The Pink Standard: Legally Blonde at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Okay, I am blond, gay and European. So it isn’t all that difficult for me to relate to this year’s summer season offering at the Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. “Positive” and “Omigod You Guys,” it’s Legally Blonde: The Musical. Ever since I relocated, for love and legal reasons, to this little Welsh town – from an island, no less, that has Broadway running through it – I have not missed a single one of these seasonal spectaculars. After all, they are often the only indication that summer actually takes place here. And since that very first show – which was Oliver! back in 2005 – I have been coming back to the scene it would be a crime to miss.
I’ve also seen the summer season grow up over the years, and the characters along with it, from a criminally mistreated but dutifully hoofing and oh-so-adorable Victorian orphan to a stylish, twenty-first-century Harvard Law graduate who seems to be fighting a lost cause but ends up winning her first case and her true love besides. 
In Legally Blonde, justice is served as in Dickensian days, except that what you deserve is no longer dished out as a helping of destiny. I won’t say that either way is “So Much Better” than the other – for entertainment purposes, at least – but it sure is about time to have, at the heart of it all, three persevering females who don’t have to suffer Nancy’s fate so that the Olivers of this world can enjoy the twist of their own.
Legally Blonde does its part to “Bend” if not quite “Snap” the long string of boy-meets-girl plots of theatrical yesteryear; at the same time, it cheekily pays tribute to the ancient laws of Western drama, right down to its cheerleading Greek Chorus. The conventions are not discarded here but effectively “Whipped Into Shape.” And what it all shapes up to be is an updated fairytale of boy meets girl in which girl ditches boy since boy doesn’t meet the standards girl learns to set for herself.
The lads, meanwhile, perform parts traditionally forced upon the ladies: they are the chosen or discarded partners of the women taking charge. Unless they are objectionable representatives of their sex, like the opportunistic Warner Huntington III (convincingly played by Barnaby Hughes), the men of Legally Blonde are mainly paraded as sex objects, flesh or fantasy.  Exhibit A: stuff-strutting Kyle (inhabited by a delivering Wade Lewin).  Exhibit B: gaydar-testing Nikos (gleefully typecast Ricardo Castro, returning to Aberystwyth after last year’s turn as Pablo in the divine Sister Act).  Come to think of it, even the two dogs in the show are male – and how well behaved these pets are in the hands, or handbags, of the women who keep them.
Not that it looks at first like the women have a clue or a fighting chance. I mean, how can a gal be oblivious for so long to the connubially desirable qualities of gentle, reliable if fashion-unconscious Emmett Forrest (played by David Barrett, who was unmissable as Mr. Cellophane in the Aberystwyth production of Chicago)? That Elle Woods ultimately finds her way and gets to sings about it is the so not gender-blind justice of Legally Blonde.
And that we side with the spoiled, seemingly besotted sorority sister is to a considerable degree owing to Rebecca Stenhouse’s ability to make Elle mature in front of our eyes, from bouncily naïve and misguided to fiercely determined yet morally upright. And, as her character gets to prove, a valedictorian is not just Malibu Ken’s girlfriend in a different outfit. Legally Blonde demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be pretty and “Serious” in pink, even though I, personally, have failed on both accounts.
Depending on Elle’s success in getting her act together is the life and career of Brooke Wyndham (energetically played by endorphin-level raising Helena Petrovna), a celebrity on trial whose fitness empire is endangered by a dirty secret of a potential alibi. And if you are a cynic out for a hanging, just wait and see what Brooke (and Petrovna) can do with a piece of rope.
As it turns out, Brooke does not have to make a case for orange being the new pink, which of course was the old black. Ultimately, not wardrobe but a serious case of TTP saves the day, for which the production hairdresser can take some credit. Follicles play nearly as big a part in Legally Blonde as in Hairspray, to name another property Aberystwyth Arts Centre has laid its skilled hands on in recent years. And if that production had a showstopper in “big, blonde and beautiful” Motormouth Maybelle, Legally Blonde has down-but-not-out stylist Paulette Bonafonte, a role Kiara Jay makes her own with warmth, knowing and extensions in her voice that reach from here to “Ireland.”
Legally Blonde is not without its share of injustices. It takes a seasoned professional like Peter Karrie to accept a plea bargain of a part that allows him to be the villain of the piece but denies him the moment his Phantom-adoring followers may have been hoping for. It was Karrie I saw in that memorable Oliver! production, and he is back here as Professor Callahan, a suave shark with a nose for “Blood in the Water.” Like Fagin, he is a law unto himself; but unlike Fagan, the professor is ill served by a book that bars him from tunefully “Reviewing the Situation” once he gets his just deserts. Not that you won’t be gasping at the scene that constitutes his downfall.
Now, had I a Manhattan-sized “Chip on My Shoulder,” I could object that, if “What You Want” to produce is a musical, you might consider putting a few instruments back into the pit. I mean, with sets as swanky as Acapulco, why should the singing be practically a cappella? The overture out of the way, any such objections are largely overruled, given the plain evidence that these troupers hardly depend on orchestral crutches. “Break a leg” to all of them – dancing, skipping and rollerskating – for keeping the pace brisk and making Legally Blonde such an infectiously high-spirited show.
This was the first season I attended as a legally married blond, gay European – and I think it is no overstatement to say that, for all their heterosexual pairings, shows like Legally Blonde have helped to take on patriarchal bullies, to rethink masculinity and what means to “Take It Like a Man.” It’s not the American flag alone that is prominently on display here. Whatever your angle, I can bear witness to the fact that, by any standard – gold, platinum blonde, or otherwise – the Aberystwyth Summer Season is in the pink.

Nuns Ablazing: Sister Act at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

“Farrah Fawcett as thou art in heaven!” This is a good time to dust off your “F. M. boots” and shake your groove thing right on down to our local Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. You know, F as in Funky and M as in, well, Mary, Mother of Grace.  Or, FM as in radio, tuned to the station that gives you Diana, Donna and … Deloris.  Deloris Van Cartier, honey, the diva that dreamed of a wearing white fur and ended up in a nun’s habit.  Yes, it’s Sister Act, the musical. The one about the convent where the mother’s superior and the sisters supreme.
In this production, Mother Superior is played by Lori Haley Fox, whom I previously saw perform here in Chess and Hairspray.  There is a bit of Velma Von Tussle in Mother Superior—but her Sister Act character has some depth, which comes across in Fox’s rendition of “Here Within These Walls.” You don’t just get to hiss and laugh at her, but get to understand her struggle to restore the order that wasn’t meant to be a reformed one. It’s a fight against the trivialization and exploitation of her beliefs.  To be sure, it’s a tall order to deliver such conviction in a play so invested in that very trivialization. But if there are false notes in this musical, they are not coming out of Fox’s mouth.  Nor out of Jenny Fitzpatrick’s, for that matter, who is great in the wear-your-Jackal-and-hide part of Deloris “Sister Mary Clarence” Van Cartier, a diamonds craving tramp with the proverbial heart of gold.  Or a golden larynx, anyway. And Fitzpatrick sure got that, and soul besides. Make that Philly soul.  After all, the scene is set in Philadelphia, the town to which the bastard of Disco can trace some of its heritage.

My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.

I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan.  I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks.  Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong.  Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that.  And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent.  Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.

Brother, it must be tough for any man to assert himself in a place where all those rapping and von Trapping sisters are doing it pretty much for themselves (and the Almighty); but Robert Grose as Curtis Jackson and Aaron Lee Lambert as Eddie Souther are giving it their best shot—and I’m using the metaphor advisedly.  Grose is at his smarmiest best singing “When I Find My Baby,” a creepy number worthy of Sweeney Todd and likely to give you the heebie-Bee Gees. Meanwhile, in “I Could Be That Guy,” Lambert makes a transition that rivals the costume change endured by Deloris – albeit from plain to fabulous, so that the twain can meet somewhere in between—and he doesn’t get a phone booth or even a Hong Kong Phooey filing cabinet to do it in. So, props to him! Then again, why call props when Velcro and virtuosity will do?
There are echoes of Kiss Me, Kate in the trio of thugs—The Three Degrees of separation from the baboon—who are making apes of themselves for our amusement in “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Never mind Earth and Fire; these guys are pretty much all Wind. That said, Andrew Gallo as Joey has more moves in his eyebrows than most wannabe Travoltas have in their polyester-clad hips. George Ray as TJ does four-eyed cute as well as Rick “Suddenly Seymour” Moranis ever did. And Ricardo Castro is just bueno as Pablo in a Brüno kind of way.  Meanwhile, for those who prefer their eye candy unwrapped, there are a couple of highly distracting boy dancers, competing though they were, temporarily, with an audience member in front of me who insisted on noisily unpacking her own treats. Sure, Toffifee is retro, but a flask is more discreet.
Dancing boys and their legs apart, this is still a play in which the sisters have the upper hand; and glorious Jodie Jacobs as Sister Mary Robert and fierce Andrea Miller as Sister Mary Lazarus prove that “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” So what if Sister Act’s pastiche.  Why reinvent the Disco Ball? I, for one, am glad to be having the sisters “Here Within These Walls” of Aberystwyth Arts Centre to “Spread the Love.”  I’ll be back for another audience with them—and that adorable Pope—just as soon as I get the platforms redone on the F. M. boots I wore out tapping along. “Fabulous[,] Baby”!

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.

Double Hedda: Friel, Ibsen, and the Business of Giving It One’s Best Shot

“I don’t think he’s written a line that’s unnecessary,” Adrian Scarborough remarked about Henrik Ibsen during rehearsals for the latest production of Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic, in which Scarborough plays the part of Hedda’s husband.  The endorsement is peculiarly out of place, considering that the Old Vic’s Hedda hardly distinguishes itself by—or even strives for—a line-by-line fidelity to Ibsen’s original.  Rather than a rewording of previous translations, Brian Friel’s “new version” puts a few new words into the mouths of the old, familiar characters created by his fellow playwright, adding a line here and there that left me questioning their necessity.

Now, few theatergoers around the world are in a position to compare Ibsen’s Norwegian to the translation in which they hear those lines performed; and whether a character (in this case Hedda) says “But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new” or “New surroundings take a little getting used to” seems to make little difference.  Are such substitutions worth the bother? What’s more, are they worthy of a playwright like Friel?

“But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new.”  That line can be found in the American-English translation by Rolf Fjelde, who, in an effort of doing “the very best [a translator] can do,” kept “a conscience-file of revision” in hopes of getting the opportunity “Finally [to] Get It Right.”  Fjelde got that chance—and the result seems not particularly in need of further emendation.  Playwright Friel, though, is not about to offer his services as a mute transcriber whose job is to interpret without drawing attention to the interpreter and the challenges or impossibilities of arriving at any one definitive text in a given or taken language.  Friel does not claim his English version to be the last word—and, rather than having us take his word for it being faithful, wants to have a word with us about it.

To do so, Friel inserts hints of himself into the action, which, aside from Hedda’s quest to destroy, quite literally, the text of patriarchy, involves the contest between two published writers, both western and male.  Most overtly, he does this by taking liberties with the lines spoken by the middle-aged Judge Brack who, in Friel’s version, confounds his listeners with Americanisms like “making whoopee” and provides a running commentary on the currency and lifespan of written and spoken language.  “Philadelphia, there you go!” Friel seems to say to Fjelde, suggesting that Broadway and the West End may well require or at least warrant alternate versions of Ibsen and arguing that neither variant of English can or should be considered transcontinental, let alone universal.

Unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us that we are in Norway, having characters drop names of places or remarking on the quality of “Norwegian air.”  Yet, also unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us, by foregrounding the novelty or datedness of words and debating their suitability, that we are not in any particular, definitive place at all but that we are instead in the contested, dangerous territory of language.  It is a territory that Hedda seems to control for a while with her probing questions and scathing remarks but that nonetheless delimits and ultimately overmasters her.

As scholar Anthony Roche puts it, Friel demonstrates himself to be “concerned with updating the constantly changing English language that will always require new adaptations of Ibsen, while making subtle additions that perhaps deepen our understanding of the rich emotional lives of the characters.”  Friel’s Hedda is almost as much about Ibsen’s characters as it is about the act of reading them … and of interpreting Ibsen.  It is a self-conscious take on the act of taking on a classic that, in its reflexivity borders on the by now rather tiresomely postmodern.  Give it your best shot, translator, I felt like responding, and let Hedda get her gun and do the rest.

That Hedda couldn’t quite do her job—and that Friel hadn’t quite done his—became apparent from the laughter in the audience even as Hedda was about to do away with herself in the ingenious glass coffin the Old Vic production had prepared for that purpose.  “This is my first Ibsen,” commented actress Fenella Woolgar (who took on the part of Thea Elvsted), “and I’m discovering that he is a lot funnier than I anticipated.”  Perhaps, that’s because this ain’t quite Ibsen and because Friel isn’t quite the Ibsen-minded processor anyone expecting a traditional Hedda interpretation is likely to expect.

“Translation,” as I said elsewhere (in an essay on the subject) is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another.  Hedda is a violent play; but given that I find myself preoccupied with the making of this Hedda rather than with the unmaking of its nominally central character, I wonder whether Friel has not inflicted some harm, necessary or otherwise, on Hedda and Hedda alike …

Stiff Competition: A Hairspray to Defy the West End Elements

Funny thing about prejudice: if you let it take hold, it can deprive you and those around you of a real good time.  That, in a shiny Aqua Net shell, is the message of Hairspray, the musical.  And, boy, did I deprive myself . . . until now.  Sure, others around me still had that good time, but when Hairsprayhit Broadway back in 2002, I was as set as an untamed cowlick.  I would have none of it. My Aqua Net days were long behind me by then, and I was not going to splash out on a rehash of a late-1980s cult comedy about early 1960s culture-clashing teenagers, told in songs that a Porter and Gershwin kind of guy like me is not inclined to hum while wearing a shower cap. Well, Kiss my Kate! Last Friday, I finally woke up and smelled the coiffing.  “Good morning, Baltimore!” Andoh, never mind “beautiful”what a colorful morning it is.

Funny thing, too, that I only had to travel about half a mile to learn that musical lesson; no subway ride down to 42nd Street, no walk through London’s West End via Leicester Square (and TKTS).  Just up the hill, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is staged that, as a tourist attraction, is far more reliable than our windswept seaside.  Over the years, I have seen eight of those summer seasons come and go, from Oliver! to Chess.  Boasting a cast whose list of combined Broadway and West End credits is way longer than I am in the tooth, this year’s production tops them all.

Its readily translatable story of teenage rebellion aside, Hairspray may not be the easiest piece of Americana to transplant to Wales.  Never mind references to Allen Funt, Jackie Gleason, and the Gabors, names not likely to ring for today’s young, British audiences the bells I and Tracy Turnblad can hear.  The Director’s Note in the program about Rosa Parks, whose image flashes on a big screen during one of the numbers, fills in some of the blanks.  This, after all, is American history, no matter how much John Waters it down.

Then again, it may not be the easiest thing, either, to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a musical riot without becoming as crude or politically incorrect as John Waters used to be.  But, whatever your own sense of otherness and experience of xenophobia might be—and “I Know Where I’ve Been”—Hairspray gives you enough of a whiff of those ill winds to make you investigate whence they blow.  “Run and Tell That”: if any production can communicate a shakeup without making anger the primary colour of the emotional rainbow, Unholy Waters! this can can.

You might expect—and forgive, too—any glitches or leftover curlers on opening night; but there were none here: upon pulling the lid, this Hairspraywas as solid as a freshly lacquered beehive.  Andrew Agnew is marvelous as Edna Turnblad, a part I identified so much with the fabulous Divine that I couldn’t face watching John Travolta in a latex mask.  Agnew makes you forget both—and he plays Edna in such an understated way that her big number “(You’re) Timeless to Me” makes you understand what, to someone of my certain age, is the warm heart of this show.  It’s a heart whose Beat you’d can’t stop without making Hairspray lose its maximum hold.

Edna might have missed every boat except the one she pours the gravy from; but she is not too old to kiss—and kick—the past goodbye and say “Welcome to the 60’s.”  This transition requires more than a new do or a swift costume change; and Agnew achieves it by centering Edna in the 1950s, a woman who loves Lucy though she might not like Ike—and who not only loves Tracy from the remove of a generational gap but gets her, too.

Tracy, of course, is her daughter—the embodiment of that new age—and Jenny O’Leary inhabits the role with the confidence and youthful energy for which it calls.  Tracy may not quite grasp just how seismic the event is in which she plays her part, an event—this much she knows—far bigger than “Negro Night” on the Corny Collins Show; but she approaches integration with the I-don’t-get-it naivety that has many of today’s youngsters baffled at their parent’s definition of marriage as a strictly segregated affair.

Hairspray leaves no doubt as to who “The Nicest Kids in Town” are; “nice” simply ain’t.  It is self-serving conventionality, a meanness of spirit that lingers under the neat surface like something you fight with lice shampoo.  How else to approach “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” Velma Von Tussle, a nasty piece of work done justice by Lori Haley Fox—and done in by the sheer force of Motormouth Maybelle, a woman who, like Edna, has seen better days, but whose better days were lived in times much worse.  

Marion Campbell, who plays Maybelle, comes on stage late to belt out her showstopper of a number—and her presence hits you like, say, Mahalia Jackson’s in Imitation of Life: a voice to be reckoned with, especially in a fight for equality.

Though the actress playing Tracy Turnblad receives top billing, it would be wrong to call the rest of the cast “supporting.”  Hairspray demands a great many good voices as it gives most of its characters the chance and challenge to shine, and everyone in this cast is living up to that challenge: Arun Blair Mangat as Seaweed, Samantha Giffard a Penny Pingleton, Morgan Crowley as Wilbur Turnblad, Hugo Harold-Harrison as Corny Collins . . .

The list is longer than that—but I’d be bald by the time I were done honor roll calling.  Besides, if I’m counting anything it’s the days until my next trip to the salon for another hit of Hairspray. Yes, funny thing about prejudice: once confronted, it can yield such eye-opening, ear-popping surprises.

So, toodle-oo to stiff upper lip! Stiff up yer quiff instead.

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 . . .