sher thinks it means." For enlightenment I turned to my man Michael Feingold at the Village Voice, brilliant as usual:

Monday, April 27, 2009

In memoriam

In memory of Bea Arthur, I would like to remind you of this excellent NBC 60th Anniversary celebration clip, which I posted almost 2 years ago. The clip has since been removed from YouTube (NBC won't let us have any fun!), but maybe you can recall what it was like to watch Nell Carter, Alfonso Ribeiro, Charlotte Rae, Soleil Moon Frye, et al. sing "Family" from Dreamgirls. Nobody came closer to making it work than Bea did. You see her enter, set down her bag of "groceries," turn to the camera and sing, "We are a family, like a giant tree..." and you think, wow, Bea Arthur could do just about anything with dignity and flair. What a treasure. RIP.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Caryl Churchill's "Play for Gaza"

[Cross-posted from dotCommonweal.]

I'm a week late in issuing this recommendation, but I encourage you to read the cover story from the April 13 issue of The Nation, "Tell Her the Truth" by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Kushner is a major American playwright (he won the Pulitzer for his two-part drama Angels in America), and Solomon is a perceptive theatre critic and the coeditor, with Kushner, of Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Paliestinian Conflict. Their article in The Nation is a careful study of British playwright Caryl Churchill's controversial work Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza.

Churchill is unquestionably a political provocateur. But it would be a serious mistake to leave it at that, for she is also a towering talent. Her plays (among them Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and A Number) fearlessly take on politically sensitive issues in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. At the same time, they tend to push boldly against established theatrical conventions. In recent years Churchill's plays have been especially spare and unsparing. I saw Far Away, a darkly fanciful meditation on the devastating effects of war, in London in 2001. The performance was 45 minutes long, but I have never seen a play whose impact was so direct and lasting. I get chills even now when I think of it.

Kushner and Solomon's article is valuable, I think, for several reasons: first, it directly confronts, and attempts to move past, the neuralgia that surrounds, and interferes with, any discussion of the situation in Israel and Palestine. Second, it clearly and carefully explains how a work of art, and especially a work of theater, can contribute to such a discussion, if it is permitted to function as art and not as a political tract. In this I think the article shares some ground with Cathleen Kaveny's recent piece for Commonweal about The Vagina Monologues and how Catholics might fruitfully respond to the popularity of that play on college campuses. A major difference, of course, is that (at least in the judgments of Kaveny and Kushner and Solomon), Churchill's work, unlike Ensler's, is an artistic achievement worthy of high esteem. This gives way to the third good reason to read the piece from The Nation: Kushner and Solomon's insightful reading of Seven Jewish Children as a dramatic text.
Though you'd never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn't also direct and incendiary. It is. It's disturbing, it's provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point.
Of course, the distress aroused by Seven Jewish Children has been, in many cases, completely detached from the actual content of the play. And reporting on the controversy tends to depend on unhelpfully rigid viewpoints (for example, a recent headline from the New York Times: "Readings and Talks for Pro-Gaza Playlet"). From Kushner and Solomon's article:
The now-rote hysteria with which non-Israeli criticism of Israel is met--most recently dismayingly effective in quashing Chas Freeman as President Obama's nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council--has a considerable and ignoble record of stifling opinion and preventing unintimidated, meaningful discussion, in the cultural sphere as well as in the political. The power of art to open us to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative.
One of the remarkable features of Caryl Churchill's recent plays is the scarcity of stage directions -- what Kushner and Solomon refer to as Churchill's "relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control." In this case, she has left everything but the words to the discretion of the artists who produce and perform the play.
The play consists of seven sequences, each composed of approximately twenty simple sentences, almost all of which begin with the words "Tell her" or "Don't tell her." There is no place-and-time setting specified for the sequences, and the lines are not assigned to specific characters. In fact, there isn't a character list or even a suggested number of performers, and the text looks less like a play than the poem it also is.
Churchill has been accused of writing a one-sided political tract, but in fact she has placed a great deal of faith in the insight and interpretive powers of directors, actors, and audiences.
Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it's essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.
If that sounds intriguing, you can download the play (in .pdf form, from the Royal Court Theatre website) and read it for yourself. It is brief -- only eight printed pages -- but there is much more to it than the controversy over its performance would suggest.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Also, torture

This morning I wrote a dotCommonweal post recommending Mark Danner's New York Review of Books article "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means." It's not a cheerful read, but I do think it's essential to understanding the situation we're in as a country, how we got here, and what's riding on the choices we make going forward.

Andrew Sullivan has been another valuable source and aggregator of information on this topic, especially since yesterday, when Obama released the "torture memos." So I've been checking in today to read Sullivan's roundups of reactions around the Web, and was quite surprised to find that the most recent one includes me! I assumed I'd have to provoke another fight with a New Yorker staff writer before I'd get the attention of the Dish again. I'm certainly no expert on law or foreign policy, but the Danner article (and his previous one, which I linked to at dotComm) helps to fill in a lot of necessary background.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What's your NPR name?

Steve Inskeep... Kai Rysdal... Dina Temple-Raston... There's a hypnotic, even totemic quality to the names of National Public Radio personalities. What about you? If you reported in the field for Morning Edition, how would you sign off? Your boring old actual name probably can't compete. But thanks to the efforts of Lianablog (linked from the NPR culture blog Monkey See), there's an easy way for you to build your very own NPR-worthy name.
Here’s how it works: You take your middle initial and insert it somewhere into your first name. Then you add on the smallest foreign town you’ve ever visited.
Genius! From New York, this is Molelie Ross-on-Wye. Back to you...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Come on, come on, push!

For me, this video captures something of the joy of Easter -- and the arrival of spring. (Make sure you have your sound turned on.)

Little D Hatching Out of the Egg from Class 1-208 on Vimeo.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

You keep using that word...

Does anyone else remember hearing that The Office was going to have a spinoff series? I think this was announced after last season ended. At the time they said the new series would premiere following the Super Bowl... Is this ringing a bell for you?

At first I worried about what this new show would do to the original. Specifically, I worried that this "spinoff" would follow the further adventures of Ryan. It became plain sometime last season that the show's writers (or at least B.J. Novak) believed Ryan, the onetime temp, was a much, much more interesting character than he actually was. On the other hand, I thought, Oh well, a spinoff starring Ryan is a show I don't have to watch, so that's a plus. But then I heard nothing more, and I forgot all about it... Until I started seeing ads, while watching The Office, for Parks and Recreation, the new documentary-style sitcom that premieres tonight. And I thought, wait a minute, is this that "spinoff" they were talking about? If so, I thought, it seems pretty plain to me that they made that announcement before they had any real idea of what they planned to write. Because this show is obviously not a spinoff. For one thing, Rashida Jones -- aka Karen from the Stamford branch of Dunder Mifflin -- appears in Parks & Recreation playing an entirely different character. That's against spinoff rules (Law & Order notwithstanding). In fact, it's a direct contradiction of the third definition of "spinoff" in the American Heritage Dictionary: "Something derived from an earlier work, such as a television show starring a character who had a popular minor role in another show."

I bring all this up because I just read Alessandra Stanley's review of Parks & Recreation in today's New York Times. Here's how it begins:
The czar had a winter palace and a summer palace, city mouse visited country mouse, and “Green Acres” was the rustic reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Spinoffs, like second homes, can be refreshing, and some have been quite popular even when they are not based on a geographic move like “Frasier” but a shift to the opposite sex, as in “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.” Above all, it’s important to remember that NBC’s “Office” is itself a spinoff of sorts, an American adaptation of Ricky Gervais’s original British series.
Is it just me, or does Stanley seem not to understand what a "spinoff" is? I know she has a reputation for getting things wrong. But still: she writes about television for a living, and yet she seems to believe that Green Acres was a spinoff of The Beverly Hillbillies, which it wasn't. Unless she's applying the second AHD definition: "Something, such as a product, that is derived from something larger and more or less unrelated; a byproduct." But a television review should probably be sticking to the industry's particular meaning of the word, no? (In fact, Green Acres was related to Hillbillies in much the same way that The Office and Parks are related -- more on that later -- but it was a spinoff in the technical sense of another show, Petticoat Junction -- or so Wikipedia says.) The "second homes" comparison is a pretty classic example of the NYT's tendency to forget that not everyone summers in the Hamptons (do you ever get the feeling they're doing it on purpose, just to toy with us?). But: city mouse and country mouse? What the... They're two different characters in the same story, for heaven's sake. Allow me to help out: Mork and Mindy. Joanie Loves Chachi. Lou Grant; Rhoda; Phyllis. Those are spinoffs. Your examples -- with the exception of Frasier -- are not spinoffs. And neither is Parks and Recreation.

Stanley was apparently trying to set up an "indoor/outdoor" theme so that she could go on to write this:
So there is really nothing shameful about an outdoor version of an indoor comedy. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” which begins on Thursday, is charming and funny in its own right and in its own way, even though it relies on the exact same mock-documentary format and deadpan parody as “The Office.”
First of all, I am of the opinion that a professional writer should never employ the phrase "the exact same." But perhaps the copy editor who should have fixed it was busy trying to figure out what "the czar" has to do with anything. Anyway, if you're wondering whether the review ever clarifies the relationship between The Office and Parks, I'll spare you the suspense: it doesn't. (For the record, that relationship seems to be some shared creative personnel and proximity in the NBC schedule.) The rest of the review is a slightly painful exercise in free association about women in sitcoms (and in politics, for some reason) -- an attempt to articulate why Amy Poehler's appearance in this one is groundbreaking. The longer you read, the less you're convinced that it's saying anything coherent. I don't recommend it.

I must have missed the customary flattering arts-section article about the show (by Dave Itzkoff) that ran a couple weeks ago. It clarifies things a little -- especially in its (intentionally sarcastic?) headline, "It's Not 'The Office.' The Boss Is a Woman."
Ask almost anyone at “Parks and Recreation” what the new series is about, and the answer, first and foremost, is that it’s not a spinoff of “The Office.” But the similarities are pervasive. Like Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, on “The Office,” Ms. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a clueless if well-intentioned middle manager who undermines her own ambitions and misuses street slang. And a glance at the “Parks” creative roster — from its producers, who helped create the American version of “The Office”; to the writers who were hired from their “Office” spec scripts; to the actor, the director and the editor who were all recruited from that show — will tell you that “The Office” is an undeniable part of the new show’s DNA.
Fair enough. But maybe the article ought to note that the "spinoff" misperception likely stems from the fact that NBC announced, a while back, that they were planning to roll out a spinoff of The Office. You know?

In fact, as Itzkoff tells it, what they were really planning could more accurately have been described as "to replicate The Office's success."
While [The Office's U.S. adapter Greg] Daniels and [The Office producer Michael] Schur spent months batting around ideas, they were also lining up cast members, including Rashida Jones, an alumna of “The Office,” and Aziz Ansari, of the sketch show “The Human Giant,” who were given few details about the project. “They were like, ‘It’s either going to be a spinoff of ‘The Office’ or a totally separate thing,’ ” Mr. Ansari said. “It could have been like, ‘Yeah, so it’s about you and Vin Diesel running a day care center together, and then at night you’re vigilantes, and you fight crime.’”
For what it's worth, I'm not really planning to watch Parks (even when I'm home, which I won't be tonight -- Holy Thursday and all). The commercials are a bit too "like The Office, but not as funny" for my tastes. But I expected The Office to be terrible, so who knows? As long as it's not about Ryan the Former Temp, I might give it a shot.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Oy vey

As I mentioned, I saw Irena's Vow this week. The play is based on the true story of Irene Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman who saved the lives of several Jews during the Shoah, making it an obvious topic of interest for Commonweal! You'll have to wait for my take to appear in the magazine, but in the meantime I'd like to call your attention to the interview with Tovah Feldshuh in today's New York Times. There's a lot to love about this article, but I was especially taken with the last two paragraphs:
[Feldshuh's] only impediment with “Irena’s Vow,” she said, was trying to understand the Catholic belief in Jesus as God incarnate.

“In my tradition,” she said, “it’s forbidden to engage in idol worship, and I wondered how I would approach Irena’s idea of Christ, and that he is the son of God. In her modesty she believed she had help, she felt surrounded by the Christ. I tend to think more along the scientific terms of a universal energy force.”
Sometimes it's interesting to learn all about how actors approach their character work. And's better not to know.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Inner City Pressure

Seen on the uptown 1 train last week: Greg! "Grig" Greg, from the New Zealand Consulate on The Flight of the Conchords! Pretty exciting. I was going to link to the show's website, but it's dismayingly lame. (Two words -- well, two abbreviated words: Fan vids.) So I won't. You might enjoy the MySpace page, though. And speaking of obsessive fans with too much time on their hands: did you know Mel has a blog?

Oh, and, uh, "Grig" is really Tony Award winner Frank Wood (Best Featured Actor, Side Man, 1999). So that's pretty cool also.

Things the ladies sitting behind me at last night's performance of Irena's Vow said out loud while the show was in progress

[When Tovah Feldshuh entered] "There she is."

[In the middle of a scene] "You know who she reminds me of?" [lengthy exchange about which actress on which TV show Feldshuh reminds this lady of. Finally:] "The girl from Another World, that's it."

"I knew he was gonna say that."

"Ohhhh, she can't keep the baby."

"He loves her."

[After a character onstage says, "On one condition..." and pauses meaningfully] "...Marry me." [A bad guess, by the way.]

"You get the gist." [?]

"Oh no, he's not gonna kill himself!"

All of these come directly from my notes on the show. Since the four ladies behind me were speaking as loudly as any of the actors in front of me, I figured I might as well write down their contributions to the script. (Which don't accurately reflect its content, by the way--no spoilers here.) I have not included the many, many exchanges that went like this: "What?" "[Someone else repeats whatever was just said onstage]" "Oh." And there were also several moments when something very mildly interesting happened in the play, and the women behind me reacted with a loud "Hm" or "Oh" -- but all four of them would do this in succession, so that I and everyone around me heard, "Oh. OH. Oh. Ohhhh."

Instead of telling people to turn off their phones -- which never works anyway (someone's phone rang during this show and they didn't even try to turn it off! It rang six or seven times!) -- I think preshow announcements should say, "If you should have a thought during tonight's performance, please remember that it's OK not to vocalize everything that comes into your head. In fact, when you're in a theatre watching a live performance, you're encouraged to keep your thoughts to yourself." Spread the word! Tell your friends!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

You can talk at home for free

Why did the woman in the row behind us feel the need to narrate everything that was happening onstage to her teenage son? He could see and hear. He seemed to be of average intelligence. And it's not like In the Heights is all that hard to follow. Sure, there's a lot of Spanish, but this woman didn't seem to know any Spanish (thank God). She was describing the most obvious things, and doing so out loud. And I mean loud -- not even in a normal conversational tone, but louder, since she was trying to make herself heard over the show that was happening onstage. For me, the final straw came during "Benny's Dispatch," when Benny made reference to the "GWB" and I heard this woman shout, "...THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE." I was like, Lady, I'm sure you're very proud of yourself for knowing the lingo, but it's not crucial to the plot, so maybe you could refrain from showing off to your child until the show is over.

Of course, when I say that was "the final straw," all I mean is that's when I decided not to feel bad about turning around and giving these people a dirty look. But as you might have guessed, they weren't the type to notice or respond to dirty looks (and they were getting a bunch from the people sitting much closer than I was). Quite frankly, I'm not sure this lady realized there were other people present. So the patter kept up, all through the show. And I kept thanking God that In the Heights is such a loud show. Although, once I thought about it, I realized I'm not sure where to draw the line between cause and effect: was it the volume of the show (and the actors' mics in particular) that made this woman feel like it was OK to yell whatever came into her head? If she'd been doing that in a quieter theatre, the whole audience would have been shushing her after the first ninety seconds. On the other hand, maybe consistently noisy audiences are the reason the show's volume is turned up so high. This possibility occurred to me as we settled in for the second act, and I could hear a woman across the aisle open a bag of chips (why in the world would a theatre sell people chips?!) and start munching loudly. Then her cell phone rang, and she had to rummage through her bag to turn it off, making the bag of chips go crinkle, crinkle. Then back to eating. And then the phone rang AGAIN. I was just about ready to throw my program at her when the orchestra really kicked in... and after that I couldn't hear her anymore.

Speaking of obnoxious behavior at musicals, The Onion has a truly harrowing account of a situation I think we can all relate to: Oh No, Performers Coming Into Audience. Shudder.