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.