I walked out of the Lyceum Theatre thinking that I had just spent what amounts to a buck a minute on a rotten piece of ephemera – like that dead squirrel Tracy Letts picks up and throws into a trash bag, or the spoilt food Michael C. Hall takes out of the refrigerator – with little else but these few words of mine to show for it. If only that food had been served hot. If only the squirrel had lived. If only. Or maybe not.
That’s just the problem with the second half of James Lapine’s reworking of Hart’s book. It tells – rather than compellingly dramatizes – the story of how Hart and Kaufman collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930). Watching two guys sitting around drafting a play isn’t nearly as riveting as experiencing that play or the evolution of it. And, to me, at least, it didn’t help matters that, several years ago, I saw a lifeless National Theatre production of Once in a Lifetime, starring David Suchet. What should have been sheer madcap felt drowsily close to one nightcap too many.
If the play, in this production, at least, isn’t quite a cure for drama dependency, that may be because it isn’t sufficiently catching to be an antidote to theater madness. It has a cuteness about it that is merely subcutaneous. It doesn’t prick you, or hook you, or infuse you with the passion of which it can only speak in borrowed words.
|An Argosy find|
I had walked past this place many an evening on the way to Ty’s, my favorite Greenwich Village watering hole. This time, though, it was mid-afternoon and I turned left, leaving Christopher for Gay Street. I had come here specially to take a picture of number 14, the former residence of two sisters who, for about a quarter of a century or so, were household names across America. Ruth and Eileen McKenney had been on my mind ever since I saw that production of Wonderful Town on a visit to Manchester, England—and the gals, whose misadventures are tunefully related in said musical, seemed determined to stay there. On my mind, that is, not up in the Salford docklands; though, judging from their experience way down here on Gay Street, they might not have minded the docks.
Eileen was lying there all the same—prominently if carelessly displayed, draped in a flashy, tantalizingly torn jacket that stood out among the drab, worn-out linen coats of a great number of unassuming second-hand Roses about to be put in their place—waiting to be picked up. I don’t flatter myself. My company was of no consequence to Eileen. If I was being lured, it was no doubt owing to an itch Eileen had to get out of yet another basement.
|Not straight ahead|
Thinking of the case I had to lug to the airport before long—and the less than commodious accommodations that would await Eileen in my study—I had hesitated and walked out alone; but I soon changed my mind, returned to the Argosy, and, to my relief, found Eileen still there, though shifted a little as if to say “I’m not thateasy” and to make me suffer for waffling.
|14 Gay Street|
Every time a train roared by, some three feet under our wooden floor, all our dishes rattled, vases swayed gently, and startled guests dropped drinks.
|Wisteria on Gay Street|
Once, as I recalled here before, I had the audacity to tell a well-known biographer, whose student I was, that I had no respect for writers of other people’s life stories. Unless content to be mere chroniclers, recording activities and recounting events, they are fabricators of interiorities that, I was—and am— convinced, are unknowable to anyone other than the single occupant of that interior. For all our confidences and intimations, we are ultimately unreadable to one another.
In order to turn life into story, biographers must impose a logic beyond chronology, a pattern to make unreason rhyme. They connect the dots on a timeline to create causal relationships designed to account for people’s behaviors and actions: because she couldn’t face her past, she couldn’t live with herself; because she lost her brother, she lost her trust in family; because he was in truth insecure, he became a make-believe gunslinger. Without being supplied with at least a hint of what we call “motivation,” we reject stories as lacking in psychological depth and moral complexity.
Back when I gave my professor a piece of my mind—proffered, mind you, with a smile—I thought of the biographer’s determination to make sense of other people’s existences as sheer hubris. Now, I am more inclined to look at biography as an act of desperation. Nothing is more disconcerting, more silencing and disabling, than the blank we have to call potentiality in order to face or overwrite and deface it. We cannot—will not—settle for zilch.
Secrets and duplicities, intimacy and detachment. Like all family dramas worth relating to, Jon Robin Baitz’s stage play Other Desert Cities measures the distance between folks who are biologically—and often physically—closest to each other: the flesh, the blood and the closeted skeletons of kinfolk.
|Approaching Palm Springs (and Other Desert Cities)|
Baitz’s American stage family, the Wyeths, could hardly be more traditional: a mother and father, married to one another, a daughter and son, offspring of that union. Then there is the dramatically expedient extension of that nucleus; in this case an alcoholic, don’t-give-a-damn aunt whom the audience looks at as a go-between, not only between characters but between those characters and ourselves. It is a well calculated constellation, this, as Other Desert Cities does not just explore relationships but the act of relating, of putting that relationship and all those relations into words, and of questioning the words and the unspoken.
Though most of us couldn’t live with Aunt Silda (Judith Light, in the Booth Theatreproduction), we love her for what we are encouraged to read as her forthrightness and free spirit. She, we assume, would be the person most likely to tell the true story of that family, as compromised as her memory and judgment might be after years of swilling the kind of spirits from which she is unable to free herself.
|Hello Silda—The way I remember Palm Springs|
After all, we cannot expect to get the inside dirt from her sister Polly (Stockard Channing), a staunch yet tarnished Republican who is terrified that her daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) has written a tell-all autobiography threatening to tear the façade right off the family’s sunny Californian home.
Honey. News-flash: you’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew! We’re Jewish girls who lost their accents along the way, but for you that wasn’t enough, you had to become a goy, too. Talk about the real thing? Talk about ‘faking it.’ Honey, this Pucci is a lot more real than your Pat Buckley schtick.
As it turns out, neither Silda nor Polly are what we are led to believe them to be; and this is Brooke’s lesson, too, as she tries to piece together the life story of her lost brother, a left-wing radical whose act of terrorism forced Nancy Reagan pal Polly and her ex-Hollywood star husband Lyman (Stacey Keach) into retirement in the desert.
Desperate to figure out who or what made her brother Henry what the facts don’t quite tell her he was, Brooke turns from writing fiction to biography. Yet, in her attempt to expose the truth, she ends up with yet another version of the story rather than a definitive one. “She presents us as ghouls who drove [Henry] to become sort of a murderer,” her anguished, disconsolate father protests to his son (Thomas Sadoski), the “ADD riddled, junk-food-addicted porn surfing Trip Wyeth,” as Brooke calls him to his face.
“Christ, there’s something so vicious about what you’re doing here, Brooke, don’t you know that?” Lyman exclaims. Vicious and necessary, Other Desert Cities argues. And futile? As suggested by the closing scene, which may strike some as perfunctory or incongruously sentimental, Brooke’s ordeal—and the ordeal to which she put her family—has served a purpose.
What may seem like a coda or anticlimax I took as the point of the Baitz’s drama. As a biographer, Brooke has failed. She has been taken in, taken story for life and secrecy for guilt only to become complicit in her family’s cover-up. As an autobiographer, though, Brooke is to be envied. She has learned something about herself that she didn’t know before she came to investigate the lives of those around her. We may be unknowable to each other—but we can learn to know ourselves.
Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously. He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.
Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.
Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were. Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over. Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.
A few weeks ago, my better half and I were up in Manchester, England, to do research for an upcoming exhibition. While there, we had the good fortune of catching a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town starring Welsh girl gone West End Connie Fisher as Ruth. Though not quite the real thing, this revival of a Broadway musical version of a play (turned movie, turned sitcom) based on a series of magazine stories inspired by the personal recollections of an Ohioan in Gotham did manage to evoke some of the magic and the madness of life in the titular burg. And now that I’m back, the residential misadventures of Eileen and her sister come to mind each time I walk down Second Avenue in my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Like the McKenney siblings, whose Greenwich Village basement flat was shaken by blasts heralding a subway line then under construction, folks up here in Yorkville have been dealing for years with the pre-math of just such a subterranean project: the noise, the dirt, the traffic jams, the shut down stores, the narrowed sidewalks, the fenced in pedestrian passageways that make you feel like a laboratory rat . . . and the rats themselves.
I am taking the passing ash cloud as an occasion to dust off my collection of Cinegrams, a late-1930s to early 1940s series of British movie programs I recently set out to acquire. Immemorabilia, you might call them. Not quite first-rate souvenirs of, for the most part, less-than-classic films like The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or worse. These cheaply printed ephemera were designed—quite pointlessly, it seems—to encourage folks to keep alive their memories of something that may well have been forgettable to begin with. Sure, why not pay a little extra for a few stills of a picture that wasn’t much to look at while in motion? And why not pay still more to keep your “Film Memories” in a self-binding case, with your name on it— in gilt-lettering, no less? That was the offer made to British moviegoers anno 1937, who purchased Cinegram No. 14 to prevent Non-Stop New York from seeming all too fleeting.
Perhaps, I am confusing “forgettable” with “forgotten.” Non-Stop New York which is readily available online, has a lot going for it, quite apart from being a fast-paced romantic vehicle for John Loder and Anna Lee, helmed by Lee’s husband, Robert Stevenson, who would go on to make Flubber and Mary Poppins soar at the box office.
Efficiently if somewhat routinely lensed, this Gaumont-British production might have served as a project for the company’s most notable director, Alfred Hitchcock. Substituting airlanes for tracks, it’s the The Lady Vanishes in the realm of the birds. Except that, in this case, the lady—the young and innocent girl who knew too much—refuses to vanish, which makes the man whose secret she knows all the more eager to see to her disappearance.
The main attraction of Non-Stop New York is not its contrived plot, its charming leads or its rich assortment of goons and ganefs. Rather, it is the film’s setting, the futuristic plane aboard which this pursuit reaches its thrilling climax. It is a large, multi-story aircraft resembling a luxury liner—right down to the outdoor deck on which windblown lovers kiss by moonlight and villains go for the kill. There’s plenty of room for some old-fashioned hide and seek, as passengers are not crowded together but retreat into the privacy of their own cabins. Quite an extravagance, this, considering that the imagined travel time of eighteen hours hardly warrants accommodations fit for on a sea voyage, which mode of transatlantic crossing yet served as a point of reference to the production designers who conceived the vessel.
It took Christopher Columbus ten weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Cinegram No. 14 educated its readers. “Today, ten hours seem to be sufficient to complete the same journey.” Set in the seemingly foreseeable future of 1939, Non-Stop New York
anticipates the regular air service which before long [that is, after the end of the wartime air raids that, even in the age of Guernica, purveyors of escapist entertainment did not trouble themselves to predict] will be flying regularly across the North Atlantic and carrying passengers overnight between London and New York. Already survey flights are being carried out by Imperial Airways and Pan American Airways and these flights have shown that such a service is not longer a dream of the fiction writer, but something which to-morrow will be as commonplace as the many daily services of to-day between London and Paris.
The first experimental flights were made in the Summer of 1937. The British company made a series of flights with two of the Empire class flying boats, the “Caledonia” and the “Cambria.” The terminal points of these flights were Southampton and New York and the route followed was by way of Foynes, on the west coast of Ireland across the Atlantic, 1992 miles, to Botwood, Newfoundland. From there the flying boats went to New York by way of Montreal.
In all, 5 two-way crossings were made and these were carried out without incident and with such certainty that they reached the other side of the Atlantic within a few minutes of schedule.
On the last eastward journey the “Cambria” set up an all time record, making the 1992 miles in 10 hrs. 33 min. or at an average speed of nearly 190 m.p.h.
These flying boats will not be used for the Atlantic service when passengers are carried but it is probably that flying boats of the same type, but with greater power and greater ranger will be used. These flying boats may have a cruising speed of 250 m.p.h., and carry 20-30 passengers in a degree of comfort equal to that of the present luxury liner.
With its promise of a jet-setting tomorrow, a title like Non-Stop New York must have sounded thrilling to picture-goers anno 1937, albeit not nearly as thrilling as such a promise is to any present-day passenger awaiting the all-clear for departure at one of Britain’s dormant airports—among them a friend of ours whose plans for a birthday celebration in Gotham are being pulverized by the largest export of a cash-strapped nation to whom volcanic activity appears to be a natural substitute for banking.
Movies like Non-Stop New York and collectibles such as Cinegram No. 14 remind me that, in living memory, long distance air travel was rare and special indeed. They remind me as well of one momentous April morning in 1985—some quarter century ago—when my younger self first boarded a transatlantic flight to the exhilarating and treacherous metropolis that was New York City. Back then, we still applauded the captain who returned us safely to earth; nowadays, we merely moan when we are grounded for whatever strikes us non-stoppers as too long . . .
What a tramp my mind has turned into lately. I would like to think that I still got one of my own, to have and to hold on to, for richer or poorer, and all that; but every now and again, and rather too frequently at that, the willful one takes off without the slightest concern for my state of it. It used to be that I could gather my thoughts like keepsakes to store a mind with; these days, I wonder just who’s minding the store. And just when I feel that I’ve lost it completely, there it comes ambling in, disheveled, unruly, and well out of its designated head. With a little luck, the suitcase of mementoes with which it absconded turns up again, similarly disorganized, rarely complete if at times strangely augmented. Perhaps, minds resent being crossed once too often. That has crossed mine, to be sure.
Anyway, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. Straight back to New York City. The Biltmore Theatre. Make that the Samuel J. Friedman, as it is now called. Built in 1925 and steeped in comedy theater tradition, the former Biltmore is just the venue for the current revival of The Royal Family, of which production, scheduled to open 8 October 2009, I had the good fortune to catch the second preview a few weeks ago. Classic crowd-pleasers like Poppa (1929), Brother Rat (1936-38), My Sister Eileen (1940-42), and the long-running Barefoot in the Park (1963-67) were staged here, where Mae West caused a sensation in October 1928 with Pleasure Man, a play they let go on for all of two performances.
While Ethel Barrymore might have wished a similarly compact run for The Royal Family, the play amused rather than scandalized theatergoers who appreciated it as a wildly flamboyant yet precisely cut gem of wit set firmly in a mount of genuine sentiment—which is just what you’d expect from a collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Histrionics, theatrical disguises, a bit of swashbuckling—this screwball of a jewel still generates plenty of sparks, even if the preview I attended needed a little polish to show it off it to its full advantage.
Informed that her son may have killed a man, the matriarch of the family inquires: “Anyone we know?” Among the somebodies we know to have slain them with lines like these in the past are Broadway and Hollywood royals like Otto Kruger, Ruth Hussey, Eva Le Gallienne, Fredric March, Rosemary Harris, and . . . Rosemary Harris. As is entirely in keeping with the play’s premise—three generations of a theatrical family congregating and emoting under one roof—Ms. Harris is now playing the mother of the character she portrayed back in 1975. Regrettably, unlike Estelle Winwood in the cleverly truncated Theatre Guild on the Air production broadcast on 16 December 1945, Ms. Harris as Fanny Cavendish was not quite eccentric or electric enough, although she certainly possesses the curtains-foreshadowing vulnerability her character refuses to acknowledge.
Decidedly more energetic and Barrymore or less ideally cast were the other members of the present production, which includes Jan Maxwell as Julie, Reg Rogers as Tony, Tony Roberts as Oscar, John Glover as Herbert Dean and Saturday Night Live alumna Ana Gasteyer as Kitty. Whenever the pace slackened and the madcap was beginning to resemble a nightcap or some such old hat, I could generally rely on Ms. Gasteyer’s gestures and facial expressions to keep me amused.
There was a moment, though, when my attention span was being put to the test—and promptly failed. I looked at the fresh though not especially fascinating face of Kelli Barrett (as Gwen) and found myself transported to the 1920s, those early days of the Biltmore. I started to think of or hope for a youthful, vivacious Claudette Colbert performing on Broadway at that time, a few years before she left the stage to pursue a career in motion pictures. Why, I wondered, was my mind walking off with her?
Well, eventually it all came home to me—my mind sauntering back in with a duffle bag of stuff I didn’t remember possessing—when I perused the playbill to learn about the history of the Biltmore. Colbert, I learned, had performed on that very stage back in 1927, the year in which The Royal Family was written, enjoying her first major success in The Barker. Decades later, she returned there for The Kingfishers (1978) and A Talent for Murder (1981). So, there was something of a presence of Ms. Colbert on that stage, even though she never played young Gwen.
Today, researching a little to justify what still seemed like a mere digression in a half-hearted review of the play, I discovered (consulting the index of Bernard F. Dick’s recent biography of Colbert) that the actress did get hold of a minor branch of the Royal Family tree when she seized the opportunity to portray Gwen’s mother in a 1954 television adaptation of the play. That version, the opener for CBS’s The Best of Broadway series, was broadcast live on 16 September—which happens to be the day I stepped inside the Biltmore to catch up with The Royal Family.
Perhaps it is just as well that I give in and let my mind go blithely astray. For all the exasperation of momentary lapses, of missed punch lines, plot lines or points my thoughts are beside of, the returns are welcome and oddly reassuring. Besides, the old tramp wouldn’t have it any other way . . .