Saturday, December 18, 2010

Loose rei[g]ns

I've noticed typos here and there in The New Yorker over the past year or so. At first I brushed aside the conclusion that things are getting looser over there; perhaps I'm just getting better at this, I thought. (You don't turn off the error-detecting software when you're out of the office.) I try not to freak out too much about the impending Death of Print Journalism, for obvious sanity-preserving reasons. But then, in the December 13 issue, two mistakes in the same article! This is alarming. Are there any full-time copy editors and proofreaders left at Conde Nast?

The article, for those of you playing along at home, was John Lahr's profile of Elia Kazan, "Method Man." On page 91, third column, a missing close-quote:
it was Kazan, newly promoted from stage manager to actor, who shouted the play’s famous last lines—“Strike! Strike!! Strike!!!—which became the battle cry of the thirties.
And on page 93, first column, the true mark of a copy editor asleep at the switch: homophone confusion!
Kazan’s straight talk cajoled, provoked, cudgelled; it kept Williams on narrative track and reigned in his lyrical excess.
And I was able to copy and paste both of those from The New Yorker's website, where they still haven't been corrected. O tempora! O mores!

Meanwhile, the December 20 & 27 issue is one of those double issues I spend half as much time reading. It feels like half the staff is already on vacation and the other half wishes they were. First of all, Ian Frazier is peerless and wonderful, but these lame "Cursing Mommy" pieces -- does anybody find them funny? And we also get a bonus not-funny "humor" piece, "Santaleaks" -- really? Also, am I the only one who noticed that the cartoons on page 54 and page 68 are the same joke? In both, someone is about to be executed. Page 54 caption: "His highness is changing his relationship status." Page 68 caption: "I'm about to enter an area of poor reception." (Technological phrases in incongruous settings, am I right?!) At least put them in different issues.

However, you will doubtless be pleased to know that this same issue has a feature article by our old friend John Colapinto. It is a work of breathtaking and unquestionable genius. I haven't read it. So time-saving to know I needn't bother! (P.S. If you haven't seen that old post, or it's been a while, you really ought to check it out again. The entertainment value never wanes.)

P.S. Speaking of works of genius, you can read my review of Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story in the latest Commonweal -- but only if you subscribe.

Friday, December 3, 2010

In praise of women

I don't know about the summer night, but the gods were truly smiling on me the evening I went back to see A Little Night Music. I'd been putting it off, trying to come to terms with my mixed emotions. On one hand: Bernadette as Desiree! What could be more tantalizing? On the other hand: this thoroughly disappointing production! What I wouldn't give for a do-over. Erase the memory of this whole thing (especially Catherine Zeta-Jones's hilarious, horrifying Tony Awards performance) and start over, with a production custom-built for Bernadette and directed by, oh, anybody else. As they say, it would have been wonderful. Alas, that will never be; if I want to see Bernadette it's Nunn's Night Music or none at all.

Circumstances conspired to give me the best possible experience, and for that I'm very grateful (I only wish I could guarantee that you would have the same circumstances align for your trip -- and you'll have to hurry, because the show is closing January 9). First of all, unlike the last time -- when I got a rear mezzanine seat and paid too much for it -- I got a half-price center orchestra seat for a Tuesday-night performance, and was delighted to find the seats in front of mine unoccupied. Talk about an unrestricted view. When I entered the lobby I checked the "At this Performance" postings, holding my breath -- any time I have a ticket to see Bernadette, I arrive half-convinced it's too good to be true and she will not be appearing that day. But there were no understudies listed for Desiree or Madame Armfeldt, and -- oh happy day -- there was an understudy listed for Anne! I had quite literally been dreading seeing Ramona Mallory again, having found her performance "actively painful" the first time around, and fate had offered me a reprieve. I practically skipped to my seat.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's an honor just to be nominated

Some years ago, while trying to pass long hours of downtime at a freelance copyediting job, I stumbled on The Comics Curmudgeon, a blog dedicated to one of my own favorite pursuits -- exposing and mocking the inexcusably low quality of many (most?) newspaper comics. I read my way through the archives that week, and I've been reading faithfully ever since. (I wrote about my joy here, and also here.)

One of the things I like about The Comics Curmudgeon are the cheerfully hilarious comments -- it's among the few blogs where the comments actually add value. (Although reading them can also be a chore, now that they routinely run into the hundreds on a given post.) Recognizing this, proprietor Josh began a "Comment of the Week" feature to call attention to particularly noteworthy contributions. I am proud to say I've been a runner-up a few times in the past (I boasted about one such occasion here; you can see a few examples here), but I've never taken the top honors until now. Behold, my day of glory.

Mark Trail, for those of you who don't know, is a comic strip about a park-ranger-type guy (or "well-known outdoorsman," although I believe his official profession is "nature journalist"). He goes around stumbling onto mildly nefarious plots to harm nature and busting them up, usually with his fists. The strip is the work of Jack Elrod, who is very good at drawing animals and not so great at drawing people, or writing stories or dialogue. His pursuit of the comic-strip form is pretty obviously just an excuse to draw some animals. As Josh has faithfully chronicled, Mark Trail himself seems to suffer from some kind of mental/social disorder; he speaks as though it pains him, yells for no reason, and interacts as little as possible with other human beings. Still, he has proven capable of great feats of heroism, and he knows a lot about nature, and licorice. (This recent strip is a perfect example of some of Mark Trail's most reliable tropes: bad guy kicking a helpless animal; Mark addressing the problem with his avenging fists; lots of shouting all around.) If it weren't for Josh I wouldn't even know Mark Trail existed, so this little triumph is a reminder of how very much richer my life has been these past few years. Thanks, Josh!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chair situation resolved; everyone resume shopping

I know you've been dying to hear how the whole office-chair debacle turned out. Well, I'm pleased to say that I ended up being assisted by not one but two helpful people at Crate & Barrel, and after more emails back and forth they ended up having a replacement height-adjustment mechanism sent to me. It arrived this week, and it looked identical to the one I received originally (they told me they have changed the design), but I was hopeful that this one would work. So I immediately set about dismantling the chair in order to swap out the old piece for the new one.

This is where the story gets embarrassing (and probably boring, but I figure I owe you all the details).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Not just another "Nunsense"

Now online at Commonweal: "A Vow of Parody," my review of Charles Busch's latest play, The Divine Sister. A taste:
Some of those in the audience the night I saw The Divine Sister might have been expecting, or hoping for, antireligion satire along the lines of Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But Busch’s target isn’t the church, as some have assumed. Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently cited the New York Times’s favorable coverage of The Divine Sister—“yet another tiresome production making fun of Catholic consecrated women”—as further evidence of the paper’s anti-Catholic bias. (He seemed mainly to dislike the production photos.) The weekly magazine Time Out New York is not helping by recommending the show with this blurb: “Heaven help us! Master of drag and camp Charles Busch is back and he’s making fun of nuns!” That makes The Divine Sister sound like a naughtier version of Nunsense—something the world definitely doesn’t need. In fact, the Nunsense take on religious life, as insulting as it is affectionate, is part of what Busch is spoofing. The Divine Sister parodies a specific depiction of nuns that is itself a parody of Catholicism.
There's a partial indulgence in it for you if you read the whole thing.

Photo by David Rodgers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Slitzweitz, Tom Bosley

I watched a couple episodes of Happy Days last night in memory of Tom Bosley. (And boy, if you want to see some strange directorial choices, season one of Happy Days is a great place to look.) But I must say I'm disappointed that his obituary in the New York Times doesn't mention the role of his that figured most prominently in my formative years: his turn as the voice of David the Gnome, bringing warmth and gravitas to what was otherwise a cheap, imported cartoon with not much to recommend it beyond the very memorable theme song. I guess it's left to me to offer that tribute. Slitzweitz, old friend.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Release the doves

Some weeks ago I was on my way to a Sunday matinee, slightly dreading the trip to Shubert Alley because I had heard about a hooray-for-Broadway concert happening in Times Square that afternoon. But I was very pleasantly surprised to discover, when I turned from Eighth Avenue onto 44th Street, that the block was closed to traffic and the crowds were behind a barrier at the other end. That meant the street itself was virtually empty, and I could walk right down the middle of it if I pleased. All around me delighted tourists were posing for pictures in the middle of the street. (Of course, tourists do that anyway, even when there's traffic headed straight for them. But these people were not risking their necks to get the shot.) I stopped to admire the facades of the theatres along that block, which I never get to do when I'm hurrying to make a show. It was marvelous. If only the pedestrian-mall revolution could be extended to the side streets, theatregoing would be a lot more fun.

At the end of the block were more police barricades, and the stage for this concert was set up just beyond them. The route I had taken, in an effort to avoid Times Square, had brought me very close to the stage -- but behind the seats, so I couldn't see it. I could certainly hear it, however, and when I got close enough I could watch the performers on huge screens. Before I was halfway down the block I recognized the voice blaring through the sound system as Marin Mazzie's -- I'd know her anywhere -- singing that "I Miss the Mountains" song from Next to Normal (which must be a hundred times better with her in it). I got near the end of the block just as she arrived at the chorus, and when she belted "IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII miss the MOUN-TAINS!" the sound of it startled a whole flock of pigeons into taking to the skies right in front of me. It was a perfect kickoff to the Broadway season.

A couple of other sightings for you: sometime after that, I saw Victoria Clark crossing the street toward me, toting groceries. Doesn't that seem like something she should no longer have to do for herself, now that she is a bona fide theatre goddess? Surely she could get an adoring intern to go to the supermarket for her. I won't tell you the neighborhood, since presumably she lives nearby and that would be creepy. But I will say that, not far from there and not very long thereafter, I saw Rebecca Luker, also carring groceries. One more "diva" and we could arrange one of those awful Andrew Lloyd Webber medleys: "Love Changes Everything," anyone?

Friday, October 8, 2010

I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair

Gather round, children; it's time for another dissatisfied customer story! [UPDATE: with a happy, slightly sheepish ending.]

A little more than a week ago I bought this chair from Crate & Barrel, via their website. It was delivered on Friday morning; I waited at home for the delivery guy and spent half an hour or so assembling the chair. Aside from the awkward placement of a few bolts (which forced me to screw them in using half-turns of the allen wrench), the assembly was easy. The base came with the wheels already attached, which was a relief, because the last time I bought a desk chair I had to put in the casters myself. It was a struggle. As I recall, it ultimately took a hammer -- and the assistance of my roommate's boyfriend -- to get the job done. Anyway, I got the chair all put together. The last part I attached was the height adjustment mechanism that goes on the bottom of the seat. I noticed that the piece I was holding didn't quite match the one pictured in the assembly instructions, but I didn't think it would matter. I put the seat on the base, and that's when I discovered that it did matter. The one pictured on the instruction sheet, and on the website, has a long, straight lever; the one I received has a lever bent at a 90-degree angle. If you try to pull the lever up to raise the height of the chair, it knocks into the bottom of the seat. No height adjustment. It doesn't work at all.

Just as I was discovering this, the phone rang: it was so-and-so from Crate & Barrel, calling to find out how the delivery went! So I told her the delivery was fine, but the merchandise was not. She was really just calling to make sure the delivery guy had shown up, so she transferred me to a woman in customer service, who said, "Whaddaya mean it doesn't match?" when I described the problem with the adjustment mechanism. Then that woman transferred me to a "furniture specialist," who was much more pleasant. She put me on hold to find out whether there had been any other reported problems with the Landon chair, and she came back to report that there had not. "So the only thing we can do is switch out the chair," she said.

"You can't just send a new adjustment mechanism?" I said.

"No, we have to send a whole new chair and exchange it for that one," she said.

"So...I have to disassemble this whole thing and put it back in the box?" She assured me they don't expect it to be packaged exactly as it arrived -- which is good, because it arrived in a bunch of smaller boxes, and most of those were already torn or broken down. (The main one, currently taking up way too much room in our apartment, is pictured above.) Oh, and also: the chair was now on backorder, so I would have to wait a couple of weeks until the new one could be delivered.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I'm not quite dead...

There's just one problem with Billy Collins's "What if St. Sebastian didn't die from his arrow wounds?" poem on page 88 of the October 8 New Yorker:

St. Sebastian didn't die from his arrow wounds.

The funny thing is, I don't usually read the poems. But my radar went off, I guess: another knowing reference to the trappings of religion that turns out to be not-so-knowing. And as you know, when it comes to The New Yorker, no nit is too small for me to pick! I indulged my pedantic side further at dotCommonweal.

P.S. This reminds me of the not-quite-right Christmas card illustration I noted a few years ago.

UPDATE, 10/25: Marissa Bidilla has discovered another problem with Collins's poem -- or at least an earlier version of exactly the same mistake. And this time it's Tom Stoppard whose cleverness has gotten ahead of his research.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Mike Barnicle, Fraud and Plagiarist"

I want to thank Tom Scocca for reassuring me that I'm not the only one who remembers that Mike Barnicle got caught plagiarizing and fabricating in his Boston Globe column, and lied about it, and was supposed to have resigned from journalism in disgrace.

I was a kid when the most blatant instance of plagiarism happened, but this was a journalism scandal I could understand. I saw Barnicle's syndicated column in my hometown newspaper now and then, so I knew how dimwitted and phoned-in it was as a matter of course. The way I saw it, there were really two facets to the scandal: first, that he'd stolen a bunch of jokes from George Carlin without giving any sort of credit; and second, that his column was regularly so pointless that a collection of apparently original Carlinesque one-liners was an unobjectionable use of the space. (The Boston Phoenix put it this way, back in 1998: "It's not so much that he copied Carlin as that he writes a lazy, second-rate column, using it to reward his friends, punish his enemies, and bore the hell out of just about everyone else.") The sort of laziness that would make someone steal to fill a waste-of-space opinion column about nothing in particular was hard for me to fathom.

And that was just one example. Barnicle had a history of plagiarism -- which I guess is not so surprising; if you hold the standards of your profession in that much contempt, what's stopping you? And of course he wasn't the only opinion columnist to ever craft a "column" entirely out of other people's ideas. But there are ways of doing it that are professionally acceptable. (Remember when Maureen Dowd got caught stealing a joke* from Talking Points Memo? Her defense was that she got it from a friend and didn't realize the friend was quoting someone else. In other words, she basically announced that she canvasses her friends for cutesy political punchlines to copy and paste into her terrible column. And that's the permissible way to fill 700 words!)  Barnicle plainly did not know or care to learn how to properly credit sources. Yet even after he was exposed definitively, I kept seeing Mike Barnicle's name, or face, in major media outlets. People kept treating him like an important commentator with something to say. He's managed to edit his Wikipedia entry (I assume) so that there's no mention of plagiarism or scandal in the introduction. And now I guess he's all over this new Ken Burns documentary about baseball, which I don't plan to watch, but seriously: stop giving authority to noted liar Mike Barnicle! Or: what Tom Scocca said.

Scocca links to Salon's Joan Walsh, who points out that Barnicle's wife's connections may have something to do with his prominence in The Tenth Inning. But here's what has to say about his involvement:
Mark Feeney from the Boston Globe says, “Mike Barnicle, who toiled for many years at this newspaper, serves as representative of Red Sox Nation. One of his great strengths on both page and screen has always been what a potent and vivid presence he has.”
That's one way to put it. Red Sox Nation must be so proud.

* CORRECTION: Since I'm coming down hard on other people's errors, I ought to admit my own: it wasn't a joke Dowd lifted from TPM; it was a cogent political observation. So maybe that's what she customarily gets from her "friends."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Light and sweet

The first time you see In the Heights you're mostly just puzzled by the false starts and stumbles in the plot. Everyone agrees that it's formulaic, but the real problem is that it doesn't follow through on the formulas it adopts. I mean, formulas are formulas for a reason. It's sort of like watching an improv performance where the actors aren't picking up on each other's cues: you think you know where the story is going, and then it just...doesn't.

If you go back to In the Heights a second time -- at least if you're me -- you'll find yourself attempting to figure out where the plotting goes wrong, and the more you think about it the more confused you'll become. "Didn't this show have a long workshop period?" You'll think to yourself. "What in the world did they spend all that time doing, if it wasn't asking obvious questions like, 'Why can't Nina just go someplace a little more affordable than Stanford? Like, any other college?' or 'Why does the lottery win end up being almost irrelevant, when it seems like it ought to drive the whole story?'" It's maddening -- but then a really good number will come along and you'll forget all that for a while. The real dramatic tension and emotional content is all in the songs, and maybe it never goes anywhere, but it's moving just the same.

Last week I made my third visit to In the Heights -- I blogged about my first trip here at Restricted View, and I reviewed it a year later for Commonweal (when I compared it, very favorably, to the terrible Broadway revival of West Side Story). The musical, while still one of the better musical-theatre experiences on Broadway for my money, is starting to show signs of neglect. It could use a visit from the (or any) director and choreographer, to spruce up some of the musical staging -- and light a fire under a few performers, too.

Friday, September 17, 2010

God would like us to be joyful

Musical theatre is like any other art form: some people "get it" -- that is, are touched by it -- and some don't/aren't. That said, some shows make the case for the form much better than others, and Fiddler on the Roof (by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein) is one of those representative shows. See Fiddler and you ought to understand why it makes sense, at least sometimes, to tell stories in the "book, song, and dance" format. The show is just about foolproof. I've seen at least one shaggy high-school production and a similarly raggedy dinner-theatre mounting, and both were emotionally powerful in their way. And then there was the 2004 Broadway revival directed by David Leveaux, memorable only because it somehow managed to do away with all the warmth and joy the material offers: it was Fiddler on ice.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (of In the Heights fame) knows all that, which I guess is why he chose a number from Fiddler to liven up his wedding reception. Dave Itzkoff posted the video at the New York Times Arts Beat blog, and it's well worth watching if you're a sucker for musicals (or weddings). I admit, by the time the "Russian" in-laws made their entrance, I was teary at the joyful absurdity of it all.

The wedding (mazel tov, by the way!) was also written up in the "Vows" column last weekend. But I have another little bit of color to add to the story. Last year I was a guest at a gala dinner in support of Symphony Space, and in the course of the evening they presented awards to a number of Broadway personalities, one of whom was Lin-Manuel Miranda. (The other honorees were Brian Stokes Mitchell and Donna Murphy... I was in hog heaven.) Miranda's award was presented by Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler. And, knowing that this would be the case, Miranda had come prepared to tell us all about how he got his start performing in Fiddler back in grade school -- a little Puerto Rican boy playing a Russian Jew ("At three I started Hebrew school, at ten I learned a trade..."). But what he wasn't prepared for was Harnick's presentation: in honor of Miranda's freestyle hip-hop roots, Sheldon Harnick composed and delivered a "rap." It was really more of a patter song (sans music), but it was impeccable and highly entertaining. And it left Miranda speechless: "Sheldon Harnick just rapped for me!" he gasped when he got to the mic.

Just a couple reminders that "Broadway" and "musical theater" are not synonyms -- and the best of the latter often happens in spite of the former.

I made a repeat visit to In the Heights this past weekend, about which more soon (UPDATE: está aquí). In the meantime, enjoy this previous highlight from the Lin-Manuel Miranda archives.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

You know my name

(Cross-posted at Hey Dullblog.)

You've probably seen the Experimental Jetset T-shirt design with the Beatles' first names written in Helvetica. It is "an attempt to create an archetypical shirt by stripping down the concept of a rock band to its bare essentials," according to the creators, and I own it in limited-edition tote-bag form (as seen here), thanks to my fashionable friend Betz. I carry it around the city a lot, because it's a perfect just-in-case-I-buy-something bag (holds a lot; folds up small). And because it's attention-getting, people tend to stare at me, or rather at it, which is slightly unsettling until I realize they're just admiring the way my bag "underline[s] the inner logic of graphic design itself" (again, per the designers).

Yesterday I was standing at the corner of 57th Street waiting to cross and I noticed a woman admiring the bag. She seemed pretty excited about it -- excited enough, in fact, that she approached me to say, "I love your bag!" That's when it got weird.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bad Day at the Mamet Court

In April 2003, I saw Eddie Izzard in his Broadway debut, starring in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. He was terrific, and so was the show, but I'm really only bringing it up now because I want to share with you his bio from the Playbill of that show:
EDDIE IZZARD (Bri). West End: Henry IX, The Two Losers, Geoffrey of Kent, The Death of Everything (Brixton drama nomination), Give Me Some Soap Mister, Jack and His Bench (from the German), Let Go of My Head, What! (RSC), Bad Day at the Kangaroo Court, That's My Lung, Good God Give Me Gravy (Trevor) and Sod Off.
Funny, right? I bring it up to contrast it with his bio from the Playbill for David Mamet's Race (which closed last week, but that's okay because I wasn't going to recommend it anyway). That one plays it straight, listing his legitimate stage credits (including his Tony nomination for Joe Egg) and his film roles from Secret Agent to Valkyrie. It mentions the FX TV series The Riches -- although describing it as "hugely successful" is a stretch, and I say that as someone who loved that show (or at least the first season) passionately. But one little thing goes unmentioned, and that is Izzard's career as a highly successful and very influential stand-up comedian. If you had your own special on HBO, wouldn't you mention it in your official bio? I would. If I were responsible for something as terrific as Dress to Kill I'd never stop talking about it. Certainly it would enter the conversation long before My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I can understand his wanting to emphasize his legit-actor credentials, now that they aren't all imaginary, but it does seem like a bio that fails to mention his stand-up career (except with the word "comedian" -- as in "comedian, actor, political activist and endurance athlete" -- in a plug for the film Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story) is giving you an oddly incomplete answer to the question "Who is this Izzard guy?"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


What do the editors of Commonweal have to say about the controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque"? I am so glad you asked. Our latest editorial is online now.

P.S. There's lots more on the subject at dotCommonweal, as noted at the Daily Dish: hey, that's me!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The doctor is out

The recent collapse of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio show is a fascinating spectacle. I can't bring myself to listen to the audio -- I can hardly read the transcript without looking away in embarrassment. And then there's the self-justifying pity party she's throwing for herself in the media. And then there are the "She had it coming" responses, some of them very perceptive, like this one by Jesse Singal at The New Republic. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here -- and Dr. Laura is wrong about what they are (no, the white-people-are-the-real-victims act has not been vindicated, and no, the "first amendment" is not under assault, as Linda Holmes explains so capably). Here's the lesson I'd like to highlight:

People who give advice professionally, in public, are not really there to help. They are there to entertain.

An advice columnist for a newspaper/magazine/website is supposed to churn out entertaining copy. His/her job is not to serve the individuals who write in with their problems. His/her job is to be pithy and fun to read. (This is one illustration of the larger reality that mainstream journalists work to please their sponsors, not to inform the public; for more on this phenomenon, see Jonathan Schwarz.) I rarely come away from an advice column feeling enlightened, and in fact I'm often frustrated by what seems to me to be a terrible answer. Advice columnists often seem to be missing the point; they'll zero in on a minor detail in the letter and address that in their response, or they'll interpret the situation in a way that seems unwarranted, leaving me wondering whether they cut the relevant details out of the letter or just made them up out of nowhere. But I read them anyway. I'm a sucker for "Dear Prudence" at Slate, and not just because I love that song. (I draw the line at watching the videos, though -- I'm not that desperate for entertainment.) Like many other advice-givers, Emily Yoffe gives answers that tell you more about her than they do about how to fix problems. But she writes well, and she's quick on her feet, which makes the "chat" editions particularly entertaining. And that's really all I want. Which is good, because that is really all she's there for.

The dynamic is more obvious if you've ever picked up a women's general-interest or fashion magazine. They all have advice columns, and in my experience, they are all terrible. Wit is not as easy as it looks. Neither is wisdom. And it's hard to shake the feeling that the letters are fabricated, making the whole thing a pointless waste of time. (Would anyone really write to these magazines with their problems? You've seen the "letters to the editor" they publish, right? If not, this recurring feature at The Awl will give you the idea.)

Some time ago Sarah Bunting started an advice column called The Vine on her blog, at least partly in response to the fact that professional/syndicated advice columnists tend to be awful. She's very good at the actually-giving-pertinent-advice thing, for sure, but it's obvious that her success is not just a matter of skill; it's also a matter of format. She's not tasked with filing 1000 words that include at least three questions and answers. She can reproduce as much of the letter as is necessary to make the problem intelligible, and answer it at as much length as the situation requires. The result is still entertaining, but it's not only entertaining, and the entertainment value does not depend on her making an example out of the letter-writer. I mention it because the contrast is instructive -- look at how that advice column works to understand how most advice columns do not work.

The only popularly distributed advice columns that are actually service-oriented are the ones that give medical advice or weightlifting advice -- the ones where expertise in a specific field is sought and dispensed. ("Dear Dr. Brazelton, I have chronic eczema between my toes...") Those are also much drier and less entertaining to read, and they're less common, because you can't farm them out to some pseudonymous editorial assistant.

Which brings me to Dr. Laura.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My new favorite humor magazine

The subhead/kicker/deck on this article in The Economist made me laugh out loud:
Cheerleading in Court
Go Team!
A federal judge rules that leaping sexily about is not a sport

Friday, August 6, 2010

Investigate this for me, would you?

I have written before about my weakness for true-crime television, which I still indulge from time to time. I'm getting to the point, though, where I recognize people on the Investigation Discovery ads that show clips from the programs, and that's never a good feeling. "Oh, I've seen this brutal murder before."

Anyway, last time I wrote about how the host of 48 Hours: Hard Evidence, Maureen Maher, is always narrating from some incipient crime scene (sometimes it's just a green-screen projection, I'm pretty sure) and asked: What's up with that? I still don't know, but every once in a while someone ends up here because they have the same question. So now I would like to bring up something else that's been bothering me -- and is another indicator that I'm spending too much time watching reruns of 48 Hours.

If you're Catholic, you probably know the Marty Haugen song "Shepherd Me, O God." It's a setting of the 23rd Psalm in very wide use in American Catholic parishes (and probably beyond). If you don't know it, it sounds like this. So here's the crazy part: more than once, while watching 48 Hours, I have heard them use this very Marty Haugen tune as spooky background music. And no, it doesn't just sound like "Shepherd Me, O God" (the way this one song the organist at my old parish used to play sounded just like "Frosty the Snowman" for the first few notes) -- it is "Shepherd Me, O God."

So here's my theory: the arrangement was originally used on a churchy episode of 48 Hours, one where the murdered person was a church cantor or something like that. And then they just kept using it, unaware that it would make every Catholic/churchgoing viewer go, "Wait, what?"

I don't know how plausible that is. All I really know is, they're using a tune by Marty Haugen as background music on 48 Hours, and I really hope he's getting paid, but I also wonder: Why would he give them permission to do that? Why would they even ask? Another possibility, I guess, is that the person who writes incidental music for 48 Hours accidentally "wrote" a song he'd heard at church. In which case, whoops, looks like there aren't enough Catholics behind the scenes at 48 Hours.

I also sometimes watch Dateline on ID, but one surefire way to get me to change the channel -- aside from the uncomfortable realization that I've seen this episode, and gawked at this murder, before -- is to air an episode featuring Keith Morrison. Man does that guy drive me up a wall. Which is why I was delighted to learn that Saturday Night Live has aired a number of sketches featuring Bill Hader as Keith Morrison.

Of course, like almost everything on SNL, the sketches are underwritten, and I'm annoyed at the way they degenerate into a gag about a guy who says "Ooooooo" and "Ohhhhhhh" a lot (because he doesn't, really). But they start out strong, and that impression is dead on. Rarely have I enjoyed a SNL sketch built around a cast member's random celebrity impression quite so much.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Very Good Questions

Someone reached my blog today by Googling this:

"Why did the Paralyzed Veterans of America send me a nickel and ask me to give it to the Paralyzed Veterans of America?"

That is a good question! I wish I had an answer, but all I have is other, similar questions, in this old post of mine complaining about Catholic Relief Services mailings. (Stephanie, are you still getting nickels too?)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Slightly imperfect

I've actually been keeping up with my New Yorker reading lately (the double issues always help me catch up, since they're twice as long but half as interesting as a normal issue, and then I get a week off). Skipping the stuff I know I'll hate is helping me pick up the pace, and not stopping to blog about that or anything else has been helpful as well. But this week I blogged not once but twice at dotCommonweal about various features of the August 2 issue. First, I recommended Atul Gawande's excellent article about death and health care. And today I picked on some aggressively secularist posturing in the "Briefly Noted" section, along with a less disdainful but similarly clueless Bible reference in an earlier issue.

I'm hoping I don't need to explain what's funny about that last one to the audience over at dotComm, but for those who haven't visited a religious bookstore lately, let me clarify: the NRSV Bible is a translation, not a specific print edition. (Wikipedia puts it this way: "The New Revised Standard a thorough revision of the Revised Standard Version.") It comes in all shapes and sizes, the way Bibles do. So describing something as "about the size of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible" (as Meghan O'Rourke does) sounds knowing and specific, but is actually very vague.

Nox, according to, is 9.1 x 6 x 2.6 inches. So there are some editions of the NRSV that are about the same size. Perhaps it was this imitation leather "award Bible" O'Rourke had in mind? Or, if you wanted to get really specific, you might say it's about the size of a New King James Version Precious Moments ® Small Hands Edition Bible, available "slightly imperfect" from I did not know it was possible to purchase a "slightly imperfect" Bible. The very idea seems slightly blasphemous―and yet, I would say a Precious Moments ® Bible is "slightly imperfect" by definition. Score one for truth in advertising.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Leave Chelsea alooooone

"Why are people so fascinated with this wedding?" the NY1 anchorwoman asked the field reporter on the scene in Rhinebeck, NY. The wedding in question is that of Chelsea Clinton, which I gather is taking place tomorrow. NY1 has created a graphic for the occasion that says "The Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding." I had to laugh at that one, because seriously, nobody cares about the groom, but nice gesture.

Which brings me to my point, which is that -- so far as I can tell -- nobody really cares much about the bride, either. Why are people so fascinated? Which people? I personally would prefer that news organizations not devote any resources to covering this "story." If I want to read about celebrity weddings, there are glossy tabloids filled with news of same. I do not need updates on NY1, or CNN. This is not a matter of national importance. But the news media is committed to giving the impression that it is, because it's something they can cover without worrying too much about "balance" or "informed commentary." It's entertainment masquerading as news -- but they can hide behind the fact that Chelsea Clinton is the child of important government figures and pretend that makes her wedding a nationally significant affair. Gee, we'd love to report on the war in Afghanistan or the potential for climate-change legislation, but there's this wedding we've got to cover! It's basically a matter of state!

So, NY1 is showing footage shot from helicopters of white tents and green shrubbery and such, like it's the O.J. Simpson highway chase, rather than an event planned by a couple of families striving desperately for a modicum of privacy. And this reporter is on the ground in Rhinebeck, describing what she sees and what she's heard about the wedding. But, she notes, none of the details have been confirmed by the families. Attention "news" organizations: please take the hint. Try covering a red-carpet premiere or something else designed for your consumption. Or, at the very least, quit acting all miffed that the Clintons and Mezvinskys are keeping you in the dark, because it's you and not they (and not "people" in general) who are turning this into a media circus.

Someone on the street in Rhinebeck noted that, unlike Britain, our country has no royal family. True enough. But take heart -- we do have a self-obsessed, aggressively shallow mainstream news media. And they will hound the grown daughter of a former president all the way to the altar, despite her obvious desire to be left alone, and blame it on you and your insatiable appetite for details. I mean, really, why so fascinated, America?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Copyright law, or: the bitch of living

When I was a teenager the Internet was new and limited and slow, and while I did use it to indulge my theatre geekery, that mainly took the form of long and passionate email conversations with my friend Sarah about which cast recording of Company was the best and who deserved to win (or lose) a Tony for shows we mostly had not seen. It's fortunate for me that I had to do most of my geeking out the old-fashioned way, dubbing cassettes and going to the library to scour the Burns Mantle Best Plays anthologies and so on, because if I'd had the means I probably would have started embarrassing myself on the Internet much earlier.

With that said, I want you all to read Jason Robert Brown's latest blog post, "Fighting with Teenagers: A Copyright Story." It is first of all useful, in that he explains in great detail why copyright laws matter, and why certain violations made possible by the Internet are not as harmless as their convenience makes them seem to be. But it is also highly entertaining, because it takes the form of an email exchange with a teenager who, in arguing for her right to distribute illegally copied sheet music, raises self-absorbed impertinence to an art form. She's wrong on the merits, and yet you kind of have to love her. And feel sorry for her, too, not just because she's probably embarrassed by this (I hope so, anyway), but also because, as JRB himself puts it at one point, "It really sucks to be a teenager." The self-righteousness, the self-pity, the total lack of perspective. "I'm just not lucky enough to have someone as famous as Jason Robert Brown email me." How hilarious and sad is that.

Part of the fun of reading this exchange (which is long!) is trying to figure out when, if ever, this young person realized she was talking to the real JRB. It's odd that she gets more confrontational, not less, as it goes on, but maybe by the time she caught on it was too late to dial back the attitude? I think this may be my favorite part:
If you're really who you claim to be, then I assume you know that Parade, Last Five Years, 13 The Musical, etc. are all genius pieces of work and that a lot of people who would love to have that sheet music can't afford it. Thus the term "starving artist."
This is also wonderful:
You're a genius and your stuff is amazing to perform, but apparently, you're a jerk. We in theatre should support one another and that's not what you're doing.
"We in theatre." Teenagers! Hug one today.

I think this kid will grow out of it. That's what college is for. On the other hand, she'd fit in fine on a lot of blogs today just as she is -- there's a lot of this "I'm articulate enough to have strong opinions without also needing to be informed" commentary going around, and much of it is penned by ostensible grownups. That empty rationalizing to justify a lapse in morality? You'll find a lot of that out there, too. I hope she looked up "sophistry" (as in, "Your answer is sophistry, Brenna") when this was over, because she'd be doing herself a favor if she learned to recognize what that is and resolved to hold herself to a higher standard. You can get by on sophistry and attitude alone, especially online, but you shouldn't.

P.S. Who's Jason Robert Brown, you ask? See here.

P.P.S. As you can see, I've redesigned. To be more accurate, I've just updated my "template" to one of Blogger's newer offerings. I wish it were more customizable than it is, but I think this is generally an improvement on what came before. Comments?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Was that a farce?

I've accepted that the Tony Awards broadcast is primarily an advertisement for Broadway -- it's not really about honoring excellence in theatre, although that may happen, if there's time. I don't like it, and I still complain about it, but I understand that's how it works. But can't it at least be a good advertisement for theatre?

When you're putting on a big, live show in a world-famous theatre and, right off the bat, you have major microphone issues, that's a turn-off. I can't remember a Tony broadcast that wasn't marred by sound issues, but this year was a particularly bad one, especially since they were coupled with obvious lip-synching. I can remember many painful instances of off-key singing in the past (I guess it's hard to hear the band?), but prerecorded vocals are not an ideal fix when you are trying to convince people that live theatre in New York City is worth their time and money.

I did like Sean Hayes at the piano. Fun, and much less obnoxious than the song-and-dance numbers Hugh Jackman used to do. But when the opening number turned into a full-on Green Day concert, I wanted to say, You know, you don't actually get to see Green Day when you buy a ticket for American Idiot. The show does not have Green Day the band in it. Ostensibly it is still worth paying lots of money for. I have my doubts, of course, but that's the idea. And yet here we are, hoping an appearance from Green Day will give Broadway some television cred. It's that old, familiar note of desperation: Please give theatre a chance! Some famous people like it! So the whole thing feels like fundraising time on PBS. Here is some guy from the football Jets, generously agreeing to say that he likes musicals! Won't you please give?

I just don't think the motto of the Tonys should be "Broadway: It's Not So Bad!"

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

More on Fences and August Wilson

I passed on my recommendation of the current Broadway revival of Fences a few weeks ago. A much longer review is in the June 4 issue of Commonweal, and subscribers can read it online here. (An online-only subscription is just $29, by the way.)

Before getting to the play under review, I devote a lot of space to explaining who August Wilson was and why he's important. Here's a sample of what I had to say about Kenny Leon's "splendid" production:
As Troy, film star Denzel Washington puts his considerable Hollywood charm to use in bringing out the character’s endearing qualities along with his flaws. He expertly locates the vulnerability beneath Troy’s bravado. Viola Davis (Oscar-nominated for the 2008 film Doubt, and a veteran of several cycle plays) is a restrained but powerful presence as Rose. The fence around the yard that Troy is building throughout the play is Rose’s idea—an expression of her desire to define and protect what she values. She is a reconciler, determined to hold her family together; she stays on the margins of the men’s conversation in the yard and changes the subject whenever she senses danger or discord. She looks out for the son from a previous marriage whom Troy neglects, and for Gabe, Troy’s brother, brain-damaged in the war. Rose knows Troy’s faults better than he does, and when she finally explodes in anger, the scene is heartrending: “You take,” she tells him, “and don’t even know nobody’s giving!”
Like so many of Wilson’s characters, Rose finds her strength in religion; she turns to the church when her marriage lets her down. But the prophet of Fences is Troy’s disabled brother, who “believes with every fiber of his being that he is the Archangel Gabriel.” Gabe predicts that Troy’s story will end in glory—“St. Peter got your name in the book,” he insists. “I seen it.” And Gabe’s advocacy bears fruit in the play’s final moments, when—according to the stage directions, beautifully interpreted here—“the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet.”
Even if you don't subscribe, you can visit dotCommonweal for more thoughts from me on August Wilson.

Monday, May 31, 2010

So many people in the world don't know what they've missed

The program for Sondheim on Sondheim, a revue now playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54, includes a "musical chronology" listing all of Stephen Sondheim's shows and the songs from each that the audience is about to hear. As she waited for the show to begin, the woman behind me perused this list. "Wait a minute," she said to her companion, "It says here 'Children Will Listen' is from Into the Woods. Is that right? Because it's also in Ragtime."

If reading that caused you to snort derisively, then you, like me, are probably an insufferable musical-theatre geek and/or snob. If you didn't react that way (and are wondering what the joke is), you must belong to the vast majority of humankind that isn't entirely sure who Stephen Sondheim is, or why you should care. There are two kinds of people in the world, in other words. Some of us are keenly aware that Mr. Stephen Sondheim celebrated his eightieth birthday this year and have been wondering whether we personally are doing enough to mark the occasion. And the rest of you are more like the woman behind me, who at intermission turned to her friend and said, "So, I guess this Stephen Sondheim must still be alive."

Sondheim on Sondheim tries, quixotically, to satisfy both groups at once.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Insert naughty pun here

As someone who always sort of hated Sex and the City, I am really enjoying looking on as the critics trash this new movie. My impression -- and I absolutely will not see the film to confirm this, as I can't even make it through a TV ad without hitting "mute" -- is that the movie does away with any and all of the series' laudable traits and leaves just the stuff I always found so irritating: the shallowness; the superficiality; the dreadful puns; the empty-headed social "commentary"; the total unlikability of the main character; the insistence that I should care about shoes when I so, so don't. So the things the critics pick on in their (hilarious) reviews sound to me like backward-looking critiques of the whole enterprise, even when they're prefaced by lamentations that this once-great franchise is going out on such a low note. Take this, from Boston Globe critic Ty Burr:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A very brief review of the revival of 'Fences' by August Wilson

It's great! Denzel is great! Viola Davis is great! Go see it!

(Longer review forthcoming.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Go back to Galway

While we're catching up: I reviewed Martin McDonagh's new play, A Behanding in Spokane, for Commonweal last month. It took me this long to mention it here because (a) the review is subscribers-only online, and (b) the play was a big fat disappointment. Most of what I wrote is an introduction to McDonagh, whose Irish plays I love and admire. (Did you know online-only subscriptions to Commonweal are just $29?) Here's a sample of what I had to say about Behanding:

Friday, April 23, 2010

Time to start getting the nets out

I always assumed that Anyone Can Whistle made some kind of sense. I knew it was whimsical and wacky and all that, but I figured, if I saw the whole thing intact, it would have some discernible throughline. Not so much, as it turns out!

This is too bad for me, because I've been staging imaginary productions of Anyone Can Whistle in my head for years, based on the 1994 Carnegie Hall concert version starring Madeline Kahn, Scott Bakula and Bernadette Peters. I was excited when I found out the show was slated for Encores! in this, the Year of Sondheim: at last I would see the whole show, book intact, and at last I would know what goes between the songs to hold the whole nutty thing together. But unless the version I saw at City Center was seriously truncated (and it sure didn't seem edited), the fact is, the book isn't so much quirky or cutting-edge or experimental as it is half-assed and terrible. (The reviews I saw tiptoed around saying that outright: another case of Arthur Laurents getting off the hook?) The show makes even less sense than it did when I had only the recording to work with. Who knew.

So there's no way to make Anyone Can Whistle "work." I was still surprised that Casey Nicholaw -- whose Follies for Encores! I admired very much -- didn't come a little closer.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Happy Triduum!

My wonderful friend Stephen is the brains behind The Lazy Scholar, a blog that explores and exposes the Internet's many archival treasures. He was kind enough to invite me to do a guest post for Easter, and you can read the results right here. Consider it an early Easter-egg hunt.

Image: "Best Easter Wishes," Newton Owen Postcard Collection, University of Louisville Archives and Records Center, Louisville, Kentucky.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

And all that noise

Just looking at this picture makes my ears hurt.

Speaking of which: have you seen ads for the Roundabout's upcoming Sondheim on Sondheim season-padder? I live a block away from the theatre where it will be playing through June, and I still can't quite be bothered to put it on my calendar. New arrangements of Sondheim tunes, performed by...Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat! You know what, I will pass! Thanks though!

I know, Barbara Cook. But still. Does this lack of enthusiasm mean my Sondheim geekitude has totally deserted me? Nope; my inner 14-year-old enjoyed the NYT slide show from "the birthday concert" way too much. (I mean, this! Now that I would pay for.)

UPDATE: I saw Sondheim on Sondheim after all.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Winter and rough weather

I was excited about the return of The Bridge Project, after last year's productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale (which I reviewed for Commonweal). I got tickets months in advance, and I thought I would write up this year's plays too. But I reconsidered on the way home from As You Like It. There just wasn't enough to write about.

Sam Mendes is your man when you want to create a mood or establish atmosphere. He knows how to make a pretty picture onstage, one that looks ethereal but still appropriately theatrical. But interpreting texts in a consistent manner is just not one of his strengths. I got the impression he had read through As You Like It and highlighted a couple of details that intrigued him, and then and then mounted his production without paying any attention to the whole picture. (For example -- "How merry are my spirits" is probably not what Rosalind says at the top of Act Two, Scene Four, but Mendes not only went with "merry" where most would agree that she should say "weary"; he built the entire scene around her unaccountable merriment.) Michael Feingold put it this way: "Mendes's besetting sin as a director is that he seems to fuss over scenes rather than think them through." Exactly right. Mendes came up with some novel ways to present disposable, short scenes -- a little torture here, a random nightmare-vision there -- when he ought to have been focusing on how the long, pivotal scenes were playing out. The result is all trees and no forest.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Songs of thankfulness and praise

I don't have time to write much -- deadlines to meet in the non-Internet-based world! -- but this is awesome, and I thought you'd want to know: a bunch of people I don't know have taken some jokes I wrote years ago and turned them into many more much funnier jokes. (More back story at dotCommonweal.) Ain't the Internet grand?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Catholic bloggers agree...

Bush Administration lackey Mark Thiessen miscalculated when he decided to defend the use of torture in the "War on Terror" using the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catholic blogosphere is deeply polarized and heavily politicized, but there are limits to how much manipulation it will accept, and Thiessen is finding that out now. Read my post at dotCommonweal for the details.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What do you like best about Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY)?

Oh, sure, you admire him now for his heroic filibuster preventing the senate from passing an emergency 30-day extension of unemployment benefits. (Senator Bunning objects because the extension isn't paid for.) But there is so much else to love about this guy. And I'm not even talking about his baseball-hall-of-famer status.

First, here's a scene from the Senate floor:
As the fight drew to a close, Mr. Bunning complained he had been ambushed by the Democrats and was forced to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game. He said Democrats caused their own problems by dropping the program extensions from an earlier bipartisan jobs measure.
Like something out of Frank Capra, isn't it?

But there's so much more to admire. This guy might have the most entertaining Wikipedia entry of any active politician. You can skip on down to the section about his 2004 campaign for the best parts, like:
During his reelection bid, controversy erupted when Bunning described [his Italian-American opponent] Mongiardo as looking "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons."
That's just ONE of the many astonishing details of the campaign he somehow managed to win. (I recommend reading this Salon article for more.) So what has he done with his second six years in the Senate?
In January 2009, Bunning missed more than a week of the start of Congress in January 2009. Bunning said by phone that he was fulfilling "a family commitment six months ago to do certain things, and I'm doing them." Asked whether he would say where he was, Bunning replied: "No, I'd rather not."
In December he missed 21 votes, including (obviously) the health-care-reform vote on Christmas Eve. Even Robert Byrd showed up more often.

And top this, political satirists:
In February 2009, at the Hardin County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner, while discussing conservative judges, Bunning predicted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months. Bunning later apologized if he had offended Ginsburg with his remarks and offered his thoughts and prayers to Ginsburg; his press release misspelled the Justice's last name twice.
Be sure you read to the bottom, where you'll discover that the Jim Bunning Foundation "has given less than 25 percent of its proceeds to charity." I can't even find out what charity it's supposed to be raising money for! Not that it matters!

I spent most of yesterday watching/listening to the "health-care summit." That was discouraging enough. Reading this settles it, for me. Here's my idea: we clear out the entire Senate and fill it back up with members of the U.S. Olympic team. Who's with me?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Through mem'ry's haze

I lived in New Haven the summer after my junior year at Yale -- a baby step toward living on my own for real when college was through. I had long thought it might be fun to be a campus tour guide, but during the academic year the competition for the job was too intense, and the time commitment too burdensome, for me to bother. The summertime tour-guide gig was much more my speed, and so when I knew I would be in town I decided to try out for a position. To help me prepare, I got a copy of the tour-guide "script," and I was, quite honestly, appalled. This was 2002. The script I got was from about 1990. It hadn't been updated since it was first typed, except for a few notes in the margins. That explained why I was always hearing tour guides claim that, because Connecticut Hall had a computer cluster in the basement, it wasn't necessary for students to have their own computers. (This despite the fact that everyone I knew had his or her own computer.) A lot of other things had changed, on campus and in the world, in the last decade or so, and few of them were documented in the "official" guide. The "Women's Table," for example, hadn't even been installed when the script was written. No wonder guides who stopped there always told stories about the Vietnam War Memorial instead.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I should never have gone to the theatre...

The marquee at A Little Night Music says "Directed by Trevor Nunn," which is odd, because the show looks for all the world as if no one had directed it at all. The pace is slow. The staging, especially of the musical numbers, is weak. The performances are uneven. There's no sense that anyone has tried to impose a particular tone or locate a thematic throughline. In short, all the things a director ought to do seem to have gone undone.

After seeing the show I turned to Michael Feingold for guidance, and found him bang on as usual:
Sampling dessert wine from a king's cellar, the dinner guests at elderly Madame Armfeldt's château sit on the floor. No wonder the old lady bemoans, in her song "Liaisons," the disappearance of style, skill, forethought, discretion, passion, and craft. She could easily be reviewing the show she's in.
An irresistible joke (Brantley makes it too), but exactly right. He goes on:
Some of this downgrading might be forgivable (OK, the dinner party's a picnic) if Nunn's direction didn't push so crudely at every point. When Egerman, half asleep, murmurs Desiree's name, Nunn has him sit bolt upright in bed and bellow it. "The Miller's Son" is deprived of its context; Leigh Ann Larkin, as Petra, simply marches downstage and belts it at us. Rushed gabbling through the verses of "The Glamorous Life," Zeta-Jones is then asked to sledgehammer the gag lines in "You Must Meet My Wife" at the audience.
He put his finger on exactly what irritated me most about the musical staging in "Now/Later/Soon" and "The Glamorous Life." Catherine Zeta-Jones has stage presence and comic timing, but when it comes to the songs she would have benefitted from the amateur director's best friend: slavish adherence to the original cast recording. Someone should have said to her, Listen to how Glynis Johns or Jean Simmons handles "The Glamorous Life" and then do thou likewise.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ben Brantley, gossip columnist

So, Ben Brantley took some lady to the theatah, and she showed her appreciation for the free ticket and sweet orchestra seats by... forgetting to silence her cell phone's "particularly obnoxious" ring tone! This led him to feel bad for her, or hope she learned her lesson, or be convinced she learned her lesson, or something like that. He... thinks people should have hated her less? He thinks it's understandable that someone who "does not as a general rule carry a phone" but on that day "felt she should be reachable" would ignore the preshow announcements, signs, etc. designed to remind people in her exact position to silence their phones? It's not really clear. But that's not what I care about anyway, because he starts off his little please-comment-on-this prompt with a BLIND ITEM:
I seethed righteously when an eminent theater writer seated in front of me took his grudging time in quieting his bleating phone, as if it were a matter he shouldn’t have had to be bothered with.
Who? WHO? Which critic who goes to plays for a living didn't have the good sense to turn off his phone or even be embarrassed when it rang? That's what I want to know. Guesses? I'd say John Heilpern (formerly of The New York Observer), except, is he "eminent"? Or maybe John Simon. Except, does he have a cell phone?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tweeting with the stars

I watched A Place in the Sun recently, having recorded it on TCM during their month devoted to the Method. A Place in the Sun is an Actors Studio double-whammy, with Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters strutting their unglamorous stuff all over the place. According to my TV grampa, Robert Osborne, Elizabeth Taylor credited this movie, her first time working with Clift, with making her more serious about the craft of acting.

The movie didn't blow me away as much as I expected it to (especially after Osborne's nearly giddy intro), but I enjoyed it well enough, and afterward I went to IMDB to dig into the credits. IMDB is the first website I can remember bookmarking, back when I was still accessing the web via AOL dial-up. Still just as indispensable fifteen years later. Impressive! It has been getting steadily more comprehensive over the years, but even I did not expect to find, on Liz Taylor's profile page, a link to "Elizabeth Taylor (DameElizabeth) on Twitter."

I'm not on Twitter and don't plan to change that. But I was tempted, I must say, by the thought of following and tweeting back at Liz. Here's something I bet you didn't know about Liz Taylor, if you aren't already reading her tweets: She is sort of obsessed with Kathy Ireland. This is her Twitter output from August 17 through September 22:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Gold stars

There are things in The New Yorker that I like, also! Just to prove it, here are two pullquotes from the February 1, 2010 issue.

First, from George Packer's article about the city of Dresden and its complicated relationship with its history:
Dresden is the Blanche DuBois of German cities -- violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence. It has the unstable character of a place with a romantic self-image and a past that it would rather not discuss.
A rhetorical gamble, but I think he pulled it off. The whole article is well worth reading, by the way, or at least worth skimming for the good parts.

Here are a couple of memorable sentences from Peter Schjeldahl's review of the Bronzino show at the Met:
Recall Bronzino's "The Allegory of Venus and Cupid," at the National Gallery in London: a confounding tour de force of over-the-top sensuality and cryptic symbolism, painted for France's racy, bookish Francis I. (Cupid lewdly embraces his naked mother while, among other things, Father Time presides, a butterball putto rejoices, a cute-faced and snake-tailed grotesque proffers a honeycomb, and a dove departs on foot like a stricken guest from a party that is way out of hand.)
To fully appreciate the delightfulness of that description, compare this lesser attempt, from a review of the same show in The Wall Street Journal:
Many of us cherish, too, Bronzino's "Allegory of Venus and Cupid," at the National Gallery in London, a kinky free-for-all in which a teenage Cupid gropes his nude mother amid characters symbolizing time, folly, jealousy, and some things I've forgotten.
And since I know you're as curious as I am, here's the picture being described. It was difficult to find at first, because Schjeldahl calls it "The Allegory of Venus and Cupid," Wikipedia calls it "Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time" (?), and the National Gallery (who should know!) calls it "An Allegory with Venus and Cupid." And now that I'm looking at it I'm not at all sure I agree that the dove is "departing on foot," rather than just hanging out in the bottom left corner (canoodling with another dove, if you ask me). But it's a great mental image just the same.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Their weaknesses are incidental

I know I already said New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als was on my don't-bother-reading list. And I meant it! And the first line of his review of Young Jean Lee's Lear is a good reminder of why!
Young Jean Lee’s “Lear” (at the SoHo Rep) is a hot mess, but it’s the kind of misfire that any young artist is entitled to, especially if he or she aspires to greatness.
You stopped after "hot mess," right? Good for you! But I must confess I skimmed the rest of that review, despite my no-Als policy, because I was curious about how the play was being received in general. Which is how I found this:
Lee has a profound understanding of women—how they talk, how they describe one another: with a near-clinical objectivity and, often, with loathing.
Ooh, snap! Women are such bitches! Finally, a lady playwright with a profound understanding of her sex's awfulness!

I once jokingly suggested that perhaps Als is on his editor's don't-bother-reading list. Now I think that may actually be the best explanation. On the other hand, maybe Hilton Als just gets women more than I do. It does seem to be a theme with him lately! Here's the first line of his review of Venus in Furs in the February 8, 2010, issue:
The cruelty of women!
Hilton, honey, is... is something bothering you? Because, this could be my near-clinical objectivity and loathing talking, but: maybe you could work it out on your own time? And not so much with the overt misogyny in your theatre reviews? Just a suggestion!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Media criticism FAIL

I've come close a few times to posting here about Jack Shafer, Slate's press critic. I'm always up for good media criticism, and Shafer sometimes offers that. I'm also always up for pointing out bad media criticism, and Shafer occasionally delivers that too. For an example of the former, see this article of his on the mindless use of hyperlinks. It's right on. For an example of the latter -- which usually manifests itself in his case as a lack of perspective -- I'll send you over to Kate at Cali-for-nyaah, who (in a post I bookmarked long ago) puts it much better than I could:
In his better moments, Mr. Shafer is a impish avenging angel, swooping down on weasel words and wringing the breath from ill-researched trend stories. For these acts of righteous journalistic vengeance, I have nothing but gratitude. But for whatever reason, Mr. Shafer is drawn to the Personal Yarn as if it were the journalistic killing fields, site of all that is horrifying and unethical in the world.
Yes: when he found out David Sedaris's "nonfiction" essays aren't 100 percent true, Shafer was OUTRAGED. I suppose that should have been a sign, looking back, that he approaches his job with a tad more credulity than is healthy.

I say all that because this week he took notice of Scott Horton's devastating Harper's article on the so-called suicides at Guantanamo, and the results were embarrassing. I posted about it at dotCommonweal, so I'll send you there for the rest (and the relevant links). However, if you haven't yet read Horton's piece for Harper's, please go there instead. Your time will be better spent reading the original article than reading about pathetic attempts to debunk same.

Friday, January 29, 2010


One of the great things about working for a magazine with an 85-year history is our vast and fascinating archives. I haven't read much J. D. Salinger (just The Catcher in the Rye in high school, like everybody else), but I knew Commonweal must have published lots of interesting articles about him over the years. I spent this afternoon digging up and posting two of the best, and if you're a fan of Salinger, midcentury fiction writing, or snappy literary criticism, I encourage you to check them out. Just go here and follow the links to find out what critics had to say about Salinger in 1957, and what occasioned this fabulous sentence in 1963: "And then there is Mary McCarthy, thumbing her nose in a kind of bitchy pique."

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Jr. Day in NYC

Today was a beautiful, sunny day, so I took a walk uptown, and brought the camera along. A few sights from my stroll through Harlem and Morningside Heights on this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday (Observed)...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Held in contempt

BRISCOE: What's that?
CURTIS: Looks like a printout from an online download.

Yes, I watched "Rebels" again, and yes, it was as hilarious as I remembered. Above, sample dialogue. Some other great details: Lennie, annoyed after Rey finds yet another clue via e-mail (and by "e-mail" I mean "a white screen with text on it that appeared on Rey's display without his having to press a single key, which is just as well since he was evidently connected to the internet via a nonexistent wireless hookup in the police station"), grumbles, "This 'e-mail,' whatever the hell it is, it's gotta have a return address, right?" Which was funny because it actually didn't. The "headers" onscreen included only a "to" line. So Briscoe and Curtis go to some special computer-geek cop who helps them track their online correspondent. "His modem's hooked up to a cellular phone," Rey explains to Lennie. Riiight. So that's how they end up riding around in their car, with Lennie driving and Rey sitting shotgun exchanging "e-mails" via yet another magical internet connection, while the police geek sits in the backseat holding a gigantic antenna that's tracking the signal from the guy's cell-phone modem. Obviously.

Once the detectives bust the guy we move to the courtroom. Amusingly, the case takes up the question of the press shield law and how it applies to online journalism (or what Claire calls "computer bulletin boards"). Funny how that debate, at least, seems sort of current, even though the writers plainly had zero firsthand experience with the Internet at the time they wrote the episode.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More information about crimes can be found on the Internet

Almost exactly three years ago, I posted about a hilarious rerun of Law & Order in which Det. Rey Curtis used his computer skills to access valuable crime-solving information on the World Wide Web. Well, get ready to laugh, because that episode ("Rebels," from 1995) is coming up again in the rotation on TNT. Set your DVRs to catch it tomorrow at 4 p.m. (ET). There was so much we didn't know then...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hits and misses

I've just finished reading Lauren Collins's sporadically entertaining, generally shapless profile of Justice Sotomayor in the Jan. 11 New Yorker. Yes, this time I had all the pages. And there were a lot of them, because this article was really long. You know that feeling when you're reading an article that you think has gone on long enough, and you turn to a new page, and you look in vain to the lower right corner for the little box that marks the end? And then, when you see it keeps going, you say, "Oh, come on, how long is this?" I did that three times while I was reading this story.

It had its high points. Here is a sentence I particularly liked:
Scalia, a few years earlier, had become embroiled in a conflict-of-interest drama after going on a duck-hunting trip with Dick Cheney; Sotomayor once recused herself from a case because, she wrote, “I was a member of the BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc.”
An excellent comparison. Says a mouthful, with no need for elaboration. Unfortunately this economy of expression did not extend to the entire profile. In fact, here is an excerpt from the next paragraph that ticked me off:
Sotomayor’s mode of expression can be inelegant. Her writings are marked less by any special rhetorical force or philosophical clarity than by a prosaic approachability. In Farrell v. Burke (2006), she invoked Carrie Bradshaw: “The State’s definition of pornography as material depicting sexual conduct and ‘designed to cause sexual excitement,’ if applied, would cover not only materials such as Scum but also popular television shows such as ‘Sex and the City.’”
So by "invoked Carrie Bradshaw" you mean "displayed an awareness that Sex and the City is a popular show on television"? I know this is an attempt to be cute, but if Sotomayor's judicial opinions are really marked by "prosaic approchability," this isn't convincing evidence. More seriously, the mischaracterization of this quotation seems particularly irresponsible when you're talking about a woman who was smeared by political opponents as an intellectual lightweight. Because make no mistake: if a circuit court judge really did "invoke Carrie Bradshaw" in an opinion, say by quoting a braindead "insight" from that character's supposedly popular column ("It sometimes seems as if the pursuit of romantic commitment will end up having us all committed!"), then I would want someone to write an article for The New Republic about how said judge was too stupid for the SCOTUS. But that's not what happened here, thank God.

Collins takes a few swings at contextualizing and interpreting the infamous "wise Latina" remark, but they're all misses, it seems to me. And then there's this:
In all the commotion over Ricci and “wise Latina,” the senators had missed what was perhaps a more inflammatory statement. In 2000, at the graduation ceremony of the Bronx Leadership Academy, Sotomayor had said, “It is so exciting to be at the door of a major change in one’s life. That’s why brides and bridegrooms smile so much at weddings and why so many tears of joy are shed when a wanted child arrives”—her unprompted use of the phrase “wanted child” acknowledging the possibility that an expectant parent could feel otherwise.
I see what you did there, trying to think like a Republican operative, but that's...embarrassing. First of all, if the word "wanted" has you confused, try subbing in "longed-for." Get it now? Second, I didn't think it was possible to underestimate the Karl-Rove types who pretended to believe Sotomayor was a "bigot." But even they are not dumb enough to think the mere suggestion that some pregnancies are not "wanted" is "inflammatory." Trust me: the people out to gin up conservative sentiment against Sotomayor didn't "miss" that statement. They just knew it would be difficult to find anyone who'd object, even in bad faith, to the image of new parents shedding tears of joy over the birth of their child. News flash: pro-life people know that not all pregnancies are "wanted." Hey, maybe your next 80,000 word article could focus on that!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The era of ragtime had run out...

"I have good news and bad news. The good news: I just saw a really good semi-professional regional-theatre production of Ragtime. The bad news: it was on Broadway."

That's the opening line I was planning to use when I reviewed the new revival of Ragtime, which I saw way back in November. I was really excited about posting a review here, I swear. But I came down with a cold that sapped me of all my physical and mental strength (...twice!), and then Christmas, etc., and now it's pretty much too late: the show is closing tomorrow. Ah well. For posterity -- and for those of you who didn't see it -- that's the short take: from your local theatre guild, at local prices, it would have been worth seeing; on a Broadway stage it was an expensive disappointment.

And expensive it was. Let's just get that out of the way. On the night I saw it, the seats we had (front row center mezz) were priced at $137 each. That's obscene. I love the theatre more than most, but come on. I would say "There's a recession on!" but really, let's not blame the economy. Even in flush times, nobody should be paying that much for a ticket, unless they get a free iPod with their Playbill. And recession or no, I wasn't going to pay full price, of course, so I stood in line at the TKTS booth and got them for half off -- $70 each. Which is still too much. The mezzanine was half empty that night, and I can't say I was surprised. Every time a show closes soon after it opens, arts journalists and producers and critics line up to play coroner. "It was too soon," "The reviews were just too mixed," "No big-name stars," etc. If you find yourself listening to or reading a post-mortem of this kind, and your expert doesn't mention the exorbitant cost of seeing a Broadway show today within the first sixty seconds/two paragraphs, walk away, because they're ignoring the obvious. A business model that prices tickets at well upwards of $100 is a broken business model, and the fact that it sometimes works out in producers' favor doesn't change that. The end. (On the topic of Ragtime, however, I am just getting started. And I can finally put jump breaks in my posts! Thank God, because this is a long one. Click through for more.)