Sunday, April 26, 2009

COMEDY, in the Round, and UNHINGED

Christopher Durang is clearly deranged, and I couldn’t be more pleased. His targets in “WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, and the People who Love Them” at the Public are those decent people despise—“enhanced interrogation” and paranoia, which include the people who have the second and so do the first. Upstairs in the home of the parents of Felicity(Tony award winning Laura Benanti, who has less of an adversary in her (could he be?) terrorist husband, than she did with Patti Lupone playing her mother in “Gypsy”) her father(Richard Poe) is conducting a “shadow government”, Dick Cheney with hair. Her mother, Luella, (Kristine Nielsen) deliciously ditsy and full of actressy surprises, gave me, personally, a passel of laughs, expressing the playwright’s disdain for that with which I most closely identified: “Wicked” and Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” (someone she knew committed suicide rather than face the third segment of that marathon , as bleak and pretentious an experience as I have ever had in the theater.)
A happier marathon, apparently, took place at the Circle in the Square, with Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests.” I saw only the evening’s presentation, but the audience that had been there all day sat literally around with delighted expressions on their faces, as if they had spent the time with eccentric but beloved relatives. There is employed in the scenario the device of the “dirty weekend,” which the Brits, in their dualistic approach to sex, much too well brought up to discuss it openly, but secretly delighting in its gamey underside(see Christine Keeler and various shops in Shepherd’s Market) seem to like better than straightforward lust. Nobody managed to get away to have one in the segment I saw, but everyone longed for and almost got there. The three sisters and their various mates all of whom hunger for one of the others are acted with comedic perfection by the ensemble cast, directed to a farcical fare-thee-well by Matthew Warchus. I shall have to go back and see the other two to understand why the patently intelligent audience felt such a sense of kinship and delight with their adopted(for a day) family

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Road Less Traveled

On 45th Street, there were hordes lining up in hope of cancellations for Billy Elliot, which were not to be. Standing room plus, not counting the family of five, the Stoddards, including Maeve, 4, whose first show it was, sitting next to me, filled with anticipation. I, too, was excited to be there. Too excited, as it turned out. The little boy with the lollipop climbed the steps to the stage and stood there waiting for the show to start, a touch that touched my heart. But that was the last I was touched, I who have wept through the overture of the revived South Pacific, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the best movie musical ever, and the blind contestant on American Idol being sent home. So it is not that I am not easily moved. Billy Elliot is a masterwork of technical brilliance. “They made it so technical,” said my P.A.,(Personal Angel) a dancer and choreographer who had been to Merce Cunningham’s 90th birthday celebration at BAM last week, where she had wept throughout. But then, because hers is a softer heart than mine, and she is living in these times, she said “How great that this production is giving all those people so many jobs.”
There are 53 people in the company(not counting all those working backstage, wardrobe mistresses, wigmakers, etc) of Billy Elliot, and at times it seems that all of them are onstage at once. Little girl dancers in tutus, and Big Bad British police advancing in a line with heavy transparent shields, and striking miners and Maggie Thatcher. All of it intelligent as the movie was, but none of it as intelligible, cluttered as it seemed and felt, even to my PA, who wished she could have better observed the choreography, except there was too much of it going on at the same time. Even when yesterday’s Billy(there are three of them who alternate, -- we got to see David Alvarez, who is suitably amazing—and there is, I understand, a farm where they are growing more Billy Elliots) takes balletic flight with his older counterpart, it is rigged, quite literally. A hook on his back carries him aloft as if this were Peter Pan. So unnecessary when the music(the actual symphonic recording of Swan Lake) soars, and the dancers could do the same without metallic aids.
That music, by the way, is the last that moved me. I know this is Sir Elton, who was so touched by the story, coming so close to his own—a father who disapproved of the career he chose, as did the father of Lee Hall, the writer of the original movie, and the book and lyrics for the show--- but there is not one memorable song. Haydn Gwynne has her own personal conviction and radiance in the role of the tough ballet teacher who discovers Billy’s gift, but even her energy cannot bring a sense of originality to SHINE, the number that should have done it, saying what it was you had to do as a performer. The ghost of Fred Ebb fluttered through the lyric as it suggested one should razzle-dazzle, wafting me over to ‘Chicago.’ ‘Expressing Yourself’, the guaranteed show-stopper, became just that because of tinsel and glitter, literally, waving in the lights, and a spirited attempt at scene-stealing by Keann Johnson, who, according to my PA “pushed it,” but it worked for me. Still, all that energy did not make it into a song.
But it was an afternoon of uplift, especially for Maeve’s ten year old brother, Aidan, who had seen only one show before, The Radio City Music Hall Christmas show, and thought this was better, although which is more extravagant could be argued. I exited, my heart a little heavy, because I knew without looking that the musical I really loved, Next to Normal, across the street was not doing nearly as well, with, I think, greater originality, genuine emotionality, and true talent at the helm. Oh, well, as Anne Bancroft said, quoting her father, “that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


As noted on an earlier entry to this burgeoning blog, I ran into Jane Fonda the other day while lunching at Michael's,which used to be the Main Haunt of the book business while there was still one. She was with Lynn Nesbitt, the formidable literary agent who represented, among glittering others, my too-early-late lamented buddy Michael Crichton, whose premature and very sad departure leaves the literary world without its annual Crichton blockbuster, except tis said they found another novel on his hard drive. No one was harder driven than Michael, but as he was always miles ahead on gripping events to come, we'll see if this is but a way to milk the cash cow.
But it was lovely seeing the still lovely Ms. Fonda, whose performance in 33 Variations I found to be darkly dazzling, as is, in a blonde way, the lady herself(though she might insist on being referred to as 'woman,' the 'lady' label is undeniable, she so oozes class.) Surprising almost beyond belief is the fact that the play, which is itself quite admirable, is not doing much business. My waiter at Sarabeth's, himself an actor as are most of the waiters in New York, went to a matinee and said the whole balcony was empty. They should, if not clinging to the rafters at leasr be leaning over the front rows of the mezzanine, hyponotized. Besides her excellence in the role there is her luminous bravery, playing a woman who's failing, when Ms. Fonda herself has never failed except for a lapse she is still apologizing and being picketed for, and a couple of marriages. I saw the courageness of the character she played, fighting MS. echoing in a riveting way the personal courage of the actress herself, who seems to never give up, and never give in, continuing to evolve rather than simply go into the shadows with her contemporaries lest her wrinkles show.
I had occasion to almost have a movie with the on-the-brink of middle-age Jane Fonda, with my novel MARRIAGE, about a women who's more successful than her husband, at a time when it wasn't yet all right for a woman to be that (as if it WERE now, yet, ever) without its destroying the husband and the marriage. I regularly lunched then with Linda Obst, who was book-pimping for Fonda, courting me and becoming my new best friend so Jane could option the book, play the role and produce the picture. As it turned out-- she was married to Tom Hayden at the time, and was afraid people would think it was HER story, rather than mine, which it was, my husband having fallen victim to the contempt shown men when their wives outshine them, especially in Hollywood-- she decided not to buy the book. Very sad, as she would have been wonderful and so would the movie never made, as it would have synthesized who and what she was at the time. But such is the way of that West Coast playground, and, if you're sitting down, once the deal was off, I never heard from my New Best Friend Linda Obst again.
But Jane, if I may call her so, having achieved that almost-intimacy, is valiant in 33 Variations as she is in life, so I urge you all to go see it as she stretches her talent to the limits, and grabs the Golden Apple from the tree. The play's good, too, though a bit lofty for today's non-thinkers. As a friend said, Peter Schaffer('Amadeus') would have done better, but then, so would Robby Lantz as the agent. Well worth the price of the ticket which is probably available at discount, Alas.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


So it is that I move into my new role of what I like to think Max Beerbohm might have been forced into should he find himself dropped into this time that marks not only the comfortable end of the world as we knew it, but the vanishing of the written word, at least on paper, and sally forth into the theater with a critical eye.
Last night I attended the revival of BLITHE SPIRIT, Noel Coward's airy and (one must think) not too hard-worked-over sprint into the comedy of the hereafter, wherein a dashing Brit in his country manse, which doubtless was originally played by Sir Noel himself, played here by the handsome Rupert Everett, who has been funnier, as Charles, (what else would Coward have called him?) brings in a local, eccentric(to put it mildly)medium, who conjures up his dead first wife, to the consternation of his second. The medium, Madame Arcadi, to the delight and occasional roars of the audience, is played past the hilt by Angela Lansbury, who, beaded and laden with frou-frou misses not one do-able comic gesture, including a woo-woo wackadoo dance of her own invention to call up the Beyond. Angela Lansbury herself is the magic of the play, and the audience cannot get enough of her, proof as she is, may wonders never cease, that not all the Good die young. She does keep the thing alive, as well as the audience.
Christine Ebersole is appropriately radiant as the dead Elvira, and sings from offstage in her lovely voice a number of Coward songs during scene changes. The odd thing is Irving Berlin's 'Always' the record that is played throughout the show, considering that so many of Coward's songs, especially 'I'll See you Again' would have done just as well, and he could have paid himself the royalties. Just as, could Arcadi have conjured him, he doubtless would have cut some of the laborious second act. Jayne Atkinson does what I assume is her best in the thankless role of the present(for a while, anyway) second wife, and Susan Louise O'Connor skitters comically across the stage at half mast as the maid.
Simon Jones, my neighbor in real-life, is handsomely reassuring as the doctor, but himself doubted the veracity of the set as an English country living room, what with the furniture facing AWAY from the fire. He showed me an exercise tape that Angela made some
years ago("hardly Jane Fonda" he noted) that will be put out on DVD the end of the month, to help keep in shape for a longer life. I would urge everyone of a certain age, or even hoping to get there, to check it out. There is no arguing with a spirit that stays blithe on either side of that curtain.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Tale of Two Lawrence

It was the best of Lawrence's, and the worst of Lawrence's. Having rejoined the alleged Literary Community, I lunched yesterday at Michael's, which was peopled with the well-connected and the insidious, whom I shall not cite by name, as I have had enough of lawsuits. But also present were Jane Fonda,currently giving a searing performance in 33 Variations, playing a character who almost matches her own personal courage offstge, with dog on herlap(she can take it anywhere as she has a license that it's a therapy dog, which I will have to get for Mimi, who does not enjoy the small dimensions Happy did, and so cannot be concealed in a coat pocket), Gabriel Byrne, who is healing many of us along with his HBO patients on 'In Treatment' simply by watching, and there in the corner, what Ho, Peter O'Toole. He was close to unrecognizable, except for the ghosts of cheekbones past and a very fine nose, until he put on his sunglasses and became indisputably, as his first wife Sian Phillips said in her excellent memoir,"a movie star." I had had the quieting joy of seeing Lawrence of Arabia the other night, and truly they don't make them like that anymore, or Mr. O'Toole either.
Then last night, having lately fallen into a deep infatuation with the glorious work of the young Maggie Smith,(I loved her old, too, in Lady in a Van, too, as I have loved her in everything except the fiasco movie made from a clever script of mine, where I was humiliated for her that she had to be in such a piece of dreck, as rewritten and misdirected by the once gifted Bryan Forbes)I racked up my DVD the Olivier version of 'Othello,'in which she played Desdemona. I had read that Lord O was so outraged by how completely she diminished him, that he vowed never to work with her again. But watching that Laurence huff and puff, charcoaled as he was, overacting so badly that his epileptic seizure seemed no more over the top than any of the rest of his performance, I was forced to turn it off before he could kill Desdemona, as my friend who was watching with me had been droned into sleep by his incantations, more Voodoo than Moor. I will watch Maggie die another time, as she was clearly not a part of the same picture, and is entitled to her own screening.
I knew a few who knew and loved Olivier: my friend Louie Ramsay who was his protege at the National, Danny Kaye, but that was only gossip, and I, myself, with Wuthering Heights, and when I saw him do Shylock in the cancer-riddled flesh in London, where in spite of all his pain he got down on his haunches and danced his rage and hatred, pricked, did he not bleed?-- a shattering performance. But my God he was out of control as Othello, and I can only assume that the director, Stuart Burge, was so overcome at working with the great Sir Laurence (as he was only then, the Lord O came later) that he had not the nerve to tell him to take it down a notch, or 12.
Bu tonight I go to the theater for real, the Angela Lansbury Blithe Spirit, so will make my first Report as a Broadway blogger, about live theater. Everything I have seen thus far has been a great disappointment, from West Side Story, where crucial songs are sung in Spanish, a clever arrogance on the part of Arthur Laurents, but not fair to an audience that doesn't understand as the lyrics are plot advancers, but I can't tell that to my darling friend Tyne Daly as she loves him, to a few failed productions by the best friend I have made since I came to New York so I can't mention them as she is a wonderful woman and I long to be able to root for her, to the American Plan, predictable and overacted enough by Mercedes Ruehl that she could stand toe to toe even with Olivier's Othello. Exceptions to the disappointment were Forbidden Broadway which I loved, making fun as it did of all that is exaggerated affected and execrable about the last few seasons, a reasonably interesting 'Reasons to be Pretty,'something forgettably dreary at 59 E. 59th STreet theater, convenient to me but not so much so that I can endure boredom, 'Next to Normal' which hasn't opened yet but I found brilliant, and a downtown small-theater performance of a new translation of Antigone, 'Fire Throws' because it re-awakened my brain. For the rest, it's all Greek to me.