Art review, Book review, Concert, Dance review, Movie review, Theatre review

2019 Round-up

Books (me)

  • No Ordinary Time — Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Home Front in World War II, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
  • Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
  • From the Dust Returned, Ray Bradbury
  • Your Turn to Curtsy My Turn to Bow, William Goldman
  • Starshine, Theodore Sturgeon
  • You Have Never Been Here, Mary Rickert
  • Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux
  • Less, Andrew Sean
  • Irresistible, Adam Alter
  • The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer
  • Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
  • Shortest Way Home, Pete Buttigieg

It was fun to read quick and easy Christies amidst the heavier tomes tackled, but the best fiction was by Mary Rickert: that woman can WRITE. Her worlds are strange, dreamlike places tinged by tragedy and melancholy, where ordinary people cope and hope. And of course, Bradbury: it is always a pleasure to visit his sunny, soaring, and strange shores. As to the nonfiction, Danubia was not as successful as Winder’s Germania, to my mind: an overwhelming mass of geography, history, and Habsburgs, tempered of course by Winder’s irrepressible humor. Ultimately, I am not sure of the takeaway: it seems to be that long-simmering nationalist tendencies can only be quelled or mollified within a sprawling, distracted empire or contained in separate ethnic nation-states. In any case, it inspired our seeing my favorite movie of the year. Mayor Pete’s autobiography is thoughtful and smart, as is he; I liked reading the lessons he’s learned about people, expertise, humility, and humanity. Shermer’s Believing Brain was depressing overall; its point is that our thought processes are corrupted by lazy shortcuts and myriad cognitive biases. It is useful, however, to recognize, as Shermer notes, “how our brains convince us that we are always right.” This explains a lot about people, a satisfyingly schadenfreude conclusion; more disturbing is the realization that it applies to me, too.

Books (Steve)

  • The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald
  • Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano
  • Five-Carat Soul, James McBride
  • Wild Bill Hickok, Joe Rosa
  • Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth
  • Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
  • L.A. Stories, Ry Cooder
  • The Italian Party, Christina Lynch
  • Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Trans Atlantic, Collum McCann
  • The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett
  • Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
  • The Expats, Chris Pavone
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus
  • Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler
  • The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The year’s standout was The Forsyte Saga, but Steve says he has a great appreciation too for James McBride and intends to read more by him. The noirs were a real pleasure, but by now, Marcus’s Mystery Train has already faded, which is a bit upsetting. And Chris Pavone — who might be a relative; Steve’s mother was a Pavone — was great fun. A nod too to The Sisters Brothers, a great Western adventure story.

Concerts

  • Alan Parsons, Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Arlo Guthrie, Paramount Asbury Park
  • Peter Mulvey, City Winery
  • David Bromberg, City Winery
  • Los Straitjackets, Wonder Bar

Standout for me was Alan Parsons; again, a superlative show. Parsons and company are in excellent voice, and his commanding presence is compelling and engaging. Steve liked Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets the best. And Arlo Guthrie came right next door to us with his son and daughter, making it a very low-key, comfy family evening.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • A Bright Room Called Day (Public)
  • A Christmas Carol (No.11)
  • David Byrne’s American Utopia (Broadway)
  • Let ‘Em Eat Cake (Carnegie Hall)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway)
  • The Michaels (Public)
  • Soledad Barrio and Noches Flamenco (Joyce)
  • Puppet Slam (La Mama)
  • Victor (Axis)
  • A Woman of the World (59 East 59th)
  • Asbury Dance Festival (House of Independents)
  • Lifespan of a Fact (Gloucester)
  • Height of the Storm (Broadway)
  • Round Went the Wheel (Michael Gnat; Broadway Bound Festival)
  • The Last Man Club (Axis)
  • Strangers in the World (Axis)
  • Feral (59 East 59th; puppets)
  • Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune (Broadway; Terrence McNally)
  • Gary, A Sequel to Titus Adronicus (Broadway; Taylor Mac)
  • Mary, Mary (United Stages)
  • The Tempest (Public Mobile Unit)
  • King Lear (Broadway; invited dress rehearsal)
  • City of No Illusions (La MaMa; Talking Band)
  • Madame Marie the Psychic/The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (staged reading; Sarah Congress)

What a fantastic year for high-end, high-quality theater! We were so fortunate to get to see so much lovely, haunting, thoughtful, and uplifting material. And legendary performers: Glenda Jackson, Lindsey Crouse, Jonathan Pryce, Kathleen Chalfont, Michael Shannon, Ed Harris, Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane. A privilege to see them. It is impossible to rate the plays we saw; each — from the tiny paper dolls making up the world of Feral to the mountain of gaudily rotting carcasses that comprise the blackly gleeful set for Gary; from the stark, dark, discomfiting Axis Theatre productions to the massive stage of Carnegie Hall chock full of musicians and singers — all, all had majesty and magic. The ones that stick most with me, though, are the poignant, naked, powerful performances of Michael Shannon in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm. And the wonderful, warm, vibrant, exciting, positive energy of David Byrne’s American Utopia. The lighting had to be the best and most innovative I’ve ever seen; the colors and patterns and shadows made in that plain white square of a stage were incredible. And I must also mention the wild flamenco at the Joyce. And a little theater friendship blossomed from Feral, where we sat next to a very nice lady who is a sculptor and devotee (as are we) of all things puppet; we later all went to La MaMa’s puppet slam.

Lectures and Readings

  • The Round Table 100th (Algonquin)
  • Selected Shorts: Comedy Tonight (Symphony Space; featuring Jane Curtin and Dick Cavett)
  • 400 Years of Manhattan (Noah Diamond; United Solo)
  • Abbey Roadshow (Newark Grammy Awards Center)

There were enough of these to list as a separate category; these were uniformly light, informative, and pleasant, although I wish the Algonquin had put more conviction into its centennial celebration. Noah Diamond’s excellent lecture was drowned out by bar patrons. We did get to sit at the ACTUAL Round Table, under the famous painting, which was a thrill. The fascinating Abbey Roadshow was a double dose of Beatles experts, Prof. Kenneth Womack and Scott Freiman of “Deconstructing the Beatles” fame, analyzing the nuances of the Beatles’s last album.

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Movies (in theaters* and first-run on TV)

We saw a lot of movies this year, and many of them were superlative. Steve cites as his favorites for style and substance The Irishman (can’t go wrong with gangsters), Roma, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (just getting to SEE that was a privilege: it only ended up playing the one day). My favorite is Sunset; there is something about how and what it evokes that has stuck with me all year: a world on the brink of collapse? The audacious Jojo Rabbit was a pleasant surprise for both of us; another collapsing world order saved by learning to know and accept the other. Two “girl” movies were catnip for me: A Simple Favor and Ocean’s Eight: both delicious, delightful; the former also notably balanced a wild mix of tones: dark twisty-mystery and bright suburban tale bordering on camp — a mix Soderbergh carries off in The Informant! and does not in The LaundromatSwiss Army Man, which we streamed, also somehow balances absurdity and existential crisis. Absolutely unbalanced, practically to the point of unhinged, are a trio of Grand Guignol epics: Suspiria, The Lighthouse, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Of the three, I think I prefer the first, which was honestly out there without anything to prove or show beyond being crazy. Tarantino’s earnest, violent revisionist history ended by restoring a very white, privileged world. And, aside from Defoe’s fantastic, fearless performance, The Lighthouse invested in no context that would justify its off-the-rails engagements.

Marriage Story was devastating and excellent. Other excellent older movies we watched this year were the surprisingly touching and powerful The Edge of the World, directed by Michael Powell; Lars von Trier’s innovative and inexorable Dogville; Rachel, Rachel, featuring a haunting Joanne Woodward performance; the literally haunting 2016 The Lighthouse, which we found far superior to the overwrought 2018 version; two very entertaining 1960s Brit comedies featuring, among others, Maggie Smith: Hot Millions and The Honey Pot; the moody and sophisticated Journey to Italy, directed by Rosselini and starring Ingrid Bergman and George Saunders. But I think my favorite of these was the 2002 French movie The Man on the Train, about a thief and a poetry professor; very smart and moving.

Aside from the touching 63 Up!, none of the documentaries were terribly exciting, although the Muhammad Ali was the most informative and absorbing. I can’t even remember The Great Hack, and we only watched it a couple of months ago. What I do remember, and which continues to irk me, was the manipulative, overripe Tell Me Who I Am. This highly regarded crowd-pleaser tells the story of a twin who, after a traumatic injury that erases his past, relies on his brother’s stories to reconstruct his own life — thereby losing any knowledge of the childhood abuse they both suffered. Like last year’s equally annoying Three Identical Strangers, Tell Me Who I Am has been carefully edited to promote a particular point of view, with huge chunks left out. A reliance on the cheesy faux-confessional tropes of reality TV destroys whatever authenticity might have remained, ruining both movies.

TV

My favorite TV for the year was Russian Doll, which I instantly found weirdly and utterly appealing and offbeat. Also highly appealing was the decidedly strange and plaintive and wonderful Fleabag, which at first repelled us and then totally won us with its irreverence, shocking humor, humility, and humanity. Good Omens, Gentleman Jack, and Stranger Things were all entertaining and humane; very pleasant to spend time with. We are slowly edging up on the last season of The Wire, which, like Mad Men before it, we never want to complete. All other dramatic TV shows dim by comparison: it brilliantly portrays the entrenched bureaucracies and senseless systems with their callous disregard of the ordinary people who alternatively challenge and sustain them. We also watched the original Forstye Saga, a wonderfully intricate and elegant realization of the novel — albeit without the keen distinctions of values so well clarified by Galsworthy. Steve also greatly enjoyed Ken Burns’s series on country music.

Museums and Field Trips

Only one art show this year, but it was splendid: the Escher Exhibition at Brooklyn’s Industry City, which is going to be quite the hip and happening place. The show was comprehensive and enlightening; among my favorites was Three Worlds:

m.c.-escher-three-worlds

We went with Sarah to the Mütter Museum, which always delights me: its macabre and sometimes disturbing subject matter is always clinically and compassionately presented (and its gift shop is a riot). We saw a retrospective on Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Museum, which reflected its subject’s solemn and joyful character.

A trip to the Bronx Zoo in October and a magical day in September at Seaside Heights were peaceful and restorative, filled with quiet pleasure.

There were two wonderful trips: a Hudson Valley overnight featuring a walk through Beacon with Julie, a concert at Tarrytown, the Culinary Institute, Hyde Park and the FDR Presidential Library in April (coincidentally, on the anniversary of FDR’s death); and three days in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, with a side visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Both trips were well beyond our expectations, satisfying all senses and leaving us eager to return.

We figured we could polish off Hyde Park and the Presidential Library in a matter of a couple of hours, but not at all. FDR’s home was unexpectedly poignant, particularly the reminders of his methods to accommodate but not succumb to his disability, like the dumbwaiter he used to hoist himself up to his bedroom. As to the library (his desk there is pictured below), this was a wealth of information and history. Hours upon hours could be — should be, hopefully will be — spent soaking it all up.

FDR.JPG

As to our Massachusetts trip, it was simply terrific. We explored Rockport, which really does seem like the absolute end of the world; this photo does not quite convey the sense you have of standing on the last little outpost of land before the immensity of the ocean.

rockport

Beautiful and unpretentious, filled with artists and shops, Rockport was so nice. And then a quick stroll though downtown Gloucester, not quite as tony as Rockport, but so friendly and filled with interesting shops and the sense of a working fishing community. Theater that night starring Gloucester resident Lindsey Crouse, whose work I’ve always admired. Wonderful seafood, particularly at the very local, down home Lobsta Land. And, coming home, a few hours at Orchard House, where the presence of Louisa and May Alcott is palpable, and not in a spooky way, but in a friendly matter-of-fact way. So fun to see May’s sketches on the walls, and the lovely calla lilies she painted for Louisa near her desk.

lma_deskandcallas-1

My main reason for going to Cape Ann was to see whales. And oh my, oh my, oh my, did we. We were on a disappointing whale watch in San Francisco, where we both got slightly seasick and ended by seeing sort of-kind of a bit of whale, maybe. But here, the weather was perfect, the boat size sufficiently large to ensure against seasickness, and we encountered a pair of whales once we were out the requisite distance. It soon became apparent that one of the whales was in distress; apparently, its tail was entangled in a tuna net. Its companion stayed by its side — and so did we, for the ship alerted the Center for Coastal Studies to rescue the whale. We stayed watching, fascinated, worried, until they arrived.

whales

On the way back to shore, it was as if the good news about Nuke’s imminent rescue had been telegraphed to the undersea residents. We were treated to a show of wondrous activity, with whales, dolphins, and sunfish dancing and cavorting all around us. It was glorious, and the Cape Ann Whale Watch crew obligingly stopped for each new episode, with our trip extending well beyond the scheduled three hours as we reveled in the great mammals’ playfulness and majesty. It was beyond words to share in another species’ happiness, like being invited to somebody’s house to enjoy their hospitality.

 

Food and Restaurants

New restaurant find for the year was Cajun restaurant Drew’s in Keyport. In New York, we finally found two nice picks in the Theater District; long-running restaurants with very pleasant ambiance, extensive menus, and good food and service: Chez Josephine and Mont Blanc 52. And the Culinary Institute was a delight: so elegant but with this nice earnestness and occasional small blunder, reminding you that this is a student-run enterprise. Recipe-wise, Steve has successfully replicated (and improved on) the long hots featured occasionally at Christine’s, stuffing them with a ground turkey or chicken bolognese sauce. We made a pretty dish for Thanksgiving of multicolored sliced sweet potatoes. For crab season, we discovered another friendly seafood market: Ahearns, near Seaside Heights. And we finally ditched my old dinnerware set in favor of an assortment of dragon and/or phoenix plates and bowls. A symbolic gesture on my part: comprehensive no longer means as much to me as individual, eclectic pleasures.

Theatre review

To Kill a Mockingbird and The Michaels

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Picasso, Family of Jugglers, 1905

We had a theatrical double header this week, thanks to Julie. A completely unexpected opportunity on Wednesday to see To Kill a Mockingbird and today The Michaels at the Public. Both were moving, deep, rich, and satisfying. And both had realistic yet positive things to say about life lived humbly, domestically, and with integrity while hells not of our making rage and roil around us and threaten to swallow us up.

Both plays were exceedingly well written, well directed, and well acted. Both made me think and cry: two really good things to get out of theater, and the reason I’m writing this — so the messages they left me with don’t evaporate. Particularly in these days in which we live, and these nights through which we struggle, trying so often in vain to find the spark, the good, the right, the just, the way forward.

Mockingbird‘s spark is tolerance. Accept people without judging — but also, and most importantly, question everything rather than just accept. And in the light shone by tolerance and curiosity, prejudice and ignorance melt away.  These are tools Atticus passes on to his children. This was powerfully brought home by Nina Grollman’s Scout (in a truly wonderful performance) when her father is menaced by a mob of would-be lynchers as he guards his jailed client. Scout recognizes one of the hooded men and calls to him by name: a variation, it occurred to me, on the idea of humanizing yourself to an attacker by saying your name and not allowing them to make you an object. Here it served to harken back to Atticus’s explanation of mobs being made up of people. Scout calls the person out; he removes his hood and the mob disintegrates.

I was reading online just now about how Aaron Sorkin’s Atticus Finch differs from Harper Lee’s — that, as the play’s protagonist (rather than the novel’s Scout), he changes, moving from being an uncritical apologist for the inherent racism of his society to the steely, clear-eyed Atticus we know from book and movie. I have to say that that did not spark with me; if it made the play more relevant and timely for other viewers, that is all well and good. But what worked for me was how this family — Atticus and his two children, and the heartbreakingly poignant Dill (modeled here, apparently, on Lee’s own childhood friend, Truman Capote), and the resolute and impassioned Calpurnia (I cannot remember if in the book her relationship with Atticus is described by Scout as being like her own sibling relationship with Jem) — exchanged ideas, taught and nurtured each other, grew and respected and loved. I admired the values they shared with a small — but I hoped maybe someday growing — number of members of their community: tolerance, compassion, and a commitment to truth. And I loved, and took heart from, Atticus voicing a line Sorkin wrote in an opinion piece right after Trump was inaugurated: that our finest hour always follows our darkest.

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is a very different piece, but comes down — at least for me — to the same virtues of family and shared community. The threat to their status quo is the imminent death of the imposing matriarch Rose Michael, members of whose dance company and family have gathered to spend some time together. During the course of the two-hour, intermission-less play, the characters cook and eat (with intoxicating smells of baking bread and rosemary filling the small theater), talk and laugh, reminisce and plan, hurt and help, dance and sing. Conversations overlap, points are introduced and dropped and lost and picked up and lost again, with no particular aim; just the pleasure of chatting with old friends. Each character’s blind spots and weaknesses — and strengths and quirks — are lightly exposed and just as lightly accepted.

Near the play’s end, Kate, Rose’s partner, shares Rose’s plans for her funeral. She wants everyone to gather for a day and talk about her, share their memories and sing and dance and eat. And of course, that’s what the characters have just done. They do not resolve any of the conflicts or problems presented during the play’s course — any more than any of us do during a family gathering.

The takeaways: We cannot perhaps change the world, but we can question and challenge it. We cannot perhaps change each other, but we can touch and try. And we cannot perhaps change fate, but we can meet it clear-eyed knowing that we are and have loved.

* * *

I like to fix an image to my writing to set the tone and widen the perspective, and I spent a good half hour searching for something appropriate to cover these cathartic dramas, only to realize that quiet scenes of peaceful family life were too small and serene; the keyword “tolerance” yielded hokey posters of clasping hands and dove wings; my go-to impressionists and expressionists were, respectively, too airy and too troubled. Leaving me, and leading me, to Picasso. His Rose Period jugglers hit the note I wanted: a created and creative family, bound together by creed even more than by blood. All colors, all ages. Engaged and industrious, teaching and learning. The symbolism of flaming trees offset by a pure white horse. And against all this a dominant figure balanced precariously yet effortlessly on a spinning globe.

Theatre review

Victor

 

07_Nighthawks

A word you hear a lot these days, it seems to me, is “transactional,” which my online dictionary defines as “relating to the conducting of business, especially buying or selling” and cites the example of “a purely transactional relationship.”

We seem to be in a particularly transactional moment in time: everything seems to be for sale and few things seem to have intrinsic value. So much has been coarsened or disparaged as a consequence.

It was thus a relief and a refuge and a revelation to visit tonight for about an hour at the Axis Theatre with poet and performance artist Edgar Oliver — and, through him, a community of people overlooked and eccentric, strange and sad, proud and profound. Victor Greco is one such. Victor is a muscular short order cook whom Oliver likens to Popeye who loses job, home, and perhaps sanity, to die at age fifty — last February — alone but not unmourned. Victor perhaps courted the fiercely shy, passive, and melancholic Oliver, stuffing the mailbox of his former East Village neighbor every day with poems, letters, and illustrations; Oliver perhaps loved Victor, visiting him in Tompkins Park, sitting with him at a nursing home during one of his last illnesses, dancing with him in better days to a gypsy-style street violinist in front of St. Marks.

“Those were happy days. Why do we survive them?”

This is the central relationship Oliver traces. But he introduces us to other denizens of this world: a towering black Amazon who, after Oliver has belatedly summoned the police to chase off a cadre of undesirables who have taken up temporary residence for the evening in his subbasement, brazenly knocks on his door to retrieve something she had left behind in her hasty departure. Dazed and accepting, he lets her in, noting that sometimes that’s what you do: let the darkness in.

And Oliver tells us about Joe Meeks, the Mayor of 10th Street, who dies in Victor’s arms. And of the roaches, whom he treats kindly — until the day he doesn’t.

This is not a sentimental piece, and there are no easy judgments we can make about these characters. Oliver muses on why he never asked the homeless Victor, his friend of twenty years, to move in with him. The answer seems to lie in the fact that Oliver gave what he could, and Victor — like the Amazon, like Joe Meeks, like the roaches, like Oliver himself — didn’t ask for more from their fellows.

It is a strange world, and I don’t think most of us would want to occupy it. But the humanity at its core, and the tolerance that drives it, makes this a very different place from where we are now.

[An early, twenty-minute version of Victor is online at Vimeo; here is the link; the play runs at Axis through October 26.]

Theatre review

The Height of the Storm

old couple james coates
“Old Couple” by James Coates

We grow old, we grow old, but unlike the solitary Prufrock, the central characters in Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm have — or had, or always will have — each other. The play establishes a robust fifty-year marriage between a pragmatic wife and a brilliant writer. It then explores the inevitable, inescapable string of losses confronting long-lasting relationships: loss of a loved one, loss of a partner, loss of reason, loss of identity, loss of moorings, loss of meaning. Where is home if you are not here? What is a meal if you did not prepare it or I am not hungry for it? What is the meaning of my life if I cannot remember it, and you cannot decipher my writing or access my thoughts?

The poignancy of this lean, evocative memory play is palpable. And the human all too human performances of the brilliant Jonathan Pryce, alternately frail and diminished and fervent and affectionate but always suffused by devotion to his mate, and a rock-steady Eileen Atkins, make The Height of the Storm almost unbearably real. So much so that it takes a while to realize that the piece is completely subjective: it is difficult to immediately fix in any interaction between sets of characters whose reality we are in  — a reality that often shifts within the context of that interaction — and impossible to know what the facts of this family’s life are. Which makes it all the more poignant, as the two grown daughters come home — for a weekend? for a funeral? now? in the past? all of these? — and attempt to grapple with the situation as their parents drift in and out physically and/or mentally. And even the precise nature of that situation shifts unfixedly. No one knows — can know — what to do to help or support the others, because each is essentially alone, informed by their own limited, and largely unshared, perspective. Except for the two forged together over a half century, but even between them, the play suggests, there might be secrets and locked doors.

All of which recalled this Somerset Maugham quote, from The Moon and Sixpence:

Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.

I fear I have made the work sound hopelessly bleak. But it isn’t. It is the human condition, the inability to not ever know an objective truth, but rather to have to guess at it. And with those we love, we need to try to make those guesses as accurate and judgment-free as possible.

And maybe sometimes not to try to guess at all, just accept.

And as we walked back to the train, tears still wet on my cheeks, leaning into Steve, I heard two young men behind us praising the acting but admitting that they had early on realized this wasn’t going to be something for them. And it wasn’t. I think this is a play that speaks more to those who have come up against mortality.

Theatre review

City of No Illusions

I begin this review with Elwood Dowd’s carefully thought-through philosophy because I don’t believe this review will be very smart, with a  lot of erudite analysis of the themes and techniques Talking Band tackles and applies, but I do fervently hope for it to express what I found to be beyond pleasant — to be touching and human and loving and warm and gracious — in City of No Illusions.

Which is, essentially, the entire play.

City of No Illusions — which, like so much of Talking Band‘s work, took over a year to develop, and then ran for three short weeks at La MaMa, and then will disappear maybe forever as the endlessly bright and questing troop pursues another important topic in their quirky, canny, cerebral, and sincere way — is about borders: between life and death, between legal and illegal status, between people’s minds and hearts, between people. Its title comes from a nickname for Buffalo, a town close to the Canadian border with a mindset well used to hard times. The play centers around two sisters who run a funeral parlor, the immigrants who work for them, the ICE agents who are tracking them, and the Shadow Band that, well, shadows them. There’s also the husband of one of the sisters, who has come up with a brilliant real estate scheme: a cemetery centered in a really desirable time-share resort, so the kids will be sure to visit; the mother of one of the immigrants; and a fearless advocate for the young émigrés, ready to defend their yearnings to breathe free with her last breath.

There is also a lot of humor.

But what there mostly is is abundant demonstration of the gray area that a border signifies. So the husband is not a charlatan, although he is something of a bigot, but also a loving husband, and a basically kind man. And Agent Ramirez is a rather poetic and empathetic and intelligent man who is firmly convinced of the rightness of his job.  And even the scarier ICE agent, Benson, has a very human side grounded in fear of mortality. No one is straightforwardly, entirely, good or evil. Everyone is a mix. And everyone, ultimately, even the ones pursuing agendas we don’t like, is trying to do his or her best.

“I’m in countdown mode. I’ve stopped counting how many years I’ve lived and started counting how many I have left. Each day I have to ask myself, ‘was that the best way I could have spent one of my remaining days?’ Usually, the answer is no. But today, I think I can answer yes.”

That quote is from the immigrant advocate, but really, I think, any of the characters could have said it — at least to themselves.

But all these cross purposes, and all these good intentions, and all these duties mean that some will win and some will lose.

Which brings us to the play’s conclusion, straight out of Stoppard’s Arcadia and Gilliam’s Fisher King.

They dance.

 

[City of No Illusions] [La Mama, NYC] (c)
Image: Suzanne Opton

Art review, Book review, Concert, Dance review, Movie review, Theatre review

2018 Round-Up

Books (me)

  • Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks
  • Long After Midnight, Ray Bradbury
  • The Barnum Museum, Steven Millhauser
  • Schnitzler’s Century, Peter Gay
  • The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow
  • The Minds of Billy Milligan, Daniel Keyes
  • Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Scott Weems
  • And Now Good-Bye, James Hilton
  • Ellery Queen vs. Jack The Ripper, Ellery Queen
  • Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, Amanda Vaill
  • Spider Kiss, Harlan Ellison
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier
  • Certain Women, Madeleine L’Engle
  • American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now, Peter Straub, editor
  • The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

A fiction-heavy year, and a very big fiction tome in the last quarter, The Forstye Saga. I hope to post my thoughts about that later this month; it was an old-fashioned read, in a very good sense. Probably the most influential book of the year was Jaron Lanier’s earnest plea and disturbingly well-thought-through reasons for the vital necessity of getting off social media; once again, my brother Martin has led me to my big and important books of the year. The Hilton and the L’Engle were both lovely and affirming; most of the rest was okay but not outstanding.

Books (Steve)

  • Danger and Insanity in the Garden State, Scott Loring Sanders
  • League of Frightened Men, Rex Stout
  • Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • The Graduate, Charles Webb
  • Testimony, Robbie Robertson
  • World’s Fair, E.L. Doctorow
  • Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan
  • Pablo Escobar, Juan Escobar
  • The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
  • Golden House, Salman Rushdie
  • Players, Steve Hyde
  • Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx
  • Spider Kiss, Harlan Ellison
  • All Quiet on Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
  • Being There, Jerzy Kosinski

Steve’s favorite was Robbie Robertson’s memoir; he was very interested in hearing this story of simple beginnings and Robertson’s being surrounded by very famous people-in-the-making. The matter-of-fact tone was very appealing. He also was very impressed by Salman Rushdie; we’ve both rather avoided him, thinking he’d be pretentious or literary, but he is instead a very good storyteller.

Concerts

  • Gershwin concert, Count Basie
  • Chris Smither, House of Independents
  • Gordon Lightfoot, Paramount
  • Steve Forbert, Town Crier

Nothing truly outstanding, as probably the only singer still in good voice of this set is Steve Forbert. Gordon Lightfoot in particular struggled. I think the concert was more of a personal triumph for him over age and infirmity, but he was so frail; it made for a rather sad and sobering experience.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • Leonora and Alejandro: La Maga y el Maestro, Montclair University
  • Robbins 100, New York City Ballet
  • Othello, Shakespeare in the Park
  • Symphonie Fantastique, HERE
  • The Low Road, Public Theater
  • Fusiform Gyrus – A Septet for Two Scientists and Five Horns, HERE
  • Black Lives: Stories of the African American Experience, Asbury Park Second Baptist Church
  • Two “Storytellers” evenings, Asbury Park Press
  • Wunderkammer, La MaMa Puppet Festival
  • Don Quixote Takes New York, La MaMa Puppet Festival
  • Jump Start (Works in Progress), La MaMa Puppet Festival
  • High Noon, Axis Theater
  • Mother of the Maid, Public Theater
  • Minimalism and Me (Twyla Tharp), Joyce Theater
  • Exploring the Works of Samuel Beckett, by Bill Irwin, Irish Repertory Theatre
  • A Christmas Carol, No. 11
  • Selected Shorts: Dance in America, Symphony Space
  • Girl from the North Country, Public Theater

Lot of works, lot of diversity, lot of thanks to Julie for all the shows at the Public (which now have the added thrill of seeing her name in the Playbill; so exciting!). The Puppet Festival, which we always look forward to, had one truly magical evening—Wunderkammer—which was haunting and poetic. We were privileged to see three highly talented and creative performers at the top of their craft, two discussing their craft: Bill Irwin, Twyla Tharpe, and Glenn Close. These were effortless master classes, a joy to hear and see people do what they do best. Bill Irwin’s observations and explanations were so elucidating: his sense of himself in space, and his repeated use of the word “silhouette,” was a fascinating insight. And I think seeing Twyla Tharpe smile was worth the ticket. Symphonie Fantastique was joyous; for a taste of this, click here: http://www.basiltwist.com/symphonie.html. The various storyteller evenings were uplifting and personal and friendly; we were glad we went. A couple were a bit too avant for us, maybe: High Noon, while absorbing and mesmerizing, was ultimately opaque. And at this point, I only dimly recall being puzzled by Leonora and Alejandro.

Movies

  • Lady Macbeth
  • Wakefield
  • Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Dunkirk
  • Lost in Paris
  • The Other Side of the Wind
  • Wonderstruck
  • Suburbicon
  • Wait for Your Laugh
  • Kaleidoscope
  • I Remember You
  • The Disaster Artist
  • Molly’s Game
  • The Party
  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
  • Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
  • Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts
  • Our Little Sister
  • A Quiet Place
  • The Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling
  • Break on Thru: A Celebration of Ray Manzarek and the Doors
  • You Weren’t Really There
  • Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
  • Unsane
  • Beast
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me
  • Three Identical Strangers
  • Puzzle
  • The Fairy
  • Light Between Two Oceans
  • Yellow Submarine
  • Black Klansman
  • The Tale
  • Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
  • The Wife
  • Mosaic
  • Logan Lucky
  • The Bookshop
  • Deconstructing the Beatles: The Birth of the Beatles
  • Imagine
  • Jane Fonda in Five Acts
  • Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
  • 1945
  • The Favourite
  • At Eternity’s Gate
  • Death of Stalin
  • The Cakemaker
  • They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
  • Okja

That’s pretty much the whole “first run” list—the movies we saw at the movies or streaming very soon after (often too limited) theater runs. Documentaries first: the best was the Gary Shandling on HBO, because it did what a good documentary should. It challenged conventional understandings by introducing facts and depth and different perspectives, bringing a richness to the portrait and dispelling a lot of myth. A lovingly made and intelligent film. At the other end of the spectrum was the crowd-pleaser Three Identical Strangers, which we found manipulative, biased, and simplistic. Steve’s favorites of the “fiction” movies were The Favourite, Wakefield, and Death of Stalin; Bryan Cranston’s performance in Wakefield he felt was particularly believable, and Death of Stalin was fun, with the always excellent Steve Buscemi. There were several strong femalA chapter title reads “I do fear confusion and accidents.”e movies on the list that I count as my faves of the year: Molly’s Game, The Favourite, and Our Little Sister. These very different films, with very different tones and themes, were united in having fearless and frank and smart heroines, who passed the Bechdel test with flying colors. I won’t elaborate beyond adding that I thought the title design for The Favourite (see a sample chapter title at right) was fantastic: someone made a bold choice and stuck with it valiantly, almost perversely, but with single-minded integrity and a touch of ironic whimsy—which to my mind, is the essence of good design.

I also must mention Lost in Paris and The Fairy. Discovering Abel and Gordon was an absolute delight. To prove this, watch this clip:

We watched or rewatched some classics on TCM as well; of these, I must single out the unexpectedly warm, funny, affecting, and affirming Roughly Speaking with Rosalind Russell, and the delicious The Young in Heart, whose marvelous cast includes Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Billie Burke, Roland Young, Paulette Goddard, and Janet Gaynor.

Now that my beloved Twin Peaks is more than a year gone, and the last of Mad Men watched and rewatched, TV has not had the same appeal, although we have become devotees of The Wire and, by extension, The Deuce.

Field Trips and Museums

Two museum trips this year: one to see the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and a visit to the Neue Galerie to visit the German Expressionists. The Bowie was very good, but a bit disconcerting until we caught on that the headphones played site specifically as you neared an exhibit. It was also all about immersion rather than comprehensive understanding: you were meant to feel it rather than analyze it. Notwithstanding, it was quite an experience and made us very sorry that this protean talent is no more. We also enjoyed visiting the Rodin sculptures; always so solidly, impressively majestic. Another field trip was occasioned by a sea voyage: crossing on the ferry in January at night, the motors were cut in Sandy Hook Bay and, looking out, I saw we were in a sea of ice. It was like being on the Titanic, cold and still and black and scary. And a fellow passenger said, “Well you’ve seen the mornings, haven’t you?” And when I said no, he told me that the ice was covered with seals in the mornings. So we found that the Littoral Society was hosting a seal walk in February, and went tromping all over Sandy Hook, rewarded with a bevvy of harbor seals sunning on a jetty. Quite the sight—and quite unexpected this close to New York City.

Food

No really new recipes, but Steve has more than perfected his shrimp chowder and his blistered string beans. And of course, we have the lovely new stove to try all this deliciousness out on. Restaurant-wise, the new find was Cacio e Vino in the East Village. Which is some solace, given the closure of so many long-time favorites this year, including Café Español in the West Village.

Miscellany

IMG_0121A number of factors sort of coalesced to put us on a series of home improvement quests. We discovered an Asian furniture store in (almost) convenient Connecticut, and had quite the shopping adventure exploring the store and surrounds in Norwalk. Another home improvement highlight: an elegant vanitybacksplash for the kitchen of ceramic tiles painted copper. They gleam and cast different light at different times of the day. And I painted the vanity doors in our bathroom, discovering this wonderful Art Deco style commercial artist, Frederick Packer, and tracing his lovely ladies on our doors.

The best part of all the new purchases was meeting and interacting with and learning from a whole host of friendly and informative and quirky and bright salespeople and craftsmen.

Social

Steve describes it as the summer of two funerals and a wedding, and indeed these milestones colored and shaped much of the year. Julie and Yael married in August, and the wedding was lovely and the weather perfect.

The first funeral was not entirely unexpected, but that did not make it less sad or final. Steve’s mother, Ann Caporaletti, died at 96 in June. Then Steve’s sister-in-law Linda died quite unexpectedly two months later; despite her numerous illnesses, her death took us all very much off guard. And then there was a long wait for the funeral, which pushed it to the same week as Julie’s wedding. The juxtaposition colored everything, and I think we needed much of the fall to get back to ourselves.

Overall, a year of many events big and small, bookending lots of challenging work, and driven by a conscious effort to do and see and explore in our own low-key and unadventurous way.

Theatre review

Girl from the North Country

static.playbill.com

My mother told me “we don’t compare.” And my brother’s long years as a theater critic taught me that not every play is for everyone.

But man, I am double damned if I can figure out what it is that most of the critics are responding to in this show, and what the audience was standing up and clapping for at its conclusion this afternoon.

And why, if the point is to evoke and illuminate the notoriously obtuse and obscure Dylan canon, this has found favor and Twyla Tharpe’s soaring and glorious (to me, at least) The Times They Are a-Changin’ was universally panned and ignominiously closed after two months in 2006.

girl
Scene from Girl from the North Country. Photograph: Joan Marcus

I like bleak. I like dark and depressing and difficult. And certainly Girl from the North Country is all that. But I also like clarity. I don’t need everything spelled out or neatly tied up with a bow (proof: I adored the maddening, mystifying, and magnificent Twin Peaks: The Return), but I do need to sense that the creative minds behind a work have a vision, a point, an idea they are struggling to share.

And I sure didn’t feel that today. I saw hefty borrowings from Our Town, The Iceman Cometh, Of Mice and Men, and even Rent. I saw more plot than you can shake a stick at—if, like Groucho says, that’s your idea of a good time. I saw loss leaders and red herrings, much-heralded reveals that elucidated nothing, bombshells that fizzled, characters twisted to serve exposition rather than the other way round, color-blind casting that sometimes was and sometimes wasn’t, lighting effects seemingly exercised only for their novelty. In short: incoherent characters, incomprehensible plot, and inconsistent staging.

The piece focuses on the managers and residents of a Duluth boardinghouse: a much-scarred, highly flawed assemblage of Midwestern Depression-era losers. I don’t use the word flippantly; each character has lost something—to death, despair, disease, or just bad luck—of critical value: love, freedom, financial security, purpose. And the actors, particularly the terrific Mare Winningham, make their suffering palpable. But they can’t make them believable, because the script doesn’t permit this.

I think we are never supposed to forget that we are watching a play, a contrivance. Certainly, the way the twenty musical numbers are handled supports this idea. A scene will be unfolding and then, suddenly, a character will come forward to a standing mike and begin singing, while the rest of the cast assembles behind him or her, some playing instruments, others forming a (largely stagnant, at least in the first act) backup group. Then everyone troops back to where they were before the song erupted and the action resumes. The numbers are less an explication or expansion of a character’s thoughts and feelings than a series of parenthetical asides: the polar opposite of an integrated book musical. They are also, almost uniformly, terrific; Steve, a Dylan aficionado, noted how much more emotional content and depth trained actors and singers bring to the songs than the composer himself.

However, the strange distancing framing of the songs, where they are not sung by the characters, but by anonymous unknowns, makes for a discomfiting experience: who are these people? where are they with regard to the action? why do they sometimes interact with each other, smiling and holding hands? and why the hell don’t they dance in the first act?

I could go on, enumerating all the big and little questions this odd production raised for me, but life’s too short, and I think I just have to chalk this up as somehow simply not speaking to me. To me, the creators of Girl from the North Country tackled the challenge of Dylan by working to pile on more mystery and inconclusiveness. Whereas Twyla Tharpe decided to bring the viewer to Dylan’s world through the senses rather than the head.

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Scene from The Times They Are a-Changin’; Sara Krulwich/The New York Times