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 Jonesesaren’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 dramatically satisfying point to make in a play.  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

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 East Side, for crying not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in fur was of the Cookie Monster sort. Sesame Streetwas being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

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 Sesamstrasseand the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor situation. 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.

Come On Up, Eileen; or, Wonderful Yorkville

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.


Yes, Second Avenue (pictured) is looking rather worse—and far less flashy—than it did when the street was lined not with gold, but with gals who may or may not have a ticker made of that precious metal; you know, ladies whose line, like the subway’s, is well below.  Wonderful Town is not without hints of darkness, but, as in many musicals of the 1940 and ’50s, the shadier urbanites are colorful caricatures rather than delicately shaded characters.  And if Wonderful is now not as well liked as it was when it premiered, this may be owing to the fact that, even though the characters are based on real people, the assembled Christopher Street portraits are cleaned up so thoroughly as to make them look like stock figures in a formulaic pastiche.  That said, the musical still offers a glimpse at life during the Great Depression and remains translatable—and relatable—to anyone who can read between all those half erased lines of none-of-your-business.

Not that I need to step out of my old apartment to get that sinking Ruth and Eileen feeling.  The two women struggled to find work and put up with a lot while waiting for a break, a wait that, in Eileen’s case, ended at the age of 26 in a fatal car crash.  Journalist Ruth McKenney immortalized her sister and saw—or made us see—the bright side of their hardship and the squalor down in their dingy, downstairs domicile.  Indeed, when I first caught up with My Sister Eileen, sitting in an Upper East Side park listening to a 1948 radio production starring Shirley Booth, I assumed it to be a comment in the post-Second World War housing crisis.  And it is this crisis that hits home today.

If ever I write another autobiography—the one I penned somewhat prematurely at age 14 was discarded once it had served its purpose of communicating my pubescent angst to the girls in my class, whom I knew it was pointless for me to pursue—I might take a lesson from Ruth and look on the proverbial if sometimes elusive silver lining when I reflect on this morning’s knock on the door.  An eviction notice was posted on it and my old apartment is once again contested territory.  I am writing this—while culture beckons unheeded—sitting at the shaky dinner table that, for many years, was stacked with books, student essays, and the drafts of my MA thesis and PhD dissertation.  No, this town would not feel half as wonderful to me if it weren’t for that table, this apartment, and for the friendship that made it possible—and indeed desirable—to come back for a visit, year after year . . .

Cinegram No. 14 (Because You Can’t Rely on Air Mail These Days)

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 . . .

“Anyone we know?”: An Absentminded Review of The Royal Family

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 . . .