ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot

Chalk drawing on the pavement at Union Square. Not that I need an invitation.

Inhale.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Exhale.  I must try that some time without using a brown paper bag.  Just kidding – but only just.  It’s been a breathless few weeks.  Now that I am coming up for air, I’d like to say, if it were not such a hackneyed phrase, that I have returned from my long and long-delayed New York trip with a suitcase full of memories.  Not that I care to be reminded about my luggage, given that, owing to an absent-mindedness brought on by physical exhaustion and an acute state of all-over-the-placeness, my carry-on case continued its journey by rail without me.

Argh.  Among other things, the valise gone astray contained a rare copy of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943), a curiosity of a mystery about which, had I not, through my negligence, forfeited the opportunity of its perusal, I would have liked to say considerably more here, especially given that its story is set in Wales, whereto its English author, H. C. Bailey (1878–1961) retired at the end of his career.

My copy of the novel, before it got lost in transit.

While in New York, I did a bit of research at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division on lost recordings of Bailey’s “Mr. Fortune” stories, nineteen of which were adapted for US radio in the mid-1930s and are extant as scripts.  More about that, and the pig, some other time, the lost-and-found department of Transport for Wales permitting.  Never mind flying.  Pigs might travel by rail.

Pardon the rustling of mental notes; but as recounted here previously, fortune did not exactly smile on me during my stay in New York, entirely overshadowed as it was, at least initially, by my former partner’s heart attack and my bout of Covid, which barred me from the ICU and turned my legs to lead as I dragged myself from one testing site to another.

Rasp.  Not that my sojourns in the metropolis are ever an unalloyed joy, tinged as they invariably are with a sense of loss and estrangement.  Each year, the city I knew most closely when I lived there from 1990 to 2004, is becoming less familiar, less recognizable, and generally less worth revisiting, especially since what was particular and once characteristic is gradually being replaced by the generic and corporate.

The pandemic has speeded up this process, with many of the remaining one-of-a-kind sites going under in a sump of sameness.  A few years ago, when I researched the career of the English printmaker Stanley Anderson for a catalogue raisonné and a series of exhibitions, I was struck by the sense of dislocation some of his etchings communicate.  A kindred spirit, I am alive to Anderson’s visual commentaries on a world that was vanishing – or was made to disappear – before his very eyes.

Edward Hopper, The Lonely House (1920)

I was reminded of Anderson’s alternative views of 1920s London – of construction sites and demolitions – when I came across the etching The Lonely House (1920) in the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney.  New York City, as the show’s curators put it with platitudinous generality, “underwent tremendous development” during Hopper’s lifetime; and instead of focussing his attention on landmarks that are more likely to stay in place than the architecturally commonplace – an assumption proven false decades later by the pulverization of the World Trade Center, an act of religious fanaticism bringing home that iconoclasm on any scale demands the iconic – Hopper “turned his attention” to “unsung utilitarian structures” and was “drawn to the collisions of the new and old” that “captured the paradoxes of the changing city.”

I am likewise eschewing the presumably picture-worthy sites in Asphalt Expressionism, my upcoming exhibition of large format, printed iPhone photographs of New York City sidewalks that, in a tourist’s pursuit of views or selfie backdrops, tend literally to fall by the wayside despite being in plain sight.

However, it is not visuals alone that vanish or material culture only that is subject to erasure.  Sounds, too, face neglect and extinction.  Unless they are voices or musical compositions, aural environments are largely unheard of in most records of our experiences, public or private.  Sounds may survive as a backing track to our home videos, but rarely do they become the main event, the real thing of our conscious engagement with sensed reality.

Continue reading “ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot”

Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics

Well, it ain’t over ‘til the proverbial — and stereotypically plus-sized — diva, binary or otherwise, puts down her lozenges to launch a final attack on the lorgnette-clutching, socially-distanced crowds. In as plain a variety of English as I can bring myself to adopt: we haven’t heard the last of COVID-19. Done as we might think we are with the pandemic the US President declared over, the virus continues to catch us unawares and mess with our lives.

It sure is messing with mine right now, in a number of ways. Almost immediately on arriving in New York City two weeks ago, I caught some resilient variant of the bug I had managed to steer clear of for so long. And it caught up with me despite all vaccinations and boosters, having taken advantage of the first opportunity to have my last antiviral top-up just two days before my departure.

Imperative mood

This is my first return visit to my old Manhattan neighborhood in three years … but clearly things did not go at all as planned or hoped for. What makes matters worse is that I had intended to be of some use to an old friend and former domestic partner, who, just days prior to my arrival, suffered a massive heart attack and has been in intensive care ever since. Here I am, stuck in his apartment, just a 20-minute walk away from the hospital that is now off limits. No doubt, millions of New Yorkers felt like that during lockdown — when everything and everyone close by was suddenly out of reach.

Continue reading “Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics”

What Was I Thinking?: English 101, Phil Donahue and the Politics of Identity

I started college in the spring of 1991.  I had been visiting New York City since April the previous year, returning only once to my native Germany to avoid exceeding the six consecutive months I could legally stay in the US on a tourist visa.  The few weeks I spent in the recently reunited Vaterland that October had been difficult to endure, and for years I had nightmares about not getting back to the place I thought of as my elective home, the realities of the recession, the AIDS crisis, Gulf War jingoism and anti-liberal politics notwithstanding. 

The cover of my 1991 journal, with an image collage
borrowed from a copy of Entertainment Weekly

I was determined not to repeat the experience of that involuntary hiatus once the next six-month period would come to an end.  A close friend, who worked at Lehman College in the Bronx, suggested that I become a student and generously offered to pay my tuition for the first year.  We decided that, instead of entering a four-year college such as Lehman, I should first enroll in classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), an option that would cut those “foreign” tuition fees in half.

Having gotten by thus far on my better than rudimentary German high school English, I had doubts nonetheless about my fitness for college.  My first English instructor, Ms. Padol, was both exacting and reassuring.  She worked hard to make her students try harder.  Not only did she give us bi-weekly essay assignments, and the chance to revise them, but also made us keep a journal, which she would collect at random during the semester.

“This requirement for my English class comes almost as a relief,” I started my first entry, titled “A journal!” That it was only “almost: a relief was, as I wrote, owing to the fact that, whatever my attitudes toward my birthplace, I felt “so much more comfortable in my native language.” Back then, I still kept my diary in German.  

What I missed more than the ability of putting thoughts into words was the joy of wordplay.  “My English vocabulary does not really allow such extravaganzas,” I explained, “and even though the message comes through – in case there is any – the product itself seems to be dull and boring to read.”  This reflects my thoughts on writing to this day.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I write to entertain myself and strangers.

In the days of the lockdown – which were also a time of heightened introspection – I scanned the old journal to remind myself what I chose to entertain notions of back in 1991.  Many entries now require footnotes, if indeed they are worthy of them: who now recalls the stir caused by Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography? Not that I had actually read the book. “Nobody will use this book in a history class,” I declared. Being “a compilation of anecdotes” it had “no value as a biography.” Autobiography, being predicated on the personal, cannot be similarly invalidated, as I would later argue after taking a graduate course in ‘self life writing’ with Nancy K. Miller at Lehman. What I knew even in 1991 was that a journal was not a diary.

Unlike the diary, the journal provided me with a chance to develop a writerly persona.  I was playing the stranger, and what my reader, Ms. Padol, may have perceived to be my outsider perspective on what, in one entry, I called the “American waste of life” was in part my rehearsal of the part I thought my reader had reason to expect from me.  However motivated or contrived, that performance tells me more about myself than any posed photograph could. 

In an entry dated 3 May and titled “O temporaO mores!” I shared my experience watching Donahue, a popular talk show at the time, named after its host.  The broadcast in question was “People Who Change Their Sex to Have Sex with the Same Sex,” the sensationalism of which offering served as an opportunity to air my queer views as well as the closet of a journal that, for all its queerness, opened by lexically straightening my life by declaring my partner to be a “roommate.”

After expressing my initial confusion about the title and my indignation about the “exploitation” of the subject, I considered my complicity as a spectator and confronted the narrow-mindedness of my binary thinking:

Like the audience in the studio I asked myself why anybody would go through such a procedure only to have a lesbian relationship.

But then I realized that this is really a very shallow, stupid and yet typical question that shows how narrow-minded people are.

It also reflects ongoing intolerance in this society.

The woman in question made it clear that there is a difference between sexual identity and sexual preference.  When a man feels that he is really a woman most people think that he consequently must be a homosexual.

I refer to myself in the journal as gay.  What I did not say was how difficult it had been for me to define that identity, that, as a pre-teen boy I had identified as female and that, as a teenager, I had suffered the cruelty of the nickname “battle of the sexes,” in part due to what I know know (but had to look up again just now) as “gynecomastia”: the development of breast tissue I was at such pains to conceal that the advent of swimming classes, locker rooms and summer holidays alike filled me with dread.  I had been a boy who feared being sexually attractive to the same sex by being perceived as being of the opposite sex.

Reading my journal and reading myself writing it thirty years later, I realise how green – and how Marjorie Taylor Green – we can be, whether in our lack of understanding or our surfeit of self-absorption, when it comes to reflecting on the long way we have supposedly come, at what cost and at whose expense.  We have returned to the Identity Politics of the early 1990s, which I did not know by that term back then but which now teach in an art history context; and we are once again coming face to face with the specter of othering and the challenge of responding constructively to difference.  I hope that some of those struggling now have teachers like Ms. Padol who make them keep a journal that encourage them to create a persona that does not hide the self we must constantly negotiate for ourselves.

There is no record online of a Ms. Padol having worked at BMCC.  Then again, there is no record of my adjunct teaching at Lehman College from around 1994 to 2001, or at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center thereafter.  The work of adjuncts, and of teachers in general, lives on mostly in the minds and memory of the students they shaped.

I was more surprised at not finding any references online to that particular Donahue broadcast, except for a few mentions in television listings – two, to be exact.  The immediate pre-internet years, that age of transition from analog to digital culture, are a time within living memory to the access of which a minor record such as my English 101 journal can serve as an aide-memoire.  Whatever the evidentiary or argumentative shortcomings of anecdotes, by which I do not mean the Kitty Kelleyian hearsay I dismissed as being “of no value,” historically speaking, they can be antidotes to histories that repeat themselves due to our lack of self-reflexiveness.

Those of us who have been there, and who feel that they are there all over again – in that age in which the literalness of political correctness was pitted against the pettiness of illiberal thinking – can draw on our recollections and our collective sense of déjà vu to turn our frustration at the sight of sameness into opportunities for making some small difference: we are returning so that those who are there for the first time may find ways of moving on. Instead of repeating the question in exasperation, we need answers to “What were we thinking?”

If only the Squirrel: A Word on Plays on Words as Plays like The Realistic Joneses

I don’t get it.  No, I take that back.  I didn’t get anything from it.  No, that’s not it, either.  I didn’t really like it is more like it, really.  Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, I mean.  It’s one of those plays that are nothing more than wordplay.  The Joneses aren’t really Realistic.  That much I got, and not much else.  The characters are just worders, if that’s the word for it.  If it were a word.  They are not word made flesh.  I’m not sure whether they are mouthpieces because I’m not sure what they were meant to mouth, other than that we are mostly words to one another.  Words that are no reliable access to thought or feeling, that are no substitute for flesh, for sensations and experiences.  A playwright who says as much as that – or as little – has got a real challenge.  But that may be too charitable a word for a playwright’s “I’ve got nothing, really.”

The Realistic Joneses, to me, is a bad play.  Even the wordplay isn’t that good.  It is of a sitcom caliber, and the characters are a bunch of near flatlining oneliners.  I mean, ‘Ice cream is a dish best served cold’? Seriously, is that bit of lame rhetoric – a cliché made obvious as a commonplace – a substitute for a plot twist? I didn’t feel the play was a moving comment on the increasingly disembodied state of twenty-first century humanity, much less a sensitive portrait of toxic malaise. I didn’t feel.  That’s just it.

The Realistic Joneses is a play on the hollowness of words, and I don’t feel that that is a valid point to make in a play.  Not any more.  Not even for the middle-aged with a nostalgic yearning for some old-fashioned post-modern self-reflexivity.  Well, post-modernism isn’t what it used to be because it just isn’t anymore.  Or oughtn’t to be.  The tongue has to come out of the cheek eventually, and it has to learn to speak again and say something other than, say, “What’s there to say?” Not just some piffle passing for the absurd.  To me, surrealism isn’t anything goes nothing, at least not in the theater.

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.

One Tough Act One to Follow

Theater ought to make for good theater.  Noises OffA Chorus of Disapproval.  Stuff like that.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t.  And it doesn’t because it doesn’t quite become stuff.  And when it ain’t stuff, it fails to matter.  The Lincoln Center production of Act One drives that home.  And what a slow drive it is.  You just sit there, or I did, thinking: when will it stop? Incredulous, I kept checking my watch to see whether time had stood still and I was stuck in the mind of a playwright who hadn’t quite stopped revising, who hadn’t quite figured out just where to go and how to end.  And the end, when it came at last, couldn’t have been less of one.  You could have spelled it out in six letters.  THE END.  It’d be quicker that way. But that doesn’t make an ending feel like any conclusion to draw from.
 
Granted, the question of how and where to finish is always a tough one when it comes to autobiography, a life unfolding and not wrapped up retrospectively. If only Moss Hart had done the adapting of his 1959 autobiography, the play might have had, if not necessarily a structure but at least an urgency, a currency that this nostalgic exercise in pointlessness woefully lacks.  Instead, we end up with an adaptation that, in its second act, is mostly about the act of adapting.
 

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.

 
“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” Hart wrote.  It’s a line from Act One, the book, that makes it into Act One, the play, and it makes you aware how little blood there is in the latter.  It is altogether too glossy to make us believe in the curative potency of make-believe, felt by someone brought up in “unrelieved poverty,” as Hart put it.  Such urgency could turn theater-crazy Aunt Kate, charmingly though she is played by Andrea Martin, into someone akin to Blanche DuBois.

 

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.

Down Memory Street; or, Thanks for the Sesame

Filming of Sesame Street in Carl-Schurz Park, Manhattan

The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket Upper East Side, for crying out not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in furs was of the Cookie Monster sort.  Sesame Street was being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

Peter Pan sculpture, Carl-Schurz Park

It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.  

As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.  

So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.

I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasse and the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor scenery. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.

Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match.  Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.”  But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter; at least they didn’t during those days before Computers.  I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note. 

Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups.  If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language. By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression. 

As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it. 

Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.  

Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself): the neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .

14 Gay Street: NYC, Myself and Eileen

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.

A few days earlier, I had happened upon a copy of Ruth McKenney’s All About Eileen (1952) in the basement of the Argosy, one of my favorite antiquarian bookstores in town.  I hadn’t even been looking for it at the time.  In fact, I had been unaware that such an anthology of McKenney’s New Yorkerstories existed.

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
And here I was now, a week later.  14 Gay Street.  It’s an unassuming walk-up, next to a scaffolded shell of a building that, a friend told me, had been on fire a while ago.  Walk-up! More like a step-down for Ruth and Eileen. The two had been naïve enough to rent barely-fit-for-living quarters below street level, unaware that the construction of a new subway line was going to rattle their nerves and rob them of what one of their first visitors, a burglar, could not readily bag: their sleep.
“[W]e lived in mortal terror falling into the Christopher Street subway station,” Ruth recalled, making light of her darksome days in their damp “little cave.”

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
From the outside, at least, 14 Gay Street looked perfectly serene on that quiet, sunny afternoon.  I was not the only one stopping by, though.  I walked up to what I assumed to be a fellow admirer of Eileen’s; as it turned out, he was oblivious that the very spot had given rise to such lore as was retold on page, screen and stage.  He only had eyes for the wisteria that had taken its chances—and its time—to sidle up to and ravage a neighboring property.
Imposing as that looked, I had my heart set on those small dark windows peering from behind the pavement like a pair of Kilroy peepers.  Eileen was here, I thought, and was glad to have seen what seemed too little to look at.  Indifference, after all, is in the passerby’s eye.
I wonder now: How many sites of the city—fabled but forsaken—are daily escaping the sightseer’s gaze?

Don’t Dress for Dinner: Six Characters in Search of a Round Table

The prosaically named American Airlines Theatre on Broadway has about as much intimacy and sex appeal as a departure lounge.  The long entrance hallway, which barely opens up to a space resembling the lobby of a two-star hotel, makes you feel that, once your ticket has been scanned, you are a mere hour’s worth of taxiing away from takeoff.  That said, it wasn’t the venue that made the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Don’t Dress for Dinner such a terminal bore.

Farces are all about frustrated desires, about wanting to take it off and waiting to get it on, about fooling around the longest way round and never quite getting around to it.  In this case, though, the exasperation I sensed was all mine.  As the characters got together for their scheduled assignations, the actors seemed to be heading off in different directions.  Watching them move around on the stage was about as scintillating as staring at other folk’s suitcases circling the baggage carousel, which aroused in me nothing but the suspicion that this was going to be a wearisome cat-and-spouse game indeed.

Not since Tony Randall’s 1991 production of The Crucible had I witnessed such a spilled ragbag of irreconcilable acting styles.  Their task being merrily to prolong the unwanted dinner party at the expense of hoped-for dessert spooning—and to make all this falling apart come together for us—the assembled cast members were in desperate need of a round table, not a dinner table, and a director, not a waiter, giving orders rather than taking them.

To be sure, Marc Camoletti play is no Noises Off; and the fact that I had seen Michael Frayn’s farce-to-end-all-farce only a few weeks earlier made Don’t Dress seem like a morning after.  Camoletti, best known for Boeing-Boeing was ill served by a translator whose lines are so threadbare (yes, cooker does rhyme with hooker) as to deserve nothing more than booing, booing.

The male leads, Ben Daniels as Robert and Adam James as Bernard came dressed for office, not play. A third male—make that macho—role was so indifferently cast that the ending, in which alone the character featured, fell as flat as postage stamp on a card reading “Wish I were anywhere but here.”

The ladies were livelier by far; but whereas classy Patricia Kalember as Jacqueline seemed to have expected a Noel Coward soiree, brassy Jennifer Tilly as Suzanne was fitted out for a Vegas dinner theater . . . or a romp with Chucky.  Meanwhile, the energetic Spencer Kayden as Suzette—who reminded me of Elizabeth Berridge and her role as the maid in the glorious if short-lived ‘90s sitcom satire The Powers That Be—brought to the proceedings a verve and a timing well suited to the inspired slapstick that Don’t Dress so desperately lacked.  Alas, you can’t have good comic timing all by yourself.

What you can have by yourself is the last laugh, scoffing at what elicited nary a chuckle in the first place.

I Remember, Mama: Complicity, Mendacity, and Other Desert Cities

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 SildaThe 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.

Yes, Silda tells it like it is.  Criticized by her class-conscious sister of wearing knock-offs, she barks back:

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.

Of Two Minds: Can The Best Man Win?

Anyone who has as much respect and appreciation for the niceties of the English language as Gore Vidal has will realize, if perhaps only after the final curtain has fallen on The Best Man, that the title is not simply ironic but prognostic: the best man, whoever he may be, cannot be declared if the fight and choice is between just two candidates.  The ostensibly “better” one of them might win, but not, grammatically speaking, the “best.”  Now, the man whom Vidal favors—and expects the audience of his political comedy The Best Man to root for in the play’s fictional contest for Presidential nomination—is not just a man of his word, he is a man who uses each word properly.  The political banter is no mere wordplay: in The Best Man, grammar and morals are one.

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.

Russell, proper right down to that noun, is proud to have the last name of a noted philosopher; and, as a thinker, it strikes him as morally wrong to allow others to put words in his mouth.  He would rather write his own speeches—“It’s a shameful business, speech by committee,” he declares—but has come to terms with the fact that his busy schedule dictates otherwise.  What he will not brook, though, is ungrammatical speech. “Please tell the writers again that the word ‘alternative’ is always singular.  There is only one alternative per situation.”
In the dramatic situation of The Best Man, “alternative” is clearly the wrong word, just as choosing the supposedly lesser evil is the wrong approach to casting votes.  Like the dilemma of the two-party system, the either-or decision to which the unquestioning responder is restricted calls for something better: the rejection of the supposed choice as spurious and misleadingly restrictive.
“May the best man win!” is the choice platitude of Russell’s opponent, Joseph Cantwell, whose last name, more than the name of Russell, suggests that the playwright cares less about his characters than about the philosophies for which he makes them stand and fall: they are metaphors for what politics can reduce us to when all we care about is making a name for ourselves.  Both Russell and Cantwell are stand-ins for the figures we imagine—hope and fear—politicians to be; beyond that, they aren’t at all.  “A candidate should not mean but be,” the literary playwright has Russell quip; as a character, Russell is not meant to be anything other than the mouthpiece Vidal means him to be in this verbal play of true versus nominal values.
Asked whether he thought that “a president ought to ignore what people want,” Russell replies “If the people want the wrong thing, [. . .] then I think a president should ignore their opinion and try to convince them that his way is the right way.”  How to do right and what is “right” are the questions The Best Man aims at encouraging us to ponder.  Russell answers by taking his opponent by his clichéd expression and extricating himself from the either-or bind that threatens to turn him into a man no better than Cantwell.
Vidal, too, attempts a way out here, a synthesis of satire and sentimentality, cynicism and hopefulness, as he demonstrates Russell to be the “best” man, after all, by proving him to be the better one.  The solution is as noble as it is grammatical—but it is rather too neat and ponderous, especially since the alternative “message” Vidal communicates is more tired than the dirty politics from which he derives a modicum of dramatic tension.
“And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons,” Russell and Vidal tell reporters and audiences early on:

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.

Who, today, would buy that little nugget of shopworn sentiment?

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.

Sizing up his competition, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope once interrupted one of his narratives by attempting witty remarks about Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, labeling  the latter “Mr. Popular Sentiment” and the former “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.”  With his showdown between “Popular” Cantwell and “Anticant” Russell, Vidal demonstrates that wanting to be both satirical and sentimental means doing justice to neither; the sentiment feels calculated, the wit pointless. In the noble experiment of making dirty politics cleaner, everything comes out rather muddy in the wash.