“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 . . .

They Also Sell Books: W-WOW! at Partners & Crime

Legend has it that, when asked what Cecil B. DeMille was doing for a living, his five-year-old grand-daughter replied: “He sells soap.” Back then, in 1944, the famous Hollywood director-producer was known to million of Americans as host and nominal producer of the Lux Radio Theater, from the squeaky clean boards of which venue he was heard slipping (or forcefully squeezing) many a none-too-subtle reference to the sponsor’s products into the behind-the-scenes addresses and rehearsed chats with Tinseltown’s luminaries, lines scripted for him by unsung writers selling out in the business of making radio sell.

No doubt, the program generated sizeable business for Lever Brothers; otherwise, the theatrical spin cycle conceived to bang the drum for those Lads of the Lather would not have stayed afloat for two decades, much to the delight of the great (and only proverbially) unwashed. For all its entertainment value, commercial radio was designed to hawk, peddle and tout; and although the spiel heard between the acts of wireless theatricals like Lux has long been superseded by the show and sell of television and the Internet, old radio programs still pay off, no matter how freely they are now shared on the web. In a manner of speaking, they still sell, albeit on a far smaller and downright intimate scale.

Take W-WOW! Radio. Now in its fourteenth season, the opening of which I attended last month, the W-WOW! Mystery Hour can be spent—heard and seen—on the first Saturday of every month (July and August excepting) from a glorified store room at the back of one of the few remaining independent and specialty booksellers in Manhattan: Partners & Crime down on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village. The commercials recited by the cast are by now the stuff of nostalgia, hilarity, and contention (“In a coast-to-coast test of hundreds of people who smoked only Camels for thirty days, noted throat specialists noted not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels“); but the readings continue to draw prospective customers like myself.

Whenever I am in town, I make a point of making a tour of those stores, even though said tour is getting shorter and more sentimental every year. There are rewards, nonetheless. Two of my latest acquisitions, Susan Ware’s 2005 “radio biography” of the shrewdly if winningly commercial Mary Margaret McBride and John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography Run-through (signed by the author, no less) were sitting on the shelves of Mercer Street Books (pictured) and brought home for about $8 apiece. The latter volume is likely to be of interest to anyone attending the W-WOW! production scheduled for this Saturday, 3 October, when the W-WOW! players are presenting the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of Dracula as adapted by none other than John Houseman.

As Houseman puts it, the Mercury’s “Dracula”—the series’s inaugural broadcast—is “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror.” Indeed, Houseman’s outstanding adaptation is a challenge worthy of W-WOW!’s voice talent and just the kind of material special effects artist DeLisa White (pictured above, on the right and to the back of those she so ably backs) will sink her teeth into, or whatever sharp and blunt instruments she has at her disposal to make your hair stand on end.

Rather more run-of-the-mill were the scripts chosen for W-WOW!’s September production, which, regrettably, was devoid of vamps. You know, those double-crossing, tough-talking dames that enliven tongue-in-cheek thrillers like The Saint (“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much” or “The Alive Dead Husband,” 7 January 1951) and Richard Diamond (“The Butcher Shop Case,” 7 March 1951 and 9 March 1952), a story penned by Blake “Pink Panther” Edwards and involving a protection racket. The former opened encouragingly, with a wife pretending to have killed a husband who turned out to be yet living, if not for long; but, as it turned out, the dame had less lines than any of the ladies currently in prime time, or any other time for that matter, Sure, crime paid on the air; but sex, or any vague promise of same, sells even better.

That said, I still walked out of Partners & Crime with a book in my hand. As I passed through the store on my way out, an out-of-print copy of A Shot in the Arm caught my eye and refused to let go. Subtitled “Death at the BBC,” John Sherwood’s 1982 mystery novel, set in Broadcasting House anno 1937 and featuring Lord Reith, the dictatorial Baron who ran the place, is just the kind of stuff I am so readily sold on, as I am on browsing in whatever bookstores are still standing offline—if only to give those who are still in the business of vending rare volumes a much-deserved shot in the open and outstretched arm.

Related writings
“Shoes Across the Table”
“Murder in the Backroom; or, No Place for a Lady”
“Mary Margaret McBride, Commercial Correspondent”
“Orson and the Count: The Man Cast as The Shadow as the Man Who Cast None”

Related recordings
“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much,” The Saint (7 January 1951)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (7 January 1950)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (9 March 1951)

Gone South . . . and Very Pacific: Broadway on an Off Day

I suppose I am back in my element (earth, mingled with dust), being that I can reminisce at last about my recent trip to New York City from the comfort of my own patch of terra firma across the pond. Okay, so I never managed to turn writing into a living; but I sure can turn life into writing—provided I can go on about past experiences once I am good and ready, once that which has been going on and gone through my mind is bona fide bygone. Not one to multitask, I somehow cannot both be living and writing simultaneously, which is why Twitter is not for me. I am not cut out to be an on-the-spot correspondent. You won’t catch me with my finger on the pulse of anything yet living other than in my thoughts where, quickened by imagination, anything presumably dead and gone is readily revived.

Perhaps, going live is not the same as being in the moment; at least, performances need not be, by virtue of being live, worth a moment of my time. For the record (and this is a new record to me, for I am about to change my tune): canned performances are not necessarily inferior to live ones. At least I thought so a few weeks ago while watching a recorded broadcast of a dazzling Metropolitan Opera production of Madama Butterfly, screened on the plaza in front of the building housing that venerable institution. There I was (leaning against a trash can, no less), joined by hundreds of strangers, to take in, free of charge, the musical equivalent of cured meat, a pickled delicacy shared out to lure those partaking into the venue to shell out serious money for the supposedly real thing. Maybe I’ll think differently tomorrow at the local cinema, where I will be catching a high definition broadcast of the current National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, live from London; but I sure realized that live is not to be confused with lively when I went to see South Pacific at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, just a few feet from the screen where Madame Butterfly had flickered before my teary eyes.

South Pacific left my peepers dry, even though I was on the brink of welling up when I reminded myself that I had let go of more than $90 for a discount ticket to for the dubious privilege of beholding said spectacle. What I witnessed was Broadway on an off night, some less than “Enchanted Evening” during which the cast went through the motions like Zombies on sabbatical. I knew as much when I opened my playbill to discover one of those white slips that, on the Great White Way, are equivalent to a pink one: Paulo Szot, the celebrated lead, had been replaced for the evening (and several weeks to come) by one William Michals.

Turns out, Mr. Michals had all the charm and thespian animation of a Bela Lugosi. Not that Laura Osnes (as Nellie Forbush) was out-Mitziying Ms. Gaynor. She did not as much try to wash that man right outa her hair as dispose of him with a purple rinse. As I remarked to my fellow onlooker, the pair had less going on between them as might be generated by a preschooler’s chemistry set.

Almost everything about this potentially engrossing play seemed to have been rehashed on a desperately reduced flame. I, for one, was boiling; it wasn’t “Happy Talk” you’d have overheard had you been eavesdropping on us as we left the theater. Sure, the production had been running for a year and a half and wasn’t exactly “Younger Than Springtime”; but the Pacific, never more deserving of the name, has rarely felt quite this tepid. A rousing rendition of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and the still-spirited performance of Danny Burstein (as Billis) aside, the promise of Bali Ha’i never left anyone feeling quite this low . . .

Yoo-hoo! Isn’t anybody anymore?

Remembering Gertrude Berg, that is. Having been to Fleischmanns last year (without spotting her tombstone there), I was thrilled to be catching Aviva Kempner’s much reviewed if ultimately unsatisfying documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan last week. After all, it is not a film you are likely to see in Europe (or, for that matter, in any US multiplex); and I doubt whether it will ever be released in Wales, my present home. Who, after all, remembers (or ever had the opportunity of) tuning in to The Goldbergs, or The Rise of the Goldbergs, as Berg’s program was initially called in the days before television?

Kempner’s filmic memorial to Berg and her creation—heard on radio and seen on stage, television and the movies—aims at countering the oblivion to which the writer-producer-actress and her signature character have long been consigned; but, judging from the elderly, Jewish audience among which I found myself, aside from my good friend, Brian, Mrs. Goldberg is not likely to find new admirers through Kempner’s polite and downright reverent re-introduction, however deserving she may be of praise.

“Why, for all her popularity and apparent influence, is Gertrude Berg so little remembered today?” Paul Farhi of the Washington Post asked back in July 2009. It is a question Kempner does not trouble herself to answer, other than with a resounding “Why indeed?” Predating but overshadowed by I Love Lucy, The Goldbergs come across as little more than a noteworthy, ethnic curiosity, a historical footnote, the stuff of nostalgia. At least, Kempner’s documentary, which New York Post critic V. A. Musetto called “fawning and formulaic,” did little to convince me otherwise—and I don’t need convincing.

“Ulleright, ulleright!” For all its shortcomings, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is still a welcome and overdue tribute to of a long overlooked icon of American popular culture—and an enterprising, emancipated woman at that; but it is also a rather perfunctory and historically questionable piece of bio-cinematography, replete with a poorly reenacted scene from Berg’s earliest radio script.

Except for a few tantalizing clips of Edward R. Murrow’s interview with Berg on Person to Person and those seemingly random excerpts from The Goldbergs kinescopes, the documentary, like most pieces of ocular proof, is at a loss to fill the screen, resorting to images only remotely related to the subject; or, else, to talking heads like Ed Asner’s and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who recalls being addressed as Mrs. Goldberg). Meanwhile, the snippets from Berg’s radio and television broadcasts are often unintelligible, if it weren’t for the subtitles. The result is about as funny as a translated joke—and certainly not remotely as amusing or charming as Berg’s glossy autobiography Molly and Me (1961).

Here, for instance, is how autobiographer Berg made the connection between her parentage and her wireless offspring. Those watching Kempner’s documentary never get to hear about it. To them, Molly is a kindly woman leaning out of a window, chatting to her neighbors—and an audience long since dispersed—or praising the miracle of Sanka Coffee, instead of yelling “Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” into a telephonic darkness just beyond her Bronx apartment:

My father was a special fan of the dumbwaiter and when radio was invented, he gave up the shaftway only because of the better coverage. But until that time it was through the dumbwaiter that he got to know everybody, not by their names, but by their locations. He predicted divorce for Mr. and Mrs. 5-D because of their nightly arguments; he knew that Mrs. 3-A’s son was going to leave home before even Mrs. 3-A. It didn’t take second sight; all it took was a good ear and a comfortable chair near the dumbwaiter door.

Kempner’s film is so reverent and nostalgic, it sentimentalizes the already saccharine confection of Mother Goldberg, whose Jewish Amos ‘n’ Andyisms enliven the early scripts for her radio serial, extant only in print, before the series-turned-daytime serial settled for at times “soap-operaish” melodrama.

“[E]verything about The Goldbergs changed but the theme song, ‘Toselli’s Serenade,’” Berg explains in Molly and Me. Those encountering Molly in Kempner’s documentary are unlikely to see Molly as an early Lucy, or, come to think of it, as a prototype for linguistically challenged immigrant Ricky Ricardo.

“So come down a liddle after,” Mrs. Goldberg once yoo-hooed to her neighbor, Mrs. Bloom, “maybe ve’ll go to a mofie—is playing de Four Horsemen in de Apoplexies.” Well, you almost got it, Molly. Apoplexies are the kind of movie theaters that leave you angry at your lack of choices. Too bad that even the exceedingly rare art house simplexes are not likely to rescue you from the fate of being trampled to death by the pale horse of apathy.

Related writings
The House of [Broken] Glass
Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Gertrude Berg, Everybody’s Mama
On This Day in 1941: Molly Goldberg Nearly Chickens Out

"Chew that bacon good and slow": Our Town Like You’ve Never Seen It

Okay, so I’ve been cutting a few corners during my present, month-long stay in New York City; but I wasn’t about to cut Grover’s Corners. Our Town, that is, a new production of which is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. These days, there isn’t much on Broadway to tempt me into letting go of whatever is left in my wallet. I mean, Shrek the Musical? What’s next, Pac-Man of the Opera? A concert version of Saved by the Bell? Secret Squirrel on Ice? I am all for revisiting the familiar—a tendency to which this journal attests—as long as I feel that such recyclings are worth my impecunious (hence increasingly persnickety) while—and theatrical retreads of The Addams Family, 9 to 5 or Spider-Man are not. Come to think of it, I had never seen a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, which I always thought of as the ideal radio play. Well, let me tell you, David Cromer sure made me see it differently.

Our Town was produced on the air at least three times, even though the Lux Radio Theatre version (6 May 1940) is a reworking of the screenplay, replete with a tacky, tagged-on Hollywood ending and ample space for commercial copy between the acts. Wilder’s 1938 play is decidedly radiogenic in its installation of a narrator (or Stage Manager) and its insistence of doing away with props or scenery. The Barrow Street Theater production seemed to be in keeping with the playwright’s instructions; and I was all prepared to watch it with my eyes closed.

There are two tables on the small stage; and the props do not amount to more than a hill of string beans. The Stage Manager points into the audience, inviting us to envision a small town in New Hampshire, anno 1901:

Along here’s a row of stores. Hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them. First automobile’s going to come along in about five years belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen . . . lives in the big white house up on the hill.

Here’s the grocery store and here’s Mr. Morgan’s drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day.

Public School’s over yonder. High School’s still farther over. Quarter of nine mornings, noontimes, and three o’clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards.

Some eyes followed the pointed finger in my direction, faces in the crowd briefly looking past me in hopes of making out the Methodist and Unitarian churches just behind my back. Now, I’m not saying that the actors were not worth looking at, Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb being particularly charming. Still, at the end of the first act, I could not figure out what Frank Scheck of the New York Post referred to as “revolutionary staging.” Two tables, eight chairs, string beans?

By act three, I understood. David Cromer defies Wilder’s instructions (“No curtain. No scenery”)—and to startling effect. I never thought that the smell of bacon could be so overwhelming, so urgent and direct. Sure, it has often made my mouth water—but my eyes? Whether or not you are a staunch vegetarian, there is reality in the scent, just as there is a revelation behind that curtain. Our Town may be a wonderful piece of pantomime; but Cromer deserves some props.

“Oh, Mama, just look me one minute though you really saw me,” the dead Emily implores the unseeing childhood vision of her mother. “Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Seeing this fragrant scene acted out made me realize anew the importance of coming to all of one’s senses, of partaking by taking in, of grabbing hold of the moment (which we Germans call an Augenblick, a glance) by beholding what could be gone at the blink of an eye.

Related recordings
“Our Town,” Campbell Playhouse (12 May 1939)
“Our Town,” Lux Radio Theatre (6 May 1940)

Crosstown Stitch: Embroidering on a Favorite Subject

Salut au monde!” That is a greeting the narrator of Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” extended to the never quite statistically average American listener—anybody tuning in to the nationally broadcast play cycle Columbia Presents Corwin back during World War II. And that is how I, returned again to my old yet ever changing neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, am reaching out to the potentially even more multifarious roamers of the World Wide Web.

Why Salut, though? Why go for the highfalutin when something lowbrow like hiya would do? After all, French is not among the languages most closely associated with the Big Pomme. Sure, there is that French lady who greeted the multitudes who came across the big pond to get a bite out of it; but only because she’s made of copper doesn’t make her a coined phrase.

Corwin was not going for the definitive—the single, representative tongue with which to tie up an argument only to contradict it. Symbolic of the promises and failures of the Versailles treaty, the imported salutation is part of a pattern designed for a sonic romancing of immigration central, where nations become nabes and the world’s people are “living side by side so effortlessly, no one calls it peace”—a cosmopolitan locale to which nothing could be more foreign than the homogenous or the homo-logos.

As LeRoy Bannerman describes it, Corwin’s voice collage
advocated world unity, exemplified in the polyglot harmony of New York’s people. It possessed threads taut with the strain of war and the urgency of an all-out effort, symptoms of concern that greatly colored Corwin’s work with tints of patriotism.

The colors in Corwin’s fabric—that crowd-pleasing fabrication of Gotham (what do you call it? Gothamer)—are red, white and blue all right; but when Corwin waves the flag, he does not make difference stand out like a blot on Old Glory. Corwin’s aural tapestry is rich in the variations that the theme demands, distinguished by the “speakers of the foreign and the ancient tongues,” the “conjoined creeds—the Jew, the Christian, the Mohammedan.”

The speech is American, which is to say that it is not exclusively, let alone officially, English or any variation thereof. “Do not mistrust [folks] because of their accent,” the narrator cautions those who stand their ground by calling it common, “for we ourselves might be incomprehensible in Oxford.” The Queen’s English ain’t the English of Queens, New York.

“The people of the city are the main design,” the narrator insists. Seemingly random utterances by speakers nameless to the audience constitute the “individual threads” of an intricately woven fabric whose pattern, unlike the grid formed by the city’s streets, cannot be visually apprehended. “How can you tell, from Seat No. 5 on the plane from Pittsburgh, what goes on here?” Nor can it be comprehended by the unaided ear—at least not by anyone well out of earshot. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, the way to arrive at the design is microphonic, not macroscopic.

The narrator invites “Americans on this wave length” to follow the threads of “interwoven hopes” by “listening acutely” to the peoples of New York City, be they from “German Yorkville” or the “outlying Latin quarters.” Their voices are brought into a meaningful relation through the aid of the radio, of which the main speaker as receiver, amplifier and transmitter is an abstraction.

At the moment—and being in it—it is easy to lose sight of the wireless, even as I walk past Radio City. I feel no need for a hearing aid or a translator. I am a part of a grand, Whitmanesque design, which is both spoken and understood.

Stepchildren Rejoice; or, Fetching a Grand Ball

Last night, I felt like an old queen. Granted, that is not an uncommon feeling for me; but the Queen in this case was none other than Victoria, who, in the last years of her reign, enjoyed partaking of live opera without actually having to leave for the theater at which it was presented. Her royal box was a contraption called the Electrophone, a special telephone service that connected subscribers with the theaters from which the sounds of music and drama could be appreciated while being seated in whichever armchair one designated as a listening post. Today, we may be accustomed to live—or, wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding, very nearly live—broadcasts of sounds as well as images; but last night’s event felt as new and exciting to me as it must have been picking up the electrophone or dialing in to those experimental theater relays during the 1890s and 1920s, respectively.

The caption for the above photograph, taken from the 3rd volume of Radio Broadcast (May to October 1923) reads: “Christian Strohm traveled from Oldes Leben [wherever that might be] to Weimar, Germany, sixty-four years ago to hear the first presentation of an opera composed by Wagner. This year, he heard on a crystal set the same music, broadcasted from WIP, Philadelphia.” What, I wonder, was more thrilling to Herr Strohm or to Queen Victoria: the memory of past pleasures or the reality of present technology?

There we were, gathered at a movie house well over three thousand miles away from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, taking in a live presentation of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (based on the fairy tale Cinderella or Aschenputtel, its meaner, dirtier, German ancestor, which renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim rightly preferred over the dainty French and glossy American versions). Our local arts center cinema is the first independent movie theater in Wales to subscribe to those high definition broadcasts from the Met (or elsewhere); and, with the exception of the fact that the cameras fail to capture scenes set in near darkness, the transmission was received without a glitch.

True, I wasn’t seated in my favorite chair. I was in an auditorium, with a few dozen others who had come into town for the occasion, presumably undernourished stepchildren of the great cultural centers of the world. This far-fetched ball was a theatrical experience for which one dresses up (and I, for one, enjoys to do so), at which one meets and mingles at intermission.

The last time I saw a theatrical adaptation of Cinderella I was being squirted by a water gun. This time, I was sipping a glass of wine (included in the price of admission). I was very pleased to learn that, based upon the reception, the local cinema is going to book the entire season of opera broadcasts, beginning in October 2009 with Tosca, followed by Aida and Turandot. Tear your eyes out Clorinda and Tisbe. Every Cinderella has her day—and every dreaded midnight is over in a flash . . .

Related writings
My Evening with Queen Victoria
“Now on the Air: ‘Down the Wires’” (on the Electrophone)
“‘Oh no he isn’t’ (‘Oh yes he is’): Mickey Rooney in Bristol” (in Cinderella)

Abiding Faith; or, Where’s the Caterer?

There was a sheet of paper pinned to each seat at the aforementioned Walter Kerr Theatre, asking patrons whether or not they had liked the current production and whether they would recommend the show. Now, I did not hand in my questionnaire. Who am I to caution theatergoers about a musical with such a wonderfully gifted group of players: Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote the libretto, Tom Wopat, whom I had previously seen, defenses down, in Annie Get Your Gun, and the glorious Faith Prince (last featured here on the cover of the playbill for Bells Are Ringing)? Obviously, enough people had come to the Walter Kerr on that Tuesday evening in early June to relegate me, chancing it by getting a last-minute ticket at TKTS, to a seat way in the back. Now, this might be all right when the stage is filled with a line of chorus girls making their way down a giant staircase, a set boasting an enormous showboat or an oil painting coming to life (as in the revival of Sunday in the Park with George I would see a few weeks later); but A Catered Affair is not that kind of a razzle-dazzler. It is a modest, earnest musical play; it examines characters rather than providing an opportunity for a series of show tunes. Modesty is its quiet strength, but, sitting in the back row, it still feels an awful lot like weakness.

I regret to report, however belatedly, that I did not warm to A Catered Affair, and not because its thin story felt somewhat warmed up. Sure, it is based on a 1955 television play by Paddy Chayefsky, himself not exactly a hot property these days; but then, most Broadway offerings are recycled nowadays. No, it wasn’t that. I was simply too far removed from the hearth—even further than Uncle Winston, the sidekick Fierstein insisted on turning what, back in the 1950s, could only be an outsider. I appreciated him being there, as a reminder that homosexuals where always in the picture, even when they were kept well outside the frame of the camera. Unfortunately, Winston’s moment in the limelight is “Coney Island,” dreadfully cliché-laden number in which he advises us to keep our eyes open as we ride the rollercoaster of life.

I had been told about the old stove, and that Ms. Prince actually prepared scrambled eggs during the scene. And that is a recommendation? Well, hand me a frying pan and start selling tickets! It rather reminded me of Gertrude Berg, who insisted on realism, and real eggs, even though The Goldbergs was a radio program. Yes, eggs were being prepared on the stage of the Walter Kerr that night, but I could not even smell whether they were rotten or not. An intimate play deserves an intimate theater, especially a play that depends on character far more than on plot, of which there is little, and that anticlimactic.

Indeed, A Catered Affair would have made a fine radio musical, if something like that were ever to be reintroduced into American culture. This is not to say that it is cheap or second-rate. It just means that it does not require visuals for its staging of a family in crisis, a particular brand of problem play you might call Miller Light, even though Rheingold or Schlitz were more likely to be found in the family icebox.

The Walter Kerr was once a radio studio; back in the late 1930s, the playbill informed me, Alexander Woollcott broadcast from here. I would have enjoyed closing my eyes and listening to Ms. Prince, who wowed me many years ago as Adelaide and who keeps delighting me whenever I play selections from the Guys and Dolls cast album. Having kept my eyes peeled on a faraway stage with little to see (not even the event promised in the title), I did not recall a single tune upon exiting the theater shortly before 9 PM, after 90 minutes of intermission-free drabness. Broadway does Family Tuesdays now, for families who can afford to spend money on the less-than-spectacular.

"But some people ain’t me!": Arthur Laurents and "The Face" Behind Gypsy

Gypsy again? I guess that is what many theatergoers thought when, only five years after the previous revival, the show opened on Broadway for the fifth time since its debut back in 1959. I have seen three of those revivals and, not inclined to wield my thumb, shan’t ponder publicly whether or not this might be the definitive production. It better not be, since I hardly mind seeing the play interpreted a few other ways, if only to get a chance to catch the old routines with “new orchestrations.” Still, be it stagecraft, performance, or my own very gradual process of maturity, I have not seen the dramatic finale of Gypsy staged any more movingly than in the current production. To be sure, I am opening to Arthur Laurents’s book differently now that I have completed my doctoral study on American radio drama since seeing the 2003 revival starring Bernadette Peters. I am reading between—not into—Laurents’s celebrated lines to find the former radio playwright’s “Face.”

“May we entertain you?” Laurents’s career in radio began in 1939, when the Columbia Workshop produced his first original play, “Now Playing Tomorrow” (30 January 1939), a fantasy concerning the doubtful advantages of gazing into the future. With such a high-profile debut to his credit, the young writer had little difficulties selling scripts to various network programs, including Hollywood Playhouse (1937-40), The Adventures of the Thin Man (1941-50), and This Is Your FBI (1945-53). “Commercial pulp, all of it,” he commented sixty years later; yet unlike fellow playwright Arthur Miller (one of whose wartime radio dramas I discuss here), Laurents was not dismissive of, let alone bitter about, his radio days. He had actively pursued such a career, attending an evening class in radio writing at NYU. Laurents did not feel that he was “faced with the art vs. commerce dilemma”; besides, he was “too flattered” being “wanted, too thrilled at being paid for being happy.”

“Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headline! / Historical news is being made!” Contributing to the war effort by writing plays for a number of dramatic propaganda series kept the draftee from facing combat overseas and secured him an income of up to $350 per script. The Army arranged for him to work on programs like Armed Service Force Presents (1943-1944), Assignment Home (1944-46), and the Peabody Award-winning documentary drama The Man Behind the Gun (1942-44). Toward the end of the war, Laurents had found his voice as a radio playwright—a voice strong and convincing enough not to be muffled by spineless industry executives. Drawing on personal experiences, he managed to explore themes similar to those he tackled on Broadway, where he made his entrance with Home of the Brave (1945), a play dealing with anti-Semitism in the Army. While Washington looked closely at his scripts after he had been accused of communist affiliations, Laurents not only managed to get a controversial play about black soldiers on the air, it (“The Knife”) even earned him a citation.

Like Gypsy and West Side Story, Laurents’s radio plays are personal records; their author arrived at a code that made it possible for him to share his own story, the story of an outsider. There is a bit of Louise in many of them. “The Face,” a Writers’ War Board “best script of the month” for April 1945, is no exception. “Do you love a man for his face?” the play asks of us, exploring the experience of a disfigured soldier dreading his reintegration into post-war society, a society, he knows to place great importance on appearances.

“Small world, isn’t it?” Like many of Laurents’s early works for stage and screen, from Home of the Brave to his screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), “The Face,” as I put it in Etherized Victorians, is a play of masked figures and figurative unmasking. Dreading the prejudices of post-war America, the disfigured Harold Ingalls and his fellow patients must learn to be strangers “joining forces”:

GOLDSTEIN. When you get plastered . . . who do you go with?
INGALLS. There used to be a fellow—but he was discharged last week.
GOLDSTEIN. Was he—like us?
INGALLS. Yeah. So now I go alone.
GOLDSTEIN. If—if I can get a pass . . . can—I go with you?
INGALLS. Sure! You know it makes it good, when there are two of you.

“Together, wherever we go!” Rather than confronting his biological family, the mother and brother he’ll never quite “get away from,” Ingalls is eager to escape with his double, his secret sharer:

INGALLS. You’re more of a brother than he is.
GOLDSTEIN. Now that’s a real compliment.
INGALLS. Oh you know what I mean.
INGALLS. Well, I’ll get my mother over with quick and then we’ll beat it into town and really tie one on. You and me.
INGALLS. That’s the best way.
(Biz: Fade in MOTHER’s footsteps approaching slowly.)
INGALLS. You and me. That’s the— (He cuts as he hears the footsteps. They are still off but coming closer, closer.)

Those footsteps are the sound of reality encroaching on oblivion and denial, of a past that Ingalls has to reconcile with his present. To move on, Ingalls needs the strength to let go of both by forging new relationships from or in spite of his state of effacement. “If Mama Was Married,” what might have happened to stripper-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister, June Havoc, who teamed up with a big name in radio? One stuck in infantilizing routines, the other in the rear of a cow costume, each fashioned a career out of a pipe dream of vicarious living.

When he is discharged, the Army psychiatrist reminds Ingalls that “every single day, people get slapped because of ignorance. They get slapped for religion, for color, for how they talk or what they look like.” She encourages him to “stand up to them and tell them they’re wrong!” The play ends with the wish that “this will be the beginning, the beginning of a world where the only thing that does matter is each man himself for what he is himself.”

“But I / At least gotta try [. . .].” While it may never be “Rose’s Turn,” the resilient Arthur Laurents—whose next project will be a revival of West Side Story—has long had a “wonderful dream” worth living, a vision of that “place for us, somewhere,” the voicing and realization of which is well worth the agony of uncovering the not always handsome face behind our masks . . .

Audiophile, My Eye!

Has my ear been giving me the evil eye? For weeks now, I have been sightseeing and snapping pictures. I have seen a few shows (to be reviewed here in whatever the fullness of time might be), caught up with old friends I hadn’t laid eyes on in years, or simply watched the world coming to New York go by—all the while ignoring what I set out to do in this journal; that is, to insist on equal opportunity for the ear as channel through which to take in dramatic performances so often thought of requiring visuals. When I came across this surrealistic message at the Whitney Museum, my mind’s eye kept rereading what seems to be such a common phrase.

“As far as the eye can see.” It is the article that began to overshadow the empty nest below the dead eye of the cyclopean window in the austere façade, features that might well be to some what Roland Barthes referred to as the punctum—the point(s) to which the eye is drawn, the point(s) that end up in the question mark we make of art that engages us.

What might that be, “the eye”? Are we to assume that one eye looks out into the world as any other, that the act of seeing is objective, divorced from outlook, range and perspective? Does “the eye”—untrained or jaundiced or unfocused—invariably begin to see things as it seeks what lies beyond perceiving, such as an imaginary bird returning to the nest of our senses?

A few days ago, I suffered an eye infection (come to think of it, the second one since my arrival here in late May), which brought the above picture back to mind. I am not sure just how it happened, but my right eye became alarmingly inflamed, my lid swelled up and my cornea buckled. It is still pounding now, even though there no longer exists any ocular proof of my discomfort. Perhaps, my eyes are aching for a break upon which they now begin to insist.

A day after the incident I ran into a former neighbor of mine. I had seen him only a few days earlier. This time around, he was wearing an eye patch. As I later learned, he had just lost his sight in one eye, yet too distressed to explain or share his grief. What would I do without my vision, imperfect as it has become over the years? I could not help pondering. Suddenly, my insistence on rooting for the ear as a sensory underdog began to sound rather hollow. I want to keep going out in public and see the world before I allow myself to be dragged away by the ear into the privacy of my inner visions . . .